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Schools Ancient and Modern: marrying the old with the new

Our statement of aims as a school begins as follows:

‘Exeter Cathedral School is an Ancient foundation with Traditional values and a Modern approach’. Those adjectives are deliberately capitalised: all three of them are hugely important to our identity. 

Founded 942 years ago, we are part of a group of institutions who can lay claim to being one of the oldest schools in the country. There are older set-ups, but not many. Our roots, then, certainly are ancient, and they are inextricably and proudly linked to the foundation of Exeter Cathedral. The earliest reference we have for our school is 1179: at that point we existed to provide education for the boys who sang for (and served….) the clergy. ‘Education’ is perhaps a rather generous description by today’s standards, but we know that there was instruction in Latin and that it is from these ancient foundations that ECS was to grow.

As a Choir School and a Prep School attached to the Church of England, we are – in our values and in what we hold dear – traditional. After the best part of a thousand years of music, spirituality, performance and community, we are unapologetic in flying the flag for the creative arts, for our customs and heritage, for the values of love, tolerance, acceptance and compassion, and for the importance of the development of character. Where ‘character’ perhaps once meant good manners, a stiff upper lip, the ability to toe the line, and an unwavering belief in the value of one’s own eccentricity, it has evolved to mean honesty, reliability, self-awareness, resilience, grit, politeness, determination, stickability, appropriate confidence, deference, the emotional intelligence to lead and to be humble. These things matter at ECS: our heritage, our customs and our traditional values are central to how we set about doing what we do.

And as a 21st-century school we have a duty to prepare our pupils for what lies ahead: to work with families to help children acquire the right habits for life. Times change, the workplace evolves, the world moves on: so to must schools and what they offer. That’s why we seek to provide an education which balances creativity with problem-solving, tradition with innovation, knowledge and content with critical thinking and skills, an awareness of self with an awareness of other, confidence with humility, challenge with support, earnestness with fun, reflective contemplation with forward thinking.  My mother-in-law who spent 30-odd years as a professional singer on film sets and with the BBC has always said of the voice ‘You rest; you rust’. The same is true of schools – and here our moto ‘Ut voce ita vita (as with the voice, so with life)’ seems very apt – we reflect fondly and with great appreciation on our historic past but we don’t languish in it; we look excitedly and determinedly towards the future.

And the next step on our journey to marry the old with the new – the traditional with the innovative, the ancient with the modern – has already begun. When the Prime Minister announced on 20th March last year that schools were to close their doors, we were an 841-year-old school who had never delivered a single online lesson. 16 days later, and thanks to the creative skills and pedagogical flair of our Senior Deputy Head and his team, we launched ECS:Learning@Home – a fully-fledged Virtual Learning Environment which brought to our pupils’ homes live lessons, pastoral engagement and choral opportunities delivered via the platform of Microsoft Teams

And with this new lockdown we have built better: an improved 2021 model of home learning re-crafted following parental feedback and our learning from a Trinity term like no other. We are proud to launch ECS:Learning2021, with the academic, pastoral, extra-curricular, social, choral and spiritual opportunities that it brings to ECS pupils. Spear-heading this hi-tech approach has allowed us to continue delivering and promoting what has always mattered to us as a School: learning, friendship, performance, the Arts, camaraderie, our choral tradition, the development of character, our ECS habits, our values, each other.

Keeping our traditional values and our 12th-century customs alive by embracing 21st-century technology seems to me to be a pretty stellar – and very pertinent – example of how we are indeed an Ancient foundation with Traditional values and a Modern approach.

15 January 2021
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