Written by Richard Cairns, Head Master
Friday, 28 June 2024

Dear Old Brightonians,

I am one of those people who never reads the instructions manual when a new gadget arrives at home. I somehow think it will all just come together and very quickly look like it does on the box and behave as it is supposed to.

Probably as a result of this, I rarely have any idea of what to do with said machine when it suddenly stops working. All I have learned is that, in about 90% of cases, if you switch off the power and wait patiently, and then switch it back on, it somehow hums back to life. Quite why is beyond me. The knowledge accrued in gaining my grade ‘C’ in Physics ‘O’ level only stretches so far.

I have spent most of my life dealing with people rather than machines. I studied history at university because I am fascinated by how individuals and societies are shaped by events, how they react, how they cope, how they hold together or break apart. It is also why I love my job. Seeing how young people embrace opportunities, but also how they face adversity. Seeing them relate to others who are different from themselves. Seeing them come to terms with who they themselves are. I also enjoy seeing how communities can be shaped. How they can become better, kinder and more inclusive places. How their collective understanding of their own good fortune can be channelled into a desire to engage beyond these walls, not just in terms of supporting good causes in the way that they all do, but in engaging proactively with issues well beyond these walls: campaigning for a girl’s right to an education in Afghanistan, raising awareness of the climate crisis, marching against antisemitism while also calling for peace in Gaza, and, underwhelming as it seems at the moment, engaging in the electoral event in which we now find ourselves.

But back to the machines. And, no, this is not going to be a foray into the ways in which AI might shape the school or our society in the future, nor about the great opportunities (and risks) it poses. All I will say in this missive is that a huge amount of effort, research and thought is being given to all of these areas by the team here, and we have had a number of assemblies and talks on the matter during our AI Focus Week. The one from our digital ambassador pupils on Tuesday inevitably taught me more than all the others. Which will be no surprise to those of you who immediately ask your children to sort out your laptop when it is malfunctioning, or six hours of your work has mysteriously vanished. One parent told me recently that she woke her son up in the night after inadvertently posting a confidential business contract to her Facebook account. He had it removed in seconds. He also told her how lucky she was to have only twelve Facebook friends, something he conveyed as only teenagers can, with a mix of incredulity and pity.

That malfunctioning laptop brings me back to where I began. The thing they always tell you to try first. Switch the power button off. Pause. Switch the power button on.

And if it works so often for a machine, why not us?

The school holidays offer an opportunity for our pupils to do just that, switching the power button off and pausing. Time to rest, recuperate and do something as profoundly important as going for a walk or a swim, reading a book for pleasure, or chatting over an ice cream on the beach.

And as they embrace the Pause button, perhaps we adults can surrender ourselves willingly to it also, not least because young people model their behaviour on us (even if they feign otherwise). If we reach constantly for our mobile phone or react to every buzz heralding a WhatsApp message, this behaviour becomes normalised. And your family might become one of those sorry sights you occasionally glimpse in a restaurant, with every face looking down at a phone or a screen. 

There are at least two other reasons I can think of why we might embrace the Pause button.

The first is that it gives each of us precious time to reflect. Upon our own circumstances, our own wellbeing, the rapid passing of our own lives. Time also to reflect upon others and the world around us. Time to think perhaps about how we can support those who struggle with their mental health, those who are lonely or sick. Time to use our voices to campaign for those less fortunate than ourselves, advocate for a fairer, cleaner and more peaceful world, for a world free of prejudice and discrimination.  All things that we talk about at school all the time. All things that your children care about. But which in our adult lives is put in the ‘must get around to doing’ file rather than the ‘must do’ file. I am certainly guilty of that. 

The second benefit of pressing the pause button in our lives is that it gives us time to look up from the day-to-day, to see and enjoy the many wonderful things in our lives and in our world, that we too often take for granted. 

The Welsh poet W H Davies posed this question: 

“What is life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”

William Wordsworth conveyed the same sentiments in dedicating a poem to the humble daffodil: 

“And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils”.

I have been blessed with a job that sees the daffodils dancing every day of the year. I can’t help but look up and stand and stare.

Because every single day, something magical happens. 

Last week, it was the choir singing a John Rutter anthem in chapel. The day after, it was our College election candidates confidently pitching for votes, a Communist amongst them, and another one calling himself Count Binface. The latter’s address involved much gesticulating with a bin but was a tad slim on policy. Elsewhere this term, we have had the wonderful Dance Show, a hugely successful cricket season, athletics trophies galore, and a super production of Oliver. Having played the part of Oliver Twist myself in 1978, I was struck by how my fading brain recalled every word of every song.

And finally, Speech Day was a genuinely heartwarming coming together. And I was struck that though neither Kathleen, our Head of School, Clare Connor, our Guest of Honour, or I had compared notes, the same themes permeated each of our speeches: Be kind. To yourself. And to others.

But best of all this term has been simply chatting to the pupils in the quad as they head off to golf or tennis or an exam or a play rehearsal. And as I look back on my 18 years as Head Master, I rather wish I had allowed myself the time to do much more of that.

Next term, I shall be Principal of all the schools of the College, a rôle I have actually held for a number of years, but which is now formalised. And I am delighted that the first item on my new job spec is ‘responsibility for nurturing the kind, inclusive, and outward-looking ethos of the College and its schools’. 

I want to assure you that this will always be my number one priority because if we don’t have a deeply embedded culture of kindness, a culture where each child can be a first-class version of himself or herself rather than a second-class version of someone else, then our pupils can never truly become the good, kind human beings that we want them to be. 

But that lies ahead. The summer holidays beckon. I plan to switch the off button at some point in July, enjoy the pause to its full, and hopefully switch the power back on in August to find myself humming with energy and new ideas for the year ahead.

I also wish Mr Marshall-Taylor every good fortune for his tenure as Head. I am delighted that he is succeeding me. 

And, after 56 end-of-term letters from me, you will doubtless welcome a change. 

I sign off for the last time.

Kind regards,

Richard Cairns, Head Master

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