Learning festival was a triumph

Nikos Savvas, principal at West Suffolk College ANL-160104-110812001
Nikos Savvas, principal at West Suffolk College ANL-160104-110812001
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October is always a busy time of year but this one just took the biscuit. On top of the usual workload, two landmark events took place.

Under normal circumstances it is not advisable to mix events such as these, because, despite being both exhilarating and worthwhile they require a significant amount of time and emotional investment.

Both were firsts, but both lifted my spirits for entirely different reasons.

The first one took place on 21st of October. The inaugural Suffolk Festival of Learning.

It began as an idea a few months ago following a discussion with Geoff Barton. We were talking about the Festival of Education that runs annually at Wellington College, after being first established under its celebrated ex-Head Master, Sir Anthony Seldon. We spoke about its many and varied merits, and whether we should therefore encourage our staff to go, regardless of the expense of tickets, travel and so on. As the discussion progressed we found ourselves asking, “why don’t we create our own festival, here in Suffolk?” A festival to celebrate learning, challenge us and our teachers, and encourage a hugely valuable exchange of ideas and best practice?

We floated the idea with a group of likeminded educationalists, and before we knew it we had set a date: the 21st of October 2016. Scarily, that day was a mere 9 months away, and we were without any external funding or sponsorship. We had decided though that it was the right thing to do for our children and our community, thus the pressure and hard work would be more than worth it. So we forged ahead with a decent helping of enthusiasm and some very long days. We appointed Rob Walden as the Festival Director, who immediately threw himself into it with great passion, admirably unfazed by the challenge.

And what a day it was! On the morning of the 21st, at our new University of Suffolk, the very first Festival of Learning opened its doors. We had more than 1,300 teachers in attendance and arguably a better line-up of speakers and panels than the original Festival of Education. Undoubtedly the first of many!

As the day drew to a close, we were over the moon and proud like parents seeing their child take its first steps. Unfortunately I couldn’t join everyone for an after-Festival drink, as it was time to focus on the second event scheduled for the very next morning: my first ever marathon.

That night I got the preparation list out and it slowly dawned on me that when a marathon is called the “endurance coastal series” it may be slightly different to the city ones, that everyone is familiar with. Despite the clues in the name, the compulsory survival blanket, the head torch, the medical equipment, and carrying your own water, (any of which really should have given it away), these had all somehow passed me by.

On my training runs I had imagined being one of thousands, with friends and family on the sidelines, cheering me on at every painful mile, and cups of water and energy bars readily available throughout. I was counting on running next to the person dressed in a rhino suit, or at least the one carrying the washing machine. Needless to say there was no man dressed as a rhinoceros, and no-one was carrying a washing machine on their back. There weren’t thousands ready to run, only 100 or so and they all looked like seasoned athletes.

In my head ran the wise and motivational words of my friends: Richard asked casually for my intended time. “I don’t know”, I replied, “I am hoping not to use the obligatory headlamp so I am intending to keep it under 8 hours”. “Mine was 3:45 when I was in my fifties”, he added encouragingly. I looked at him half admiringly half astonished at his motivational technique. “Thank you” I said “I will keep that in mind”. Jorge was equally encouraging. He decided that he would run it with me but as I was destined to be too slow, he would do the ultra-marathon instead.

I looked around me, at the other runners and the scenery, I made my mind up and I felt serene. I knew it was going to be tough but I intended to enjoy it every step of the way. The organiser gave us the last instructions and we were off. The views around me were magical. On mile 8 I lost a shoe in a bogey ditch. I had to go back and fish it out. On mile 11 I was convinced I was lost as I could only see tiny muddy paths that went on for miles. And then on mile 20 there was a sandy beach. Seriously!?! Sand? On mile 20!?!

Exhausted and elated all at the same time, I did, however, manage to cross the finishing line in under 6 hours and I wasn’t even last (although quite close).

Would I do it again? The Festival of Learning definitely. The date for the next one is being booked as we speak. The marathon? Well it depends on the cause, but next time I will make sure there is a city involved. A flat paved city.

-- Nikos Savvas is principal at West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds