The motto of the high school I attended in my youth was “spes durat avorum” which translated means “let the hope of our ancestors endure”.
Now as a teenager that never struck me as the most spiritually insightful or the most exciting motto one could have for a school. But looking back now I think it is one of the best.
My school was the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Hexham – now a High School – founded in 1599 by ancestors who had hope that in founding a school they would give greater opportunity for poor children; provide good education for a growing merchant and farming class in Northumberland, to extend learning to more children and as Good Queen Bess looked down on us in the dining hall – to make sure a good protestant grounding was shared by all.
In this sense the ancestors who founded my school hoped to bless children and society through education. It was a benevolent and charitable purpose. I imagine they expected the curriculum to equip the children to find employment and contribute to a flourishing and stable society.
Now many years on, what do we hope education will bestow on our children? Is the same as in 1599?
The needs of society and our understanding of education have certainly changed in 420 years. But I venture to say that we still have great ambition for learning. Yes, it is to gain knowledge, but it is also to gain wisdom and understanding. Not just to know stuff but to grasp why. I hope it includes shaping values with character and not just skills. I desire young people to be grounded as resilient people and not just prepared for a specific job or exam grade.
This is not an impractical hope, in fact it is thoroughly pragmatic and rational. I know that young people in school today will not have one career for their whole working life, they will have 2 or 3 at least – so they need to gain flexible tools for living through education. I also recognise that as we get older we become hardened and resistant in our values and character. The time to be formed is in our youth. So schools need space to develop, to explore and to practice values.
It is a challenge to blend practical and relevant education with the nurturing of character, values and resilience. But more than ever this is what we should offer our children. This is what I wish to bestow on future generations. This is what I hope we can find in our schools – primary, secondary and colleges alike.
The challenge and opportunity to shape character and nurture values is not one left to schools alone. It is a responsibility shared by communities and families too. So I hope for stronger partnership between families, churches, other institutions and schools for a better and fuller education.
It is an aspiration that demands all our efforts. I believe that to work together in new and innovative ways would be an outworking of the same dream that our ancestors had when they founded my school all those years ago.
In this way may the hope of our ancestors, who built education in this country endure.
Graham Brownlee, February 2019