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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.

Happy New Year 2018

Published on: Friday, January 12, 2018

If a week is a long time in politics, then half a term is an absolute age in a school’s life. So much happened in the second half of the Michaelmas Term that I can’t possibly describe it all (and my memory isn’t quite what it was either). Needless to say the final few days were glorious, as usual. We do Christmas in style at King’s. The choir were on excellent form for the two carol services and it was good to hear the whole school belting out their old favourites during the school service on the final Thursday afternoon. The Prefects’ nativity play in the final assembly was really quite polished and clever this year (it isn’t always…) and management’s decision to allow Christmas jumpers in the final week added to the sense of occasion.

The holidays themselves were relatively quiet for the Biggs family. Henry returned from his first term at Durham just in time to make the second carol service. He seems to be thriving at university. That is a common theme: our alumni do well at university. They have the confidence, the resilience and the social skills to get on and make the most of their student lives. Hearing Henry’s tales of Durham life makes me extremely jealous – wouldn’t you love to be a student again? The only downside, apparently, is that Durham is very, very cold.

And talking of universities, we heard yesterday that one former and two current King’s pupils have received offers from Oxford and Cambridge. Each year we get students into Oxbridge and we are proud of that record. It is a bit of a lottery, it seems to us, in the sense that outstanding candidates are sometimes unsuccessful, but nonetheless it is a confirmation of our academic credentials that our leavers get places at these and other world-class universities. And, as I say, we know that they go on to thrive when they get there, due in no small part to the grounding they have at King’s.

This has been a disrupted first week back. The governors held a two-day strategy workshop in Cornwall, at the Trevose Golf Club – an absolutely glorious place. The weather was sublime, and the sight of the course stretching away from our flipcharts and felt-tips down to the sea was tantalising to say the least. Still, we had work to do and the future to sort out. Which I think we managed pretty well, though at times we did get a little bogged down in wording: do we say “joyous” or “happy”? We did come away feeling confident about how things are going and our plans for the future. And we were allowed out for one hour for a walk down to the beach, so that was good. What a stunning part of the world.

The disruption continues: I’m off to Kenya tomorrow, to meet current and prospective parents and to visit prep schools in the Rift Valley and Nairobi. I believe I am attending a pool party and braai on Sunday…hard to imagine sitting here with the radiators on full blast and gritters doing their thing around the school. After an indulgent Christmas, I fear I may not be quite pool-ready and must make sure I pack a large and floaty shirt so as not to frighten the locals. I always enjoy myself in Kenya. Perhaps I’ve spouted on about this before – but I wonder whether there isn’t in each of us some sort of genetic memory of East Africa. It does feel like coming home. Or perhaps Africa has just always been under my skin. I find the people warm and generous and the country achingly beautiful and I am very much looking forward to my (shortish) trip, even if it does mean a 5am departure tomorrow morning. It will certainly be lovely to have a break from the cold.

Between strategy workshops and trips to Africa there is a bit of time for proper work. Today we received a presentation from an architect of a design for a new girls’ boarding house. We want to replace the existing Taylor House with a slightly larger version, extending out the back of Hareston (where the Taylor Housemistress lives). The designs are very attractive, and provide for lots of space and light (although we did disagree over whether girls should have balconies! I won’t say who said what…). If and when the new house is built we will then have the existing Taylor building to use in creative ways. Altogether a very exciting prospect. There is of course the small question of finance to consider. Do please get in touch with me if you want to pay for it! I even have a cardboard model of the new house in my office if you want to see it.

This is always a busy term. We squeeze as much into this short Lent Term as we do in any other, so it can feel quite frantic. Two year groups “enjoy” trial exams and we have 13+ scholarship exams after half term. We believe we are going to be inspected by ISI soon; the time has come and we are expecting a call any day now. So there’s plenty to keep pupils and staff on their toes. Yesterday we hired a skip. A free service to all staff: a chance to get rid of junk! I suspect it will fill quickly. That should be a cathartic experience – a very early spring clean.

I wish all blog readers a happy and successful 2018.

A Busy Couple of Weeks Ahead

Published on: Saturday, October 14, 2017

On the eve of the visit of 20 Indian pupils and their three teachers I thought it might be a good idea to get a blog completed…I suspect the next two weeks are going to be busy.

It’s been quite refreshing to spend a whole week in my school for a change. Not that anybody seems to notice; the school charges ahead whether I’m here or not. Two weeks ago I was away inspecting a school further west of us. The new ISI framework for inspection is, on the one hand, much simpler for inspectors in that everything is completed on digital forms on a laptop, but on the other hand it is quite an intensive timetable, with only a day and a half to get everything done. We are now expected to visit up to three classes per period – dashing in and out, tapping away at our computers, gathering evidence frantically. My concern is that it must feel perfunctory to the staff being inspected. The quality of education side of the inspection makes just two overall judgments, rating the pupils’ achievement and their personal development. And that’s it. Still…it is always a privilege to be able to rummage around in somebody else’s school and I picked up lots of ideas to bring back with me.

And the same applies to the annual HMC Conference, which was in Belfast this year. Again. It is a lovely city, and the pubs outside the Europa Hotel are particularly fine and Head friendly. I will confess a dark secret: I did not go to all the talks. I did take time to walk around the city and catch up on sleep. The view from the plane both in and out of Belfast City Airport was stunning, and a reminder that this is one part of the UK that we should explore properly one of these days. As always, the highlight of the conference was chatting to other Heads and gathering ideas to bring back to the home team.

I thoroughly enjoyed a talk from Nicola Morgan, an expert on teenage brain development (look her up on Google – some excellent stuff on her website). Two things struck me in particular: the absolute necessity for children to get plenty of sleep, and the well-proven benefits of reading for pleasure. I was heartened yesterday evening when we had the Carpenter Third Form girls round for supper, to hear that most of them do read for fun. Meynell House has an active reading club going (with their own T shirts!). This is such an important habit to encourage in young people that we will carry on looking at ways to get them reading. Maybe we should do something really radical…take a whole week out of teaching and just read? I know of one or two colleagues who would appreciate the chance, and this particular Headmaster would relish the opportunity to get rid of the pile of half-read books by his bedside.

The pupils and staff from King’s College, India fly in late on Saturday afternoon and will be staying for two weeks, the first as ordinary members of the boarding communities here and at King’s Hall, the second will be during our half term break. My wonderful PA, Fiona Byrne, has worked miracles in planning an exciting programme of trips and activities and I am sure they will have a great time. Most, possibly all, of the children have not been out of India before. I am dying to find out what they make of it all. We’re due a warm snap over the weekend – but will they think this is a terribly cold place? Will they manage the food here?

Thursday next week is Diwali, a major holiday and festival for Indians, akin to our Christmas. The visitors will be putting on a show after chapel on Wednesday and again up at King’s Hall on Thursday, and we’ve laid on fireworks for them on Thursday evening.

As before, I very sadly missed our annual spasm of insanity that is the St Francis Day Service in our Chapel because I was away at HMC Conference. But the photos I’ve seen are glorious. They’re on our website – click on the facebook icon at the top. It is these events that our pupils will remember. I do think it’s important for schools to keep on arranging whacky, different, off-beat, once-in-a-lifetime occasions. All properly risk-assessed of course…

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