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


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


“Nothing will work unless you do.” – Maya Angelou

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been struck by discussions about the nature of work.

All of them concerned what happens after school. This question is one that we ask from almost the moment a child starts their education. We ask them “what do you want to be?” Or “when you grow up what would you like to do?” It was usual to hear “professional sports player” or “actor”, now more often than not it is an Instagram influencer (YouTuber being passé and oh so last decade). Times and ambitions change. I remember that when working at another school I told a Year 3 pupil that I thought that she was undoubtedly going to be Prime Minister (such were her skills for oratory and her habit of bossing me about) only to be told that I shouldn’t be so silly as she was going to be a hairdresser. As is so often the case I was left to consider how little I actually know.

In schools we regularly say that we are preparing young people for jobs that have yet to be invented. How we do this is a very good question. We, like many other schools, believe that a thorough grounding in a wide range of core subjects followed by an opportunity to pursue enthusiasms and academic interests is a suitable path of preparation for the wide world. If opportunities are taken through the co-curricular programme, then a rounded education is achieved and a wide range of employment opportunities beckon. This is probably a good thing as one of the articles I read predicted that this decade will be one in which research into AI will plateau. It looks like teachers are not going to be phased out in favour of robot replacements, lawyers have escaped the technological chop and accountants live to consider another spreadsheet. “Old skills” will remain in demand.

For those who aren’t quite sure about what it is they fancy doing once they have left school then the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor Dominic Cummings gave some interesting advice about what skills and characteristics are required by the new breed of civil servants. The new breed of Whitehall whizz kids will be “data scientists, project managers, policy experts and assorted weirdos”. The first three I suspect we can help with, not so sure about the last one. In exchange he offers zero job security, no free time and threats that you could be “binned” at any point. Sounds lovely…

According to a discussion on BBC Radio 4s Start the Week, work is the social capital that makes adults value their existence. Economist Daniel Susskind spoke about how we as communities classify people by what they do and without this society will have to rethink how it approaches using its time. Clearly, I do not know what pupils will have as a job title, but there is a significant part of me that would like to think that we could be mature enough to judge people not by what they do but by the good that they do.
It would be remiss of me to ignore the story that dominated the news last week. The surprise announcement from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they wish to take a step back from a life of royal service. Is this the first and only time that someone has stepped back from their family to spend more time working? Times continue to surprise.

Nicholas Hammond


“Few things illustrate self-control…”

“Few things illustrate self-control as vividly as New Year’s resolutions.”

Sendhil Mullainathan

There are probably two types of people, those who make New Year resolutions and those who don’t. I have certainly met both sorts, but I’m not certain that I have ever met one who has actually kept a resolution from January to December. This month we tend to read a lot about famous people and their resolutions for the year. I’m sure that Instagram opinion formers are all busily telling us what 2020 holds for us or what it is we should be doing or buying. Mark Zukerberg famously published his resolutions on Facebook – I think his last one was about killing the meat he was going to eat but I understand that he is doing resolutions by the decade.

I don’t know how many of our students have made resolutions of their own. I am sure that a good number have, and I wish them well with their resolve. As this is the start of the New Year and the time for resolutions, I thought I might suggest a few and who knows one may just stick.

for pupils:

• Keep trying things. There is a wide range of opportunities at the BSP and a New Year is a great time to do something new or different.

• Spend time reading words on paper not just on a screen. A newspaper, a magazine or book, it doesn’t really matter what, but regular reading is a great habit to adopt. What about twelve books in twelve months?

• Speak up when you don’t understand something. We all learn most effectively when we take time to understand

• Only take what you are going to eat from the refectory. There is never a good reason for taking bread and throwing it away untouched

• Use social media for positive purposes only

• Be kind to yourself and to others.

for parents:

• Think about doing something new or revisiting old hobbies. You children will appreciate seeing you immerse yourself in something that you love doing

• Unplug a little. If you spend a lot of time glued to your device your children will also be tempted, if you read a book so might your young person

• If you have a question about your child’s school experience make contact so we can help or answer the question. Social media doesn’t have all the answers

• I’m sure that you always eat your greens and clean your plate. Well done

• Be kind to yourself and to others.

for teachers:

• Endeavour to try new approaches in your classes, don’t just keep doing the same things over and over

• Make sure that you are reading as much and as regularly as your pupils

• Make feedback an even more regular habit than it is already. Send positive news home

• Keep taking the healthy option in the refectory

• Be kind to yourself and to others.

for the Headmaster:

• Get out of your study more often, go and see what is going on in classes and co-curricular activity taking place. There is always something exciting going on at the BSP

• Read more, if you don’t read why would anyone else? (quite looking forward to this)

• Do you really need chips on a Thursday, think about it you greedy person…?

• Be kind to yourself and to others.

If you do try a resolution, good luck with it. I hope you have more luck with it than I am likely to with that whole chips business which looks like a step too far.

Happy New Year!

Nicholas Hammond