In 1989 an English pop rock band released their debut album “Welcome to the Beautiful South” – a title designed to amuse a group of northern musicians, and an opening line for an assembly designed to amuse the Principal who was at school in 1989. This leads nicely into a sequence of welcomes, starting with Welcome to Harris Clapham Sixth Form, but I feel that having crowbarred one of my musical enthusiasms into the assembly I should provide you with a little explanation.
Firstly some more information about the Beautiful South, a phoenix band that emerged from the ashes of an older group called The Housemartins. They are known for songs that have cheerful tunes and darker lyrics (that Wikipedia calls wry and socially observant – to my mind they have a caustic streak a mile wide) and if you want to decorate your soundscape with sarcastic northerners then I can think of few more talented than these guys to recommend to you – think of them as the musical ancestors of the Arctic Monkeys.
This leads into my second explanation, which is why I would mention them in the first place – and the answer is that one of the things I’m about to welcome you to is a community. It’s a community that does a lot of things – many of which are related to ensuring that you emerge in two years time with a hatful of qualifications and a direction to head as you go off into the adult world. There’s more to it, though, than that. We’re a community where we listen to each other and learn from each other – learn from each other’s successes, mistakes maybe, enthusiasms certainly. This means that I’m interested in hearing what music you think I should listen to (suitably censored for a Principal’s delicate ears) and that I expect you to be interested in the music I recommend (and I assure you that it's selected with due care in the hope that it will amuse at least some of you). You could start with the first track off the album (which makes sense from a logical perspective) – Song for Whoever – and enjoy the cynical dissection of writers of romantic music.
Back to those welcomes, though. Welcome to Harris Clapham Sixth Form – I’ve said that already. Welcome to what should be the best two years of your life. Welcome to the hardest challenge you’ve faced so far. Welcome to our community – I’ve told you a bit about how that works- please stop me in the corridor and recommend a song. Welcome to the way we do assemblies here – you can expect to hear a key message or two (those are coming later), you can expect some cultural references (you’ve heard about the Beautiful South), and you can expect to be taught something that you didn’t know (I guess I’d better do that bit now).
The Housemartins, and therefore founder members of The Beautiful South, are from Hull, which is the joke, of course, as Hull is a not-so-beautiful city in the East Riding of Yorkshire. A Riding, by the way, is a subdivision of Yorkshire – an ancient mangling of thirding that was echoed by JRR Tolkien when he divided the Shire into four Farthings. Yorkshire is a county, a subdivision of England and, even when divided into three, North Yorkshire, one of the ridings, is the largest county.
The largest subdivision in the world, at least politically, is the Sakha Republic, a massive slice of Siberia big enough to spread across three time zones and sufficiently large that if it were independent it would be the eighth largest country in the world – between India and Argentina. It’s population is a little less than a million – one thousandth of India’s – which wouldn’t even put it in the top ten subdivisions of England (it would come in at 22, between Derbyshire and Somerset – a long way behind North Yorkshire in 14th place.) First is, of course, Greater London with almost 9 million people. The subdivisions of London are boroughs – the largest by area is Bromley, by population is Barnet. Lambeth, where we are here, comes in 9th by population and 25th by area – comfortably mid-table.
Lambeth and Bromley are the most southerly places I’ve mentioned so far but, charming though they are, I’d struggle to describe them as the beautiful south and so we must continue our search. The most southerly point in the UK is in the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago that lies off Cornwall and which marks the location of the worst naval disaster in British History when Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovel got lost in the English Channel and accidentally drove the fleet into the rocks. Over 1500 sailors, including the admiral, drowned and the incident inspired the government to pass the Longitude Act, offering a prize to anyone who could devise a reliable method for determining the longitude – distance east or west – of a ship at sea.
This prize was finally claimed by a clockmaker called John Harrison who was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire but grew up in a town called Barrow upon Humber which, whilst itself in the county of Lincolnshire is a short hop across the Humber Bridge from Hull where we started.
I’m going to stop my storytelling here – although the Humber Bridge would be a glorious leaping off point – which illustrates one of the wonderful things about learning things – if you stay curious, stay interested then everything you learn leads on to something else. Staying curious or, for some of you, becoming curious, is something I’d like you to take on as part of your sixth form experience, and I acknowledge that this can be scary: learning leads you into a bigger world and if you learn because it's interesting rather than because you need it for exams then you take the walls off that world. This is courage term – courage to take on new challenges, to be curious, to ask questions, to follow the trails that learning leaves.
Courage is quite a virtue – have you thought of what it means? Courage is deciding to do the right thing, even when it’s not the easy thing and it’s the centre of every ethical framework because if you only do the right thing when it’s easy you’re not really doing the right thing at all. In the words of Maya Angelou that adorn the first floor wall, “Courage is the most important virtue because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Using these two years to learn as much as you can, rather than the minimum you can get away with, is a kind of courage – it’s dedication to future you, taking hard choices now to give yourself more options in the future.
The second courageous step I want each one of you to commit to this year is punctuality. Being on time is the right thing to do because it means you don’t miss learning, it means that you’re not inconveniencing other people, not being rude to those who’ve prepared your sessions. Being on time is something that should happen every day – but it’s not always easy – it’s easy to be disorganised, to spend a crucial 10 minutes looking for something, to oversleep, to miss your bus, to make excuses when you arrive after a quarter to nine. Courage means taking grown-up responsibility for being on time, accepting that there’s no such thing as “just a few minutes late” – there’s “a bit early” – this is the one I want you to aim for – there’s “bad decisions were made” – and some of you are going to do this, but I expect you to take advice and make better decisions the next time – and there’s “direct nuclear strike” – something huge that literally makes getting here on time impossible, and if that happens anywhere near school I’ll know about it before you get here.
Taking that responsibility means being organised, putting some shape on your week, knowing when you’re going to do your chores, and your homework, and see your friends, and get enough sleep – which means going to bed eight hours before you need to get up with your phone set to do not disturb (or, better, in another room) and a book to read to get you to sleep. It means being organised for the next day and leaving yourself at least fifteen spare minutes in case the bus is late or there’s traffic or you misplace one of your shoes. It’s easy to cross your fingers, hope someone will bail you out and make excuses – but it’s not the right thing, it’s not courageous, it’s not what I expect of Harris Clapham Students. The right number of lates this year is zero – your challenge is to get as close to that as you can. Single figures should certainly cover bad decisions and direct nuclear strikes – if you ever get to 10 then you’re being a coward.
Two courageous challenges – two things I’d like to see from each one of you – Punctuality and Curiosity – two roads to success at Harris Clapham Sixth Form. They’re not the whole story – there’ll be more words of wisdom in assembly, more advice on achieving your dreams from teachers and tutors, but that’s all for today – or almost all, because there is a rather wonderful quote, from Nelson Mandela, whose words on education can also be found on our walls, that links us back to where we came in. He said “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa,” (do you see what I did there?) “If there are dreams, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of those roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” Two roads leading to a goal – welcome to the beautiful Harris Clapham Sixth Form.
1. Nelson Mandela is also used as an introduction to the school year in Livin' on a Prayer
2. Two roads is a familiar theme - in this assembly it goes in a different direction, aptly enough.