“Hell is other people” – Jean-Paul Sartre

Whilst philosophers have wrangled over the real meaning of Sartre’s famous line if we take it at face value, I think we can assume that he would be having a ball this week. Not that existentialists were really into having fun. Contrary to Sartre’s comment, this week has been far from fun and it is clear that the current restrictions on movement and congregation will be with us for some time. Isolation is the new norm. Community is temporarily suspended. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass seems prudent.

Qarrtsiluni. An Inuit word meaning “sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen”. It sums up the goings on of this week very nicely although don’t ask me to pronounce it. Whilst the number of people that we are permitted to sit with is small, the questions have been huge and events momentous so it seems appropriate. Very slowly we seem to be moving to a place in which we have a view of what might happen next and it won’t be to everyone’s taste. It is clear that there will be no public exams for Year 11 and Year 13 this year. I should be pleased, I’ve been one of the ones banging on about getting rid of GCSEs for years and COVID-19 does it in a matter of weeks (I’m not going to lie, I feel strangely cheated). I hope that all affected this year will be properly rewarded for their work and feel sure an appropriate arrangement will be put in place. But I wonder what will happen next year? Perhaps this will be an opportunity seized and something really exciting will happen as a consequence of this terrible situation. Will the lack of A levels be the moment for us to create a system in which university places will be awarded post rather than pre-qualification? The powers that be have a moment to consider profound, deep and meaningful change. Will they show the courage that our pupils have this week in setting about their work? I rather hope that if we learn anything from this event it is that we don’t have to keep doing things the same old way. This virus has taught us a brutal lesson about the interconnectedness of humanity and has reminded everyone of the basic duty that we owe to friends and strangers alike. Handwashing, sneeze-catching and thoughtful distancing are fundamentals and we are perhaps long overdue for a reminder that small acts of consideration really do matter. Community really is everything.

Right now seems to be a good moment to pay tribute to the outstanding work being done throughout the BSP. To the teachers who have delivered excellent lessons, to the pupils who are engaging in such a positive manner and to the support of administrative staff whose work is often unseen. To the parents who are exercising patience beyond the norm – bravo. The weekend beckons and I hope it will give us space to change the routine, to rest and to decompress. These are challenging times but together we can make the best of them. Very soon we will know exactly what challenge it is that we face. In the meantime, I would encourage our young people to just keep going. The Finns have a word for it, sisu. It is remarkable that our pupils, when told that their exams had been cancelled, arrived at lessons with the enthusiasm that they show every day, their endeavour is to be saluted. They have sisu in shovelfuls.

Hell isn’t other people. We are surrounded by remarkable people. We remain together in isolation.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

Update on public examinations announcement

Dear Parents and Guardians,

This evening, Wednesday 18th March, in his daily COVID-19 focused press conference the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced that the public examinations due to be taken in May or June of this year will not take place. In other words, it seems that GCSE and A level exams are unlikely to take place this summer as planned.

As of the time of writing we have no further information as to what the consequences of this decision means for our pupils. The Prime Minister made a clear promise that young people will be able to obtain the qualifications that they need to move to the next stage of their education.

The Prime Minister’s announcement was reinforced by a statement from the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP:

“I can confirm that we will not go ahead with assessments or exams, and that we will not be publishing performance tables for this academic year. We will work with the sector and have to ensure children get the qualifications that they need.”

Whilst there will no doubt be a huge collective sigh of relief at this decision, many questions remain. At the risk of sounding like a right old bore it is vital that pupils in Key Stage 4 – Year 10 and 11, and Key Stage 5 – Year 12 and 13 maintain the excellent work habits that they have shown during this week’s remote learning.

Now is not the time to start the summer holiday, now is the time to carry on with sensible, conscientious and steady academic study. If students stop working now, I fear that there will be grave consequences down the line. We all need additional information before we decide to change our approach.

Tomorrow is another day and it is important that we approach it in the way that we have approached today – calmly, sensibly and following the timetable as normal.
As soon as I have more information, I will pass it on.

Yours sincerely,

Nicholas Hammond
Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

“All shall be well…”

“All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich

Most parts of the world and most cultures have, if you dig away enough, a culture of isolation that can be found hidden away deep in their societal fabric. The hermit, the anchoress or the solitary is a surprisingly common figure. Simeon Stylites sat atop a column in the Syrian desert for much of his life, while Yoshida Kenkō, wrote while isolated on a hillside. Julian of Norwich was the first English woman to write a book after being walled up in a small church just off modern day King Street. She also lived through the turmoil of the Black Death. Thoreau is often held up as a modern-day hermit and his seminal Walden outlines his attempt to live deliberately. More recently French author and adventurer Sylvain Tesson’s Consolations of the Forest describes a different approach to this self-imposed solitude. Not so very long ago the small Austrian town of Saalfelden was advertising for a hermit. Their 350-year-old hermitage built into the cliff-side above the town is one of the last still in use in Europe. Next week, our community will be in isolation. We will all start something of an eremitic existence as school closes. We will be hermits of sorts.

Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

What is perhaps striking is that almost all of the individuals cited above used their solitude to a creative purpose. Their period of isolation resulted in something that remains important to people today. Normally human existence is seen as communal. We believe that we thrive in company and that being with others is a good thing indeed. Now we are forced to think differently. We are not quite on our own, but we will not be in close community. We will have contact with each other, but it will be via a tablet, a ‘phone or perhaps even a nice letter. We have time to consider our own thoughts, not that of the crowd and I wonder if we will benefit from this time. It could be time spent to good purpose rather than dedicated to the altar of Netflix. If we are to grow as a consequence of this externally issued challenge, then we need to be both purposeful and deliberate in what we do. Happily, we have all the benefits of a modern tech rich society to ensure that lessons and tasks are delivered, and they will start to arrive at nine o’clock on Monday next week. I’m sure that very soon the novelty of being away from friends and no longer having the stimulation of the classroom environment will prove to be a challenge and this is where I hope that our young people will be determined to do their best, to maintain their focus and make the most of a period of time in which they can develop their skills and aptitudes. I hope they will use this as a time to think, to read and to reflect. In the case of Years 11 and 13, it is another “r” that springs to mind – revise.

We may not see great art, profound wisdom or new insights during the coming weeks of school closure.

But who knows? I live in hope, and hope is something that we all should share at a time when we are working together, in isolation, to meet this most serious of challenges.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

“You have brains in your head…”

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Theodor Geisel
World Book Day at the JSC

This week saw the anniversary of a ground-breaking author’s birth. An author who has affected lives and entertained in equal measure. An author who has influenced and educated but is probably not often recognised for having this massive influence. I write of course of Theodor Geisel. No, me neither. Geisel published his first book And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street in 1937 but he did not rise to fame until the publication of a book commissioned by an educational specialist designed to encourage children to read independently. He was given a list of 300 words and had to write his book using those words only. Happily, the words “cat” and “hat” were on the list and the rest is, as they say, Green Eggs and Ham (which uses a miserly 50 words and only 1 with more than one syllable). I wonder how many in our community count Dr. Seuss’ books as being some of the first that they enjoyed. One of the reasons for his ongoing popularity is that Dr. Seuss’ books are some of the first to be read independently. They are often the books that we read to adults with pride when we were a little younger. They are a sign of independence, and with it, freedom from Mum and Dad having to read to you.

It will come as no surprise that this week has been dominated by questions of “what if?” Our plans for maintaining educational services in the event of a COVID-19 shutdown are well advanced. If we are instructed to lock our doors, then pupils will have to rediscover their love of independent learning as we will move to a system of remote teaching and learning. Happily, technology means that we will be able to have contact during the period of lockdown and support will be on hand, particularly for those who face exams later in the year. Ultimately any system of remote schooling or distance learning relies on pupils to be motivated to learn. We have learned significant lessons from our colleagues in the Far East who have been locked out since 16th January and we know that there will be some teething problems and inevitable frustrations. But putting all of that aside the biggest challenge we face is that this style of study calls for pupils to engage fully with it. Lessons on-line call for clear focus and real commitment. Studying this way is far more difficult than sitting in a classroom. Our young people will have to be ready to tap into the excitement they felt when reading independently for the first time. They will have to use all the good habits of independent learners – self-monitoring, using scaffolding, being reflective, using feedback constructively to ensure that they make the most of this valuable time.

If we have to close, and that is a big if, our young people will have to work with both independence and enthusiasm. They will have to be ready to self-motivate and they will also have to demonstrate academic maturity. We cannot treat this as another holiday, we need to maintain as much study momentum as we are able. Perhaps variety is the key here. Some screen time, some time working on an exercise book or paper and other time spent reading would seem to me to be an ideal combination.

Whilst I sincerely hope that we remain open I would be interested to see just how independent our learners can be. I suspect I would end up impressed.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

“I’m used to the rain.” – Marianne Vos

I’d forgotten one of my favourite Scottish words – driech until this week, but if I was to choose a word that sums this week then at first sight it is a pretty good one. For those not in the know it means bleak, miserable, dismal, cheerless, wearysome or dreary and this week that certainly covers the weather. There was a good article in yesterday’s Scotsman newspaper outlining the 30 best Scottish dialect words[1] if you want to mine more deeply a rich descriptive vein of vocabulary.

It has also been a challenging week for many families as unexpected obstacles have been faced on top of the weather being so very awful. From my study I have a view of the river and it is rising steadily, we are a good way off a flood warning but who knows, later this month I may be able to write to you about new school rules concerning canoeing to school. We will see, at least it will make a change from that other stuff I have clogged your inbox with.

One thing that never seems to be dampened, no matter how savage the downpour is the enthusiasm that some pupils have for playing either football or basketball outside. I’m always amazed by this commitment to sport although I do wonder how effective they are when back in the classroom. Yesterday, I was doing my lunch duty (bizarrely perhaps one of the parts of the week that I enjoy the most) when I was struck by the remarkable cheerfulness of our pupils. Just to spice things up a little I had reversed the normal queuing system and asked every child to wash their hands before going to eat, they proved willing to, they were cheerful as they waited a little longer than normal and I hope as a consequence that they all ate with suitably clean hands. Perhaps it reinforced the message that hand washing is super important at the moment. All at least appeared to be more than willing to cope with this change of routine and I was really impressed with the number of thank-yous I received having handed out the paper towels. We are fortunate to have such sensible, polite and responsible young people. It is good to be reminded that not all is doom and dreary. Similarly, I had the pleasure of being in the Junior School assembly this morning and it was truly heartening to see the enthusiasm with which each of the houses applauded and celebrated the success of the others – well done to the Vipers who won the laurels this week. Driech? Not a bit of it. Hush your wheest[2] Hammond!

Tomorrow is, of course, a leap day. A quadrennial treat for everyone. A particularly enthusiastic Happy Birthday to anyone who will enjoy the rare treat of a birthday this year. I wonder what use will be made of this extra day; whatever you are doing I hope that you have a marvellous 29th of February. And with that I will haver no more.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr


[1] https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/these-30-words-are-shortlist-nations-favourite-scots-word-1403978
[2] https://www.scotsman.com/heritage-and-retro/heritage/these-30-words-are-shortlist-nations-favourite-scots-word-1403978

Rational responses to very difficult conversations

There are certain topics that we as teachers and you as parents probably dread.  The moment the topics of sex or death rear their heads, there is a real temptation to run for cover and hope that someone else can field the awkward topics on our behalf.  To the aforementioned topics we can probably add, for the coming weeks at least, disease.

I probably don’t need to state the obvious by saying that we live in a 24-hour rolling news culture and as a consequence we may just as adults be guilty at times of hyper-magnifying certain issues because there is no escaping them. Presently it is impossible to escape from reporting on the coronavirus outbreak and the steadily mounting death toll trailing in its wake.  I’ve done my fair share of letter writing about it this week, no doubt soothing some and enraging others.

The current situation is concerning because there are few clear answers and no solution has been found to containing this new strain of human coronavirus. We are bombarded with ideas about the epidemic and war-like casualty charts only serve to alarm still further.  If we can avoid speculation then we will probably be all the better for it, we need to seek out reputable sources of information bearing in mind that even the most enlightened health organisations can take a top down approach to problems such as this one.  This is a time when we have to be aware of the mental health of young people as well as their physical well-being.  Many young people will feel worried about this evolving, uncertain situation and we need to offer them realistic reassurance.  Some viruses do not take a hold and fulfil their potential – bird ‘flu caused far less impact than was expected and not every cough or cold is coronavirus.  We need to be prudent and realistic.  Hand washing is important as is trapping germs in a tissue and binning the offending item!  I hope that it goes without saying that anyone who exhibits ‘flu like symptoms should seek appropriate advice and should stay away from school.  If you have been to a high-risk area then please also stay away until we know more about the challenge that we face.

There is a danger in our response to an outbreak like this that we discriminate against the most vulnerable. We need to speak openly about the dangers of labelling or jumping to conclusions about who is responsible for the disease. The coronavirus can affect anyone regardless of gender, ethnicity or sex. If we are caring and supportive then we will improve the chances of prevention and recovery.

Right now, there are highly qualified epidemiologists and public health professionals looking at spread patterns and possible cures for this particular ‘flu strain.  Modern medical science moves at an impressive pace and it is likely that we will be given more credible support very soon.  We need to ensure that we are choosing our sources of information carefully, at some point in the near future we may well need to respond speedily to an important piece of advice so it is important that we ensure we can see with clarity.  We can talk positively to our pupils about the measures that have been taken, we can stress the importance of basic hygiene and we can reassure our young people that the best minds in the world are seeking to solve the challenge we face.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

“Culture and education aren’t simply hobbies…”

“Culture and education aren’t simply hobbies or minor influences.”

Pierre Bourdieu

There is a lot being written in the UK educational press about the importance of Cultural Capital and how much pupils should be accruing through their time in school. In the UK this is a subject that is connected to the inspection framework and it is seen by many commentators as a way in which schools in affluent areas can game the inspection system (and life in general) at the expense of others who do not enjoy such a comfortable existence. Crudely put, Cultural Capital is the stuff you know and the stuff that you experience. Once acquired (the sociologists tell us) such knowledge and experience give you an advantage. You speak the same language as others who are “in the know”, refer to the same experiences and in doing so exclude those who don’t or haven’t. It takes on greater importance when social mobility is considered. Not surprising therefore that it is, post-election, a hot topic in the UK. Being here in France means that we don’t have to engage in all such educational debates, but I think that we should be thinking about this idea as a school and what we might do with it.

Whilst many of our Year 13 pupils head off to the UK for university many do not. When it comes for them to enter the world of work many will have lived in a number of different places and have developed a broader perspective on the world than those who have been rooted to a single home country. Having had an experience of living elsewhere may well be of interest to a future employer. It may well give them access to courses or careers that would not be available to someone who has not had an international upbringing. This advantage simply comes about as a consequence of being an internationally mobile family, it is not something that we are consciously using to set our pupils apart, it is simply a fact of who we are. We have an internationally rich community – we have more than 50 nations represented in the school, again this is who we are. The lessons that our young people learn about understanding, tolerance and diversity are I would argue the sort of social or cultural capital that all schools should be investing in. I don’t believe that we use our undoubtedly privileged existence to exclude anyone, far from it.

We are fortunate in being able to offer learning experiences that are broadening both in and out of the classroom. We live on the edge of or in a city that is culturally and artistically extraordinary, we would be foolish to deny ourselves access to the offer of Paris simply because it may lead us to be labelled as culturally privileged. Indeed, I’d go so far as to encourage families to make the most of being here, of visiting the opera, or the ballet, or the galleries, or the museums, or the theatres, or the sites of interest because to miss out would be a shame. There is little excuse of missing an opportunity such as this. These opportunities should not be used to exclude others, I believe that they simply allow our young people to grow as individuals who will eventually do good in their own communities. So, if you are staycationing this half term then why not make the most of Paris and build that available cultural capital?

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

Why bother?

Way back in 2006 it was almost impossible to be in a British school and not hear the word “bovvered” being bandied about. For those of you who don’t remember 2006 or were managing to avoid UK television at the time, the word was popularised by actor Catherine Tate in her comedy sketch show when playing the 15 year old malcontent Lauren Cooper[1]. So popular was the catchphrase that it was word of the year and seemed to sum up the grumpy teenager with remarkable accuracy. Tony Blair even got in on the act[2]. After all, young people once they reach the age of about thirteen seem programmed to have a couple of years of not being bothered by anything else around them.

I wonder if this might be changing. I have the impression in many of my daily interactions with young people that many are indeed bothered, very bothered indeed. A consideration of the last few weeks of school life illustrate this well. Take the Senior School show We Will Rock You, a group of students (ably led by staff) generated a show of real quality. The delegates to the Model United Nations Congress in The Hague demonstrated real concern for others and a wonderfully mature approach to conducting high level discussions about pressing world issues. Yesterday, there were pupils opting to do an additional maths test, whilst others were submitting an audition recording for a piano competition. Today we see athletes departing for fixtures in the Netherlands.

Our young people face a challenging future. I believe that the more bothered they are then the more likely they are to find success and fulfilment. The educational writer Hywell Roberts makes a great point when he says that “At the heart of the world’s best teaching you’ll find one admittedly made-up word -botheredness.” Both we and they need this. As teachers we are hopefully providing direction and a degree of inspiration, for the pupil it is accepting that from time to time there is some work to be done. If there ever was a time of the school year to remind ourselves about being bothered it is now when winter has stretched on, when coughs and colds are rife and when quite frankly half term can’t arrive too quickly. For our younger pupils it is all about maintaining that joy of learning and for our older ones it is about being ready to accept the challenge afforded by the coming exams. Right now it is all to easy to fall into the I can’t be bothered trap. It is important that it is avoided, whatever Lauren might think about it.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WxB1gB6K-2A

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfkjvagVsRI

www.britishschool.fr

Aspirations, good or bad

Last week I wrote about how we as parents and teachers can be guilty of pushing children too far our way. This week for the sake of balance I’ll look at the same subject from the other end of the telescope. Whilst I remain certain we must consider most carefully the views of our young people, we also have a duty to sound a note of realism. I can’t help but think of the Monty Python sketch about flaky careers in mining as opposed to the job security of poetry.

It is fair to say that not everyone, however fervently they pledge to follow a life on the stage while at school, will make it. Thousands of Instagram posts will tell you to follow your dreams but not everyone will make it big in the music world. There is a finite space for YouTubers and other influencers. We can’t all play for Norwich City or represent England at rugby however much we may wish to. Or not. We won’t all be famous authors and there can only be one Prime Minister at a time.

One of the privileges of youth is to dream big. I hope that all of the BSP’s pupils are ambitious and that they have the opportunity to do whatever it is that fills them with both passion and satisfaction. I’ve also been in schools for long enough to know that not everyone is lucky enough to “make it”. Indeed, some of the most talented practitioners on stage or pitch have ended up doing something very different indeed. The same is true of university entrance. I know supremely gifted people who did not make it through the Oxbridge lottery and I welcomed calls this week to make both of those universities larger. Almost without fail they gain the grades required to go on and I know for certain that they are more mature, accomplished and talented than I was at their age.

During the last holiday I read a novel written by a student that I had taught, published by Penguin. I can’t tell you how proud I was of all that she had achieved. It is a great read. Others in the same class who were just as talented have gone off to do other things that won’t mean they end up on a shelf in the local bookshop. Another former pupil is a very successful actor, seemingly the “go to” for any period drama. She was a fine actor at school, but there were others who were as good who haven’t quite made it. Another wrote speeches for a former Prime Minister… he was one of the School’s best at debate, but he had competition.

Whilst having big dreams at school is a good thing, we also need to maintain perspective. No-one fails if they don’t make it big in the movies, no-one should feel overly despondent if they don’t get published. We can’t all be influencers and there are many ways to do good without being Prime Minister. The wise writer Charles Handy said that we need portfolios of skills and interests and occupations. If there is one thing that is true it is that our young people will have more opportunities than ever before, but they are wise to develop numerous competencies and indeed several specialisms. School can help with all of this. Success comes in many forms, today more than ever, it is good to develop multiple competencies.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr

Weird and wonderful sheep

Big news in the art world this week. The work generally considered as one of the pivotal works in the development of painting- Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, was revealed to the waiting world in all its new and restored glory. It is a massive piece of art, well over four metres wide and three metres high. It has stood for centuries in the St. Bavo’s cathedral gradually accruing a patina from incense and candle smoke. This most recent restoration is not the first. Over the years well meaning experts have cleaned, retouched and in their eyes improved the original. This most recent restoration has taken more than eight years to complete and has taken the painting back closer to the original than ever before. At the centre of the scene depicted on the screen is a lamb. This new restoration has revealed the animal’s face as painted in 1432. It turns out that a well meaning restorer in the sixteenth century had repainted the lamb’s face to make it, well, more lamb like.

The original that we can see today is, well, a bit weird looking according to many who view it. Van Eyck,it seems, wanted the animal to be human reflecting the religious nature of the painting. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. What is odd to us made sense to them.

So why my interest? I think that this restoration, the revelation of a different way of seeing has valuable lessons for us as parents or teachers. When we look at the young people in front of us, how often do we as adults attempt to paint them as we want to see them? How often in our words and with our advice do we seek to make them more acceptable to us? Do we attempt to paint what we want to see rather than revealing the real, however weird or baffling.

As January ends we enter the season of subject choices. Each year some pupils will make choices that reflect not what they are but what they think they ought to be. This is a recipe for underperformance and in some cases unhappiness. As adults we are there to guide, to offer useful and supportive advice and to influence where prudent. Sadly it is a very small step from this position to enforcing our own ideas, however well meant.
Our pupils come in many different forms. We do well when we recognize them for what and who they are, not what we think they should be. They will think differently, they will not always be as we might wish. They need to make mistakes. And we like gentle restorers are right to let them grow into the people they are.

Nicholas Hammond

Headmaster

www.britishschool.fr