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Springing into Spring

Published on: Thursday, March 28, 2019



The fact that I haven’t written a blog since the beginning of term says something. Not just that I’m a lazy Headmaster (though that is possibly very true), but also that this term has a habit of passing by horribly quickly. As is so often the case, I am writing this one as a displacement activity – a ploy to avoid the hundreds of reports that still need writing.

If terms have flavours then the flavour of this one for me has been musical. We’ve had some excellent concerts, but the crowning glory was the first inter-house music competition for many years. The event consisted of three parts: the individual musician of the year competition, house ensembles and the “house shout”. The first round of the musician of the year competition took up pretty much a whole day, and ended with drum solos in the music school. A list of finalists was drawn up and we enjoyed a most impressive concert of solo music last week, adjudicated by a visiting musician. The standard from both seniors and juniors was high. The senior event was won by Will Smale, who joined our Lower Sixth two years ago as a star cricketer. When auditioning for Grease we discovered that Will had a voice. That is such a King’s story. I always tell visiting parents that the great thing about this school is that we do not pigeonhole pupils, a tendency very much more evident in larger schools. Pupils are encouraged to discover and develop their whole being, which is why an international cricketer won our senior musician of the year competition.

The house shout is an acquired taste. It is loud. It is energetic. The quality of the singing is variable. What is not in doubt is that pupils love it and throw themselves into their performances with often frightening gusto. I thought our adjudicator (Cat Stevens – but not that Cat Stevens) was very brave to take it on, but she did a splendid job and was still smiling at the end. As, to be honest, was I.

Another theme for me this term has been leadership. Our Development Director and one of our history teachers have driven a programme for supporting Lower Sixth pupils to develop their leadership skills by taking on and running various projects about the school. And the results have been very evident: I have noticed a growing enthusiasm and a number of new events popping up, led by the pupils. Several charities have been supported, various societies have sprung up, valuable environmental work undertaken, quiz nights arranged. I love it when somebody comes knocking at my door to ask for permission to do something new, and always try to make it possible, even if the idea seems a little left field. If you can negotiate the three obstacles of cost, safety and reputation, you’re on.

We’ve had some lovely chapel services this term, including the confirmation service last Sunday and the memorial Eucharist to our late Provost of Taunton, David Henley, who died last November. We also had our termly sung evensong, this time with a darkly Lenten air about it, a few weeks ago. Father Mark ashed the whole school on Ash Wednesday. I know it’s not everybody’s idea of a fun time, but you can listen to recordings of many of our services via a link on the chapel page of our website.

Last weekend we enjoyed a slightly bonkers Drama Scholars’ Murder Mystery Dinner in the Woodard Room, this year featuring a cast of Disney characters. I did try to follow, but this is not my forte. I’m hopeless when it comes to figuring these mysteries out; it’s hard enough just trying to work out how this school works – 12 years in and much of it still amazes me. The acting was excellent, and the Upper Sixth scholars paid a particularly moving tribute to our Head of Drama, Harriet Agg-Manning, who arrived at King’s at the same time as they did. They’re a talented group and we’ll miss them.

And our sport has gone well. Our senior boys’ hockey teams lost just one regular fixture between them all season. When I wrote and submitted my report for this term’s governors’ meeting I realised, too late, that I had made a mistake in claiming that we had won all but one of our matches against Sherborne. We had not, at the time of writing, played Sherborne; I had confused it with Clifton. Between my writing the report and the actual meeting itself we did play Sherborne … and won all the matches but one. Particularly pleasing this term was the fact that our girls played their first ever full contact rugby matches at both senior and junior levels. Now, apart from netball, every sport is available to both girls and boys at King’s.

So it’s been a seat-of-the-pants whirlwind of a term, as the Lent Term so often is, and it is now crashing to an end. The cricketers have left for Sri Lanka, the artists have left for Madrid. All four Biggses are flying out to the Riviera next week for a spot of living the good life with an old school friend of mine and his family in Grasse. The sun is out, Somerset are playing their first warm-up match. Bring on the Summer Term.

On the Eve of Lent Term

Published on: Monday, January 7, 2019

On the eve of the return to work I look back on the last few weeks of the Michaelmas Term, and on the extraordinary Christmas break, with real pleasure. The school musical, Grease, was a roaring success. I had been sceptical – past experiences of the show had suggested that it is not really my cup of tea – but was blown away by the energy and conviction of the cast and the professionalism of the crew.

The final week of the Michaelmas Term was a blur of Christmas-themed events: Christmas jumpers were de rigeur throughout, we enjoyed an excellent and rousing concert in the theatre, two sumptuous carol services and a marvellous school Christmas supper. As always, the senior management team served the meal to the school - my own forte is brussels sprouts; my aim to persuade every pupil to have at least one.

My family and I enjoyed one week of peace and preparation at the start of the holidays before The Visitation. The clan arrived en masse from all corners of the world and in a few days there were 16 of us in the Headmaster’s House. The Canadians revelled in the relative balminess of the weather – anything above 0oC is positively tropical for them – and the South Africans shivered, having recently left behind a gloriously sunny Cape summer. The Brummies took it all in their stride. It’s quite an undertaking to cater for more than a dozen people for two weeks, but extraordinary how soon you get used to it. Toast, cereal, soup, stews, large pies and spag bol are the answer. And Sainsbury’s cheapest wine becomes drinkable with practice. And what to show to the visitors? Wells Cathedral, obviously, and Glastonbury for the new-agey types (it must be the town with the most crystal shops per square yard than any other in the world). Dunster and Exmoor (a race up Dunkery Beacon helped to clear the Christmas cobwebs); but the highlight, perhaps, was a barbecue on Kilve Beach. The South Africans muttered that sitting on rocks, collars turned up against a biting sea breeze while coaxing enough warmth out of a small charcoal barbecue to render a few sausages more or less edible was not really their idea of a braai. Taunton itself came up trumps – our visitors found it pleasant, bustling, friendly and, believe it or not, quite charming. A visit to the museum went down well.

The twin peaks of Christmas and New Year were safely and cheerfully climbed. My office doubled as a dormitory for some of the younger visitors. Sore heads were nursed and brisk walks were at least loudly discussed, and in some cases actually undertaken.

With all but my father now returned to their homes, things suddenly seem eerily quiet. We can now turn our minds to the term ahead. There is much to crack on with. We have some staff in new roles and one or two new policies to bed in. We are going to have a go at not allowing mobile phones for the younger age groups around the school, and I’m very interested to see what effect that has. Our Fifth Form come straight back into trial exams and we need to turn those around as fast as we can so that their benefit is maximised. Ditto for the Upper Sixth straight after half term. I have various meetings and conferences to go to around the country, not least the Woodard Heads conference next week in Leamington Spa. That is usually rather good fun, with colleagues from the full educational spectrum meeting up for thought-provoking discussion and mutual commiseration. We have, too, to consider how King’s Schools are going to manage the very large increase in pension costs now almost certain to come into effect in September. Luckily, and unlike some, especially smaller, independent schools, we are in a relatively strong financial position and will be able to weather the buffeting, but not without serious head scratching and careful planning. Oh, and there’s the small matter of Brexit. Who knows what the situation will be at the end of the term. As I keep telling the pupils in my Current Affairs classes: we live in interesting times!

I wish all readers of this blog a happy and successful 2019.

Amen to All That

Published on: Thursday, November 15, 2018

In every Headmaster’s diary there are now and then passages of a few days which I have come to call “Amen Corners”, after the famous sequence of holes (11, 12 and 13) at Augusta National golf course. They are days when more than usual seems to happen in quick succession. We have just enjoyed something of an Amen Corner in the past week.

On Thursday I attended this term’s Education and Pastoral Committee meeting at King’s Hall. This is a governors’ sub-committee, chaired by a wise and experienced ex-Head, and its glory is that it encompasses all that really matters in our schools. The committee had been sent a mountain of paperwork in advance in the form of the collated reports from each Head of Department in my school on their exam results and their plans for the year. It is to the committee members’ eternal credit that they had read though it all. We heard from the full spectrum of both schools – from Pre-Prep to the Sixth Form, on pastoral and academic matters. We also heard from the Heads of Design Technology at both schools, who were hugely impressive and inspiring. We do DT extremely well at King’s Schools. Perhaps we don’t trumpet that excellence loudly enough.

On Friday Sarah and I hopped into the convertible and drove into the rising sun to attend a memorial service in the Chapel at Lancing College. Ken Shearwood was a Lancing institution. When I joined the school in 2001 he had already been retired for several years, but he was very much still a presence – genial, kind, loyal to his old school, still an inspiration to pupils and staff. He died a few months ago. Ken had served in the navy during the war, had turned his hand to commercial fishing after that, before going up to Oxford as a mature(r) student. He joined Lancing and basically never left. I’m not even too sure what subject he taught; in the eulogies maths and English were mentioned but I think it was mostly history. His passion was football. He played for the amateur team Pegasus at Wembley in front 100, 000 people, and he was a decent cricketer; he coached both successfully at Lancing. The Chapel was packed with a remarkably jolly crowd, and laughter punctuated the solemnity of the occasion. It was wonderful to see old friends and colleagues, and even the odd parent and pupil who remembered me from Lancing days. We drove back feeling enormously cheered up, despite the sadness of the event, and despite the torrential rain hammering down on the canvas roof.

After a bit of umpiring on Saturday (possibly the best third XI girls’ hockey match I have ever seen – a gripping 1-1 draw against Bryanston), and a sneaky peak at the second half of the rugby match on TV (England were unlucky – that was never offside), we moved seamlessly into the OA Reunion dinner. We always have a reunion on the night before Remembrance Sunday, our habit in recent years being to invite especially, but of course not exclusively, those who left 10, 20 etc years ago. A good number of 2008 leavers turned up, which was a first for me: the first time that I actually knew those who had left ten years before. When my Deputy Head, Pastoral, Karen McSwiggan saw the guest list she visibly paled. She has been here much longer than I have and inevitably, because of the nature of her responsibilities, has a slightly less rosy memory of some past pupils. But she needn’t have worried. Time had done its magic and all were impeccably behaved. Of course: they are King’s men and women! It was huge fun chatting to the OAs and finding out what each had done in the ten years since leaving us. One spends his time in Geneva marrying up ships with cargoes, another manages funds in Guernsey, one runs a nursery school in London, several are in the armed forces. They were universally impressed by what they saw at the school, and it is true that we have managed an enormous amount of development in the past decade. Sometimes it takes the return of old boys and girls to remind ourselves just how much we have achieved.

On Sunday we held our annual Remembrance service in a Chapel that was packed to the rafters. The weather was kind to us and we were able to conclude the service with the traditional wreath-laying ceremony in the Memorial Quad. We added a few extra touches this year to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War. Our School Captains read out the moving poems In Flanders Fields and We Shall Keep the Faith, and staff and pupils placed perspex silhouettes of soldiers, the “Tommies”, around the memorial. In my sermon I reminded the pupils, in particular, that the OAs who died were just like them. They were fellow King’s schoolmates who had had their lives taken from them far too early and often in horrible and lonely circumstances. The ritual of Remembrance Sunday could only have meaning if they, the present pupils, dedicated themselves to action and committed themselves to working for peace and a better world. A recording of the service is on the Chapel page of our website.

Amen Corner ended on Monday, with the biennial inspection of our CCF, a joint meeting of the two senior management teams of both our schools and, finally, a lovely first rehearsal of the occasional choir of parents, staff and friends in preparation for the Advent Carol service in a few weeks’ time. The inspection was led by Major General Charles Stickland, Commandant General of the Royal Marines. He was extremely kind and clearly has a knack for putting nervous cadets at their ease. Both he and I enjoyed moments of pride in the parade. He, because the cadet leading the whole show, saluting the General and asking for permission to carry on was his son. I, because the noisy chap yelling at the Pringle Trophy Marines drill squad was my son. I believe the whole inspection team was impressed by what they saw. I am a great fan of the CCF and am proud of the enthusiasm shown and the high standards set by our staff and cadets.

By comparison with the previous five days, Tuesday was really quite low key – a train journey to London and a board meeting of ISEB (the Independent Schools Examination Board). My train there was delayed by “leaves on the line”. Genuinely. I had always thought that was a comic myth, but no, trains do get delayed by wet leaves. But I do love travelling by train. For one thing, it gives me time to write my blog.

Two Recent Events Served to Underline One Incontrovertible Fact

Published on: Monday, October 15, 2018

Two recent events served to underline one incontrovertible fact: King’s College is just a little bit bonkers. I would not have it any other way; a tinge of eccentricity is essential if one is to remain sane and cheerful in life. The first incident was one which happens annually and which, annually, I miss because I am away at the HMC conference. But I hear the stories and I see the pictures. It’s the St Francis’ Day Eucharist in our Chapel, to which pupils, staff and parents are invited to bring their pets to be blessed. I understand the Chapel was completely packed with creatures, human and otherwise, and the usual holy chaos reigned. You can find pictures on the facebook link on our website.

The second event is not, yet, an annual fixture, but I aim to make it so. It was last week’s weighing of the pumpkins. You may remember that last year I grew some of Dr Ogle’s special seeds and that a giant pumpkin appeared miraculously on the garden wall of the Headmaster’s garden. I harvested the seeds of that giant and distributed them to all and sundry, challenging the Houses to a pumpkin-growing competition. Last Tuesday, as part of the weekly school assembly, we paraded the various entries in front of the whole school. Father Mark was Chief Pumpkin and the idea was to use his bathroom scales (somehow) to find the winner. But in the end the gigantic entry from King Alfred was so obviously larger than all the others, including some decent offerings from Bishop Fox, Taylor, Carpenter, Dr Stone, Mr Speyer and Mr Biggs, that no weighing was necessary. Each entry was carried out by two (necessarily) burly prefects to rapturous applause. I was told by one colleague that another colleague had whispered in her ear: “only at King’s would we be clapping pumpkins.”

Those pumpkins became the centrepiece of the next day’s Harvest Festival service, during which each House brought up an offering of tinned and dried food to be donated to the local food bank.

The annual HMC conference, this year at Manchester, was not quite as much fun. The three days were somewhat overshadowed by the recent announcement from the Treasury that the contributions of employers to teachers’ pension funds was to increase dramatically – significantly more than any school had been expecting or had budgeted for. That decision is being challenged by various bodies, not least the Independent Schools Council to which, through our membership of HMC, we belong. We hope very much that the figure will be reduced to more manageable levels, but in any case we know that next year we will be landed with a serious increase in our salary bill. We will manage, of course, but it is galling, having only a few weeks ago congratulated all staff on such strong pupil numbers, to have to start talking about belt tightening.

And the increase in the pensions costs is not the only blow that might come the way of independent schools. There is talk of adding VAT to school fees and of removing business rate relief. For one reason or another both ends of the political spectrum seem to believe that independent schools are awash with privilege and cash and are ripe for plundering. The (possibly unintended, possibly not) consequence of all this squeezing could well be the demise of many schools in the sector, which would increase the government’s education budget by far more than the extra VAT etc would generate.

Also last week the ISC published the results of research carried out by Oxford Economics into the value of independent schools to the UK economy. Headline figures are as follows: It would cost the taxpayer an extra £3.5 billion per year if all independent school children were instead educated in state schools. Independent schools contribute £13.7 billion per year to UK GDP and support 303,000 jobs, generating £4.1 billion in tax revenue. Finally, it is estimated that, had independent schools ceased to exist in the late 1940s, the loss in average national educational attainment would have resulted in the annual GDP being £73 billion less than it was in 2017. A copy of the report, giving the full detail behind these headline results, can be found on the ISC website: www.isc.co.uk

Given the proven economic importance of the independent sector, along with the benefit it brings in terms of leading the way in educational thinking and standards, spreading the UK brand and influence overseas, bringing overseas income into the UK, supporting state schools through partnerships and providing a first-rate education through bursarial assistance for a great many children, it seems clear to me that the anti-independent school mood and rhetoric on both sides of the political divide is wholly irrational. We are just too easy a target – posh, rich private schools. No other country would treat one of its most successful, internationally-recognised, economically important brands in this way. The rest of the world holds UK independent education in the highest regard, but here we do not.

So if you have the ear of your local MP or local council member do please tackle them on this matter. We are a brilliant success story and should be supported, not clobbered.

Two weekends ago a group of our Royal Marines cadets took part in the annual Sir Steuart Pringle Trophy competition. There are, now, 20 schools in the UK honoured to have Royal Marines CCF sections. Every year all of these schools compete in an exacting test of skill and endurance at Lympstone, the RM training base. Speaking as the father of one of the contestants this year (and of another three years ago) I can confirm that it is an extraordinary commitment from the cadets involved. They are up most mornings at 6am for five weeks to practise their drill and other skills. They spend most Sundays training on Woodbury Common near Lympstone. It is a tough, tough ask – and of course their other commitments carry on as usual (not least on the academic side) – and they should all be warmly applauded simply for sticking at it. Our team came second overall, losing narrowly to Shrewsbury and winning one of the elements of the competition along the way. That is a wonderful success, and a credit to the eight boys and one girl, and to their training officers. The curious thing is that, now the competition is over, they genuinely miss it. I had expected Oliver to be relieved when it was all over, but he is bereft. Odd creatures, teenagers.

One week to go before half term. Where has the first half of term gone? I wish you all a very happy and restful King Alfred Holiday!

An Exciting Start to a New Academic Year

Published on: Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Once you’ve gone through the start-of-year wringer for the twelfth time, as I just have, you begin to feel a little more confident and sure of yourself. But just a little. It is always a moment fraught with excitement and anxiety. The rhythm of meetings and assemblies is a familiar one, but every year brings its own peculiar quirks and character. And of course, its own reasons to celebrate. If I sit here in my office writing my blog with a larger than usual smirk of satisfaction on my face it is for this reason: for the first time in twelve years I can genuinely say – we are full.

As numbers at King’s grew over the years, we realised we needed to ask ourselves the question – what does full mean? So a few years ago we looked at boarding accommodation, class sizes, the market and so on and came up with this mythical figure of 470. Without actually building more boarding space, we reckoned, we could fit in 470 pupils. Well, at the start of this new academic year I am delighted to say that we have exactly 470 pupils in King’s College. On Monday last week I took a bottle of champagne into the Admissions Office and toasted the team on their extraordinary efforts.

There are other reasons to be cheerful too. Our A level results were strong. We have been joined by a keen and exciting group of new staff. Our U15 XI cricket team won, on the day before term started, the national T20 cricket competition, beating Sedbergh School in the final at Arundel. The school grounds look immaculate, the sun is still shining and our fig tree is producing about a kilogram of fruit every day.

The sunny weather brings its own problems: the ground is too hard for rugby. A few years ago I tried to get a new movement going: September Cricket. I asked my fellow Heads to join me in a campaign to start the rugby season a month later in the term, and play cricket in September. Every year the weather at this time is lovely. The county and international games are still going on. We always have a number of boys and girls who join us partly because of the strength of our cricket, and we don’t get to see them playing until April at the earliest. If we played cricket in September the rugby teams could get themselves into shape before playing seriously, the ground would get softer, and the rugby season would then be about the same length as all the others. What’s not to like about fewer injuries? But my suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. Unless it rains soon and hard I fear we’ll not be able to play rugby for a while on our own pitches, and I suspect other schools have similar problems.

None of this affects hockey, though, and it was lovely to see our girls out in full force on Saturday playing in a traditional block fixture against Bristol Grammar School. I umpired the 2nd XI match, and it was great to be back behind a whistle. It didn’t strike me until half time that I had not asked the hockey wallahs whether there had been any rule changes since the last season (there usually are). But nobody complained too loudly about my lack of knowledge, so I guess if there have been changes they are not too important.

The summer holidays already seem a long way back, but we had a thoroughly wonderful time. The drive down to the south of France in the convertible was all I had hoped for. And because, for the first time ever, we had visited my good friend David (the rare wine dealer) in a car, rather than flying, he took the opportunity to clear out some space in his cellar and loaded a case or two onto my back seat. We clinked our way home again, taking extra care round the corners…

M Biggs’ travel tips from his summer adventure: The town of Richelieu, Albi Cathedral, the Pope’s Palace at Avignon, the Roman Theatre at Orange, the drive from the Loire Valley up onto the high country of the Auvergne along the Ardeche River valley (especially if you do it in a convertible!), the Cathedral at le Puy-en-Velay, Bourges, the crypt of Chartres Cathedral and finally the Normandy D-Day beaches. Your holiday is also immeasurably more enjoyable if you happen to have good friends who own a castle in the Creuse, a farmhouse in the Tarn or a villa in Grasse. And also if your spouse has done a brilliant job of researching and booking the quirkiest, friendliest B&Bs in between the castles, farmhouses and villas. A glorious holiday in every way.

Towards the end of the summer holidays our Chairman of Governors, Linda Nash, and I flew to India to attend a meeting of the Board of King’s College, India. Linda had not been to the country before and I will, publicly, say this about my boss: she is a tough traveller! She was very good company, was impressed, I think, by the school itself and not at all fazed by the challenges of India. We had one afternoon free in Delhi before we flew back and decided to visit the enormous Akshardham Temple. Unfortunately, that day also happened to be the Hindu festival of Rakshabandan, and the whole of Delhi and, it seemed, several surrounding states had also decided to visit the temple. We queued for about an hour in 45oC heat and when we got to the front of the line were told that we could not bring our mobile phones in – we had instead to queue first for the locker rooms. So we hopped on a tuk-tuk and headed straight for Starbucks in Connaught Place, where we enjoyed two enormous iced coffees. The temple will still be there next time.

One exciting result of the visit to the Indian school was a renewed commitment to taking a group of our own pupils out there soon. We’ll go out in April, with Third and Fourth Form pupils, and spend time at the school, as well as visiting some of the extraordinary sights both nearby and further afield.

I write this blog a few minutes after saying goodbye to a group of delightful Meynell Third Form girls, who came to our house for supper this evening. Sarah and I have all of the Third Form, by house, to supper this term, a good chance for us to get to know them and, just as importantly, a chance for them to see that we are not ogres. Our two dogs are a key part of the welcome and are now old hands at getting the conversation going. The girls tonight were confident, chatty and interesting. They are delighted to be here, they said (honestly, this is not Headmagisterial spin) that they were enjoying their lessons, they thought the food was excellent and after the first week they were really quite tired. Their number included an international pentathlete, an accomplished water polo player and a much admired hip-hop dancer. There was a big grin on my face as they left: we are in good hands!

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