The Power of Speech Day
Forget reading the prospectus; dismiss the website; the savvy prospective parent now heads straight for the Speech Day, reports Hilary Moriarty of the Boarding Schools' Association.
If you want to get a glimpse of a senior school you may be considering for your child, and you don't want the formal visit or the informal tour with a pupil, here are a couple of tips: (i) ask if you may go to Speech Day, (ii) if you may, go, (iii) if you go, really pay attention. There are a couple of problem possibilities here: they may say no. Many a speech day is extremely tight for space, and the Head may well consider it a quite private occasion of celebration for those already in, and often about to leave, the school, and their proud parents. At one I attended recently, not even all the parents were invited - just parents of prizewinners. As it was, the sports hall was packed to the doors, so the school could not have issued invitations to possible/maybe parents to come, who might, after all, decide not to come.
If you did wangle an invitation, would you go? Many a parent may develop a positive aversion to school Speech Days, and feel that going to one in advance of joining a school in the first place, and being one of those specifically proud parents with little real choice about attending, is a noble step too far. I can understand this: schools do their best to make them enjoyable affairs, a real celebration of all that their pupils achieve on the field, on stage, in the exam room, but they sometimes fight a losing battle with their venues and the weather. Hands up if you've ever sweltered in a Speech Day tent? Or lost the speaker's best jokes because the sports hall acoustics were never designed for this kind of use? Or lost the plot because the speeches really were a tad long? Point made.
On the other hand, a colleague who does a lot of schools photography recently commented that he feels it a real privilege to attend a school Speech Day, even a school he barely knows. He agreed that this annual occasion, designed for those already in the know about a school, may well give an observer a view of the school which is well beyond and more revealing than the official Open Day (all singing, sometimes all dancing). The truth of a school is surely here, for the very good reason that its audience knows it already, and there's no pulling of well intentioned wool over their eyes. It's a little bit like reading the school magazine as well as the school prospectus - same school, very different angles on it.
Supposing you are welcome, there is room and you do decide to go, when strictly speaking you do not need to, it is really important to pay attention when you get there. Actually, a parent of a prizewinning pupil can beam in and out of the proceedings when their own child either performs or is presented with a trophy, provided of course it is done discreetly, and lack of real engagement with the whole occasion is not too obvious to neighbours. But the prospective parent has much more to absorb. In a very different way from your private conversation with the Head, Speech Day gives you a real insight into what a school values, how it operates, what matters to these people, and would you like your child to be like one of those you see around you or on the platform?
For a connoisseur, no two speech days are the same. This is probably true even in the same school - a new person in charge of the logistics of the occasion can mean radical change in one go, such as moving the event from its usual place in the school calendar to somewhere else entirely (winter to summer is becoming popular, for instance) or gentle tweaking, such as having soloists perform rather than choirs. The move from winter to summer has more consequences than just the weather. A November Speech Day, for instance, is likely to become a focal point and reunion date for the summer leavers, all of a twitter to chat about their universities, or the difficulty of getting back for the occasion from furthest Peru - 'But I wouldn't have missed it for the world!' Such a date also allows - encourages? - the school to award its prizes on the basis of actual results.
There was a not-too-distant time when the number of A grades at A level and A* grades at GCSE would have been considerably lower than most parents would expect today. Perhaps it would then have been easier to choose the academic prize winners. But now, the likelihood is that most subjects will have multiples of the highest grades. It's an interesting question for your prospective Headteacher - 'How do you decide on the prize winners? Do you consider more than the results - efforts? Personal difficulties?' We have all of us known pupils so shinily bright that every subject was a doddle while they bided their time and waited to study for their PhD - is their A worth the same as one achieved by a youngster who struggled?
There may be no right answer to the question, but again any answer can be revealing. A summer Speech Day is conducive to considering more than the final, cold print result, simply because you do not have the final evidence. Differences between Speech Days are likely to be even more marked in different schools: some are extremely solemn occasions, held in a local church, or cathedral even, not just to accommodate a big audience, but also to generate the appropriate gravitas if it's that kind of school. Others may feature dance troupes not unlike those which might appear in an 'X Factor' programme, rather than a possible Young Musician of the Year playing a very grand piano.
Many these days will try to do it all, showing the full range of talent and achievement in their student body. Recently I have had the pleasure of hearing a difficult Walt Whitman poem brought to life on the stage in a stunning performance, and watching a young man from Year 8, Young Juggler of the Year (did you even know there was such a competition?), demonstrate his skills with Indian clubs and walking up and down within dropping distance of the front row while he did it. Fantastic.
A modern trend appears to be having pupils speak for themselves more than having the Head, for instance, speak for them. 'Pupil Voice' has reached the platform - and how interesting to hear the young sportsman speak of his triumphs following difficulties, or the sixth form debater recount the team's delight at winning a grudge match, or the Young Enterpriser show off the product that swamped the school and made a fortune and watch this space because he really wants to be Lord Sugar. They have their own stories to tell, and the Head's version is likely to be a pale broad-brushstroke representing their vivid reality.
There is undoubtedly more to schools today than a string of exam results, good though we all hope they will be. How is that breadth of interest and attention and value shown in the prize list? Is there, for instance, a prize for being an outstanding boarder? Does the school reward effort as well as excellence? Yes, speech days are about achievement, but that takes many forms; a good school will bring them to your attention too.
So - you examine the prize list; you listen to and watch the performances; you note the demeanour of all the pupils, those who win, those who perform, those who show you to your seat and smile graciously and look as if they are proud of their uniform, those who sit behind you and behave impeccably (or - unforgivably - not). Now the hard bit: about those speeches.
They should give you a flavour of the school, shouldn't they? The Chairman will probably speak, the Head will certainly speak, and there will probably be a presenter of prizes who also speaks. Presenters of prizes are loose cannons - there is no knowing what they will say, and it may not be fair to judge a school by their performance. An Old Boy? A local media person? A titled or royal worthy? The best are brief - it can be a long day, and their main job is to congratulate all those young people, the school in general and their audience for listening.
The Head is always caught by having things which must be said - such as goodbyes and thank yous to key members of staff now leaving the school - coupled with a wish to say what the prize list and performers demonstrate - 'Look what we did - this many matches, these grades, these triumphs!' - and a fear that if he leaves out any department, there may be trouble ahead. I have known Heads who do not write the speech at all - they get each department head to submit a brief report and string them together. We have become used to the cynical truth that politicians do not actually write their own speeches, they have professionals to do it for them. Perhaps the day will come when this is true of Heads - after all, why should the ability to make an inspiring presentation be part of the skill set the governors had in mind when they appointed this person? If you're just a tad old fashioned like me, though, you may prefer to think that the Head does speak from the heart, and if he or she does, then only he or she can craft the words which are uttered, and devil take the speechmakers.
If it's really the Head's speech, that can tell you volumes. A good speech from a Head who can inspire you, the stranger, as well as his students and staff, will raise the hairs on the back of your neck and leave you convinced you are buying in to the right school for your child. And next year, you may have your own place in the hall or the tent, and your child will be one of its stars.