Friday, June 10, 2016 by Richard Biggs
Half term has come and gone in a blaze of sunshine and the term is rapidly drawing to a close. This is always a strange time of the year. One senses the hard work and the anxiousness flowing under the surface, the epic battle that is public examinations, but above the surface all is calm and sunny and delightful.
For me the half term break was taken up with maths, cricket, paddling and barbecues. Not a bad combination, except, perhaps for the maths: Henry faces some tough maths papers and, as a maths teacher, the least I could do is to try and help him prepare. So we spent hours poring over past papers. Whether it has any effect only time will tell. Cricket – some cracking matches down at the County Ground. Somerset have made a habit recently of winning matches by the skin of their teeth, which is not good for one’s nerves, but makes for excellent entertainment.
I was interested to hear the comments of Sir Michael Wilshaw this morning. He is stepping down as the Chief Inspector of Schools, and his closing broadside seems to be a criticism of the ability of state senior schools to develop the talents of the bright young children who come through from primary schools. This is an issue which I have been banging on about since I first started teaching in this country. The most important resource that a country has is its bright children. They are the future; they will be the movers and shakers, the entrepreneurs and the academics and the leaders. Any country which fails to nurture that cohort is doing itself (and of course those children) a great disservice. With the emphasis on pass rates and league tables and getting as many children as possible up to a C grade at GCSE, the top end has rather been neglected in our state schools as a whole (there are always impressive exceptions), and that is a tragedy.
I spent a very enjoyable hour yesterday delivering a maths masterclass to gifted and talented year 6 pupils at a wonderful primary school in Yeovil: Preston Primary. We did some difficult stuff and by and large they rose to the challenge. All were prepared to go outside their comfort zones and all were very clearly excited about what we were doing. And a few struck me as very, very bright indeed. Creative too: I made a comment early in the lesson that things are not always as they seem. One plus one does not always equal two. For example if you have one cloud and add it to another cloud you still have one cloud.
Much later in the lesson I asked the class to solve the equation x+1=x, an example (so I thought) of an equation which has no solution. One bright spark of an 11 year old girl raised her hand and said “obviously x is a cloud”. My only hope is that she goes on to a school which will recognise that astonishing originality and make something of it.
Part of the problem is a shortage of graduate teachers, especially in the poorer parts of the country. Is that because of money? Somebody who has a facility for maths or science could presumably be earning much more in industry or banking. Or is it more to do with the work environment – big classes, poorly resourced schools, disruptive students, over-examination, a culture of threatening bureaucracy, the reduction of education to box ticking and a complete abandonment of creativity, inspiration and quirkiness? By the time they’ve filled in all their forms, how much energy do our teachers have for being the inspiring, scholarly role-models the bright children need to get them excited about learning?
I wonder how much it also has to do with the value society places on learning, especially the society immediately surrounding the children themselves – parents and peers. How many bright children feel unable to express their academic interests for fear of being ridiculed? I find all of this so sad. I know that we provide a very different experience at King’s – inspiring teachers and an atmosphere in which it’s cool to learn – and I am very proud of that. But our schools educate a small fraction of the children in the UK. So many are left to drift, so much potential just falls by the wayside and I do believe that is a national disgrace. If anybody in charge wants to ask me for my views on the way forward – get in touch. Far too politically sensitive to mention here, though. However, I will say that in these matters cant and political correctness have no place; honesty and the ability to spot elephants in the room are essential. Like: discipline is actually quite important, as is hard work, as is the number of hours spent learning. As is love.
My next big trip is to Kenya in two weeks’ time. We’re instituting an art scholarship for Kenyan pupils, to celebrate the opening next term of our new art studio (and a similar scholarship for UK pupils too). I thought it would be appropriate to give the award a Swahili name and to this end contacted our Kenyan community of pupils and parents. The network purred into action and ideas started coming back – thank you to all of you! The winning suggestion came from one of our own pupils, Mukami. She suggested “usanii”, which means the action of creating art. It has a nice ring to it, so the King’s Usanii Scholarship it is.
The really big news this week is that one of our Lower Sixth pupils, Matthew Thorne, has just won the very prestigious Vellacott History Prize. This is a nation-wide competition, run by Peterhouse College in Cambridge, and is widely regarded as the premier school history prize in the country. Over 250 of the UK’s best school historians entered…and Matthew won! His winning essay, on child labour on the nineteenth century, is on our website. We are all very proud of him.
And so to paddling…Oliver and I completed a longish section of the canal over the weekend, he running, me paddling. Well, actually he walked, which was all he needed to do to keep up. And the heap of sticks and canvas that is the canoe has so far survived and doesn’t leak. After much experimentation I have discovered a method of getting in and out of the canoe which is relatively safe, does not scare the ducks or cause my wife to double over in laughter. It does involve getting my centre of mass low down before the transfer, and this means getting wet. But wet is better than embarrassed. Elegance, as always, is everything.