Two Recent Events Served to Underline One Incontrovertible Fact
Published on: Monday, October 15, 2018
Two recent events served to underline one incontrovertible fact: King’s College is just a little bit bonkers. I would not have it any other way; a tinge of eccentricity is essential if one is to remain sane and cheerful in life. The first incident was one which happens annually and which, annually, I miss because I am away at the HMC conference. But I hear the stories and I see the pictures. It’s the St Francis’ Day Eucharist in our Chapel, to which pupils, staff and parents are invited to bring their pets to be blessed. I understand the Chapel was completely packed with creatures, human and otherwise, and the usual holy chaos reigned. You can find pictures on the facebook link on our website.
The second event is not, yet, an annual fixture, but I aim to make it so. It was last week’s weighing of the pumpkins. You may remember that last year I grew some of Dr Ogle’s special seeds and that a giant pumpkin appeared miraculously on the garden wall of the Headmaster’s garden. I harvested the seeds of that giant and distributed them to all and sundry, challenging the Houses to a pumpkin-growing competition. Last Tuesday, as part of the weekly school assembly, we paraded the various entries in front of the whole school. Father Mark was Chief Pumpkin and the idea was to use his bathroom scales (somehow) to find the winner. But in the end the gigantic entry from King Alfred was so obviously larger than all the others, including some decent offerings from Bishop Fox, Taylor, Carpenter, Dr Stone, Mr Speyer and Mr Biggs, that no weighing was necessary. Each entry was carried out by two (necessarily) burly prefects to rapturous applause. I was told by one colleague that another colleague had whispered in her ear: “only at King’s would we be clapping pumpkins.”
Those pumpkins became the centrepiece of the next day’s Harvest Festival service, during which each House brought up an offering of tinned and dried food to be donated to the local food bank.
The annual HMC conference, this year at Manchester, was not quite as much fun. The three days were somewhat overshadowed by the recent announcement from the Treasury that the contributions of employers to teachers’ pension funds was to increase dramatically – significantly more than any school had been expecting or had budgeted for. That decision is being challenged by various bodies, not least the Independent Schools Council to which, through our membership of HMC, we belong. We hope very much that the figure will be reduced to more manageable levels, but in any case we know that next year we will be landed with a serious increase in our salary bill. We will manage, of course, but it is galling, having only a few weeks ago congratulated all staff on such strong pupil numbers, to have to start talking about belt tightening.
And the increase in the pensions costs is not the only blow that might come the way of independent schools. There is talk of adding VAT to school fees and of removing business rate relief. For one reason or another both ends of the political spectrum seem to believe that independent schools are awash with privilege and cash and are ripe for plundering. The (possibly unintended, possibly not) consequence of all this squeezing could well be the demise of many schools in the sector, which would increase the government’s education budget by far more than the extra VAT etc would generate.
Also last week the ISC published the results of research carried out by Oxford Economics into the value of independent schools to the UK economy. Headline figures are as follows: It would cost the taxpayer an extra £3.5 billion per year if all independent school children were instead educated in state schools. Independent schools contribute £13.7 billion per year to UK GDP and support 303,000 jobs, generating £4.1 billion in tax revenue. Finally, it is estimated that, had independent schools ceased to exist in the late 1940s, the loss in average national educational attainment would have resulted in the annual GDP being £73 billion less than it was in 2017. A copy of the report, giving the full detail behind these headline results, can be found on the ISC website: www.isc.co.uk
Given the proven economic importance of the independent sector, along with the benefit it brings in terms of leading the way in educational thinking and standards, spreading the UK brand and influence overseas, bringing overseas income into the UK, supporting state schools through partnerships and providing a first-rate education through bursarial assistance for a great many children, it seems clear to me that the anti-independent school mood and rhetoric on both sides of the political divide is wholly irrational. We are just too easy a target – posh, rich private schools. No other country would treat one of its most successful, internationally-recognised, economically important brands in this way. The rest of the world holds UK independent education in the highest regard, but here we do not.
So if you have the ear of your local MP or local council member do please tackle them on this matter. We are a brilliant success story and should be supported, not clobbered.
Two weekends ago a group of our Royal Marines cadets took part in the annual Sir Steuart Pringle Trophy competition. There are, now, 20 schools in the UK honoured to have Royal Marines CCF sections. Every year all of these schools compete in an exacting test of skill and endurance at Lympstone, the RM training base. Speaking as the father of one of the contestants this year (and of another three years ago) I can confirm that it is an extraordinary commitment from the cadets involved. They are up most mornings at 6am for five weeks to practise their drill and other skills. They spend most Sundays training on Woodbury Common near Lympstone. It is a tough, tough ask – and of course their other commitments carry on as usual (not least on the academic side) – and they should all be warmly applauded simply for sticking at it. Our team came second overall, losing narrowly to Shrewsbury and winning one of the elements of the competition along the way. That is a wonderful success, and a credit to the eight boys and one girl, and to their training officers. The curious thing is that, now the competition is over, they genuinely miss it. I had expected Oliver to be relieved when it was all over, but he is bereft. Odd creatures, teenagers.
One week to go before half term. Where has the first half of term gone? I wish you all a very happy and restful King Alfred Holiday!
An Exciting Start to a New Academic Year
Published on: Wednesday, September 12, 2018
Once you’ve gone through the start-of-year wringer for the twelfth time, as I just have, you begin to feel a little more confident and sure of yourself. But just a little. It is always a moment fraught with excitement and anxiety. The rhythm of meetings and assemblies is a familiar one, but every year brings its own peculiar quirks and character. And of course, its own reasons to celebrate. If I sit here in my office writing my blog with a larger than usual smirk of satisfaction on my face it is for this reason: for the first time in twelve years I can genuinely say – we are full.
As numbers at King’s grew over the years, we realised we needed to ask ourselves the question – what does full mean? So a few years ago we looked at boarding accommodation, class sizes, the market and so on and came up with this mythical figure of 470. Without actually building more boarding space, we reckoned, we could fit in 470 pupils. Well, at the start of this new academic year I am delighted to say that we have exactly 470 pupils in King’s College. On Monday last week I took a bottle of champagne into the Admissions Office and toasted the team on their extraordinary efforts.
There are other reasons to be cheerful too. Our A level results were strong. We have been joined by a keen and exciting group of new staff. Our U15 XI cricket team won, on the day before term started, the national T20 cricket competition, beating Sedbergh School in the final at Arundel. The school grounds look immaculate, the sun is still shining and our fig tree is producing about a kilogram of fruit every day.
The sunny weather brings its own problems: the ground is too hard for rugby. A few years ago I tried to get a new movement going: September Cricket. I asked my fellow Heads to join me in a campaign to start the rugby season a month later in the term, and play cricket in September. Every year the weather at this time is lovely. The county and international games are still going on. We always have a number of boys and girls who join us partly because of the strength of our cricket, and we don’t get to see them playing until April at the earliest. If we played cricket in September the rugby teams could get themselves into shape before playing seriously, the ground would get softer, and the rugby season would then be about the same length as all the others. What’s not to like about fewer injuries? But my suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. Unless it rains soon and hard I fear we’ll not be able to play rugby for a while on our own pitches, and I suspect other schools have similar problems.
None of this affects hockey, though, and it was lovely to see our girls out in full force on Saturday playing in a traditional block fixture against Bristol Grammar School. I umpired the 2nd XI match, and it was great to be back behind a whistle. It didn’t strike me until half time that I had not asked the hockey wallahs whether there had been any rule changes since the last season (there usually are). But nobody complained too loudly about my lack of knowledge, so I guess if there have been changes they are not too important.
The summer holidays already seem a long way back, but we had a thoroughly wonderful time. The drive down to the south of France in the convertible was all I had hoped for. And because, for the first time ever, we had visited my good friend David (the rare wine dealer) in a car, rather than flying, he took the opportunity to clear out some space in his cellar and loaded a case or two onto my back seat. We clinked our way home again, taking extra care round the corners…
M Biggs’ travel tips from his summer adventure: The town of Richelieu, Albi Cathedral, the Pope’s Palace at Avignon, the Roman Theatre at Orange, the drive from the Loire Valley up onto the high country of the Auvergne along the Ardeche River valley (especially if you do it in a convertible!), the Cathedral at le Puy-en-Velay, Bourges, the crypt of Chartres Cathedral and finally the Normandy D-Day beaches. Your holiday is also immeasurably more enjoyable if you happen to have good friends who own a castle in the Creuse, a farmhouse in the Tarn or a villa in Grasse. And also if your spouse has done a brilliant job of researching and booking the quirkiest, friendliest B&Bs in between the castles, farmhouses and villas. A glorious holiday in every way.
Towards the end of the summer holidays our Chairman of Governors, Linda Nash, and I flew to India to attend a meeting of the Board of King’s College, India. Linda had not been to the country before and I will, publicly, say this about my boss: she is a tough traveller! She was very good company, was impressed, I think, by the school itself and not at all fazed by the challenges of India. We had one afternoon free in Delhi before we flew back and decided to visit the enormous Akshardham Temple. Unfortunately, that day also happened to be the Hindu festival of Rakshabandan, and the whole of Delhi and, it seemed, several surrounding states had also decided to visit the temple. We queued for about an hour in 45oC heat and when we got to the front of the line were told that we could not bring our mobile phones in – we had instead to queue first for the locker rooms. So we hopped on a tuk-tuk and headed straight for Starbucks in Connaught Place, where we enjoyed two enormous iced coffees. The temple will still be there next time.
One exciting result of the visit to the Indian school was a renewed commitment to taking a group of our own pupils out there soon. We’ll go out in April, with Third and Fourth Form pupils, and spend time at the school, as well as visiting some of the extraordinary sights both nearby and further afield.
I write this blog a few minutes after saying goodbye to a group of delightful Meynell Third Form girls, who came to our house for supper this evening. Sarah and I have all of the Third Form, by house, to supper this term, a good chance for us to get to know them and, just as importantly, a chance for them to see that we are not ogres. Our two dogs are a key part of the welcome and are now old hands at getting the conversation going. The girls tonight were confident, chatty and interesting. They are delighted to be here, they said (honestly, this is not Headmagisterial spin) that they were enjoying their lessons, they thought the food was excellent and after the first week they were really quite tired. Their number included an international pentathlete, an accomplished water polo player and a much admired hip-hop dancer. There was a big grin on my face as they left: we are in good hands!
A Sunny End to a Busy Year
Published on: Thursday, July 12, 2018
Of necessity we spend a great deal of time in the last few weeks of the summer term looking back over the past year and evaluating how things have gone. I write my termly report for Governors, which this term has a more summative feel to it. Then of course there are several occasions in the final week when a summary of the past year is required. In my Governors’ report I ended by saying that we had probably had to deal with more change this year than ever before. Not just the new senior members of staff (and a new Chairman of Governors), and new roles for existing staff, but also new syllabuses and exams, new bits of kit (bubbles and cricket schools and so on) and what feels like a never-ending stream of new compliance regulations.
We have managed it all very well, not least because we are blessed with superb staff who have the capacity to take all of this change on board while continuing to provide a brilliant education for our pupils. And it is now more apparent than ever that change is simply the default position for independent schools these days. That nagging hope that at some point the authorities will stop throwing change at us, or that local, national and international circumstances will settle down is a vain hope, I think. Our job now is about coping with it all, adapting where appropriate, even taking advantage where an opportunity arises, but also to try as far as possible to make sure the experience for our boys and girls is smooth and joined-up. We paddle desperately below the waterline while on the surface we sail serenely onwards.
So much has happened since the Summer Half Term break. During that holiday our new Development Director, Julian Mack and our prep school Headmaster, Justin Chippendale and I flew to Hong Kong for a few days, mostly so that Mack could see how the land lay and meet some our wonderful Hong Kong alumni and parents. We were, as we always are, royally hosted and made to feel very welcome indeed. The hard work included a day on a luxury yacht, anchored in a secluded bay on Lamma Island, playing with a range of toys in the lukewarm sea. I had never driven a jet ski before. This one had an engine bigger than our Ford Focus. Fun. We also enjoyed a spectacular meal at a restaurant owned by one of our parents. The red wine he served us was rather good. We asked where it came from – “my vineyard in Bordeaux”. Mr Ma has since very kindly sent over a few cases of said wine, which we gave as gifts on the last day of term to those parents who were leaving us for the last time.
We also met in Hong Kong an OA who had left in 1970.David Lui was followed by three brothers, and all of them went on to do impressive things back in Hong Kong. David had not been back in 48 years, and we persuaded him (during tea at the Peninsula Hotel – a dream finally come true for me) that he should come and see us. A few weeks later he did, with a good friend of his, Dr WK Luk who helps David in his work with local Hong Kong schools. David told us how important the CCF had been for him at King’s and how, on his retirement from his career in banking, he had tried to support schools in providing similar character-forming experiences for pupils who otherwise simply went to school to study and pass exams. They had a wonderful two-day visit, during which Mack and I took them to see the Chindits Camp up on Exmoor, in a lovely convertible Audi with the top down on a glorious summer’s day (more of the car later). They were impressed by the organisation of the camp and the enthusiasm of the pupils. That evening we hosted, in my house, a dinner for David and WK. I had found in the archives the original letter of application to King’s, written by David himself in 1968 and read this out at the dinner. David gave a very moving talk about his memories of the school and how important and valuable our brand of holistic education was for children all over the world.
So the car. It was another OA, Philip Richards, who suggested that I ought to have some fun and buy a sports car. He said this while we were tootling around Jersey in his elderly TT. And the seed of an idea finally bore fruit when (after, it must be said, some discussion and negotiation on the domestic front) I bought, just before half term, a rather lovely, admittedly old, but immaculate, Audi A4 convertible. In light blue with dark blue seats and hood. Since that day I think it has rained only once in Taunton. It is a joy to drive and I have become a terrible bore to friends and visitors. Eldest son, Sarah and I are driving to the south of France later this month. We have visions of cruising the Corniche in shades, Sarah in a Grace Kelly scarf. Perfect. And ultimately a personalised number plate must be in order. I’ve looked them up and they are surprisingly affordable. I think I’ll get something with the letters MLC….mid-life crisis.
The final week of term passed in a bit of a daze. There was something exciting on each evening. The junior play, Fantastic Mr Fox, produced by our Head of Drama Harriet Agg-Manning, was a fun, if typically (for Harry) surreal, romp around various settings in the school. It is wonderful to see that the dramatic talent we are losing at the top end of the school (Lorcan, Zach, Scarlett, Charlie et al) is being replaced by some excellent young actors at the bottom end of the school. The next evening we enjoyed a melange of light trad jazz and drama in the amphitheatre. The drama included extracts from Sophocles’ Antigone. Yes, really. Only at King’s does it seem perfectly normal to have a programme which includes jazz and Greek tragedy. The summer music concert on Wednesday was about as good as I have ever seen at King’s. Also on Wednesday we enjoyed the opening of the annual art exhibition. What is abundantly clear is that the new art studio has lit a fire in the art department – the scale and quality of the work on display was breathtaking.The Big Band were on excellent form the next evening in the cabaret in the marquee.
Sarah’s birthday usually falls in the final week of term and as such doesn’t get the attention it deserves. This time, though, we celebrated on the Thursday with a trip to the Royal Henley Regatta. We had been last year (trawl back through the blogs…) and loved it, so off we went once again. The point is the picnic. This time unpacked from the boot of a very elegant A4 (have I mentioned the car?). There is something ineffably English about dining at a table in a field, with proper cutlery, crockery and crystal, in a tie and panama hat, surrounded by others doing likewise. The regatta itself is quite a spectacle, as is the extraordinary sartorial display of the crowd. As I said last year, the whole idea seems to be that men are able to push the boat out to a greater extent than in other “season” events. Outrageously striped blazers and brightly coloured trousers are the order of the day. Sadly my wardrobe does not quite do the occasion justice.
The final day of the year, Parents’ Day, is always an emotional roller-coaster. I think we have now got the range and timing of the events right. This year, in particular, we gave in to experience and added half an hour to the prize giving ceremony, which worked well. Our guest speaker was Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, previously Head of Brighton and Wellington Colleges, author and historian. I knew Sir Anthony from when I was Deputy Head at Lancing and he was at Brighton. He is a remarkable figure and we were extremely fortunate that he found time in a punishingly busy schedule to be with us for the morning. And of course he spoke brilliantly. Most galling was that he spoke from the heart, with virtually no notes, unlike my own speech which was delivered from a script over which I had slaved for several days. He arrived twenty minutes before the off and asked me for a “governor-free zone” in which to compose his thoughts. And then delivered a speech which all those present will long remember for its humour, its simplicity and its power. He spoke of his own childhood and experience (or lack of it) of winning prizes. He praised King’s for its all-round approach to education. He linked his advice to the leavers to events in the news.
Sir Anthony was impressed and moved, in turn, by our Leavers’ Eucharist. It is a wonderful, unashamedly emotional piece of theatre which has everybody weeping by the end. And, as I had said in my own speech, quite rightly so. The departure of the ninety or so men and women who we have seen growing up and becoming fully human while in our care is a very sad occasion. I wrote to parents in my end of term letter that I had been particularly impressed by the dignity and good sense this group of Upper Sixth pupils had shown in the manner of their going.
The weather, of course, was perfect on Parent’s Day, and the lunch for Governors and guests in the marquee on the lawn of our house was a magnificent, quintessentially English affair. Elsewhere around the school families were picnicking and a cricket match was being played on the 1st XI square.
And the leavers’ ball was an absolute cracker. You can imagine that by the evening one or two of us are pretty jaded, but the energy of the ball soon got us going again and I must brag about the fact that we stayed to the end, bopping most of the night and enjoying a magnificent fireworks display courtesy of pyrotechnic-extraordinaire, Angus Fletcher.
A box at the T20 twenty cricket the next day, the small matter of completing 450 reports and an end of term letter, and finally we could make a break for it. So this is being written in a thatched cottage in Cornwall, our thatched cottage, where we have escaped to for a week of sitting and doing as little as possible. A long and hopefully relaxing summer stretches ahead.
The First Shoots of Spring
Published on: Friday, May 4, 2018
I have just re-read my last blog. It ends in the snow on a sepulchral croak. What a difference a holiday and a few weeks of the Summer Term make.
On the final day of the Lent Term we opened our new indoor Sports Performance and Cricket Centre in grand style. Jos Buttler joined us and gave a masterclass in batting, miked up and explaining what he was thinking as he played each shot. Then a lucky few of our pupils had a chance to bowl at him, and Alice Dymond managed to sneak an off-cutter past Jos’ usually immaculate defences and clip his off-stump. I had written a pretty sparklingly brilliant speech which I had no voice to deliver – so handed the script over to our Development Director, Julian Mack, who read it out for me while I grinned and gurned beside him. Very odd. Jos then took part in a question and answer session with our Director of Sport, Phil Lewis. Jos spoke warmly and genuinely about his time at King’s. He said he could have gone to any school and would probably still have made it as a professional cricketer, but the family atmosphere and friendship he had found here were hugely important to his development as a person and he felt strongly connected, still, to his old school. I think Jos is, in his modesty and thoughtfulness, a great ambassador for us and am eternally grateful that he continues to find time to come back and see us.
And so to the holiday. One of the un-looked-for side-effects of the Beast from the East was that our lovely cottage in Cornwall suffered a burst pipe in the loft and several days of flooding before anybody noticed. The result was a rather sorry, soggy mess. So some of our holiday time was spent clearing up and drying and painting. All is more or less back to normal now. I also spent time repairing one of the famous canvas canoes. A vessel made of wood and canvas is an organic thing which will, inevitably, feel the ravages of living outdoors upside down on a rack. I took off the canvas deck, hacked out some rotten frames and restored it all to its original pristine beauty. Now we need some sunshine to tempt us back onto the water.
Our final inspection report came to us at the start of the new term and we have been making as much of that as possible. It is, as we knew it would be, a wonderfully positive endorsement of all that we do at King’s. A copy is on this website.
As usual the term has started in a whirl of activity. Despite the rather gloomy weather we have managed quite a lot of sport, and the cricketers have already enjoyed considerable success. I am never too sure exactly how we manage all the sport in the summer – we seem to have cricket, tennis, swimming and athletics teams competing every Saturday, while our Ten Tors teams exercise on the moor and our riders collect rosettes across the country. Our musicians have already played at a number of venues. We have concerts coming thick and fast. The inter-house general knowledge competition has come and gone (well done Woodard!), as has the inter-house MasterChef extravaganza. This latter is one of my favourite events of the year. Places on the judging panel are highly sought after, and the standard of cooking continues to rise. The team from Tuckwell produced a well measured and delicious three course menu and were worthy winners this year. Oh, and exams have already started –the small matter of GCSEs and A levels for two of our year groups. I wish them courage and success.
We were privileged at the end of the first week to welcome the Master of Westminster School, Patrick Derham, to speak at our final Sixth Form lecture of the year. Patrick was previously the Headmaster at Rugby, where he established the Arnold Foundation to bring children from less privileged backgrounds to the school. He talked about “What gets me up in the morning” – Irish rugby, the study of history (especially William Gladstone) and, more seriously, the widening of access to our schools. Patrick himself came from a challenging background, spent two years on a naval training ship moored on the Thames before being supported to go to Pangbourne School, where he flourished, gaining a place to read history at Cambridge. An inspirational figure and an inspirational speaker; a fitting end to what has been an excellent season of Horizon lectures.
On the day that Patrick joined us we also had our biennial school photograph. Most schools dread this event. Getting 550 people onto a steep scaffolding, looking smart and behaving sensibly is a challenge. Needless to say it went swimmingly, thanks to the expertise of the photographers, the meticulous planning of my staff and the sensible cooperation of the pupils. The Gillman and Soame chap complimented me afterwards – “it could not have gone more smoothly” he said. Except that the sun was shining and photographers don’t like that. The end product is now viewable online.
In fact here’s an interesting point: if you toddle along to the Gillman and Soame stand at any schools conference you can happily wile away an hour or so looking through their archive of photographs and retracing your own education and career. I’ve managed to dig up my old Oxford matriculation photo (skinny, long hair), my old fencing team pictures (ditto, but in white breeches and jacket), early photos of teams I looked after at Magdalen College School (tweedy, short hair, still skinny), through to team photos at Lancing and even here at King’s (less and less hair, less and less skinny). Fascinating. And indeed I was at a conference this week: the Boarding Schools' Association Annual get together for Heads, this year in Brighton at the Grand Hotel. I love the BSA conference. I think people who work in boarding schools tend to be nicer. I like the fact that it includes senior, prep and state schools and that we focus on one issue. We enjoyed some outstanding speeches and presentations and great networking on the fringes. And Brighton is always good fun. Drinks before our final dinner were in the BA i360 – a large circular glass pod wrapped around a tower, that gently rises to an enormous height to give a spectacular view of the town and the sea.
On the drive home I stopped in at Windlesham House Prep School to have a look around. I remember it well from my days at Lancing, and am always impressed by the beautiful setting and the sense of energy and excitement so evident in the children. As I arrived a little twosome of young lads were driving off from the first tee. I think we need a golf course here at King’s too.
Last Friday I joined some of our older OAs for lunch in London. The 40s to 60s Club , for alumni who left King’s in those decades, meets each year in a London venue and it is definitely one of the highlights of my year (along with the MasterChef competition mentioned earlier – two in one week, riches indeed!). The loyalty and affection of the OAs is heart-warming. My speech to that particular gathering is one of the easier ones to make. I tell them we’ve beaten Millfield (at anything, it really doesn’t matter what) and they’re roaring their approval and delight. This year I announced the findings of our inspection like the results of the Oscars. “In the category Achievements of Pupils we were rated…..wait for it….EXCELLENT”. Huge cheers. “In the category Personal Development of Pupils we were rated……EXCELLENT”. General uproar. A great crowd. I told them that one reason I so enjoy that gathering is because I see the same spirit, zaniness and good cheer in them as I saw that morning in my own pupils in Chapel. It was South African Freedom Day, which we turned into a celebration of nationalities in general and allowed pupils and staff to wear some item to show off their own roots or a country they had visited. So we saw lederhosen (brave, brave Germans), colourful African headscarves, rugby shirts and flat caps. Best of all: the three Housemistresses wore black hats of a distinctly Welsh flavour. You don’t have to be Welsh to be a Housemistress at King’s, but it helps.
My Feelings About the Lent Term are Well Known
Published on: Tuesday, March 20, 2018
My feelings about the Lent Term are well known. This term has the ability to bite you on the nose, to throw up the unexpected, to lull you into a false sense of security and then laugh at you.
Having got to half term we thought our challenges were over for the moment. But then The Beast from the East teamed up with Storm Emma to dump Siberian quantities of snow onto Taunton in a few hours and things suddenly got interesting. To their credit, the forecasters predicted it exactly. I took our dogs for a walk on the Thursday, just as the snow started falling heavily – up into the Blackdown Hills. And only just made it back down again. I knew that Sarah and I were hosting about 20 school prefects for supper the following evening and that we had not yet bought the groceries. Should I nip off and do the shop now? Nah, it could wait until tomorrow. Big mistake. The next day all roads were impassable. The only possible conclusion was that the prefects’ dinner would have to be postponed. But I reckoned without the determination of my School Captains, who came to me at break and insisted they would walk with me to Sainsbury’s to do the shopping and then help all afternoon with the cooking.
So we grabbed our bright red plastic sled, and tramped into town. Taunton folk were using the middle of the road as the only way to get about – there were no cars. Nor were there very much by way of supplies in the supermarket. We bought up all the remaining beef mince. There was no bread, so we bought bags of flour. We loaded it all onto the sled and slithered home. Toby, Charly, Harry and I spent a most enjoyable afternoon cooking – lasagne from scratch, home-made bread, huge bowls of salad. Sarah rustled up some fruit pies. The dinner was enormous fun.
We tend not to shut the school when there’s a crisis. We can’t, really. We have over 300 boarders with us and we have to keep them fed and entertained. So we forged ahead. Pupils were allowed to wear their own, warm clothes to school. Some day pupils, anticipating snow, had decided to stay with us overnight in any case. Several families made epic 4X4 journeys to get their children in for school. Others (but actually surprisingly few) sensibly stayed at home and picked up work sent to them by email. Jonty Lawford, my indefatigable Deputy Head, Academic, worked miracles in deploying the staff he had. Even I was roped in. I taught physics for the first time in 20 years! Paths were cleared, catering staff trudged in through the snow (at least one walked for two hours to get to us), volunteers lent a hand in the kitchens. We kept it all going.
And it was huge, wonderful, life-affirming fun. There is something about a crisis that stirs a fire in people in this country – I’ve noticed it before. Of course our St Petersburg pupils and our Canadian Head of History were looking at all of this and saying “you call this snow?” But it doesn’t happen often, and when it does it always catches the country off guard. And we all rally together and remind ourselves what it is to be resilient, comradely, neighbourly human beings. I was so sad when the snow melted.
On the Monday all was pretty much back to normal. That Friday I headed off to London to support our swimming team as they took part in the annual Bath and Otter Relay, held at the Olympic Aquatic Centre. Now when the Olympics were on in 2012, Sarah and I applied for lots of tickets, and got nothing. So in a fit of pique we went to France and sulked under an olive tree. I had never been to the Olympic Park at Stratford. Wow. What an impressive sight. And what a beautiful building the aquatic centre is. I spent the day watching our swimmers in the oppressive steaminess of the pool, and wandering outside in the bitter cold having a look around the park and the new shopping centres (and, yes, the restaurants too). And not surprisingly the lingering cold which had bugged me for two weeks, which I was confident had bid adieu and was on its way out, returned with a renewed vengeance. We drove back from North London to Taunton on Friday evening, in the torrential rain, in a crowded minibus, a journey of over five hours. Much to the amusement of my family and colleagues, my voice has now entirely disappeared. More of which later.
And then, as if the term had not already been exciting enough, last Monday I received The Call. From the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the body that keeps us on the straight and narrow. They operate a three-yearly cycle of inspections and it was three years, to the day, that they had last visited us. We were, sort of, expecting the call this term, but had become rather blasé about it after an earlier false alarm (something to do with a spike in traffic on our policies page). Anyway, there I was feeling like death warmed up in my office last Monday, when the very nice chap from ISI said – you’re being inspected, starting tomorrow.
I know you’re meant to take it all in your stride. I know we were confident that all paperwork was in place (not least because of the earlier false alarm – what a Godsend!), but there is no way of avoiding the very real sense of dread that an inspection inspires. I have written about inspection before: the modern style is swift and terrible. The importance undeniable. Once again, my senior team swung into action and proved themselves magnificent in a crisis. Once again the staff and pupils rose to the occasion and did all they possibly could to give the best impression of this great place.
And, I am pleased, to say, they succeeded. We came out of it well. I look forward to sharing the final report with our parents and staff. Not surprisingly, the inspectors were bowled over by the pupils – their enthusiasm and loyalty and wide-ranging interests clearly made a mark.
So that little bit of excitement came and went last week…and by the end of it my voice had given up the ghost. Which was a problem, given that I was meant to be singing in the Evensong service on Sunday evening. This would be the last Evensong service at which Jim Campbell, our wonderful College Organist of over 30 years, would be playing. Jim’s wife, Margie, has been appointed as Provost of Oban, and commuting from the far northwest of Scotland is probably too much even for the resourceful Mr Campbell. But in the end I had to withdraw and ended up in the congregation for once…which was really quite a pleasure. The skeleton choir (several others had been knocked low by various bugs) sang beautifully.
And of course it snowed again. Apparently this is the Mini Beast from the East. Here we are at the spring equinox and the ground is covered in snow. The cricket season starts in a few weeks’ time.
Not having a voice is a challenge for a Headmaster in the final week of term. Assemblies follow in quick succession. I have a speech to make at the grand opening of our indoor cricket school. There are lessons to teach and visiting families to meet. There is a Fourth Form parents’ meeting on Friday afternoon. Unless some kind throat pixie cures me overnight, I’ll be adding to the general fun and joy of the end of term events with an unwholesome, rather sepulchral croak.
I wish you all a very happy Easter break.