At the moment there is a discussion going on among British educational professionals about the need (or not) for a 16+ exam. As Year 11s are certainly aware, GCSE looms large at this time and many are formulating holiday revision timetables in preparation for the January mock examinations. On Wednesday, at their Parents’ Evening, all of the focus was on how to maximise the grade achieved. An historical perspective shows that GCSE was a replacement for the old two tier system of O levels and CSE exams. These in turn replaced The School Certificate. There is probably little need to delve back before 1951, but it is important to note that the school leaving age at that time was 16 years of age. Thus the School Certificate, O Levels and CSEs were qualifications used by employers to select candidates who were joining the workforce. Indeed GCSE has been a school leaving qualification – this only changed with the raising of the school leaving age to 18 in 2015. Now we assess pupils at 16 to gain some idea as to their suitability for A level study, but we probably don’t need a major exam to tell us that. I’m quite sure that most young people have a fair idea themselves as to where their talents lie. One good thing about GCSE is that it keeps options wide and pupils have to consider a range of subjects. In the British system this is the last moment at which our students are asked to be wunderkinder. That said they can remain open to all ideas once they have passed Year 11.
This week marked the passing of two great minds, two polymaths. Clive James, critic, poet and raconteur and Dr. Jonathan Miller scientist, theatre director and public intellectual. Both of these individuals gave much pleasure through their humour and have challenged via their art. I wonder if they are a fast disappearing breed. Where are they now? Who are they now? We live in an age of celebrity, sound bite and thoughts expressed in 140 characters. Newspapers warn us about articles that are “long reads” while the rest of the news is rather abbreviated. Have we lost the knack of concentrating? Both James and Miller were not afraid of delving deeper, no matter how superficial the subject. Both moved effortlessly between genres. Both had the capacity to challenge and perhaps most importantly both could be very funny indeed. In an obituary of Miller he was described as having “boundless curiosity”. Are we guilty of letting this go? He was also described as a “team player and a striking soloist.”
Exams are useful, but the longer they remain in the same form the less useful they become. The test can always be gamed. We do get better at answering the question. If a BSP education was to give a pupil two things it would for me be these: an ability to succeed in exams and a boundless curiosity. And if I had to pick one I would settle for a team player and a striking soloist. Now that’s an answer that would satisfy not one examiner but might just be a recipe for lifelong learning which is, after all, what we are meant to be fostering in a school.
Some of the most interesting comments in academic journals are to be found in the footnotes. Often maligned as the preserve of the pedant or dismissed as being irrelevant to the text they can be intriguing, amusing and entertaining. It is often with the footnote that we gain a real understanding of the author and for me at least, copious footnotes suggest that the author has far more of interest to say than can be contained in the main body of the text(1). The phrase “a footnote in history” has always seemed to me to be harsh indeed, it is here that we find new avenues of thought and other pieces of information. Small in type they are often large in significance or interest. I was therefore interested to hear the Chairman of the Governors’ Education Committee explain in a recent speech that one of the great benefits of retirement is that one has the chance to really research footnotes, to give them the time and thought that they really deserve.
Dr. Michael Tilby is no footnote in our school history. Over the past ten years he has tutored older students in the ways of the Oxbridge College interview(2) , a task for which he, as a former Cambridge College admissions tutor, is uniquely suited. He has been a supportive yet questioning member of our Education Committee and has devoted hours to the analysis of exam results, the performance of departments and has championed the work of the School. At yesterday’s Governing Board meeting he took his leave of the School having completed a decade of service with our very best wishes and sincere thanks. He will be missed indeed.
There is a very great danger that our support today of Toilet Twinning will soon be consigned to the bottom of a page. One day in a busy school calendar. It may not be the most glamorous of endeavours but games of chicken poo bingo(3) and the lavatorial cake sale this break time raised vital funds for appropriate sanitation to be provided for some of the world’s 2.3 billion people who do not have somewhere safe to “do their business”(4) . Next time you are in school please do take a moment to see the wide range of locations in which we have sponsored the building of safe toilets, it is truly impressive. My thanks to Year 7 for their enthusiasm in supporting this most noble of causes. The world now has 7 more safe toilets that it did not have earlier this week.
There are only fifteen school days left of this term. Be-fore then there are two notable events within our wider community to note. Our own BSPS will run their excellent Christmas Fair on Saturday 7th December and The British Charitable Fund(5) in association with the School Jazz Band are offering parents the opportunity to enjoy music at one of Paris’ most exclusive addresses(6) on 28th November. Both are not to be missed.
You may have realised by now that I am a footnote-a-phile
A process sometimes seen by observers as something of a dark art
November always seems to me the Norway of the year.
November. We are most definitely in the grip of deepest November. The clocks have gone back, the rain is falling and the temperature is dropping. There are leaves on the line. Those who cycle to school are trying to find their gloves to break the chill air as hands grip frigid bicycle handlebars. Hedgehogs are scurrying around making the last improvements to their winter hibernation dens. Sometimes I think that we would do well to follow their good example and take a few cold months off before reappearing in the spring. That said, such an approach would mean that we would miss one of the most important parts of the year for learning.
Academically, November is a key month in a pupil’s learning journey. A time when there is a good run of uninterrupted school days where progress can be made. It is not without its challenges. Tiredness, coughs and colds and the longer nights are not always helpful to a pupil looking to make progress. We are far enough away from the start of the year for both pencils and ambitions to be blunted, whilst the end of term is still too far away for serious contemplation. The message is a simple one at this time of year, use this time as effectively as you possibly can. Don’t let efforts drop off, keep levels of enthusiasm high and make the most of the lessons that you have. This week I was delighted to read that our extra-curricular programme is well supported with 75% of Junior School pupils enjoying activities and 82% of Senior School pupils engaging in learning outside of the classroom. Such laudable levels of engagement need to be kept up even during the darker evenings of November. Those who have chosen their subjects wisely and have followed their interests will find this no great hardship. This is perhaps a good time to remind ourselves that we succeed when we choose to study the subjects that excite our interests.
A few years ago we were visited by British polar explorer Mark Wood . Those who were fortunate enough to hear what he had to say will remember that his message was a simple one. Distilling all he had learned on expeditions to the Poles and up the world’s highest mountains he gave our young people a very good piece of advice – just keep going. Simply putting one foot in front of another is the key to making progress. The Norwegian explorer, philosopher, art connoisseur and publisher Erling Kagge also offers a good deal of ice-born wisdom in the excellent Philosophy for Polar Explorers . I particularly benefitted from his thoughts about getting up early, enjoying small helpings and accepting failure. Most of all his chapter on resetting your compass strikes a chord at this time of year. Here Kagge tells us that we must always learn, we must never limit ourselves to the achievement of only one goal, we must always be kind and we should always feel a sense of gratitude for the advantages that we enjoy. Even in November. Do wrap up warm.
“I’ve given my life to the principle and the ideal of remembrance.”
We use eight words to describe the values that underpin our activities as a school. As a community we need to take a little time once in a while to remind ourselves of these important ideas and to consider how we live by them in the busy days of a packed term-time week. Today we have paused to consider a number of these values. This week of remembrance allows us to stop and consider the plight of others whose lives are affected by conflict. We reflect upon concepts of service, community, endeavour and integrity.
We mark remembrance in a number of ways at the School. We had an assembly in the Junior School in which we paused, listened, sang and performed. One member of our community went to play The Last Post at the British Embassy and at the Senior School some students and staff joined together at morning break in an act of quiet reflection.
Remembrance, understandably, means different things to different people. For some it is a celebration and glorification of conflict, others see it from a very different perspective. I am in the second camp. If one message comes through in the activities of today it is an acknowledgement of the horror, brutality and waste of war. Alongside that message is another one that speaks to the importance that we place on freedom. During the Senior School’s act of commemoration we heard older pupils reflect upon the justifications for war and also the impact of war.
In the Junior School we considered the effects on civilian and animal populations as well as military personnel. No glorification here, but a clear acknowledgement of the integrity of those who are willing to defend the rights of others when all alternative other means have been exhausted. Alongside this is an appreciation of the long lasting impact that are made by the scars of battle on the landscape and population.
Out of such a solemn event it is good to be able to acknowledge students who made significant contributions. Our two flautists in the Junior School and our three Sixth Form readers at the Senior School gave much to our event. Our Year 7 reader who read her prize winning war poetry reminded us all that nothing good comes from war and the British Ambassador most certainly appreciated the playing of the Last Post at the Embassy this morning.
If you have a moment to visit our remembrance memorial at the Senior School I would encourage you to do so. Miss Wall of the Art Department and Mr. Bates of the History Department have created an entirely appropriate commemoration installation.
Much of the value of remembrance is in the lessons that it teaches the young in shaping their attitude to the resolution of disputes and to the avoidance of conflict. Not all of us will dedicate our life to the cause of remembrance like Elie Weisel, but if through the wearing of poppies, bleuets, forget-me-nots or marigolds we achieve a more peaceful world then today’s activities will have been worthwhile indeed. It is perhaps important that recall something else that Weisel said namely that “Peace is our gift to each other”.
It is probably the same in any field of endeavour. A piece of research points something out that we probably knew in a way that makes it impossible to ignore. Quite often this piece of research becomes an orthodoxy, it becomes so well used that it becomes the pillar of a subject or an approach. Education is no different. There are thousands of erudite papers about education published each year; some sink into obscurity, others become critical to the way that we think about what we are doing in school each day as teachers.
A few years ago John Hattie, an Australian academic started to publish material evaluating the effectiveness of a variety of strategies being used in classrooms around the world. He asked the simple but essential questions that needed to be asked about what are the most effective approaches to education. What things that are done in lessons lead to the most progress being made by students? Hattie stated that one year in the classroom should result in at least one year’s worth of progress. A reasonable starting point. His evaluation has been taken on by other academics who have looked at what methods have resulted in the most demonstrable progress notably the CEM department at Durham University which has looked at interventions on a value for money basis. The results are interesting. Feedback, meta-cognition, peer tutoring and homework (in a secondary context) have a very high return for little investment. Take away the economic element and they still remain highly effective strategies to ensure that progress is made.
We have spent a good deal of time looking at Hattie’s research and we have implemented many of the suggestions that he makes into our academic year and our daily approach. We believe that effective feedback is essential to good learning and as a consequence we have regular assessment reports in the Senior School and Parents’ Evenings have just started in the Junior School. These moments are vital if progress is to be made. Meta cognition or learning how we learn is also significant. This week I was delighted to see a variety of peer teaching techniques being used as well as some excellent presentations about how to learn with our older students sharing their wisdom with others. As we start to consider all that has been achieved in this half term it is good to know that much of the academic achievement has been done with the support of both teachers and pupils.
Of course one of the most effective ways of learning is by doing. Our older pupils have been in the UK doing geography fieldwork (in the rain) and others will be taking flight to spend two weeks with our partner schools in Cambodia. We wish them well as they go on to learn through doing.
“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.