Headmaster's Blog Archive

An African Adventure

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 by Richard Biggs

It was as the water rose above my ankles that I began to worry. Kate Rippin, our Registrar, and I were at Pembroke House Prep School in the Rift Valley in Kenya, manning the King's College exhibition during Pembroke's annual Ndume Sevens rugby tournament. It is a wonderful event (I went two year ago...see blogs passim). A number of Kenyan prep schools take part, and about 20 UK boarding schools attend and set up exhibits in a row of tents by the 1st XV touchline.

The morning had gone well. We had met a good number of interesting and interested parents and children. Parents of existing King's pupils were on hand to help and, with the inevitable gentle rivalry and and friendly banter between the visiting UK schools (with a strong West Country flavour, it must be added) it was developing into a jolly, colourful, festive and very worthwhile event.

And then the heavens opened.

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If you haven't been in a tropical downpour you've missed one of the great elemental experiences of life. It happened during final of the U13 tournament. The rain fell in a solid wall of water, accompanied by lightning, thunder, occasional hail and a strong, gusty wind. Initially we thought "this is good for business", as parents and children took shelter in our little white tent. But the storm raged on and on. The rain was blowing straight into our tent. Children crept under our liveried table. Our banners blew over. It was then that I noticed the water rising underfoot. The good folk in the Kingswood tent, and the good folk in the King's Bruton tent on either side of us (we were arranged alphabetically) could be heard over the din of the storm shouting in glee "there's a stream flowing right through the King's Taunton tent!". And indeed there was. We happened to be perfectly placed, at the lowest point in the line, to catch the growing run-off of water from the fields behind us. Some of our visitors stood on chairs, most stoically accepted the inevitable and cheerfully simply got very, very wet. The rugby game, astonishingly, carried on, with a brief break when the hailstones grew to the size of golfballs. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up the trouser legs of my Man from Monsanto suit and sallied forth to offer words of encouragement to colleagues on either side.

This was not by any means the only memorable event of our trip. The day before the sevens tournament I visited the Woodard School in Langalanga. The members of the Woodard Corporation, King’s amongst them, raised funds to set up this secondary school a few years ago to mark the bicentenary of Nathaniel Woodard’s birth. When I last saw it I was delighted to find a vibrant and thriving place of learning. Two years later it is clear that the school has gone from strength to strength. More laboratories have been built, along with a large dining hall/assembly space. The first intake is now nearing the end of the secondary stage and there are high hopes that a dozen or so students will go on to university in Kenya. We have made a real difference to lives in the Rift Valley, and it is clearer than ever to me that we should continue to support this excellent school.

Having dried out and recovered in the warm embrace of our Out of Africa B&B, we were flown in a small plane from Gilgil airstrip, bouncing over the Aberdare range to Timau, on the slopes of Mt Kenya, spotting a herd of elephants along the way. A trip to a nearby conservancy yielded rhino, buffalo, giraffe, a hyena and, to cap it all, a cheetah with two cubs. And an elegant high tea on a rocky outcrop with the most beautiful view you could imagine.

A drive down to Nairobi, through countryside of bursting greenness, and lunch in the Muthaiga Club were followed by a visit to Kenton Prep School, where Will Webster OA is coaching rugby. Then another highlight: a visit to the David Sheldrick orphan elephant centre. We arrived as 24 elephants, ranging in size from tiny to merely small, trotted back into camp from the surrounding reserve, intent on supper and bed. These dear beasts have been rescued from all over Kenya. Their mothers have sometimes died of natural causes, but more usually at the hands of ivory poachers. Baby elephants need an extraordinary level of care. Each has its own bedroom, and each has its own human companion who sleeps with it during the night and feeds it every three hours (and on demand for the really little elephants). Fed and watered the elephants gradually put themselves to bed and were covered by blankets to keep them warm. When they are old enough they are taken to a park in the south of the country and re-introduced to the wild, assisted, apparently by a matriarch elephant who takes them into her care. It is all deeply moving and entirely wonderful. Our host in Nairobi very kindly donated the adoption of one little female elephant, Dupotto, to King's College. We will follow her progress carefully and hopefully some of our pupils will visit her in years to come.

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One more highlight lay in wait. The next morning we went for a walk in a neighbouring park, home to a small number of very rare Rothschild's giraffe. At the end of a long-ish ramble we came across four giraffe, one of which ambled over to greet us.

A visit to The Banda, another splendid Nairobi prep school, brought the trip to an end.

Taunton has its charms and its delights. Orphan elephants, giraffe, cheetahs and tropical storms are not amongst them. The sights of Kenya and the incredible generosity and warmth of our parents in that country remain a vivid memory as we return to the gentler, more familiar pleasures of a King's summer term.

While in Kenya I heard the excellent news that Laura Bates OA had been awarded a British Empire Medal for her contribution to the cause of gender equality. Laura has been to speak at King's a few times. She is an inspiration to our pupils, we are proud of her work, it is wonderful that her courage has been recognised and we congratulate her warmly on her achievement.

Goats and Galas

Monday, June 8, 2015 by Richard Biggs

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We are blessed with an interesting Chaplain. Father Mark, apart from being the only other South African on the staff, is also involved in much that goes on at King’s: he runs our naval CCF section (I do struggle to picture him in a sailing dinghy), and he looks after the mini farm, in addition to his pastoral role as our spiritual leader. You may recall that a few years ago we had a flock of guineafowl on the farm. These are noisy birds, and we soon received complaints from neighbours. Father Mark’s solution was brutally simple, and the Smith deepfreeze was soon well stocked with guineafowl casserole. When we last enjoyed a full ISI inspection I was asked to show our complaints log to the lead inspector. He pointed to the letter complaining about the noisy birds. “And how did you resolve this issue?” he asked. “We shot them all” I replied. He closed the file quietly and moved onto other matters.

You will, then, understand the frisson of excitement and anticipation that ran through pupils and staff on Wednesday morning. A glorious day, three year groups away on study leave, so we held our Eucharist in the amphitheatre. Father Mark placed a small altar in the centre of our stone circle, and was himself in full ceremonial rig. There is, it must be said, something antique, even pagan, about the sight of a large bearded man, in bright robes, under blue skies, surrounded by a tightly-packed circle of celebrants. The effect was only heightened when, as the first act of the service, two third forms girls brought a bleating goat down the steps and handed it over reverentially to the priest.

Nobody actually said it, but you could tell what everyone was thinking. This was the man who had solved the guineafowl problem.

Of course he didn’t, and the goat (a three-day old kid, remarkably comfortable and calm within the voluminous folds of Father Mark’s cassock) was a prop for the sermon…on rebirth. Sermon over, and the kid (Binky) was taken back, alive, to rejoin its mother on the farm.

It’s been a week full of interest and incident. I went on one of my prep school wanders yesterday – to Sandroyd near Salisbury. As I approached the school I had to stop the car and get out to drink in the view; as bucolic and sunny and green and peaceful an English scene as you could ever imagine. The school itself is utterly splendid and we ought to get more pupils from there!

I returned to the annual Meade-King Cup swimming gala between the four local independent schools. There are conflicting accounts of its historic uniqueness: the oldest annual event involving more than two schools; the oldest ever school swimming competition and so on. Whatever, it’s definitely the oldest something between some number of schools. Which makes it very special. And there is a ritual about it. The four heads gather in the host school’s head’s study and drink tea and discuss what we are going to do in our holidays. Then we squeeze through the crowds at the pool and take up our positions in the splash zone. It looks like chaos, but there is an extraordinary efficiency and calm underlying it all (a bit like Delhi traffic). King’s is not, it must be said, a swimming juggernaut, but I was impressed that we filled every slot and put up a good fight. We even won a race.

I ran from the post-gala prize ceremony to join our philosophy symposium. King’s is the centre for a large group of school RS and philosophy teachers from the south west who gather periodically for discussions and lectures. Last night we welcomed Drs Genia Schonbaumgarten of Southampton University and Andrew Pinsent of Oxford, highly regarded, outstanding thinkers, who spoke, respectively, about Wittgenstein and religious thought and the relationship between science and religion. It took some heroic concentration from this particular one-time and seriously rusty undergraduate philosophy student to keep up, but what a treat! In the post-match discussion back at the Headmaster’s House, red wine in hand, we decided that what makes us human is that we value the useless but interesting and beautiful – like particle physics, music and good food. At least I think that’s what we decided. It was a long day.

Education has been in the news this week. The Headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College is going to scrap homework, which I suspect will make her popular with the girls. My own pupils will be disappointed to hear that I am not going to do the same. Hard luck. And a school in Scotland is scrapping cricket, because the term is too short, the weather is too awful, the exams too numerous and the game too complex for their boys to make any progress. Again, I am not inclined to follow suit, and any boys from Morrison’s Academy who want to keep their cricket going are welcome to join us. Though the pressures of exams do not help, and the weather has not been wonderful this term, I still think it is a great game. I am trying to persuade other schools to play a bit of cricket at the start of the autumn term, when invariably the sun shines and the ground is too hard for rugby. Finally, some pupils found a maths question in a GCSE paper hard – and that has made the national news. It wasn’t, they complained, like the other questions they had been practising on from past papers. Which just underlines the danger of teaching to tests and getting pupils to jump through hoops rather than actually teaching them to understand the maths and how to think for themselves.

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