Swallows, starlings and geese

“A goose flies by a chart which the Royal Geographical Society could not mend.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Rather later than most other animals the School is ever so gradually emerging from (enforced) hibernation. The trees around us have gone from being bare limbed to fully leaved, the blackcaps who nested in the trees on the riverside path have seen their young ones hatch and dispatch.

We can learn a thing or two from birds. They are after all, the experts when it comes to social distancing. Canada geese fly in distinctive V patterns with a regulation gap between each bird so as to gain the most benefit from the updraft generated by their neighbour’s wings(1). Starlings engage in murmuration; massive aerial ballets, swirling and falling in their thousands yet managing to keep their distance and never collide(2). This we are told is to confuse predators and to provide safety in numbers. The recently arrived swallows that choose to sit on roadside telephone cables always leave a little gap between them so as to allow each bird to have space to catch the insects on which they feed(3). Robins, wrens and herons are all territorial, they all have their patches and like to keep their distances from each other to ensure survival.

Distancing regulations are the single most significant issue for us as a school as we re-open. Every child is meant to have their metre exclusion zone. The rule is there for time in classrooms, at break time and indeed should be respected as pupils leave the school. Classrooms start to look smaller when we have to observe distancing rules. Curiously such rules are nationalised, in the UK it is a 2m distancing zone, in the Netherlands there is no distancing. Opinion is divided and we, it seems, are firmly in the middle. This distancing means that we can’t have as many children in school as we would want to. It also generates the most interesting question of all – when will we stop distancing? Perhaps the biggest question is will we be distancing in September and that is a question I simply cannot answer. But it will take a brave politician to decide to abandon the rule for fear of being blamed for a second wave.

Our actions over the last few weeks have pleased some and irritated others. We work in an environment that is ever changing and we are endeavouring to provide the most satisfactory solution for the greatest number of pupils. It is important that we acknowledge that learning can take place in many different ways, it is not simply a matter of listening to the sage on the stage, but it can be equally effective when it is a guide by the side. Some children learn best when we leave them to it, others like to follow instructions. What I believe is that being in school helps children learn the equally important social skills required to succeed in later life. If the pupils of today can cope with the self-discipline required for social distancing, then they will have learned a useful lesson. Overall, most pupils have made good progress while learning remotely. If we are given the chance to see them in school this term, then I believe they will progress even more and in different ways. In the meantime, we all need to be swallows or starlings.

Nicholas Hammond

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QAjfH05IUE Geese over France

(2) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY This is spectacular stuff

(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpqbjMxiR_k A lovely exercise in slow media


The Junior School returns but not as we know it…

It did not take long for the USS Indianapolis to sink. Having been struck by a torpedo the massive ship sank in just twelve short minutes. Sailing alone there were no escorts to pick up the survivors who found themselves adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 900 of the ships company made it into the water. Four long days later the survivors were rescued. Only 317 had survived the ordeal. The crew of the Indianapolis have the dubious honour of having experienced the worst recorded shark attack in human history.

Reporting of the COVID 19 outbreak often sounds rather like we are living through an experience similar to that faced by those unfortunate sailors. The truth is likely to be far less extreme. We have had to modify our plans and our normal way of life. For some this has been a time of great sadness and for others significant anxiety and we are very right to be wary of taking the next step. Care is required to ensure that we remain as safe as we can, and we need to do all we can to ensure that we don’t jump from one dangerous situation to another.

The Junior School opened its doors to pupils this week and a small number have chosen to attend. We have been fortunate in having an opportunity to develop our approach and it is certainly the case that the school day is very different indeed. In the coming weeks I suspect that numbers wanting to return will build and this will bring with it more challenges to be met. Space remains the biggest challenge of all. All pupils are allocated a metre square so the classrooms I once saw as generous in size have been made much smaller – only 9 pupils per teaching space. We can’t have groups larger than 15 so our hall is not as much use as it normally is. School is very different, and I have to say I’d rather not be wearing a mask as I type this column… .

I have no way of predicting how the pandemic will develop for our community. It will be the case that a flexible approach will be necessary both from the School and from families. It is almost certain that some year groups will move to a carousel approach to attendance as the term progresses. Both the staffing and space constraints required for appropriate distancing mean that a rota system will be necessary, and it looks like remote learning will remain in place for some time to come. Apologies in advance for the inconvenience this may cause but it is all done with a desire to keep both pupils and staff safe and to remain within the guidelines that have been established.

The School, like so many other institutions is adjusting to the demands of a new way of operating and we all need to be ready for one or two bumps along the road. Plans will change, but when we make changes it will be to ensure that we don’t end up jumping from a sinking ship into shark infested water. I hope that you can remain patient as everything starts up once again. Thank you for your ongoing support in these somewhat turbulent waters – it is greatly appreciated.

Nicholas Hammond



Taking a longer view

Tomorrow is the 8th of May. I apologise for stating the obvious but having grown up in the UK I am not used to having a public holiday in the middle of this month. Our day of leisure is a calendrical marking of the end of World War Two and normally I would be attending a ceremony by Croissy’s town hall but not this year. As the veterans of the Second World war grow ever older it falls to other generations to consider how it should be marked and the lessons that can be learned. Such is true of all history. The past changes, new perspectives emerge. Our view of World War II probably tells us as much about us as it does about the period we are looking at. The participants’ view was very different. The critic Frank Kermode talked about the difficulty of understanding when we are “middest”, comprehension and clarity are more likely to come the further away from an event we get. Attempting to understand in the midst of the maelstrom is a challenge indeed.

As we move to enjoying long summer afternoons my thoughts turn to cricket. A game I enjoyed playing with no great success. I particularly relished being sent to the outer fringes of the playing area as, more often than not, one was untroubled by a fast approaching ball. The benefit of being on the edge was that I had the privilege of seeing the action as both participant and spectator, hours of waiting and watching for seconds of action. The tea interval was also a high point. Next week we will start our long walk from the boundary to the cricket square as confinement (we are told) will be relaxed. But we are far from carrying on as normal, it will take time for us to get things right, we will be both in the midst and trying to make sense of all that we have experienced. As confusing a time for our young people as it is for us. We will do all we can to support them.

This week my Year 9 historians looked at the story of the now famous wartime poster “Keep Calm and Carry On”. A sentiment that seems to us to typify the stoic approach of the greatest generation. Curiously, the poster wasn’t actually used. The Ministry of Information decided that it was too old fashioned, to redolent of outdated ways of thinking so it was shelved. They decided to use a quotation from Herbert Morrison the War Minister, a more dynamic “Go To It” and even presented the words in a flashy font. Interestingly, the poster that lay unused is the one that we believe reflects the wartime spirit.

Next week, we will go to it. School will be different; the world is indeed different. That said we should not forget the message of the other poster – we will require reserves of patience as a new normal is created. Hope in times like this is important. During the second war the foundations of the UK National Health Service were laid and Butler’s reformist 1944 Education Act was passed. A new country was planned, and new world envisioned. In the “middest” they believed in looking to a better future. I can only hope that we can do the same.

Do have a relaxing long weekend.

Nicholas Hammond