Last year I wrote about one of the core obligations we, as a school, are asked to fulfil by the Government: to promote what are known in education as the four Fundamental British Values. These are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance.
These values were first codified in 2011. As with all worthwhile aspects of education, they prompt debate. The principles are indeed fundamental: they are the basis of our society. But we discuss how they are implemented; cultural difference and competing ideas (and ideals) of Britishness; how we can work to ensure these principles are applied inclusively, without fear or favour, to bring equal benefit to all.
Since their introduction as a central educational requirement, these values have perhaps never resonated as strongly as they do now. A fortnight ago we returned from half-term amid the first days of the war in Ukraine. As a community we gathered and spoke about what was happening and how we could possibly respond to such an appalling and horrifying situation.
Our thoughts were and remain with those in our community with direct connections to the conflict. We are very clear that the invasion of Ukraine violates these fundamental human values and is to be deplored and condemned. But always, first and foremost, it is people who matter. Those with direct family connections to what is happening are full of grief and sadness and anxiety. These feelings will be shared, in different ways, by us all.
As we met together we did not propose simple solutions or easy answers to such feelings. We spoke rather of understanding the effect they will have on all our young people and supporting each other through words and through the plain fact of companionship.
We also talked about ways we could protest against war, campaign for peace, and provide active support to those suffering unimaginably in Ukraine today. We are working with and supporting charities and have been part of a convoy of donations to the Ukrainian Community Centre.
Underlying all our responses we spoke about the need, in our own lives, to reject anger, conflict and hate; to be prompted in every interaction with each other and the wider world by human unity and fellowship; and to campaign and strive towards peace. That must drive our active and practical support for the victims of this conflict and the victims of all conflict. The desolation we feel must fuel a corresponding determination – to put all our weight, whatever our sphere of life, towards solidarity with one another, whatever our differences.
Finally we shared a letter with Senior School students. It was written after the First World War by Helen Musson, the headmistress who oversaw our move to our present site and who founded our school as The Abbey. She addressed all students on the theme of suffering and peace, and her words remain inspiring. They remind us that no matter where in the world we live, or indeed when, we are alike: that all forms of suffering affect people just like us, and will only ever be resolved by people just like us – because underlying the diversity we cherish, our humanity is common to us all.
As Helen Musson put it: ‘barriers of race, nation, religion, class – raised by man and man alone – have fallen before humanity’s call to help the triumph of right and justice over brute force. We may not lift a finger to establish them again… May we all in this coming time have the singleness of heart which will show us the truth and courage to follow it when we know it.’