Coronavirus, the Pros and Cons
Published on: Monday, April 6, 2020
Instead of a worthy account of how we are managing the challenge of the pandemic here at King’s, I thought it might be a bit more fun to try to think of all the positives, and possibly some of the less well known negatives. I’ll keep this list alive and update it every few days. Please do get in touch with comments and suggestions for more entries.
|We have never eaten so well in our lives||We have never eaten so much in our lives|
|Thank goodness this is happening in the digital age||I spend 90% of my day staring at a screen|
|Our dogs are loving the company and the attention||Jasper has gone into overdrive and has hidden one shoe out of every pair that I own|
|We are doing a lot of gardening||With old seeds that we’ve found at the back of the cupboard and potatoes from our vegetable rack that have begun to sprout. Will planting a garlic bulb really work?|
|The newspapers are full of puzzles||There has been an explosion of truly execrable poetry on Radio 4|
|We get to spend time with our family||We have to spend time with our family|
|Social networking means we share lots of funny videos||If anybody sends me the video of the mother drinking from a box of wine with a straw again I’ll scream|
|We’re finally getting round to exploring the darker recesses of the drinks cabinet||I have no idea why some of that stuff is in there. I have one ceramic bottle of some colourless liquid, with Japanese writing on it, and not a clue what it is|
|The resident community of staff at school has pulled together like never before. We have a vibrant WhatsApp group that keeps us all in touch with messages and offers of help with shopping||We get to see each others’ shopping lists. What is Ms Crandley going to do with cherry tomatoes, gravy granules and a block of butter?|
|We have drawn up a list of odd jobs that need doing around the house on a special whiteboard we’ve installed in the kitchen||Every evening the whiteboard mocks me|
|We can hear birdsong all the time||The seagulls are taking over|
|Mrs Biggs is working hard to improve our cinematic literacy||This evening we’re watching another light-hearted black and white romantic romp starring James Stewart and Myrna Loy|
|The school grounds are looking lovelier than ever||And so few people to enjoy them|
|We are able to go for walks around the school site||When I manage to find that shoe…|
|The boys are really into their cooking||We have to keep our dishwasher going full time to cope with the bombsite|
|We’re playing a lot of board games||Isn’t it extraordinary how much argument a game of Trivial Pursuit can generate?|
|The petrol and diesel prices have fallen dramatically||We’re not allowed to drive anywhere|
Mrs Biggs' Must-See Classic Movies
Published on: Monday, March 30, 2020
My Wife, Sarah, who is a classic movie fanatic, has provided the following list of movies that she thinks everybody should see to improve their movie literacy. The current lockdown might be a great time to order up some of these. She will suggest more as time goes by!
A Matter of Life and Death – intriguing wartime film that is hard to categorise: part romance, part supernatural, but inspirational. David Niven stars.
Some Like it Hot – iconic comedy starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe – unforgettable scenes and lines.
Strangers on a Train – Alfred Hitchcock directs this film about an unconventional pact – which only one party intends to stick to.
Kind Hearts and Coronets – British comedy about a young man’s attempts to kill off all the members of his family who lie between him and an inheritance – all played by Alec Guinness.
The Odd Couple – Written by Neil Simon - two friends (Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, again) attempt to live together, before finding out each other’s infuriating foibles. Hysterical and very true-to-life.
Lawrence of Arabia – story of TE Lawrence, filmed on an epic scale and with a beautiful score. Worth watching for Omar Sharif appearing out of the desert.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – the original, with Danny Kaye. Fabulous depiction of 1940s America, all in Technicolor.
Casablanca – wartime drama with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with smart dialogue and truly moving moments.
Dr Strangelove – cold-war dark comedy about The Bomb, with Peter Sellers playing several roles equally brilliantly. V funny.
The Thin Man – detective story really just an excuse for snappy comic dialogue from William Powell and Myrna Loy – hugely stylish 1930s setting; was so popular they made around 5 more.
The Ups and Down of Lent
Published on: Monday, March 9, 2020
Part of the thrill of being a Head arises from one simple fact: we are spectacularly unprepared for the job. The usual path to Headship begins with teaching. We go into teaching because we feel a calling and because we love passing on our own passion for our subject to young people. If we’re good at that we get promoted, to Head of Department, or to Houseparent, and then on to a senior management position, eventually securing that first post as a Head, for which we have never really trained. Having started as teachers we do less and less of the thing we came into education to do, and more and more administration, and have to learn the skills required on the hoof. Nothing can properly prepare you for Headship. There is no doubt that the skills required of the modern Head are many and varied, and certainly more so than was the case, say, twenty or thirty years ago.
Having started out as successful teachers, we Heads are expected to know about, and have some expertise in: finances, marketing, human resources, employment and family law, technology, health and safety, child safeguarding, local and international politics and economics, developmental psychology, project management, inspection methodology, curriculum development, logistics and, of course, the latest thinking in the theory of education. Add a smattering of theology and a working knowledge of the art of public speaking, and you get a job which, at least in the first half dozen years or so, requires an extraordinarily steep learning curve from classroom chalky to experienced and competent Head.
All of which makes, as I say, for a thrilling ride. If you like the idea of getting up each morning not quite knowing what the day holds for you, and if you are happy to switch between chatting to a 13-year-old about her history project to chatting to an architect about the plans for your latest multi-million-pound project to chatting to the editor of the local newspaper about why you believe your school is a benefit to the local community, then this job is for you. But this term that range of knowledge has been extended even further. There is a new expertise expected of all Heads: we’re now required to have a working knowledge of epidemiology!
This is what we do know about the coronavirus. Firstly, it has spread with extraordinary speed, so that the picture has changed by the day, and our thinking and response as a school one week have had to be re-formulated by the next. We asked pupils from the Far East not to go home over half term, and parents were brilliant in supporting us in that request. Now the infection has spread, and soon the virus will be so ubiquitous that to single out specific regions as being more dangerous will be pointless. Secondly, the virus is not as deadly as the overheated press coverage suggests it is. Best estimates now put its mortality rate at about 1%. That is still ten times more lethal than common flu, but not nearly as dangerous as SARS, MERS or Ebola. From our point of view, as a school community, an important fact is that young, healthy teenagers seem to be treated very mildly by the virus. We should not be overly concerned about the risk posed to our children. Nonetheless, young people can pass the virus on to others who are more vulnerable and we have to do all we can to slow down its spread within our school, for the sake of others who are more at risk. Thirdly, although we know no details yet, the chances are that this outbreak will severely disrupt the normal working and rhythms of our school community as it runs its course. To this end we have decided to keep a boarding house open over the Easter holidays.A logistical challenge of the highest order, this will require hard work and the loyal support of members of staff, but I am sure it is the right thing to do. Parents of pupils in examination year groups, especially, will be worried about the risk of bringing their children home over Easter, only to find that travel restrictions have been tightened up and their children can’t get back for the exams. We have also drawn up plans for how we would teach remotely if all or some pupils could not attend school.There are plans, too, for what we will do if we need to isolate pupils on site.
All the planning is in place. We wait now to see what the next few weeks and months will bring. I suspect it is going to be a bumpy ride.
Global outbreaks of viral infections aside, this has been a testing term in other ways too. The weather has been almost unfailingly wet and gloomy which doesn’t help the general mood, and also means that our playing fields have been largely out of action all term. Our football and rugby sevens programmes have been severely disrupted. But lots of sport has carried on unaffected, and it has, as ever, been a pleasure to watch some really good netball, hockey, squash, badminton and swimming.
In fact the successes have continued to come thick and fast, and it is very important not to lose sight of the extraordinary things our pupils do day in and day out. We have hockey and football teams through to the final rounds of national competitions. Our debating team is in the finals of the ESU Mace competition in London next week, having won the regional round here at King’s against tough opposition. At the start of term we learnt that we had come top of the A level table in Somerset for our results last summer, both for overall grades and for value added. Our Fifth Form drama pupils performed a brilliant set of GCSE pieces last week, and expectations for top marks are high. One of our musicians won more than an armful of silverware at the recent Taunton Music Festival (I know it was more than an armful because he couldn’t carry it all in one go at assembly). Last night I attended the opening of an exhibition of pupil’s work at an art gallery near Wellington; a superb collection of thoughtfully conceived and skilfully executed pieces, which underline the artistic renaissance we have enjoyed at King’s in recent years.
A week ago we welcomed the 13+ scholarship hopefuls to King’s for their testing in the various areas. There were more of them than ever before, and the sense for all of us was that the quality of the candidates was exceptionally high. Some difficult decisions had to be made, and I know that some very talented young people will be disappointed. But they will all be wonderful additions to our community, they will all thrive here and contribute widely, and they will all be welcomed with open arms in September.
We have been planning for the future in other ways too, not least in making a number of key appointments. Two houseparents are hanging up their duty mobile phones at the end of the next term, which left two vacancies in absolutely critical posts. The fact that we had a good number of excellent internal candidates applying speaks volumes for the quality and loyalty of our staff, and their willingness to get stuck into the all-important boarding life of the school (I know that many schools would have to advertise externally for houseparent posts). We made two strong appointments, and I wish Claire Phillips and Steve King every success for the excitement ahead. We also had a strong field of (external) candidates applying for the post of Head of our new Psychology Department – we are going to offer the subject at A level from September. Again, we have made an excellent appointment of a dynamic teacher, who has plenty of experience both as a teacher and as a practising psychologist. We look forward to welcoming Dr Simon Noyce and his family to Taunton and to King’s in a few months’ time. I rather suspect that psychology is going to be a very popular A level choice in the coming years.
So all in all a very strange term so far – a mixture of apocalyptic trials and bucketloads of good news and success, and, despite the trials, optimism about the future. The constant is the spirit of the school, of the pupils and parents and colleagues who roll their sleeves up and get on with life. Sarah and I are also acutely aware that these are the final few months when we will have a child in the school. It has been a pleasure to see cost unit number two flourishing and grabbing every chance. But time is rapidly ebbing away and I know that the Leavers’ Ball will be on us in a flash. So it’s a poignant time too.
Walking into a New Year
Published on: Monday, September 9, 2019
It is always something of a relief when, after plenty of preparation and INSET and meetings, the new term finally gets underway. And the joys and trials of the summer break rapidly fade into distant memory.
Our INSET this year had a lovely, different twist to it. Instead of meeting in classrooms to discuss weighty matters of educational import our Deputy Head, Academic, arranged for the whole body of teaching staff to go for a walk. I am proud of the fact that everybody who could (ie were not tied up with pre-season training or Duke of Edinburgh expeditions), did – there were about 60 of us tramping along the north Somerset coastline. We walked to the little church at Culbone, the smallest parish church in England, where we squeezed in for a quick service, led by Father Mark. Then down to Porlock Weir for a refreshment at the Lower Ship Inn, then back inland and uphill, to the Upper Ship Inn for lunch. Along each leg we were given a particular topic to discuss by our new Teaching and Learning Coordinator, Emma Forward. The whole thing worked beautifully and I can recommend it highly as a brilliant way to get a new year underway. My knees still ache, but it was worth it!
We welcomed 136 new pupils and about ten new members of staff to King’s College this week. The new intake is the lifeblood of the school. As I always say to the new boys and girls, what this school looks like in five years’ time depends to some extent on them – what they make of the opportunities, how they grow and the ideas and passions they bring with them and which they develop while they are here.
My first week of the academic year, after the initial flurry of speeches and assembly, is usually fairly serene; I sit in my office, or cycle round the school or wander the corridors while the team gets on with it. I always hope that new pupils find this an easy school to settle into, and for most it is. Some find the quirkiness more of a challenge, but in the end, and usually by the end of the first week, they become old hands. We are not quite as arcane as some independent schools, and our language is fairly standard. You won’t see a reference to “grumbles will be taken by the Rising Fourth every third dropper on Bumper’s Field during Martinmas Term” in our diary! But some of our routines must seem strange, nonetheless, and take some getting used to.
The summer does seem to have flown by. The end of last term was as exciting and poignant as ever, with the last day being particularly memorable for all the right reasons. And then the weeks of summer just flew by. For one reason or another we did not, this year, go anywhere too exotic or for too long. In fact, our holiday consisted of a three-day trip to Ely. And jolly good it was too. Great cathedral. Very, very flat countryside.
Towards the end of the summer break each year we receive our GCSE and A level results, an event for which we wait with much anticipation. Being a relatively small and not particularly selective school our overall results do go up and down a bit year by year. This was very definitely an up year. We could not have been more delighted with our A level results, which were at an all-time high for King’s, and also with the GCSEs, which were within a percentage point our best ever. The achievements of some of our candidates were simply astonishing, and it was particularly pleasing to see how many A level students, in particular, really pulled it out of the bag. And as I said in the press release, the extraordinary thing is that those same young men and women did not take the foot off the pedal in terms of their wider commitment to the school. Our four captains and vice-captains managed straight A*s and As, despite the very real burden of service placed on them during the year. Our sporting and musical and dramatic and arty and outdoorsy enthusiasts also did well academically. Which serves to underline my belief that, far from hindering progress, a wide involvement in the co-curricular programme actually supports exam success. And it means those same students will be heading off to university with a “hinterland” of interests and skills that are going to stand them in good stead. It’ll make them more interesting people for one thing.
Do all families find the start of a new term a bit of a shock? Uniform has to be gathered, shirts ironed, forms filled in. Our beloved cocker spaniel Jasper is an extraordinarily effective entropy-creating machine. I do have a pair of smart, quite expensive and new-ish formal black shoes. Or at least I did. If anyone sees the right shoe lying around please let me know. Jasper refuses to tell me where he’s hidden it.
It has been the cricketing summer of our lives, rivalling the excitement of 2005, I think. It was great to see Jos Buttler OA playing an important part in the final of the World Cup. And Tom Banton and Eddie Byrom have been doing well for Somerset. Tom was a key player in the one-day county final at Lord’s, which Oliver and I were fortunate to see. Somerset might even win the championship for the first time ever. I look forward to seeing the last few games at the County Ground.
I don’t want to dwell on politics in this blog, but it says something about the current state of uncertainty in the UK that I get pitying texts and emails from my relatives in South Africa. Next week I will take my first Third Form class for Current Affairs. Where will I start? I’ll remind them, as I have reminded Third Formers now for about three years, that they live in Interesting Times and that they really ought to be paying attention, because their grandchildren will be asking them about these days. Were you really there, grandma?
Finally, a sweet story to share. Our Director of Development Julian Mack, owns a company which organises an annual, large-scale cross-Britain cycle tour. The tour sets off from Land’s End this Saturday and ends in John o’ Groats eight days later.About 900 people take part.Julian gives an evening pep-talk to the riders each day, and asked me for some anecdotes and jokes which might be useful. I sent him a smorgasbord of material to pick at, which included this simple story:
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10 year old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him.
“How much is an ice cream sundae?”
“50 cents,” replied the waitress.
The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied a number of coins in it.
“How much is a dish of plain ice cream?” he inquired. Some people were now waiting for a table and the waitress was a bit impatient.
“35 cents,” she said brusquely.
The little boy again counted the coins. “I’ll have the plain ice cream,” he said.
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and departed.
When the waitress came back, she began wiping down the table and then swallowed hard at what she saw.
There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were 15 cents – her tip.
A Busy First Half
Published on: Thursday, May 23, 2019
I was genuinely surprised on Monday when Colin Albery (Deputy Head, Co-Curriculum) told me just before I made my weekly announcements in Common Room that we broke up for half term this Friday. I honestly imagined we had another few weeks. Anyway, he’s right. And we have come headlong and full tilt to the half-way point of the Summer Term.
Apart from reminding my colleagues of this fact, the main thrust of the announcements that morning was to thank them all for helping out at the annual prep schools’ athletics festival on Sunday. This extravaganza of sport is a long-standing King’s tradition. About a dozen prep schools send teams for an afternoon of running, jumping and throwing on the King’s fields – an old-fashioned grass track all set about with bunting, tea tents and ice-cream vans. As is usually the case, the weather was fine and the competition fierce.
It reminded me of another wonderful event we enjoyed a few weeks earlier – our Spring Fair. Organised by our highly efficient trio of Housemistresses, the fair was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first girls joining King’s College. Those intrepid pioneers began a journey that has culminated in the school being fully co-educational in every sense, not just in terms of opportunity and curriculum but also in our very DNA and ethos. Interesting that this is also the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. Those first girls must have found this school just as daunting a place as Armstrong and Aldrin found the surface of the moon, and we salute them on their bravery and for paving the way towards normality!
The fair featured of a number of stalls run by the houses. These generally fell into two categories: stalls where you chucked something at something (or in one case someone) else, and stalls where you could buy something delicious to eat. There were carriage rides; and I must commend Mrs Edwards for her patience in driving her extraordinarily patient pair of greys around the same lap of the school and South Road all day long. The Big Band made a cheerful noise in the Memorial Garden and Mr Pyne fed the five thousand with a roasted hog or two. A girls’ cricket festival took place throughout the day. Then there was the dog show. We were somewhat surprised by the level of interest in this event – dozens of owners and their pets trooped down to the showing ring by the tennis courts, including the Biggs family with Archie and Jasper, the former entered in the “Golden Oldie” category and the latter for “Waggiest Tail”. Judging was thoroughly professional – Crufts pales by comparison. Sadly, Archie was far too sprightly to be in the running (or rather hobbling) as a Golden Oldie. Those who won could barely make it round the ring. We’ll need to wait a few years before he’s a true contender. And Jasper, despite usually almost tying himself in knots from wagging his tail non-stop, rose to the seriousness of the occasion and was completely inert.
In the late afternoon a choir of OAs, staff and friends rehearsed for evensong, conducted by Nikki Ridley (nee Dragonetti) OA. It was a lovely service, the singing was outstanding, and a fitting end to a glorious and memorable day. The event raised over £3,500 for the Malala Fund, which aims to provide an education for every girl in the world. I suggested to the Housemistresses that the fair was such a success, and the cause such a good one, that it ought to be an annual event. Judging by the look of sheer horror on their faces I suspect it won’t be.
This year, for the first time, our prep schools’ athletics festival did not clash with the second day of the Ten Tors Challenge, so I was able, with Sarah, to see the teams returning to Okehampton Camp at the end of their ordeals. Son Oliver was in the 45-mile team. We could follow progress over the weekend online, so had a good idea of when to expect them back. It was really quite an emotional moment when the team suddenly appeared on the horizon half a mile away, in perfect line abreast, looking smart and professional, the King’s flag fluttering from a bamboo pole. The telling thing was the look on the face of their trainer and mentor, Pete Belfield, standing next to us – a mixture of relief, huge pride and affection. I know that our Ten Tors record is so strong because of the support our pupils get from a simply outstanding team of staff who are experienced and wholly committed to preparing the boys and girls physically and mentally as well as they possibly can. The weeks of training are brutal, the challenge itself is extraordinarily tough, and the sense of achievement in those who finish is palpable.
Exams are now well underway for both GCSE and A level candidates. Getting the balance right between continuing to teach and giving candidates time off to revise is a delicate business. We’ve been teaching up to half term, and the pupils will then be on study leave to the end of the term. Other schools do it differently. All I can say is that the inexorable creep of the exams towards an earlier and earlier start is not helpful and is another example of bureaucracy (in this case the exam boards) putting its own convenience (more time to mark papers) before the best interests of the young people themselves. The new-look A levels have far fewer exams overall, so I don’t understand why the boards feel they need more time. What I can say is that our pupils seem to have knuckled down to serious work and are going flat out to do their best in the exams. The library is packed each evening. I wish them all every success.
Outside the school orbit the world carries on. As a passionate supporter of Liverpool and Somerset these are pretty good days – two big matches coming up over the next few weeks. And the weather seems finally to have woken up to the fact that it is meant to be summer, so those canoes are probably going to get dusted down over half term. And there are young pumpkin plants to look after …