I try hard not to fall into the very English habit of talking about the weather more than is necessary or particularly interesting. But, for goodness’ sake, this is getting a bit much.
Beyond the Briar Lea tennis courts, where Father Marks’ mini-farm used to be (sheep, goats, alpacas guineafowl), there are now several allotments which are cared for by members of staff, and a large greenhouse, which was built by the Chaplain and the late, much-missed, school plumber Pete Ovens. I am lucky enough to have one of the plots, and have managed over the past few years to grow a modest amount of more-or-less edible food on it. It is a little competitive, to be honest. The Smiths (English Smiths, not Chapel Smiths), the Pearsons and Mrs Lawson tend to vie for top gardener spot. My sons and I trail far behind. But we try. One thing I have discovered over the years is that growing vegetables – at least at my sort of level (i.e. rank beginner) – is largely an exercise in feeding the local wildlife. Slugs and caterpillars take a very high proportion of the plants I put into the ground. As they absolutely should do: these are expensive plants, bought from one of the better garden centres near Taunton, and must be the equivalent of eating at a three-star Michelin restaurant for our local creeping friends. I have of course tried growing plants from seeds, but these are almost always gobbled up by hungry early-season slugs, so I then spend more and more cash in the garden centre, buying vegetables seedlings in ever-more-mature states of development, until I finally resort to sticking a fully-grown lettuce in the ground and picking it the next day while some of it is still there. But this year has been worse than ever. The weather may not be great for cricket (we can’t remember a Summer Term where so many games have been cancelled), but the slugs are having a great time: plenty of mud, and a good supply of high-quality food available from the Headmaster.
The greenhouse is a different matter. I have discovered an innate talent for growing cucumbers. Not tomatoes – those die – but cucumbers seem to like me, and reproduce in great profusion. The vines take over a large part of the greenhouse and once they start producing they never stop. I bring bucketloads of cucumbers home every week. The only trouble is (and it really is a minor point) I don’t actually like them. This year the cucumbers are roaring ahead as usual. The tomatoes are looking anaemic, as usual. And I’m throwing caution to the wind and branching out: I bought three healthy looking sweet pepper plants. At a cost, it must be said, of about three dozen supermarket sweet peppers. The profit margins are going to be tight, but I am determined to try growing something in the greenhouse that I can actually eat.
Back to more serious school matters. My retirement from the post of Headmaster was announced a few weeks ago and the process of finding my successor is well underway. It’s a strange feeling, of course. I am deeply attached to this school and this community, and the prospect of leaving it is a sad one. But I do believe that schools need to see an occasional change of leadership. They need a fresh perspective now and then. And I hope very much that my own career will head off in other, interesting directions. I am not sure what they might be yet, but something will come along. I do know that King’s has a strong reputation nationally, that the field of applicants will be strong and that the governors will be able to appoint a new Head of the highest calibre. The new person will find the school in very good shape – full, buzzing with energy and achieving great things.
Despite the challenging weather, it has been a joy to return to a full school this term and to resume most of the range of activities we had in place before the pandemic. It has also been a pleasure and relief to see the Covid rules and measures being dismantled, step by step, as the term has progressed. There is still a long way to go, but we are getting there. A big moment will be when we close the day rooms and invite our day pupils back into the boarding houses. Much of what makes King’s special is that close interaction between day and boarding pupils; it will be good to have that connection restored and the houses full once again.
We need to provide accommodation once again over half term for those overseas boarders who are not currently required to have guardians in this country. A good number of staff have stepped up and volunteered to help run that provision, while giving our house staff a much-needed break. Then, if all goes well, that will be the end of having to open our boarding houses at strange times.
Right now our main focus is on assessing and grading our GCSE and A level pupils. We are allowed by the exam boards to use a wide range of pupil work as evidence for the awarding of grades, and schools have been left to make up their own systems. Like many other schools, we have decided to put formal, exam-like assessments in place for our pupils and to base our grades largely on those results. This is what the A level and GCSE courses are designed for and it is the objective, independent process that students usually go through at the end of their courses. We will, though, bear in mind that the experience of the pandemic and remote learning has been different for different candidates; some have been more adversely affected than others. We want in the end to make sure that the grades are a fair reflection of ability and effort, and if needed will look more widely to find the evidence we need to do so.
I must say I have been very impressed by how well our boys and girls have prepared for these assessments. There is plenty of evidence of hard, detailed revision. On the whole I think they have appreciated the final, formal opportunity to show us what they can do.
Half term looms. Apart from helping out in the boarding houses for a short spell, we are heading off to old stomping grounds in Oxford for a few days, and are welcoming old friends to stay with us in Taunton. What a blessing to be able to visit other people and to have guests again! Let’s hope the weather improves, at least enough that I can get out to the allotment over half term and plant the next row of expensive slug food.