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”.