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Sir David Bell Speech

Posted on 22nd September 2014

We are delighted to be able to share with you Sir David Bell’s inspiring speech at our recent Awards Evening.  He has kindly agreed to it being put on our School website.






In July this year, I shook the hands of around 3200 students at our summer graduation ceremonies. By comparison, tonight should be a more relaxed affair.

But there’s an important link between university graduation ceremonies and a school awards evening. The common theme is celebration of outstanding achievement and so I would like to begin my remarks by acknowledging the young people recognised here tonight. I pay tribute to each and every one of you who has been honoured.  Your work represents genuine hard work and effort.

I say that with some feeling because just occasionally in this country, there’s a tendency to undermine the achievements of young people. It has become part of the season, the English social calendar. May is the FA Cup Final, June is Wimbledon, July is Glorious Goodwood, August is ‘Standards are falling’. In fact, at times it feels like a depressing ritual when the celebratory voices of young people are drowned out by the doomsayers shouting, ‘It’s not like the old days’. No it isn’t and thank goodness too.

Listen to this quote “Every young person should enter a higher stage of education, such as would enable the rising generation to meet the increasing demands on it every day – by the professions, industry, commerce and the public services of the nation.” Highly topical in the context of debates about standards and being prepared for the world of work…..…interesting that it comes from Lord Eustace Percy writing in December 1927.

But education is not merely about proportion for work, or even when at school, simply the stage before going to university or college. Education is an end in itself, part of what it means to be human. It is also a great driver of personal fulfilment as well as enhanced opportunity in a world where students in other countries are racing ahead. So don’t let anyone tell you that what you learn at school, in college or in university doesn’t matter; it does, and more than ever before as higher and higher levels of education are demanded in all walks of life.

It’s always a genuine struggle to know what to say to young people who have achieved so much. Simply exhorting them to work harder seems……. well almost churlish when you think of the effort that has already been expended. It is also difficult to give advice without sounding pious, priggish or pretentious or like any good parent, all three at once.

But let me try and do this by making three suggestions. My first suggestion is stretch yourself. The achievements that you are being recognised for tonight are outstanding and many of you will go onto further study in these subjects. Of course, it will be challenging. But even more challenging is when you put yourself up to learn something in an area where you are genuinely uncertain.

If you are off to university to study engineering, read the philosopher Wittgenstein. If you going to read medicine, learn that foreign language, preferably a difficult one like Russian. If you are reading English, what do you know about genetics or microbiology or quantum mechanics?

If you are younger, read widely. You might be someone who is artistic. Balance that up with the study of science. If you are an avid fiction reader, read some non-fiction like my favourite genre of biography.

There is something liberating about being able to take on something in which you are a genuine novice and learn how to do it. And of course it doesn’t have to be a subject; it could be an interest or a pursuit. ‘Why do this?’, you might ask. For lots of reasons. It’s about an old fashioned but vital concept of having a rounded education. It’s about acquiring a different perspective on issues. And crucially, in a world where employment is less secure, it’s about learning how you learn best, particularly if you are learning something unfamiliar.

My second suggestion is share your talents. You have been fortunate to achieve well at this outstanding school. You have also much natural ability which we are recognising today. But I believe that the conferring of great talent also means the conferring of great responsibilities. This could be about volunteering as a tutor or a mentor to another. It could mean leading a campaign to promote a particular cause. It could be involving yourself in a voluntary activity outside school. It could be about playing in a band or an orchestra. In one sense, it hardly matters but let others benefit from what you are good at.

Let me say a word here about leadership, a theme very important to this school. Every student in this hall is capable of exercising leadership in the classroom and beyond. Your education here has taught you about responsibility and given you opportunities that will allow you to test your leadership capacity. But perhaps more importantly for leaders in all walks of life, your critical faculties have been sharpened through attending this school. You won’t simply accept the conventional wisdom. You have developed a sharpness of analysis, a respect for evidence and a healthy scepticism. Equally, it will have encouraged and openness to new and innovative ideas developing, I hope, an entrepreneurial outlook.

But this school will have failed in its mission to educate you well, if you have not also embedded even more deeply the values of service and selflessness. These are not ‘soft’ or ‘wooly’ concepts. Rather, they are the foundations of personal and educational success.

My third suggestion is expand your horizons or to put it more bluntly, Get. A. Life. I will try not to go off message too much and possibly horrify your parents. Live a little, in fact live a lot.  Don’t believe the man who said that youth would be an ideal state if it came later in life.

If you can, travel afar, meets lots of interesting people, see the most amazing places. Some of the best moments in my life have been spent in a wonderful variety of places. In the next few years, try and put some of them on your itinerary. Gaze at the night sky in Darwin, Australia. Visit a jazz club in Chicago. Go horse riding in Mexico. Touch the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. Do voluntary work in Rwanda. Get to all those places and many more sometime. Party a bit too and have a whale of a time. Not only because you should but because you want to build up a positive, free-spirited, fun loving approach to life.

We need people who can laugh, who keep a sense of perspective, who feel for others, who know what it is to take pleasure in all that they do even when it’s tough going. Peter Ustinov, a famous actor, once said that laughter was the most civilised music in the world and he was right.

Students, if you forget everything else I have said tonight, remember this; life is not a rehearsal. You get one chance at it and you don’t want to look back in the coming years and wonder, ‘What if………?’ Rather, when you get old, and it will happen one day, you want to say, ‘I did it all and loved every minute of it!’

Stretch yourself, share your talents and get and keep a life. But if you are able to do these things, just reflect for a minute on the people who have helped you along the way. Your parents, your family, your teachers. They have all done a fantastic job with, and for, you so I would like to pay tribute to them and thank them, on your behalf, for all their support.

So, congratulations once again on your achievements. It’s an exciting future ahead and I wish you well as you grab with both hands the opportunities and rewards that are rightly yours.

Thank you very much.