Part of the thrill of being a Head arises from one simple fact: we are spectacularly unprepared for the job. The usual path to Headship begins with teaching. We go into teaching because we feel a calling and because we love passing on our own passion for our subject to young people. If we’re good at that we get promoted, to Head of Department, or to Houseparent, and then on to a senior management position, eventually securing that first post as a Head, for which we have never really trained. Having started as teachers we do less and less of the thing we came into education to do, and more and more administration, and have to learn the skills required on the hoof. Nothing can properly prepare you for Headship. There is no doubt that the skills required of the modern Head are many and varied, and certainly more so than was the case, say, twenty or thirty years ago.
Having started out as successful teachers, we Heads are expected to know about, and have some expertise in: finances, marketing, human resources, employment and family law, technology, health and safety, child safeguarding, local and international politics and economics, developmental psychology, project management, inspection methodology, curriculum development, logistics and, of course, the latest thinking in the theory of education. Add a smattering of theology and a working knowledge of the art of public speaking, and you get a job which, at least in the first half dozen years or so, requires an extraordinarily steep learning curve from classroom chalky to experienced and competent Head.
All of which makes, as I say, for a thrilling ride. If you like the idea of getting up each morning not quite knowing what the day holds for you, and if you are happy to switch between chatting to a 13-year-old about her history project to chatting to an architect about the plans for your latest multi-million-pound project to chatting to the editor of the local newspaper about why you believe your school is a benefit to the local community, then this job is for you. But this term that range of knowledge has been extended even further. There is a new expertise expected of all Heads: we’re now required to have a working knowledge of epidemiology!
This is what we do know about the coronavirus. Firstly, it has spread with extraordinary speed, so that the picture has changed by the day, and our thinking and response as a school one week have had to be re-formulated by the next. We asked pupils from the Far East not to go home over half term, and parents were brilliant in supporting us in that request. Now the infection has spread, and soon the virus will be so ubiquitous that to single out specific regions as being more dangerous will be pointless. Secondly, the virus is not as deadly as the overheated press coverage suggests it is. Best estimates now put its mortality rate at about 1%. That is still ten times more lethal than common flu, but not nearly as dangerous as SARS, MERS or Ebola. From our point of view, as a school community, an important fact is that young, healthy teenagers seem to be treated very mildly by the virus. We should not be overly concerned about the risk posed to our children. Nonetheless, young people can pass the virus on to others who are more vulnerable and we have to do all we can to slow down its spread within our school, for the sake of others who are more at risk. Thirdly, although we know no details yet, the chances are that this outbreak will severely disrupt the normal working and rhythms of our school community as it runs its course. To this end we have decided to keep a boarding house open over the Easter holidays.A logistical challenge of the highest order, this will require hard work and the loyal support of members of staff, but I am sure it is the right thing to do. Parents of pupils in examination year groups, especially, will be worried about the risk of bringing their children home over Easter, only to find that travel restrictions have been tightened up and their children can’t get back for the exams. We have also drawn up plans for how we would teach remotely if all or some pupils could not attend school.There are plans, too, for what we will do if we need to isolate pupils on site.
All the planning is in place. We wait now to see what the next few weeks and months will bring. I suspect it is going to be a bumpy ride.
Global outbreaks of viral infections aside, this has been a testing term in other ways too. The weather has been almost unfailingly wet and gloomy which doesn’t help the general mood, and also means that our playing fields have been largely out of action all term. Our football and rugby sevens programmes have been severely disrupted. But lots of sport has carried on unaffected, and it has, as ever, been a pleasure to watch some really good netball, hockey, squash, badminton and swimming.
In fact the successes have continued to come thick and fast, and it is very important not to lose sight of the extraordinary things our pupils do day in and day out. We have hockey and football teams through to the final rounds of national competitions. Our debating team is in the finals of the ESU Mace competition in London next week, having won the regional round here at King’s against tough opposition. At the start of term we learnt that we had come top of the A level table in Somerset for our results last summer, both for overall grades and for value added. Our Fifth Form drama pupils performed a brilliant set of GCSE pieces last week, and expectations for top marks are high. One of our musicians won more than an armful of silverware at the recent Taunton Music Festival (I know it was more than an armful because he couldn’t carry it all in one go at assembly). Last night I attended the opening of an exhibition of pupil’s work at an art gallery near Wellington; a superb collection of thoughtfully conceived and skilfully executed pieces, which underline the artistic renaissance we have enjoyed at King’s in recent years.
A week ago we welcomed the 13+ scholarship hopefuls to King’s for their testing in the various areas. There were more of them than ever before, and the sense for all of us was that the quality of the candidates was exceptionally high. Some difficult decisions had to be made, and I know that some very talented young people will be disappointed. But they will all be wonderful additions to our community, they will all thrive here and contribute widely, and they will all be welcomed with open arms in September.
We have been planning for the future in other ways too, not least in making a number of key appointments. Two houseparents are hanging up their duty mobile phones at the end of the next term, which left two vacancies in absolutely critical posts. The fact that we had a good number of excellent internal candidates applying speaks volumes for the quality and loyalty of our staff, and their willingness to get stuck into the all-important boarding life of the school (I know that many schools would have to advertise externally for houseparent posts). We made two strong appointments, and I wish Claire Phillips and Steve King every success for the excitement ahead. We also had a strong field of (external) candidates applying for the post of Head of our new Psychology Department – we are going to offer the subject at A level from September. Again, we have made an excellent appointment of a dynamic teacher, who has plenty of experience both as a teacher and as a practising psychologist. We look forward to welcoming Dr Simon Noyce and his family to Taunton and to King’s in a few months’ time. I rather suspect that psychology is going to be a very popular A level choice in the coming years.
So all in all a very strange term so far – a mixture of apocalyptic trials and bucketloads of good news and success, and, despite the trials, optimism about the future. The constant is the spirit of the school, of the pupils and parents and colleagues who roll their sleeves up and get on with life. Sarah and I are also acutely aware that these are the final few months when we will have a child in the school. It has been a pleasure to see cost unit number two flourishing and grabbing every chance. But time is rapidly ebbing away and I know that the Leavers’ Ball will be on us in a flash. So it’s a poignant time too.