Eurovision and Exams

With a high-high-ho and a high-high-hey (Latvia’s pirate song in 2008, don’t ask) what Eurovision might teach us…

As Year 13 are Walking Out(1) for their study leave and the campus recovers from their Hawaiian shirted Storm minds inevitably turn to examinations. One simply can’t Look Away. It is cruel indeed that just as the weather takes a turn for the better we oblige our young people to hit the exam hall… mostly they Keep on Going. Whilst my university finals are the stuff of recurring nightmares not The Dream. In Truth I don’t remember much about the exams I took at sixteen and A levels are a bit of a blur. I also did a fairly obscure set of exams called S levels just before I left school, these I remember. Mainly because all my friends and Friend of a Friend had finished their tests and were enjoying an early summer holiday. One question in particular sticks in the memory after all those years – “Is Europe a useful historical concept?” I really enjoyed that question, not something that I can say about every exam I have sat. I do hope that at some point this summer our students find one of those questions that they believe is made for them and for a few minutes lose themselves in the sheer absorption of showing what they know.

exam chair

One concept of Europe that is Bigger than Us and indeed is ever expanding is that given by the annual Eurovision Song Contest which sees its grand final this weekend. Whilst I am less than enthusiastic about this musical shindig, I share a Home with a genuine Eurovisionophile. In the happy world of Eurovision the joys spreads from Iceland to Australia (and the most elastic definition of the continent ever seen). Indeed the smart money (Soldi) seems to be heading down under with Kate Miller-Heidke and her vertiginous performance of Defying Gravity (words really don’t do it justice).

Having been an unwilling witness to the semi-finals I believe that the Eurovision performers may well have something to teach our exam candidates. They, like a well prepared student know what is expected of them. The format is clear (who knew the rules for Eurovision specifies set dimensions and number of backing performers?) They have revised their performance with the utmost care so they Like It and their fate hangs on a single performance. As it is on stage so it is in the exam hall (with probably less dry ice). I believe that our pupils have been taught. They have certainly been working hard in the past weeks. They are Kings (Roi) of past papers by way of rehearsal and Replay. Now is the time to perform. Now is the time for them to Dare to Dream. I hope that following all this hard work stress levels do not get too great. If they do there are plenty here in school who can support. If our candidates can approach their task with the same joie de vivre that is demonstrated by those who sing and dance and play for their country in Tel Aviv this weekend then this will be a memorable exam season indeed, it will be a performance without Limits.

Exams are one way to unlock new opportunities. There are others. We live in an age when high stakes testing has become the norm for young people, they Run with Lions. I believe that exams are a useful way to assess ability, but not the only way. Happily this attitude is changing (like a Chameleon?) Perhaps we can devise a way in which we celebrate our academic skills and knowledge with the brio of a Eurovision Song Contest performer. Altogether now, Say Na, Na Na.

Nicholas Hammond


(1) All italicised words are song titles in the Eurovision Contest this year. Armenia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Israel, Italy, Australia, Belarus, France, Cyprus, The Eurovision slogan this year, Austria, Lithuania, Malta and San Marino. Apologies if I missed out your favourite!

Forging friendships

“Whilst there are some irksome aspects to school, I think you will find to your eventual delight that the experience has broadened your horizons.”

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles 2016

Whilst it seems like yesterday, thirty years ago I spent a year in Minnesota as an exchange student. Last weekend, thanks to the wonders of social media, my fellow exchangees caught up with me. Decades down the line, the personalities haven’t changed that much even if the hair (or lack of it) has. Sadly there are pictures and no I won’t be sharing.

In many ways that year abroad was a formative experience. It probably galvanized my desire to be a teacher and it opened my eyes to the world. As a group we met during the year to share our experiences and benefit from simply being together. It was in a time before the internet so we put on shows, reviews, played games and generally had a good time in each other’s company. It was a privilege to find out more not only about the US, but about other places, other ways of doing things, other ways of seeing. We finished the year with two extended trips where these friendships were reinforced and then we left. Whilst I carried memories, I didn’t keep in touch. So it is really a privilege to have the opportunity to connect once more. Much of this week’s comment has been about the South African Elections and the value of democracy. Great to have a report from the polling station, an Aussie view and a Finnish perspective. The learning hasn’t stopped.

At the BSP my cherished experience of thirty years ago is so commonplace that it hardly merits a mention. With fifty six nationalities on campus every single class is a crucible for discussion and has the potential to influence thinking far beyond the confines of the classroom. This is one of the most important elements of our education. It forces perspectives to be wide; our daily life promotes global understanding. Last weekend I had the great privilege of accompanying some of our musicians to The Hague for a music festival; they performed with distinction and I was a very proud Headmaster. A quartet with representatives from Russia, The Netherlands, France and Italy meeting with players from Azerbaijan, Nigeria and Romania to name but a few of the other nations represented. Whilst the competition element was great perhaps more impressive was the ease with which all of the students mixed and enjoyed spending time together. Being a witness to such easy interaction and such fruitful communication gives me hope.

Some communication requires no words. Music is an important part of life here at the BSP and it was pure pleasure to hear our jazz band in full flight on Tuesday. Congratulations are due to Mr. Lockwood and all of his jazz messengers who demonstrated what can be achieved when the bar is raised and young people are pushed to excellence. It all looked so easy, a guarantee that there has been a massive amount of hard work in the background! Congratulations to Louie, Matthew and Cat who took their first solos this year and hats off to Freddie for holding the stage with his one man show!

A four day week in which we have crammed in five days of activity. Tonight we recognise the achievements of our sports players at the Senior Sports Dinner. It promises to be another evening of well-earned celebration. Be it music, sport or study this is where lifelong bonds of friendship are forged.

Nicholas Hammond


Sounds of the School Day

“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy,
And the dimpling stream runs laughing by;
When the air does laugh with our merry wit,
And the green hill laughs with the noise of it;”

William Blake

The day, if I’m lucky, starts with birdsong soon interrupted by the odd voice that is carried up on the breeze. A clack of keyboards can be followed by the static crackle of the walkie-talkie. The kettle’s rumbling boil hails the gradual population of the school and then the ever increasing build of many human voices exchanging the latest news, gossip and chat all ready for the day to come. The sounds of feet on the stairs, a squeaky door hinge or a shutting door. Most days as I walk to the gate I’ll hear the distinctive thwack of foot on leather ball and more often than not the swish of a rippling net as Barnaby’s football finds the back of the net. More birds, more chatting voices, the odd squeal of brakes and the sound of cars rounds off this morning chorus with the distinctive metallic clang of the side gate. This week we have had the racket of lawn mowers and blowers and the clear indication that summer has started as pupils cheer excitedly for their teammates to score a rounder.

The summer term has its own distinctive sounds, of rounders being played on the front lawn. Anyone passing the Junior School green pitch will know that there are few more pleasant sounds than that of break time, a cacophony of sheer pleasure. A walk down a school corridor brings its own selection of sounds, of questions being answered, of discussions being had and work being done. Chip Thursday brings a sound of expectant and excited diners and any normal walk around the campus will have its fair share of good mornings and afternoons. Later in the term we will hear that weird sound of nearly silence when the public exams commence. Pens scratching on papers, discreet coughs – one can almost hear the sound of concentration as well as the invigilator’s careful pace. It is in silence that we find the finest focus, the most eloquence and the best ideas.

girl pupil plays music on the piano

This week I am accompanying some other noise makers or, perhaps more accurately described, musicians as they make their way to perform in a Europe-wide music competition. More pleasant noise. They will compete and join with other young musicians to produce glorious sound. Perhaps I can encourage you to start the next mid-week bank holiday by coming to the Jazz Band’s concert on Tuesday night. Not only will you have the opportunity to hear our Jazz Band hitting the high notes but also a chance to meet with other parents and friends of the School for what promises to be a great night. If you haven’t had the opportunity to visit the Chanorier complex in Croissy then it is another reason for coming along and enjoying a cocktail and a concert. We start at 7.30pm (drinks from 7.00pm). Please come and enjoy the show.

It takes many sounds to make a school. I look forward to a term in which our joy in learning is expressed through sounds of enthusiasm and the necessary moments of silence.

Nicholas Hammond


In praise of doing the lot

It is a cutting phrase, the one that goes… “jack of all trades but master of none”. Knowledge and skills seem to be becoming ever more specialised, our focus ever narrower. It was therefore with great interest that I watched the 165th men’s university boat race last Sunday and the 74th women’s boat race. This venerable British institution sees the rowers of Oxford University pit themselves against those from Cambridge University in what amounts to a private challenge on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. These crews are not the world’s best crews although there is a great deal of talent sitting in those narrow shells. They aren’t even the best university crews in the country, but they represent something interesting and perhaps this explains why hundreds of thousands line the banks of the river to watch and 6.2 million tune in to witness the spectacle on television. The race itself is absurd, it is very long and takes place on a tidal, meandering river. Winning the coin toss can be as important as making a good start or finishing strongly. It is sport, but not as we now know it. The amateur ideal is fused with a professional approach. Whilst I’m sure that there are some “degrees of convenience” being studied to facilitate participation, this isn’t a case of sports professionals masquerading as academics, nor is it the other way round. All of the participants are studying, even the one who is 46 years of age. They balance study and rigorous training. I was particularly interested in Callum Sullivan 19 year old musician and athlete. He must be a busy man. Other boat race rowers have shown a prowess in differing fields, notably Hugh Lawrie writer, comic, musician and actor; Sandy Irvine, mountaineer; Lord Melbourne the Australian Prime Minister.

So it would seem that it is possible to excel in more than one field. Whilst we may not quite match up to the last man who knew everything – Thomas Young who proved Newton wrong, helped decode the Rosetta Stone and was an accomplished gymnast or to Dorothy Dunnett, novelist, scholar and artist or to Hildegard von Bingen they may also point the way to successful engagement in many fields.

And so we come to the end of this Spring Term. A period of time in which we have seen many pupils do many fine things. There are schools in the world that are larger than ours, but I do not see this as a problem, rather it is a virtue. Our musicians who played in the excellent Senior School concert this week are also the pupils who turned out for sports teams, went to debate, have excelled academically and have been the backbone of numerous societies. Many have given back in the form of service activities and charity fundraising this term. This is as true for the Junior School as it is for the Senior School; life has been about so much more than what has gone on in the classroom. The size of our population means pupils have to do everything, and I think that this is healthy indeed. It has been a term well spent. A term in which an enormous amount has been achieved. From plays to pitches there has been so much to celebrate. So here’s to the “jacks of all trades”, I believe that you have gained mastery in many. There can be no better measure of a term well spent.

Have a wonderful holiday.

Nicholas Hammond


“Music is an outburst of the Soul.” Frederick Delius

Reality television and school inspections are two of my least favourite things. It was therefore with a degree of concern that I learned that the plot of the latest Year 6 show contained not only those modern plagues but also the presence of a power crazed Health and Safety Inspector. I should not have been worried, Year 6 put on a remarkably assured, extremely amusing and professional show. They danced, they sang, they acted and all were involved. Six days is all it took them to go from script to performance including all of the technical aspects of the show which they operated themselves. Great support was given by Year 5 as the chorus and a massive vote of thanks is due to the teachers who supported and inspired a most memorable performance. Indeed, I have never been told to get out of the hall by a pupil, but I have now… Nothing short of terrifying. A splendid effort from all concerned and a big thank you to the performers and crew from us, the audience, who enjoyed the show immensely.

I often am guilty of forgetting that we live on the edge of one of the most culturally and artistically rich environments in the world. There is, I suspect, a concert happening somewhere in Paris every single evening of the week. Yesterday was one of those rare times when I actually did something about it and booked to see a concert a little later in the year. Having the opportunity to see and hear music being performed live is something that I rather take for granted having lived and worked in schools for most of my adult life, so it came as a surprise to learn that the concept of a concert is a relatively recent one. If Wikipedia is to be believed the concert in the present form came into existence in the latter part of the Seventeenth Century, whilst informal music making in groups must have been going on for as long as humans have created instruments. Whilst the growth of audio recordings has meant that one can enjoy a concert in the comfort of home, there is nothing quite like the experience of seeing and hearing a live performance. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was clear that music has a role in what is an ever busier and more distracting world when he said that “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” But then he also said “the English may not like music, they absolutely love the noise it makes.” For me it is sometimes the bits in between. The moment of stillness when the music has come to an end; if you need persuading have a look at this compilation from last year’s Proms:

Next week gives all in the school community the opportunity to experience a concert as our Senior School musicians will be performing on Tuesday evening. The Spring Concert programme focuses on the Baroque and Classical periods and will give us all a chance to enjoy the virtuosity of our pupils as they perform as individuals or ensembles. Please do come, it promises to be a fantastic evening. The whole school community is welcome, it is not simply an event for those who spend their time on the Senior School campus.

Nicholas Hammond


In celebration of the Periodic Table

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.

(1) Tom Lehrer – The Elements – Live from Copenhagen in 1967. Do watch until the end…

Nicholas Hammond



“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.

Happiness school dough happy pupil
Happiness is learning to make bread
(Year 3 trip to Ferme de Gally)

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.

BSP – ISI Inspection Report 2019

Nicholas Hammond


Why don’t we really teach the value of democracy?

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.

student voice democracy school speaker

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.

Nicholas Hammond


The value of co-education

‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’

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.

pupils learning co-educational values building with Kapla

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.

Nicholas Hammond


Around the World Day

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent van Gogh

Around the World Day in the Junior School has to be one of the most inspiring days of the school year. Rather like the Senior School’s International Day it gives us all the chance to celebrate the diversity that exists within our one community. It also gave me the chance to gurn… (probably best not to ask). Often schools seek to flatten differences and to produce individuals who share the same ideas and perspective. At the BSP this would be impossible, even if we wanted it. We are quite simply too varied to be forced in one way. This is one of our great strengths as a community. We have a broad perspective and our pupils can only benefit from having the unique experience of interacting with others from all continents and many nations. None of this would not happen without the indefatigable support of the parent community who have quite clearly been busy assembling costumes, props, cooking delicacies and making exhibits for the last few weeks. It was a remarkable display and we will probably never really know how much it has influenced the pupils who were fortunate enough to experience all that there was to savour! An enormous thank you parents and friends for all that you did to make this day such a success.

If there is one thing that I hope our pupils understand by this, the half way point in the year, is that we all function better when we are able to co-operate and learn from one another. Support, dialogue and an appreciation of otherness allow our young people to develop as the thought shapers and leaders of the future. Our children will have the chance to change their communities for the better. We need to give them the confidence, knowledge and skills to do so. By learning about the many countries and cultures of the world they have a head start.

If ever there was a demonstration of how well equipped our pupils are to see clear solutions to difficult problems then it is provided by the contributions that they made today to Sky News on the thorny subject of Brexit. Might I suggest that the Westminster politicos take time to listen to what the next generation of Europeans, in this case British and French, are saying about the current political situation? I am firmly of the belief that most of the world’s issues could be thrashed out by a group of Year 6 pupils if they are given sufficient supplies of Haribo and a little time. It was a pleasure to welcome presenter Braydon to the School and look forward to seeing our unique take on this issue on air.

Half term beckons and so I was pleased to join with our Senior School pupils in the now traditional mid-year madness. A dazzling collection of socks were on show and our thanks go to the catering team for hot chocolate with marshmallows at break. Life may well be complicated sometimes but it is rare for anything to look too bad from the perspective of a marshmallow filled mug on the brink on half term.

Have a great half term pause. Enjoy whatever it is you are doing and I look forward to seeing everyone back in school on Monday 4th March.

Nicholas Hammond