Yesterday I was standing in front of the dried spice display in Carrefour (yes, I know it is ever the life of glamour) and it struck me that it resembled the periodic table. There were clear rows and columns, rather like the periods and groups of the table and I rather hoped that there was some great underlying logic in having the spiciest in one corner and most flavoursome in another. I’ll look in more detail next time I’m there.
This year is the 150 anniversary of the periodic table and 2019 has been designated as the year of the periodic table by UNESCO. Working in a school means that you are never far away from a periodic table. I think that I have seen it on walls, windows, in textbooks and on a mug since I have been at the BSP. I suspect it pops up in other places. There is a version in Mr. Potter’s study. As an historian the most contact I have had with it has been through Primo Levi’s extraordinary book. Like Harry Beck’s London Underground map it is a functional diagram that has become a cultural icon. It also inspired one of the greatest comic songs of all time, thank you Tom Lehrer(1).
As a non-chemist I find it incredible that we can reduce so much information into so concise a form. This is where Mendelev’s genius really lay. Anyone who can simplify the complex into the comprehensible gets my vote. As Vincent van Gogh said “how difficult it is to be simple”. Mendelev’s table stands the test of time because it is adaptable. New elements have fitted in. The underlying logic has proved accommodating to change and new discoveries. When comparing the oldest known versions of the table (held by the universities of St. Petersburg and St. Andrew’s) to today’s table it is clear that the structure proposed 150 years ago holds true. It is a piece of thinking that has stood the test of time in a subject in which change is a constant.
Like the Tube map, the periodic table has been appropriated for other purposes. The web provides plenty categorising superheroes, cupcakes and my favourite, typefaces. It would be a shame not be in on the act so having spoken with our Communications Department (who bring us this newsletter each week) we are proud to present the Periodic Table of the BSP. Here is (almost) everything that we do, all of the underlying elements that make our school, well, our school. We’ve probably missed a few and undoubtedly in the future there will be new elements to add. Happily we know that whatever they are we will find a way of fitting them in.
“A curmudgeon” was how J.B Priestley described himself. So did just about everyone else. Whilst he is probably best known for that staple of GCSE examiners “An Inspector Calls” he is less well remembered as an essayist of great style and prodigious output. So, it is odd that given his well-known misanthropy he would have written a series of essays on the subject of delight. The anthology was published in 1946 during those grey and dreary days and republished a few years ago. I dip into its pages at random to enjoy what he has to say about reading newspapers in the countryside, fountains and having a great idea. Imagine my excitement at finding a new version of these essays being published in The Guardian.
If ever we were in need of cheering up, now would be the time. The premise is the same, we are encouraged to appreciate simple pleasures and everyday things. Our young people face more than their fair share of difficulties. A recent winner of a Scottish essay competition gave me clear pause for thought when she outlined well, how dreadful it is having to portray a shiny Instagrammable life. Whilst part of me says we had it tougher, there is a very significant element that says actually they really do. As March turns into April exams loom, family moves are discussed and the school year seems to be very close to an end. For this reason on 21st March, International Day of Happiness I thought of a grumpy old J B Priestly.
We are fortunate to live in a wonderful environment. We have the privilege of studying in a place which inspired great artists and provides us with an ever changing picture of nature’s annual cycle. I’ve taken delight this week in hearing the drumming of a woodpecker, in poetry read aloud, of house tokens proudly banked and in the cheery good mornings of Junior School pupils. The first cup of coffee in the morning is always a treat to be savoured. When I heard that there was an international day of happiness I cynically dismissed it as yet another pointless exercise that had been dreamt up by the greetings card industry but on reflection it might well be a very good thing. Instead of asking what did you do in school today we should be asking what was it that gave you joy at school today?
Over the coming weeks I will be asking pupils about the little things in which they find delight, a good score in Fortnite will (I suppose) be allowed, but surely it is not as good as the swish of the netball passing effortlessly through a ring or the rippling of a net after a crisply struck ball. I’d like to believe that all of our pupils find a simple delight in a job well done, of succeeding following application to a task, of lending a helping hand.
There is great pleasure to be had in a job well done and to that end I was pleased to receive this week the final version of our inspection report. Please take the time to read it. It is an accurate reflection of a school where delight is to be found.
1229 is a very long time ago. It is also the date of the first recorded student strike and it happened here in Paris. In many cases student strikes are focused on universities, but increasingly school aged students are using strikes (or perhaps more accurately boycotts) to make their voice heard. The story of Greta Thunberg is indeed an inspiring one and the message that she and other protestors send is one that politicians would be wise to heed.
As Headmaster, I can’t say that I believe that missing a day of school to register a message, however important, is the best way to promote a position or idea. For me, the message that the strike or boycott sends today is a clear one that speaks of the frustrations that our young people (globally) feel about their voice, their view, their future. If today’s actions teach me anything, it is that adults and particularly adults who wield power be it economic or political have a duty to consider the effects of their decisions on future generations.
In 2016 Scotland held a referendum on independence. It was the first major UK election in which young people were given the opportunity to be active participants in a democratic exercise. I followed the progress of this franchise extension with great interest and it was very clear to me, very quickly that the Scottish electorate aged 16-18 were some of the most well informed, open-minded and responsible participants in the debate on devolution. When the UK voted on Brexit the franchise was limited to over 18s; I leave it to you to decide if that was a wise idea. Young people should not have to strike to have their voice heard, they should have the right to engage with the full political process.
Youth rarely has the opportunity to speak meaningfully to power. Too often the political and decision making process uses youth as a decoration rather than placing it where it should be, at the core of all that is being decided in their name. Greta Thunberg is one of a long line of powerful speakers who happen to be too young to vote. A number of nations have taken the plunge and have given the full right to vote to under 18s, perhaps the closest to home is Austria who opened up the ballots in 2011. Critics voice concerns over maturity, non-payment of tax, a lack of interest or a lack of an awareness or responsibility. Much the same can be said of the electorate in general. I know many sixteen year olds who are far more politically aware than some fifty year olds and let’s face it they are probably more interested in the long term consequences of political decisions made today. Perhaps there is an argument for capping the age of voting, although I’m not sure when you lose the right to influence the future.
Perhaps what has happened today will nudge the current crop of politicians to grow up a bit and recognise that youth not only has a voice, but that it is their responsibility as the elected custodians of state to engage meaningfully with this community in making decisions that affect not just the present but the future.
The issue of single sex education versus the co-educational approach is a long established and ever engaging educational debate. Proponents of single sex education point to the benefits that this approach has. They are often more vociferous than those on the co-educational side of the fence. I’m aware that there are merits in both systems.
I’ve worked in both single sex and co-educational schools. I taught at a boys’ only school and have worked in boarding houses populated entirely by adolescent young men. All were fine institutions doing a great job and I enjoyed being part of them (apart from the peculiar smell that comes with a Year 9 boys’ dormitory.) For the last twenty years or so I have been working in a co-educational environment. There are differences between the two systems and both have certain strengths. A few schools have adopted a diamond model which sees primary education conducted in a co-educational manner, a split occurring in secondary with a final reuniting in the Sixth Form.
On balance, I favour co-education. No big surprise there, but it is perhaps worth explaining why. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, we live in a co-educational world. There are very few areas in which women and men do not work together. If education is preparation for later life then it would seem sensible to learn to co-operate and respect each other from an early age. One hopes that by the time that the end of secondary education is reached such respect, tolerance and understanding has been achieved. I’m not sure that a girls only or boys only situation is going to help with this. We as a school have to remember to celebrate the success of both women and men – a quick look at the naming of our buildings on the Senior School campus would suggest that we are ready to celebrate the achievements of both men and women. Secondly, I think that working with co-educational classes makes us as teachers think carefully about what it is we are doing.We are conscious of trying to be inclusive and ensuring that all have the chance to answer questions or show their excellence. We have to ensure that we have tasks that are accessible and interesting to all members of the class. Thirdly, I believe that by educating co-educationally we are giving our young people the opportunity to consider what constitutes a healthy relationship based on respect.
Today is International Women’s Day and this year’s slogan is ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’. By offering young people the opportunity to learn together I hope that we are doing something to promote the idea of thinking equal.