School Blog

In September 2018 we started a school blog to which anyone from the Abingdon community can contribute. Topics are wide ranging, we hope you enjoy it.

There is no Planet B: Working towards the Green Flag Award
By Alastair Blackmore, Deputy Estates Manager

Eco-Schools is an internationally recognised award programme that focuses on enabling schools to follow a simple framework to make environmental issues and sustainability an integral part of school life. It believes that by instilling the knowledge of sustainability and awareness of environmental issues at a young age that this can be transferred from the classroom to homes and everyday life.

The Abingdon Foundation is preparing to attain this award in recognition of the ongoing work that is achieved by many departments of the school and beyond.

I have been asked why this accreditation would be a significant benefit to the School. The Eco-Schools Green Flag award is a pupil led initiative and amongst the current student body there are future leaders. By educating now we can instil environmental awareness and sustainability as a norm. In February, pupils nationwide joined the climate strike and called for “the chance for change now”. I feel that the Abingdon Foundation allows students to voice their opinions on such prominent matters.

From a personal perspective, during my time as a student at Abingdon School (Leaver 2005), there was less of a global focus on environmental responsibility than there is now. As a result of a tertiary education in Environmental Science, I have become extremely aware of the great impact that small changes can have to the wider world. I am immensely proud to see that a subject that I am so passionate about is now taken increasingly seriously by the School.

Since my return to Abingdon School as a member of staff I have been encouraged to see how deeply the student body cares about issues surrounding the school environment and its responsibilities. There is an active Eco Committee in which boys discuss environmental themes that they want to address and then formulate an action plan.

In the Michaelmas term the Estates department was given a proposal by the Student Eco Committee with requests for both additional food waste bins as well as additional water bottle refill points. Every year in the UK 18 million tonnes of food waste ends up in landfill. This could be reduced by homes and businesses introducing a simple method of having separate bins. The drinking water points have been installed and improve the known link between hydration and concentration. I continue to be impressed by the dedication and passion that this Committee demonstrates.

The innovative ideas from the students to raise awareness of environmental sustainability does not stop at the Student Eco Committee. Recent Young Enterprise teams have also focused their ideas around sustainability - Bamboozled (bamboo vases), Waterworks (reusable water bottles) and Aqualapse (collapsable and reusable coffee cups) are a few examples. It is interesting to see that once again environmental issues are at the forefront of the students’ minds.

As well as the efforts made by the students, the Estates department continues to make upgrades to energy efficient mechanical and electrical systems as well as making sure that the electricity we use is backed by renewable energy sources.

During our recent Eco Week, members of staff pledged small changes they could make to reduce their carbon footprint; it is the small lifestyle changes from individuals that collectively will make a significant impact. It is increasingly important in day to day life to stop and reflect on how you can personally make a difference.

“To have another language is to possess a second soul”
By Alexandra von Widdern, Teacher of German and French and MFL Co-ordinator

Whether we can attribute this quote with any certainty to Charlemagne may be left to the historians. How do we, however, achieve the essence of the quote – the second soul? Initially, this is likely to be a little less spiritual and much more practical.

As a language learner, you are likely to distinguish between passive knowledge (being able to recognise, say, ‘télépéage’ at the toll booth on a French motorway to enter the correct lane) and active knowledge (using ‘Ich möchte ein Wasser’ in a local Austrian restaurant).

Passive knowledge takes less effort to achieve; it involves learning vocabulary from the foreign language and translating into English, often aided by tracing the roots of a word, using context to guess or spotting similarities to other languages. Pupils in schools who frequently struggle in tests may do so because they have only acquired this level of knowledge. Active knowledge requires particular strategies and, in order to learn the spellings, frequent written repetition. Whichever your goal in language learning, it is all about the combination of knowledge and skills and about supporting your memory with frequent, spaced practice (see Sarah Beynon’s analogy between revision and football in her blog entry 'How to revise?').

We are prone to forgetting most of what we have learnt very quickly (see Ebbinghaus’ curve of forgetting) – unless we review at certain intervals. A language learner, for example, needs to engage actively with a new item of vocabulary for up to 13 times over time for it to be retrievable (i.e. usable) from their memory.

Good language learners don’t necessarily spend more than the directed time on their learning but they use their time extremely effectively and let the language infuse their lives. They make the most of every opportunity, whether on holiday, during a language exchange, in the classroom, by using apps such as Duolingo or Quizlet for their own study, with friends and family and, most notably, in interior monologue.

The eight habits below are a summary of research supported by decades of experience from dedicated linguists – students and teachers alike. They are listed in relative order of importance and are cumulative, hence watching the Netflix series Narcos in Spanish before you know the basics will, at most, lead to a limited ability to swear emphatically at Colombian drug lords but not to buying bread at the local bakery. However, once you have become reasonably proficient in the language, watching films and reading the newspaper or selected literature can be a great step to extend your learning well beyond the everyday use to the point when the concepts and culture of the country truly open up to you. Those are the Eureka moments.

Learning a language leads to new connections with inspiring people, seeing the world through different eyes, exploring different ideas and cultures to the point that you may feel you do indeed possess a second soul.

The road to Eureka is supported by:

  1. Regular quick review of vocabulary and grammar: Divide your learning task into several shorter sessions and space them out. Review before, in between and after each lesson.
  2. Make the most of your lesson – ask for repetition / clarification, use every opportunity to speak, create your own funny examples with a fellow student, in your head or on paper, make notes to make revisiting easier.
  3. Use the recommended strategies: Websites such as Duolingo and Memrise have look, cover, write, check (LCWCh) built in while also spacing and interweaving the material. Quizlet’s Learn and Write functions are most effective. The most effective way to achieve written accuracy when learning vocabulary from a list to achieve active knowledge is LCWCh until all words are correct from English to the foreign language.
  4. Give the language your full attention. Deep learning will only occur when you as the learner are fully focused on the task. Even having a device in the same room is likely to make the task more effortful (see research 2.4.1 here)
  5. In a school context before submitting written work, edit: Check for non sequiturs, mistakes and omissions. Watch out for your own typical mistakes as identified in previous feedback.
  6. Use reference materials to edit: check your spellings in a dictionary such as pons.eu, grammar and verb forms in your handouts and textbooks.
  7. To expand your vocabulary as a more advanced learner in lessons, in country or while in other contact with the language, note phrases you encounter, review and reuse them regularly until they stick.
  8. Use the language at every opportunity: Passively by listening to songs, watching series / films with subtitles or reading in the language. Actively with teachers / classmates / colleagues in the UK, at every opportunity in country, and in your head where ever you are.

When can’t cook/won’t cook leaves home – why we should teach every child about food
By Ben Phillips, Director of Drama

I have a very clear memory of turning up to the university hall of residence where I was due to live in my first year studying at Reading. There was an excitement as I unpacked all the shiny new utensils after a trip around the Tesco home section with my mum a few days before. We’d stocked up on all the things that were going to propel me into the world of being a grown up. I soon discovered that most of them would end up never used, living on top of my wardrobe due to the fact that there were eight other people vying for cupboard and fridge space. As an 18 year old who is working hard and playing hard, it is then very easy to justify to yourself that it’s far too much of a faff to stand on a chair to retrieve your colander, take it down to the kitchen, open the top cupboard (where your open bag of pasta would almost certainly spill all over the dirty floor) and cook yourself a meal on the hob next to the person who was heating up some sort of boil in the bag Birdseye creation. Far more sensible to order in…

Fast-forward 13 years, I am all too aware that many of our Upper Sixth are probably about to embark on the same journey. Since those days of wandering the campus with a mobile phone attached to my ear searching for the Papa John’s delivery person, food has become one of my biggest passions. So when asked to contribute to the Sixth Form Enrichment programme for the Upper Sixth (which focuses on life skills and attributes for life beyond school), I felt passionate that I needed to get across the importance of arriving at university knowing about food.

There is always a varying amount of knowledge in the room when we discuss the topic, but the most common theme is that very few of them recall having much food education at all throughout their school career. “Isn’t this something they should be learning at home?”, you might well ask. Well, as an OA with three brothers who are also OAs, I can tell you that my late father always maintained he felt the money he spent sending his four sons to Abingdon was all worth it because of the life skills we learnt, not the grades we gathered whilst we were studying here. Perhaps this is a life skill that we need to cover more.

In a time when nutrition and diet in the UK is constantly in the press for causing enormous strains on the NHS, I feel we are remiss if we let the boys leave school going into the challenging environment of living independently for the first time without encouraging them to underestand the knowledge, time and resources needed to maintain a healthy diet.

As part of the enrichment programme, we talk about how much fresh ingredients cost, how much more effort is required for cooking and the challenges and difficulties of doing this in a space shared by many people. As inspiration for this, I cite my biggest “food hero” as being chef JP McMahon from Galway, who uses his one Michelin star flagship restaurant “Aniar” to educate young children about food and where it comes from. I show them a short film documenting an evening where McMahon invited a dozen or so school children into his restaurant. Aniar follows the terroir philosophy of cooking, only using ingredients that can be sourced, grown, or reared in the local area. So, no chocolate, citrus, spices etc. In Galway, this means a menu largely made up of seafood and seaweed based dishes, with desserts that in the winter, when fruit hardly grows, are made largely of vegetables and preserves. Very challenging to the average adult palate, perhaps, let alone the palate of a child who has grown up in a country where 46% of the food consumed is ultra-processed. The children are fed the tasting menu given to their regular diners, and asked to give feedback on their experience of eating things like oysters, seaweed broth and chicken hearts.

I make a point of getting the pupils to notice the questions McMahon asks the children “what did it taste like?”, rather than “do you like it?” - highlighting how he is trying to broaden their horizons of taste, texture and eating experience. We then discuss how much time they think they honestly spend consciously thinking about the food they eat, and what hurdles they see between themselves personally and a healthy, balanced diet when leaving home.

I make no apology for admitting my obsession with food in the session, confessing to the boys that I flew to Ireland twice just to eat in the restaurant on the film because I find the chef’s philosophy and mission so fascinating. I hope this demonstrates  how food can be so much more than just a basic survival requirement. We then end the session by looking at a case study of an extreme example of poor food knowledge – Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” documentary where he tried to improve school food in the unhealthiest town in America. Obviously this leaves the boys quite shocked when they see young children being given pizza for breakfast with luminous pink flavoured milk, and I’m pretty sure this gives them a heightened sense of gratitude to Sodexo for ensuring they have plenty of healthy choices available!

What I hope they take away from the session is that at the very least, they need to be thinking about food and cooking as they prepare for their next chapter, and that healthy, balanced diets require just as much planning and knowledge as the new bank accounts they are opening and bills they will be paying etc. – they leave with a list of suggested cookbooks to take with them to university which are specifically selected so that lack of cupboard and fridge space can’t be an excuse to make a pizza delivery anything more than an occasional treat…!

How to revise?
By Sarah Beynon, Learning Support Teacher at Abingdon School

We are often asked by students (and occasionally by parents) about the best way to revise. When I ask students how they have revised in the past, they will often say things like 'I just read through my notes' or 'I watched videos on YouTube' but they acknowledge this hasn't really helped.

I would like to take a lesson or two from the world of football; consider the following ...

Would watching ‘Match of the Day’ or reading footballing magazines help you get better at football?

No - they may give you useful information or new ideas or be an interesting way of spending time but do not deceive yourself, sitting around on the sofa is not going to help you get better at football. Neither does just reading through your notes or watching endless revision videos help you to revise and remember what you need to pass you exams.

Would playing FIFA '19 help you get better at football?

No - it is slightly better than binge-watching football matches on Sky Sports because you do have to think about team selection and tactics but you are still not really getting better at football. In the same way, doing online quizzes and revision games does not really help you revise and remember what you need to pass your exams. They are better than just passively reading, but still not the best.

I suggest that to get better at football, you need to play football. This includes training, and practising ball control and doing different exercises to improve your skills and also keeping fit.

Exams rely on what you can remember so to get better at passing them, you need to practise using your memory. Make your notes, mindmaps and revision cards but that is only the first stage of the process. Now you need to use them to train your memory. Do this by covering up the paragraph under the subheading on your bullet point notes and seeing if you can rewrite it without looking; turn over your mindmap and redraw it from memory; put questions on one side of your revision cards and test yourself; use the prompts in the left hand side of your Cornell notes (if you’re not sure what they are - click here)  and see if you can reproduce the content. And when you have seen what you can remember, check back, fill in the gaps  and have another go.

Finally, answer exam questions, with your books or notes closed, to see how you really do.

Internal exams are the friendly before the league match so use them to improve your performance before the big day.

And then you won't need the good luck I am about to wish you because you will be fully prepared for the exams in the summer.

References

https://www.tes.com/news/are-you-getting-revision-all-wrong
https://classteaching.wordpress.com/2018/09/24/supporting-retrieval-practice-with-cornell-note-taking/
https://blog.innerdrive.co.uk/how-to-use-retrieval-practice
https://blog.innerdrive.co.uk/harnessing-the-testing-effect
https://blog.innerdrive.co.uk/the-psychological-benefits-of-mock-exams

Flinging wide the (automatic) gates
By Jeremy Taylor, Director of Arts Partnerships

Twenty years ago, I spent my 40th birthday on a staff inset day, being told by the Head of a well-known private school how unpopular public schools were. Around the same time, the government announced plans to make public schools do more to justify their charitable status, and Abingdon staff were encouraged to think of ways in which they might reach out to the wider community. A few days later, a set of automatic gates with gold-tipped spikes was installed at the main entrance to the School.

The idea of forging partnerships between independent and state schools is certainly not a new one, yet it’s fair to say that putting the idea of partnership into practice has not always been straightforward. In those early days, it sometimes felt as though many in the independent sector looked on partnerships as a box-ticking exercise whose aim was to get the Labour government off their backs. On the other hand, if governing bodies did settle for offering a few bursaries and inviting local state schools to use the swimming pool in order to avoid VAT and maintain their low business rates, who could blame them? In the increasingly commercial environment in which independent schools were having to operate, whereby Heads were re-styled as “CEOs”, teachers as “managers of learning”, parents as “consumers” and pupils as “stakeholders”, it would have been a brave CEO who opted to divert large chunks of school fee revenue to benefit state school pupils.

At Abingdon, by contrast, a bolder and more substantial vision of partnership was quick to take root, so that by 2009, on my 50th birthday, I found myself in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country, with members of the School’s film unit, making a documentary that was the result of Abingdon’s already well-established links with that country. In the course of several trips, the Abingdon students showed their Moldovan peers how to use their camera, sound and editing equipment, while the Moldovans taught the AFU team their history, guided research, and conducted / translated the interviews for the film. As in all effective partnerships, this was a collaboration, an exchange, an equal sharing that brought pleasure and benefit to both parties.

Since then, Abingdon’s partnership activity has advanced in leaps and bounds. The opening of the Yang Science Centre in 2015 proved that the idea of partnership was now at the heart of the school’s thinking, courtesy of a dedicated partnerships laboratory that has already welcomed nearly 1700 children from partner schools in the last year alone. Why has there been so large and concerted an upswing in partnership activity at Abingdon?

There may be many answers to that question. It’s true that in 2016, Theresa May’s Conservative government briefly echoed its Labour predecessors by presenting a green paper proposing independent schools that did not provide sufficient public benefit should lose charitable status. However, after the last election reduced her majority, the Prime Minister’s green paper was quietly shelved. So the drive to expand partnership work at Abingdon is not solely a response to political pressure.

It could be that an enhanced “post referendum” awareness of national and regional divisions has informed much of the new thinking, both here and at other independent schools. But perhaps there is also a recognition that partnership is an idea whose time has come. At Abingdon, the Head, staff and governors understand that we are fortunate in both our resources and our facilities and it is right that we share them with others. There is also a desire to build on the School's heritage as a place that has offered education to local boys for free not only through bursary provision but also by opening up the (automatic) gates of the School and engaging with the local community.

So where will I be, and what will I be doing when – deo volente - my 60th birthday rolls around later this year? If I’m lucky, I might be working with some of the fabulous young people I have met in the course of my new role as director of arts partnerships. The arts are surely one of the best ways of making connections between people. As one of the characters in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, says:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met… And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

Confidence but not swagger
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

The Times recently reported on the Secretary of State for Education’s desire for schools to focus more upon the development of character and confidence. He was unveiling a plan to establish five foundations for building character across the state sector, designed to build resilience in young people.

I felt the choice of headline - ‘All pupils will have the chance of gaining public school swagger’ -  was unfortunate.

It is true that for a long time the independent sector has prided itself on the range of activities that its schools offer to develop confidence and character. Abingdon is renowned for our ‘Other Half’, a term that reflects our commitment to the importance of extra-curricular activities that extend beyond the classroom.

The phrase ‘public school swagger’ does grate though. Confidence has nothing to do with ‘swagger’ or arrogance but rather comes from encouraging young people to be at ease with themselves and simply to be the person they want to be. In preparing pupils for the future, we need to help pupils grow the resilience to ride out tough times by fostering fundamental values such as integrity, resourcefulness and kindness, rather than nurturing an unwarranted and false sense of entitlement.

The Other Half plays a key part in this as it allows pupils to challenge themselves in a huge range of activities. An advantage of the relatively large size of Abingdon is the sheer range of extra-curricular opportunities that we can make available - over 120 at the last count. This means that the Other Half can accommodate every possible taste and interest and that pupils have a great chance of meeting like-minded friends in their various activities. There’s no such thing as a typical Abingdon boy as there are many different pathways for pupils to follow, all of which are equally valid and respected.

We recognise the benefit of taking pupils out of their familiar context and of opening their eyes to the world beyond Abingdon. This is why our students gain so much from our partnership activities with local maintained schools, be it mentoring younger pupils in English, Maths or Science, helping primary school children with DT or languages or producing short films with the Abingdon Film Academy. I love seeing our boarders helping out as Science Ambassadors at the family mornings we run with Science Oxford; students from all over the world engaging in learning and discovery with our local community.

The building of confidence should not just be limited to extra-curricular activities, though. Teachers at Abingdon challenge pupils to think for themselves and create an atmosphere where they aren’t afraid to take risks. When I drop into lessons, I enjoy seeing the boys questioning received thinking or expressing their own ideas and opinions, safe in the knowledge that they will be listened to and taken seriously by their peers and their teachers.

It’s important of course that they have strong foundations of knowledge upon which to draw. Knowing a lot means that you can be more confident in forming opinions or questioning what other people think. Indeed, you can be a great deal more creative if you have lots of knowledge to draw upon. Compare the jazz pianist who sits down to improvise with hours of practice of chords and scales behind him to someone who has no structure at all. Who is going to be more confident as they approach their solo?

The last thing that we should be imparting to future generations is a veneer of arrogance or ‘public school swagger’. I hope rather that our pupils emerge from Abingdon with a sense of inner confidence that expresses itself in their ability to be comfortable in their own skins, as well as their willingness to embrace challenge.

Do secondary school pupils need career guidance?
By Michael Triff, Head of Career Guidance at Abingdon School

Working people spend more hours in a week working than they do anything else, and for most, their career lasts for at least 45 years, depending on their personal ambitions and circumstances. Due to the increase in life expectancy, slow wage growth, less generous pensions, increase in the state pension age, and (potentially) rationing of state pension payments, many working people’s careers will last even longer. So, what one does during a long career matters a great deal, and getting the right guidance to make the right decisions along the way is vital.

That’s true for adults, but do secondary school age pupils need career guidance? If you were to ask Abingdon parents – and, indeed, Abingdon teachers – you might be surprised by how many would say no. The main reasons given? They are too young to decide on something so far into the future. Let them pursue their academic interests, free from practical considerations. They won’t truly know their mind for some time to come. School is stressful enough without the added pressure of career planning.

But, I take a different view… which, of course, I would!

The purpose of career guidance in a secondary school is to inform, upskill, empower and motivate young people to take (incremental and age-appropriate) control over their career planning. The first challenge is, therefore, helping pupils to get on an education/training pathway that is right for them, at that point in time, and ideally one that keeps open opportunities as their career thinking develops and matures over time.

At Abingdon School, career guidance starts (in earnest) in the 3rd Year with a lesson called ‘Exploring Careers’. At the start, I contextualise the lesson with the first image. I ask the boys, “What is the meaning behind this sequence of numbers?”, and usually at least one boy figures it out pretty quickly. I then overlay the second image.

I explain to the boys Stephen Covey’s philosophy of ‘begin with the end in mind’. I suggest they consider the education/training pathways to all the occupations that currently interest them and, working backwards from there, make subject choices which are directly informed by those pathways.  But I hasten to add that they need to be open to change, because what interests them at 13 might change by 16, and again by 18, 21 and even later. The key message; review and update your career thinking at each key decision-making stage in your education.

But informing subject choices from a careers perspective is not the only benefit of career guidance for secondary school pupils. There are others:

  • Some occupations fall in and out of balance with labour market demand. Good career guidance helps pupils anticipate where (and when) opportunities (and difficulties) might arise.
  • There are persistent myths as well as cultural biases and stereotypes about many occupations. Good career guidance can help to overcome these.
  • New occupations are born each year (while others fade away) – a result of increased specialisation, globalisation, and emergent technologies. Good career guidance shows pupils the breadth of options there might be, not just the ones in their immediate view.
  • Interactions with employers provide the most useful insights for pupils. Good career guidance creates these opportunities, including work experience, career fairs, industry sector talks, and alumni career advice events.
  • Employers remain critical of the ‘soft skills’ that entry level employees bring to their job. Good career guidance can help pupils develop these skills which will make them more employable when the time comes.
  • The range of academic, vocational and work-based pathways into occupations is wider than most pupils (and parents) realise. Good career guidance plays an important role in helping pupils weigh the pros and cons of taking different paths.
  • As higher education costs increase, families are forced to assess whether going to university is financially justified (even if affordable). Good career guidance helps pupils assess the occupational relevance of higher education.
  • For some pupils, the absence of career direction inhibits performance. Good career guidance can help pupils see the link between ‘learning, working and earning’ and thus inform, motivate, and inspire greater effort and achievement.

The guiding principle behind the Abingdon School’s Career Guidance Programme is ‘helping every pupil to think carefully about, and take practical steps towards realising, his future career.’  If a career lasts 45 years, surely we owe it to our pupils to get them off to the best start possible.

Gratitude
By Paul Gooding, Head of Wellbeing and Geography Teacher

I had the pleasure of taking a group of year 10 students to St Helen and St Katharine School, just down the road from Abingdon School, for an “Empathy Action event”. Their chapel had been very effectively designed as a makeshift shanty town complete with various actors (NGO workers, shop owners, racketeers and the like) wandering around powerfully engaging with the students. Our boys were thrown in at the deep end and for nearly two hours had a taste of what it must be like for millions of people in the world.

Living the curriculum in this way was so powerful. Boys had to earn their rent, food and water by making paper bags to then sell to shop owners in the face of stiff competition from rival groups. Conditions were harsh: it was noisy, (police car sirens were going off on the speakers, babies were crying) stressful and chaotic. The leader guided them through several “scenario weeks” and it became clear that as some families struggled to pay their debts they had to move into worse conditions and various outbreaks of infectious disease spread through the communities. It served as a powerful reminder of how many millions of people live each day and of the importance of giving back both to our society and the wider world. I had the privilege, at the end, of sharing a few ways in which Abingdonians can and do do this. 

We reminded boys about the Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, where a significant section of the award is based on a service activity. This might be volunteering at an old peoples' home or in the community. Boys were also reminded about helping at a local food bank or joining with charity ventures that take place here in school, such as the Abingdon Sleeps Rough event. A fantastic opportunity each year is the Moldova trip where boys are able to help and make a difference in one of the poorest countries in Europe. But the message goes beyond trips and experiences good though these are; it is about encouraging Abingdonians to live their lives with an ongoing posture that is outward facing, far removed from the “selfie” culture that we often see on Instagram.

This message coincided wonderfully with a recent chapel talk from Mr Crisp in which he took up the theme of humility. In short, he concluded: “not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less”. In my 13th year at Abingdon this is a wonderful characteristic of our boys. I think back to a former Head of School who now offers free legal advice to the poor in Africa, to another OA who walked from Land's End to John O Groats sleeping rough all the way - raising awareness of the problem of homelessness. 

In this fast-paced digital age where amazing Instagram pictures can, sometimes, generate a sense of dissatisfaction it was a timely reminder that we have so much to be thankful for and that we have a responsibility to encourage our boys to use their gifts, talents and passions to make a difference in their lives and careers beyond school. To not underestimate those daily acts of kindness and to reflect on those powerful words that I once walked past on the memorials of Washington D.C, attributed to Gandhi: “the measure of the strength of a society is how it treats its weakest members.”

If we can encourage Abingdonians to develop this ongoing posture in their lives, I believe we will, as educators and parents, have given them a great gift.

Building confidence to speak in public; a skill for life
By Michael Windsor, Headmaster

A number of Old Abingdonians recently returned to the School to share insights into careers. It’s always great to catch up with former pupils and I really enjoyed hearing the stories they recounted of where life had taken them after Abingdon. Their routes were extremely diverse but it was striking how they had continued to draw upon their experiences at school in their working lives.

One former pupil, who described himself unashamedly as a ‘geek’, had spent as much time as possible at school programming, dismantling and building computers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he moved into the tech industry after university and he now runs his own start-up, working in the US and the UK. His time in the school computer suite has clearly paid off but he also described how his role as CEO now required him to speak frequently in public, in order, for example, to give presentations to groups of potential investors. He explained that on these occasions he drew directly on his experiences of playing in concerts at Abingdon, experiences which had taught him to control his nerves and perform with confidence.

The ability to speak confidently in public is a vital one in many professions and I believe that there are many different ways in which we prepare our pupils for this undertaking. As the Old Abingdonian I described above showed, there are many different ways in which pupils can develop the confidence to hold an audience’s attention. It might be through music or drama, by teaching younger cadets in the CCF or rousing your mates to greater heights in an impassioned half-time team-talk. I’m often struck by the way our teachers are able to draw out thoughtful and extended answers from their pupils in lessons by skilful questioning, giving ample opportunities for the development of oracy in the classroom.

House assemblies are often run by pupils, sometimes describing experiences they’ve had or focusing on the house values. I’ve heard great reports of a recent house assembly where two pupils spoke with great honesty and courage about the significant health challenges with which they have to deal, inspiring a hugely positive response from their peers in the house. 

A great way to finish the week at Abingdon is to drop in on the debating society, which meets at 4pm every Friday. The society is the oldest non-sporting club at the School and there is a proud tradition of discussion, argument, debate and dispute, which has seen some notable Old Abingdonians, such as David Mitchell, hone and refine their wit. The society is very much pupil-led as its committee decides which motions to discuss each week, always promoted with entertaining posters which are spread liberally around the school. Although the committee is made up of Sixth Formers, the society is one of the places where different year groups mix together and it’s great to see the younger pupils learning from their elders and gradually developing the confidence to deliver speeches from the floor before moving up to become speakers in their own right. Entertaining rivalries spin out week by week, as pupils with differing ideological perspectives front up to one another. The ability to engage in debate and especially to listen to your opponents’ arguments and then counter them requires thinking of the highest order and is a superb way to learn to think critically on your feet.

Another forum for public communication is the Model United Nations. The MUN gives pupils a great opportunity to think about and address global issues with pupils, once again, at the forefront and also taking the lead in organising events. It is fascinating to see how the discussions and debates unfold in the various committees, with Abingdon represented by pupils from all years from the Third Year upwards.

With so many opportunities to develop their speaking skills, the spoken word at Abingdon is in great shape and so I hope this will stand our future Old Abingdonians in good stead, whatever field they choose to go into.

Three years in the life of a Science Partnership Coordinator
By Jeremy Thomas, Abingdon Science Partnership Coordinator

When I came to Abingdon School in January 2016, nobody, including myself, really knew what being a Science Partnership Coordinator entailed. Nobody, I knew, had ever employed one before, so I didn’t fit the neat job categories usually found in a school. This was both exhilarating and nerve wracking, as I had been given great privilege but also a huge responsibility.

I hadn’t had such autonomy in my professional life since being a research scientist before I became a teacher. Even then, projects had a clear purpose, defined in funding applications or by the core aims of the organisation. Now nobody could tell me what I was supposed to be doing. My line manager just instructed me to try everything and see what worked!

So, this is what I have been doing for the last three years, looking for opportunities, enhancing existing ones and grabbing new ones as they came along. For example, the CREST Award schemes with over 300 local, primary children taking home the award certificate annually. My colleagues have developed a superb suite of primary science workshops, delivered in our dedicated laboratory in the YSC and covering nearly every topic in the primary science curriculum.

Staff and boys, dubbed Science Ambassadors, run monthly Saturday Science Clubs for children and parents on behalf of Science Oxford. The School is also a leading supporter of the Abingdon ATOM Festival of Science and Technology and the Abingdon Science Partnership’s logo will be among the masthead supporters at ATOM 2019. Our impact on promoting science locally is a cornerstone of our partnership work and an area where our talented Science Ambassadors really contribute to the community our school is part of, whilst also developing skills of immeasurable, personal benefit.

This blog is not long enough to discuss the national projects we are part of, such as student led research projects offered by the Institute for Research in Schools or our Royal Society Partnership Grant with Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

I’m still not sure I can explain exactly what a Science Partnership Coordinator does, but I do know that the impact has been felt in many ways. The benefits of being part of our community, especially when our school bears the town’s name, must be obvious. The benefits to our boys are growing daily as more become Science Ambassadors and gain new skills from doing so. Maybe the best definition is simply the job title itself, encompassing so many worthwhile concepts - science, partnership and coordination of an amazing team of people.

An institution that believes in its future
by Sarah Wearne, Abingdon School Archivist and Author of Epitaphs of the Great War

An institution that believes in its future takes care of its past since it’s the past that gives an institution its identity, its character, its individuality.

Abingdon School is an ancient institution, we don’t know exactly how old, there are no surviving records, least of all in our archives. But we do have a letter from a researcher who, in the early 1960s, discovered a reference to the will of John de Blosneville, Abbot of Abingdon, who died in 1256 leaving a bequest to the School for the support of thirteen poor scholars. This letter allowed us to push the earliest reference to the School back more than a hundred years – and gave us the opportunity in 2006 to celebrate 750 years of its existence. The two Abbot de Blosneville scholarships that the School awards every year are an acknowledgement of this ancient benefaction.

The earliest documents in the School’s archives are dated 1563: the indenture and ordinances that John Roysse signed on 31 January 1563 in which he donated money and land to support the School, and laid out his rules for its governance. The 31 January was his 63rd birthday. Roysse wanted the School to include ‘three score and three scholars’, the sons of ‘poor widows and other poor men’s sons’ who would be educated in a schoolroom he knew to be 15 ft wide by 63 ft long. This explains why 63 has become a symbolic number for the School – why the school bell is rung 63 times on special occasions, and why in 2006 I wrote a History of Abingdon School in 63 Objects for the school website.

The ordinances decreed that the School ‘shall be called The Free School of the Holy Trinity’ and that the pupils were to say their prayers three times a day, each time ending with the words, ‘The blessed Trinity have mercy on our founder John Roysse’. There is no evidence that the School was ever known as The Free School of the Holy Trinity, nor that the pupils ever observed the prayers, but the references do explain why in 1903 the new school chapel was dedicated to the Holy Trinity and why the iconography in the fused glass window behind the altar is of the Trinity.

Preserved records give significance of the objects around us. There is a clock in the staff Common Room that was given to the School in 1743 by the Headmaster, Thomas Woods. How do we know this? Because it is recorded in the Registrum Benefactorum Scholae, the eighteenth-century, leather-bound register of benefactors, with the words, ‘The Revd. Mr Woods gave ye clock’. The clock can be seen in an 1844 print of the old schoolroom and in photographs of what is now the Common Room when it was the Big School classroom – 1870-1963 – and the Library – 1963-2018. The same register records the gift of the Chapel’s eagle lectern with the words, ‘Brasen Nose, The Eagle’, since the lectern was given to the School by Brasenose College, Oxford.

To know the history of a name or an object enriches our sense of place and reminds us of the debt we owe to our benefactors – not just Roysse and de Blosneville but the Ameys, the Yangs, John Greening, John Ingham, the Mercers’ Company and the Maude family. There are other names too: 73 on the memorial to the dead of the First World War and 49 on that of the Second, all inscribed on two brass plaques in the Chapel. But without the records that the School holds these would all just be names.

There is a letter in the archives from the Headmaster, William Grundy, to a Mr Mitchell, which he wrote on 4 April 1919. The letter asks Mr Mitchell if he ‘could spare a copy of what you consider to be the most characteristic photograph, in uniform, or not, of your son’. Second Lieutenant John Mitchell had been killed in action on 25 September 1915. Mr Mitchell’s reply and the accompanying photograph form part of a collection of letters and photographs that has given ‘life’ to the deaths of some of these casualties of war: ‘He fell leading his platoon in action’; ‘he was killed on his 28th birthday’; ‘as a Company officer he showed brilliant dash and leadership’; ‘he sleeps beside the ancient Tigris’; ‘last seen unconscious with telephone instrument in hand’; ‘I herewith enclose £2.2s.0d towards the Memorial Fund, in loving memory of a very dear boy’.

The archives promote a sense of community, of belonging. Over the past few weeks members of staff, old boys, a current parent whose great grandfather came to the School and the daughters of a man who left school in 1926 have all appreciated being able to draw on the archives for information. But the archives also show that we belong to world events too. They have been used extensively in our commemorations for the centenary of the First World War: Keith Hoult’s film on the 1914 1st IV, Jeremy Taylor’s production Abingdon and the Great War, and talks I have given to the Friends of St Helen’s Church and to Lower School.

Archives are the primary source of the School’s history. But history is made by the present, we are all currently making the School’s history. And, if the future is to be another 750 years the School of 2768 will be as enriched by the records of its past as we are. It’s our history that gives us our sense of identity, our character, our individuality – without it we could be any school – with it we are Abingdon School.

An institution that believes in its future takes care of its past.

The importance of the Other Half to wellbeing
By Mark Hindley, Deputy Head (Pastoral)

While it is always dangerous to rely on Google for too much, a quick internet search for key factors in determining happiness will throw up a pretty homogenous list. To be happy, Google would seem to suggest certain core requirements: you need to sleep well, eat healthy meals, exercise – preferably outdoors, be in positive relationships, find your workplace fulfilling, and help others. Of course the peripheries change, depending on the web address, but these are elements that keep cropping up.

How does this influence our pastoral care at Abingdon?

Clearly some of these elements we can’t control – we can tell the pupils to avoid blue light and screens before bed, but we can’t actually micro manage their sleep; we can provide healthy balanced meals, but the lure of salt-based snacks full of nutritional detritus will always appeal to hungry teenagers…..

However, it is the sense of purpose, relationships, and helping others that we are particularly keen to engrain in our pupils. It is in these areas that the Other Half really comes into its own. At Abingdon we have over 120 different extra-curricular clubs – what we refer to as the Other Half because they are as important to a pupil’s wellbeing as feeling challenged and fulfilled in their academic endeavours.

The Other Half revolves around finding an area and activity in which to immerse yourself. This might be producing an Economics magazine, lego architecture, rowing, chess, badminton or bell ringing – it doesn’t matter so long as you are with like-minded individuals who share your passion, building relationships with others, often from different year groups, in an environment where you feel valued and included.

This value isn’t dependent on extrinsic success. For example, the value in sport is not that you play fly half for England, or stroke the GB Eight, and although we usually have around 15 international sportsmen a year, they are not the driving force behind the Other Half. It is as important – perhaps more important - that the U14Ds love their exercise, or that there are Pilates sessions, or that those who don’t see themselves as physically adept find exercise that suits them.

The Other Half also allows Abingdon boys to place themselves within their community and to give something to others. This might be through the work of the Charity Committee (the whole school completed a ten mile walk this term for example), or via the huge range of community service projects we have running, typified by the fact that almost all our Fourth Year voluntarily do the DofE bronze award. We have boys playing jazz to the elderly, working in charity shops, or giving their time to local groups. A lot of helping of others is in school through mentoring younger years or organising clubs or activities, but we are also very proud of our partnership work with other local maintained schools. In the course of a year almost 1000 local primary pupils are taught by our Science Ambassadors, and we have pupils mentoring and teaching Maths – for example – to younger pupils from Fitzharrys School.

We know that life throws all of us problematic curveballs, and we are all too aware of the rising incidents of teenage mental health problems. Given that, at Abingdon what we aim to do is provide a climate - academically and pastorally - in which boys have the opportunity to thrive and establish habits for life. We want them to be physically active, to build lasting relationships, to be purposeful, and to understand the value of putting yourself out for others. If they can manage the sleeping and their 5-a-day then hopefully together we have provided the bedrock for them to have a happy and fulfilling life.

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.

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.

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!)

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.