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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 …

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.

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Our Pringle team have returned victorious after competing in the Sir Steuart Pringle Trophy Competition at CTCRM Lympstone. This prestigious military competition is attended by schools from across the country, and challenges leadership, teamwork, decision-making, fitness and specific military knowledge.

Not only did the team win the overall title, they also lifted five individual trophies, making this the best result in the school's history.

More information to follow, plus a gallery of images from the weekend.