Attention: You are using an outdated browser, device or you do not have the latest version of JavaScript downloaded and so this website may not work as expected. Please download the latest software or switch device to avoid further issues.




I was delighted to accept Ms Tai’s invitation to speak to you today because Founders’ Day was always one of my favourite occasions in the school year. Not just because it meant a half day holiday and a long weekend. Though that was certainly part of the pleasure.

I want to start with a story which you all know, though perhaps not this version of it. I read it in an entertaining and thoughtful article by Meg Roscoff, an American writer who lives in London. What she said in her article exactly fitted the theme I want to talk to you about today.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. One day, while strolling about in a dark wood. She happened upon a charming cottage. Actually, it was more of a filthy den dug deep into the earth. Goldilocks knocked, but when no-one answered, she crawled into the den.

On the table in the den, she found three bowls of porridge. - No, she didn’t. Bears don’t have the ability to build tables, nor can they cook. And they don’t like porridge.

What Goldilocks actually found was the rotting remains of three dead rabbits.  But she was very hungry. So she tried one. It was horrible. She tried another; it was no better. The third rabbit was disgusting, so she ate her cheese sandwich instead.

Goldilocks felt sleepy. She lay down in the first bed, which wasn’t so much a bed as a pile of leaves mixed with mud. The second bed was the same. And so was the third. But Goldilocks was tired, so she fell fast asleep anyway.

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home. They did not say, “Someone’s been eating my porridge”, or even “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed”, because bears can only speak bear. 

The three bears did what bears do. They ate her. And they lived happily ever after.

Not the usual version of the Goldilocks story, and apart from teaching us to be wary of hungry bears and to avoid places where they live, it doesn’t have much else to tell us. But nor does the original, you might say, and you would be right if we are concerned only with facts.

Yes, facts are important, because facts are true. And there is a strong feeling these days that a fact-based education is what children need. ‘What is the point of a story in which a frog turns into a prince?’ asks Richard Dawkins, the eminent scientist and writer. He goes on to argue that there’s a very interesting reason why a frog cannot turn into a prince: “It is statistically too improbable,” he explains.

But notice: he doesn’t say it is statistically impossible. Just “improbable.”. He leaves a tiny chink of possibility, and it is with that tiny possibility that imagination can create a different story. For example, perhaps because of the progress science is making in genetic engineering, Dawkins left that little gap in case a frog does turn into a princess and Queen Froggy the First hops onto the throne in 200 years or so.

Fairy stories are ‘What if’ stories.

                What if a frog could turn into a princess?

                What if Elsa could impose endless winter?

                What if Wonder Woman decided to train as a teacher ….?

A good story asks, “What if ….?”, and like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it entertains us, and provokes and stimulates our imaginations. And the importance of imagination is what I want to talk about.

Richard Dawkins doesn’t agree with me; he says: ‘Why tell children stories that cannot be true, that are not based on facts?’ Don’t fill your heads with fantasy seems to be the modern message. Facts, Science and Maths matter more.

Well, I would never argue with that. I have known many remarkable Science and Maths teachers and many amazing pupils here, and I have often been baffled by what they try to explain to me. But what they tell me fires up my imagination: “What if it is true?”

Science and Maths do certainly matter, but are they really so different from stories? Albert Einstein, the greatest scientific thinker of the last hundred years, said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Scientists and Mathematicians start with imagination. An astro-physicist wonders what makes up the vast empty space in the universe and how we might travel across it to other planets; a biologist ponders the possibility of increasing the yield from essential food sources without damaging the environment; a doctor dreams of a new way to cure cancer. All this doesn’t seem to me to be very different from a science fiction writer imagining what creatures in a distant galaxy might look like.

And we all nowadays accept the Big Bang theory: that there was nothing, no time, no place, just nothing, no where, no when. Then after the big bang, instantly there was everything in the universe. Now, don’t tell me that imagination doesn’t come into telling and believing that story.

All of these ideas stem from the imagination. Imagination is the essential first step; facts come later.

But let me move the focus from these stories, to us here in this school. To you.

Each of you is writing a story:  your life story. Every day you live another chapter. Some chapters are exciting and different, others seem to drag on and on. But we are all writing the chapter anyway, and it is up to us to make it the best chapter we can. The job of every one of us is to imagine what we might achieve, each of us in our own life, and all of us as part of a larger community. And to write that into our own life story.

One of the best ways to start to answer huge and difficult questions like: “who am I, what can I do in my life, how can I be the best possible me?” is to read books. As an English teacher, I would say that wouldn’t I?

But consider how limited is the mind of a person who does not read books. In my reading recently, I have been with a runaway slave in the southern states of what was to become the USA, I have been caught up in a war in west Africa, and I have lived in world where women have almost infinite power over men. I am currently reading a non-fiction book subtitled A Brief History of Tomorrow, which has imagination and science working wonderfully together to predict what could be all our futures.

The books I read give me a wider understanding of who I am, and without them I would be trapped in a static, unimaginative version of myself, achieving little and limiting my potential because limits and problems would be all that I could imagine: no ‘What if..?’ No ‘Why not…?’ In the library of the primary school where I am now a Governor, there is a poster which says: “Reading gives imagination wings.” Exactly.

Professor Stephen Hawking who died only a few weeks ago and who had the imagination not only to overcome his own massive physical limitations, but also to develop brilliantly imaginative theories in Physics, famously said: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

Absolutely right! Except, again, I have to disagree a little with a great scientist, a person far cleverer than me. Please do look up at the stars and wonder about them, as Professor Hawking says. Ask questions about them, read about them, and let your imagination play among them in the limitless universe. Please be curious.

But don't forget, once in a while, to look down at your feet to make sure you are standing on firm ground - otherwise you risk meeting Goldilocks' fate, being eaten by bears, and not living happily ever after. Goldilocks was curious about bears. She imagined that bears were just like humans; she didn’t bother thinking that idea through before entering their den and having a nap. She should have looked down at her feet, to see where she was standing, to think what might happen and plan for it.

Which brings me to the formidable lady whose picture hangs on my right here above the stage, Elizabeth Fuller. She was born in 1644 and died in 1709. As we all know, she founded Watford Grammar School in 1704. If she had allowed herself to be limited by the facts at that time, she would not have thought of founding a school. There was no national education policy to promote the opening of schools; only the sons of the very rich got an education at a fee-paying private school; among adults at that time, only 45% of men and 25% of women could read.

Elizabeth Fuller needed imagination even to think of founding a school at a time when most children never saw the inside of a classroom. Indeed, as we remind ourselves every year on Founders’ Day, she imagined a school which boys and girls would attend, and those children would not be the children of the rich, but from families in and around the town of Watford. Elizabeth Fuller, without any doubt, was looking “up at the stars”. Founding this school was her great “What if…?” story.

However, she could not - she did not - simply imagine Watford Grammar School into existence. She needed her feet to be firmly grounded as well. She needed the help and support of the other founders whose names we recited earlier and without whose support, the story of Watford Grammar School would have ended long, long ago. She needed to attend countless meetings; she needed to work out the finances to ensure her dream had a future; she needed to procure a school building, she needed people to look after that building, she needed to employ the teachers.

In short, while she considered the stars, she needed to keep her feet on the ground. If she hadn't, she'd have ended like Goldilocks in the story. Perhaps not devoured by hungry bears... but defeated by the difficulties that faced her and not achieving what she imagined she could. Dame Fuller was no Goldilocks. You - 314 years later - are the proof of that. If Elizabeth Fuller were still alive and writing the daily chapter of her life, you’d be in it. Just as she should be in yours now.

In the many years I attended WGGS, I heard a lot from students and from staff about their dreams, and I was delighted if I could help to move those ideas from imagination into reality. I have seen it done thousands of times.

And now you – in 2018 - are the proof that it is still happening. In this school, you are surrounded by history, by stories, and by people to stimulate your imagination and to help you turn your ideas into reality. Use that history, use those stories, use these people. Read books. Use your imagination. Don't let Goldilocks be your guide when there are so many better possibilities.

Happy Founders’ Day to you, the girls and staff of this wonderful school. Enjoy the long weekend.

I hope you remember something of what I have said.  Thank you for listening.

4th May 2018


To read more from Steve Johnson visit his blog HERE.

Similar stories



Pre-event tour


Roll of honour


FTF Perspective Magazine Autumn 2013

In 2013 Into the Future (now FACE the Future) was in its 25th year - Steve Johnson gave his perspective on this special … More...

Class Photo

In a selection of interviews, alumnae from the 1950s to 2016 talk about their experiences as Watford Grammarians; from c… More...

Most read

tickets on sale now

Following on from the success of 2023’s ‘Legally Blonde,’ Watford Grammar School for Girls are proud of present ‘The Addams Family-The Musical' which … More...


PE and Sports Assistant (Female Graduate Role) vacancy at WGGS More...

Legally Blonde

Only two more days until Legally Blonde. Tickets selling fast! The cast and crew have put their heart and soul into this wonderful performance! You wo… More...

Have your say


Quick Links

This website is powered by