Category Archives: Head’s blog

Heads up!

Every year we meet together as a leadership group, with our board members and trustees to look at an area of school life on our annual focus day. This has covered all manner of subjects – building projects, HR, vision statements and the digital revolution count amongst recent topics. At the end of October this year we had one of the most interesting and useful of these that I have ever attended, looking at pupil wellbeing. During our Saturday morning session we heard from a local psychologist who set the context for us. We heard about the challenges that our youngsters face at the time when their brains are growing and developing the most – and considered how tough it is for them.

Much of the research is pretty bleak – we hear time and again how much less happy our children (the millennials) are than we were and how they cannot cope with the normal stress and anxiety that daily life presents them with. Ironically, in a world with more of everything, the basics do not always seem to be there, and our children cannot always make the right choices for themselves. In school we see it manifest in a number of ways but most notably with the playing out of adolescent relationships in cyber-space. Our boys and girls face the challenges of making it through the teenage years with 24 hour connectivity and with the world being aware of what they are doing. It’s definitely not easy – and our job as parents and educators is to help them to manage these online relationships better. Knowing a little bit about the neuroscience behind the development of the teenage brain can help, and I urge you to read some of the literature on the matter.

A focus day is not a focus day without some outcomes and we set about considering some discussion points as our session closed. One of them was the role and place of the mobile phone in our children’s lives. We have addressed this before – in last year’s parents’ strategy meeting and with the PTA – and we felt that there was a growing level of support from parents to limit pupils’ use of phones at school and to help educate them better on the use of phones in their lives in general. This piece from the Times shows us perhaps just how much phones can be an addiction for young people – and perhaps this is a habit that we want our children to break (or at least control) sooner rather than later.

What can you do?
✔ Monitor your children’s use of their phones – many of them spend hours a day online and much of what they are doing is not productive and potentially harmful to themselves and others.
✔ Consider where phones are allowed (never in the bedroom, nor at the dinner table perhaps).
✔ Make sure that you model good behaviour – if you are addicted to WhatsApp then it’s likely that your children will think this is normal.
✔ And check what they are writing – or sending – to each other. Once it has gone, no message can really be deleted, and we know from experience that unpleasant images and messages can be extremely hurtful.

When we were young we fell out with each other, made up and got on with life in a way that youngsters find much harder today. We had private disputes (not shared with a WhatsApp group) and our parents did not get involved. We cannot turn back the clock, and I am not suggesting that we do, but we can help our children to manage their online activity better, and encourage them to look for alternative activities when they have free time….

Heads together – the importance of collaboration in school leadership

It is often said that headship is a lonely job.  And I suppose that at times it can be – with sometimes very difficult decisions to be made and few colleagues to share that decision making with, it can feel that you are on your own.  As a head of two schools now, both with different structures, I have found very few lonely moments in my leadership career.  I am, by nature, a team player (I think!) and also a bit of a chatterbox, so sharing and discussing come naturally to me in the process of decision making.

In my first headship I was the head of a school within a large group, the Girls’ Day School Trust.  GDST is the largest educational charity in the UK with 26 4-to-18 schools and an annual turnover of over 200 million pounds.  The collegiate nature of this group, with colleague heads who are essentially doing the same job as you in another similar school in another part of the country, was an incredible strength of the organisation, especially for a new head.  We shared our ideas, feelings, frustrations, celebrations and successes and we enjoyed a well-structured and full programme of activities, conferences and training to help us to run our schools better.  We felt very close to each other and relied on each other often.

Coming to a new country, and a standalone school, the idea of loneliness as head seemed to loom rather larger.  Here, working directly with a board and not within a wider group of schools, we need to consider collaboration much more actively, at many levels.  My senior leadership team here, and my relationship with the board, trustees and wider school community, as advisors, confidantes and colleagues is much more important, and it is clear that our amazing community spirit in school is a crucial part of the collaborative nature of our school.  And I am pleased to report that there haven’t been very many ‘lonely moments’ here either!

What about further afield?  How can I be connected to schools in the UK and elsewhere to get the support, ideas and professional stimulation that come from discussion and reflection on my own practice?  That’s where our professional network is so important and this is something that I enjoy being a part of.  In Brazil, we are just launching an official IB association of schools, which will provide a local context for international school leaders to share expertise and ideas within the IB curriculum framework.  I am a great advocate for the IB and look forward to the official launch later this month.  I can already see the potential benefits for us all.

Beyond Brazil we have the Latin American Heads Conference – of which I am currently on the executive committee.  We are a relatively small group of nearly 50 schools, stretching from Chile to Argentina, Mexico to Peru, Columbia and Venezuela; there are not many Latin American countries we don’t represent.  We are bound together by having English language used in our schools, but other than that we are a pretty diverse group with a lot to offer each other.  Our pupils and staff benefit from the annual LAHC conference and sports events and we share ideas regularly between the schools.

On a global scale we are members of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), an organisation that encompasses 250+ British curriculum schools on all the continents of the world.  The diversity and opportunities offered by COBIS are rich and very rewarding – with competitions for pupils, training courses for staff and an annual conference with hundreds of delegates.  In the UK we are also members of the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), the association of leading independent schools in Britain.  Again, this gives a platform for discussion amongst the 250+ schools who are members and, crucially, keeps me in touch with developments, ideas and best practice back home.  This is crucial for us all if we are going to continue to have a strong British identity as well as a British curriculum and the use of English in our classrooms.

So is headship really lonely?  Perhaps it is if you are not open to the various opportunities that there are for support and collaboration.  We benefit from them all and I cannot imagine doing my job without the opportunity to share.  It certainly makes it a lot more interesting too!

IGCSE results St, Paul's School 2017

Great results to start the new school year!

We are delighted with the fantastic IGCSE results that our new L6 IB pupils have received today.  The IGCSE, taken by many thousands of 16 year olds in British schools in the UK and around the world is a top class qualification and is excellent preparation for sixth form studies and for university life beyond.

This year we are especially proud of Henrique, who not only secured a ‘top in the world’ certificate for his maths (taken early in November) but also secure top grades, A* in every single subject.  This is exceptional and he should be very proud indeed.  Chloe, Richard, Silvia, Henry and Gian Paolo all did brilliantly too, scoring nothing less than an A across all their subjects.  A further 16 pupils in the year group secured at least 6 A grades or better and special mention must go to a very happy family of twins, Martina and Isabela who between them scored 15 A/A* grades.  Congratulations to them all!

Top scoring departments include Spanish and French with 72% A* and 71% respectively, and the sciences, with an average of 62% A/A* across biology, physics and chemistry.

Many congratulations to the pupils and their teachers and parents who have supported them.  They have worked really hard to do so well and we wish them every success as they embark on their IB diploma and the next phase of their educational journey.

What does the future hold?

This week we have turned our attention in the Senior School to careers and our pupils’ future.  The older pupils in the school stand on the threshold of myriad exciting and challenging opportunities and have, if they follow their dreams, a much more varied and interesting career path ahead of them than most of us, their parents, might have.

Careers Week at St. Paul's

When I entered teaching in the early 1990s there were many ‘old timers’ in the common room.  I worked in a traditional old fashioned (but very lovely) boarding school where the majority of staff spent their entire careers.  They loved the rural lifestyle, they brought their children up there and they never thought to look anywhere else.  Many of them secured promotions within the school and their life was focused around small rural community that we lived in.  In fact, when I left in 1996 the director of studies was also leaving – retiring in his early 60s.  He had been at the school continuously since the age of 8 (yes, 8 years old as a prep school boy) – bar three years at university and a year in industry.

The idea of working in the same industry, let alone the same institution, all of our working life, is alien to us now – if we want to get on in teaching (which is still quite traditional in terms of career paths) we must move on and experience a range of schools, in different contexts and different geographical locations.  For many of you, working in business, medicine, the law or other professions the same is probably true – perhaps you will have had three, four or maybe more employers in your careers.

This week we have been inspired by the idea of careers and life choices and our speaker at the parent workshop on Tuesday evening really gave us a sense of how diverse our children’s global careers will be.  Victor Mirshawka Junior works in coaching and leadership and prepares his clients for the many opportunities that are presented to us as global citizens today.  He suggested that our children will have 17 different jobs and 5 different careers in their lives; that they would have the flexibility and skills to work all around the world (or perhaps from their home offices and with global contacts and clients) and he prompted us to think about the challenges that this fast paced, techno-centric approach with rapid communication and an emphasis on creativity and entrepreneurship would bring.  It was mind boggling to think about the way in which robotics and the communications industry has created new careers (youtubers for example) on one hand and replaced careers (data analysts) on the other.

I think the element of his message which was most stark was the unpredictability of the world of work that our children will inhabit.   Molly is 8 years old.  Born in 2008, she will probably retire when she is between 70 and 80 (because pensions will not support her at a retirement age of 60, however much she wants to give up work then).  We cannot begin to imagine the world in 2090 – when she will be finishing her working life.  Of course she will still need interpersonal and collaborative skills, problem solving skills and skills of innovation and critical thinking during her career – but will she still need to be able to drive?  Probably not – driverless cars are already with us.  Will she need to be able to learn languages and use them in her work?  I hope that she will, but with immediate online audio translation, perhaps this will not be a major hurdle to global communication either?  If she is a doctor, will she need to carry our surgical procedures or diagnoses?  Perhaps not – because we already have complex medical programmes with algorithms that can do this for us, and robots to carry out operations.

The brave new world of careers that our children are exploring this week is not the one that we learnt about at school – it is far more exciting, much more interesting and with much more to offer than a job for life and a company pension.  Listening to Victor was a little unnerving – but tantalising at the same time.  Sadly I won’t be there to see Molly retire in the 2080s (unless medical science comes up with a technology to prolong my life) but I know it will be an exciting one.  And if we have taught our children flexibility, determination and resilience, then they will have an incredibly rewarding journey through life.

In the words of Dr Seuss…. (one of my favourite philosophers!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Managing millennials

As adults we all think back to our childhood as being much harder than that of our children today; ‘they’ve never had it so good’ we say. Just this week my daughter has been unwell (which is very unusual for her) and I reflected with a colleague on our own parents’ approach to our childhood sicknesses. There was a distinct lack of sympathy, it seemed, in the ‘70s and ‘80s when I was growing up. If you could breathe, or so it seemed in our house, you were fit to go to school. I am not suggesting that this was the best way to bring up a child – but it certainly made us value things a little more and accept disappointment better than many children growing up today.

But with the benefits of modern life come challenges, and we know from psychologists that saying yes to our children at all times is not good for them. We also know that if we do not manage our children’s expectations and behaviour then we are setting them up for difficulties in the work place and issues with self-esteem in the teenage years.

Simon Sinek makes us think carefully about the impact of technology on the development of our children’s relationships and the challenges that they face in this short video which really touched a chord for me:

The impact of technology is stark – and it is frightening to think that some of our children are using social media as a way to find instant gratification and to form ‘relationships’ with people that they don’t know.  Simon’s message about the importance of taking time to develop and work towards the things that are really valuable in life is clear and something that as parents and teachers I think we need to really take on board.

We work hard at school to help your sons and daughters to recognise the value of hard work and to teach them the real joy of long term satisfaction, from committing to something really worthwhile, rather than the short term gratification that comes from their fast paced lives in which many things come easily for them.  Through our policies and practices in school we encourage them to value technology as a learning tool and to recognise that there is a time and place for them to use their mobile devices – and a time when they should be locked away in their lockers.

I hope that this approach helps all the boys and girls to be rather more self-disciplined and committed than some of the millennials that Simon Sinek refers to, but still we know that there are youngsters, sadly, who struggle with making the right choices and who become negatively affected by the life that they are born into.  I encourage you to watch this video with your children (having left your mobile devices in another room beforehand) and discuss the issues with them.  Consider how, as a family, you might put technology in its place and keep it out of your children’s bedrooms; make their phones and screens a treat rather than a right to have all the time.  Help them to manage the way that they interact with others online and, perhaps more importantly, encourage them to work hard for things that matter, like practising their music, learning to perfect a new skill in their favourite sport, applying themselves hard to reading that challenging novel, or perhaps engaging more in a simple conversation and exchange of ideas at the dinner table.

I can!

Have you seen this fabulous short film, made to support and promote the British Paralympic team who are coming to Brazil in a few weeks’ time?

It is inspiring. Watching Olympians is incredible – but to see para-athletes whose bodies cause them challenges and difficulties in their lives is awe inspiring, and reminds us how small our own difficulties are, encouraging us to look beyond what we can’t do, and think about what is possible.

In the Senior School we have ‘being hard working’ as our theme of the term and to kick this off I showed this video in assembly and recounted a story about a boy called John:

Some years ago, working in the UK I was teaching biology A level. Our new headmaster was determined to improve the academic profile of our school and become the best school we could be. A level biology is hard – in fact, all A levels are hard. Like the IB, they are rigorous, academic and challenging and if you don’t work very hard you will not be successful however gifted you might be. This message was clear to our sixth formers and the measure of success from our headmaster was a B grade. As teachers and heads of subject our aim was to get all our pupils a B or above. This was how we were measured by UK school league tables and we were all aiming for 100% A and B grades.

In my U6th class I had three boys who might not manage a B.

One of them was John, a gifted artist. In fact, I googled John and found that he is now a lighting and furniture designer, having studied design at university. He would probably be the first to admit (certainly during the 6th form) that he was happier in the art room, where he excelled, than in the science labs where he found the subject challenging. When I googled John I also found this image on the web of one of his A level art projects:

A truly spectacular piece which, whether you like art or not you can appreciate as beautiful.  Made as part of his final A level show when he was 18, each little insect is about 1 cm across, suspended on fishing wire in a clear perspex box and made of tiny pieces of old watches, pens and machinery.  I was awestruck by this piece – it is beautiful work indeed and it took him weeks to complete.  As you might imagine, in art he got a top grade.  John can do really difficult things and make exquisite pieces of art, this is clear.  He has incredible ability and is exceptionally committed and determined.

Sadly biology was a different story and John did not do so well in his mock exams.  As we entered the second half of the school year he was under pressure to focus on his art and give up his biology.  It was clear, according to the head of 6th form and assistant head academic that he would not get a B and so he was better off focusing on what he was really good at.  He did not need his A level biology grade to enter university and he would enjoy school more without the science lessons.

But, he was not going to give up.  John refused to say ‘I can’t!’ and took on the more positive message of ‘I can!’  He hit the books and worked hard, really hard.  Motivated to prove the teachers wrong, John did not give up, in fact he proved himself to be one of the most committed pupils I have every taught.  Over the next few months he did all I that I suggested, turning up to extra classes, answering question paper after question paper, day after day, focusing on his areas of weakness and developing confidence in the areas that he was already comfortable with so that he had a strong base from which to build.  He developed learning strategies to ensure that he knew all the biological terminology and definitions, so that he could label diagrams and analyse data successfully.  He remained motivated and driven – to prove us wrong.

In August of that year I waited with baited breath to see the results of the biology A level – and because we see them the day before the pupils receive them, it was a real pleasure to watch John open his envelope; I knew what was inside.  He had done it.  He had proved us wrong.

When we are motivated and determined and when we put the work in, we can achieve so much more than we thought we could.  This year will feel very challenging at times for all our pupils, whether in sport, music, D of E, making friends, drama productions, maths, English, French science or another area of school life.  But if they tell themselves that they can do it, and they put in the hard work, they can.  Just like John did.