Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Cold but beautiful

It's that time of year when cold and snow might disrupt school so we decided to put plans in place last week.  The key thing is to let parents get to work if at all possible while ensuring that disruption to learning is kept to a minimum.  Our approach is that the school always remains open and as many as can make the journey safely come and join us.  Meanwhile, teachers put the work for their lessons on the school intranet so that those forced to remain at home can keep up to date.

This morning the temperature dropped to -5 celsius.  School is carrying on as normal but Rochester does look absolutely beautiful as the photos demonstrate.  One of the castle at 7.30am and another of the Paddock after the Nursery class nativity play.  It certainly adds to the excitement among the pupils.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

National challenges but local celebrations.

There has been plenty of coverage in recent days about Michael Gove's proposed exam reforms and the imposition of an EBacc - now being described as the EBC (English Baccalaureate Certificate).  It has to be said that the debate is becoming seriously polarised with a range of high profile opponents including the Chair of Ofqual (the examinations regulator), the Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee (a Conservative MP like Mr Gove), teaching unions, exam boards and leading academics.  Mr Gove does not shy from a fight but it will be interesting to see the extent to which he engages with the concerns being raised or whether he sticks his ground, being certain that he knows best.

 An interesting development has been the recent involvement of HMC in the debate.  HMC represents the 250 leading independent schools in the country (including King's Rochester) and one of the key points being made is that our schools value diversity and choice while the EBC represents a 'low trust' approach towards our level of expertise.  I have written in previous blog posts about this debate and there is a reasonable summary on the TES website (click here).

While the debate continues (and will do so for some time), I found myself reflecting on more positive matters closer to home.  The school is abuzz with that wonderful feeling of the anticipation of Christmas and coming up in the next five days we have carol services for all three schools in the Cathedral as well as nativity plays and our Cathedral Choristers singing at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham on Wednesday evening.  The Prep and Senior Schools have House matches this week and the boarders' black tie dinner on Thursday.    Meanwhile The Sunday Times is currently my favourite newspaper, having featured Rochester as an excellent place from which to commute to London and being blessed with beautiful surroundings (click here, although subscription needed) and also placing our Prep School in their Top 100 Parent Power table.  We have also recently concluded the process of defining the distinctive characteristics of King's and reaffirming our Aims of Education which I look forward to publishing shortly.

There are some important decisions to be made about the future of education but that should not come at the expense of noting and celebrating all that which is good.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Independent education - freedom to choose

Driving to visit another school yesterday, I heard an interesting discussion on Radio 4 based on a report from the new Head of Ofsted (the body responsible for inspecting state maintained schools) that too many state schools are not providing a good enough quality of education.  Click here for coverage in The Independent online.  His view is that local authorities should be ranked according to the performance of the schools in their area which raises a conundrum.  More than 50% of pupils in state secondary schools are now in Academies - schools allegedly independent of state control - and the discussion centred on the extent to which local authorities are responsible for their performance.  The discussion highlights the reality that Academies are not truly independent as they have to conform to central requirements and the views of their sponsors for most aspects of their educational provision as well as their funding.

The school I was visiting is Christ's Hospital where I was sharing views on education with colleagues in a very different setting to King's Rochester.  What we do share is true and genuine independence in forging the education which we believe to be right for our pupils.  It was an interesting day but what really made it for me after being stuck in traffic on a rain-lashed M25 was coming back to school to our Autumn concert where we were entertained with a repertoire from Handel to Jazz - a fitting analogy for the breadth of the independent sector.  Diversity united by quality.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A pupil speaks about 'Luck'

We have a regular pattern of pupils giving an adress to the school.  They are always interesting and a great way of sharing ideas as well as giving excellent practice in public speaking.  This morning Anastasia, one of our Senior Prefects, gave a thought-provoking and interesting speech about 'Luck' which I thought would be good to share.

"When I see someone being able to stand proud in front of a vast crowd and address it with passion and confidence whilst simultaneously having a total control of their emotions and fears, it simply fascinates me! Great leaders such as Martin Luther King, Churchill, Kennedy, Obama were able to lift hearts in dark times, give hope in despair, refine the characters of men, inspire and give courage to the weary, honour the dead, and change the course of history by their motivational speeches. I often think of how lucky they were to be born as naturally gifted orators. But what is luck?

Over the summer I read an article about lucky people in which Dr Richard Wiseman, a British psychologist, shared his views on the concept of luck after 10 years of research. The results of his work revealed that people aren’t born lucky. Instead, fortunate people behave in a way that seems to create luck in their lives. Here are the four distinct features of such people:

  1. They notice opportunities that happen by chance more often than unlucky people. They are also more open to meeting new people and having new experiences.
  2. They tend to make good decisions by listening to their intuition.
  3. They are optimists and are certain that the future is going to be full of good luck. This positive attitude often makes good things happen.
  4. They are also good at coping with bad luck and often cheer themselves up by imagining things could be worse than they are.  
Therefore, don’t be afraid to allow yourself to encounter new discoveries. And of course if you are challenged by making a speech in from of a class – use your fear to drive you forwards, and allow you to enjoy your new leadership skill. Life is a struggle, accept it. Life is a tragedy, confront it. Life is an adventure, dare it. Life is luck, make it. Life is too precious, do not destroy it. Life is life, fight for it.

To conclude, I urge you to take note of what one sage used to say - “Good luck is often with the man who doesn't include it in his plans”.

-Recognise your OPPORTUNITIES
-Trust your INTUITION
-Be POSITIVE, especially when things are going wrong

And, by the way, GOOD LUCK to you!"

Monday, 12 November 2012

Farewell to exams in January

On Friday, Ofqual (the body which regulates exams) announced that after this academic year there will no longer be any AS or A2 (A Level) exams sat in January.  A little bit of history has been made, or perhaps revisited, as January exams have been part of the educational landscape since the introduction of AS and A2 Levels in the year 2000.  The big move back then was to split the old A Level course with exams sat at the end of two years of study into two halves.  AS exams sat in the Lower Sixth and A2 exams in the Upper Sixth are currently together to form the A Level.

As a result, schools were able to enter pupils to sit papers not just in the summer but also in January.  This allowed some pupils to take papers early in the year, thereby potentially reducing the number of papers to be sat in the summer.  It also enabled pupils to re-sit papers to improve their results over time.  It is easy to see why this option seems attractive, especially with the pressure on the best possible grades to secure entrance to university.  However, we had a brief discussion about this at a Head of Department's meeting at King's this evening and their unanimous view was that this was a good thing and I am in total agreement with them.

The option of re-sitting papers may seem like a good thing, especially if a pupil has a bad day and 'catches a piano'.  However, it arguably creates even greater pressure on pupils who may think, 'What if  I managed to bump up a few extra marks'.  To re-sit a paper six months later requires decent preparation which will inevitably intrude into other work and I have seen in other schools how some pupils do not put enough effort into the first sitting because of the option of re-taking later.  The worst case scenario is the paper sat in January of the Lower Sixth, then re-sat in the summer, again in the January of the Upper Sixth and once more in the summer.  In addition, the January papers are spread over a three week period and the loss of pupils from the classroom has a negative effect on the teacher's ability to keep the class moving forwards.

For sure there will be a transition period during which some may feel that opportunities have been taken away.  However, our pupils are the most over-examined in the world and I am fond of the adage that, 'if you want to know how well your carrots are growing it doesn't help to keep pulling them up to have a look'.  It will be good to get January back for teaching rather than a piecemeal period of disrupted lessons and that will ultimately be better for the pupils.

Saturday, 10 November 2012


Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday and this week has seen our Prep and Senior School's acts of remembrance.  Set in the Cathedral they centre around calling to mind those who have given their lives in the service of their country and in particular former pupils of King's; a central act being the reading aloud of all of their names before wreaths are laid.  For the Prep School this took place in their cathedral service on Tuesday and for the Senior School there was a special service on Friday morning when we were joined by parents and Old Roffensians.  On Thursday, the Headmaster of the Senior gave a poignant address focussing on one name in particular who was killed during the battle for Arnhem in the Second World War.  Hearing the list of names read out is poignant in itself, not least because of how many ORs died in the First and Second World Wars, but to hold in mind one person in particular and his career at the school reinforced the reality of the people behind the names on our school memorials.

At the end of the service on Friday, the whole school processed through the Lady Chapel where our memorial is sited and wreaths laid.  One by one, the took their own poppy and laid them alongside the wreaths as a personal act of remembrance.  It was an incredibly moving experience and one which has a great impact on our pupils.  The cold clouds at the start of the day were later replaced with autumn sunshine on the cathedral and castle, lending a positive feeling to this important day in the life of our school.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Educational breadth

Having written last evening about education being about more than exam results, I have just returned from a Senior School service in the Cathedral.  One of our Heads of School gave a really good and interesting address about the importance of skills, character and personality.  Unsurprisingly, the example he used was not drawn from the classroom but from his recent Duke of Edinburgh expedition to the Brecon Beacons and the experience of traversing Pen Y Fan in a snow storm.  He made his points clearly and the experience of presenting to a large audience is also good preparation for life.

Linked to this, I was interested to see an article in yesterday's Telegraph (click here) where leading figures from the worlds of music, theatre, art and dance have expressed concern over a narrowing of education.  This all stems from the move towards an EBacc made up of five compulsory subjects (English, Maths, History or Geography, Science and a Language) and the fear that pupils will stop accessing broader and creative subjects.  It is at times like this that I am glad to be running an independent school where such issues do not arise.  We do teach languages from the age of four which is unusual but also incorporate other subjects such as Art, Design Technology and Music all the way through our Pre-Prep, Prep and Senior Schools.  I agree whole-heartedly with both the concerns raised and also the clear arguments made about the importance of the creative arts in developing skills and enabling the flourishing of the whole person.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Education is about more than exams

Two interesting stories about education have appeared in the press today and between them they highlight the importance of a good education balancing excellent exam results with developing wider skills.

The first story is that the legal challenge against the marking of this summer's GCSE English results is being given a speedy route through the courts (click here for reporting).

To my mind there are two underlying issues behind this legal challenge.

1.  The huge importance placed on academic qualifications as a route to success in a qualification-driven society and the resulting pressures on schools to deliver. 
2.  Concern over the pace of proposed changes to GCSE and A Level exams without ensuring a reliable system of exam marking.  This was the reason behind HMC publishing a dossier detailing poor quality marking over the last ten years (see previous blog post).  At the end of last week, the Chair of UCAS raised concerns about reforming some A Levels and not others leading to a two tier system of 'good' and 'bad' A Level subjects (click here for reporting).  This mirrors the point I made in an earlier blog about changing a core of GCSEs but not others.  Yesterday The Independent reported low morale in the Department of Education created by concerns over the nature and pace of change.

The second story concerns a new book which is generating huge interest in the US and is shortly to be published in the UK.  Called 'How Children Succeed' by Paul Tough, it argues that exam qualifications are less important to future success than the development of character.  Judith Wood's review in The Telegraph makes for interesting reading and is a well-balanced commentary on the various responses to Tough's argument.

I particularly agree with Judith Wood's comment that a well-rounded education is a key factor behind the international regard for UK independent education.  The trick lies in getting the right balance.  Pupils must get the best results possible without missing out on the wider skills which exams cannot produce but which are equally essential in preparation for a successful, fulfilled life.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The importance of good Careers Advice

A recent survey in the Times Educational Supplement showed widespread concern in schools about the quality of careers advice on offer.  Two thirds of respondent said they worried 'a lot' or 'sometimes' (click here for TES article).

They are right to be concerned, especially in the context of recession where good jobs are increasingly hard to secure.  The education we provide for our pupils should ensure that they achieve their best possible results in exams but the real value lies in preparing them for a successful, fulfilled life.  Exam results might get you interviews but it's the person who walks through the door that gets the job and that's why we place such a premium on the wider curriculum where skills are developed such as leadership, a willingness to take on challenges and confidence.

Pupils also need specific advice and we will be launching a website in the next few weeks called 'The Jobs Network'.  King's alumni and current parents are registering as mentors so that they can offer careers advice, work experience and other help to enable King's former pupils make decisions about careers and make them better candidates.  Current pupils are also benefitting from CV writing clinics, seminars on different careers paths and mock interviews.  It's a great example of how King's looks after pupils even when they have left school and is a reflection of our commitment to education being a lifelong process.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Music - the soul of a school

One of the things I am enjoying most about living and working at King's has been an almost daily exposure to music.  At least four mornings a week I start my day in Rochester Cathedral where I listen to (and thoroughly enjoy singing along to) the magnificent organ and our school choir.  There are few things more uplifting than great music and the school singing together.  Every week there are more than 250 individual music lessons at King's and we have more than 20 music scholars, including choristers and two organ scholars.  The level of creativity this fosters and the wonderful talents of the pupils causes an incredible buzz even on some of the overcast and wet days of recent weeks.

Last Friday evening saw music of a different style in the first 'Open Mic Night' of the year.  Organised entirely by pupils, over half of the Senior School, parents and staff were treated to twenty school bands and soloists.  Great times, great music and a fantastic way to finish the working week - even if it did give me a hoarse voice for our Open Morning the following day.

Slow down Mr Gove

The HMC annual conference took place in Belfast last week and proved to be an enjoyable and interesting experience.  There is a lot of debate currently around the quality of exam marking (see my previous post on the HMC report) and also about the importance of reforming the exam system so that it is 'fit for purpose'.  I have written previously on my desire to see increased engagement between government and schools and concerns about this were raised by two prominent speakers at the conference.

The first was Graham Stuart MP, Chair of the Commons Education Committee, who made a speech in which he attacked Michael Gove's proposals as 'incoherent' and risking disaster by pressing ahead too fast and ignoring legitimate concerns.  Further details can be found on The Independent website.

A similar point of view was put forward by Glenys Stacey, Chief Executive of Ofqual which is the official regulator of exams in the UK.  Her comments can be found alongside those of Mr Stuart on the BBC website.

There is no doubt that much can be improved in our exam system but also that there are grave risks in the pace with which Mr Gove is rushing into the process.  I find myself agreeing with those who have noticed a correlation between the proposed start date for the new exams (September 2015) and the date of the next election (May 2015).  It may well be that Mr Gove's desire to impose a legacy on pupils of the future is being put ahead of the benefits of wider consultation and a more thoughtful approach.

HMC report on exam marking

What follows is a press release from HMC referring to deep concerns over the quality of marking in public exams.  The full report can be accessed by going to the HMC website and following their links.
'The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) warns that the Government’s proposed reform of public examinations will be “built on sand” unless deep-rooted problems within the examining system are addressed.
HMC, which represents 250 leading independent senior schools, has today published a detailed report uncovering endemic problems with marking, awarding, re-marks and appeals at GCSE and A level between 2007 and 2012.
HMC welcomes recent Government proposals to overhaul GCSEs and A levels, especially moves to increase rigour in subject studies, reduce the burden of assessment on students aged 15-18 and differentiate student achievement more clearly across the grade range.
But in its report, which has been sent to ministers, HMC says these changes to qualifications (the ‘superstructure’) are almost certain to be undermined by long-standing failings in how young people are examined (the ‘foundations’). 
“Unless examining is reformed substantially, the introduction of revised qualifications will amount to new houses built on existing sand,” says the report.
The report details key examples of what goes wrong and why - though much remains unexplained due to a “culture of secrecy” in the exam boards and lack of focus in Ofqual - and the wider implications of each of these failings.    
Specifically HMC detail seven failings of the current ‘examinations industry’ in England, grouped under three headings:
  • Poor quality marking: over the last five years, one school has had to challenge marking standards in 48 separate cases, covering 19 different subjects at GCSE and A level.
  • Inexplicable inconsistencies in the awarding of grades: one highly-selective school saw its English GCSE A* grades fluctuate between 11% and 65% over a decade.
  • Obstructions to redress: re-marks and appeals: the appeals process allows the boards to hide behind protocol rather than account for poor marking.
The authority for the findings derives from several sources: national data; collaborative work with schools and subject associations in the maintained sector; internal HMC surveys; and data from HMC schools, particularly from heads of departments. 
In national terms the staff in HMC schools are exceptionally well qualified in subject knowledge and its schools are part of an independent sector that government research shows to be the most expert in the country at predicting student grades accurately.'

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

GCSE reforms - Ebacc to the future?

Earlier this week Michael Gove announced a proposed reform of GCSEs to a new English Baccalaureate Certificate or EBacc for short.  At its heart is the concern that standards have slipped and grades inflated since the inception of GCSEs in 1985.

I welcome the move towards a more rigorous approach and would like to see an increased emphasis on pupils having to think independently and apply their learning.  One concern about GCSEs is that they can be a memory test and, as a result, do not require deeper thinking skills.  The nature of the exam has a direct influence on how pupils are taught.  Good teachers have always required their classes to engage with the material and think for themselves so there is an opportunity here to create a system which promotes this style of learning.  This has several benefits; it is a more interesting way to learn, pupils learn better when they have to personally engage and it is a better preparation for the skills they will need in their careers.

I hope the government will engage collaboratively with schools in developing new exams.  Sadly, Michael Gove has developed the reputation of the all-seeing eye who hands down pronouncements for others to follow.  He will find there is a great deal to be gained from working with schools and professional associations and for this to be a success it must be achieved with schools, not done to them.

My main concern though is that he is not being bold enough.  The first exams in the EBacc will be sat in 2017 (by those currently in Year 7) in English, Maths and the Sciences.  They will be joined later by History, Geography and Modern Languages.  If the new exams are to be considered as a gold standard then this means a situation where there will be some subjects seen as 'proper' and others as 'lesser'.  If the new approach is right, then it must be right for all subjects.  The list of proposed subjects for the EBacc represents a limited curriculum and one subject in particular is missing in my view.  Religious Studies - by its very nature - encourages and requires critical thinking, a philosophical perspective and engagement with the material.  Perhaps it might provide an interesting starting point for this brave new world.

Monday, 17 September 2012

English GCSE - an update

Looking over our GCSE English results this summer and comparing them with previous years we can see a drop against our expected grades.  Our reasonable conclusion is that our pupils have been disadvantaged by the exam board's decision to move the grade boundaries.  We are certainly not alone in this view and have written to the parents of those affected explaining that we will support those who wish to take advantage of the 'free' re-take in November.  I put 'free' in inverted commas deliberately because there is a cost to the pupils and their teachers in giving up time to prepare when they should be concentrating on AS work.

HMC will shortly be releasing evidence of concerns stretching back over several years of exam board errors.  Click here for a link.  The timing is particularly appropriate as Michael Gove announced in Parliament today his plans for an overhaul of GCSE exams.  I welcome his intentions and say again that I am fully in favour of a more rigorous system - part of which is ensuring accurate and effective marking by exam boards.  If I have a criticism it is that he seems to be going for a limited reform based around a small number of subjects in the first instance.  If we are to move to a better system I would prefer to see it across the board otherwise we risk having a mixed economy with some subjects seen as 'proper' and others having less value.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Paralympics 2012 – inspiring a generation

After the frustrations of exam board marking it is great to have something hugely positive to report.  This Thursday almost a hundred of our Pre-Prep pupils made the journey to the Olympic Park to watch the Paralympic athletics in the main stadium.  Thanks to the speedy rail connections I was able to go up and join them for part of the time and it was an experience which I, and they, will never forget. 

We were fortunate in having seats right down by the start line of the 100 metres and saw discus, shot put, 800m and 1,500m wheelchair racing.  Several medal ceremonies took place and we got to cheer athletes from Team GB and the blade runner himself, Oscar Pistorious.  It was a wonderful opportunity to spend some time with our younger pupils and they were great company.

The entire Paralympics movement is incredibly inspiring and there was a huge atmosphere of empowerment and positivity all round the venue.  The event which made the greatest impact on me was the triple jump for blind and visually impaired athletes.  The stadium was full to capacity and the cheers and clapping they received was deafening.  As they came onto the run-up their guide orientated them to face straight down the track and when they were ready 80,000 people fell totally silent to allow them to concentrate.  I tried to recreate the process in the garden at home and it is just incredible to imagine how they set off at speed with no visual information, counting their strides before leaping into the air and eventually landing in the sand.  Quite remarkable and a great example of trust, inner confidence and commitment.  I will be speaking in Chapel to the Prep School soon and think I know the theme I will be pursuing.

English GCSE - D minus to the exam boards

In a previous post I wrote about the difficulties created by moving the goal posts on A Level exam marking at the end of the course.  I said then that it would be interesting to see what would happen with English GCSE results this year and it seems even worse than I had feared. 

A brief summary of the situation so far – there was a noticeable slump in grades at GCSE English this summer and it rapidly became apparent that the grade boundaries had been changed so that most results went down by a grade from where they had previously been set.  This seemed particularly unfair, not just because of the unannounced nature of the change but also because if students had set the paper earlier in the year they had been graded under the previous boundaries.  In real terms this meant that the same work written in an exam would have received an A in November but a B in August.  Work worthy of a B grade earlier in the year would only gain a C in the summer exam of the same academic year and so on down the grades.  Common sense suggests that this is both unfair and capricious. 

Ofqual (the exam board regulator) conducted an enquiry into the slump in grades and concluded that this was what had happened but that there was no reason to change the boundaries.  The fig leaf offered for this decision was that the exam boards had greater insight into the work of the cohort in the later sitting of the exam.

Unsurprisingly this response has been viewed by schools, pupils and parents as completely unsatisfactory.  Michael Gove, newly re-confirmed as Education Secretary in the Cabinet re-shuffle, said on the Today programme on Radio 4, “Everyone who took the exam was treated in a way that wasn’t fair or appropriate.”  He has though refused to intervene which is slightly at odds with his willingness to be the most hands-on and vigorous Minister for Education for years.

This situation seems fundamentally unfair and leads to an enormous sense of injustice for pupils, parents and teachers.  I am delighted that HMC, the professional association of leading independent schools to which I belong, is joining in with other associations and unions to vigorously challenge the situation. 

I am all for increasing rigour in the exam system but the way to do this is to increase the standards required in exam answers, set tougher questions and ensure the syllabus is demanding.  This needs to be done strategically and in collaboration with schools – not imposed in the disorganised and unjust way we have seen this year.

Cathedral Address - 'Be doers not hearers'

Address given to Senior School in Cathedral, Thursday 6th September.
Based on Ecclesiasticus 11

Yesterday I focused on the importance of being, ‘Quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.’  I said then that I wanted to pick up on another phrase which said, “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers’, and there is a link between that and today’s reading which is the theme of getting things done rather than just thinking about getting things done. 

I hope that you have set yourself some goals for the coming term and year.  Perhaps it is to get into a particular sports team, pass a music exam, achieve one of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.  Perhaps it is to work harder, to get your prep finished on time or to read more widely.  Whatever it is, goals and target setting are important ways of pushing ourselves forwards.  But whether you achieve your goals or not will come down to whether you find the motivation to turn thought into action.

Motivation is an interesting area of current research and a few months ago I read a book called ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink.  The central idea he puts forward is that the old approach of carrot and stick is a very limited form of motivation.  This is the pattern of offering rewards for that which is good and punishment for that which is bad.  Pink’s claim is that what makes people tick, the real source of motivation, is not what pulls them forwards from outside but what pushes them forwards from the inside.

In particular he points to three core elements to motivation.  The things which make us want to do something.  I am going to use the Duke of Edinburgh Award to illustrate them but I hope you will apply the same thinking to something you are aiming to achieve and see if you can spot the connection.

The first element is ‘Purpose’ – that there must be some end goal that goes deeper and further than merely completing the task. On the expedition part of DofE you don’t slog up Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons purely to expend some calories and appreciate quite how wet and cold Wales can truly be.  It is the sense of achievement, of going outside your comfort and the camaraderie of being part of a team that pushes you on.

The second element is ‘Autonomy’ – the ability to make your own decisions and ultimately to grab the glory or to carry the can.  To succeed in DofE you need to take responsibility on yourself whether it be planning the expedition route or organizing the service component.  Doing something because you are told to can lead to sense of having fulfilled the task but does not bring with it the sense of inner satisfaction of doing something because you decided you wanted to.

The third element is called ‘Mastery’ and this refers to the drive to be really good at something and to truly challenge yourself.  Some of you will have heard of a book called ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell in which he tries to identify the factors that contribute to high levels of success. To support his thesis, he looks at a variety of examples including how Bill Gates achieved his extreme wealth and how The Beatles became one of the most successful bands in human history. Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.  We may struggle to devote ourselves to one activity for that length of time but there is no escaping graft and grind if we want to be really good at something.  In DofE terms this can be seen in the requirement to develop a skill or to complete a period of service with increasing numbers of hours expected at the different levels of the award.

It may be useful when thinking about your personal goals to see where the elements of Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery can be found and harness them to drive you on.  In addition to this it may also be helpful to fit individual goals into the wider context of the life you want to lead.  I am sure that you do not want to go through lurching from one thing to the next like a hamster on a wheel or a train on pre-determined tracks.  I expect that you want to be someone who seizes opportunities and makes things happen.  If that is the case then waiting for things to happen is not going to work.  We only have one life, one walkthrough on the planet and in universal terms, our lives are a cosmic sneeze.  This is not a new idea, the Roman poet Horace is credited with the famous command, Carpe Diem – or 'seize the day'.  The metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell memorably wrote, ‘But at my back I always hear, times winged chariot hurrying near.’  And this brings me back to our Bible reading for today and in particular the final words. 

“At the close of one’s life, one’s deeds are revealed.  By how he ends, a person becomes known.”

Or to put it another way, don’t look back later with regret.  Instead take and create the opportunities to make your life worthwhile and fulfilling and, most importantly, don’t put it off.  Do it now.

Cathedral Address - 'Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.'

Address given to Senior School in Cathedral, Wednesday 5th September. 
Based on James 1: 17-27

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Famous words of advice from the Book of James but what do they mean and why should we listen?  The phrasing is, of course, deliberate – it is often human nature to act in exactly the opposite way.  Think back to the last time you felt angry.  How long ago was it?  Last month?  Or last week? Or in the last 24 hours?  What was it that made you angry?  Not being allowed to do something you wanted?  Feeling that you were not being taken seriously or that someone was being deliberately unkind?  Anger is a very human emotion, and when it is uncontrollable it is the cause of most human suffering from fights between friends to wars between nations.

Notice the way that this passage is looking at a particular cause of anger – when we do not listen, or seek to understand a situation properly, when we are quick to answer back or jump on the offensive – then we become angry in a way that escalates very rapidly and often leaves us looking rather foolish later on.  Think back to a time when you have jumped to the wrong conclusion and jumped off the deep end.  Be honest, we have all done it and we all know how embarrassing it is when we realise our mistake.

Shakespeare describes this sort of anger in his tragedy play ‘King Lear’.

Lear, the aging king of Britain, decides to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom evenly among his three daughters. First, however, he puts his daughters through a test, asking each to tell him how much she loves him before he will give them their inheritance. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, give their father flattering answers. But Cordelia, Lear’s youngest and favourite daughter, remains silent, saying that she has no words to describe how much she loves her father.  All she can say is that she loves him and there is nothing she can add because her love is total.  Lear though is angered by her response.  ‘Nothing will come from nothing’ he warns her and she is exiled to France.
Lear allows himself to be deceived by his eldest daughters who tell him what he wants to hear.  Being too quick to jump to a conclusion he does not understand that Cordelia’s love for him is truer than her sisters and that because her heart is pure she is unable to dress up her feelings in false words just to keep him happy.  Lear flies into a rage and disowns Cordelia but quickly learns that he made a bad decision. Goneril and Regan begin to undermine the little authority that Lear still holds. Unable to believe that his beloved daughters are betraying him, Lear slowly goes insane. He flees his daughters’ houses to wander on a heath during a great thunderstorm and this is when his madness becomes total.  He shouts at the sky, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters but is still unable to accept that his vanity and quickness to judge is the root cause of his demise.  Lear is unable at this stage to take responsibility for his own situation.  During the storm he cries out, ‘I am a man more sinned against than sinning’.  After the storm has subsided, full of self-pity, he moans that,
‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport.’
Meanwhile, Cordelia returns from France with an army she has raised in an effort to save her father’s kingdom for him.  However they are defeated and both Lear and Cordelia are captured. In true Shakespearean style there is a lot of death in the closing acts. Lear and Cordelia are reconciled and he is finally able to appreciate his foolishness and to ask her forgiveness.  Goneril poisons Regan out of jealousy but then kills herself when her action is discovered. But in the final scenes, Cordelia is executed in prison and the play reaches it point of deepest tragedy.  Lear is totally broken and dies in despair and grief.
Shakespeare’s point is that the tragedy at the end of the play was inevitable from the moment Lear was ‘slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to anger’. 
There are times when anger is right.  There are things that happen in the world which are unjust and wrong and we are right to be angry about them.  But the Greek philosopher Aristotle was correct when he said:
“Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right amount and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”

So, the next time you feel angry.  Before you jump to any rash conclusions or over-react, take a little time and think thorough the situation.  Ask yourself whether being angry is a productive route forwards.  Avoid being like King Lear and instead:

“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Assembly Address - 'Let your light shine before others.'

Address given in Senior School Assembly on Tuesday 4th September. 
Based on Matthew 5: 1-16

The passage we have just heard comes from the start of a lengthy section of Jesus’ teaching often called The Sermon on the Mount and this section contains the Beatitudes, a series of statements detailing groups of people who are called Blessed by Jesus.  For example, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart’ which in Latin is ‘Beati Mundo Corde’ and hence the name The Beatitudes.

It is a highly comforting passage because it contains a promise that ‘all will be well in the end’.  Those who mourn or are sad will be comforted.  The meek, or quiet people, are told that they will inherit the earth.  It also flags up desirable characteristics and attitudes we should aspire to:  Being merciful.  Being pure in heart.  Being a peacemaker.

The context of all of these is within a community under pressure and under threat.  Jesus’ teaching made him unpopular with the religious and political authorities of the time and the early Christian church was heavily persecuted within the Roman empire.  So the underlying message is one of staying true to your convictions when you are under pressure.

It’s easy to see a connection between this passage and the poem that it doubtless inspired – ‘If' by Rudyard Kipling.  A famous and popular poem which I am sure most of you know and some of you studied last year.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise.

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

In common with a great deal of the Christian gospel, there are some elements of the message which are difficult.  Some believe that Jesus was a pacifist, strictly opposed to violence and warfare and the verse saying ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ would seem to support that idea.  Others argue that war, as a last resort, can be the only way to achieve peace.  You can see this in the way the military has Chaplains who are with the troops right on the front line in Afghanistan.  Soldiers who are warriors can also be seen as peacemakers.

The other paradox, which is a puzzle sitting at the heart of belief in God, is the problem of evil and suffering.  How could an all-powerful, God of love let people suffer?  This passage is all about the message that there is some purpose in suffering but some will question whether it is true that ‘it will all make sense in the end’.

But the key message I want to draw out from this passage is the importance of being true to your convictions.  Being willing to stand up for what you believe in, even if it is unpopular.  Everything is easy when all is going well but it’s how we respond to challenge and pressure that makes a real difference and, much as we may wish for an easy life, we all know that it’s unrealistic to hope for a world with no problems.  As the end of passage says; ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works’.  Take this message forwards and put it into practice this term and the year ahead and you won’t go far wrong.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Exam results - increasing rigour or chasing headlines?

This summer's GCSE and A Level exam results process has been the most unusual I can remember.  We have become used to the annual pattern of a slight rise in results and the predictable responses of some saying grade inflation means the exams are easier while others defend the hard work put in by pupils and their teachers.  This year, though, has seen the first decline in top grades at A Levels and pass rates at GCSE and the fallout has rocked the press with Michael Gove and the exam boards facing accusations of meddling and mis-handling.

There is little doubt that it has become easier to attain the top grades.  Twenty odd years ago I was in the second cohort to take GCSEs and I can still remember those who had been the last to take O Levels condemning our significantly better results.  Most of my contemporaries went to Russell Group universities with three Bs at A Level and I was offered a place at Oxford with ABB.  Last year the Senior Tutor of a Cambridge college told me that the average results of the new undegraduates was between A*A*A* and A*A*A.  We may be getting taller as a nation but I'm not sure our intellectual capacity has been growing at the same rate and grade inflation is a reality.

There is a paradox here though.  Because so many pupils attain top grades, the universities have increased their offers and now the pressure is intense on our young men and women not to slip up at any point.  Arguably, they work harder and under greater weight of expectation than any previous generation.

For a long time now there has been talk of the need to slow and reverse the year on year increases in grades.  As a Head I have little problem with this notion - rigour is good and universities and employers need to be able to differentiate between the relative abilities of applicants.  Philosophically, it also makes little sense for grades to keep on rising to a logical conclusion where everyone ends up with A*s and As. 

However, there needs to be a strategic approach to managing increased rigour in examinations.  Like it or not, the radar of teachers, pupils, parents and universities has become calibrated to the current levels of expectation.  We started to pick up indications of goal posts being shifted earlier this year as examiners started applying more stringent requirements on coursework and most of us suspected this was a mechanism to reduce results come August.  This summer was particularly interesting for me as I was analysing results both at my last school and new one.  I was also in touch with a number of other independent schools and have recently been talking to colleagues in state schools.

Results were down nationally but only by small margins at the top end.  The reality is that at schools like ours the bulk of results are at the top end so it was inevitable that the impact would be more marked.  All the schools I was in contact with went home the day before results would be released with significantly greater numbers than usual who looked to have missed the grade requirements for their university offers.  We had also had unusually low marks in several subjects and it looked as though results day would be highly problematic.

Come the morning however, we all found that the picture was very different.  Universities are able to use their discretion on results and the overwhelming majority of pupils had been accepted.  This also included those who had failed to get the magic AAB or better set by HEFCE which meant that their university would receive a lower level of funding.  Last week, the GCSE results showed some similar patterns with English in particular seeming to have had the grade boundaries artificially set downwards.  Urgent and public enquiries have been called for and Michael Gove accused of meddling.  It will be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

What seems clear is that the goal posts have been shifted at the end of the process as a mechanism to produce lower results, presumably to give the impression of higher expectations and control over an inflationary market.  I say again, that I am all in favour of rigour but this is not the way to increase the challenge. 

Chopping marks at the end benefits no one and instead has led to unecessary complications for universites, teachers, pupils and parents - all because the mechansim has been so crude and poorly communicated.  History A Level was the worst example I saw.  Pupils who were sitting on very high marks from AS suddenly getting Cs and Ds in their final papers.  I wrote to several universities where this meant my pupils had fallen below their offers.  An interesting response came from the Head of History at a Russell Group university who had seen this as a national pattern and was convinced that grade manipulation was taking place.

So what is the solution?  Certainly not to arbitraily impose changes on marks at the end of two years of study with no prior warning or collaboration.  Far better to increase the standards required in exam answers, set tougher questions and ensure the syllabus is demanding.  This is something which needs managing over time, not pushed through in search of a headline in August.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Independent Olympians - why sport matters

You would have thought that the only people disappointed by London 2012 would be the doom-mongerers who predicted it would be a disaster zone of unfinished venues and a broken transport system.  In the event, it was of course a huge triumph.  London looked amazing, the venues were astonishing and commentators around the world have been hailing it as one of the greatest Olympics ever.

To top it all, Team GB came third in the medal table and national pride, heightened no doubt by being in the year of the Queen's diamond jubilee, went through the roof.  But our performance is even more impressive when you compare the size of our nation to the two countries who beat us.  The US topped the table with 104 medals.  Impressive but with over 300 million inhabitants that equates to one medal per 3 million people.  China came second with 88 medals - or a paltry one medal per 15 million people.  Meanwhile Britain, with 65 medals and 60 million people, can claim to have one medal per 923 inhabitants.

I owe this slightly maverick way of measuring success to a Scots / Bahamian friend who is very fond of using it to argue that the Bahamas are second in the all-time league table of Olympics success and that Scotland should start every game of rugby against England with a head start of 17 points.  Naturally I don't let him get away with such tricks but it's a fun way of pointing out how significant our success was this summer.

Ben Ainslie
All should have been happiness and light but a strange thing happened half way through the games. It started to become apparent that many of Team GB's medal winners were educated at independent schools.  It was interesting, and a little depressing, that the slant put on the story by many in the media was that this was a bad thing with independent schools stealing all the toys.  It has been pleasing recently to see the debate shift to where it should be - why is that independent schools produce so many good sportsmen and women and how can improvements be made in the state sector?

In turn, this has raised the old story of school playing fields being sold off and the decline of coaching in many maintained sector schools.  A great outcome has been a focus on the importance of sport as part of a healthy lifestyle amid rising obesity in the nation.  The government has been swift to start talking about raised expectations of sport in the national curriculum which is great news.

Sir Chris Hoy
Independent schools focus on sport because they understand, and are committed to, the value of sport in the education of young people.  Sport both in terms of PE lessons and games sessions are a key part of the week.  There is a good dose of 'a healthy mind in a healthy body' to this but it is also because it develops values such as camaraderie, tenacity, commitment and leadership in a way that the academic side of the curriculum cannot do.

Let's not forget that it is also expensive to take this approach both in terms of time in the week and the cost of provision.  However we do it because it is important.  King's Rochester is an excellent example of this as we are in the process of acquiring a sports centre from the local council.  In addition to the excellent facilities indoors, this gives us 9 tennis / netball courts outside and access to further playing fields and Olympic standard astroturfs for hockey.  We will be putting in £500,000 of investment over the next few years to bring it up to standard and, crucially, making it available to the local community.

So, congratulations to all the medal winners at the Olympics and let's use this as an opportunity to praise and promote sport in schools.