Spotlight On: Commemoration & Celebration

16 September 2022


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 16 September, 2022

This morning, we celebrated the School’s 97th birthday. It is the only occasion in the year when the whole School gathers together and we began by taking a few moments to honour and give thanks for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her remarkable life of dignity, dedication and service. After a minute’s silence, there was a reading of a poem greatly loved by The Queen and of great significance to her family, The Gate of the Year. I hope this short but meaningful ceremony will help anchor this historic moment in each girl’s memory.
The School’s Birthday itself is a unique and endearing ceremony which has acquired hallowed status over the years. The birthday part of it is fairly straightforward (if a little quirky – singing ‘Happy Birthday Dear Queenwood’!) but at the heart of it, the girls are invited to stand and raise their posies high into the air. This commemorates a moment a long time ago when a beloved Principal, Ms Rennie (whose birthday coincided with the School’s), was too unwell to come downstairs, so the girls held their flowers up towards her window so she could look down and see the flowers they had brought for her.
This is the very best type of tradition. It is unique. By being unintelligible to outsiders, it reminds us we are a part of a community with a shared bond – something like the ‘in joke’ that only your family understands. At its heart is kindness and love. And afterwards, the focus is turned outwards as the flowers are distributed all over Sydney by a band of Year 10 students and parents. We get messages every year from grateful recipients: aged care residents who tell us ‘nobody brings me flowers any more’; hospital patients who are lonely; visiting relatives who tell us that their elderly mother or father brightened up at the gift of flowers and a handwritten message from a student. One wouldn’t think to design a ceremony like this, but it has evolved into something that perfectly expresses our values.
It’s very Queenwood. It's also particularly poignant because it falls in the last full week of school for Year 12. This cohort has missed many milestone events of school life so it is especially important that we are able to mark these moments with the proper sense of occasion. The next few days, as we say our last farewells, will be very special.
On another, and more prosaic, note, some parents have expressed concern about the School’s decision not to bring the girls in on Friday next week, following the unexpected announcement of a public holiday on Thursday.
We did expect mixed responses from parents, and whilst I can count on one hand the critical messages received, I take seriously the concerns raised. Some were concerned about the difficulty of finding child care at short notice. As previously notified, holiday care is available free of charge for Junior School girls. If any parents of Senior School girls believe their daughters require care on site, please do be in touch with the Deputy Principal, Mrs Moore
Others wanted to know more about the reasoning behind the decision. The length of the following explanation will, perhaps, explain why it was not included in the initial message but I acknowledge that this omission caused frustration for some.
Sacrificing Friday’s lessons would seem at odds with our strict policy on attendance and unwillingness to approve leave for travel during term time. There are good reasons for this policy. If too many girls are absent, teachers cannot move ahead with serious learning because it will have to be re-taught to those absent. The result is that the girls at school have a poor experience, while those choosing otherwise enjoy a holiday. This is a terrible message for the girls, and families then reasonably conclude that there’s no point in sending their daughters at the end of term, resulting in a vicious spiral of lost learning. Normally, we push ahead until the very last lesson.
So why did we treat this week differently? There are three reasons.
The first that is many more families are in urgent need of travel for specific family reasons. After years of closed borders, it would be inhumane to ignore important family circumstances (repeatedly postponed weddings, terminal illness, frail parents etc) and this means requests for leave are much higher in 2022 than in 2019. Because of this, we were already aware that there would be a relatively high level of absence on Friday. At some point – most likely quite soon – this will have to be reined in again, but there is no doubt that there is greater need right now.
The second reason is that it was clear that Thursday’s public holiday would cause absences to spike further. Bluntly, we struggle under normal circumstances with too many parents who are prepared to claim that their daughters are ill on the last day of term in order to extend their holidays. We do have laborious methods of interrogating this but the pull of a four-day weekend was clearly going to be strong and this was confirmed on Monday when many girls across all year groups were openly telling their teachers that they were not planning to be at school on Friday. While speculative, my best estimate is that at least a third of the students, and likely more, would have been absent on the final day. This is an unwelcome reality.
The third, and most decisive, reason is a very practical one: students have to be in the right state of mind to focus and learn. No teacher would, for instance, schedule a serious lesson at the end of the sports carnival. They simply won’t learn. Friday’s lessons were never going to be more than a few hours sandwiched between a public holiday and the school holidays, with a good chunk of the class missing. No matter what parents or teachers do, children will not learn much in these circumstances. Add to this the practicalities of the end of term (assemblies, clearing desks and lockers and so on), and we were faced with the reality that there would be very little learning on Friday no matter what we did.
Our focus is of course on the students, but I will add that it is demoralising for teachers to be faced with classrooms which are half empty, and it is exhausting trying to engage students whose minds are elsewhere, knowing that it will all have to be repeated next term. We have already asked so much of the Queenwood teachers, who have not skipped a day throughout the pandemic (unlike many schools) and who have gone to heroic lengths this term dealing with unprecedented levels of teacher illness and staffing shortages. The whole prospect did not promise much for the girls, and it is also in their best interests that we recognise what is reasonable and sustainable for the staff who care for them.
 I respect that some families may still disagree with the School’s decision but I hope that these details will at least give you some reassurance that the decision was taken carefully and with the best interests of the girls in mind.
The lesson of the last few years has been that anything can happen but, nevertheless, these do seem to be truly exceptional circumstances and I trust that we will not face such awkward and unsatisfactory alternatives again.