Resolutions for 2021? Take a daily walk

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses

Walt Whitman

It took a very cold, wintery, foggy morning in early January, walking around an icy field and through a small woodland copse, near my home in Bristol with my dog Dylan, to finally allow my mind to wander and have real time to reflect over the last few weeks of 2020. This was all on the day of the Orthodox Christmas in Moldova and most of Eastern Europe. I am beginning to see the case for Christmas to be in the first week of January, especially as it feels far more civilised to not have to rush back to school immediately after the tree and decorations are taken down and the New Year begins. There is a lot to be said for the old Julian calendar and the way Winter and the end of the year are celebrated and marked throughout Europe.  This was, in fact, the theme of my final assembly of Semester 1 and 2020 for the Gymnasium. I have always been a huge Nordic Yule fan and I would gladly be holed up and semi-hibernating in a cabin for the coming weeks of January and February, given the opportunity, particularly in this ongoing lockdown.  

Most people watched the clocks strike midnight on New Year’s Eve with more than a hope that 2021 was going to be very different, despite the rapid escalation of Covid cases and a new variant of the virus within the UK that saw many countries close their air routes to the country, followed by a more than hapless prime minister go on national tv to declare Christmas 2020 a non-event. I felt very fortunate to be able to get more or less the last flight from Chisinau to the UK, which enabled me finally to get home, into isolation, and to see Gen and the girls for Christmas. I must not forget Dylan, either.  As I get older, I increasingly appreciate these precious moments of time with family and if 2020 taught us anything through the pandemic and the restrictions of lockdown, it is that being with our family, our loved ones and sharing the simple but vital moments together like a meal, mean everything:  Much more than the presents under the tree.  I have to say that I did get some lovely gifts for Christmas. My mother in law, Val’s Christmas dinner was, yet again, phenomenal, as was the midnight turkey sandwich that I shared with my daughter Evie: Laphroaig for me, milk for her.   I do like these types of traditions.

Just before Christmas, I was asked to write an article about the tradition of soup in Moldova and the essential importance it has in Winter and in our school community at Heritage right now. I was very pleased with the response from the head cook Tatiana and her team and their pride sharing the article with their children and families scattered around Europe and north America. The diaspora of Moldova, living abroad and supporting family from afar are testament to the resiliance and tenacity of the Moldovan people. 

Moldova demonstrated to the World a peaceful transference of power as the first female President, Maia Sandu, was inaugurated on December 24th.  I’ll try not to be too political here as a guest living and working in Moldova, but felt a very good omen to see that she walked through central Chisinau, waited at road crossings, alongside and chatting to her fellow citizens, as she made her way to the Presidential palace to take her oath of allegiance to the people, country and constitution of Moldova ahead of the country’s 30th anniversary of independence from the USSR this year in 2021. As a British person in Moldova, I felt very proud and we all hope and wish President Sandu well for the enormous task she has ahead in not only ensuring Moldova continues its path of development as an outward facing country, but also in dealing with the ongoing public health crisis around the pandemic.  It is good to see daily cases down over the last few weeks, but long-term, the solution lies in vaccinations.  For a country like Moldova, having access to vaccinations is essential and I share the sentiments of the UN Secretary General a few days ago when he commented: “…vaccine nationalism is not only unfair, but self defeating”. Just as the Moldovan diaspora has supported the country so much this year, there comes a time for utilising their agency to ensure countries like Moldova do not have to wait until 2022 for a mass vaccination programme.

I share with the new President the joy of walking around Chisinau. These moments are where I get to reflect, take some much needed exercise and learn my city.  I also love the countryside in and around Chisinau, especially near old Orhei in winter. It was two years ago in January 2019 that I first visited Moldova and met with the remarkable and dedicated education community here that prompted my very difficult decision to leave the wonderful Wyedean to become director of Heritage.  I did a lot of walking during those weeks of Winter 2019 in the beautiful border hills of Shropshire and mid Wales. Unfortunately, this year and this Christmas has meant no such visits to family and, like everyone, the power of technology is keeping us all in contact. We nevertheless miss the physical moments and as the Welsh call a cuddle, a good cwtch. I am very pleased that my time in Moldova will continue until 2023, plenty of time to transform this blog into book 2. We still have a lot to achieve at Heritage and beyond in the way we are influencing and transforming education in Moldova and beyond. 

Just before I flew back to the UK I was invited to participate in a very curious task: I was asked to help with the recording of a series of tourist audio guides for the Moldovan Tourist board and the art centre, Artcor.  Thanks to good colleagues in the British Embassy in Chisinau, I spent a few hours recording the guides in English, to help enable them to promote Moldova around the globe. This is a superb initiative by the city.  My dear colleague and friend Tatiana, was very patient as she helped me to accurately pronounce the Romanian and Russian names and, in response to my old friend and history colleague from Bristol, no, it wasn’t in the style of a Bristol pirate. Shropshire and Wales must have been calling me because my old 6th Form college picked up the story and as soon as I returned to the UK I was on BBC Radio Shropshire’s breakfast show explaining the journey I have taken from growing up in my home village of Madeley to living and working in Moldova.  Perhaps “From “Madeley to Moldova” could be a good title for a book?!  You can read the article from Telford College and the Shropshire Star here.

The richness of the education at Heritage just seemed to get better and better in the last few weeks of the semester and I am, as ever, in awe of the teachers and the support staff of the schools. The families of Heritage have continued to support the school through this difficult year, as we have worked together to keep the school physically open, supporting those online at home and ensuring we stop any transmission in school cases immediately.  This will be the continuing story of this academic year, all the way down to the end of May, but Covid19 and the complications it brings has not stopped our education. 

I love the creativity of the school. Once again, the Art department’s Christmas card competition was one of my highlights as Director. My colleagues Iulia and Elena are doing an incredible job. Also in December, a great friend of the school, His Excellency, Paul McGarry, the Irish Ambassador to Moldova, based in Bucharest, gave one of our best Founders’ Lectures examining the history of Ireland, the issues Ireland has faced, the role of the Irish diaspora, and the country’s success now as a small nation with a huge projection around the World. This real World experience linked to our students’ curriculum is the hallmark of our educational approach. 

The launch of our new Lyceum for post 16 learning, as the first in Moldova, is also a very exciting development for 2021. You can read the full interview with Moldova.org here

Just prior to Christmas I gave a webinar presentation to the incredible MFL network of Linguascope in the UK. When you see how dedicated these teachers are to languages and ensuring it remains at the heart of the curriculum, you realise just how much teachers and school staff are doing to keep children in education in this pandemic.  Unfortunately for all schools and young people of the UK, the cult of Brexit decided that the UK would no longer participate in the Erasmus education programme, which includes the fantastic pan European ETwinning network that has truly benefited all those involved.  You could almost see the disgust in Michel Barnier’s body language as he announced this latest development on Christmas Eve when a deal with the UK was finally reached for a post EU future. 

The idea of international education developing future “global citizens” may appear to be a very 21st century notion, but it is a 500 year old aspiration for humanity that was first espoused by the great European intellectual scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, when he declared himself to be a “citizen of the World”. Erasmus’s name is now forever linked with the above mentioned and astonishing pan-European education scheme that spans from Iceland and across Europe, to encompass countries around the Black Sea and reach all the way to Israel. Over 10 million Higher Education students alone have benefitted from this remarkable vision of bringing young people together as global citizens and the power of transformative learning through an outward facing experience. This same notion was at the heart of Erasmus’s works over five centuries ago.  It is certainly not some nefarious EU scheme to clone identikit European citizens and the shock announcement on Christmas Eve that the UK government had chosen not continue the country’s participation in Erasmus and retain its alignment with the EU on education, including qualifications equivalency, stood out starkly for both educators and students alike. 

Developing global citizens fits completely with the UK’s defining concept of the 2020s, “Global Britain”, as a futures orientated aspiration for young people. We know how valuable education is for the UK’s economy now and for the future. The false, binary dilemma of local identity versus global citizenship has been allowed to dominate and narrow discussion for too long. We need to move on from hollow notions such as the “citizen of nowhere” if we are to support our students development and allow them to take their future roles in a global society. As someone who has seen the transformative power of the Erasmus scheme in the UK and other countries over many years and in so many incredible projects, the frustrations and uncertainty brought by the decision to consciously leave behind such a powerful and meaningful global movement is completely understandable.  At the heart of developing global citizens are the key strands of international mindedness, intercultural understanding and an interconnected, globalised World that transcends national borders. What wasn’t understood, by many people and commentators, is that the school educational schemes like ETwinning, have had an immeasurable, positive impact on global learning, languages, CPD, leadership, curriculum and school improvement development. I hope the proposed Turing scheme is successful, but what comes next for schools without a scheme such as ETwinning?.

The old Irish saying tells us “If you are trying to get to there, I wouldn’t have started from here” and we are all coping with a similar conundrum in education as we begin the new year that is 2021. Resilience and adaptability will continue to be the watchwords for educators in the 2020s.  The same is true for the loss of Erasmus and the reality of “we are where we are”. It does not mean that we stay resigned to the situation and that we cease to put international education at the heart of our curriculum and developing our students as global citizens. It does not mean that we cannot align and work with Europe or be exclusively “wider World” focussed towards, for example, the Commonwealth, Asia, Africa or America. We have it in our power as school leaders and teachers to stop the false binary choice and zero sum nonsense of the last ten years and have a global learning strategy that incorporates many strands, many countries, many projects and a diversity of approaches in the way we develop our networks and exploit the benefits those partnerships bring back to our school communities.  Students and schools will continue to engage with Europe and the World, but we are going to have to adapt and think about it differently:  Thank goodness for the brilliant British Council.  

Erasmus lived through the dramatic changes of the Reformation in 16th century Europe, but he always held true to his beliefs as a citizen of the World: the power of learning and the avoidance of extremism in society, knowing how to deal with “…both Kings and bullies”. He believed he was on the “right side of history” and history proved his outward-facing World view for young people correct.  In contrast, though it was starkly clear from Day 1, none of us could have predicted the way Trump, would finally show his contempt for the USA, its people, its democratic process and its constitution.  I walked around the icy fields of my home suburb in north Bristol, unable to shake from my mind, the images of the mob in the Capitol, terrorising decent public servants and elected officials who were doing their duty and their job to ensure the great nation of America continues to be based on laws and not men, just as the Founders’ wished when they established a new republic in the 1780s. This corrupt wannabe king and bully and his acolytes placed themselves unequivocally on the “wrong side of history”. The wisdom, heart and words of President Biden’s leadership as he addressed the American people in the wake of Trump’s insurrection could not have been in more contrast with the hate mob attempting to subvert the American presidential election of 2020. 

For many people, as the pandemic continues to rage, with societies like the UK going into further lockdown and promised rapid vaccination programmes failing to materialise, 2021 looks far too much like 2020.  Nevertheless, despite our exhaustion and fatigue, there is hope. We know what we have to do to stay safe, to keep our children safe and in education, to protect our vulnerable family and friends. We know there is more light to come and that the darkness will recede. In the words of Whitman, all goes onward, civilisation and society are not going to collapse, but we need to stop our “doom scrolling”, get our walking shoes on, get outside and take time to reflect, switch off and recharge. This is our strategy for coping and thriving in 2021 as we wait for the cavalry to arrive, as surely they will. The perfect resolution for 2021. 

Rob Ford

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