Father Abbot, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen.
In 1981 London held its first ever marathon, 6747 people took part; the first episode of Only Fools and Horses was broadcast to what was termed moderate viewing figures and Peter Sutcliffe admitted to being the Yorkshire Ripper. Riots erupted around the UK; the SDP political party was created; the ZX81, the first home computer, was launched by Sinclair Research, Chariots of Fire was released in the cinemas; Bobby Sands died whilst on hunger strike at the Maze prison; Shergar won the Epsom Derby; Brian Robson became Britain’s most expensive footballer in a £1.5 million move to Manchester United; Salman Rushdie published his novel, Midnight’s Children; The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me and Adam and the Ants Stand and Deliver were both No 1 for five weeks; Peter Crouch, amongst others, was born and Princess Alice, the longest living grandchild of Queen Victoria, died aged 98.
And I started my sixth form education at St Benedict’s School.
I vividly remember walking in through the Orchard Hall entrance off Marchwood Crescent to, what can only be termed, a barrage of verbal abuse. I have never wanted to be a stand-up comedian or politician but I, very quickly, knew what it was to be heckled. You must bear in mind this was about 8.30 in the morning of my first day at Benedict’s – I did wonder what I had done coming to this school!! Bizarrely the next event was the parading of the girls on the stage before the whole school in the Orchard Hall, incredibly embarrassing but I guess that way everyone knew who we were, in case the skirts and whiff of perfume were not enough to give it away. 1981 was the year that St Benedicts made a concerted effort to have more girls in the sixth form – there were 11 of us in lower sixth. We were also the first year to wear full school uniform. I had a rather uncomfortable visit with my mother to the boys’ school uniform department in Peter Jones, where the poor ever reddening young male assistant refused to measure me for my blazer. I have to admit that I had not worn a boy’s jacket before and in fact I never did manage to do up that blazer due to the buttons being on the wrong side!
St Benedict’s had had girls in the sixth form for a few years but we had arrived on a grand scale, however, it did seem that the school really wasn’t ready for us. Sixth Form games, as now, was on a Wednesday afternoon and we could go home, a privilege that a few of the less sporty boys wished they had. I loved playing sport and decided that I would go down to Perivale and play tennis. I think it quickly dawned on the sports staff that the field was not meant for girls. I had to change in the groundsman’s outside toilet which was round the back of his house. This had no light, so I had to leave the door open so I could see what I was doing but it did have a flushing toilet, a sink and a concrete floor – so who was I to complain. That first afternoon I happily played tennis and then watched the first fifteen play. Later on I was chatting to John Delia outside the boys’ changing rooms, nearly gassed by the smell of Brut wafting out from them, and he was heard to utter that it was all very well me being down here on a sunny September day but he bet me that I would not be there when it got cold and rainy. I am proud to say that I won the bet and did not miss a single games afternoon and watched nearly every first fifteen match – this was of course helped by the fact that within a few weeks I started going out with Paul Hoban, a member of the team!
I very quickly realised that if I was to survive my time at St Benedicts I would have to get involved in school life, with others I set up a netball team, I helped out with school plays, I was asked to join the editorial committee for the Priorian magazine and perhaps most importantly I actually sat in the sixth form lounge. It was a daunting place to be but it was fun. I have clear memories of quite often being ‘the look out’ – the teachers seemed loathe to tell a girl off. Perhaps the funniest time was whilst a darts fight went on – thank goodness for the padding in the shoulders of the blazer is all I can say! I doubt very much that Health and Safety would allow a darts board anywhere near school nowadays. Anyway I must have done something right because Father Anthony, the then Headmaster, and the legendary Mr Stuart, my tutor, asked me if I would like to be a Deputy Head Boy. It really did not occur to me at the time that that was a weird title to give me – I was more worried about taking a position away from a boy who had been in the school for years when I had only been there for one. It was an absolute honour to be selected and I can confirm that I managed to never take an assembly – a privilege that often befell the Head Boy and his deputies. It was not long after taking office that a few of us were taken for a day to the Hillingdon Dry Ski slope in preparation for our ski trip. Thinking about it now it probably was not the best idea to go off to the pub at lunchtime, not tell anyone, let alone asking permission. Rob Banathy, a fellow Deputy Head Boy, and I both got a Saturday morning detention following an incredibly scary and uncomfortable meeting with Second Master Basil Nickerson. I would like to apologise now for not thinking of the bigger picture.
Today St Benedict’s is a very different place to thirty odd years ago, it is now fully co-ed from Nursery to Upper Sixth, there are 1094 pupils enrolled, of which 346 are girls. It is constantly progressing and adapting to changing times. I understand that Ealing Council has approved plans for two major projects at the school, a planned investment of £12 million, benefitting both Junior and Senior School. As I am sure most of you are aware facilities at the playing fields are fantastic – there is even under floor heating I am told and the smell of Brut has been replaced with that of Lynx and Impulse. Girls are no longer an add-on, an after-thought – they are equals.
And so I come on to explain the essence of St Benedict’s – or rather I can’t. I can’t put into words what makes a Bennies boy or girl – what it is about this school that produces a well-rounded, good person time and time again. Maybe it is that everyone has their place and are valued, maybe it is that some are given that much needed second chance, maybe it is that everyone is accepted – rugby player or not – or maybe it is the fact the Rule of St Benedict’s is embedded throughout the community – those qualities of perseverance, stability , hospitality, obedience and humility. The ISI Inspection report of 2012 mentions that the pupils are well educated in line with the schools aims, and the Benediction mission of ‘teaching a way of living’ permeates throughout school life. Pupils show respect for themselves, for others and for the world around them and are learning ‘how to live’. They enjoy excellent relationships with peers and adults alike and their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is outstanding. The school provides a family atmosphere in which pupils feel safe, included, secure, well known and valued. In fact I would say that despite the challenges the school has and will continue to face, Bennies boys and girls are still being produced and the core values, the essence of St Benedict’s, remain unchanged. And for that I am glad. I am grateful that I attended St Benedict’s; some of my best friendships were formed in those two years and I urge you, as Old Priorians, to continue to support our school. The educators of today are facing ever greater challenges. Did you know that in 2010 the top 10 in demand jobs did not exist in 2004. Current teachers are now preparing pupils for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems. It is estimated that 4 exabytes of unique information will be generated this year – that is more than in the previous 5000 years. It is predicted that by 2049 a £1000 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the entire human species. St Benedict’s, therefore, faces great challenges and we, as Old Priorians, should do all we can to help and encourage the pupils and staff to meet the these head on and enable future OPs find their place in our ever changing world.
In 2013 Pope Francis became the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic Church; Argo won the Oscar for Best Film; Willcomm announced the development of the world’s smallest mobile phone weighing just 32g; Bill Gates became the world’s richest man with a fortune of $72.7 billion. Justin Rose won the US Open; The British Lions won the test series in Australia; Andy Murray won Wimbledon. Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks was the bestselling e-book; Welsh footballer Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid for a world record transfer fee of £85.3 million. Robin Thicke’s single Blurred Lines was No 1 for 4 weeks; The European Space Agency revealed data indicating that the universe is 13.82 billion years old.
And I was elected President of the OPA.
It is an honour to be part of the wider Benedict’s community and I will do all that I can to support this great school. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Paul Fagin for all his hard work in hauling the OPA into modern times and I am already indebted to the wonderful Richard Baker, who works tirelessly for the Association, we would be lost without him. Thanks also to Chris Cleugh and Catherine de Cintra for their continued support of the OPA. And I thank you all for being here this evening and supporting us.
Ladies and gentlemen, I ask that you charge your glasses and be upstanding and toast The School. – The School!