The Perse Celebrates Founder’s Day
Today is The Perse School’s official birthday when we celebrate our 403 years of history.
Most commercial institutions have short lives. They come and go with changes in fashion, technology, staff and the boom and bust of the economy. A quick internet search of Britain’s oldest business reveals very few with more than 200 years of history.
R J Balson, a butcher’s shop in Dorset was first opened in 1515 and is still trading today, as are West Sussex undertakers CPJ Field who buried their first client in 1690. Of the better known companies still in business – the wine merchants Berry Brothers & Rudd were founded in 1698, the tea merchants Twinings in 1706, the retailer Fortnum and Mason in 1707, and the auction house Sothebys first bought and sold items in 1744.
So The Perse dating back to 1615 is in a very small and select group of institutions that have survived the stiffest test of all – the test of time. The school’s survival has of course been helped by the fact that its purpose is education, and education is a timeless constant that was as important in 1615 as it is today. The importance of canals, railways, telegrams, and landline telephones may have waxed and waned through history but schools are ever present – along seemingly with butchers, undertakers, wine merchants and tea sellers.
When I meet other school leaders, especially in Asia where there is a cultural respect for elders, they are impressed by The Perse’s longevity and want to know the secret of our success. I tell them a lot of it is down to good fortune – the luck of being located in a successful city that really values education. Serendipity has smiled on The Perse at various times in our 400-year history, but over the years we have also had chance to perfect our academic, pastoral and extra curricular provision. That means we have become pretty good at what we do and as a consequence have a track record of success.
The error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience, whilst the error of age is to believe experience is a substitute for intelligence. In schools, intelligent young people can sometimes challenge school rules which they see as pointless or archaic. School traditions and conventions can also get in the way of intelligent progress. But as the philosopher Edmund Burke maintained, there is virtue in existing institutions.
Over 400 years of experience and trial and error, The Perse has built up a body of expertise that at least in part, explains why we are a successful school. Intelligent 16 year olds who are 16 for the first time may think they have all the answers, but a school that has 403 years of educating 16 year olds will have learnt something about adolescence en route. The trial and error of Perse experience has resulted in 40-minutes lessons that broadly correlate with the average teenage concentration span. Our wellbeing sun is full of timeless truths, many of which science is now confirming. Quality sleep does have a positive effect on brain health and performance, and sleep deprived children and adults perform less well in cognitive tests, whilst also exposing their brains to the build up of plaques that have been linked to early onset dementia.
The Perse’s values are a product of our experiences and they stand us in good stead. Valuing one another and the environment works, and if we all did it the world would be a safer, kinder, greener and happier place. If we all valued one another, maybe Brexit would have been resolved by now and maybe there would never have even been a Brexit. If politicians truly valued the environment, maybe there would be no need for children to go on strike in the hope that their absence from school might encourage politicians to behave in more environmentally-friendly ways. Young people have the right to both a good environment and a good education and one should never be at the expense of the other.
In the West, surviving the tests of time and being a great age does not automatically bring respect as it does in some Asian cultures. As Jane Eyre said to Mr Rochester “I do not think sir that you have any right to command me merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world then I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience”.
The Perse has made very good use of its 403 years of existence. It has educated two Nobel Prize winners for Science, the medic who first realised quinine could treat malaria, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the astronomer who mapped asteroids that could threaten the Earth, pop star Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Sir Peter Hall, who transformed British theatre, and a series of brilliant linguists some who worked at Bletchley Park in World War II to break the Enigma Code and translate German and Japanese messages to help the Allies win the war.
In 403 years of history there have inevitably been lows amongst the highs. On 14 April 1912, Old Persean Charles Groves was the officer on duty on the bridge of the SS Californian when he saw distress rockets fired from the Titanic. The SS Californian was the only ship close enough to the Titanic to have reached the stricken vessel in time to save its passengers and crew. Groves was unable to persuade his captain to move the Californian, which was stationary because of ice. He lived the rest of his life in the shadow of the 1,517 people who died when the Titanic sank.
So The Perse has had 403 years to perfect education and during that time it has become pretty good at it. Nobody and no institution gets everything right all the time. Like Groves, with the benefit of hindsight, there are things we would do differently next time. That, of course, is the main reason why we celebrate Founder’s Day, or “cake day” as I’m told it is more often called. Founder’s Day is an opportunity for us to celebrate Perse successes and learn from Perse failings. It is also a chance to appreciate that 403 years of existence will have given the school wisdom which should be listened to.