There is a particular type of person who has the great talent of making the complicated understandable. Vincent van Gogh was all too right when he said “how difficult it is to be simple”. There is always a danger with simplification that we end up with platitudes.
Like many people who have lived in the city of Cambridge I have my own Stephen Hawking anecdote and like most others it involves a near miss with the professor as he barrelled along a narrow lane at high speed while I was an unsuspecting pedestrian. A brush with greatness perhaps. As the world marks the death of a great scholar we should perhaps reflect upon his contributions to the sum of human understanding. Anyone who has the courage to tackle cosmology, general relativity and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes is probably worth listening to especially if they are able to talk in terms that we can all understand. His “Brief History of Time” whilst often unread prompted non-physicists to think more deeply about the world that is around them. He inspired us to be intellectually curious. His numerous appearances on the television made him the world’s most popular scientist and his sense of fun shone through allowing us to appreciate that difficult questions are to be enjoyed more than feared.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of his personality was his seeming delight in getting things wrong. Hawking was renowned for making wagers about what could and could not be proved. He never thought that the Higgs-Boson particle would be found, it was. He lost $100 and there are numerous other examples. He knew that science often moved forward when thinkers could admit to being wrong. In this we perhaps learn something of the way in which the professor explored his subject. Learning for him was not only integral to his life but gave joy and sustenance to his very core. If that meant being wrong, so be it. Knowledge moved on despite not always having the right answers. As long as we, humanity, knew something that we didn’t know before the question he tried to answer he was satisfied. Being wrong in his view led to greater understanding. Perhaps schools should be more like Hawking, we should value being wrong a little more than we currently do.Like Einstein he applied his enormous intellect to matters far from the world of physics and perhaps more readily relevant to us. We are perhaps sensible to pay as much attention to the wisdom that he communicated about more earthly matters as to what he shared about the mystery of the universe. After all anyone who could be so wise as to give these three pieces of advice is worth paying attention to,“One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.” You will be missed, Professor.
School Governors can seem to the rest of the school community to be a pretty mysterious bunch. They pop up in school on a sporadic but regular basis and whilst I know what they do it may be the case that many in our community do not. At this point in any conversation regarding school governance I usually make a facetious comment about governors and bidets, but as I like my role and they are in school next week I’m not writing it, ask me if you are interested.
The Governing Board at the BSP comprises of individuals who provide the school with specialist support and also more general wisdom. They are, in short, our critical friends. Their knowhow covers a wide range of areas including subjects as diverse as law, finance, real estate, medicine, higher education, safeguarding, fundraising and communication. We have three Head teachers who ensure that we are making the right choices educationally. We don’t pay them, they do this because they believe that the BSP is an institution worthy of their support and we are grateful for the enormous amounts of time that they devote to helping us improve. Some of our governors have children at the school, some have children who attended the school and some have never had a child at the BSP. A number are retired, many fit their gubernatorial service around very busy working schedules.
The School’s management team meets with governors in various committees and at the Board meetings held four times a year. Governors regularly visit lessons, meet with students and staff, involve themselves in fundraising and attend school events. They even have to attend training sessions to ensure their skills are honed to perfection. Whilst not always obvious they are a constant source of support and this is a good opportunity to recognise their contribution to our community. As a school we value integrity; there is no doubt that our governors ensure that we who work at the School are always seeking to improve and that the School is run with the best interests of the young people it educates as its priority.
While considering the subject of higher authority, can I remind those who drop off around the Senior School site that the Mairie has instituted restrictions for car use on the quayside? The restrictions issued on Monday mean that parents should not drive cars on the road in front of the Senior School. We have been reassured that there is no danger to pedestrians and cyclists but we can no longer use buses on this stretch of road. Following flood and snow this is perhaps a minor inconvenience.
Thank you to all parents involved with Around the World Day today, it was a magnificent event and I was disappointed to be unable to join in to the extent that I would have wished, similarly a very big thanks to all who opened their homes to host players for the ISST rugby competition. We are fortunate indeed to have your support in all that we do.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” – The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley
During half term I had the chance to spend time in the city that I grew up in. Unsurprisingly my thoughts turned to my own educational experiences there and how they differed from what we see in schools today. I grew up attending a local comprehensive school, it was large by the standards of the day but would come nowhere close to the super-size schools found in British cities today. It offered what seemed a broad enough curriculum at the time but it would now seem limited. Lessons were similar between subjects with little opportunity for collaborative work and very limited computer use. There was a computer in the school but I saw very little of it! Buildings were old and as I remember cold (and sometimes leaky), extra-curricular activities limited although there was the opportunity to play some sport and to act. All in all I found it difficult to reflect on the experience with great positivity. But such a jaundiced view is unfair, on deeper reflection it struck me that one thing above all else stood out and that was the dedication of the teachers who worked at the school. They did lead trips; they did want to see us succeed; they made the very best of what was on offer. I was fortunate, I found teachers who nurtured my love of their subject. Some of my contemporaries did not and perhaps this is where there is a difference, modern schools are far less likely to miss those who are finding academic work difficult. There is more support; schools are in this respect better places.
During a school career there are many teachers. Teachers have their own approaches and this I think leads to richer schools. A one method school is a tedious environment to study in. Such variety of approach means it won’t always be the smoothest of journeys but it is important that our students learn to work with different approaches and temperaments; after all this is what they will find to an even greater extent in the world outside the school gates. As we contemplate the start of the second half of the academic year I hope that our students look to build on what has been achieved and will with the assistance of their teachers move on to still greater success in the months to come. This drive to improve has to come from the students (at least to some extent) and if it does it will be supported by their teachers. This has always been the case; to that extent not much has really changed. Education is and always will be about the quality of the relationships that exist between the teacher and their pupils. When a teacher senses or sees a spark of enthusiasm then they will do all they can to nurture this and see it develop, it is this that makes schools (both now and then) exciting places to be.
“Wooooah we’re half way there…” Jon Bon Jovi
I suppose it could have been a lot worse. Not the flood or the snow storms of the last few weeks but the choice made by our Senior School Head Girl and Head Boy to decide to mark the midway point in our academic year with the wearing of wacky socks. If we had followed Bon Jovi’s sartorial lead then it could have been Lycra tights and leather jackets – the traditionalist in me would never have coped. That said we are as the song says “half way there” and odd socks remind us that today we have a foot in the old half of the year and a foot in the new half of the year. This is perhaps a good time to consider and celebrate what has been achieved and what is still to come.
Since September there has first and foremost been an awful lot of learning. I have the privilege of visiting classes being taught and there are few things more satisfying to see than excellent classroom practice resulting in academic progress. For some this is the time of year when language and learning support falls away and they work independently, for others there is a realisation that they have the capacity to do even better in the months to come. It is a time when, with the promise of warmer weather ahead, students start to blossom. At the upper end of the school the Year 12s start to consider what lies beyond the school gates and our Year 6 pupils view the prospect of Senior School. For those who are experiencing school for the first time it is a time to consider the amazing progress that has been made, the independence that has been developed and the confidence that is being shown. Tears at the door to the school are long distant and that is good to see.
So what comes next? To say more of the same would be both glib and complacent. Improvement is always desirable but genuine progress takes time and is not always easily gained, that said we will be looking to build on the first half in the second. As important as getting better is going wider – now that students are confident in their year groups it is time for them to try new things, to go beyond what is required of them in set tasks, to read around, to debate, to discuss, to challenge themselves. Opportunity abounds at the BSP and it would be quite frankly daft to miss out on an activity or new experience now that regular routines are established. With the prospect of spring being more than a mid-winter dream I hope that all in our community will look to think more widely.
The coming months will bring expeditions, competitions, matches, exams and a wealth of experiences. Our aim is to guide our young people wisely and to develop all that is good within them. They bring energy, enthusiasm and openness. Together we are right to believe that the next half can be even more productive than the first.
Have a good half term break.
“No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” – George Bernard Shaw
Round Britain Quiz is something of a BBC Radio 4 institution. In the programme pairs of contestants are set fiendishly difficult questions which are rather like cryptic crossword clues; what links a grumpy detective with an explorer’s ship by way of an Indian car and a trip around the earth would be the sort of thing that leads to brain strain over the next few minutes. The pairs of contestants are then marked by the judges on the quality of the answer they give. Points are deducted for wrong answers or for clues having been given to help them on the way(1).
This week has been one in which many students have had to exercise a degree of patience. Disruptions to our normal routine caused by uncontrollable external factors have, once again, played a significant role in our week. For some, this has meant that they could not reach school. In an ideal world, students would use the many resources at their disposal to continue their reading, further their general understanding and develop their skills. Hard for many of our primary pupils but hopefully an approach to education that grows as students move through their school careers. Independent learning is one of those concepts that pops up in educational circles on a regular basis and a developed approach to it would no doubt have meant that this week was put to very good use. Perhaps next week it will be clear that those who could not come to school this week were able to use the materials that they had to hand and the near infinite resources to be found on the web to good effect. Teachers have loaded materials onto Frog our virtual learning environment and onto Showbie, it would be good to think that these materials have been well used. Those who have been in school have had a different experience and a positive one as a consequence of the adaptability of our teaching staff that will stay in the memory for a long time to come.
Being able to make the most of whatever situation is a useful attitude to develop in our students. A willingness to try to make the best of what is to hand. A spirit which is open to seeking the positive in every context and trying to learn from the challenges we face. An acceptance that motivation and decision making cannot be outsourced to social media but comes from within. I’d like to think that these capacities are developed, at least in part, before our students leave us for the next step in their educational journey. It is an approach to life-long learning and personal development that we believe is so important it forms one of our core school values.
The answer to the question; what links all of this? Endeavour.
Competition, we are often told, is a very good thing. Indeed in a school environment we often use it to develop character, to achieve a better result or to win a match. A little less often we speak of academic competition, of being the best in a particular subject or activity. For some reason many people feel this is something that should be hidden, it sometimes is considered “nerdy”. I hope we celebrate this kind of excellence in our community. Indeed in a school of this size I believe that we can ill afford to separate off students with such labels, we need all our athletes to be nerds and our musicians and actors to be boffins. We need students who are ready to be Renaissance women and men, students who will be the measure of all things. The Ancient Greeks were particularly good on academic and artistic competition and we do right to follow their example and put ourselves forward to use our talents and intellects to compete with other schools. Interestingly, at this time of year we have the opportunity to celebrate those who have excelled in matters academic or perhaps more importantly those who have taken the very bold step to step up the mark and represent the school in an academic competition.
Our mathematicians are training hard ready to engage in their forthcoming Olympiad, the historians have been debating and passing resolutions in The Hague and poets are sharpening pencils ready for COBIS competitions. They will gain accolades and satisfaction in equal measure. They will learn valuable lessons and they will bring these lessons back to school for the benefit of all. There is one sort of academic competition that is perhaps even more valuable than those already outlined. I was in a Year 5 maths lesson this week. Questions were being thrown out by the teacher and hands were being raised. Within the class there were some who found the tasks difficult; they had a go, they used their mini whiteboards, they built triangles with matchsticks and they worked on the interactive whiteboard. Initially tentative, as the lesson progressed their confidence grew. It was a competition the most challenging of all, that is a competition within themselves. A fight against that wheedling voice that erodes a young person’s confidence; the one that says “you can’t”. I am pleased to report that they won this particular battle. Learning was, as they say in all the best commentaries, “the winner”.
There are academic competitions to be won each day; some come along o
nly once every hundred years. I heartily recommend you take a look at The Never Such Innocence website www.neversuchinnocence.com to see the competition offer being made the
re. Many of our pupils have been introduced to the music, art and writing challenges the charity is running this year and I hope that significant numbers will enter for we have the talent to impress their judges. Others may be tempted by the range of opportunities thrown out by the RAF 100 committee*. Competitions such as these stimulate and take learning out of the classroom, they impress upon our young people that a creative approach to solvi
ng problems is a valuable skill to learn. Students also experience the challenges and satisfaction of more independent work. Winners or not, these academic competitions allow our young people to be stretched, challenged and ultimately rewarded.
Floods are probably nature’s way of telling us that despite how much we think we control the environment we really are puny. Whilst our current local flood gives us pause for thought, there are many places in the world that have to deal with far greater natural challenges. From the window of my study I have watched the water levels rising over the past few weeks and I suspect that I will be watching the levels rise still further over the coming hours. Apparently the river flow will peak some time tomorrow. Should we face higher levels next week we may well have to look at modifying our routines; we’ll let you know.
The river is a learning opportunity and it has been great to see students paying closer attention to it. It is a part of our surroundings that we quite often take for granted. Now, because it is a little different it is interesting. We are, it seems, pre-progammed to be bewitched by things that are out of the ordinary or new. Novelty captivates and keeps us engaged. In education it is common for new ideas to engulf us; the latest new trend, the latest great theory can dominate (and this is sometimes a good thing). But just as the water in front of the school will subside, many educational ideas loose their sheen and fall away. So what really remains once the flood subsides? What are the ideas that will stand the test of time and carve out a permanent channel? Our school values give a clear indication of what it is we seek to develop in our young people.
One area of life that has been in something of a flood in recent years is, of course the massive growth of social media. I read George Soros’ comments at the Davos Summit with interest this week. It is easy to be swept along by his rather pessimistic analysis of the world he sees however I was struck by his comment:
“Mankind’s (sic) ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and it is now at a low ebb.”
Later in the essay he speculates that Facebook will have run out of people to convert in three years. We will all be on that platform and as such will all be subject to one particular flow of information. I hope that at the BSP we are in a position to develop thinkers who can wonder at the power of a movement’s flow but know when they should stand on the bank and be prudent rather than throwing themselves in. New political imperatives and slogans will appear; we require a generation who can exercise the necessary judgement to think critically about the consequences of what is being suggested.
If we can learn anything from looking at our river it might be this. There will be times when the river threatens and there will be longer times when it is placid. The key is to understand the dangers that lurk beneath the surface or the consequences of being engulfed.
I hope that you have the chance to see the Seine in spate this weekend, it is indeed a spectacle. If you do, please go carefully.
This week I gave an assembly in virtual form. The Headmaster beamed into every classroom. Such are the approaches that have to be taken when faced with a major building project in the middle of the school. I’d been given the challenge of speaking meaningfully about The International Day of the Mother Tongue, an excellent UNESCO initiative. My conclusion was that we are right to maintain all the languages that we can, as long as we use them for constructive purposes.
Schools are places where we spend a good deal of time in the business of communication. Teachers communicate in the classroom, students communicate with each other (often on multiple platforms) and about once a week we communicate with parents through this newsletter so ably produced by our own school Communications Department.
Communication is a risky business. It can all too often go wrong. As Headmaster I would say that the majority of the disciplinary issues that I deal with have at their core mis-communication. Hurtful things are written and read. I’m not sure all of these comments are actually meant, often they pass under the banner of “banter” (a way of excusing just about anything). Our young people face a challenge when handling the powerful devices of communication they control. We could insist that they are put away and in the case of mobile ‘phones we do, but through the iPad we open an even wider range of communication opportunities. One only has to consider the issues that some political leaders have with social media to perhaps appreciate why our students might go wrong.
At the end of the week I had the great privilege to attend the Anglo-French Summit reception at the Victoria & Albert Museum with some of our older students and two teaching colleagues. A chance to meet with the political communicators of our age. Earlier in the day we visited Carlton Gardens where de Gaulle penned his ever resonant “À tous les Français”. Thereafter we dropped in at the Cabinet War Rooms, the spot from which Winston Churchill mobilized the English Language in defence of Britain. We reflected on how many of his speeches we remember today. Our encounters yesterday evening enabled us to listen first hand to both President Macron and Prime Minister May talking warmly about the strong bonds that exist between Britain and France. Reassuring words at a time of uncertainty and whilst I’m not sure that either of the speeches that we heard will be remembered as those of de Gaulle or Churchill, it was certainly positive to hear that both governments envisage a future in which co-operation, shared culture and common heritage is vital. Curiously this message has been lost amidst the reporting of Mr. Johnson’s bridge. Perhaps another example of a well-timed comment made in the correct ear drowning out other messages.
Our young people study in an environment in which they have the opportunity to hear many voices and myriad perspectives. As they grow to be the leaders of the future I hope that they will consider, with due caution, the power of the words they have at their command. Our aim as adults should be to teach them to use their language to build hope and understanding. To adapt one of Churchill’s lesser known quotations:
“We are all worms. But I do believe they can be glow-worms.”
“I think in terms of the day’s resolutions not the years’ ” Henry Moore
In some places plates are smashed, elsewhere it is all about wearing the correct colour of underwear and in one Peruvian village there are ceremonial fights. Suffice to say there are many different ways of celebrating the coming of a New Year. Traditionally it is a time for making new resolutions or undertaking new projects, I’m sure that all in our community have adopted new resolutions. But what of the school? What should we be resolving to do, what will we seek to improve? What have we to look forward to? As a community of educators we set ourselves an ambitious target, to meet the needs of all the young people in our care. We aren’t the parents but we acknowledge that we have a significant role in the development, both intellectual and social, of our students. We have to support and challenge, we need to be ready to impose discipline and support in appropriate measures. Lots of one and hopefully little of the other. We aim to make the learning that occurs here a source of enjoyment; we try to celebrate success as often as we can. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with some Year 10 achievers earlier this week.
A New Year also provides us with a fine opportunity to consider what we can look forward to. Before we know where we are it will be the fantastic BSPS Burns Supper, in February we have the Senior School production and March heralds Around the World Day. With the coming of spring and with it April the temperature warms and the Junior School will benefit from its new air conditioning system, we will find ourselves in the season of Spring Concerts and Geography walks! May brings both public holidays and the anticipation of Duke of Edinburgh adventures and LAMDA performances. By the time June is upon us we are well into the season of public exams and expeditions then the summer holidays beckon. By September we will be benefitting from our new multi-purpose hall on the Senior School site. We have much to look forward to!
Along the way there will be a few challenges and many more successes, in that respect 2018 will be just another year, but we won’t forget that every year in the life of a young person is a vital building block of their character. We are as adults privileged to be part of this moulding process be we parents or educators.
A Nintendo Switch, according to my Year 9 history class. A bagful of books according to me.
I’m sure that there are plenty of other objects of desire being requested at this time of year, such consideration of the age old question “what do I want” leads me to think about what we as a school have received this year and what we might wish for next. Excellence with compassion, intelligence with integrity and mindful discovery all seem to be things worth cherishing this Christmas and beyond. We have seen many good things happen this year, some have made the headlines in the newsletter and many have gone unheralded; small quiet moments of success, acts of service and periods of deep thought. As we come to the end of this most busy and fruitful term I hope that everyone in the school community can reflect upon their achievements and will take the coming holiday as a chance to recharge and refocus on priorities for the New Year. We are wise to heed the words of Winston Churchill that “Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but reflecting.”
For some this is their last week as a pupil at the BSP. We wish them well as they move to new schools, countries and continents. I hope that they take with them the values that this school holds and they use all that they have learned here to make a positive impact in their new communities.
Whilst we are not quite at the end of term it only seems right and proper to wish you all a most splendid Christmas and New Year, may they both be filled with joy.