After the crown, the role of High Sheriff is the oldest in the UK, but the last year has proved that it remains very relevant to modern day society.
I took office as the eight-hundredth High Sheriff of Surrey and the tenth woman to hold the role as the COVID-19 pandemic raged on, with the country in a partial lockdown. This meant that, for the first time in history, the installation ceremony was held with no audience, and was instead streamed online from the University of Surrey.
It is the duty of the High Sheriff to support the Judiciary, all those who keep the Queen’s Peace, and the voluntary sector. As we all know, the pandemic has touched every aspect of our society: the courts, the prisons, the police, fire and rescue services and the charities in Surrey have all risen to the challenge, unwavering in their essential support of those most in need. I was honoured to be in a position to thank their hardworking staff members on behalf of the county.
As restrictions eased, I was able to arrange more in-person meetings and events, which felt particularly special after such a long period of virtual events. That said, Zoom became a useful addition to my toolkit, as it enabled a great deal of ‘convening and connecting’ from my own home, saving both time and unnecessary environmental impact. The combination made me something of a hybrid sheriff!
Another silver lining of the post-pandemic recovery was the emergence of a great collective will to move past bureaucracy and work together to achieve ambitious goals. This swell of energy meant that the ‘convene and connect’ aspect of the role really came to the fore, particularly surrounding my theme for the year: ‘Every Child Included’. With the ultimate goal of reducing the number of permanent exclusions in Surrey, I began by initiating an independent research project with Royal Holloway, University of London to establish the facts surrounding children and young people at risk of exclusion. My shrieval year was bookended by two summits centred around this research, which convened the educational sector, the local authority, the police and the voluntary sector. The first was held in July 2021, at which we shared the new data and collaboratively developed a set of holistic recommendations for change, and the second in March 2022, when we shared the results. We were delighted to see some material changes: an enhanced Alternative Learning Programme has been rolled out across Surrey; a new evidence-based Risk of Permanent Exclusion Index will guide early intervention and support for those most at risk; a new £1 million mental health fund for young people has been created by the Community Foundation of Surrey. I am very pleased to report that we are already seeing the impact of these interventions, and the number of permanent exclusions has reduced across Surrey.
As we negotiated the pandemic, logistics have not always been easy, but I was able to continue working alongside the Surrey Lieutenancy to support the Royal Family and very much enjoyed playing an active role in Surrey life. Ultimately, the role of High Sheriff came into its own, adapted to rise above the challenges of today, and continues stronger than ever.