This weekend past has seen three days of Remembrance as we reached the centenary of the end of the Great War. When the Prime Minister David Lloyd George addressed Parliament after the Armistice in November 1918 he said, ‘I hope we may say that this morning marks the end of the war to end all wars.’ Sadly, despite the founding of the League of Nations and the shocking loss of life and destruction from World War One it was only 21 years before war erupted again in response to the growth of totalitarian regimes and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Tragically many of the older WW1 veterans who had fought for our freedom had survived only to send their children to fight in the Second World War.
Events took place across the country to mark the centenary including our own involvement at Westholme with the Mayor’s Concert at King George’s Hall, ‘Westholme Remembers’ and the annual Civic Service in Blackburn. I am always impressed by the awareness and reverence that young people show towards Remembrance, despite the passage of time leading to possible dilution of its relevance to society today; this year even more so. Wearing a poppy (whether red or white) is not a symbol to glorify war – it is a tribute to remember the sacrifices made by those who fought to retain our freedom and identity. It is reminder of the horrors of war to hopefully ensure that it does not happen again.
It makes me think about the freedom we often take for granted. It makes me think about how fortunate we are to live in a civilised society where we abhor violence; we can travel freely; we can speak openly; we can share our own beliefs and make our own decisions about the choices we make within the confines of the law. These freedoms are not to be underestimated.
As part of my role as Chair of the Society of Heads recently I was fortunate enough to be asked to represent the association at a conference in Calgary for the Canadian equivalent organisation of independent schools. It was an interesting and enlightening experience including two school visits, presentations and workshops with fellow Heads from Canadian independent schools and Chairs of Governors.
Perhaps unsurprisingly I learned that we have a great deal in common with our Canadian counterparts both educationally and culturally. Compared to the UK there is less focus on league tables, regulatory inspection and greater attention given to strategic planning. Education is devolved to provincial government and independent schools have greater autonomy than here at home. But overall, we share more similarities than differences, as we would expect given our shared heritage with our Canadian cousins.
However, they are about to face a huge challenge in schools, colleges and wider society as cannabis was legalised from 17th October. Canada has become only the second country in the world (the other being Uruguay) to take this step and understandably it is not without significant controversy and challenge. It was a hotly debated topic at the Conference with school leaders expressing grave concerns about the proven detrimental impact of marijuana upon mental function and especially the adverse impact upon the brain development of adolescents.
In Canada, medicinal use has been authorised with prescription since 2002 but only 30% of doctors have used the facility. Whilst the new legislation sets out guidance that clearly states that cannabis cannot be legally used by under 19’s, the significance of the change in stance will inevitably alter society. The change will undoubtedly lead to some difficult discussions in Canadian families I am sure. It made me consider how we would respond as a society, and as a school, if similar changes to the law were made in the UK.
Although perhaps such legal steps are not the ‘freedoms’ that our predecessors sacrificed their lives to uphold, the principle I believe to choose holds true. In school (just as in families) we live by a moral code that sets out right from wrong quite clearly. We have core values that give substance and colour to our conduct and contribution to society. However, with maturity, ultimately, we are each responsible for our own choices and actions. This is the challenge Canadian society now faces as the legal framework of reference for cannabis use has changed. Young people will be making their own choices just as they do in this country whether to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol – both of which are legal.
After a weekend of Remembrance, I have been heartened by the respect and understanding shown by young people towards this poignant centenary. Our personal freedom is a gift that has been given by the ultimate sacrifice of many before us. In school we educate, inform and nurture. We give experiences that create opportunities for our students to make choices and judgements that impact upon their own lives, as well as the lives of others. We have to have confidence that the future is safely in good hands and hope that the lessons of the past have been learned, however those choices may manifest themselves.
I, for one, am grateful to my twentieth century ancestors who stood up against tyranny and challenged the destruction and genocide of the Holocaust. I am grateful to have the freedom to make my own life choices and with that comes responsibility and the ability to learn from my mistakes. I hope this is the case in Canada and also for those in our Westholme Community too.
“When you go home, tell them of us and say,
for their tomorrow we gave our today.”
John Maxwell Edmonds