Continuing our series of blogs drawn from this term’s Chapel Talks on British Values in 2017, Mr Hemingway discusses the concept of:

Fundamental British Values

When did Britain become permanently separated from the Continent by the Channel? How many members does the Scottish Parliament have? What is the minimum age requirement in the UK to drink wine or beer with a meal provided you are with someone over the age of 18?

No, not starters for ten from the recent MCS Schools’ Challenge Quiz victory but three questions chosen at random from a practice paper for the Life in the UK Test, a compulsory element of the process by which people apply to be British citizens. Questions are chosen at random from a list of around 3,000 facts and 278 dates detailed in the government handbook ‘Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents’. The test costs £50, has a pass mark of 18 out of 24 and can be taken as many times as required, provided a fresh payment is made each time. And, with a current pass rate of 61%, that’s potentially an expensive business for a recently arrived migrant.

Predictably, the press has had fun with the test, notably when David Cameron (whose government tweaked it) flunked a number of questions on the David Letterman Show. But it raises a number of important issues: Is there a body of knowledge all citizens ought to know? If so, what is it? And should that apply to existing citizens as well as to aspiring ones?

In some ways, the hardest questions are the ones that explore the fundamental principles of British life. What are they and can they be boiled down to a multiple-choice question? Schools too are now legally obliged to teach and encourage Fundamental British Values. Teachers being a cynical lot, you can imagine the response when we were asked to ponder what these were a few years back. ‘Queuing’, ‘binge drinking’ and ‘complaining about the weather’ scored highly. But perhaps we should not be so cynical and, following a year of Brexit and Trump, and with home-grown radicalisation hot on the agenda, maybe the question is indeed worth pondering.

MCS holds a mock election in 2015

Luckily, the government is on hand to define what we as Britons hold dear. The handbook lists the following as fundamental British principles:

  • Democracy
  • The rule of law
  • Individual liberty
  • Tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs
  • Participation in community life

It goes on to list the responsibilities citizens owe and the freedoms Britain offers to those who fulfil them. Any such list is subjective and questionable, though I don’t think many people would quibble with the general thrust of the principles. The danger, of course, is that we take them for granted; we forget at our peril the huge attractions and securities they hold for people applying from countries where they are often respected only in the breach, if they exist at all.

As a school, how does MCS fare in fostering these traits? Democracy is not easy to build into schools; after all, it’s a legal requirement that you have to be at school until the age of 16, which overrules the likely result of a ballot on the matter amongst teenagers. Schools also need rules to work efficiently. As I tell the reps on the Lower School Council, floating ideas like the banning of school uniform or the wholesale abolition of certain subjects is unlikely to gain much traction. But it’s worth remembering that you do all have a voice, through councils, through questionnaires and through the occasional referendum. The rule of law is easier to implement. Rewards and sanctions apply to everyone equally and – with apologies to the Usher for opening up Pandora’s Box – there exists a right of appeal against any sanction. Individual liberty, as Mr Thomas explained last week, should not be absolute, but MCS pupils do have some control over the subjects they study for public exams and the clothes they wear (at least in the Sixth Form). Participation in community life is strong: many of you wore orange last Friday to support a fantastic local charity; cake sales and sponsored events abound; and every Tuesday, an army of Lower Sixth engages in Community Service.

But perhaps the defining feature of MCS is its spirit of tolerance, not just of those of other faiths and beliefs but of those with quirky interests and quirky personalities. It’s a school where pupils feel valued for what they are. In this uncertain age, where many of the principles and values we take for granted are under threat, let’s make sure that we help foster that same spirit beyond the school gate, too.

Mr Thomas discusses the concept of:

Individualism and Institutions

We’d all like to think we’re individuals. On a daily basis we express our individuality in various obvious ways; the music we listen to, the way we decorate our bedrooms, our clothes, our haircuts… On a political level we express it in the way we vote in elections, or the newspaper we choose to read, the people we follow on twitter. It’s very hard for us to imagine a world without these basic freedoms, and the right to express our individuality is a fundamental part of living in a liberal, democratic country. On Sunday evening I watched the first episode of SS-GB; it’s a historical drama set in a fictional Nazi-occupied Britain, during WWII, and it presents a terrifying alternative reality, with armed SS guards on every street corner, and the houses of parliament draped in swastikas. There’s no room for individuals in a dictatorship, unless you’re the dictator.

A lesson on the lawn

On the other hand, complete freedom is almost as terrifying a prospect. Imagine a world with no rules; no speed limits, no drug laws, no age of consent, no guidelines on what colour trousers to wear to school... That’s an extreme example, but the problem is, individualism isn’t just a matter between you and yourself. Your choices may well have more effect on other people than you realise. In fact, individualism could be perceived as a wholly selfish notion, going against the idea of society as a community which depends upon shared values. Or at least it could be perceived as a great luxury, which is only possible because we have such an absurd amount of choice open to us, not least on the internet. There’s a real danger we end up living in isolated little bubbles of individualism, so obsessed with our own life choices that we forget there are bigger issues at stake.

The problem is, we don’t necessarily always feel qualified to make up our own minds about those bigger issues. It’s one thing choosing which spotify tracks to download or which colour to dye your hair; but it’s rather more difficult to decide what you think about the European Union, or whether euthanasia is acceptable. A key function of the church over the centuries has been to give definite answers to some of these big questions, but in the modern world this moral platform has largely been taken over by a bewildering array of politicians, journalists, bloggers, tweeters and so on. With so many different moral compasses out there, it’s almost impossible to keep your bearings.

House Singing

So, how then are we meant to find a balance between expressing our individualism and fulfilling our duty as responsible citizens? To some extent, that’s where institutions come in, providing stability and continuity so that we have at least some sort of framework of moral guidance. The Usher spoke in chapel before half-term about how MCS has survived over five centuries of turbulent history. But it didn’t survive by passively accepting its fate: at times members of the MCS community would have had to make very difficult choices. After all, this institution was set up as an all-male, Roman Catholic school with only thirty pupils – it’s clearly made momentous decisions as well as retaining lines of continuity.

For me, that continuity largely comes from a sort of collective individualism. It was very noticeable at house singing how each house has a strong collective identity: there was Maltby, covered in tinsel and lycra; Wilkinson, uniform and efficient, Chavasse, debonair and fun… But even in the eight years I’ve been here those house identities have constantly changed (except Callender’s): the point is, an institution like a school or a House is only ever the sum of its human parts. Which is why we mustn’t take their values for granted: it’s the human relationships at the heart of institutions that make them valuable.

In the third of our blogs, the Chaplain considered how MCS life is:

Rooted and Grounded in Love

Last week, at Candlemas, I left you with a tableau of the different generations – from the very old to the brand new – standing together in the Temple. I talked about the older generation being the bulwark of our own safety and self-understanding.

On Tuesday, the Usher talked about what it is we have inherited - and are now custodians of - as members of this five hundred and thirty something school and as the organ music played us out of Chapel, I was reminded of two of my favourite verses in the Bible.

The first one comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and it encourages those earliest Christians to see their faith like a sapling. People around you will know that you are driven by love and joy and peace if you are flourishing and are encouraging those around you to flourish. But this can only happen if, as Paul says, we are ‘rooted and grounded in love.’ (Ephesians 3.17)

The White Bridges lead the way to School House in autumn

Being part of a school as old as this gives us roots and keeps us grounded. We heard on Tuesday that there have been boys at Magdalen who lived through book burning, the burning of heretics on the Broad, boys who were called up for service in two wars and who put their studies on hold while they went to the frontline. Boys whose best friends were killed and boys who never recovered from post-traumatic stress. We know, from David Bebbington’s research that some of them were Jewish, some were atheists and some went on to become bishops but they were all rooted and grounded in the narrative of God’s love which was the paradigm and the framework for their years at the school.

School is a place to flourish, to become the man and woman you were born to be. We learn about so many new ideas, but also always about duty and service. When Jesus was asked to rank the 613 commandments in the Jewish faith, he said ‘a new commandment I give you – that you love one another as I have loved you.’ We must love one another as God loves us. No small task.

There is plenty of argument today about what our nation’s ‘values’ are. Being a school full of argumentative types, we could probably spend a very long time discussing our own ‘values’. I would not claim that Jesus invented the idea of love. Yet, being a Christian, I tend to think that the author and creator of the Universe is Love itself, so any occasion on which we stretch ourselves out into that creative space will reflect the one who made us to love. And of course we can reinvent a moral code for a godless future if we wish, but it is sometimes worth remembering the wisdom of ages: which brings me to a second favourite passage of mine, also from Paul’s letters. He wrote it to the Church in Philippi:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure …. if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things … and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil 4.8)

In our second blog, the Usher considered the notion:

Is the role of custodian the most important educational experience?

It will come as no news to you that 2016 has become seen as a year of upheaval and change, a year which, we have been told, historians of the future will look at back on as of the very greatest significance. You might think that this makes us all lucky, except that the message always seems to be that all that upheaval must have been a bad thing, or rather a series of bad things.

William Waynflete

I don’t want to take away from you the feeling that you have witnessed something special – something that you will all be able to tell your grandchildren that you were alive to see. I do want to point out that historians are very good at looking back at the past and finding very sudden change, and then pinning that change to very specific years. The reality is that for the most part, change is gradual and therefore comfortable, and that what happens most of the time is calm continuity.

Take this school. It, and its big brother the College over the Bridge, were founded by a Catholic bishop who burned the books of heretics in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. Not only that, he was the close associate of the King, Henry VI, who was deposed twice and eventually murdered. William Waynflete however marched on, acquiring more land and more riches. How? It is possible not least because most people living in England through what we call the Wars of the Roses would barely have been aware ‘Wars’ were happening at all – which is hardly surprising since the name was not adopted until the 19th century.

And think what has happened since that apparently shaky beginning. A Reformation that turned school and College Protestant; the ongoing horror of the Plague for the first 200 years of the school’s existence; depending on how you categorise them 2, 3 or 4 World Wars; again depending on how you categorise them at least 5 economic depressions; and in its own little world of education a complete overhaul of who, how and when young people should be taught. And yet, 537 years later, here we are. Different buildings, different subjects, different people – yet recognisably and self-avowedly the foundation of William Waynflete and his vision for education.

Pupils cross Magdalen Bridge

Thus it is that institutions root us. We may not like them, we may resent them, we may begrudge the assumptions and demands they make of us. Yet they are the superstructure around which we build ourselves and our society. Above all they demand that we are their custodians, and that is exactly what everyone in this room is here today – from the Master to all the staff, from the oldest to the youngest pupil - a custodian. And taking on the role of custodian is one of the most important educational experiences anyone can receive, because it allows us to understand what it is to be a member of a community, large or small.

The very best institutions also encourage – insist even – you question them as part of this custodianship. And so they provide a framework for our own individuality, a starting point against which we can measure ourselves, explore ourselves, and define ourselves. If you cut down those institutions – just as if you cut down the law –as the former pupil of this school Sir Thomas More exclaimed in a voice given to him by Robert Bolt, “do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

And of course Magdalen College School is one of those special institutions that has a clear ethos, part of which is to demand that you challenge what you are told, and use your reason and judgement to consider the validity of what happens here and in the world around you. We are blessed to be part of it, and blessed to be where we are, on a bridge between the ancient settlement and university of Oxford and the town that has grown up around it. You all know what it is to stand upon and cross that bridge, safe in the knowledge that vast bastions of stone plant you safely and firmly for the road ahead. So it is that you can watch the turbulence of 2016 and even 2017 roar away beneath you, with a clear set of values with which to observe the waters below - now, and in the future. Nor will those values leave you when you leave this school; there is always a bridge back. Amidst the changes in your own lives, there will always be that continuity, just as in the wider world there is always a deeper continuity in the whirls of apparent change.

In the first blog, the Master reflected on:

Would Mr Gladstone have Tweeted? 

Liberalism and the values of social media in 2017

I had envisaged that my first whole-school address of 2017 would fall into the genre in which Heads take the opportunity to share with their pupils regrets they have about their own childhoods, or indeed lives, which they often do under the guise of dispensing sound advice. My theme was to be my failure to keep a diary, in contrast with one of my heroes, William Gladstone. But the zeitgeist overtook us here at MCS, and so instead I gave the first of a series of Chapel talks which attempts to illuminate the political events of the past six months and their implications for British values.

(photo taken from HCG Matthew, Gladstone 1809-1898)

As America makes the transition from a President who has written books to one who insists that he doesn’t have time to read one, it is perhaps unsurprising that I return, as I habitually do, to Gladstone: to the career of a man who was as profound of thought and sentiment as he was decisive in action - a man who changed political course, who courted scandal and commanded great respect, dislike and love, but never contempt. Gladstone’s long career raises fascinating questions about privacy and the use of new media to communicate directly with the people. What would Gladstone make of the current use of social media for political purposes? Would he have humblebragged on Facebook? Would he, known as ‘The People’s William’, four times Prime Minister, have tweeted in the way Donald Trump now does? And how much has privacy changed since the late nineteenth century?

As an undergraduate, I spent many an evening in Gladstone’s old rooms in Christ Church, talking with Colin Matthew about Gladstone’s diaries, which Colin edited. Gladstone’s diary runs to over 25,000 entries. Its intention was to “tell, amidst the recounting of numberless mercies…a melancholy tale of my own inward life”. Despite what Gladstone said, his diaries do not tell the tale, melancholy or otherwise, of an inward life in the way we might expect. The marked x’s in the margins of his journal, which were Gladstone’s register of temptation during his various conversations and correspondences with women - who in the Victorian era were all deemed ‘fallen’ - have become legendary and open to parody. What the reader of Gladstone’s diaries will find above all is his attempt to demonstrate to himself and his Maker that he used his time well. Usually with less serious intent, all Facebook users, bloggers and vloggers are in effect keeping a species of public diary, with the critical difference from paper diaries being that social media is designed for immediate broadcast. Many diarists of course knew that what they were going to write would be read in the future; the difference is therefore one of degrees of control: the ability to edit, to delete, to publish later in life or posthumously.

Gladstone’s diaries are as opaque as they are illuminating, and this becomes more marked the older and more august Gladstone became. The more famous and feted he grew, the more outgoing he appeared on one level, yet astute observers noted that he performed himself all the more in order to keep the endless audiences at arm’s length. Alongside this we should take into account that he knew that everywhere he went, people (including his daughter) were keeping diaries in which we would feature prominently. When he was on a ship in Norway in the summer of 1885, no fewer than four of his fellow guests were keeping diaries. 

It is easy to imagine Gladstone’s Twitter account @GOM for Grand Old Man, as he was affectionately known. As an Oxford classicist, the discipline of 140-character prose composition might well have appealed to him - though he was famous for rousing public addresses to vast crowds which would last almost two hours. Gladstone was not known for his witty repartee, as his great rival in the Commons, Disraeli, was fond of demonstrating - so we might not anachronistically anticipate too much Gladstonian twitter banter. But the desire to thunder sanctimoniously at those of whom he disapproved would have lent itself well to social media. At the age of 70, the same age as Trump, Gladstone chose Midlothian to give a series of rousing speeches on foreign policy, including the Islamic fundamentalism of his day - Turkish atrocities against Christians in Bulgaria. He did this because the telegraph had just been invented, and so he knew that he had created an opportunity for journalists to deploy this new technology in wiring stories back to London.

What Gladstone records in his diary most faithfully is what he reads. As someone who orders books on Kindle which I have already read in hardback, such a discipline strikes me as useful as it would be enriching. And he read prolifically: almost 20,000 books during his 88 years. It was this depth of thought, combined with exceptional energy, will, and a poetic temperament which he went to great lengths to contain, which shaped an extraordinary career during which Gladstone did not flinch from changing his mind about the most entrenched and vexing political questions of the day. His courage in confronting those questions, born out of a serious intellect and sense of duty, provides a context for our thinking through the challenges of our time. Of which more next week….