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
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
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.