Headmaster's Blog Archive

Advent Adventures

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 by Richard Biggs

The final strains of the glorious carol service (possibly the best ever?) have died away, the last report written (Anton Zolkin in the Lower Sixth) and once this blog is done and dusted I can shut up shop and get on with the serious business of decorating the bare tree that is glowering in our living room feeling very sorry for itself.

Actually the decorating window is a small one. I’m driving off to Heathrow at 5am tomorrow to catch a flight to India. The new school we are opening in Rohtak is holding a big marketing event on Sunday and the developers and new Head, Brad Sailes, asked me to come out for it. “Oh, if I must”. So a four-day trip to India it is. My family will be getting saris and tiffin boxes for Christmas. I do have one day free when I arrive, and I hope to spend it seeing the sights of Delhi with the parents of one of our Indian pupils. And I am really looking forward to that – there is nothing like seeing a city in the company of local people. Which is why, I think, I have such a fondness for Hong Kong and also for Bangkok – parents in the past have been extremely kind in showing me what lies underneath the tourist veneer.

Where to start? Two weeks ago I found myself on a rather exciting little overnight trip to London. The Wednesday afternoon was spent at St James’ Palace (naturally, where else would you spend a Wednesday afternoon?) supporting thirteen of our OAs as they were awarded their D of E Gold certificates by the D of E himself. I’d been once before, ten years ago when I was pretending to be a Head at Lancing. And it struck me that Prince Philip has not changed a jot. If anything he looked sprightlier and more animated this time round. The King’s contingent were by some distance the largest group in the South West room and I was very proud of them.

Then I had a meeting (in an Italian bar, because he had not remembered to wear a tie and my club is very fussy about these things) with the director of the Boarding Schools Association, who wants to trial a South West BSA branch. And guess who he wants to get it all going. It turns out that the South West is something of a powerhouse in the UK boarding world. I explained that was because nobody actually lives here so we all have to look elsewhere for pupils. Anyway, I’ve been duly signed up and lured in. Something else to do.

The next day was the scary one. My colleague Julie Arliss, who teaches philosophy at King’s, had organised a conference for heads in London and had lined up some of the most eminent philosophers in the country to speak. And me. Before lunch: Roger Scruton, Andrew Pinsent, Raymond Tallis (google them – impressive, brilliant people). Then Sir Anthony Seldon spoke at lunch. Then after lunch – me. Way, way, way out of my depth. I had been asked to issue a rallying call for all heads to get together, regardless of tribe (HMC, GSA, state, independent etc) to represent the professional voice of expertise in the education debate. We are, as a profession, far too supine in simply accepting the never-ending stream of changes and increasing regulation which comes our way. So, I let rip. After a diatribe against growing regulation I ended with “we are far too compliant” (the word has two meanings). Afterwards one of the heads (a good friend) said – “you must feel much better after that, Richard”. And I did. It’s lucky, I think, that no press were there.

After that the rigours and challenges of the end of term seemed a doddle.

Raymond Tallis had spoken about the parallels, as he saw it, between what was happening to the NHS and the way education was going (targets, excessive management, erosion of expert judgment and so on). The very next day we enjoyed a Horizon Lecture from Tim Kelsey, who was the National Director for Patients and Information in the NHS. He gave a different perspective – standards had to improve, waste reduced, unevenness between hospitals eradicated, modern data management introduced. It was a fascinating contrast (and an excellent lecture – much appreciated by the sixth form). On advice from Raymond Tallis I got hold of a copy of Mass Listeria, an essay by Theodore Dalrymple, about the origins and meaning of health scares. One thing which he makes abundantly (and rather graphically) clear is how lucky we are to be living when we do – we are much healthier now than we were even a few decades ago. This improvement in health is seen in all developed countries, regardless of how they manage, or do not manage, their health services and is primarily a function of better diet, cleaner water and immunisation. We are the worried well.

That week also saw performances of our school play, Twelfth Night. I had been assured this year that we would be doing a straight play, no musical this time, Headmaster. When I took my seat I was somewhat surprised to see a band on stage! And of course, because we simply can’t resist it, the play had become a musical. Very, very effectively so, I thought. There were a number of brilliant performances, but we will all remember the show for Lorcan Cudlip-Cook’s Malvolio, a tour de force of humour and bathos, and even quite sinister and bleak towards the end. I will not be asking my Head of Drama where she bought his outfit. What websites she visits in her own time is none of my business.

The final week of the Michaelmas Term is always a madcap rush towards the end, full of celebration and lots of last-minute hard work. This term’s Council meeting was held on the Tuesday, preceded by a lunch for two recently-retired Council members: Peter LeRoy and Rosemary Price. They had done sterling service for the school during their tenures and I was very pleased that we could thank them properly. The meeting itself was a patience-sapping three hours, not least because we had, quite correctly, to spend an hour on compliance. I am enormously grateful to all our Council members who govern the schools with extraordinary wisdom and boundless reserves of goodwill and patience. We are extremely lucky to have such a strong group, and I know that other schools struggle to find governors at all, let alone those of the quality that we enjoy.

We had a Christmas Concert in the theatre on Wednesday night, yours truly bleating away at third horn in the orchestra. It’s good that we have a proper orchestra. Now that we have carved out protected time for our music groups to rehearse, I think the benefits are already evident in the quality of the music-making. Highlights included a promising new barbershop group and, inevitably, Lorcan C-C, this time channelling the Pogues’ Shane McGowan.

On Thursday night we enjoyed the annual bean-feast and carol shout that is the school Christmas dinner. Senior staff serve everybody else and the scene, especially in the dining hall is medieval. Long refectory tables, loud singing (well, calling it singing is being generous), good and plenteous food. I had issued a challenge to the houses that I would award a prize to any that managed to sing a carol in harmony. Some tried. But singing two different carols at the same time doesn’t count, so this is a roll-over year and they need to get practising for next Christmas.

And finally we came to the Carol Service on Friday. I do believe it was up there with the best that I have heard. The carols were without exception beautifully sung. The Chapel was absolutely packed with pupils, parents, staff and friends. A splendid way to end a wonderful term.

I’ll probably shut up the computer now and not write another word until after New Year. I wish you all a very, very happy Christmas.

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