The Rain it Raineth Every Day
Published on: Monday, May 24, 2021
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.
On Jabs and Testing
Published on: Tuesday, March 16, 2021
We do live in very strange times. This morning, for the first time, and having dutifully trudged up the steps of the theatre twice a week all term to get tested in our drama-classroom-turned-Covid-testing-centre, I performed the act on myself. A large number of bits and pieces came tumbling out of the box – so exciting. The instructions seemed straightforward. The process is not pleasant, but we have all become used to sticking probes down our throats and up our noses. The gagging and the eye watering seem like old friends. And the test worked! At least, the little plastic strip gave a result – a single, clear stripe.
And then the slightly surreal business of reporting the result to the NHS. As before, I carefully filled out my details: Other White. No I do not travel to work (unless you count the two yards from my front door to my office as travel). No I am not a robot. Although sometimes I do wonder. And I can confirm that the test result was negative. All done and dusted. Then, joy of joys, I get a ping on my mobile phone, and a text message telling me my test is negative! So I tell the NHS, and the NHS then tells me. Just so that we’re all sure.
This morning in assembly I gave a shout out for the vaccination programme. As well as doing my first home test this morning, tomorrow I am getting my first jab. As I explained to the school, as a scientist and mathematician, facts and statistics and analysis and logic and reasoning matter to me. And I would not be going tomorrow if I was not confident that the vaccine is both safe and effective. Apparently about 3,000 people develop blood clots as a matter of course in the UK each month. Inevitably some will do so having just received the vaccine. That does not mean the two are linked. Some people will fall pregnant after receiving the vaccine. Presumably nobody will accuse Astra Zeneca of being responsible for that too? In those countries where the vaccine has been withdrawn temporarily because of blood clot concerns, people will die of Covid whose lives would have been saved had they been vaccinated.
What an enormous pleasure it is to have a school full of young people again. Above all it is the sound that I miss when they are not here. Schools should be noisy places. I have recently returned to the warm embrace of my man-cave, my garage workshop, to build a much-needed new and bigger wine rack (one of the dangers of the pandemic – too many tempting online wine suppliers). The garage is in quite a public part of the school, and it has been a joy over these last few days, while I’ve been tinkering amidst the quite appalling clutter of my cave, to hear the voices of pupils passing by and the sounds of music drifting across from the music school.
We interviewed a number of internal candidates for the role of Head of Boarding last week. I asked each candidate what they thought we had learnt from the past year. Every one of them replied that we now know just how much the pupils like being here, and how much they miss it when they are not. The energy and laughter of the past week certainly underlines that view.
It is now exactly a year since we were told we had to close our school for the first time: this penultimate week of the Lent Term was when we shut up our classrooms and boarding houses, when we scrambled to get our overseas pupils home, when Steve Shaw spent several days living at Heathrow in order to help those trying to fly out. This was the week of the extraordinary final assembly, when the handful of remaining pupils belted out “In Christ Alone” and we said our goodbyes before embarking on that voyage of discovery into the new and uncharted world of remote learning. We’re old hands now. Blended learning is the new challenge – some pupils in class, some in Nairobi or Dubai or Hong Kong or St Petersburg, all taking part in a live lesson.
There is now a palpable sense that we are on the road back to some sort of normality at last. But it is still going to be a long road, not without its bumps and potholes.
We have our A level and GCSE assessments to sort out (perhaps the subject of another blog soon). We have overseas pupils who need quarantining before they can join us. We have ever-more complex safety measures in place. As always we will cope and make it work, buoyed up by the prospect of a summer of returning normality. In an act of faith and optimism I recently booked tickets for my whole family for two T20 matches at the County Ground in June and July. Oh what a joy that is going to be.
We have had to get used to a great many new challenges and ways of being. One has come as something of a surprise: despite the difficulties and uncertainty posed by the pandemic, interest in places at the school for September has been extraordinarily high. To the extent that, for the first time ever we have, as early as March, had to close the books for new applications in every single year group. I think that is a testament to the fabulous efforts, loyalty and resilience of our staff, who have done such a brilliant job of managing the Covid months and have continued to provide a first-rate education for our pupils no matter what. I am sure that message has got out into the world. In the same way that people used to talk about Uncle Nigel having “a good war”, I think it can be said that King’s College had a good pandemic. We did well.
The Fallout from A Levels, What Next?
Published on: Monday, August 17, 2020
As the turmoil surrounding last week’s publication of A level results shows no sign of dying down, I thought it might be useful for me to put my own thoughts on the matter down in writing. What follows should be seen against a backdrop of deep disappointment and puzzlement here at King's: far too many of our own students have been harshly treated by the exam boards.
Let’s start at the beginning. This cohort of students was not able to sit A level examinations in the summer. Quite rightly, the government was keen that they should nonetheless receive grades for their subjects in order for them to be able to move on. The difficult part was deciding how best to generate those grades. Clearly there had to be significant school input. Clearly no system was ever going to be perfect (every year we are surprised by some of our students’ results – no system can predict how a candidate will perform with 100% accuracy). And, to my mind, clearly there had to be some sort of external moderation.
This last point is important. If schools were simply asked to come up with the final grades themselves there would have been massive grade inflation. That is inevitable: we all want the best for our students and given the chance we would always err on the optimistic side. So some system of making sure that grades remained roughly in line with previous years was necessary. Otherwise this year’s A level results would have been devalued and would always be treated with suspicion by future employers.
The idea, then, was to produce an algorithm which would tweak each school’s results so that they more or less fell in line with the typical pattern of grades for each department in each school. For very small departments, where there was not enough historical data to be statistically secure, the grades would not be changed. Much has been made of this in the press – but in fact it is, by definition, not statistically all that relevant. The great majority of grades in independent schools were still subject to the algorithmic moderation process.
At King’s we took the process of generating grades and rank orders for our pupils very seriously indeed. At the same time as our teachers were working their socks off to sustain an excellent remote learning programme, they were asked to spend a great deal of time and thought sifting through all the data we held on each GCSE and A level candidate. Reams of data were sent to each department: the results of baseline testing, previous public exams, previous internal exams, significant pieces of work produced etc etc. They were also asked to use their judgement about the character and habits of each individual pupil – were they the sort of person who pulled it out of the bag at the last minute? The idea was to predict how well each candidate would have done had they sat the examinations. Those predicted grades and those rankings were then sent through to a small group of senior King’s staff for internal moderation. That group compared the pattern of the predicted grades in each subject with the historical patterns of the past three years. In several cases departments were asked to adjust their predictions to bring them more into line with past averages. We arrived at what we were confident was a sensible, honest, measured set of grades for our candidates, which properly reflected the abilities and hard work of this particular cohort, and which we then submitted formally to the boards.
Last year our students set a new record for A level results. This, we believe, is part of a generally upward trend for the school – we have made good progress in improving the effectiveness of our teaching and learning, and we continue to refine and develop our methodology in preparing candidates for exams. It was also due to the make-up of that year group. We are not a large school, and inevitably some year groups are academically stronger than others. A measure of the integrity of our centre assessed grades: Last year we achieved 77% A* to B grades. The grades we submitted this year, after that long and thoughtful process, would have given us 71% A* to B. We did not take the mickey, we did not abuse the system.
But, as I say, some form of moderation was inevitable. We trusted Ofqual to get that right.
But clearly they have not. When our final results came out last week there were some, many, jaw-droppingly ridiculous down-grades. One girl had been predicted a C grade in chemistry and ended up with a U. So the board was essentially saying that, in an examination she was not able to take, she failed. There is no chance on earth that she would have failed that exam. She was a solid C candidate. On a very bad day she might have dropped to a D. On very good day she might have raised her game to a B or even better. She could not have “failed”. And there are ridiculous downgrades of that sort wherever you look. 45% of the carefully-considered grades we submitted were reduced by the algorithm. The final pattern for the school, including the now 61% A* to B rate, is wholly out of kilter with what our pupils have achieved before.
So what has happened? I think it is simple: the algorithm stinks. They got it wrong. The idea might have been sound, but the execution was a disaster. An algorithm is a recipe made up to try to do a particular task. They just got the recipe wrong. And it wouldn’t have taken much checking of the results for individual schools to see that it was wrong, and to make adjustments to the algorithm. Ofqual have had five months to get this right. Particularly galling is the fact that most exam boards have reduced their usual exam fees by very little, if at all. We are having to pass onto parents a significant cost to pay for the privilege of being royally stitched up.
What happens next? The problem here is time. There are candidates who need their grades to be sensibly raised in order to secure their places at university in the next few days. At the same time we are about to face a, presumably, similar storm when GCSE results come out. And at the same time were are working flat out to prepare the school for opening in September under tight and complex Covid rules. Bandwidth is an issue, and would be an issue even if we knew what the appeals process looked like. But as of now we still don’t know. Neither the government nor Ofqual are saying anything. It’s a mess.
Frankly, it does seem now that the only way forward is for Centre Assessed Grades to be accepted. At this stage the serious and very real drawback of grade inflation is, I believe, outweighed by the anger and mistrust of students and schools, and there really is no time left for a meaningful appeals process. Which school has the capacity to manage a complex appeals operation while at the same time coping with the (inevitable) fallout from the GCSE results and preparing for a post-Covid reopening in a few days’ time? If my students were simply awarded the grades we had given them I would sleep easily, knowing that we, at King’s, had done as fair a job as possible under the circumstances and that the grades were a much better reflection of their abilities than those they have been awarded by the boards. I can’t answer for other centres, and it may be that some have pushed the boundaries unrealistically, but for my own students I believe that would be a sensible outcome.
The original plan made sense and most independent schools supported it. The philosophy was sound, but the implementation was bungled, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of angry and disappointed young men and women. I don’t think, with the national mood as it is now, that any attempt to sort the mess out while maintaining some sort of downward moderation of inflated grades will either be accepted or be completed in time. That leaves the grades predicted by the schools as the only practical way forward.
I posted this blog online only 45 minutes before the announcement that Ofqual were, after all, going to accept the CAGs! We are pleased with this outcome, though it is not ideal. The effect of grade inflation will have an impact on this cohort, whose results will, I suspect, be looked at with suspicion in future. It will be interesting to see how universities manage what is now a very tricky situation: on the basis of last week’s grades places have been secured or denied and most courses are now full. Universities are in an impossible position: having turned down a student on the basis of last week’s grades, what do they do when that same student now finds she has the offer grades after all?
For students taking a gap year and hoping to reapply to university, things also look difficult. Firstly, their grades will be treated with some suspicion and, secondly, universities will have over-recruited this year and possibly have less space next year. But, as I have said to my son, bright, hardworking, interested students will always be in demand. Let’s hope that’s true!
Coronavirus, the Pros and Cons
Published on: Monday, April 6, 2020
Instead of a worthy account of how we are managing the challenge of the pandemic here at King’s, I thought it might be a bit more fun to try to think of all the positives, and possibly some of the less well known negatives. I’ll keep this list alive and update it every few days. Please do get in touch with comments and suggestions for more entries.
|We have never eaten so well in our lives||We have never eaten so much in our lives|
|Thank goodness this is happening in the digital age||I spend 90% of my day staring at a screen|
|Our dogs are loving the company and the attention||Jasper has gone into overdrive and has hidden one shoe out of every pair that I own|
|We are doing a lot of gardening||With old seeds that we’ve found at the back of the cupboard and potatoes from our vegetable rack that have begun to sprout. Will planting a garlic bulb really work?|
|The newspapers are full of puzzles||There has been an explosion of truly execrable poetry on Radio 4|
|We get to spend time with our family||We have to spend time with our family|
|Social networking means we share lots of funny videos||If anybody sends me the video of the mother drinking from a box of wine with a straw again I’ll scream|
|We’re finally getting round to exploring the darker recesses of the drinks cabinet||I have no idea why some of that stuff is in there. I have one ceramic bottle of some colourless liquid, with Japanese writing on it, and not a clue what it is|
|The resident community of staff at school has pulled together like never before. We have a vibrant WhatsApp group that keeps us all in touch with messages and offers of help with shopping||We get to see each others’ shopping lists. What is Ms Crandley going to do with cherry tomatoes, gravy granules and a block of butter?|
|We have drawn up a list of odd jobs that need doing around the house on a special whiteboard we’ve installed in the kitchen||Every evening the whiteboard mocks me|
|We can hear birdsong all the time||The seagulls are taking over|
|Mrs Biggs is working hard to improve our cinematic literacy||This evening we’re watching another light-hearted black and white romantic romp starring James Stewart and Myrna Loy|
|The school grounds are looking lovelier than ever||And so few people to enjoy them|
|We are able to go for walks around the school site||When I manage to find that shoe…|
|The boys are really into their cooking||We have to keep our dishwasher going full time to cope with the bombsite|
|We’re playing a lot of board games||Isn’t it extraordinary how much argument a game of Trivial Pursuit can generate?|
|The petrol and diesel prices have fallen dramatically||We’re not allowed to drive anywhere|
Mrs Biggs' Must-See Classic Movies
Published on: Monday, March 30, 2020
My Wife, Sarah, who is a classic movie fanatic, has provided the following list of movies that she thinks everybody should see to improve their movie literacy. The current lockdown might be a great time to order up some of these. She will suggest more as time goes by!
A Matter of Life and Death – intriguing wartime film that is hard to categorise: part romance, part supernatural, but inspirational. David Niven stars.
Some Like it Hot – iconic comedy starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe – unforgettable scenes and lines.
Strangers on a Train – Alfred Hitchcock directs this film about an unconventional pact – which only one party intends to stick to.
Kind Hearts and Coronets – British comedy about a young man’s attempts to kill off all the members of his family who lie between him and an inheritance – all played by Alec Guinness.
The Odd Couple – Written by Neil Simon - two friends (Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, again) attempt to live together, before finding out each other’s infuriating foibles. Hysterical and very true-to-life.
Lawrence of Arabia – story of TE Lawrence, filmed on an epic scale and with a beautiful score. Worth watching for Omar Sharif appearing out of the desert.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – the original, with Danny Kaye. Fabulous depiction of 1940s America, all in Technicolor.
Casablanca – wartime drama with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with smart dialogue and truly moving moments.
Dr Strangelove – cold-war dark comedy about The Bomb, with Peter Sellers playing several roles equally brilliantly. V funny.
The Thin Man – detective story really just an excuse for snappy comic dialogue from William Powell and Myrna Loy – hugely stylish 1930s setting; was so popular they made around 5 more.