“And now I might As happy be as earth is beautiful…”
Edward Thomas, October
Schools tend to be a little different when it rains. There are the obvious differences such as the distinctive smell of damp pupils after a lunchtime football session who start to dry out in a warm classroom, but many differences are more subtle. The October rain is the first real sign that autumn has begun and that our late summer has ended. Mornings are a little gloomier. A chill is felt in the air before morning break – it takes a little time for the day to warm up. The PE staff suddenly find their track suit trousers and our younger pupils prepare to move from summer dresses to winter uniform.
We have definitely come to the end of the beginning. It is difficult for me to tell those students who joined this term from those who are old hands, confidence has grown, habits are forming. The week has found a rhythm, understanding is developing and norms are established. Teams have travelled and fixtures played, service activities have begun and rehearsals are under way. For the senior pupils we are approaching the first assessment point of the year. A time of reckoning which will, hopefully, result in new resolution and renewed endeavour (if required). October is the moment when we have a chance to review, to reflect and to pull ourselves up if that is necessary. I hope that by now those who were once “new” definitely feel that they are comfortably part of their school. For our oldest pupils this is time of university applications, reference writing and predicted grades – for them it is the start of the end of their school career. October it seems is a time for looking ahead and perhaps for a little reflection, not a time for melancholy but for excitement and anticipation at what is to happen next. As AA Milne once said, “The end of the summer is not the end of the world. Here’s to October…”
One bright element of this October is that, despite the rain we have yet to see a fall off in the number of pupils who are cycling to school. This is fantastic but I would ask, perhaps more importantly than ever that helmets are worn, brakes are checked and lights are charged. So popular is cycling that we have had to extend our cycle stands on the senior campus. As mentioned in a recent newsletter our local police will be checking cycles in the coming weeks to ensure that they are correctly equipped. As both evenings and mornings are a little less bright more than ever care is required. A note for drivers too, be aware that journey times will be a little longer in the coming days as construction work is carried out on the hospital site in Le Vésinet. Please be aware that more time will be necessary for a prompt arrival.
From what I have seen, our young people are working well and engaging in all the school has to offer. As the days draw in I look forward to pupils maintaining their energy levels and brightening the ever shortening days.
“No great deed is done by falterers who ask for certainty.”
Certainty is a most reassuring feeling. It may also be one of the most significant obstacles to learning. Whilst it may not always seem to be the case, little that we learn is ever really cast in stone, whatever an exam board may say. This term my Year 9 History class have been seeking to understand the origins of World War One. They have had to weigh evidence, consider opinions and analyse events. We know the war started in 1914 but that is about all that is certain. Perhaps the absence of certainty is what makes sport so exciting. Whilst it looked likely that Dina Asher-Smith would walk away with the gold medal, her victory was not certain until she crossed the finish line.
As an historian I’m sure she will have considered all of the variables, questioned her preparation and will enjoy what has been achieved. She will also know that in the next race nothing is certain and she will have to do it all again.
One feature of British style education is the blending of a base of knowledge with a portfolio of skills. If we are to view this year as being a success we may be wise to ask how well we have developed critical thinkers who are able to make sense of this complicated and sometimes contradictory world. The first step is to move away from believing that we are always right in what we think; if this is achieved then we are going to enjoy a vibrant year of learning.
Pupils often make decisions about what they do and don’t like about school early on in the educational journey. All too often the enthusiasm of our youngest learners is stifled by the feeling that a particular subject or activity “is not for them”. Misperception turns into certainty and it is never questioned again. This is a shame. The BSP is not a large school and as a consequence our young people have the opportunity to be involved in a wide variety of activities and our class sizes mean that all have a chance to be involved in lessons. We can question the “not for me” misperception. Term is well under way and it is a good time to remind ourselves that learning is best when we all engage fully. I hope that our young people remain confident in being able to ask the question “why do we think that?” when considering the answers that they are given. Without this degree of critical thought our understanding of the world will not move on.
This week the UK enjoyed National Poetry Day. Simon Armitage the Poet Laureate spoke thoughtfully on the use of language in politics describing it as “threadbare”, a language of certainties that does not address real issues but perhaps the most telling statement came from poet Anthony Anaxagorou who suggested that poetry offers a route beyond the media soundbites. “A poem is happy not knowing anything for certain, whereas news needs to be premised on ‘truth’,” Anaxagorou said. “Poems argue their own logic, they call on their own truth, which needn’t be an empirical one, so in this respect their reach is far more universal.” I’m certain I couldn’t have said it better.
“Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”
Since learning about the discovery of a long lost Cimabue masterpiece in Compiègne, I have been looking closely at all of the pictures we have hanging on the walls at school. Sadly no early renaissance masterpiece to be found but many splendid examples of pupils’ artistic skills. Who knows, in centuries to come some of these works might be seen as the early signs of an emerging Renoir, Morisot or O’Keefe. A quick visit to the Senior School Japanese Art Club and Printmaking Workshop on a Friday will convince even the most sceptical critic that we have artists of the highest calibre. Whenever you go to the Junior School the vibrancy and sheer joy communicated by the work to be found there is tonic for the soul.
I’m sure that there will be many questions raised about the authenticity of this newly found picture, such is the way of international art markets. If you ever watch the BBC’s Fake or Fortune the question of integrity seems to be one that is a matter of educated opinion and normally has something to do with the chemical composition of paint. Everyone seems to have a view and decisions are made in closed rooms by shadowy figures. Some paintings are accepted as genuine, others are deemed fakes. Authenticity and integrity have been much discussed in other places this week. In some cases it has been more a case of a lack of both. With this comes an inevitable scrutiny of word choice and terminology. The British House of Commons was recalled for a vitriolic session on Wednesday and we have heard much from New York this week. It took a sixteen year old to speak plainly and clearly about the crisis that the world faces. Integrity is one of our school values and it is often the one that we find most difficult to explain to our young people. This week has perhaps given us both positive and negative models for them to consider. I hope that they are inspired when they see words that are used with integrity rather than cynicism.
Over the course of the year I will no doubt have to deal with incidents among friends when words are used without thought or care or integrity. Indeed this is one of the most significant causes of upset in any school and always has been. Social media gives people the opportunity to express themselves without the filter provided by face to face interaction and I hope that all of our young people can use events of this week to reflect upon the power of words both positive and negative. Most importantly I hope that we as parents or teachers can support them in developing character that means they will stand apart, consider their actions and make the right decisions. Whilst I know that this won’t be particularly popular with the student body, can I make a suggestion? If your daughter or son has a social media account why not talk through what they are saying on it? You don’t need to snoop, a forensic examination is not required, and indeed I’d not even have the pages open while you talk. An open conversation about what is and is not kind often goes a long way.
“Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.”
I do like a break time cake sale. Therefore, it was with great pleasure that I heard the sound of tables being set up by the front steps of the Debussy building this morning. What a selection. What great work had been done by Year 7 on their cell cakes – perhaps in the near future this will feature as a Great British Bake Off or Meilleur Pâtissier de France technical challenge – the results were certainly far more appealing than the Maids of Honour that confounded contestants in the UK tent this week. A good deal of effort had been spent and I suspect the odd helping hand had been given. The result? A happy school community and money raised for a good cause. The same situation was to be found in the Junior School where there was an enthusiastic take up of denim additions to the school uniform. Once again much needed funding to support vital research was raised and fun was certainly had as a consequence.
It is on days like these that I am possibly at my proudest as a school head. There are days when it is all about academic achievement, others when sporting glory takes a front seat or musical virtuosity is to the fore. We have days when we can show our artistic skills through drama or art but for me one of the true hallmarks of a really great school is measured by the amount of kindness that can be seen through day to day interactions. Kindness should always be found in schools. Sometimes it will be the welcoming of a new classmate who is understandably feeling nervous about their first day at school, other times it is shown through baking a cake. However it comes is immaterial. Surely learning the value of kindness is one of the most valuable lessons that we can teach or learn.
Like many British Schools we have a culture of support for charities. As a school community we have built, staffed and equipped two school in rural Cambodia – much of the funding coming from the activities of the BSPS, our parents and friends group. We regularly support other good causes during the course of the year such as L’Abre à Pain, animal rehoming centres and Love in a Box through events, collections or non-uniform days. Our older students give their time to the local branch of the Red Cross, work with the Emmaüs community and provide entertainment in old people’s homes. Valuable lessons about human relations come from these experiences. These opportunities give us time to pause and to reflect upon the opportunities that we as a school community enjoy, they also allow us to see things differently. I also thank parents in anticipation for the inevitable frustration of the mid-evening request for cake baking just after the shops have shut!
Tomorrow is the BSPS Fair. This is an occasion at which kindness is central. A time for new families to be welcomed, a time for all to support our Cambodian partner schools and a number of other charities. Perhaps just as important a time to catch up, to meet and to have a pleasant afternoon on the banks for the River Seine. I hope to see you there.
“I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly , I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
A member of the bunting family the Yellowhammer has a distinctive bright yellow head and equally characteristic song. It is the subject of a John Clare poem and was described by Enid Blyton in Five go off in a Caravan. Olivier Messiaen, used its song in at least four of his major works and it may have inspired the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Sadly, we see very few here in Croissy where we are far more likely to encounter a Kingfisher, Cormorant or Green Woodpecker. Currently, it is one of far too many on the red list of endangered birds in the UK and Ireland. This week we also found out that it is the codename for the UK Government’s Brexit strategy document. What the Yellowhammer has done to deserve this particular honour I do not know.
There are schools that spend significant quantities of funds on producing glossy strategy brochures in which they proudly announce their five or ten year plan, generally to achieve a nebulous position – often self -proclaimed – as the best school in… or the best school at, well you fill in the blank. Some contain really interesting proposals about changes to educational approach or the development of character in pupils. There is usually a shiny new building to fill the front cover. Truth be told, I’ve written my fair share of these documents and I have looked ahead into the future and endeavoured to predict what the future might hold. This is a difficult game for circumstances change. I joined the BSP five years ago. Whilst Brexit was discussed it was far from reality, there has been a change of direction in French politics and the world may well be stumbling towards another financial meltdown. How many school strategic plans foresaw the rapid changes of the last five years? Not many I suspect. We have a short working document that guides our approach during the year, it outlines our priorities such as curriculum reviews, well-being initiatives, development of new educational spaces and the creation of new opportunities. It is far from glossy, it has margin notes, coffee stains and is a little bit dog-eared because it is a living document that guides the school management team’s activities. I call it an improvement plan because I believe that every institution has the capacity to improve and a duty to strive to be better. All that is contained in that document is driven by our school values. Were we to set strategic objectives, achievement of and development through our values seem to me to be an excellent template for progress. Our aim is a simple one – to provide the most useful and effective education for the pupils at the BSP whatever that means for them as individuals. For some this will mean a place at a highly selective university, for others it will mean something different. We must push where it is required and we challenge all pupils to achieve. We are proudly non-selective and our results speak volumes about the success of our approach.
From my study window I sometimes see herons fishing in the Seine. I am a great admirer of the heron and if my improvement “strategy” was to be given an avian epithet it would be Operation Heron. I want our young people to have the self-belief to stand in fast flowing waters of modern life with confidence and patience. I want them to know when to act decisively and above all I want them to be able to find their place in the world wherever that may be. I hope that this is a school strategy that we can all agree is to the benefit of our pupils.
If you are new to our community or if you are a returner I hope that you are looking forward to the new school year as much as I am. There is much in store to be excited by. Not everyone looks forward to the start of term. In Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” the narrator Charles Ryder talks about the start of the Oxford term in melancholic tones, but that term started in rain, a sodden British October, and we start in September sunshine. There can be few places as glorious as the Seine Valley, at this time of year. I hope that pupils are inspired by their surroundings.
During the summer we were able to celebrate some excellent examination results. Our oldest pupils taking A levels achieved a stunning set of results with more than 34% of results at the highest levels while Year 11s also demonstrated their academic prowess recording a 9-5 pass rate of 84%. I’m sure that those facing public exams next summer will be inspired by this performance and will seek still greater success in twelve months’ time. I know that staff will be supporting them closely at this most important time in their school career. The same is true of those who join us at “the other end of the school” as this week was, for some, the very first step on the educational ladder. I’m sure all in our community join with me in wishing our Nursery and Reception classes well as they take the first steps in their school journey.
From the youngest members of our community to the oldest our aim as a school is very simple – we are here to see all children realise their potential and exceed their own expectations. Schools are straightforward and uncomplicated places. They exist for the education of young people. Things become complex when the systems take over so at the start of term it is perhaps good to remind ourselves of what is at the core of school life. All young people at the BSP should be able to learn effectively and they should find both joy and satisfaction in their achievements. If there are barriers to this achievement then we as a staff should be looking to assist them to overcome these obstacles. In that endeavour we are helped by parents and guardians. Sometimes we refer to outside experts. We will report, feedback and where necessary meet with you. Please let us know if there are any concerns that you have at this point in the year and we can start to address them.
There has been a good deal written in the UK over the past 10 days about inclusivity and tolerance (or a lack of it). Here at the BSP we have an open and welcoming community. This I believe is to be celebrated and we will do just that with the BSPS Fair on Saturday 21 September. I do hope you will come along. Have a wonderful school year.
The summer holidays are upon us. School’s out. Prizes have been awarded, books handed in, school bags chucked in the cupboard and all too soon posters will appear in the shops advertising their back to school offers. Yes, the academic year has ended. The signs are plain to see.
Modern existence seems to demand that every minute of every day of a young person’s life is filled with “insta-worthy” moments and as a consequence pressure builds unnecessarily on our young people. Little wonder there is a crisis of adolescent mental health. On a more mundane level certain tourist attractions are suffering from long queues of people waiting to take the vital dignity preserving selfie to demonstrate individuality. What a paradox. How glad I was to hear earlier in the week that certain powerful social networks had paused due to technical issues; respite for some I suspect. It seems that holidays are prime candidates for promoting inferiority. If you aren’t living it large in five star luxury or paragliding off the Matterhorn then you may as well admit that you have failed. Or not.
Just as there is a pressure on young people to be doing something spectacular there is sometimes a pressure on parents to ensure that every minute of every holiday day is filled with productive and enriching activity. I was interested to learn yesterday that the ‘cahier de vacances’ was the invention of booksellers rather than the product of great educational research. Holidays and museum visits go together hand in hand. Summer courses abound. I’m all for enriching and I’m also all for a bit of loafing. Young people need some down time. Not eight weeks of idleness but by the same token they don’t deserve the pressure of twenty-four hour time filling and constant judgement. The novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote a lengthy essay on The Education of the People and gave the following stern and rather counterintuitive parenting advice:
“How to begin to educate a child. First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone. That is the whole beginning.”
I’m not sure I’d go so far, but there may well be something in this. I rather hope that over the coming few weeks there will be a healthy balance of productive activity, enjoyable time with family and friends and indeed just a little bit of idleness. By way of a challenge if one is necessary I’d simply ask pupils to read at least three “good” books, write a couple of postcards (because after all who doesn’t like receiving something nice in the post rather than a bill) and spending some time out in the fresh air. A bit of social media, some gaming and some idle chat might also have a rightful place in this holiday. If the right balance is struck then a great holiday will have been had and time will have been well spent. Best of all it will mean that students will return in September ready for a new challenge and full of energy.
When the weather warms up, it is evident that we are a school with a wide spread of nationalities. In consecutive conversations I have heard “It isn’t hot until you hit 40°C” and “I think that I am melting…” The difference between Scotland and Australia in a nutshell. With temperatures in the high 30°s it has certainly been warmer than normal. I don’t think I have seen a Junior School pupil without a hat this week – Chapeau! On the Senior Campus I’ve been delighted to see a resurgence of board games being played in the shade. I associate Scrabble, chess and draughts with roaring winter firesides, but it makes perfect sense to play under the canopy of one of our many trees. I did consider the imposition of a school siesta hour, but I think that is more a symptom of the end of term rather than climatic conditions!
This week could have been very different. It is only in the last three years or so that we have had the benefit of widespread access to air conditioned spaces. The Junior School benefitted a couple of years ago while Braille and the Kett building on the Senior School site have had the treatment more recently. Both of these initiatives are a direct result of the School having the resources to undertake this development work and both projects have in part been financed using the Development Fund Contribution that parents pay at the start of their child’s career. The School receives no funding from either the French or British government; we are grateful for the support of both institutions, but financially we stand alone. It is through the generosity of parents and other supporters that we are able to make alterations and improvements to the campuses in particular. Having asked for a substantial contribution to the future of the school I have been reluctant to ask for more. Today I am going to be Oliver Twist. The reason for this change of heart is simple, I think that you may be interested in supporting a project that has come from the students and I won’t have the opportunity to talk about it tomorrow as I had hoped at the summer fair.
The Outdoor Performance Space Project is exciting. It links to the School’s desire to encourage young people to find their voice in the world. The initial idea came from two of our prefects. It has been designed by a talented bunch of Year 12s and the crowd funding campaign has been a collaboration between drama and business students. It uses local materials to create a place where debate, drama and music can flourish. It will provide a place of calm for those who like to chat at break and lunch. Importantly it will also be a place where the past and present meet. We will be reminded of other people and their contribution to the School. Alumni, Parents and Friends of the school can buy a brick, a slab or a bench which will be inscribed with their name. I can think of no more inspiring a message for our pupils than to see that when they speak they have the support of those who went before.
Along with greying hair, an expanding waistline and more forgetfulness than I like to remember a sign of middle age is one’s ability to feel a seething inner rage over the use of language. I’ve stewed over less and fewer and please don’t allow me to delve into the ire inspiring subject of “like”. It isn’t rational or reasonable but it just seems to happen. Recently I have focused on the use of the word crescendo. Events, in all walks of human endeavour, build to a crescendo these days. I have always believed that a crescendo is a musical direction to gradually increase loudness. The word has a clear root in Latin and for me has simply meant to gain volume or perhaps momentum. Imagine my surprise when I checked in the dictionary and found, horror of horrors, that in the early Twentieth Century it became acceptable to use the word to describe a climax as well as the build up to it. The world is indeed about to go to the dogs…
Looking at the last week we are certainly seeing a crescendo in school activity. We have yet to reach the apex of activity but we are not far off. The end of a term and the end of the school year is always a flurry of excitement, a crescendo if you please. Happily when looking at all that has gone on this week and all that is still to come the word works in both senses. This week has seen a magnificent Junior School play and a Senior School sports day, two significant events in any school year. Congratulations to all who have taken part and a huge thank you to staff for making such marvellous events occur among all of the other tasks at the end of a busy school year.
It is easy to be carried along on the tide of activity that marks the end of the year. I do hope that during all of the excitement that is to come our pupils find a moment to consider all that they have achieved, all that they have done for others and all that they hope still to do. This is a bittersweet time. We will see pupils leave and as a consequence friendships interrupted but in an age of connectivity it is perhaps easier than ever to maintain contact with those we no longer see each day.
If the weather forecasters are to be believed then next week will be a scorcher. The Senior School uniform regulations will be modified to allow the wearing of school sports apparel and I recommend a hat, anything with a brim and within reason will do. If I still have your attention can I also give a plug for the BSPS Summer Fair that will take place on Saturday 29th June? This splendid event takes place on the Senior School Lawn and promises to be a fun filled affair. Please do come along and enjoy all that is taking place. Similarly, this weekend is the national Fête de la Musique and as part of the local festivities BSP students will perform with one of our local partner schools in St. Germain this evening at 7.00pm on the marketplace and BSP community band Rouge Dog Riot will be performing with their customary crescendos outside the restaurant Les Enfants de Cœur here in Croissy at 8.00pm. I’m sure that all our musicians would appreciate your support.
It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves.
It may come as a surprise that I am not a regular watcher of the TV show Love Island. That said I do have something of a guilty secret regarding the 2006 series of Celebrity Love Island which I put down to being sleep deprived following the birth our second child. The current iteration of the show has received stellar viewing figures; some 4.2 million individuals tune in to watch the contestants’ antics on a regular basis. As such it is simply the latest version of a well-worn concept – put a group of people together, deprive them of their normality and see what they do. So far so Lord of the Flies. I like to think that I watched all those years ago with a profound sense of irony, I’m not so sure that our young people have such an opportunity. Young people growing up today have little choice but to be bombarded with a near constant barrage of images of perfection and success that they are challenged to match. Heavily curated lives and chemically enhanced appearances seem to be the norm and who would blame our young people if they are led to believe that this image is one that is to be admired. Perspective is sometimes difficult to achieve.
During the last fortnight we could be accused of having done much the same thing as the TV producers hunting ratings. Years 6-9 have been taken off to an unfamiliar environment, set a series of often demanding challenges and expected to get along with each other when tired, wet and perhaps a little bit uncomfortable. I had the great privilege of seeing Years 7-9 in the Alps this week. I saw sailing and raft building and I am still attempting to recover from numerous dunkings in a glacial river at the hands of Year 9. It has been the wettest week ever for our expeditions and I have to acknowledge the amazing work done by the instructor team from Alp Base who have found still more inventive ways to challenge and inspire while the rain teams down. Weaseling? Apparently good in the rain… ask a Year 8 or Year 9 and they will fill you in. Huge thanks also to the members of staff who have taken time away from home to accompany these trips; without them this extraordinary opportunity would simply not happen.
There is a big difference between what has been going on down in the Ecrins National Park and what has been happening on “the island”. There has been a distinct lack of preening and a whole lot of getting stuck in. Above all our pupils have demonstrated an awareness of each other; I saw the quiet word when someone was a little nervous, the sharing of a packed lunch when another was still hungry and the lending of kit when someone was shivering. Communal living is not easy at the best of times and it is much more difficult when all your stuff is wet. This kindness, this willingness to recognise the needs of others is perhaps the most valuable lesson that will be taken from the week away. So a massive well done to all involved, you have shown that there really is more to life than vacuous celebrity and rampant narcissism. Even if you never step foot on a via ferrata again you’ve done it now and I hope that you remember the value of working together.