Recent articles by Michael Windsor

The question as to whether schools can teach character has been around for as long as people have been discussing education. Indeed, in the 1860s the Head of a Scottish school listed his priorities as follows: First - Character. Second - Physique. Third - Intelligence. More recently, during her comparatively brief spell in the Department for Education, Nicky Morgan prioritised ‘character education’, perhaps as a response to Michael Gove’s sharper focus on qualifications.  

When we drill down into what sort of character we might want to develop in our children, the focus tends to be upon ‘grit’; the ability to take on challenges and to bounce back from difficulty. There is a perception that this is a particular priority today as our children require greater resilience in order to cope with the relentless pace and pressures of modern society.

While the responsibility for building resilience should not lie with schools alone, they can play a significant role in providing opportunities that challenge young people and require them to display fortitude and resilience. The hope has to be of course that they can take what they learn in one particular context and transfer it to other areas of life, which can be difficult to achieve. To assist with this, schools are equipping pupils with the language and concepts to talk openly about the value and importance of resilience and helping them to transfer attributes to different contexts.

Arguably, the best way to develop resilience in pupils is by presenting them with challenges that will stretch them and will require perseverance and mental strength to overcome. Different pupils will find challenge in very different activities, be it Outward Bound adventures, public speaking, performing in a concert or simply volunteering an answer in a lesson.

It’s interesting to see how schools are building approaches that will develop resilience into the curriculum and their everyday teaching. Progress in computer science, for example, depends upon pupils realising that being uncertain and getting things wrong is not only acceptable but actually vital. Computational thinking requires a constant process of debugging, tinkering and persevering until a piece of code does what you want it to do in the most effective possible way.

We know that good quality feedback is highly significant in enabling pupils to make progress. In a French lesson recently, I saw a teacher skilfully turn a pupil’s embarrassment when he made a common grammatical mistake into a really useful opportunity for the whole class to benefit by exploring how to address the original error. It’s simple, and what good teaching has always been about, but with time this sort of approach can help pupils lose their fear of making mistakes, a fear which really can choke confidence and progress.

We can also build resilience by stretching pupils with tasks that they may struggle even to complete. The Abingdon Film Unit, which gives students at Abingdon and partner schools the opportunity to make short films under expert guidance, is philosophical when pupils fail to complete projects or decide to change tack completely in the middle of a piece of work. Jeremy Taylor, Head of the Film Unit, summarised their approach like this:

‘We are the products of the journeys we have undertaken. Where they lead us is perhaps less relevant than the fact that they have taken us somewhere. And for as long as we are willing to start journeys, and as long as we have the capacity to move on from that “somewhere” in one direction or another, there can be no sense of having failed.’

I’d hope that this sort of approach can inspire our current generation of students to relish any challenge that comes their way and to set themselves up to embrace the opportunities of the future.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

Choosing a school can be a stressful business. We are fortunate in the Oxford area to have a great choice of schools both in the maintained and independent sectors but parents still understandably spend a great deal of time and anxiety weighing up their options.

Independent education may not be on the radar for all families for a variety of reasons but parents are sometimes quick to rule it out on the grounds of cost alone. There is though a great deal of assistance available in the form of bursaries and scholarships and it’s certainly worth looking into, even if your first thought is that independent education is likely to be out of reach.

Schools vary in the type of scholarships and bursaries they offer but generally scholarships do not take parental income into account but bursaries are means-tested. Scholarships are awarded on the basis of ability in a particular area. Many schools offer academic scholarships but they are also usually available in other areas of achievement, such as sport, music, drama and art.

Different schools attach different values to their scholarships, they can represent a hefty discount at some schools, though not all. At Abingdon, the monetary value of scholarships is nominal with the essential benefit being that scholars gain from extension programmes which are designed to stretch them and give extra value beyond the standard curriculum. In return, we expect a high degree of commitment and leadership in the area for which they have been given the scholarship.

Bursaries are means-tested reductions in fees that enable pupils whose family cannot afford full fees to attend independent schools. There is a wide range of bursaries available, from those that cover full fees plus extras to partial bursaries where families do make some financial contribution. The level of bursaries is related to the financial need of the family, rather than the academic ability of the pupil, although in schools where entrance is selective, applicants will need to meet the normal entry criteria.

There is a lot of assistance available. In the last academic year, pupils at schools in the Independent Schools Council received £900 million in fee assistance, an increase of 4.9% on the previous year, which meant that 33% of pupils received some sort of help with their fees.

Bursary information is usually available on the Admissions pages of school websites and admissions teams are also primed to help. Schools have different ways of assessing need but parents will normally complete a bursary application form where details of income and assets are given. Some schools require a home visit. All information given in the application process is confidential and if a child receives a bursary that also remains confidential throughout their time at the school. Parents often worry that their children will be treated differently at school but this is absolutely not the case. Children receiving bursary awards are treated in exactly the same way as all other children.

The process of applying for a bursary can seem daunting but there is plenty of advice and support available on the way; schools really do want to help. It is certainly worth the trouble as the outcomes can be life-changing. It is a real joy to see pupils thriving and going on to achieve some spectacular successes. So my advice would be not to hold back but get in touch and put in that application.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

Academics from Newcastle University recently suggested that boys and girls should not be allowed to play contact rugby, citing the risk of concussion and the longer-term problems that this could cause. It seems reasonable of course to take action in the interests of the health and well-being of our children. But the question of whether we allow contact in youth rugby leads to a wider-ranging, and I believe important, debate about the level of risk we are prepared to let our children take.

Let’s deal with the issue of rugby first. This is a sport that is thriving nationally and we are fortunate to have a particularly strong club and school scene in the Oxford area. Undoubtedly the sport does carry some risk but this is hugely outweighed by the benefits it brings, which are particularly valuable in a time where obesity is on the rise. It’s been really exciting to see the growth in the number of people, and especially girls, playing rugby in recent years and it would be a real shame if this were to be reversed in response to the Newcastle research.

Rugby has changed significantly in its approach for younger players. The game that our children play is very different from the one that we see on our screens during the Six Nations. The changes made to youth rugby put the emphasis on skills and safety rather than physical power. For instance, scrummaging is introduced in a phased approach that ensures that we no longer see weaker or smaller packs being marched backwards down the field at a dangerous pace.

Contact is introduced gradually so that by the time players are involved at a senior level, they have had the chance to learn the skills that will allow them to tackle in a safer way. Far more sensible and rigorous protocols are now in place to prevent and treat concussion. Perhaps most importantly, the training offered to coaches and teachers is considerably more professional and serious than it ever used to be.

Concussion is scary and can have very significant consequences. But I see the response of the RFU as a good example of managed risk, an approach that is echoed in schools today in many different areas. Although we love to pour scorn on the myths of health and safety gone mad, of conkers being banned in the playground, in reality I think teachers recognise that pupils do need to take risks sometimes in the interests of personal development.

Anyone who has seen the growth in confidence in a pupil who has just completed her Duke of Edinburgh expedition or completed his first solo climb can bear witness to the huge benefit that overcoming challenge and risk brings to young people.

Adolescents are by their nature risk-takers, as they work out the world for themselves and challenge the rules that have been passed on to them by their elders. I would far rather they indulged their appetite for risk in an environment that is controlled and fundamentally safe. Indeed, we need to see that dreaded phrase ‘health and safety’ as a concept of enablement, an approach that simply allows our young people to live their lives to the full in as safe a way as possible.

We will never be able to remove risk from the lives of young people. Let’s embrace it, manage it and then watch our children thrive.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

Picasso famously said that art ‘washes from the soul the dust of everyday life’. But this sense of spiritual nourishment and invigoration is only one of the benefits of a rich cultural life in our schools.

One of the great pleasures in my first year as Headmaster at Abingdon has been the opportunity simply to soak up what is going on around the school on a day-to-day basis. Abingdon is known for its Other Half - our term for the formidable extra-curricular offer here - that sees our pupils taking part in over 120 activities, ranging from bell-ringing to lacrosse, from robotics to sailing. All part of our commitment to developing character, to allowing pupils to find their niche within the school and discover the best vehicles with which to establish and express their own personalities.

The arts are a cornerstone of our Other Half programme, and indeed they play a key part in the development of all our pupils. There are manifold reasons why we feel that it is important that our pupils have a strong grounding in the arts. A starting point might be the potential boost given to mental health. Psychologists have written of the benefits of achieving a state of ‘flow’, when you become so absorbed in the activity that you are undertaking that you lose all sense of yourself. Involvement in art, drama or music is a great way to achieve this ‘flow’ and can offer a welcome release from pupils’ day-to-day pressures - as well as an opportunity for them to escape from the tyranny of the mobile phone and social media.

The arts obviously also offer wonderful outlets for self-expression while at the same time providing a useful vehicle for pupils to consider complex issues. One way this happens at Abingdon is through the Film Unit which assembles a team of industry professionals who work alongside Abingdon pupils to make a diverse range of productions from animations to documentaries on location in Cambodia and Moldova. The results are extraordinary, as the pupils produce work of great maturity and style, often taking on demanding subjects. A recent film by two Year 10 pupils, Fade Away, captured the experience of living with dementia in a powerful and thoughtful way that won them the Best Young Filmmaker Award at the National Student Film Festival. As the best art does, the film captured the emotions around dementia far more effectively than a factual description could convey.

There are also wonderful opportunities in the arts to learn about leadership and teamwork. A coaching session by the Fitzroy String Quartet earlier in the year encouraged our musical ensembles to think about how they interact in rehearsal and how they can listen to one another more effectively. Of course, the arts provide fertile ground for friendships to form, and this was apparent on our orchestra’s recent tour to Germany. The camaraderie is also apparent in a group like the Big Band, as pupils encourage one another and respond to their colleagues’ solos and improvisations.

Involvement in the arts contributes positively to building the community within the school, not least as it engenders interaction across the various year groups. It also allows our pupils to look beyond the school walls. For example, members of the Film Unit recently produced an exceptional short film for the Sobell House charity to use in their fund-raising. This was a challenging assignment that required the young film-makers to show great sensitivity and maturity, with uplifting and heartening results.

This sense of stretch and challenge underpins all that we undertake in the arts. Our recent production with St Helen’s and St Katharine’s of the musical London Road presented cast, crew and band with significant musical, dramatic and technical challenges, which they responded to superbly. A singing workshop with the opera singer Richard Burkhard earlier this year placed real demands on the young singers involved but the improvement that they showed was remarkable. The growth in their confidence was palpable too.

Although we want to make sure that there are opportunities for pupils of all levels of ability to get involved with the arts, I believe strongly that we do need to present our pupils with challenges in their cultural life at a young age. I want them to take on tasks which may not come easily to them at first but which can leave them fearless in the face of challenge while learning too to embrace all forms of culture.

The rewards will sustain them throughout their lives.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

Over the February half term, a number of students from Abingdon took part in an exchange with a school in Bielefeld, Germany, while others experienced the delights of Andalucia, on a trip to Seville.

Our connection with the Ratsgymnasium in Bielefeld is long-standing, as last year we marked 50 years of partnership. The exchange has interesting roots in that it grew out of a friendship that was triggered when Abingdon’s then Headmaster, James Cobben, picked up two tired-looking German hitchhikers on Boars Hill and brought them home for some tea and conversation. They described their school and, in the interest of international fellowship, Cobben wrote to the German Head to propose an annual exchange which has flourished ever since.

My own experiences on exchange were formative (well, I ended up as a modern languages teacher). The road was not always smooth; my memories include a pairing with a German boy who loved tennis (as I thought I did) and consistently battered Boris Becker-style serves past me, as well as two weeks in France during which I ate my first ever artichoke in its entirety - spiny leaves and all - while the French family stared at me in disbelief. But my time abroad opened my eyes to the fact that languages were not just subjects to be studied in school, abstract lists of vocabulary and grammatical structures to master, but rather living, dynamic expressions of a culture and people. These early experiences, combined with my own observations while taking pupils overseas as a teacher, have made me a passionate advocate for language exchanges and trips.

There are obvious benefits for the language skills of pupils who take part. It is easy to underestimate the challenge of staying in a country with a different tongue, of making yourself understood and of comprehending what on earth people are talking about, at what feels like mystifying speed, compared to the gentle pace that teachers use in lessons. But even a brief time abroad allows the ear to begin to adapt and for levels of comprehension to grow. Pupils’ confidence in their speaking can grow significantly if they manage to make themselves understood even in what might seem the most humdrum of circumstances, be it buying bread or fruit in a market, or just asking directions to the station.

But the benefits are not just linguistic. The opportunity to experience the way of life in other countries provides a real context to their studies in the classroom and indeed brings those studies to life. It can open their eyes to the fact that people in other countries just do things differently; it can challenge assumptions and inspire new ways of thinking. At a time when our relationship with Europe is changing, it seems to me more important than ever that our young people have the chance to experience the cultures of our neighbours and to come to understand their perspectives and mindsets.

And these are also wonderful opportunities for pupils to spend time together too and to form memories of their friends and teachers that will stay with them throughout their lives.

I think there are particular advantages to language exchanges, such as our partnership with Bielefeld, where pupils have the experience to live with an overseas family for a while and truly experience everyday life with them. This can be quite an intimidating prospect but exchanges can allow life-long friendships to form and pupils’ language skills develop rapidly when they are thrown into the deep end. But even the shortest trips where pupils get a brief insight into another country and limited exposure to the language can really help inspire the linguists of the future. And we certainly need them.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

In a recent piece for radio, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson decried the lack of appreciation of nuance in public discourse. It can feel that discussion involves two sides hurling ideas across an abyss, with neither prepared to concede a point or acknowledge the sense of the other. Obstinacy and sticking to your guns is applauded; the willingness to be persuaded or change your mind is considered a weakness. This has been amplified by the ‘bubble’ effect of social media: its tendency to confirm beliefs rather than challenging them.

But surely we want our young people to develop the ability to weigh evidence, to appreciate nuance and work towards conclusions based on evidence and reflection. Schools have a responsibility to develop these skills, while also helping students understand that decisions are rarely black or white; that we often have to accept a degree of compromise.

The Ancient Greeks placed rhetoric at the core of their education but this ability did not rest on the fluency of speech or verbal pyrotechnics but also incorporated the ability to interrogate the ideas of others and subsequently formulate a logical and nuanced conclusion. Today our understanding of oracy has tilted to emphasise the right for self-expression rather than the ability to reflect upon what an opponent might be saying and incorporating it into our thinking. Do we listen so that we can truly understand or are we essentially waiting our turn to give our opinion?

We often emphasise the skill of expressing ourselves by setting up situations in class when pupils have to speak in front of their peers, for example through the now familiar challenge of giving presentations based on a period of research. But I would argue that we need to give the same attention to our students’ listening skills and encourage them, perhaps, to change their mind as a result of what they hear.

In a recent article for the Times Educational Supplement, the American teacher/trainer Doug Lemov, suggested some strategies for classrooms that could help hone these listening skills. Perhaps surprisingly, he sees active listening starting with writing, as it is only in writing down their first take on ideas that students can begin to formulate a nuanced opinion. Lemov suggests that pupils can then be challenged to re-write their pieces after listening to their peers, so that they can refine and indeed change their ideas in response to the arguments they may have heard.

He also emphasises the importance of teachers noting carefully arguments on both sides of a particular discussion as they are raised by students, in order that the summing up can successfully incorporate strands from both sides of a discussion. Some students may need instruction simply in how to listen to others, which might even have to cover the basic but important point that pupils need to look at and give their full attention to another student when they are speaking; this seems to be a skill that we are losing in our multi-screen, multi-platform world. Pupils also need to learn that points don’t always need to be countered but that it is equally valid to develop or extend a line of argument.

There are strong social forces today promoting passionate partisanship above more nuanced approaches. Perhaps though through our approach to discussion in our schools we can nurture a generation of pupils who value the importance of actively listening to others and who can see that being prepared to change your mind and meet others in the middle is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

I’m sure many of us will have spent time over the past few days thinking about our resolutions for the year ahead. While many of us will be focusing on a new fitness regime or a healthier diet, I wanted to take this chance to encourage everyone just to pick up a book instead…

The value of reading seems just so obvious that we can perhaps sometimes overlook its worth. For young children, it is key for the development of vocabulary and understanding of grammar that will provide a platform for their learning for the rest of their lives. Reading is simply a wonderful way for children to learn new words. They can become absorbed in a story and pick up vocabulary in context while at the same time learning good writing styles, without really having to think about it too hard.

The benefits of wide reading are apparent later in education too. It is sometimes argued that children no longer need to learn facts as they can just look everything up on the internet. This is nonsense. Without a strong core knowledge, how will they know what exactly they should be looking up? And perhaps even more importantly in the age of social media bubbles and fake news, how will they be able to assess whether what they are seeing is accurate or free from bias? A healthy reading habit will allow children to pick up the facts that can form the basis of good sense and discretion, as well as an appreciation of the richness of the world and our shared knowledge of it.

I also think reading can offer a valuable solution at a time when we see high levels of anxiety and stress in young people. The opportunity to escape into another world where you can deploy your imagination and forget your day-to-day worries can bring palpable benefits to well-being. There is also evidence that wide reading allows the development of greater emotional intelligence, as exposure to other people’s motivations and feelings builds empathy which can then be transferred to real life.

Of course, not every child takes to reading with equal enthusiasm. There are many other activities which take them away from books and reading can fall to the bottom of the list of priorities, especially when adolescence hits.

This is where the most unsung of all heroes, the librarian, can really help. The best librarians have the invaluable knack of identifying books that can appeal to every appetite, so do talk to your librarian at school or your local library to get ideas if your child is turning away from reading.

Adolescents can also sometimes go off fiction entirely. Again, no need to panic, as there is lots of great non-fiction to read and sometimes they respond well to shorter pieces such as newspaper columns, especially if they carry a healthy whiff of controversy.

Often it’s a question of finding the right time of life to read a particular book. As an adolescent, I felt that the works of writers like Barry Hines and Jack Kerouac spoke to me in a way that the books we were reading in school simply didn’t. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more wide-ranging in my literary tastes, able to appreciate texts that I previously dismissed.

Reading is a habit best started young, so the sooner it can become a regular and shared part of family life, the better. Of course, the best way for parents to inspire a love of reading in their children is by setting an example and reading regularly themselves. So what better way to start 2018 than by sitting back, kicking off your shoes and getting stuck into a great book. Happy New Year!

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School

Memories of school sport tend to split people into two camps. Those who shudder at the thought of forlorn hours on windswept pitches and those for whom the chance to escape the classroom and play games with classmates was the highlight of the week.

Schools have gone through processes of relentless change in recent years and school sport is probably an area of more evolution than most. There have been some exciting and rewarding changes but we are faced with a paradox, as at the same time young people are less fit than ever before, with Public Health England describing a third of all 11-15 year olds and even a quarter of all 2-10 year olds as obese.

The reasons why young people might not be getting as much exercise as they should are well-rehearsed. Concerns about safety mean that they are not given the freedom to roam and play outside as we once did. Diets have changed, partly as a response to busier family lives, to embrace less home-cooked food and more fast food, with resulting high levels of sugar, fats and salt, while so-called high energy drinks, utterly laden with sugar, are cynically aimed at the youth market. The temptations of gaming and social media can result in youngsters moving about ever less and their spurning the attraction of exercise.

So there is a real challenge if we are to ensure that the next generation is fit and healthy.

I maintain that there are reasons to be cheerful when it comes to school sport and the response to the health crisis. PE lessons tend to be better structured today, with opportunities for pupils to develop their skills in carefully thought through steps, while also getting the chance to improve as coaches and officials as well as players.

Pupils are also able to try a real variety of sports while at school. These are not limited to the ‘traditional’ options such as football, hockey, netball and rugby but also sports such as basketball, volleyball, badminton and dance. As schools increasingly share their facilities with their local communities, wider opportunities are opening up, particularly in non-competitive areas such as zumba, yoga, pilates and using the gym. Although I believe strongly that there is still an important place for competitive sports in our schools, it can coexist with an enjoyable offer for those who are not so keen. This might be more in keeping with the way most adults get their sporting fix, through gym classes or recreational running or cycling.

Much as I value competition and enjoy the success of Abingdon teams, I think I have developed a sense of proportion as I have moved through my career, and am now able to value the effort and performance far above the result itself. It is not difficult to lose this sense of proportion and all of us, teachers and parents, need to remember this when we support our pupils or children from the touchline.

It is exciting to see this ethos emanating from our sporting associations who now see the importance of attracting youngsters to their particular sport and who have not been afraid to alter laws to focus on skills rather than brute strength while also developing structures to allow parents to become involved as coaches.

And while research shows disappointing levels of sustainable take-up of sport following the 2012 Olympics, I do think the Games represented a milestone in bringing women’s sport to the forefront of our attention and it is exciting to see increasing numbers of girls enjoying sports like football, rugby and cricket, alongside the more traditional options like netball and hockey.

We should not be complacent. It will take a concerted effort from all of us - government, local and health authorities, parents and school leaders - to tackle the obesity crisis. But I am hopeful that the building blocks are now in place in school sport.

Michael Windsor, Headmaster, Abingdon School