Headmaster's Blog Archive

Summer Pleasures

Tuesday, June 20, 2017 by Richard Biggs

I have now discovered the only really proper way to travel: on top of a coach drawn by four horses, preferably through Windsor Great Park, preferably dressed in a top hat and tails and sipping champagne. Which is precisely what I was doing on Saturday. Emma Edwards, our wonderful Taylor housemistress, comes from a family who are steeped in the rather arcane world of coach driving. A few months ago she arranged for the whole show (and it is a quite a show: massive horsebox, trailer for the coach, several grooms and crates of champagne) to base itself near King’s, at the Netherclay stables. We were invited to join them on one of the drives, from the stables back to the school, and it was glorious. Emma very kindly invited Sarah, me and some other King’s folk to join them for the annual drive in Windsor Great Park, followed by the Coaching Club dinner at a nearby hotel. Regulation dress was full Acot rig: top hat, tails, waistcoat and gloves. Just the sort of outfit for a swelteringly hot June afternoon. We clambered aboard at the hotel and enjoyed two hours of mostly gentle (except when one of the horses was spooked – quite exciting) ambling through the glory that is the Queen’s back yard at Windsor. Photos will follow.

Back to Taunton on Father’s Day (two bottles of beer from elder son – such a sweet boy) and at last a moment to launch canoe number 2. I decided some time ago that one was not enough – it’s a bit lonely with just one – so made another. And it floated and seemed pretty much watertight, which is the main thing.

These are those days which we dream about for the rest of the year. The school, and the whole world, looks absolutely stunning. We held an OA open day on Saturday and I think the old boys and girls were genuinely moved by the sheer loveliness of the grounds. Also, I think, many were impressed by how much we had added to the school in recent years. On Saturday we formally opened the new indoor climbing wall, funded very generously by the OA Club. That is apparently the best facility of its sort in this part of the world and has opened up a new and already very popular activity for our pupils. I have not yet been brave enough to have a go…I think I’ll stick to coaches and paddling.

For the first time in a few years I am not in Kenya this week. I usually go to the Sevens tournament at Pembroke House School in the Rift Valley and help to man the King’s tent. But this week we have the small matter of a T20 match between South Africa and England at the County Ground – a rather special occasion and, I believe, the first international of any sort at the ground. We have guests joining us for the afternoon and the game should be exciting. Kate Rippin and Dr Snell will fly the King’s flag in Kenya. And Tanzania too – Kate is visiting a prep school there. We have built up strong connections with a number of schools in East Africa, greatly to the benefit of King’s.

Well the election came and went. From the point of view of the independent school sector the inconclusiveness of the result may not be a bad thing. Theresa May had radical plans in mind for education, not all of which would have been helpful for independent schools. And Labour had threatened to apply VAT to school fees, which would have been disastrous (although probably not legal). With any luck the precariousness of her position means that Mrs May will leave things as they are for the moment and we can get on with running our schools without yet more interference. All we ask of any government is to allow us a stretch of a few years without something major being changed so that we can get used to current curriculums and regulations and focus our energy on what really matters, which is teaching children.

The combination of hot weather and public exams means we are able to meet as a school each week, for assembly and for the Eucharist, in our amphitheatre; we are just about able to fit the school, minus the Fifth and Upper Sixth Forms, into that space. There is something quite profound and primal about gathering in the round outdoors. The Athenians gathered on the Pnyx, a small hill beneath the Acropolis, to debate and discuss, from as early as 507BC. Pericles, Aristides and Alcibiades spoke there, as did Demosthenes when he denounced King Philip of Macedon. We have our own Pnyx and we use it as often as we can. Though I suspect my reading out of cricket reports does not quite reach the heights of oratory those Athenians enjoyed.

Easter Break

Monday, April 10, 2017 by Richard Biggs

Now that we're well into the Easter holidays, the end of term, and indeed the Lent term itself, seem something of a distant memory. Bits and pieces remain vividly memorable though: the opening of the new art studio, with artist Michael Brennand-Wood doing a superb job of inspiring our students and looking the part to perfection (see photos on our website); the wonderful murder mystery evening put on by our drama scholars; and the fantastic feast of end-of-term music, not least the sumptuous Lent Concert, featuring Faure's Requiem (and yours truly on the horn, trying desperately not to lose my place in the score).

All attempts to get away from King's and possibly spend a few days in Cornwall have proved in vain, partly because of work and partly because, in a fit of extravagant hedonism, Sarah and I signed up for a Magill wine tasting spectacular in The Firehouse in Curry Rivel this week. Well worth it! Great pub. Wonderful wines.

So instead I have decided to tackle a task that has been looming over me for several years, the sort of job that keeps you awake at night wondering whether yoll ever have the courage to begin it: Tidying my workshop. Recently my man cave has reached a state of such perfect chaos that I only ever go into it when I know nobody else is around, terrified that a passer-by might peek in and draw several negative, possibly unwarranted, conclusions about the Headmaster's state of mind. I finally bit the bullet, rolled up my sleeves, said goodbye to my family and waded in. Three days later I have emerged triumphant. My workshop is a thing of pristine order. It has a floor that you can see. The work benches are empty. Several car-loads of rubbish have made their way to the recycling centre. There are labelled boxes on the shelves: 'small pots of paint', 'bits of rope', 'wood for barbecue'. The recycling centre has been a revelation. It has a shop! From which I have now purchased three bar stools for my workshop. I am so proud of the place that I hope to invite friends in there for a beer now and then. Ah well, it won't last - the second law of thermodynamics will always win out.

Education has been much in the news these past few days. We have had a court case in which the right to fine parents for taking their children out of school during term time has been reinforced. Rightly so, I think. A week away from lessons is a lot of teaching to miss. It's tough on children to expect them to make up lost work, and tough on teachers to expect them to manage absences and fill in the gaps afterwards.

And the Labour Party has announced its plan to fund primary school meals for all pupils by charging VAT on independent school fees. Yet again we see politicians peddling a simplistic and mistaken view of private education: that it is the preserve of the ultra-rich and that sending a child to a private school is somehow sinful and deserves punishment. Their plan could have absurd consequences: a perfectly ordinary family, with both parents busting a gut and making huge sacrifices to send their child to an independent school because they want the best for that child (and by the way both paying taxes towards a state education they are not making use of) having to pay even more in the form of VAT to pay for the meals of a far wealthier family who have sent their child to a primary school. It's an absurd plan and I take consolation in the fact that it is unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

And while I'm in the mood - what about the timing of Easter? Every time I meet a senior cleric in the C of E I mention this. The fact that Easter wanders around the calendar with a celestial mind of its own is distinctly unhelpful. We will be coming back to school on a Thursday next term for goodness' sake. If we know that Jesus was born on 25 December, can-t we be a little more precise about his death? Say the first Friday of April? School managers around the world would breathe a sigh of relief. (I expect a rap on the knuckles from Father Mark is on its way.)

Today is the first day of the new county cricket season. It is a perfect spring day. Somerset are playing Oxford Universities and I am sorely tempted to tear myself away from my workshop (I do spend time in there just admiring it now, to be honest) and pop down for an over or two. The school grounds are looking superb. The Summer Term is a thing of wonder and beauty and enormous fun (if you're not taking public exams, that is) and we look forward to it all year. Only a week to go!

Half term approaches

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 by Richard Biggs

Well we’ve staggered to the end of the first half of the Lent Term, more or less in one piece, although the list of staff and pupil absentees seems to grow by the minute. I hear there’s a bug doing its dirty business. This is a good time to be a bug – people are working hard, it’s cold and damp and we’re all a little tired. Father Mark is away from school tomorrow, and instead of arranging a stand-in cleric, we decided simply to allow everybody a chance to sleep a bit later. That should help us all to make it to the sanctuary of half term.

It’s been a busy few weeks, not least because we’ve been working hard on staff recruitment. Each appointment requires careful planning and is a complex process. My Deputy Head, Academic has to come up with a programme of observation lessons, tours and interviews which dovetail efficiently and allows us every chance to make the right decision. And we’ve made some fantastic appointments. I am really very excited – details to follow! It is heartening to know that people want to come and work at King’s. I know it’s a great place, but it’s encouraging to see that others think so too.

A few weeks ago I flew out for a few days for a board meeting at King’s College, India. Much happened over the course of the weekend I was there. It was lovely to see the school with children in it – the first time I had been there since pupils had arrived. After his outstanding work in setting the school up, Brad Sailes has stepped down as Headmaster and we will be appointing his successor in the coming weeks. I have agreed to play an even closer role for the time being in the running of the school in support of the Acting Head, Brendan Canavan, and will be going out once again next week during half term.

Kate Rippin, our Registrar, and I visited the most wonderful little prep school in Dorset last week: Hanford House. It’s an all-girls school of about 100 pupils, based in a Jacobean house with a slightly ramshackle collection of prefab classrooms and very grand stables. The girls do not wear uniforms – the only dress code is that they have to wear a skirt. Riding is popular, as is tree climbing. The girls struck me as absolutely delightful – confident, cheerful, resourceful and loyal. The Head, Rory Johnston, told us a lovely story: when he was showing a visiting family around the school a group of girls passed them at a trot carrying a mattress. When asked what on earth they were doing they replied “Jessica’s stuck up the tree!” If I had a daughter…

But I only have sons, and one of them is returning today after a few months in Africa. I hope he doesn’t find Taunton too dull after the excitement of the veld. He’ll not be fighting bush fires here, or dosing sheep or checking water troughs on a motorbike or hunting vermin. Actually I think he has a job lined up – in a local tea shop. It’ll be good to have him back.

Back from Africa

Monday, January 9, 2017 by Richard Biggs

Sitting at my desk with a cold rain falling from leaden skies outside my office window, it is hard to imagine that only yesterday I was swimming in the Indian Ocean. A few weeks before the end of last term we took the financially ruinous but spiritually restorative decision to head out to South Africa for Christmas. We returned from that trip this morning, to be welcomed by a frosty and grey Heathrow, but also, when we got home, by two ecstatic dogs who seemed genuinely pleased to see us again.

The end of last term passed by in the usual flurry of enormously enjoyable and moving school events. The African sun seems to have baked those memories into hard, shiny little nuggets: the exceptional school musical, The Sound of Music, as always an absolute triumph. We do that sort of thing so well at King’s. There were the glories of the final week, with the whole school attending the Carol Service, followed by the medieval raucousness of the Christmas Dinner; the Prefects’ nativity play during our final assembly (a long-established tradition in which the School Captains play Mary and Joseph); a final blast of report writing, one more public, carol service, and then the flight down south.

With only 19 days to play with (who sets these holiday dates anyway?) we made the most of our stay. Henry, my older son, was already out there (and still is) working on my father’s brother’s farm in the Karoo, a place where I spent a great deal of my own childhood and which I do miss more than anywhere else. We joined him there for Christmas, our first visit for 12 years. Henry himself had transmogrified into a proper African farmer – dosing sheep, riding a motorbike, fighting veld fires, fixing windmills and, as important as everything else, playing tennis at the club on Saturday afternoons. He won’t want to come back. Tennis, swimming and barbecuing are the key elements of a proper Christmas and we indulged to the hilt.

After three years of drought the Karoo is looking black and brittle, although the sheep are well and fat and seem to thrive on dust and twigs. It is remarkably productive countryside. It did rain while we were there – so refreshing to be in a place where rain is welcomed with a big smile – but only enough to dampen down the dust a little.

Cape Town was its usual glorious self. It gets busier each year as more people discover its joys. If you haven’t been you should go, just don’t expect to get anywhere fast if you go over Christmas or New Year. The traffic is worse than Taunton on a Friday afternoon, and that’s saying something. But my father’s house is on the seaside and just ten minutes’ walk from one of the loveliest beaches in the Cape (and with the recent installation of a shark net, now one of the safest).

But this is not a travelogue…although it sometimes seem so. We return refreshed and ready for the excitement of the term ahead. The Lent Term has its own peculiar character, determined largely by its shortness and its darkness. We cram a huge amount into a few weeks. For a few year groups there are trial exams, for others the trials are merely climatic. For me the focus this term will be on staffing: we have a number of senior teachers retiring at the end of the year, and they will leave several large and dozens of small holes to be filled. It is a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle which needs careful management if it is to be successfully completed. I also have the Woodard Heads Conference coming up in two weeks – I am the Chairman of that august body, and in theory at least responsible for the construction of an interesting conference programme. We’ll see. Then I’m off to India for a board meeting of our school in Rohtak. All this before the end of January. We have plenty to look forward to, not least the enormous pleasure of formally opening our new art studio. We are holding a secret postcard art exhibition and I haven’t yet produced my offering. So, that’s what this weekend will be about: Dartmoor, re-acquaintance with English beer, an attempt at making a start on the backlog of paperwork….and painting on a postcard. Africa (guineafowl, zebras, windmills) may just feature.

King Alfred Holiday

Friday, October 28, 2016 by Richard Biggs

Well that was the first half of term that was. Is it a function of getting older that time seems to pass by with growing slipperiness? Anyway, here we are halfway through the King Alfred Holiday (which is what we formally call this Michaelmas half term break).

Much has happened. We won the Royal Marines Pringle Trophy once again. Every year Captains King and Belfield tell me how tough it’s going to be this time, and pretty much every year we either win or come second. It is a fabulous and much-valued tradition at King’s, this dominance of the Pringle, and we should never become complacent or blasé about how much our success depends on the willingness of the boys to push themselves hard – I suspect to the very limit of what is acceptable and allowable in a school setting. They are, truly, heroes and I am deeply proud of them.

It has been heartening to see, as it is every year, the new pupils settling into the King’s community. Sarah and I have had all but one of the Third Form House groups round for supper – Taylor still to come in two weeks’ time – and they have all been charming and interesting, which is the main thing. I imagine some feel a little daunted about supper in the Headmaster’s house, but the two dogs soon break the ice. I have also had lunch with the new Sixth Formers. They, too, seem to have made a good start. They are certainly a lively and talented bunch; and not shy to tell me what they think. A new girl from New York was adamant that we ought to hold a “Rap-off” (I think that was the term she used) in our amphitheatre, which she felt was ideal for the job. And that I ought to compete. I suggested that this might be way outside my particular skill set. But we’ll see.

Last week I proudly took possession of the keys to our new art studio. What an excellent project that has turned out to be, and how lucky we are to have an OA, Garth Pedler, willing to fund the whole thing. New furniture arrives next week and the artists will be able to move in soon afterwards (though I noticed they have already snuck in a long piece of printed fabric and stuck it to the wall. I imagine the virgin pristine-ness of that building is not going to last long, and nor should it). We’ve secured the services of a proper artist, Michael Brennand-Wood, to open the building formally in February. Do Google him – some wonderful pictures heavily influenced by textile designs, and of course that fits in nicely with our own recent re-introduction of textiles as one of the art options.

This year’s HMC conference was at Stratford (the Warwickshire one, not the site of the London Olympics, although apparently not all the Heads knew this), and the theme was, appropriately, Running Creative Schools. The best talk was from Will Gompertz, BBC arts editor, who was pretty scathing about the traditional “STEM” curriculum and the skills we were teaching our children. Most of the jobs we are currently training our pupils for, he said, will soon be taken over by computers. Which leaves we humans to do the creative thinking and imagining. So all schools should be art schools. Artists, he said, take risks, are innovative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, resilient.

The gradual decline of non-STEM subjects has been much in the news. I was horrified to read that the last board offering an A level in art history had decided to withdraw the subject, and that sixth form colleges are having to cut back on some of the less popular courses, like dance and modern languages. We will always offer creative opportunities at King’s – on the stage, in the choir, in the art school and in our choice of subjects. If you ever doubt our commitment to creativity, pay a visit to the DT centre…

The first half of term ended on a somewhat frustrating note for me. I was due to fly out to join the first-ever board meeting of the new school in India. So I left at 5am last Thursday, drove to Heathrow, and caught the morning flight to Delhi. The flight landed at midnight local time. I queued for the usual eternity at emigration, and when I got to the officer he took one look at my visa application and said “the dates are wrong”. As indeed they were. One way or another “Oct” had become “Sept”. “Well clearly that’s just a simple mistake” I said. “I’m here now, in Oct, and didn’t come in Sept – as you can see in my passport.” He told me to wait while he fetched a more senior officer. Another long wait, then another chap arrived, and started to fill out lots of forms. Slowly. At least they’re sorting it out, I thought. Then I spotted the heading of one of the forms: “Refusal to Enter”. And it dawned on me that they were not going to let me in. And they didn’t. Despite much protestation they turned me around and marched me back onto the very same plane I’d just arrived on. And that was that. I arrived back at Heathrow very early on Friday, and was in my office once again by mid-morning. Somewhat disappointed. I did join the board meeting, by Skype, but I missed seeing the school, enjoying the Diwali party and spending a day with some of our parents. We live and learn.

Five extra, unexpected days of half term break were put to moderately good use, not least in getting paperwork completed sooner than planned. We’ve booked our cottage for next week, so I fully intend to spend seven days doing as little as I can possibly get away with. North Cornwall offers that rich trio of blessings: stunning coastal walks, superb pubs and terrible weather. A bracing tramp along the cliff path in the driving rain, followed by a pub lunch in front of the fire and you genuinely feel that you’ve spent your day well and do not owe the world another jot of effort. My pile of books is packed.

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