Speech day: mark my words

Hilary Moriarty explains why schools need to shake-up Speech Day

Am I the only person over the age of 30 (and it might even be lower than 30) who cannot remember a word of a speech delivered on a Speech Day in my own pupil days? I cannot even remember where in the school calendar the big day occurred for seven years, but it cannot have been at the end of the summer term, for the one I do remember is the one after I left and for which I returned to collect the kind of prize which in those days (so long ago!) was only awarded after A-level results. Effort and progress prizes had not then been invented, so prizes simply followed demonstrable, and therefore unarguable, grades. If the results were in, you knew what was what and who had earned the prize – no grumbling from other possible claimants, at a time when A grades at A-level, for instance, were quite rare beasts. 

I still have the book I chose: a hardback compendium of essays on Shakespeare, priced at the then princely sum of 25 shillings. It was beautiful, and beyond me. I realise now that at the time I had not developed the real skills of study – read, reflect, question, evaluate, assimilate or reject or pursue – if this, then what else? Or what next? And why? If I had cottoned on younger or faster, I might have had the wit to write those fabulous books about Shakespeare, 1599 and 1606, actually written by James Shapiro.

But that would be a different life. What remains, as well as the book, are the memories: the bleak and enormous town hall, which the school used for its big occasions; standing in line with others waiting to go up on the high stage and terrified of tripping in my heels; pleased with the suit I was wearing till I saw a former classmate, also returning for a prize – Art? – and wearing jeans. Jeans! She was out of uniform, out of school, out of here! I felt the ground shifting under my feet. A new world had just arrived. I thought I was a fully-fledged sophisticated student. Wrong. I looked as if I already worked in an office; my friend in jeans, a constant rebel in school, was now a student. The real McCoy. I think her chosen book was Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But I digress. What really intrigues me is why I remember nothing of the speeches on that day. Forgetting the Head’s speech is perhaps not surprising – then, as often now, the Head’s speech mostly reported what had been done in the year, with maybe a peek over the parapet at the year to come. But the invited speech maker? Nothing.

In those days – last century – speech makers were quite likely to be county council officials. Perhaps it was in the job description. Perhaps they were VIPs in some world of which I knew nothing and cared less. Whoever he was – and it would have been a man – he may have tried to inspire his audience, but I doubt it. There was, I think, a lot more “Bow your heads and keep going” in those days, and a lot less “Lift your eyes to the stars and aim high.”

Seven years a deputy, organising the prizes and their distribution (always a perilous occupation) and six years as a headteacher, desperately seeking great speakers in the who’s who of former pupils and current contacts, taught me a lot about speech days. And there is no doubt that the bar keeps rising. The speakers themselves are more glamorous – the last one I invited to the stage was Trinny Woodall – their message almost constant, “You can do it if you try!” “Try harder!” “Aim higher!” They are usually 15-minute verbal explorations of those guilt-inducing wall-signs which say, “Try. Fail. Try harder. Fail better. Try again. Succeed.”

I know because I have done it myself. OK, not the glamorous bit, much as I tried, but the speech-making and hoping to inspire. I have presented prizes on seven occasions, and it is a privilege to congratulate so many young people, and by extension their teachers and parents, upon their many and various achievements, including effort and progress, often a tougher ask. But after the congratulations – always the urge to try harder and do better next year. 

I hereby predict the next ‘big thing’ will be speech-making Love Island contestants. How inspiring might that be? And, perhaps, how memorable?

Happily there is now far wider recognition of diverse talent, with leadership and entrepreneurship the new kids on the block. Academic straight As and records for fastest, highest, most wins on the sports fields still earn their cups and gongs. But there’s growing recognition that the children before us will grow up and find careers in jobs that have not yet been invented. They may have talents not accommodated in the standard curriculum, that we have not seen and would not recognise, let alone applaud and encourage. When I asked a sixth former recently how she secured her place to study graphic art in an American university – “The best there is!” she informed me – she said, “I researched the best places, then I phoned them, and they offered me a place.” Just, as they say, like that. I would have given her a prize for initiative.

Which leads me to what I perceive as an interesting trend in speech-makers: it seems that trawling through the networks of former pupils, schools are discovering that some of their most difficult pupils actually turned out OK. In fact, better than OK – they are now powers in the land a million miles from a school which they cheerfully admit did not suit them at the time. Such speakers have a charm all of their own: they can congratulate winners because they stand in front of them as exemplars of success, sometimes with honours as well as money and a helicopter on the pitch; but they can inspire today’s empty-handed students with the reassurance that they themselves were not ‘winners’ at school, but they still ‘made it’ in the real world.  “You’re doing well, continue,” they say, followed by, “You’re not doing so well – but that’s now. Tomorrow can be different – I am proof!”

 “I hated school…” they admit, in front of the squirming current Head, “and school wasn’t very fond of me!” A note of triumph here, because who could resist that – “You thought I was useless because I couldn’t do theorems and Latin! But hey – look at me now!“

Much squirming on the platform. In truth I have not heard those exact words from a platform in a lifetime of many speech days. But I’ve heard them hang in the air, whole audiences – and the Head – thinking, “Lord, is he/she really going to say it?” 

In these times of welcoming and championing diversity, no doubt our sources of inspiration will change also. Today’s speechmakers are often businessmen/sportswomen/politicians. I hereby predict the next ‘big thing’ will be speech-making Love Island contestants. How inspiring might that be? And, perhaps, how memorable?

More soberly, a plea: if you really want to give inspiration a chance, have Speech Day in September. Remind everyone how good last year was, and say, “Now, tomorrow, try harder…” 

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of Boarding Schools Association.

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