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St Peter's 13-18

21 May 2020

Yesterday, May 20, was the feast day of Alcuin an incredibly important person in the history of education and also a former pupil and the 9th Headmaster of our school back in the 8th Century.

There are lots of interesting theories about history and whether it is linear or cyclical in the sense that human behaviour tends to repeat over time. Historians also debate the question of whether culture and civilisation develop in a in an incremental manner. Some argue that it follows an evolutionary pattern with political systems morphing from one into another and this was the view taken by Marx who argued that the ultimate end point was communism although history does not seem to have judged that very kindly.

While it is always easy to see the development of history as being incremental I subscribe to the view that actually developments happen through a series of paradigm shifts. The notion that while there is gentle progression, actually the key moments are more of a seismic shift with large scale change being prompted by a particular set of circumstances. The Russian and French revolutions, the renaissance in Italy, the huge pace of technological change after the Second World War, the space race and the arrival of the internet being good examples.

Alcuin’s lifetime saw a paradigm shift in the history of Europe and especially in the history of education and he was central to much of that. He was born in around AD735 and was a pupil at the monastic school which evolved into our school of today from a very young age. He was taught by one of the pupils of the Venerable Bede, Ecbert an Archbishop of York, and accompanied him on journeys to the continent, adding books to the school library in the process and it became one of the most famous collections in Europe. In his 30s he was a hugely admired as a teacher with his work and reputation attracting new pupils not just from Britain put across Europe. We also know that he was reading widely in history, theology and poetry and that in his teaching he was following the curriculum at the time of the seven mediaeval liberal arts - grammar, logic and rhetoric alongside arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music.

Alcuin also spent time as the Abbot of St Martin’s in Tours, where the monks refined the Carolingian minuscule form of handwriting and invented new conventions, which we take for granted such as elements of punctuation and page layout including the first instance of the question mark. Long before printing, the clarity, speed of writing and uniformity of this style assisted directly in spreading learning across the empire of Charlemagne. It was the dominant font in Europe for around 300 years and the model for what we think of today as Roman font.

While Head Master of our school he also began to put write down versions of his oral teaching which was an innovation at the time. This was an early strand in the gradual strengthening of written culture that developed across Europe finally leading to printing and compulsory education more than 1000 years later. He collected, wrote and edited texts on a huge range of subjects and has a claim to be the inventor of the textbook – something we all take for granted today. He became hugely influential when Charlemagne was Emperor of most of what we think of today as Europe and his teaching methods and curriculum became the standard across the continent, much of which still stands today.

Our school library is quite rightly called the Alcuin library in his memory and he remains an important figure in the life of our school. I’m sure I’m not breaking a great confidence when I tell you that members of Common Room have established an online pub to meet up and socialise once or twice a week which is already affectionately known as the Alcuin Arms. On a personal level, having someone like Alcuin as a former Head Master along with others who were Saints could make me feel like something of an under-achiever!

You will of course have spotted where I’m going with this thread. Our school at the time of Alcuin was a thriving, learning community with a distinct notion of what forms a truly outstanding education. It was also a school which was unafraid of innovation and development. When you look at all that we have achieved together in recent weeks with the reimagining of the education we normally share in person at school into a remote version, we should pause for a moment perhaps especially as we prepare for a break at half term to reflect that in our own way we are upholding our educational heritage and playing our part in the development of St Peter’s. It will be wonderful when we finally gather again and there is no doubt there is no substitute for living, working and learning together. However, the creativity which has come about in recent weeks will live on and when future historians of the school look back they will perhaps recognise that not just for our school but across the globe this will have been one of those great paradigm shifts.

Finally, some time ago at St Peter’s there was in place a Head Master’s Distinction for truly outstanding work. My colleagues have sent me several examples of incredible work by pupils since remote learning began and have enjoyed the opportunity to write messages of congratulation. This seems like an excellent time to bring back the Distinctions which can be nominated to me by your teachers and can be for anything outstanding whether that be academic work, co-curricular or other school based achievements at this time. It seems like a good way to recognise all the amazing things which are happening and examples can go to the Archives to form part of the history of these times.

Well done for all you continue today and I hope you have a truly happy, exciting and restful break over half term. My very best wishes to you and your families.

Stay safe, go well and crack on.