It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen

…and so begins George Orwell’s novel that gives such a bleak view of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four. I remember reading the book when I was in my O level years in the ‘70’s and emerging with the requisite sense of dread that views of dystopian worlds should cause. I also remember thinking, when 1984 came along, that perhaps Orwell was so far ahead of his time that this stuff still hadn’t happened. And now I wonder once again, forty years on from the signature date, just how dystopian have we become?


On the face of it, there is a considerable degree of convergence already. The pervasive influence of the digital world, accelerated in the very recent past by the response of many to the pandemic is unavoidable. In a typical working week I will now have an element of video conferencing almost every day; pre-Covid that would have been very different. I retain essential control thank goodness, so that I can mute or close the camera if I want to and I can direct the images where I wish. Winston Smith did not have that luxury, but even so reading back through those initial paragraphs still gives me the shivers as the similarities are uncanny. That really struck home while I was completing two whole days of online training during the last couple of weeks. Log-on, log-off, lunch, breaks, activities all pre-planned and prescribed. The training was good quality and effective, but you can guess some of my feelings as I went through the process. In school every room has its PC and the organization floats on a raft of digital platforms managing everything that everyone does. Staff and students march to the drum of Teams, our management information system gives insight into peoples’ lives that are both fundamental and trivial. Just how axiomatic computer systems have become to all of us was graphically demonstrated back in the autumn when a malware attack stopped the machines in their tracks for a couple of days. School was different – slower, quieter somehow – as the tyranny of the digital age was lifted momentarily and we moved back through time three decades. And now we have artificial intelligence to worry about…

I am painting yet another Orwellian picture here, but thank goodness there is another angle that we can (and need) to take. Computers have been of enormous benefit in classrooms and in schools more generally. Over the course of my teaching career I have seen the transformation in the educational environment caused by the spread, first of the PC and then mobile devices. When I started teaching I had a small number of BBC micro machines in my room, which I could just about persuade to perform some very limited geographical simulations. By the time that I came to Bishop’s in the late ‘90’s I had started word processing and using spreadsheets, and the BWS website launched just after I arrived in 1999 – with a very few pages and a picture of the Cathedral! IT suites were put in and, by the time that the E Block was built every one of the new classrooms was equipped with our first interactive whiteboards. Progress has been at a dizzying pace ever since, and the effects have been transformative.

But there’s still much more to life at school than computers and mobile phones. There’s a different reality on the touchline, in the concert room, on the stage, the assembly hall and in the cathedral. I felt that strongly as I sat in the Drama Studio just over a week ago watching a phalanx of Sixth Form boys and girls tackling the rowing machines during their effort for Children in Need. Computers enabled that all to happen, but the sheer humanity of the physical effort, the touching camaraderie between the students and the altruism that drove the whole thing is on another level entirely. Orwell may have been prescient, but he certainly didn’t get it all right. Humanity and faith, in the end, are still hugely powerful forces for good.