The Headmaster's Blog
This weekend the newspapers published their inevitable summer reading guides and this has certainly got me looking forward to the holidays and the chance to get in some good books.
This year, I have also been struck by the opportunities that exist at Abingdon for our pupils to relish their reading and to express themselves in writing.
The library is such an important - and sometimes overlooked - part of any school. We are fortunate to have a librarian, Graham Gardner, who is so committed to the intellectual development of our pupils and who is so creative in supporting their reading and study. Just one expression of this has been the Carnegie Award shadowing group which had its final get-together last week to coincide with the announcement of the winner of the Award. The Carnegie group is a great institution for the town of Abingdon as all its secondary schools, both independent and maintained, are represented, and we hosted a wonderful day last term featuring quizzes based on the various books, which ensured that pupils from the various schools collaborated in a cheerful and competitive way.
There is also a huge variety of opportunity at Abingdon for our pupils to develop their writing skills. Today sees the culmination of our Birth of a Book: from Pitch to Publication programme. Author Jon Stock has been meeting regularly with a group of pupils to allow them to explore the process of writing a book, including insights into the publishing process such as book launches and pitches. The boys have completed three chapters each of a novel, having had the opportunity to read them out to the others so that they can be critiqued (a pretty terrifying proposition), and now their work has been gathered into an anthology which I am certainly looking forward to adding to my summer reading list.
There are many different opportunities for student journalism too. Just this morning the modern languages magazine, The Polyglot, came my way, crammed with thoughtful articles on topics such as the future of languages post-Brexit and the rise of Castro (in Spanish). There's a very entertaining guide to speaking 'Trump' too. Pupils can contribute to subject-related magazines in History and Economics, and all the magazines are well-produced and carefully edited by students.
Student journalism starts young at Abingdon, with the Lower School's The Blazer offering an eclectic mix of articles, reviews, puzzles and games. We were delighted that The Martlet, our hard-hitting termly newspaper, was highly commended in the recent School Media Awards where it also won the prize for best cover. The latest edition includes thoughtful reflections on the General Election, written from two very different political perspectives. Also just out is the latest issue of Words and That which features 'prose, poetry and paraphernalia' and which has a healthily subversive take on life at school and in the wider world.
All in all, it's fair to say that the written word is in excellent shape at Abingdon and I'm hopeful too that like me all our pupils will enjoy the freedom of the summer break for plenty of reading.
There has been a trend recently for a certain type of article by newspaper columnists and commentators. The line they tend to take is to attack schools for their failure to provide a '21st Century curriculum' and to characterise schools as Victorian workhouses, dreary production lines, where children's creativity is squeezed out of them in order to produce the next generation of drones to feed the workforce. These articles usually culminate with a demand to throw out the 'three Rs' and completely rethink the curriculum.
I feel these arguments are deeply flawed.
You cannot learn what we might term '21st Century attributes' like creativity and flexibility in a bubble; they need context and surely the best possible context is the hugely rich world of knowledge with which we have been bequeathed and which we can pass on to our children. Of course we have instantaneous access via our phones and computers to more knowledge than we can possibly cope with, but without strong foundations and a basic understanding of the principles of academia, our pupils have no context with which to process it. I am baffled too that some commentators seem to believe that the world of science, maths, literature and language that we teach our children is deadly dull, when a quick look into classrooms shows that this is anything but the case, as pupils engage with interest and enthusiasm. I believe that the ideas that have informed our civilisation represent a rich and nourishing diet, and if taught with engagement and drive, with plentiful opportunities for intelligent discussion, debate and reflection, they will allow our pupils to develop the creativity, resilience and flexibility that will allow them to flourish in the future. They will certainly provide a more secure base than our half-baked guesses at what the future might look like.
Of course we need to be open to fresh thinking and to take advantage of the potential that technology can provide as a tool for bringing learning to life. Here at Abingdon, we certainly expect our pupils to be equipped to thrive in the world of technology that surrounds them. This is one reason why we have developed our policy of Bring Your Own Device that will see pupils making greater use of laptops and the Google Suite of applications to support their learning.
This will be though in the context of our passing on to our pupils the priceless gift of knowledge so that the next generation, as many before, can build on what those who have come before have learnt. As Sir Isaac Newton put it: 'If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants'.
Sport is a big part of life at Abingdon. One of the joys of my job is to be able to watch our pupils playing a huge range, from rugby to hockey, fencing to squash, badminton to football. Standards across the board are very high, alongside a powerful commitment to providing opportunities for all.
One of the pleasures of the sporting programme is how the focus changes as we move through the seasons. I particularly enjoyed a visit to the War Memorial field on Wednesday afternoon. The sun was shining, spectators were stretched around the boundary and it was clear that the cricket season had well and truly started.
I have a high regard for cricket as a sport, based partly upon my frustration that I never got the chance to learn at school. I didn't play cricket at primary school and in my first games session of my first summer term at senior school, we were divided into those who had played before - who were then given cricket coaching - and those who hadn't - who did athletics instead. Much as I love athletics, I marvel at the strategic demands of cricket, the ability of top batsmen to find time for their shots, the skill and tenacity of bowlers, the precision and plethora of the statistics. Cricketers also have to develop such admirable resilience in coping with adversity; one false stroke and a batsman's afternoon might be over; the bowler who has to take his place at the start of his run-up having seen his last ball dispatched to the boundary.
It was wonderful therefore to see so many pupils engrossed in their cricket on Wednesday. The recent opening of the Robson wickets, a new facility for cricket including six lanes of cricket nets, as well as an artificial surface for drills and practices (named for Paul Robson, our former Head of Grounds), meant that our 2nd and 3rd XI could practise their skills alongside the U15A and B teams in the nets. The 1st XI were preparing for the weekend's match in a batting cage on one of the War Memorial squares while our Lower School cricketers were taking on a strong Moulsford side on the main square.
It is always aesthetically pleasing to witness cricket on a gloriously sunny afternoon, but it was particularly heartening to see the sheer number of pupils involved, as well as the thoughtful, measured and supportive coaching that they were receiving. It was a snapshot of our commitment to cricket at Abingdon and the benefits that involvement in this great sport can bring.
I remember vaguely a TV programme from the 1990s called Back to the Floor in which CEOs and executives would go undercover and take on a junior role in their company, in the process enhancing their understanding of their firm and its needs.
I undertook something similar last week when I spent a day shadowing a 3rd year pupil. Clearly going undercover was not really an option but by spending a day experiencing the normal rhythms and routines of our pupils, I hoped to broaden my understanding of the School; this is especially important at the moment as we have just begun work on a new development plan for the Abingdon Foundation.
It was a fascinating day. The pupils made me welcome and indeed some of the highlights were the informal conversations that I was able to have with them as we moved around from lesson to lesson. They were certainly keen to share their impressions of Abingdon and make suggestions as to how life could be improved. The pupil whom I was shadowing was long-suffering and gracious and tolerated my presence with admirable good humour.
The timetable for the day was varied, kicking off with a tutor group session where we discussed the concept of fake news, and it included subjects as diverse as Chemistry, Drama, Computing and History. I was impressed by the level of the work that the boys were undertaking; there was a real sense of stretch and challenge in every lesson that I saw and the boys were interested and stimulated. There were some great examples of collaborative work, not just in Drama when the class broke into small groups to work on various scenes from a play, but also, for example, in History, where the boys were exploring reasons why World War One developed into a war of attrition; I particularly enjoyed having the chance to contribute here. It was also striking how positive the relationships were between pupils and teacher. The boys had the confidence to ask questions when necessary and in every lesson I saw a very encouraging working environment.
I finished my day as a 3rd Year on home turf with a superb French lesson in which the class were discussing works by various French artists and expressing their preferences, as well as reading some authentic material about Paul Cezanne. The boys were working in pairs and I was rather pleased to be able to help out my guide for the day, and even more pleased when one of our answers was commended by the teacher…
It was a busy but fascinating day and it has certainly helped me develop my understanding of the School further. Now, it's back to the office...
My experiences on my German exchange, aged 14, were a bit mixed. My partner and I had been matched largely on the basis of our shared enthusiasm for tennis. Unfortunately my ability did not quite match my enthusiasm. Nearly every day on our exchanges we would spend an hour or so on court, as my exchange partner fired down Boris Becker-style, laser-guided serves which were rarely met by my racket. The score-lines assumed a certain uniformity, as I rejoiced in the odd game in my regular 6-1, 6-1 defeat.
Although things didn't really go my way on the sporting front, I did enjoy my time in Germany. The chance to become part of a new family, to try new kinds of food, to explore new places all inspired me to try and improve my German. The exchange also had a big impact on my language of course, as during my time in Germany I moved from blank incomprehension, to the smiling understanding of a few phrases, and finally to the point where I could actually express myself in some stuttering phrases, shaking myself free of the shackles of feeling that every utterance I made needed to be grammatically perfect.
As a languages teacher, I've enjoyed seeing lots of pupils go through similar experiences on exchange; not always easy but ultimately rewarding and often the basis of long-term friendships or an interest in languages. I'm delighted therefore that on Saturday I will be attending a celebration in Bielefeld in Germany to mark the 50th anniversary of the exchange between Abingdon and the Ratsgymnasium in Bielefeld. We'll be joined too by the Head of St Helen's and St Katharine's who have been joint partners in the exchange since the 1970s. I'm pleased too that we'll be joined by the Abingdon First Orchestra as part of their tour of northern Germany.
The exchange started when my predecessor Sir James Cobban picked up two bedraggled, tired hitchhikers on Boars Hill in the 1960s. Friendships grew over tea and cakes back at Abingdon and Sir James had the foresight to realise that the Ratsgymnasium shared much with Abingdon, not least an abiding belief in the importance of Classics in education. He recognised too the benefits of building friendships between young people from different countries. Happily, Sir James' daughter will be joining our celebrations in Germany and I hope he would be pleased to know that the exchange continues to thrive, and indeed that Abingdon and SHSK now also run exchanges with schools in Spain and France.
Running exchanges has become that much more difficult recently with legislation requiring that host families in the UK go through the DBS process. I am completely committed to ensuring the safety of young people both in schools and when they travel but these regulations place such a significant administrative burden on schools that not every school will be able to cope and the number of exchanges is likely to drop. I do hope that a solution can be found that will allow exchanges to continue and permit the next generations to build friendships, discover new cultures, and perhaps even restore the UK's honour on the tennis court...
The return to school in January began - as it was at most schools - with a day of Professional Development. Our focus this year as a Common Room is on ensuring stretch and challenge for all our pupils so I was very grateful to our Director of Teaching and Learning, John Davies, who spoke on this topic and prompted a series of discussions amongst staff.
When the teaching profession discusses stretch and challenge, it can tend to focus on four aspects: setting extension work for the pupils who complete their work first; skipping over easier content to focus on trickier concepts; covering the curriculum more quickly; or on enriching the curriculum with extra activities beyond the classroom. These are all valid and I've seen lots of evidence of them here at Abingdon.
We want though to go further than this and to ensure that every lesson can provide stretch for every pupil, that every lesson gives them a mental workout that is as challenging as any training session for our sportsmen might be.
In his presentation, Mr Davies focused on the concept of Authentic Intellectual Work (centerforaiw.com) as a framework for assessing if a given activity provided the stretch that we might be looking for. At the very least, AIW (I do love a three-letter acronym) provides a useful vocabulary for considering the level of challenge in a particular lesson.
In brief, AIW encourages the teacher to consider three aspects when assessing the level of challenge of a lesson or activity; the construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry and the value beyond school.
The construction of knowledge focuses on higher order thinking skills, such as organising, interpreting, evaluating or synthesising prior knowledge to solve a problem. This is in essence taking learning to the level beyond simply remembering and/or regurgitating knowledge or even simply understanding it but applying a level of analysis and sophistication.
Disciplined inquiry requires students to build a strong base of prior knowledge upon which to draw and then to display a deep understanding in communicating that knowledge in complex forms. There is therefore a strong emphasis on communication - in sophisticated written or oral forms - not just in traditional 'writing' subjects like History and English but also in the sciences and Mathematics.
Finally, AIW demands that work has a value beyond school. That is to say that work is completed not just for the narrowly utilitarian purpose of achieving a better result at GCSE or A Level but because it develops knowledge or skills that will serve students well throughout their lives and perhaps just make them a 'better', or at the very least a better-educated, person.
I think AIW is a useful way for us to ensure challenge across the whole curriculum. The presentation certainly sparked a great deal of discussion across the common room and I'm looking forward to seeing those discussions bear fruit as I visit lessons this term.
For the past three weeks, groups of Year 6 pupils have been visiting Abingdon on Saturdays for taster mornings which give them and their parents a chance to find out more about the school and experience what life at Abingdon is like. It's not easy to capture the Abingdon experience in a couple of hours but certainly our visiting pupils have enjoyed the various lessons that they've taken part in, their time in the Sports Hall and particularly the refreshments… I've been grateful not just to the teachers who have contributed to these taster days but especially to our Lower Sixth Assistants who've given up their Saturday mornings to support various activities.
I'm not sure our visiting parents have had quite as much fun. They have a chance to visit our new Science Centre and our fantastic new facilities for Classics, Geography and History, followed by a Q&A session with some of my senior colleagues. In introducing this session, I have tried to capture the essence of Abingdon, which is really not easy in such a busy, diverse and interesting place. I wondered if a quick snapshot of some highlights from my last 48 hours might do the trick:
- Observation of a Third Year English lesson, where the boys were reading. Exciting to see the pupils engaging with concepts of the American Dream, linking them to their own aspirations and reflecting on the meaning of the recent USA presidential election…
- Entertaining lunch with the prefects, with conversation ranging from mountaineering to school inspections, from Trump (inevitably) to skiing.
- An extraordinary Singers' Masterclass led by Richard Burkhard, who has sung in opera arenas and concert halls around the globe, including the Bolshoi, English National Opera and many, many others. After a brief recital, he guided groups of pupils through scenes from some challenging operas: Mozart's Don Giovanni, Stravinsky's Rake's Progress, Britten's Billy Budd. We saw teaching at its best: engaging, supportive, humorous, informed by high expectations. It was thrilling to see the boys respond to Richard's direction and the scenes were transformed.
- The Lower School welcome a group of girls from St Helen's and St Katharine's to an evening of dinner and debate. It was great to see them all rise to the challenge with such confidence and obvious engagement in the topics being discussed. The future of the Debating Society is assured.
- Welcoming about 20 Old Abingdonians back to the school for an evening discussing careers with our Sixth Formers, just one component in a very rich programme of careers education. A series of panel discussions gives our students a great chance to find out more about a whole range of different careers from OAs who are at various stages of their own careers.
- A great derby day's rugby against our local friends from Radley College… No real need to motivate Abingdon pupils for this one…
Life at Abingdon is certainly never dull.
One of the undeniable jewels in the crown of Abingdon's renowned Other Half programme is the Abingdon Film Unit. The Unit was formed in 2003 by Abingdon's Head of Drama, Jeremy Taylor, and the noted documentary maker, Michael Grigsby. It has produced some 111 films during its existence and it gives pupils an extraordinary opportunity to work with leading representatives of the film and television industry.
Half term offered me the chance to sit down and watch the latest crop of films, which are the product of many hours of hard work, sometimes spread over a couple of years. I was staggered by the quality of the work on display. There was great variety in the themes and approaches: a documentary film, describing the work of The Abingdon Bridge, a charity for whom the school has recently been raising money that supports young people in challenging circumstances in Abingdon; a poignant comedy called Limbo, involving professional actors and a creative screenplay; a fascinating documentary film about a local violin-maker and a brass violin that he owns; an extraordinary piece of animation called Otto's Story, describing the experiences of a young boy growing up in pre-war Vienna. All this work displayed a mature and thoughtful command of the medium of film.
A further film which I found particularly powerful was called Fade Away. Again it required an Abingdon pupil to direct a professional actor, in this case in a beautiful film that captured the experiences of a man suffering from dementia. The theme was handled with great sensitivity and maturity by David Bicarregui and it contained some haunting and incredibly effective imagery. Understandably, David won the title of the Michael Grigbsy Young Film-maker of the Year at the recent AFU night.
The Film Unit were back in school over the past weekend making a start on their new films. I cannot wait to see their offerings in a year or so's time.
I wanted to write a few thoughts after the recent HMC conference in Stratford-upon-Avon. It also happened to be the 99th anniversary of the birth of the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk yesterday so I put on some of his music to get my creative juices flowing.
The theme of the conference was creativity, and listening to Monk chimed nicely with some of the themes that had run throughout it. The following piece comes therefore with apologies to those who have no time for jazz at all!
Thelonious Monk had the most individual approach to playing the piano of any of the great jazz pianists. Although his playing was steeped in the jazz tradition, his music is instantly recognisable. He came to fame in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the style was for rapid runs of notes while he favoured a more measured approach based on spiky clusters of sounds. The music he wrote seems quite simple on the page but it always poses surprising challenges; unusual corners to negotiate (one of Monk's most famous albums was indeed called Brilliant Corners). Every musician who played with him ended up adjusting their style and sounding fresh and different in order to make the music make sense.
This made me think of some of the sessions at the HMC conference where we thought about how to inspire creativity in our schools. Will Gompertz, the BBC's arts editor, reminded us that creativity does not just come from the ether but that ideas arise from a tradition. What is required though for new ideas to emerge are 'disruptors' - Gompertz cited the example of Baudelaire's impact on Cézanne - who challenged received thinking and set us off in a new direction. Monk's chord sequences act as musical disruptors, forcing improvisors to think on their feet and reject hackneyed sequences.
Some of the best teaching works the same way. An English lesson where pupils are required to re-write a poem without using the letter 'a' (with credit to Graeme May, Deputy Head Academic at Abingdon); a rugby drill where players have to execute a skill in an artificially narrow space; having to talk your way 'around' a word that you do not know or can't remember in Spanish or German, rather than being immediately given the word by the teacher. Some exciting learning can take place when pupils are 'disrupted' and have to work their way out of an unusual or difficult situation. I suppose it comes down to really making pupils think - and that is the very best teaching.
Who would have thought that the HMC conference and Thelonious Monk could possibly have so much in common...
During my brief time at Abingdon to date, I've really enjoyed sampling boarding life and getting to know some of our boarders. They play a very important part in our community, providing a welcome element of internationalism and sharing their different cultural perspectives, while contributing fully to all aspects of school life.
It was a real pleasure therefore to be able to meet a good number of our current boarders' parents in Hong Kong at the start of the week. It was my first visit to Hong Kong and I was fascinated by this buzzing, dynamic city. I certainly look forward to visiting again and I hope to stay a bit longer next time. I was struck by the warmth of the welcome in Hong Kong and by the regard and affection that our parents feel for the benefits of a UK education and for Abingdon in particular. It was great to be able to share news of their sons with them and to get to know them better. They also enjoyed hearing about recent developments at Abingdon, as did the Old Abingdonians whom I met in Hong Kong. It was great to hear their stories too, including two OAs who are now collaborating as film-makers in Hong Kong, and who had produced a film that recently won a prize at the Milan Film Festival. One of them had cut his teeth in the Abingdon Film Unit (which has its annual night of screenings on 1 October in the Amey Theatre), while the other had been a stalwart of the music scene here, and it was inspirational to hear the effect that their experiences at Abingdon had had upon them.
Their story, and the many others that I heard in Hong Kong, bore very powerful testimony to the value of the boarding experience at Abingdon.
Abingdon is known for its excellence in 'The Other Half' - extra-curricular activities - and the Activities Fair at the start of term gave me a great opportunity to see what it is all about. I have a long-standing belief in and commitment to the value of extra-curricular activities in that they play a key part in the personal development of pupils, while also giving them something to savour and enjoy as part of their weekly routine, so I was keen to see what was on offer.
I was blown away. The range and scope of activities here at Abingdon is truly remarkable and goes beyond what I had even expected. The value of those activities is enhanced by the commitment that the school shows towards them in terms of the time, resources and staff allocated. The opportunities for involvement in sport, art, music and Outward Bound activities are absolutely superb, and I am sure I will return to them in future blogs.
What also struck me as I toured the Activities Fair was the number of academic societies which also exist, often largely led by sixth form students, and which allow pupils to go way beyond the normal boundaries of subject specifications. Many of them produce publications which are incredibly well-designed and thoughtfully put together, featuring some highly erudite and considered reflections. A new society that has sprung up this term to take advantage of the new facilities in Greening Court is the GIS Club - GIS standing for Geographic Information Systems - which allows pupils to use sophisticated software to manipulate and overlay all sorts of geographic data. I saw some of our lower school boys using this software for the first time last week and they were already producing some fascinating work.
The commitment to going beyond the specification was emphasised by our Head of Sixth Form, Mr O'Doherty, in his assembly this morning which urged Sixth Formers to be curious, to read more widely, to take part in debate and discussion and to seize the chances offered by Abingdon's academic societies. The combination of intellectual curiosity with the unparalleled opportunities of the the Other Half - it's a potent mix.
The induction of our new scholars at the start of a new year at Abingdon required me to spend some time thinking about what scholarship means at a school like this.
Without doubt, notions of scholarship are shifting and evolving all the time. I'm intrigued by the title given to Thomas Young, who died in 1829, who is described as 'the last man to know everything'. Allegedly by the age of 14, young Thomas knew Greek and Latin, and could get by in French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Aramaic, Syric, Samaritan and Amharic. Not a bad start, I suppose. He went on to contribute significantly to many fields, including our understanding of light, vision, mechanics, linguistics, music and even Egyptology. You have to say though that calling him 'the man who knows everything' smacks of exaggeration.
Indeed, we would certainly quibble now with the notion that any individual today could possibly 'know everything', not least when we can summon more information than we could probably ever process to our computer screens in a fraction of a second. Faced with this glut of information, discernment has become supremely important; the ability to sift information, to recognise what is reliable and trustworthy, to assess and judge sources.
Socrates was alleged to have said that 'the unconsidered life is not worth living' and I hope that all our pupils at Abingdon will live a considered life, that they will question what they hear, see and read and that they will not be afraid to consider new ways of living and thinking. I hope that our scholars - whose scholarships are founded on hard work and application - will take the lead in their approach to all aspects of life at school and in particular, of course, in the classroom, by engaging actively with their studies, thereby setting an example to others.
If in doubt, best just to follow the helpful advice offered by Dr Seuss:
'The MORE that you READ,
The MORE things you will KNOW,
The MORE you LEARN,
The MORE places you'll GO!'
It has been a busy and exciting summer as my family and I have moved to Abingdon. I hope I never have to see a cardboard box again… It is hard to believe that the long wait since my appointment as Headmaster back in June 2015 is finally over and it is with enormous anticipation that I look to the months ahead.
It was great to meet the new staff joining Abingdon School today. They have a great deal to offer the school collectively and I could sense their enthusiasm to get on with the job ahead. It was very useful for me to sit in on the sessions presented to the new starters by senior colleagues. I was excited to hear the focus on stretching and challenging pupils - new colleagues were encouraged to view each lesson as a workout for their pupils' brains. There was a focus too on ensuring that pupils are active and engaged in lessons. Teacher talk has its place but the test of a successful lesson is how much progress the pupils make, and that will in most instances follow when they have ample opportunity to put their learning into practice, rather than hearing lectures on a particular topic.
On occasion the focus on active learning can be dismissed as new-fangled faddism but it is anything but. I always find Montaigne's essays on bringing up children and education a source of good sense and perspective. Even in the sixteenth century, he wrote:
'Tutors never stop bellowing in our ears, as if pouring stuff down a funnel, and our job is just to repeat what they have been saying to us. I would want our tutor to correct that and, from the beginning, according to the type of mind he is dealing with, get it to show what it is capable of by making it try things out, choosing and judging them itself; and with the tutor sometimes leading the pupil on and, at other times, letting the pupil lead himself.' (L'éducation des enfants).
Montaigne presents us with a wonderfully succinct model of what effective teaching is all about.
Certainly though, the focus on pedagogy at Abingdon, including reflections upon the most intelligent use of technology in education, is hugely exciting, and I am very much looking forward to seeing and hearing more over the term ahead.