News & Events

Leadership Likes – Mrs Fran Cook

“Health is not valued until sickness comes.”

(Thomas Fuller, 16th Century Historian)

I’m sorry.

I really would have liked this week’s Leadership Likes to have been a refuge from the C word, but I am afraid I can’t avoid it.

From a country obsessed with Brexit, we have moved to a quick dalliance with Megan and Harry and now, along with the rest of the world, we are fully immersed in COVID-19 – although thankfully, not literally.

I am by no means making light of the situation nor the reality that is facing so many people around the world. Like many others, I suspect, I move from wondering if we are falling victim to yet another media hype to feeling anxious, uncertain, and somewhat dazed by the way events are unfolding. Here in school, I have (as ever) been reassured and impressed by the measured yet proactive approach we are adopting. Keeping parents and staff informed, making plans for ‘worst case’ and not so ‘worst case’ scenarios, and maintaining a calm and reassuring response to some of the anxieties raised by pupils. It is very much business as usual – but with an eye to the future and what might need to happen staying very firmly fixed in our minds.

In among all our discussions about the health of the world and the economy, we held our annual National Council for Young Women Sixth Form Conference last week. The eighth of these annual events, we seem to have an uncanny knack of ‘hitting’ on something topical every year. And this year was no exception – although not perhaps in the way we were thinking. The conference is organised by the school’s Marketing Prefect and this year the role has been admirably performed by Milla. When she and I met back in the autumn term to sound out possible subjects for our conference, she was keen to explore something that we felt delegates needed to understand more deeply. It wasn’t long before we decided on disability, as we both agreed that for some of us, this is a subject we may never really understand unless we have some personal experience. Once agreed, the challenge was to represent the scale of the subject matter – there were just so many avenues to explore.

Little did we imagine then, that by the time we were welcoming our delegates on International Women’s Day last week, the whole world would be involved in a debate on how to preserve good health and support those who are sick, frail, or vulnerable. This year, our panel of speakers was truly outstanding. As each one took centre stage, it was very moving to witness the rapt attention and empathetic responses from the floor, from our own sixth formers and the sixth formers from a number of other local schools.

We heard first from Seema Flower, a truly inspirational woman for whom being almost entirely blind due to a progressive eye condition seems, on the surface, to be only a minor inconvenience to her. The truth, of course, is very different. As we watched her make her way to the lectern with her mobility cane and the support of Upper Sixth’s Esther (her excellent ‘buddy’ for the day) and as she shared her stories and excellent advice, we were all left with a sense of wonder and a realisation of how much we take for granted in life.

The next speaker was scheduled to be Dan White, a broadcaster and campaigner for disability rights. Dan was planning to talk to us about his daughter, Emily, who is in a wheelchair as a result of spina bifida. Emily is a huge fan of the comic book genre but was always disappointed that disabled people weren’t represented in the stories, films, and television programmes she loved. So Dan, a trained artist, created a comic book called Department of Ability, which features a group of disabled superheroes. Just what any good dad would do!

He is still trying to get funding to enable him to publish this book, which is a potential game changer for disabled children around the world. Unfortunately, Dan was not able to join us for the conference. The day before, he sent an email to say that as well as his daughter, his wife is now in a wheelchair and he is therefore a full-time, sole carer for his daughter. He had been hoping to get help from social services to enable him to come, but it has not been forthcoming. Dan’s words, when he wrote to say he would be unable to join us, were so poignant:

“Please forgive me. I am literally exhausted.”

We were determined that Dan’s story should be heard, particularly as among other things it raised the very topical debate on how the Government’s proposed ‘points scheme’ for immigrant workers might impact on an already overburdened NHS. So, our very own Mrs Webb stepped in to the breach and told Dan’s story with passion and conviction. The irony of someone having to cancel due to a lack of available support was not lost on the audience. The ‘virtual’ support for Dan and his family was palpable.

The next speakers – fundraisers and students from the remarkable Orpheus Centre – captivated our delegates with their attitudes to life, with and without disability. They were followed by Dr Pooky Knightsmith, an acknowledged authority on mental health, who spoke powerfully about autism, depression, and other ‘hidden’ disabilities that can impact on so many people who struggle to cope in a world where their challenges are often overlooked.

We then heard from Sarah Shannon, who had travelled in her wheelchair (accompanied by her ‘best friend’, the beautiful Reba, a Golden Labrador). Her journey from the other side of Wimbledon by tram and bus took almost three hours. She made no complaints, but smiled throughout as she told us her story of a life with cerebral palsy but also a life as a double Paralympian swimmer, psychology graduate with a PGCE qualification specialising in special needs. Sarah’s words (below) and the image of her setting off a 5:30 PM on a Friday night to make the long return trip home alone (with Reba, of course) will stay with me. Not with any sense of pity – just sheer admiration.

“Employers generally love what I represent on paper and a lot of employers have genuine admiration for me; sadly, it becomes a different story when meeting me in person. Being rejected over and over again gets to you after a while and eventually you incorporate that ‘rejection’ and it becomes a part of your self-worth, contributing to the doubts you have about yourself, leaving you too scared to even to put yourself out there out of fear of rejection…”

Our final speaker was Adam Pearson, an award-winning disability rights campaigner, actor, and presenter. Croydon born and bred, Adam is something of a local celebrity, particularly following recent appearances on BBC’s Question Time and other popular television discussion programmes, as well as in films including Under the Skin alongside Scarlett Johansson. As Adam said, nice work if you can get it! Adam has an incurable genetic condition called neurofibromatosis, which causes tumours to grow in the nervous system. In Adam’s case, these are mainly on his face.

To say that Adam held the audience in the palm of his hand is an understatement. Very much in the style of a stand-up comic, he told his story and explained his approach to life, including but not only including, the challenges he faces. At the end there was a shared feeling that we had all somehow had our subconscious prejudices challenged and had been given the gift of seeing things differently.

Which brings us nicely back to the title of our Conference, disABILITY – great minds think differently.

Talking to delegates afterwards, I felt uplifted, especially after hearing how much they have taken from this event and how inspired many of them were to do more to challenge perception and contribute to a more inclusive society. Perhaps, among the many great minds at our conference, there will be someone who (one day) will be involved in finding a cure or a solution to some of the world’s greatest challenges. It wouldn’t surprise me!

I hope the many opportunities they have had here at Croydon High to open those great minds to different ideas will help them approach their own issues and our global issues with compassion and creativity.

With grateful thanks to Milla and her team for all they did to make this year’s conference so memorable.