Headmaster's Blog Archive

Return to the Coal Face

Friday, September 9, 2016 by Richard Biggs

The summer holidays have come and gone, as has the frantic start of the academic year, and we seem at last to be settling into something that almost resembles a steady routine.

The summer weather has not disappeared, however. Every year at this time it is sweltering and lovely and sunny and every year people say – “ooh, it’s an Indian summer, isn’t it unusual”. Well it isn’t. September is a summer month. I spent a stolen afternoon watching cricket at the County Ground yesterday afternoon (I’ve mentioned this before – my diary is always quiet in the first few days until “issues” start cropping up) and languished happily in the sunshine while Somerset mopped up most of the Warwickshire tail end – completing the job, I hear, early this morning. We are now second in the league. Go Zummerzet!

It isn’t all lazy afternoons and no work at the moment. I had to attend a Lower Sixth dinner last night. We hold this to help settle the new sixth form in and to emphasise that this is a new and exciting year group of young adults. Sarah and I enjoyed an evening of sparkling and very civilised conversation with some young people who impressed me enormously and who fill me with optimism for the future, both of this school and the world in general. Thoughtful, well-read, well-travelled, kind, confident, funny – things are looking good.

To wind the clock back to the holidays: Two trips to France, one to the south and the other to the west. Provence was gorgeous, as always. We ventured into the mountains to find some wild swimming and also into Italy to find a farm restaurant. Brittany was different, but equally enthralling. We were invited to the wedding of the son of good Breton friends of ours. I had never been to a French wedding. Fascinating. There are two parts – one secular and the other (at least in this case) religious. The bride and groom were married first in a civil ceremony in the Mairie in Treguier, by the bride’s father, who volunteers as a local notary. No mention of God, and around the walls of the grand room were the portraits of local Treguier notables, such as Ernest Renan, a Victorian philosopher, historian, writer and…atheist. Ceremony over we walked ten yards across the cobbled street and into the granite splendour of Treguier Cathedral for a full-on Catholic wedding service. With, of course, a local twist – a hymn in Breton and much playing of the bombarde.

Did you know that French weddings last two days? Well they do. And a very jolly and heart-warming two days they were. None of the English stuffiness and set-piece formalities. Lots and lots of food, enough wine, a drop or two of cider, plenty of teasing of the happy couple, a forensic analysis of childhood foibles (backed up with photographic and video evidence) and lots and lots of dancing. This seemed mostly to consist of holding hands and shuffling from side to side. Even my sons were roped in, with varying degrees of cheerfulness. Then we came back the next day to the same venue (the community hall in Plougrescant) for a hog roast and more dancing…the event apparently called the retour de noces. All enormous fun and conducted in the warm embrace of the community and family. We wish Benoit and Anais a long and happy life together.

My sister Jenni visited us during the holidays for a fortnight. She lives in Calgary, Canada, poor thing, and had never been to see us in Taunton. So we made an effort to make each day special. It takes the visit of a sister to emphasise just how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful place. We did something different each day and each day was lovely. It helped that the weather was unfailingly hot. We walked on Exmoor, swam at Branscombe, went to the Dunster Show, marvelled at the levelness of The Levels and the wonder of Wells Cathedral. We barbecued on Kilve Beach, and almost every evening at home (mid-life crisis: I threw caution to the wind and bought myself the largest Weber kettle barbecue money can buy. Oh joy). I don’t think Calgary can compete.

And so back to school. We begin the year more or less full, which is good, and on the back of some strong exam results over the summer. We have completed one major building project (the boys of Bishop Fox House are delighted with their new common room) and about to complete another (the new art studio). We are soon going to start on a new cricket school and a bubble over a netball and tennis court.

We have also entered the brave new world of “bring you own device”. All pupils now have, or should have, their own laptops of tablets with them all the time. As with all IT matters, this seems revolutionary to me and the teachers, especially those of my vintage, and completely normal for the pupils. I’m teaching mechanics to the eleven or so further mathematicians in the Lower Sixth and am racking my brains for ideas of how to make use of their devices. I think I have one: we could drop a laptop from the first floor and time how long it takes to hit the ground, thus confirming one of the equations of uniformly-accelerated motion.

Education is never long out of the news and this week’s headlines have been dominated by the idea that the grammar school system could be revived. I say this knowing that successful grammar schools would not be good news for the independent school sector: any country which does not support and develop its bright children fully is doing itself a grave disfavour, and I am not sure how possible it is to encourage scholarly work in a comprehensive setting. Other countries make no bones about identifying brighter children early on. The divisiveness of grammars can be mitigated by making sure there are several entry opportunities for late developers and, very importantly, that all schools provide an excellent, appropriate education, so that children end up in the right environment and receive the right support for their talents. I wonder how many politicians benefited from grammar schools themselves (and then free university places…).

It’s a bit strange and actually rather good fun having an adult school-leaver in the house. Henry is taking a GAP year. He’s doing a bit of work, going on a dig, hopefully learning to drive. He spent two weeks travelling round Europe in July (apparently, he tells me, visiting lots of museums – in Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris. Hmmm). He’ll head out to South Africa in November to annoy his grandfather and spend time on our family’s farm in the Karoo. I think he’s looking forward to cutting a fogeyish, Barbour-clad figure on the African veld. Best of all from my point of view is that I have somebody I can go to the pub with in the evening! That, after all, is what sons are for.

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