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Disrupting or a Disruptor?

At the start of every school year, I talk to our pupils on a topic that feels relevant to our community but that also has a wider resonance. This year my start of year assembly was a little different from normal. For a start, I was even more excited than usual to be welcoming pupils to the new academic year after months of the School being almost empty, but it was also delivered virtually – me in my office, pupils and staff dotted around the site in their ‘bubbles’. My theme was disruptors: a person or thing that prevents something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.

A ‘disruptor’ can sound like a negative concept but there are countless examples of the way that disruption is vital to progress.  Until relatively recently, playing music on demand was only possible if you’d purchased a tangible device on which the music was recorded…a vinyl record, then a cassette tape, then a CD.  Then the idea of purchasing music in a tangible format was disrupted by downloading files, and now streaming has moved things a step further. We play music on demand but we don’t own the tracks we play. This was inconceivable before the advent of the Internet and enough bandwidth to transmit information fast enough for music to be heard this way.  If we look back even further in time, the only way to hear music was to hear it played live but technical advances across many decades have continually disrupted the status quo.

Sometimes, major world events disrupt society to such an extent that it doesn’t continue as before.  The First World War saw women take on roles that had been considered the preserve of men for the first time, although it took the Second World War to consolidate this and bring more lasting change. However, the First World War also brought about disruption in the fields of medicine and technology that had long-lasting impact in the post-war world. The horrific scale and severity of injuries brought about the rapid development of new medical practices, including the first blood transfusions, while progress in aeronautical engineering happened much faster than it might have without the impetus of war.

When I went to university, I would write letters to my best friend. It might sound unbelievable to our pupils today, but that was the only way to keep in touch.  Yet by the time I left university, three years later, email had taken off.  The Internet and email brought about a speed and ease of communication that was previously impossible, and while there are huge positives in terms of connectivity and efficiency, there are also those who argue that it has contributed to creating a fast-paced, demanding society.  Similarly, the car – now a mainstay of society – enabled people to travel much greater distances and brought unimaginable freedom.  But it has also played a part in fragmenting family groups who had, at one time, tended to be based in close geographical proximity but who began to find themselves spread more widely.

When we look for example of people who disrupt thinking, there are many examples throughout history.  A recent, and really interesting, example is Marcus Rashford and the impact he has had on the government policy relating to children receiving free school meals.  Before the summer break, his personal and powerful description of what free school meal vouchers had meant to him and his family convinced the government to extend the provision of food vouchers through the summer holidays.  As positive as the impact was at the time, I wondered (perhaps pessimistically) whether lasting change could be achieved. But this week Marcus has hit the headlines again with news of a taskforce he has formed, bringing together supermarket giants, businesses and charities, to try to help reduce child food poverty and asking the government to commit to a number of pledges.  It is hard to say yet whether this will permanently disrupt thinking in relation to some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK but it will be interesting to see.

And so to 2020-21 and to our community at St John’s. School is looking rather different and operating differently this term. There is no doubt that Covid-19 has been ‘disruptive’ but is it a ‘disruptor’ – something that changes the way things operate permanently?  It is actually far too early to say - societally, nationally or internationally. But within our domain of St John’s we can take the opportunity to look at what is happening now and see if any areas of change should be permanently adopted, even when we don’t need to operate as we do at the moment.  I hope it might also help us identify things that we really miss and ensure that, when we get them back, we really appreciate them. 

Change can be difficult and unsettling. Although there’s a lot to adapt to right now, many fundamental and important things remain the same. I don’t want Covid-19 to define our school year. I want the ‘bubbles’, hand washing, one-way systems, and all the other things we’ll be doing for a while, to recede into the background so that they become the norm while we focus on the things that matter and that we enjoy. We have a duty of responsibility to each other as a community and that will be more important than ever this year. At the heart of all our interactions is an uncompromising demand to be kind to each other and to every member of our community and there are myriad different ways this can be expressed. I’ve encouraged all our pupils to continue to set themselves high standards, to be ambitious in what they will achieve this year, and to begin the year with a sense of optimism. A new academic year is a clean slate upon which everything is possible and I believe that 2020-21 can be a year of hope, of achievement, of fun and friendship for all of our pupils.  I can’t wait to see what we will achieve together. 

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.  Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey