Headmaster's Blog Archive

A Busy Couple of Weeks Ahead

Saturday, October 14, 2017 by Richard Biggs

On the eve of the visit of 20 Indian pupils and their three teachers I thought it might be a good idea to get a blog completed…I suspect the next two weeks are going to be busy.

It’s been quite refreshing to spend a whole week in my school for a change. Not that anybody seems to notice; the school charges ahead whether I’m here or not. Two weeks ago I was away inspecting a school further west of us. The new ISI framework for inspection is, on the one hand, much simpler for inspectors in that everything is completed on digital forms on a laptop, but on the other hand it is quite an intensive timetable, with only a day and a half to get everything done. We are now expected to visit up to three classes per period – dashing in and out, tapping away at our computers, gathering evidence frantically. My concern is that it must feel perfunctory to the staff being inspected. The quality of education side of the inspection makes just two overall judgments, rating the pupils’ achievement and their personal development. And that’s it. Still…it is always a privilege to be able to rummage around in somebody else’s school and I picked up lots of ideas to bring back with me.

And the same applies to the annual HMC Conference, which was in Belfast this year. Again. It is a lovely city, and the pubs outside the Europa Hotel are particularly fine and Head friendly. I will confess a dark secret: I did not go to all the talks. I did take time to walk around the city and catch up on sleep. The view from the plane both in and out of Belfast City Airport was stunning, and a reminder that this is one part of the UK that we should explore properly one of these days. As always, the highlight of the conference was chatting to other Heads and gathering ideas to bring back to the home team.

I thoroughly enjoyed a talk from Nicola Morgan, an expert on teenage brain development (look her up on Google – some excellent stuff on her website). Two things struck me in particular: the absolute necessity for children to get plenty of sleep, and the well-proven benefits of reading for pleasure. I was heartened yesterday evening when we had the Carpenter Third Form girls round for supper, to hear that most of them do read for fun. Meynell House has an active reading club going (with their own T shirts!). This is such an important habit to encourage in young people that we will carry on looking at ways to get them reading. Maybe we should do something really radical…take a whole week out of teaching and just read? I know of one or two colleagues who would appreciate the chance, and this particular Headmaster would relish the opportunity to get rid of the pile of half-read books by his bedside.

The pupils and staff from King’s College, India fly in late on Saturday afternoon and will be staying for two weeks, the first as ordinary members of the boarding communities here and at King’s Hall, the second will be during our half term break. My wonderful PA, Fiona Byrne, has worked miracles in planning an exciting programme of trips and activities and I am sure they will have a great time. Most, possibly all, of the children have not been out of India before. I am dying to find out what they make of it all. We’re due a warm snap over the weekend – but will they think this is a terribly cold place? Will they manage the food here?

Thursday next week is Diwali, a major holiday and festival for Indians, akin to our Christmas. The visitors will be putting on a show after chapel on Wednesday and again up at King’s Hall on Thursday, and we’ve laid on fireworks for them on Thursday evening.

As before, I very sadly missed our annual spasm of insanity that is the St Francis Day Service in our Chapel because I was away at HMC Conference. But the photos I’ve seen are glorious. They’re on our website – click on the facebook icon at the top. It is these events that our pupils will remember. I do think it’s important for schools to keep on arranging whacky, different, off-beat, once-in-a-lifetime occasions. All properly risk-assessed of course…

Creaking back into action

Thursday, September 14, 2017 by Richard Biggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joys of summer

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 by Richard Biggs

The end of the Summer Term was its usual exciting, frantic, joyous and poignant self. I do think we manage that potentially difficult time well at King’s and I am always impressed by the maturity our Upper Sixth leavers, in particular, show and the generous and wholehearted way in which they enter into the spirit of the various events and ceremonies.

The success of the final day – Parents’ Day – depends to some degree on the weather, and we were lucky to have a lovely, hot, sunny day. As usual, we did not allow enough time for our prize giving and perhaps we simply need to accept that this is 90-minute rather than a 60-minute affair and plan accordingly. Our guest speaker, Alastair Hignell, gave an inspirational speech, without notes, calmly and movingly talking about his life and the challenges he has faced. Alastair is one of the last of a breed: a true sporting all-rounder who played first class cricket and international rugby (while holding down a job as a teacher as well!). Alastair’s later career was as a broadcaster, and more recently he has immersed himself in campaigning for multiple sclerosis charities. He has MS himself – his speech started rather impressively as his wheelchair seat gradually rose several feet into the air.

We had a good number of staff members to say goodbye to in our final week, so my own speech was rather “goodbye-heavy”. But rightly so. Four of our long-serving leavers had between them notched up 134 years at King’s. How do you possibly do justice to that weight of loyalty and commitment?

A few years ago we said goodbye to four other long-serving members of staff. In my speech this year I explained my theory of why our staff seem to retire in groups of four:

“I am sure that you all have a good working knowledge of nuclear physics. As you know, an unstable radioactive isotope will usually decay by producing one or more of three different kinds of radiation. Gamma - which is just very high energy electromagnetic radiation; beta, which is an electron that sort of appears out of nowhere; and alpha radiation, which is the ejection of, essentially a helium nucleus, with four particles – two protons and two neutrons. It is a very stable unit.

So this is my nuclear theory of King’s retirement: we lose staff through alpha radiation – always four at a time. A few years ago it was Lee, McKegney, Grey and Currie. This year it is Cole, Cole, Round and Scanlan.”

The Leavers’ Service is unashamedly designed to be a tear-jerker, and it certainly did the job this year. The saddest moment of all is when, as the choir sings the Celtic Grace at the end of the service, the Upper Sixth choristers take off their cassocks and surplices and join their colleagues standing at the front of the congregation. The whole year group, led by the School Captains, then processes down the aisle, out through the West Door and into their lives as OAs.

For governors and other guests the service is followed by splendid lunch in our garden. My dear sister had come over to visit us from Canada for a week and was enthralled by the whole scene – “it looks like something from a Merchant Ivory movie” she said, as I chatted to the Bishop on the lawn. Bishops, sparkling wine, a marquee, salmon and strawberries – all essential ingredients for a proper English summer garden party.

We bopped the night away at the Leavers’ Ball and nursed our heads the next day, while trying to crack on with the backlog of report writing. As soon as the last report was written we packed sisters, dogs and sons into the car and headed off for a wonderful few days in our cottage in Cornwall.

Since then the summer highlight for the Biggs family has been our annual pilgrimage to friend David’s villa in the south of France – nine days of sheer indulgence. We have discovered a new thing to do in the area (and one which at least pretends to offer some semblance of exercise): swimming in the rivers of the Alpes Maritime. If you drive into the mountains behind Nice there are any number of places where you can hike down to a beautiful river rock pool in some isolated gorge and enjoy a picnic and an ice-cold swim. David also took us on a rosé wine route, taking in Chateau Eclans, where they sell a bottle of rosé for €90. Given that we consider spending €5 on a bottle when we’re in France something of an extravagance, we resisted the temptation…

Now home again and watching lots of cricket. The annual cricket festival at King’s is in full swing, though it has been clobbered more than usual by rain this year. We watched an excellent T20 match at the County Ground on Sunday – Somerset apparently down and out and then managing a comfortable win in the end – and the first day of the four-day match in a box on Monday. Eddie Byrom, an old boy of King’s, batted well for his 42. Another old boy, Craig Meschede, will be playing for Glamorgan in the T20 match here on Saturday.

Oliver and I are also getting our canoes ready for a paddle down the Wye sometime next week. We hope to start in Hereford and end up in Ross, with a night in a campsite somewhere along the way. Not exactly an epic voyage, but a start, and a test of the boats themselves. We’ve tried them out for load capacity: a tent, two sleeping bags and two roll mats easily go into one canoe, leaving the other for beers, books, baked beans and biltong.

A levels results also come out next week. This is always a nervous time for schools – a bit like a farmer approaching harvest. I hope our pupils have done themselves proud and, above all, that they get what they need to move to the next stage. They usually do.

The week after that I am off to India, for a board meeting in our school in Rohtak. I’m going out a few days early and have been invited on a trip to Amritsar, the site of the holiest temple in Sikhism – the Golden Temple. I’m intrigued to see it (and will report back).

In the final week of last term Sarah and I were lucky enough to be given tickets for the Stewards’ Enclosure at Henley. Neither of us had been to the regatta before (though her rowing pedigree is more impressive than mine: she coxed the St Peter’s 1st VIII, I managed one miserable early morning paddle with the Pembroke novices before deciding it was not for me). We pottered up the M4, secured a parking spot in a field near the river, enjoyed a grand picnic (sadly no Bishops, but plenty of sparkling wine) and then went to see what all the fuss what about. It was huge fun. I have never seen such an outrageously and colourfully dressed crowd in my life – and that includes the men. In fact I wonder whether that is why Henley is so popular: it is the one event of the season where men can give vent to their inner eccentric. I am now on the hunt for a stripy blazer.

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!

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