Maintaining a good balance | Abingdon Senior School

Maintaining a good balance
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

It has been great to welcome pupils, old and new, back to school. There has been a huge amount of work on the site over the summer and I’ve enjoyed seeing pupils exploring the new surroundings. It’s been particularly exciting to see them respond to our newest building, Beech Court. On a visit to the new library last week, I was delighted to see it packed with pupils, doing homework, completing research or reading. Situated on the first floor, the library has beautiful views of the two magnificent beech trees which give the building its name, and by the windows nearest the trees, you feel that you could be sitting amongst the branches. I’m immensely grateful to our architects, contractors and our own support staff who have worked so hard to get projects ready for the new academic year.

The events of the start of term – staff training, assemblies, chapel – are a time when we focus sharply on the ethos of the School. I’d reflected on this over the holiday. A particular highlight of our own family holiday was a visit to Lake Lugano in Switzerland, where we took the chance to visit the museum dedicated to the German 20th century author Hermann Hesse, who lived for a long time in a village called Montagnola on the shores of the lake. My great-grandmother, who had had to flee Germany during the Nazi era, had a house nearby and befriended Hesse. His novels had also had a particular significance for me when I studied them at university, and they have often had a strong appeal for people in their formative years, as they capture the struggle to make sense of the conflicting aspects of our personalities. So a visit to the museum was a must for me.

A number of Hesse’s novels deal with the theme of duality, and particularly the tension between the life of the mind and the drive of the senses. Ultimately they portray the search for a balance between these two aspects of a personality.

I reflected that this search for a sense of balance is key to what Abingdon is all about too. Our term for extra-curricular life, the Other Half, confirms that we want pupils to achieve a healthy balance between their academic studies and the broader life of the school. We are ambitious for our pupils and believe that they can excel in both areas, and indeed that success in one sphere benefits the other. The outstanding exam results that our pupils achieved this summer, which came alongside superb achievements in the Other Half, confirmed that this is indeed the case.

We want to ensure that every pupil can achieve that balance, which is why there is such a wide array of opportunities in the Other Half – over 120 different clubs and activities. This makes it possible for every pupil to find his niche at Abingdon, and have a fulfilling time both inside and outside the classroom.

It’s also vital, of course, that young people have sufficient down time when they can develop their own friendships and relationships and simply enjoy time with family and friends.

It sounds quite easy to achieve this balance but this is not always the case. Some pupils, especially those with perfectionist tendencies, will spend too long on academic work, at the possible detriment to their broader personal development and wellbeing. Others will seize the opportunities of the Other Half with so much enthusiasm that work gets squeezed excessively and their academic development can be threatened. Others again might let their social life over-dominate at the expense of success both in academia and the Other Half.

Effective pastoral structures are therefore essential in order that pupils can be steered back onto the right path if their lives have become unbalanced. Young people need the space and time to try and work things out for themselves but often a touch on the tiller may be needed by tutor or housemaster to help them get back on track. Of course at other times more radical interventions and sustained support may be required, and the art of great pastoral care is knowing which approach is required when.

I am pretty sure Hermann Hesse did not have Abingdon or the Other Half in mind when he was writing his novels. I do hope though that he would have recognised our efforts to fuse the different elements of a young person’s development into a healthy, balanced and fulfilling whole.

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