“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori”
So ends one of the most famous anti-war poems of all time. After describing the true horror of what war means, Owen finishes his piece with an important and telling statement: that it is ‘sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ is an old lie and one we cannot believe any longer.
Yet we do. It is the British way. Stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. We will drink our sherries and the quartet will continue playing while the Titanic sinks. It isn’t about doing anything to save a situation; it is about holding yourself with dignity as you go down.
But it is a lie.
For while death might bring release to the one who dies it brings terrible tragedy to those left behind; the loved ones; the dependants; the ones who needed that life to just keep struggling on, just keep breathing ‘one more breath’ over and over again.
Wilfred Owen might have been talking of real death in times of war but the criticism – aimed squarely at those who are distanced from the battlefield and for whom death is an almost romantic, and certainly unreal, apparition – is valid for other situations too.
“An element of sadness”
On the 13th May the President of the St Beghian Society, Dacre Watson, wrote to the alumni of St Bees School of which you have heard so much from me in recent weeks. In the letter, Mr Watson seemed to rally the many hundreds of former students of St Bees School scattered around the world to believe in that ‘same old lie’.
“There will be an element of sadness” he said, talking of the final Old St Beghian day on 27th June this year, but “we must keep together.” Of the governors, who have resolutely refused serious plans to save the school and equally refused to stand aside to allow others with the passion and skills needed to turn the establishment around, he told the alumni “please bear with the Governors in their endeavours.” He posits that the governors are actively exploring possibilities of reopening the school “possibly as early as September 2016” but concedes that he doesn’t know any details and that “these are early days.”
Actually no; it isn’t early days. It’s very, very late days and there is no time left for posturing and vague promises of ‘exciting new developments’ as the head of the governors promised back in April, promptly failing to give any details when challenged by parents.
On our Campaign page we’ve given the stories of five schools similar to St Bees which faced closure. I will summarise them here. They are the proof – both positive and negative – of why we can’t allow the school to go down without a fight.
Three tales of woe
This is – was – St Margaret’s School in Exeter.
It closed in 2013. This is what the area is to become:
A property developer plans to convert the Grade 2 listed buildings into 41 new homes (details here).
This is – was – Lindisfarne College.
This too has been developed:
This is – was – St Mary’s Hall School in Brighton.
The school closed its doors in 2009. What happened to the 173-year-old buildings? You can guess, can’t you? This (full details here):
It doesn’t take much to see the trend here. A school closes and it becomes a target for property developers. In fact, every single person I’ve spoken to who is knowledgeable about school closures (from parents to governors to top barristers) has confirmed this is the fate of schools which close – no matter how hard it is to tie down the exact links between those who close the school and the developers themselves. In fact, one the people I interviewed for this post warned me to beware of exactly this problem. It isn’t scaremongering. It’s a very real and probable fact.
In short, all those who loved St Bees School – the parents, the students, the alumni, the community of St Bees itself – can expect the developers to move in. Indeed, we know they’re already circling.
All is lost then? Dulce et decorum est? Nothing left but to feel ‘an element of sadness’?
Two tales to warm the heart
On the Campaign page we also told the story of two schools which faced closure, beat the governors and remained open – to great and continuing success!
Dunottar School in Reigate faced closure in January 2014. I spoke to a parent who was deeply involved in the campaign to save the school and who wishes to remain anonymous. I will refer to her as Ann.
I asked Ann what happened to the school.
“In our case the head of the board of governors was also the head of the board of governors for a rival school,” she told me.
This head pushed for the school to be closed and, of course, this meant that many of the students would move on to his other school. There was a clear need for legal help to fight a very obvious matter of conflict of interest. Parents rallied round.
“The money needed for hiring a barrister was raised very quickly,” Ann admitted openly. They tried all kinds of fundraising. “We did everything from baking cakes to auctioning the use of holiday homes!”
With money raised, the action group took legal advice and the head of the governors finally resigned with other who sided with him going too.
“Some of the more traditional members of the board of governors stayed on, which was nice,” said Ann. “We have great confidence in our board of governors now.”
The battle had been ugly but swift and the action group brought in a group called United Learning to take over control of the school. As with any battle, there were casualties as Ann remembers:
“We had lost a lot of students by the time we reopened in September 2014, but United Learning were very supportive – they set up an advertising campaign and pledged to keep the school open for at least ten years, in order to rebuild confidence in the school.”
This tremendous support was well-founded and this coming academic year looks rosy for Dunottar School as Ann was delighted to tell me:
“This year our admissions are up by 40%. – in fact we’re looking at a record-breaking number of enrolments for September 2015.”
Tavistock & Summerhill Preparatory School is another school which faced closure in 2011 and won. Again, their action group had to battle with governors unwilling to make further attempts to save the school. I spoke to a source very close to the school who also wished to remain anonymous but who was heavily involved in the campaign.
“We had a stand-off with the governors,” she told me, “and they made us go through all kinds of hoops and impossible demands.”
These demands included proving a new board of governors would be ‘competent’ (which was ironic coming from the governors who had let the school fall into trouble). They also had to prove they could fund the school for another 18-24 months.
Again, from the announcement of closure in March, the action group had to wage war until June when the governors finally stepped down – just nine days before the school was due to finish for good. By then, staff and students had found other schools.
“We opened the following September with 2/3rds of our students gone,” my source told me. “We opened with just 32 children in the main school.”
That’s a staggering situation – opening an entire school with only enough children to fill one classroom in an ordinary state school. It seemed to me that it must have been too little, too late.
“Not at all,” I was told, “it has been a hard four years since we took over but our school is now stronger than ever. Our numbers of children at the school are right up again and the school is financially looking good.”
It is an amazing story and one which demonstrates that even nine days before a school is closing it is still possible to rescue a school and restore its financial health. The key, more than anything else, seems to be commitment from parents and staff to do whatever it takes to keep a school going.
St Bees School
I am constantly amazed by how dedicated to St Bees School everyone seems to be. It isn’t just the parents, who have a vested interest I suppose: it’s the community, the alumni, the staff – many of whom have gone on record that they have no intention of going anywhere else. Even many retired staff who live in the area have promised their services freely if it will save the school.
The test, in coming days and weeks will be how strong this dedication is.
Will parents be prepared to bring their children back to St Bees School if and when it reopens?
Will staff truly want to stay if the closure can be rescinded?
Will the community not just make a noise but do the necessary to raise money which will certainly be needed in the short-term to keep the school afloat while a dedicated and skilled new board of governors create a new way of managing the school?
If the answer to these questions is ‘no’ then we all need to start preparing ourselves for the inevitable mountain of luxury apartments and houses which will be developed.
Either way there can be no ‘sweet and fitting’ acceptance of the inevitable. It is not right to sit back and ‘bear with the governors’. 140 jobs are at stake, the future of 300 children’s lives are at stake and – though it will happen slowly like sinking in quicksand – the futures of businesses and residents in the local area are also at stake.
How can we drink our sherry, listen to the quartet and take our last gulp of air before icy water overcomes us and think “Dulce et decorum est?”
It isn’t, and never will be, the right thing to do to stand by and let the school die. There’s nothing sweet and fitting about that.