Headmaster's Blog

Creaking back into action

Thursday, September 14, 2017 by Richard Biggs

Readers who have followed this blog over the years may recall that in the past my entry at about this time of the year usually takes a rather smug tone. “The first week for the Headmaster is a quiet time” I have said in the past. “I sit twiddling my thumbs waiting for issues to crop up while the rest of my staff work like mad getting the new term underway”. Not this year. You’ll not detect any smugness here…it’s been rather a frantic and eventful first two weeks.

But first the end of the summer holidays, which do seem a distant memory already. The end of the break is, of course, punctuated by A level and then GCSE results and we were pleased with both. Some pupils did spectacularly well and covered themselves in A*s, a great many worked hard and achieved the very best they could, and we are very proud of them all. A great deal of careful analysis takes place now to tease out what lessons can be learnt by departments and the school. My Academic Deputy and I meet each Head of Department to pore over the grades and to plan for the year ahead.

I was not physically here for the GCSE results. That week I travelled to India for a Board meeting at our school in Rohtak, giving myself a few more days beforehand to see something of the country. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of parents I was treated to a two-day trip to the city of Amritsar, the heart of Sikhdom and the site of the Golden Temple. An astonishing, blazing hot, colourful, action-packed two days, which included seeing the daily ceremony at the border with Pakistan. It was possibly the hottest I have ever been in my life: we waited for an hour in the blazing afternoon sun, for the show to begin. I know that odd photos have made their way onto Facebook and I am not proud of them: a profusely sweaty Headmaster is not a thing of great beauty. Look up the Indian-Pakistan Wagah border ceremony on Youtube and you’ll get an idea of what happens. The crowds on both sides are whipped to fever pitch, soldiers perform a slightly comic routine of goose stepping and aggressive posturing, the gates are flung open, brief handshakes exchanged, the gates are flung shut, the flags are lowered, bugles sound, the crowd screams. What fun. All in the full glare of a punishingly hot sun.

That evening one of our hosts, Surjeet Singh, took us to his restaurant. He is the man who invented a dish called Amritsari fish and he called me into the kitchens and showed me how to make it. Although he spoke little English I think it is safe to say my culinary skills did not impress. The next day we visited the Golden Temple and that was definitely the highlight of the week for me. It is the holiest site in Sikhdom, visited by huge crowds of pilgrims every day. We joined the devotees and made our way into and around the heart of the temple, where a priest continuously reads from holy scripture, his voice broadcast all around the complex. The buildings are stunning; plenty of inlaid marble, very like the Taj Mahal. A moving place, and humbling too: it is entirely run by Sikh volunteers who keep it clean, look after visitors and cook and wash up in a vast, and free, canteen.

Just beside the Temple is the Jallianwala Bagh, where, in 1919, the British Colonel Dyer fired on unarmed protestors who had gathered in an enclosed space. The site is now a memorial and I found it a difficult place to visit. The bullet holes in the walls, the well into which panicking crowds threw themselves to escape, the single narrow lane down which General Dyer led his troops are still there. You may remember the scene from Gandhi.

The day ended with a picnic on a farm in the middle of a rice paddy. And dancing too. Again, if by chance those images have appeared on social media then I apologise. A hot and sweaty Headmaster dancing in a rice paddy to Bhangra music is a thing of even less beauty. But it was a magical moment to be, for once, in the countryside, in the startling green of the monsoon season.

I was driven to the school in Rohtak the next day and found, to my joy, that it now genuinely feels like a school. Not a project or work in progress or a building site, but a school. Still plenty to be done and lots of problems to sort out, but there are 130 children being taught by excellent teachers and plenty of optimism about the future. And I played tennis! The Acting Head, Brendan Canavan and I inaugurated the Anglo-Indian School Heads’ Tennis Challenge and rather foolishly played a few sets. Quality started on the low side and declined from there as heat and humidity caught up with unfit middle aged bodies. Luckily, the school very recently opened its new swimming pool, so relief of some sort was at hand.

In October we are expecting 20 of the Indian pupils, and three members of staff, to visit us in Taunton as the first leg of what will, I hope, become a regular exchange programme.

The week before the start of term was taken up with meetings, training and social events for staff. We have a very exciting group of teachers joining us this year and they seem to have settled in well. On that final weekend, my son Oliver and I decided that we would at last grasp the nettle and complete our long-planned paddle down the Wye. We left Hereford and spent the Saturday canoeing through the most beautiful scenery you could imagine. The weather was perfect and the river quiet, except for the odd aluminium Canadian canoe lurching from bank to bank. We did think we had the most elegant craft on the river. We camped at Hoarwithy, reasonably comfortably (the excellent pub nearby did help) and woke to torrential rain. So we decided not to carry on to Ross, but to summons our rescue team (Mrs B and the roof bars) to the campsite instead. Still, we had shown that two small homemade canoes could carry enough gear to keep us going and were robust enough to survive the occasional groundings and faster water of the Wye. We’re now planning the next trip…Scotland maybe?

So on to the first week of term. And, as I suggested, a busier-than-usual start one way or another. We had our first tranche of Third Formers round for supper on the second night. “So how are you finding school?” we asked. “Well the first two days have gone well….” They answered. Then the Lower Sixth supper in the Dining Hall on the Wednesday, then the prefects came to our house for supper on the Friday. Admittedly, I did slip away to Lord’s on the Thursday…A good day’s cricket.

During the last week of the holiday a miraculous thing happened. I went into the Finance Office for a meeting and when I came out a great big bubble had appeared over one of the distant tennis courts. Just like that. Oliver and I grabbed tennis kit and headed down to the new facility and managed to grab the first spot. The acoustics are odd, flattering even: it sounds as though you’re thumping the ball with tremendous force. In order to seal in the air pressure the entrance is a revolving door. I later heard that the PE department could not get the netball posts in through the door, which I found very funny indeed. But they’ve now found a way and both netball and tennis are already making full use of the new dome.

Drama has been moved, at last, to its rightful place in the theatre. The new studio looks suitably black and mysteriously arty and what was the conference room is now a bright and airy drama classroom. The sixth form social centre has moved to the old gym, and in the course of this year we will begin to look at designs for turning that space into a new café for pupils, staff and parents.

And just today we had our first formal meeting to look at designs for a new girls’ boarding house – the very beginning of what will inevitably be a long process of design and financial planning. It’s a major project, bigger than anything we’ve done since I’ve been here, but it is very obviously the right move and will add tremendously to our provision. I do find the whole process of seeing things through, from those first sketches on the back of the envelope to the final opening of a new building, very exciting indeed.

As I’ve said before: I love this term. It has weight and depth. It’s a great long stretch of time to get things done, to cover the ground in teaching, to submerge oneself in the rhythm of the school. Getting to know new staff and new pupils is a pleasure, particularly when they tell you how much they are enjoying being here. People come back from their holidays refreshed and full of ideas. After a maths lesson today one of my pupils came to me and said he wanted to start a Foreign Exchange Club. “Oh no” I said “we’ve got enough exchanges going on already, I really don’t think we can manage more”. He gently explained that this was about trading in currency, not school pupils. I was so relieved that I’ve offered a £50 prize to get his club off the ground. Or maybe I should have offered my left-over rupees: the sterling may not be worth so much by the end of the competition.

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