School Matters: Autumn term thunders on in Harrogate

An autumnal scene on the Stray in Harrogate. Picture by: Gerard Binks.
An autumnal scene on the Stray in Harrogate. Picture by: Gerard Binks.

Dennis Richards OBE was headteacher at St Aidan’s CE High School for 23 years. In this, his first monthly column for the Harrogate Advertiser Series, Dennis discusses the vital autumn term.

What does autumn mean to you? “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, russet browns and golden yellows on Harrogate’s Stray and in the countryside around. Or an end to summer days and a grim portent of the winter horrors to come.

Dennis Richards. (1411172AM2)

Dennis Richards. (1411172AM2)

Staggering round the Stray on Harrogate’s wonderful weekly parkrun I have plenty of time to reflect on the changing seasons as I “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, both seasonal and personal. My nemesis is Joe. He sets off at an alarming speed, leaves me for dead, then stops for a lengthy rest, then speeds past me again. It happens several times. He beats me every week. He is six.

And if I’m not seething about Joe, it’s Whistler. Whistler also beats me. Whistler is clearly a retired greyhound. Fair enough you might think… but Whistler is walking. The first time I’m beaten by a zimmer frame….that’s it, the light will definitively have gone out.

School leaders have no time for any of this nonsense. For them the autumn term is the busiest term of the lot. Students will have had little time for reflection either. A new school for some, for those who are older, leaving home and going to university to a new place and a new start.

For headteachers there is no breathing space in autumn. The same is true for newly qualified teachers. The euphoria of the first job quickly sinks into a mire of grades, targets, break duty and detentions. By Christmas they’re near burnout. The old lags have paced themselves better, huddled in a group in the staff room, and smiling knowingly at the enthusiasm of youth. Schools have to break the back of the academic year in the first term if they are to have a good examination performance in the summer.

There are pitfalls and worries everywhere. Heads will soon be worrying about the first snowfall and the dreaded “are you going to close the school?” question. And that’s just from the staff.

In no time at all we’re on to Harvest. This is where the schools really shine. St Peter’s Church in Harrogate runs a daily breakfast club and a no questions asked distribution of food at 4.45pm every day. The Harrogate Homeless Project does a sterling job. And they are massively dependent on the schools’ collections of food. The piles of tins in the school foyers are enormous.

Bemused parents see their stocks of tinned food mysteriously disappear as the teachers craftily set up a competition between Year 7 and Year 8. Schoolbags are bulging as the little tots stagger in with their Heinz and Fray Bentos.

This being Harrogate it’s not just beans and soup. I’ve seen caviar, Bettys fruitcake and lobster bisque. The generosity is heart-warming.

Autumn has been a bit special this year. Schools nationwide have embraced the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

In Harrogate the schools were heavily represented at both the tree planting ceremony at Christ Church and at the war memorial an hour later.

But schools know that if the baton is to be handed on they must do more.

Future generations must see the Flanders killing fields for themselves.

And so they do. Year after year hundreds of Harrogate schoolchildren are taken to Ypres and to the Somme. Seeing Bell’s Redoubt memorial for themselves makes them as aware of Donald Bell’s Victoria Cross as the generations who went before.

It is a noble endeavour on the part of the schools and society is in their debt.

At the end of Remembrance week the agenda swiftly changes. It is Children in Need day. Embraced with gusto by most, if not all schools, fancy dress has become the norm. It’s like the Saturday of a Headingley Test match.

Teachers find themselves teaching bananas, cheerleaders, Lego bricks, Roman Centurions, the odd cow or pantomime horse, Prince Harry and even a bishop and a few nuns. And the teacher is probably dressed as a clown.

The serious point is not lost. A prodigious amount of money is raised. Rightly the schools are making a massive contribution to what has become a wonderfully British institution.

Meanwhile back at the school the annual production rehearsals are in full swing. Oof!!!

So come Saturday, when Joe humiliates me again, I will gladly accept that the baton is being handed on.

And from what I’ve seen in school this autumn, he isn’t going to drop it.

Bless him.