It seems, in some ways, strange to be addressing you as President instead of Secretary of the Abbotsholmians’ Club and yet I know that I am still talking to the many friends and acquaintances that I made during my seventeen years as Secretary, never mind the hundreds upon hundreds of Abbotsholmians who I taught or tried to teach during my 39 years on the Staff at the School. It has been a privilege to have addressed you over the years with news of the School, the Club and my general thoughts and ramblings. Now I have the enormous honour to be President of the Club and to represent you as we face further challenges regarding our raison d’être, our methods of communicating with our members and our relationship with other bodies.
The running of the Club has never been straightforward. When I first joined the staff at Abbotsholme in 1960, the Chairman of the Club was retired eminent judge, Guy Dixon, the Secretary was Pat Godfrey who went on to be Chairman of the Governors for 12 years and the Social Secretary was none other than Tony Gomme, still an avid supporter of the Club and the School at the grand age of 95. Their skills were sorely taxed as they helped the School repair the wounds of the failed Doveleys venture which had been preceded by dramatically falling numbers and financial restrictions brought about by both that drop off in numbers and also a post war depression – Harold Macmillan’s “You’ve never had it so good” speech was some way off and the world was much more concerned with the John F Kennedy/Nikita Khrushchev stand-off with the Cuban missile crisis. Yet our Officers at the time kept their eye on the ball and concentrated on the present, leaving old wounds to heal with time. At a time when the School struggled to make ends meet, we saw teams of OAs give up a week of their holiday time each summer to tackle projects at School – the erection of the Cricket pavilion, building the groundsman’s store, the landscaping of the swimming pool and much more. These were projects which the School needed to have done and thus we saved it money by doing the work ourselves. That support for the School has been a lasting theme for the Club, self-help often taking the place of direct financial support, though of course individual Club members have donated to each Appeal over the years. In addition, the Club itself has given over £60,000 to the School over the last 25 years. The Club believes fully in Abbotsholme and supports its aims and objectives. Over the last five or so years, the School has paid for the Club mail-out each spring, a cost which now exceeds £2000 per year - £20,000 in 10 years assuming no inflation – and it is with this in mind that the Club has sought to move to electronic mailing. While I know that this is far from popular with all members, I know that everyone will appreciate the arithmetic noted above. We could pay our own way and just keep the Bursaries going, giving nothing when the School comes asking. Money does not grow on trees and the Club has worked hard to build up its reserves for over a century – we must be prudent in spending what our forebears have saved. Staying in touch is important and that has not changed but the methods have. The School’s website shows the development of the School, its buildings and estate, and even reports on day-to-day activities. The Club, on its new website, is demonstrating the use of new technology by bringing to members their news and the activities of the Club with an immediacy that was unheard of to previous generations of your officers. I also appreciate that many of you keep in touch with the increasing number of on-line communication groups, Renren, LinkedIn, Facebook and the like, and it is fun to see how those friendly conversations develop.
Abbotsholme is indeed a special and rather different School and you will all have your memories, hopefully more good than bad, of the school that had such a profound impact on your early years. In my previous thoughts written down to you when I was Secretary, I have mentioned many things about Abbotsholme but as I look back over 55 or so years of involvement it seems to me that one aspect of Abbotsholme singles it out as an independent secondary school almost without equal in the United Kingdom. I refer to its size numerically. Of course the knock-on effect of this benefit is gigantic. Other scholastic institutions will no doubt claim that I am wrong but then the vast, vast majority of people nowadays only know what it is like to spend their adolescent years in a school with total pupil numbers ranging from 500 to 1500. How lucky they would have been had they had the benefit of going to a small school. I understand that a smaller school will mean less money coming in and thus fewer high-class facilities, it means fewer pupils to choose from for teams so matches are harder to win, fewer teachers to shoulder the responsibility of running out-of-class activities. But on the positive side the facilities will be prized that much more by those who have them; more pupils will gain real responsibility – so important for adolescent teenagers; more pupils will get involved in competitive sports teams; have a major part in plays or choirs and music ensembles. In fact all those things which make the young person feel fully valued in their changing world are there in bucketfuls in the small well organised school. Every child at Abbotsholme has a genuine responsibility, so that they can demonstrate their worth to society. And above all in the best of all small schools everyone knows everyone and can sympathise or rejoice genuinely with the rest of the ‘family’. I use the word 'family' because at its best that is what it should be, a slightly larger than usual family, but with all the same values – weep together and laugh together, understand each other’s weaknesses and strengths, failures and successes. This is the family that can bring the best out of the extrovert and the introvert. There are lots of young people who have benefitted greatly over the years from being allowed to grow up at their own pace in the Abbotsholme family. Sometimes we are talking of those who are intimidated by the rigours of life in the larger herd: not a small handful of timid youngsters but a considerable proportion of today’s youth who find modern society's demands unpalatable or even unacceptable. This is not, I believe, an experience offered by the majority of schools. It certainly does not mean that a school such as Abbotsholme does not turn out first-class citizens, academics, business leaders or family men and women. It does and sometimes it feels that those qualities in them have a greater permanence than I see elsewhere.
Sadly facilities have taken over from love and care in our schools nationally. Comprehensive schools are fine but why can’t they be for 300 pupils? The accursed Schools' League Table has taken over as the defining marker for nearly all schools, many of whom fail their young charges lamentably.
Let me finish on a less controversial note and be personal for a few moments. I have been extraordinarily lucky, and Abbotsholme has been extraordinarily kind to me. Firstly it offered me a job in 1960 and then it found me a wife; or to be more accurate the Headmaster, Robin Hodgkin, appointed a Secretary who became my wife in 1965. In a sense, deep down, Abbotsholme continued to educate Elizabeth and me. Elizabeth and I had three off-spring, Ann, Andrew and Richard, all of whom attended Abbotsholme. All benefitted wonderfully from their time at the school and are now happily married, each with two children, giving us the joy of six grand children. Many OAs will remember ski trips to Saas Fee in Switzerland with me. In fact Elizabeth and I had part of our honeymoon in the village in 1965.
All fourteen at Plattjen including five OAs
Apart from being elected your President, the most significant event of last year from a personal point of view has been the celebration of our fiftieth wedding anniversary. To mark the occasion we took all our family, fourteen including us, to Saas Fee for a week. This time we did not stay in the same hotel but in a hotel/apartment owned by the granddaughter of the couple we stayed with in 1965. Each family had a separate apartment with its own cooking facilities. The Elite Alpine Lodge had been completely renovated a couple of years ago and the magnificent facilities could not have been bettered – wonderfully appointed with superb south-facing balconies and breakfasts included which were to die for! We were lucky to have near perfect weather for the whole of our stay. The younger ten walked with great determination up the mountains, the oldest two took the cable cars whist the youngest two managed to hitch a lift on someone’s back! The whole experience was magical and we owed much to the determination of all the others to make it work. Their generosity knew no bounds in making sure it was a week we would never forget.
It remains for me to thank you all for your kindness in your support in the past. Now, in my new capacity, be assured that I shall always support you and that special place that is Abbotsholme School. I wish you all every success and happiness.