After what seems like an eternity, COVID restrictions are easing and pupils have returned to Sedbergh. A few days ago, I took the opportunity to catch up with Dan Harrison, Headmaster of Sedbergh School, to find out how the School had coped with the last fourteen months and its plans for the future.
Dan, as always, was looking relaxed despite the turmoil of recent events. Behind the broad smile he exudes a calm professionalism and a ‘shirts sleeves rolled up’ persona which suggests a strength of character which can deal with any situation, no matter the size or scale of the problem. I began by asking him how the School had fared during the lockdown.
‘The first thing I want to say is that everyone has been fantastic. By everyone I mean the staff, the parents, and the pupils. They have all had their part to play and I am enormously grateful for their support, whether that is through the work they’ve done, the kind letters of encouragement, or simply putting up with the enormous interruption to the routine of our daily lives without complaining. Together we have worked as a team, we have supported each other, we have focused on the needs of the pupils, and as such we have continued to deliver an outstanding level of education despite the obvious challenges. I am proud of everyone, especially the parents who have shown great understanding and patience throughout. I am also grateful to the Old Sedberghian Club and its members for the many kind emails and letters’.
I asked him what he meant by interruptions to the routine of their daily lives.
‘When lockdown happened and the pupils were sent home, like all schools, we had to find a way of continuing the education program remotely. Both the common room staff and the pupils had to adapt quickly to online learning. This asked a lot of everyone, including the parents. Added to this, the restrictions have continued for far longer than anyone had hoped. In a way this became a task of endurance for all concerned. It has also meant that we have had to cancel the Leavers’ Ball and the Wilson Run in 2020 as well as many other events and sporting fixtures which are part of the hallmark of Sedbergh. I do feel sorry for those that have missed out’.
And how about exams, I asked.
‘Again, like all schools, we have had to work within government guidelines. The way of assessing grades has not been ideal but then it has been the same for everyone. However, we believe the results have been fair under the circumstances’.
What was it like not having pupils around during term time?
‘It was quiet, in fact it was quite surreal. It took some getting used to’.
And now that pupils are back?
‘It’s great to see everyone back. Although some restrictions still apply, we are returning to a level of normality. This in itself has required another period of adjustment as we get used to the traditional timetable. However, the pupils are delighted to be back, and we are delighted to have them back. They have missed their friends, the sport, and all the extracurricular activities that we offer’.
And the lessons?
‘Undoubtedly they much prefer being taught in class than online. But in my many years of teaching I have never known pupils voice their excitement about double maths on a Tuesday afternoon’.
I loved double maths! Maths was my favourite subject, I said.
‘That’s why you’re the Chairman of the OS Club, Jan’. He smiled as the thought dawned on both of us that my years spent enthusiastically studying calculus and trigonometry in what was once called the maths block had prepared me for a life as Chairman.
So what now for the future, I asked.
‘My most immediate challenge is to bring the Sedbergh community back together. We have spent a year working and living remotely. People have, at times, felt isolated. Our strength lies in our community spirit. This is what has helped us through the last fourteen months. I want to bring people back together, to reinforce this sense of belonging and team spirit, to make sure we learn and grow from this experience and that collectively we are stronger than before. In other words, if as a result of this there is change, I want COVID to have changed us for the better, not for the worse’.
And what about the more medium-term? You take over as Headmaster of the Group in September; what do you want to achieve during your tenure?
‘Andrew Fleck has done a fantastic job. During his time, Sedbergh has prospered. Next term the Senior School is full, despite the pandemic. I want to build upon his, and others’, good work.
I am acutely aware that Sedbergh is an ancient institution. Part of its appeal is the indefinable quality of its ethos. This must be preserved. However, we must make our offering relevant and modern so that we can equip pupils with the right skills for the world we live in. It is a world where society is changing fast. It is more difficult for children growing up now than it was in your time Jan, partly because of social media. We have to be sensitive to this, we have to offer guidance, support, and in some cases protection, to ensure pupils achieve their full potential.
We also have to understand that the diaspora of careers is changing, a process that has probably been accelerated by the pandemic. Undoubtedly there will be a move towards technology-based careers and to this end I would like to see the completion of the proposed Technology Centre during my tenure. I want Sedbergh to be a centre of excellence for technology teaching.
Sport is a major component of our school life and I want to see this continue. I believe that sport is important for a healthy mind as much as a healthy body. I want Sedberghians to continue to excel at sport such that they gain a true appreciation of whichever discipline they partake in, so that they can continue to enjoy their chosen sport in adult life’.
Talking of sport, I understand the Wilson Run will take place later this term.
‘Yes indeed, we have managed to salvage it, but unfortunately certain COVID restrictions will apply. Nobody, other than runners and marshals will be allowed on the course. Likewise, the only people allowed on school grounds will be pupils, staff and parents of runners. Therefore, we have asked that OS respectfully stay away.
‘Hopefully, by the autumn term, COVID restrictions will have been lifted and then I am looking forward to seeing as many OS as possible. You [the OS] are part of the reason for the School’s success. So, once we are free of the pandemic, please feel free to visit the School. I would be delighted to meet as many of you as possible in person. And if you are thinking of sending your children to Sedbergh, while it’s true the School is full, we will always make every endeavour to accommodate children of old boys and girls. So, we welcome you back, whenever you are passing’.
Lastly Dan, the quincentenary in 2025 is fast approaching. How does it feel to be the Headmaster at this time?
‘I am fully aware that I am part of a long lineage of outstanding and visionary Headmasters who have served this school and helped to make it what it is today. It is a privilege to plan for the celebrations in four years’ time and to be the representative of all those who together have provided an outstanding educational experience to the many thousands of people who have passed through the School during the last 500 years’.
Well done Dan. On behalf of the six thousand members of the Old Sedberghian Club, may I wish you and your team every success as you take on the mantle of leadership of the Group next term. I, we, look forward to working with you over the years to come.
Jan van der Velde (L 77-82)
Chairman, OS Club