In the past ten years, 150 external speakers – many of them famous, all of them impressive – have taken to the podium as part of the Ecolint Speaker Programme. En Bref had a conversation with John Deighan, organiser of the Speaker Programme (as well as teacher at La Chât, and parent of a Y9 pupil), to gain an insight into the Programme – how it came about; the highs and the lows; and plans for the future. Here’s what he told us…..
At En Bref, we are always amazed by the calibre of the speakers who give their time to come to share their experience and views with the La Chât community. We understand that the Speaker Programme has been running for ten years – how did it all start?
It started with the invitation of a Spanish poet to LGB, and gradually grew from there. To begin with, I invited other Spanish speakers to assist my wife in teaching Spanish at Nations, and then, over time, I expanded this to include speakers of the above other languages offered through the school Mother Tongue programme, since I organise the latter. As time went by, it seemed a shame that more students weren’t benefitting from exposure to these visitors. Also, there was increasing demand from teachers and parents for English language speakers, so I decided to branch out a bit and make this bigger. One of the first English language speakers whom we welcomed was journalist John Carlin, who had interviewed Nelson Mandela, and written the book on which the film ‘Invictus’ (with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon) was based. The Programme evolved from there. There was no grand plan, but I did want to broaden pupils’ minds about the world a bit, beyond what is offered in the curriculum. Over the years that I’ve been here, I have noticed that the kids are very pleasant and well-mannered, but they’re also incredibly privileged. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they do need to be made aware that there’s another reality out there. I thought that it would be interesting from them to hear the stories and views of people who have dealt with tough situations and adverse conditions.
So do you specifically focus on inviting speakers who have had difficult experiences?
I think it’s good to get a balance, to include people who have a range of different experiences and expertise – artists, philosophers, politicians, people with an interesting personal story. We have had a vast spectrum of people speak at the school – the mix has evolved and is still evolving.
Other than broadening pupils’ perspectives, what are the other key benefits of the programme?
It’s fantastic for kids to be able to meet these people in person and to interact with them. Not only do they have the chance to listen and ask questions, they can also take advantage of the opportunity to introduce speakers to the audience, and to interview them for The Update, the La Chât student blog. In this way they build their skills, and develop their thinking.
I also think that colleagues can use these talks in their classrooms to provoke debate. It is important to get young adults to reflect and to be stimulated beyond what they must learn via the curriculum. They may forget that science lesson on a wet Wednesday afternoon, but I think that they will remember that they met, for example, Germaine Greer in the flesh and heard what she had to say. I hope that they will be stimulated to think ‘Maybe one day I can do something to help or to change things.’
My plan is to get pupils more and more involved, particularly in choosing who the speakers will be. Current Y12s are training Y11s, which is great – I’m hoping that next year students will begin by adding two or three speakers to the eight that I have already lined up.
Can you give us a sneak preview of who will be coming to speak soon?
I have lined up Ian Paisley Junior, the Northern Irish politician; Neville Lawrence, father of murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence, and chair of the London police monitoring group; and I hope that we will also welcome Dame Katherine Grainger, who won five Olympic medals for rowing.
You have a very limited budget with which to deliver the Programme – some funds from the PTA Kermesse Grant scheme, and some from the school – yet you manage to attract some big names. Why do they give up their time to come here?
A big factor is personal recommendation. We make sure that every speaker is very well looked after – picked up from the airport, put up in a nice hotel, invited to my home for dinner and to meet members of the school community, and so on. They generally really enjoy the overall experience, particularly meeting the kids, and being interviewed for The Update. All of that means that they are very prepared to recommend other interesting people whom I can approach to speak. I got Bianca Jagger’s personal email the other day from someone – she might not come, but then again, she might! When it’s a personal recommendation like this, people are much more likely to say yes, and also to significantly reduce the rate they expect to be paid, if their usual fee is beyond the scope of our budget.
Have you ever felt star struck by the people that you have met through the Programme?
Not really – most are very honest down-to-earth people in real life. One or two have been a little serious at first – for example Professor Lord Robert Winston was, but he ended up playing scrabble with my son! Then there are the people who are truly inspiring, like Eva Schloss, the Holocaust survivor.
Was there anyone who surprised you by far exceeding your expectations, or maybe falling short of them?
Sir Chris Bonnington was wonderful – such a lovely man, and with such humility, despite the fact that what he has done in the area of mountaineering is amazing. John McCarthy, one of the hostages in the Lebanese hostage crisis, was also a lovely, lovely person – he just sat in the house and chatted, with no airs and graces.
Really nobody has been a disappointment, other than those who didn’t come to the school because they demanded too much money!
Do you always brief people before they speak?
Yes, but you’re still never sure what you’ll get. For example Vince Cable is a very bright guy and one of foremost politicians in the UK, but his talk was a bit serious for his audience – he said afterwards that he didn’t think he had got the tone quite right. There was also Howard Gayle, an ex-premiership footballer, who started to talk about the sex abuse that he suffered at school. The audience was Year 12s, but I still thought ‘where is this going?’ and that I would have to step in. Luckily, it became clear that he wasn’t going to talk about the details, and that mentioning it was part of a larger message, which he presented well.
The fact that ours is an international school means that there are multiple cultural attitudes and perceptions to consider. Has this posed any challenges to the Programme?
Occasionally! For example, the Aboriginal spokesman, Robert Eggington, annoyed a number of parents with his negative messages about the way in which Europeans had treated Aborigines. Some British parents were unhappy that I had invited Pat McGee, the IRA bomber, to speak. However, I had invited him with Jo Berry, whose father, Sir Anthony Berry, died in the Brighton bombing, and whom he was supporting in her work with Building Bridges for Peace, a charity that she founded to promote peace and better understanding of the roots of war terrorism and violence. Then there was also Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor – an Israeli parent took offence, calling him a terrorist. In fact, he had three daughters killed by the Israeli army, and then wrote a book entitled ‘I Shall Not Hate’ – what kind of positive example is that?
What are your ambitions for the future of the Programme?
In addition to passing more of the responsibility for the Programme over to the students, I want to involve more female speakers. Up to know it has been about 80:20 in favour of men, but next year, nearly all the planned speakers are female.
I also want to get away a little bit from left-wing, Guardian-style speakers, and bring people with different perspectives – eg more right-wing views, such as climate change deniers.
And finally, I want the Programme to continue to be a community thing, where everyone, parents, pupils, staff, feel invited and welcome.
And if you could invite your ‘dream speaker’ who would that be?
Mmm – good question! I would have to say the Dalai Lama!
And since John happens to know someone who knows the Dalai Lama, that particular dream just might come true!
Interviewed by Olive Fenton.