Letters have been sent since the time of Homer and I enjoy and anticipate my father’s missives from Scarborough, ‘God’s Own County’ of Yorkshire. He is a cross between Geoffrey Boycott and Michael Parkinson and Dad sticks to the adage of ‘knowing what he likes and liking what he knows’, freely dispensing octogenarian advice/frustrated criticism at my overlong sentences and misuse of split infinitives. With each letter I get attached copies from the Yorkshire Post, that opinionated and all-knowing Yorkshire newspaper. In the education section, headteachers of the north receive unstinting criticism of all our youth, which must be wearing although in my city the Worcester News’ front page headline for Saturday was ‘It’s Dirty and Disgusting’. A former mayor’s correct view that Worcester people should cover up when they cough or sneeze; yet hardly thoughtful front page news. Dad’s monthly nuggets are now welcome reassuring reminders of ‘homespun’ advice from a Doncaster teenager’s kitchen. They are something I look forward to with viewpoints that are welcome opinions from a differing perspective.
However, not all letters are welcomed and leave the receiver with this reassurance, as the Prime Minister will no doubt now feel from the open letter from the Bishop of England rebuffing his lack of response and lack of action over the Syrian refugee crisis. As a headteacher, I have come to dread the ‘Worcester News’ letters page, which is an open battleground with no area sacrosanct. The debate and wide ranging opinions offered have varied from the state of my attire or my weight to open antagonism at quotations which have often been taken out of context and do not meet the so called tolerant beliefs of Worcester man and woman! Letters are powerful tools and can be used destructively and constructively. As headteacher I try very hard to keep all in my community working with the school and do not want my letters to alienate or attack those parents or staff who receive them.
For some, it is simply the lack of a letter that infuriates. From personal experience I was disappointed at Mr Bercow’s (the Speaker of the House of Commons) lack of response to my written rant at his extravagant personal spending: £45,000 make-over of personal accommodation in 2013, seven paid international visits in 2014 and the ubiquitous MP expenses claim of £31,400. Although writing this letter was cathartic for me and written from the perspective of a Worcester school which desperately needs bid funds to be successful, it was perhaps not surprising to have no reply. His lack of reply does show a lack of courtesy and possibly confirms an already entrenched opinion of him and stereotype of politicians not caring for the public who voted them in. I do believe most headteachers do reply to criticism and are skilful in their duty of trying to win over the critics with letters being an unemotive ‘tool’ to try to reclaim the critic.
This week my second daughter, in her third week at Bristol University, became homeless as fire ravaged though the five storey Colston Road Fresher’s building. Amazingly, no one was injured although the wooden roof construction meant the destruction and upheaval caused by the fire was devastating to all who had made a home from home, their first tentative venture in the wider world. Left with only the clothes she stood up in, the lack of communication and direction from Bristol University was staggering. For her and us as a family, a letter of explanation/reassurance would have been welcomed and was the least we could expect. The variety of emails received contradicted and confused. It was a time of crisis when we almost needed a letter, something physical to hold onto and pass onto the next relative, not an email where tone and curtness can be confused for a lack of care and compassion. Carefully crafted supportive letters can be so reassuring in simply recognising trauma and how vulnerable someone is.
Reflecting on these ponderings and worrying that I am turning into my father by sending my staff letters attached to blogs or articles from the lovely SecEd, I do believe whilst in this ‘pot noodle’ society whereby everything is instant, the carefully crafted letter still has a crucial place in school management, family lives and even common courtesies. I will therefore spend my half term penning some missives of thanks to colleagues, ‘well done’ letters to students, a rare letter to my father and letting Mr Bercow MP know of my continued frustration at his continued lack of reply and a view on his credibility! ‘To boldly go’, I know, another split infinitive, is what I intend to do during this half term break with a few reassuring not reactionary letters being my aim!