School Blog

In September 2018 we started a school blog which will have contributions from staff and other members of the Abingdon community. Topics will be wide ranging, we hope you enjoy it.

12 October 2018
Shaping technology in Schools 
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

Sir Anthony Seldon, formerly Headmaster of Wellington College and now Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University, recently repeated his claims for the impact that Artificial Intelligence could have on education in the future. He described AI eventually delivering an ‘Eton-style’ education to every pupil.

It is a charge regularly levelled at schools that we are 19th century institutions that are failing to adapt to the 21st century world. I would challenge this assertion, even if it is fair to say that innovations in artificial intelligence are only just beginning to affect schools. The fact that many classrooms look similar to how they looked a hundred years ago does not in my eyes reflect an unwillingness to engage with innovation but more the fact that research (and there is plenty of evidence of educationalists engaging with the large amounts of data that we can only process through new technology) shows that is generally the most effective way for pupils to learn. We should also not disregard the fact that many science labs and other teaching spaces are already set up in a way to allow plenty of pair- and group-work. At Abingdon, we have included a space in our new Sixth Form Centre that is designed to allow students to meet out of class and work through problems together, with informal furnishings and whiteboards on every wall. I still expect though that the ideas explored and discussed in this space will be put into context with a teacher, probably in a more ‘traditional’ classroom set-up.

Of course the speed of change in technology has been dazzling, with developments in artificial intelligence inspiring and terrifying in more or less equal measure. I believe we need a common-sense and critical approach to the implementation of technology in schools and not just to jump on the bandwagon because things look shiny and new.

There are some really exciting things that technology is already delivering, which is why at Abingdon we have a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policy which means pupils (above the First Year, with Second Years using school-owned devices) always have access to a device. This for me is a huge improvement on computer suites where pupils would tend to spend the entire lesson using a computer. Instead, with devices on hand, you can take a ‘little and often’ approach and make sure you’re only using the device when it really adds something to the lesson.

Devices can be used very effectively for regular ‘low-stakes’ testing, using a platform like Kahoot which plays usefully on pupils’ inherently competitive natures, or for giving pupils a set of ‘adaptive’ questions, which mean that pupils spend less time on questions which they can answer easily and are directed more quickly to more challenging material if they can cope with it. A personal favourite resource of mine at the moment is massolit.io, a subscription website which gives users access to some brilliant lectures by outstanding academics, while jstor.org is an extraordinary collection of journals, books and primary sources. It would be a shame to deprive students access to these exceptional resources.

The insights that they give still need to be put into context though, and they often need amplifying or clarifying. The best way to do this is when a gifted teacher directs pupils to greater understanding through skilful questioning. I have seen computer programmes which are beginning to mimic this but at present this is limited to a narrow range of subjects (and especially Mathematics) and is intended as a support to skilful teaching, not a replacement for it. I’m still struggling to see whether there is a technology-based alternative to the careful and sensitive way in which the best teachers lead students to understanding.

Clearly schools need to remain nimble. We need to keep our eyes open to the benefits of new technologies but we also need to ensure that we don’t passively allow them to shape us (as many of us risk doing with our addiction to our mobiles) or embrace them for their own sake. Instead, we should shape technology to serve our purposes in encouraging the development of well-rounded, curious, knowledgeable, critical and thoughtful young people.

4 October 2018
Reflections from afar - thriving examples of the Abingdon ethos
By Graeme May, Deputy Head (Academic)

I’ve just returned from nearly three weeks overseas where I was, amongst other things, interviewing boys in China, Hong Kong and Thailand who are thinking about joining Abingdon over the next couple of years. The trip has many highlights, which I may well write about more fully elsewhere, but two encounters with OAs stand out for me in particular at the moment.

In Shenzhen, southern China, Jane Jorgensen and I held a reception for current parents and former pupils (as we did everywhere we went). Often at these receptions we talk to new parents whose sons are in their first weeks at Abingdon and who are, naturally, still experiencing the culture shock of moving 6000 miles away from home and having to get on with life at Abingdon at the same speed as everyone else. The experience must initially be pretty bewildering I think, at whatever age you arrive. These new parents are anxious to hear that things are going well and we talk a lot about how our induction works and how the boys adapt quickly and are the stronger for the experience. 

On this particular occasion we were joined by Peter Zeng (OA 2011), whom I last remember meeting at our 2015 Shanghai reception. He left Abingdon to read Engineering at Oxford and then went into management consultancy with Roland Berger. The news he brought to us is that, six months ago, he completely changed jobs, moved from Shanghai to Shenzhen (a thousand miles apart) and now works for the computer gaming industry: quite a change! He expressed excitement about the change of job and city but that was in equal measure with his uncertainty and sense of unsettlement about his significant move. However, what he was certain of, and passed on to the parents at the reception, was that his experience of moving to Abingdon’s Sixth Form, especially at a time when very few from mainland China joined the school, had provided him with just the adaptability, resourcefulness and resilience skills that were now paying dividends in coping with his new role. And, we know, these are just the sorts of attributes that employers the world over are seeking in their employees above and beyond the stellar academic qualifications they bring with them. Added to this, Peter is also a good example of what we now sense about the world of work, namely that you are likely to have several ‘careers’ these days, and therefore nurturing and maintaining a broad set of employability skills will be crucial: something we see as being central to Abingdon’s emphasis on The Other Half where such things as leadership, teamwork, adaptability, resilience and creative thinking are particularly developed.

The second OA I want to talk about is Ethan Lo (OA 2017) who helped out with the Hong Kong element of the trip, which is always the busiest - over our time there we interviewed something in the region of 120 boys. He is just starting his second year at Cambridge reading Law but spared the time over one of his final weekends at home this summer to come and sit with prospective families and to talk about Abingdon with them. I am sure that having him there, along with the very supportive mothers of current Abingdonians, is invaluable in communicating to families what Abingdon is about. Ethan himself, in the way he conducted himself and handled the very many questions thrown at him, made me, and all my colleagues who were there, immensely proud of a young man whom Abingdon has had some part in shaping over the past few years. His instinct in wanting to give up his time in the service of a school he has now left is another key thing that I admire about what Abingdon nurtures in its boys - that instinct to give back. And I don’t just mean giving back to Abingdon, I mean the much wider sense I see in our boys that the privilege they have enjoyed in their lives so far carries with it a responsibility to give back to whatever community they are in and to give selflessly without expectation of reward. And I am sure that the number of business cards and offers to talk about future employment that Ethan received during our Monday evening reception are undoubtedly connected with with the open, friendly, mature and intelligent way he comes across. If Abingdon can claim some little part in the forming of those characteristics, then we can feel a strong sense of a job well done.

26 September 2018
Why learn a language?
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

Today marks the European Day of Languages, an event we use here at Abingdon to celebrate all language-learning, not just that of European languages.

I feel that languages form a crucial part of any curriculum. This is perhaps not surprising considering my background, as I studied French and German at university and then lived in Italy for three years, so many of my formative experiences took place overseas and revolved around language-learning. I hope that every young person might be able to enjoy similar experiences even if they decide not to devote their lives to languages.

We have to face the fact though that on a national level languages in school are having a tough time. Over the past five years, the number of pupils taking French and German GCSE/IGCSE has fallen by a quarter and although the number taking Spanish has risen in the same period, the total number of candidates in Modern Foreign Languages has decreased by 50,000.

The decision to make languages optional after the age of 14 in maintained schools in the early 2000s has undoubtedly had an impact. Many schools have also dispensed with the once ubiquitous language exchange, dissuaded by cost and the difficulty of implementing appropriate safeguarding procedures.

As a linguist, it is a joy to lead a school which bucks the trend and has such a thriving languages department. A passionate and committed team takes every pupil to at least one GCSE/IGCSE in a foreign language, and numbers in the Sixth Form are very healthy, with students responding positively to the considerable demands of the Pre-U specification, which includes literature and film study, alongside discussion of contemporary topics.

Abingdon linguists are excelling in their exams too, and Pre-U results last summer were spectacular. All 27 candidates gained D2 and D3 grades - the equivalent of 100% A*/A - with all those sitting German (5 candidates) gaining a D2/A* equivalent.

This success is down to great classroom teaching, thanks to a team who think deeply about how they go about achieving the right balance between grammatical accuracy and fluency and between the different skills that a successful language learner needs. I also believe that our pupils benefit from the full programme of language exchanges and trips; indeed, we look forward to our annual visit from pupils from Bielefeld in Germany this weekend.

Promotion of languages on a national scale tends to focus on the more utilitarian benefits of learning a language; the advantages of applying for a job with a language, the transactional aspects of surviving abroad that form the basis of the GCSE.

I wonder if we miss a trick by not also focusing on the importance of immersion in the culture of a different country. If we can arouse pupils’ interest in the food, art, literature, sport and lifestyle of the relevant countries, it brings the study of a language truly to life.

I also feel that it is deeply important that we educate young people to understand and love the way in which our neighbours live; perhaps more important than ever as we are about to leave the framework of the European Union with the resulting need to strike closer accords with individual countries.

So, let’s all find a way to mark the Day of Languages, whether it’s by learning a phrase in a new language, resuscitating our old languages or simply sampling the culture of another country; anyone for a glass of Chianti?

As they say in Moldova, noroc! (trans: good luck!)

12 September 2018
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.