25 Years Young

Last week we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the High School’s move from Derngate to its current, purpose-built site in Hardingstone. Saturday’s Reunion brought together Alumnae and former staff from across the years, many of whom were visiting for the first time since they left. It was quite an occasion.

At the centre of the day – besides eating (a delicious lunch and afternoon tea), enjoying a magnificent display of memorabilia, visiting old haunts and sharing memories – was a tree-planting ceremony, with Mrs Mayne and Mrs Nugent (Headmistress and Junior Head in 1992 respectively) and the Mayor being guests of honour.

As we sprinkled the roots of the specially-chosen rowan tree with soil, I was reminded of the many reasons why a tree-planting is such an appropriate way to celebrate this milestone for the School.

Because a tree is a powerful symbol of so many of the attributes that characterise an excellent school. With roots deep in the ground and leaves touching the sky – it represents the journey from school to far-flung destinations that our students take.

Trees speak of new growth, and planting a tree is an act of investment in the future.

Trees also span the generations – outliving all of the planet’s other occupants, weathering the vicissitudes of the seasons and growing in venerability in the eyes of their human cohabitants.

Just as the High School has spanned generations – approaching 140 years no less (and remaining throughout a pioneering girls’ school) – and weathered many vicissitudes – educational, economic, political and cultural.

Trees represent solidity – always there and yet also ever-changing to adapt to their environment.

Just as the School has adapted to changes – with the move to Hardingstone, for example, through the good offices of far-sighted governors and generous benefactors, including the Cripps Foundation, and its enrolment in the Girls’ Day School Trust, which has ensured a level of support and development for the site over and above anything which we could maintain (even with our first-class Estates Team) as a stand-alone school. Many of our visitors on Saturday were amazed that the site looked just as modern and fresh today as on the day it opened – and we all feel that it is, indeed, 25 years young.

Trees carry powerful associations with learning – the Tree of Knowledge being one of our earliest cultural motifs, while the primacy of the Tree of Life as an archetype in the mythologies of so many cultures (from Assyrian symbology to Yggdrasil in Norse mythology) suggests that the image of the tree as a cultural shorthand for life’s journey is universal.

Trees provide life-giving oxygen and, as consumers of carbon dioxide and vital habitats for wildlife from sizeable mammals to microscopic insect and fungal life, serve as literal saviours of our embattled planet.

Tree climbing was, traditionally, a commonplace of childhood and the loss of this habit, as part of the much-lamented shrinking of the exploration radius of our young people and the ‘denaturing of childhood’ in general, is a hot topic for debate nowadays. Our knowledge of trees – of flora and fauna in general – is, we read, drastically in decline.

I am delighted to see that plant and animal identification is very much part of the curriculum in school – and tree climbing as part of our Forest School. A good, old-fashioned Harvest Festival Assembly was brought to us by Year 2 last Wednesday and Mr Attwood’s harvest-themed Pumpkin Assembly last.

Monday, complete with a lesson in evolution, is one of the most cherished rituals of the school year for the seniors.

Planting a tree now, which will become a Tree of Life for a myriad life-forms (for the rowan, caterpillars, bees and birds, especially the blackbird, mistle thrush, redstart, redwing, song thrush, fieldfare and waxwing), reminds us that we are all just stewards of our school. We are a part of its unfolding history and heritage, and architects of the next part of what will become its legacy as it continues to thrive and be an inspiration to generations of girls and young women into the far future.

Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress