A Sunny End to a Busy Year | King's College Taunton

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.

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