The Bag On Our Back

In any other year, Wellingtonians would have been heading off on CCF camps, overseas trips, sports tours, university open days, enrichment activities and much, much more this week. Without COVID-19 in our lives, the College would have been preparing to host the 11th Festival of Education, the UK’s biggest professional learning event for teachers, governors and anyone associated with schools and education.

We would also have been preparing to celebrate Waterloo Day – the 18th June – to mark 205 years to the day since the Duke of Wellington, described by Queen Victoria as “the greatest man this country has ever produced”, defeated Napoleon and his imperial forces in one of the most important battles in the history of Europe. To mark this event, the History Department is hosting a special debate – Was the Battle of Waterloo really that significant? – as Mr Macleod and Dhaneal (L) take on Mr Oakman and Sareena (Hg) on Thursday at 4.30pm.

It would have been lovely to have been hosting this debate in the flesh but, instead, we are all still at home in partial lockdown and reflecting in a very different way on the history of our nation as we come to terms with the brutal death of George Floyd, the ensuing protests around the world, and the scenes from Bristol last weekend of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston being pulled down and deposited in the River Avon. I cannot even begin to unpick the scenes outside Westminster Palace on Saturday where far-right activists were pictured giving Nazi salutes in front (and in support) of the boarded up statue of the man who defeated Nazism. It was abhorrent.

I am deeply proud to be the Master of Wellington College and I am also deeply proud of its unique place in the history of our nation. Founded by Royal Charter in 1853 as the national memorial to the 1st Duke of Wellington and aimed at providing an education to the orphaned “sons of heroes”, the College is unsurprisingly steeped in our nation’s political and military history, a history which is also, of course, steeped in empire. Our wonderful school is a living and breathing museum to the Iron Duke, and many of our quads, colonnades and rooms are dripping with the iconography, artefacts and nomenclature one would expect from such an institution. This enriches our day-to-day life but also poses difficult questions which we will need to address as a community.

I cannot imagine there is a school in the UK currently which is not taking a hard look at its curriculum, both inside and outside of the classroom, in the light of what happened by that roadside in Minneapolis on 25th May. We certainly are and, as I said to Wellingtonians in Assembly this morning, we are also looking at our Global Citizenship programme and our student committees to ensure that we are using every possible opportunity to educate our pupils as broadly and deeply as possible, as well as offering them opportunities to lead projects which are rooted in issues around race and identity, whilst also giving them the chance to become meaningful change-makers with service projects within our communities on a local, national and global level.

We are also going to roll out a programme of Unconscious Bias training to all staff and pupils in due course. We all carry invisible bags of prejudice and bias on our backs, without even knowing they are there, and this does not just apply to race but also gender, sexuality, religion, disability, nationality, identity and in many other areas too. Catullus got it right over 2000 years ago when he wrote,

suus cuique attributus est error;
sed non videmus manticae quod in tergo est.

Which means something like, “To each their own flaw is ascribed, but we don’t see the bag on our back”.


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