2012 – a great year.

In my final blog post of 2012 I thought I would pick out just five of the many, many highlights of the past year and reflect back on what they meant to me:

Royal Visits: I never thought that when I became Headmaster of the High School back in April 2007 that it would give me the opportunity to meet so many interesting and notable people. Amongst the many highlights over this time I have enjoyed meeting with Sir Garfield Sobers, Ken Clarke, Ed Balls, Des Colman and many more besides. However, by any standards, 2012 has been a particularly special year. Last summer both the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited Nottingham. We were asked if they could land their helicopter on our fields and, of course, we agreed. Thus it was that I met all three of them in the course of a very memorable morning. I was joined by all the boys and staff from Lovell House and the Junior School as the spirit of the Jubilee very much came to Valley Road. Given that we were not an official part of the visit they were incredibly generous with their time and the photos we took are a special and lasting memory. I was very much struck by their ability to make people feel at ease and the willingness of the Duke and Duchess to engage with the boys. I very much appreciated how honoured we were to see them all in the space of an hour or two and I know that boys and staff alike enjoyed their visit. Then, in September, as part of the School’s 500th anniversary we hosted a visit by the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, at the School itself. Again this was a very memorable day. I was incredibly proud of the effort put in by so many staff and boys to ensure that this visit went well and I know that our royal visitor really enjoyed the time he spent with us. The attention to detail of all involved in this visit was incredible and whilst I had the privilege of leading him around the School it was an incredible team effort by so many people which was my lasting memory of that particular day.

Exam Results: The academic highlight of 2012 was our exceptional A Level results which were the best in the School’s history. I know that people get very cynical of headmasters announcing record results year after year but these were exceptional in every respect and placed us 32nd in the Times League Table and 10th in the Independent League table. As pleasing as anything though was that these results were achieved by a fantastic Year 13 who had done so much to engage with the School in the time they spent with us and who so deserved to be this successful. So many of them secured places at their first-choice universities as well. Whilst each cohort is different these were special results gained by some fantastic lads and working out the percentages of top grades achieved back on that day in August was a very memorable feeling.

Sunday Times Prep School of the Year: In November we heard that our Junior School had been named as the Sunday Times Prep School of the Year. This was a fantastic piece of news. When I became Headmaster back in April 2007 it was clear that the Junior School needed to be modernised and the work that has gone on ever since that point in time culminated in this fantastic award. This is such a highlight as again it is very much a team effort by all the staff and boys concerned who have worked so hard to enhance our Junior School experience in every way possible. Solid foundations of superb SATS results have helped but at the heart of all of this work has been a great set of staff working together with a passion to improve things and they really did deserve to receive this accolade. I could not have been prouder and this was certainly another memorable highlight of 2012.

Old Boys of the High School: Rarely has a week gone past in 2012 where I have not had the opportunity to meet up with old boys both young and old. I have enjoyed so much listening to the tales of how the School was in their time and in return they have been really interested in how things have altered in more recent times. Their ongoing pride in the High School is very evident and they have all been incredibly grateful for the start that the High School gave them in their often very successful careers. That so many Old Boys have been prepared to come back into school to help with careers events, to speak at Friday Forum, to help launch our Nottinghamians alumni group and so much more besides shows that we are successfully embedding the idea of the School as a community for life and I know that with the 500th anniversary celebrations reaching their peak at Founder’s Day next June we will welcome back even more people over the next six months. It has been a real privilege to meet so many interesting people and without exception they have added a great deal to the ongoing life of the School.

Work with HMC: Finally in my list of highlights of the past year has been the work I have done chairing the Communications committee for the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. This takes me out of school for a few days each term but I have so enjoyed working with my fellow heads from across the country and have gained so much from my interactions with them. The major part of my work in this respect in the past year has been to help lead the work on rebranding HMC as the organisation for Leading Independent Schools and providing a new website and communications strategy for the organisation. This was never going to be an easy task as each of the 250+ Heads in the organisation is used to running their own schools and I guess it is not surprising that many of them have strong opinions. Much consultation was undertaken but I was delighted that the new branding, website and strategy has been universally welcomed and that we have managed to freshen the image of this important organisation. Of course, the credit for this lies with the Communication Manager for HMC but it has been great fun playing a part in such a major exercise. There are, of course, many, many other things which I could highlight here and it is always going to be difficult to pick out just a few. Indeed, in many respects, even constructing a list like this tends to undermine the value of so much of the everyday work. At the heart of all that we achieve as a school is the fantastic work done by so many – boys and staff alike and their passion and dedication is a central plank of all of our success. I hope that as we continue our 500th anniversary year into 2013 that there will be plenty to look forward to and that 2013 proves to be every bit as memorable as 2012 clearly was.

University entrance and school type

I am grateful to William Richardson, General Secretary of HMC, for much of the information in this post.

There is a great deal in the press at present about open access to universities and a recurring feature of this is a suggestion that pupils from independent schools should be discriminated against.  The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) of which the High School is a part do a great deal of research into university recruitment and in a recent report they have found that far from being discriminated against pupils who attend independent schools have extremely good prospects.  Their main findings were as follows:

 

  • in recent years we have no evidence of any bias by leading universities against our candidates;
  • our school leavers do exceptionally well because sixth form attainment is the key determinant of which students get to which university;
  • in 2012 a greater proportion of students at HMC schools than ever before secured their place of choice at a leading UK university.

 

The reason why prospects look so good is that universities are currently struggling to fill all their places.  Overall numbers taking up university places in England fell by 14% compared to 2011 and the government’s decision to allow universities to offer places to all those gaining AAB or better in their A levels meant that such pupils were at a premium.  79200 achieved this level compared with a predicted number of 85,000 which left many universities with excess places on their hands.  Virtually all HMC candidates who secured AAB, along with some who did not, secured good places.  Across the Russell Group of leading universities there were 11,500 unfilled places out of a total annual intake of around 91,000.  Next year the picture will change as the government is opening up places to those who gain ABB so releasing at least 23,000 more students for universities to offer places to and the government will guarantee to fund these places at whichever university they attend.  It is likely then that all candidates achieving at this sort of level for the majority of courses will be fought over by universities eager to attract the funding which they will bring.  Demographic pressures over the next few years also arise from a falling cohort of 18 year olds.   Thus, it is felt that students who gain good grades irrespective of their school background are likely to be offered places.  Oxbridge remains as competitive as ever but elsewhere the Chief Executive of UCAS predicts: “within a couple of years we have moved from candidates chasing places to places chasing candidates.”

Is this picture likely to change?  In a recent report by Alan Milburn on social mobility it described on p. 24, why universities should NOT seek to filter applications based on the school background of candidates because: ‘school type [is a] fairly blunt measure of disadvantage…  The school type indicator does not take full account of the fact that some pupils who attend private schools come from poor backgrounds, while many wealthy people attend state schools.  In my consultations with universities it became apparent that there may be unintended consequences if the Government and universities focus purely on these indicators’.

This is a critical point and hopefully this will influence future public debate on this important area.  Attracting more disadvantaged students to university is a worthy aim but this should be done in the context of greater availability of places and by targeting such students irrespective of their school background.  So much of the press discussion on this topic misses this point.

All in all though,  the picture for independent school students is nowhere near as bad as we are led to believe.  Universities continue to seek to attract the brightest students irrespective of where they go to school and long may this continue.

 

Debunking myths about entry to independent schools

In an article by Nicola Woodcock in the Times on October 27th she writes that families are  hiring tutors for children as young as four to start to prepare them for entrance examinations to leading private schools.  I am appalled at that concept!  Last year in the same newspaper’s League Table the High School came 32nd so I would say that we can certainly be classified as one of the leading private schools.  Whenever I meet a parent who asks whether they should get their son tutored to pass our entrance examination I do all I can to persuade them not to. Why?

The dream of every parent is to find a school which is suitable for their child’s needs.  Thus, it makes no sense to tutor them to pass an entrance exam if all the hands that have helped them to get across the line are withdrawn as soon as the child starts at the School.  When I am selecting boys for the High School I want to find boys who have potential, who will step up to a challenge.  If the response to a challenge is to turn to others to pay them to overcome it for you then this surely is doing our children no good.  It is an important life skill for us all to be able to compete for something and to learn from our mistakes if unsuccessful and to enjoy the fruits of our success when things have gone well.  I want to know that the boys we take into the High School will thrive here on a daily basis.  Much more important than whether they have been prepared to pass a test is do they have curiosity, are they prepared to persevere to work something out, do they read for pleasure, do they have a love of learning? It is also important that they have life-experiences upon which to draw whether this be playing sport, doing drama or learning a language.  It is these experiences where they have encountered both success and difficulty which give them the character to be successful.  It is these characteristics which will last well beyond any entrance examination.

It is also a myth that the competition is as fierce as the press (often London-based) makes out.  In our case we will have on average about 180 boys competing for 120 places.  So, yes there is competition but it is far from the picture painted by the press.  Even in London the true picture is hidden because so many parents apply to a wide range of schools so the true competition is always much lower than it would first appear.  In our case, I aim to take all those who I feel will thrive in our school.  If necessary, therefore, I would take 130 but equally importantly if I feel that we have less than 120 in that position I will take less.  The importance of ensuring that the School is the right environment for each individual student is why we place a huge emphasis on interviewing those who come to the School.  We seek to work out whether we feel that the individual boy will be happy with us and in the end it is not about pass or fail just about whether the School is the right environment for the individual child.

Not every school will be right for every child.  I like going running on a Sunday morning but
go about it in a leisurely way at my own pace.  If I had to run in front of lots of people in a huge stadium it would be hell for me, I would be too slow and ridiculed.  So it is with Schools.  There are schools for all abilities; there are schools with various specialisms.  I want those who come to my school to be able to really enjoy their time with us.  Yes, they will need to work hard but we also want them to enjoy a range of other activities as it is through these activities that things such as teamwork, resilience, communication skills, leadership and tenacity are learnt.

Thus, perhaps some of those paying £57 an hour to tutors in London to prepare their children for exams at the age of 7 should save their money and move to Nottingham where they will find a school as strong academically as many of those they are so desperate to get their children into but one which will select their child because it suits the abilities of their child, who will treat their child as an individual and one which after all is about £5000 a year cheaper to get into! Best of all, your son can spend the time he would otherwise spend with a tutor in playing sport, reading, doing drama and generally broadening his life experiences.

Finally I would love to have the opportunity to debunk any other myths that there are about entry to our independent schools, please use the comment box here to ask your questions and I will endeavour to answer them.

The State of Public Examinations

There has been a great deal of coverage in the press this summer about the interference that there appears to have been in this summer’s GCSE English results.  I strongly believe though that the problems with the British examination system go much deeper than this.

Every summer as we receive our examination results we wait with nervousness to see which subject has been hit by rogue marking.  Almost every school suffers in one subject or another on a regular basis.  Students can be taught in the same way, by the same teachers and it can be demonstrated quite clearly that they are of a similar standard to the previous cohort and yet the results can differ quite widely.  Some subjects, perhaps particularly on the Arts side, suffer a yo-yo affect with results rising and then declining for no apparent reason.  Others who have for many years produced outstanding results are hit with a lower set of grades in a particular year.  There is no predicting which ones can be hit.

So what causes these problems?  There is no doubt that the proliferation of exams has meant that the pool of experienced markers has been spread ever more thinly.  We can no longer rely on scripts being marked by teachers who are experienced in the subjects they are marking.  Whilst exam boards continue to make big profits they do not pay markers well and thus it is inevitable that many teachers choose not to become involved.  As a school we encourage staff to get involved but there is no guarantee nationally that those examining the scripts have experience of teaching the relevant syllabus. Indeed if you look at the questions asked by exam boards when taking up references on markers you can easily understand why problems occur – very few questions are asked and the reference is just a tick box exercise.   A further consequence of the lack of experienced markers is that exam boards have had to develop mark schemes which are incredibly formulaic and serve to stifle creativity.  Often when we ask for scripts to be returned we find some brilliant work unrewarded as it does not carefully match the formulaic mark scheme;  anyone with a true understanding of the subject would see that brilliant work should be rewarded with a high grade.

If you find a subject with poor marking then the problems are only just starting.  Of course, you can ask for a remark.  The fact that these are expensive I am sure deters many schools from pursuing the appeals;  it is no surprise that proportionately more appeals come from schools in the independent sector.  The trouble with the remarking process is that you are not able to engage with the exam board.  It makes no difference if you point out to them that you feel that a particular year’s results are out of kilter with all the previous results in that subject.  They will not let those people on your own staff who mark exams for them show clearly why the marks are wrong.  The papers are looked at again and whilst some changes are made injustices often remain.

At that stage you have to enter into an appeals system which is unbelievable.  You are not allowed to appeal on the grounds that work has been marked badly; all you can do is to try to find a procedural point on which to pursue your appeal.  Why is this?  Why can there not be a proper debate with schools over scripts so that true professional dialogue is opened up? At worst this would improve practice in schools and lead to schools better understanding the examining process, at best it would enable schools to engage with the examiners to show why a particular script deserves a higher mark.

There is much debate over the need to halt grade inflation.  There is talk of the need to re-introduce O Levels.  However, whatever the exam system, we need exams which are marked by people who really understand the subject, we need exam boards to allow schools to point out the discrepancies from year to year which make no sense and we need an appeals process which does ensure that every pupil is treated fairly.  No pupil should miss out on the grade they deserve; no Head of Department should have to face the stress of the current appeals process.  New exams and tougher standards are important steps but these will not work unless the basic foundations of the examination system are improved.

Guest Post – Legacy and the view of a School teacher by Martin Smith

Martin Smith, head of PE atNottinghamHigh School

The media is full of comments and reports about the need for there to be a lasting legacy from the London Olympics so that the success can be repeated in the future. Ministers, including David Cameron, have hinted that schools are not prepared to give children the necessary competitive framework that is vital for preparing the next generation of Olympians.  In my experience though this is far from the truth with competition thriving.

At Nottingham High School where I am head of PE, we have a very strong and competitive fixtures list in a wide variety of sports. Teams play midweek after school as well as at weekends and on some Saturdays we see as many as 18 rugby matches being played.   It shows that there is no lack of willingness from the schools’ point of view.

Importantly, this isn’t restricted to schools in the private sector. As chairman of the Nottingham City Schools’ Athletics Association, I see first hand the number of pupils from schools across Nottingham who compete in City Athletics Championships.   For instance in one year group competition this summer, all 17 city secondary schools fielded a team which was great.

I also see the hard work put in by School Sport Nottingham which organises a very strong competitive structure across many sports in the city. Government funding for the School Games programme has been instrumental in providing pathways into competitive sport for young people across the country.  On a local level the recent Nottinghamshire School Games was a huge success with over 800 pupils participating in a multi sports competition.  This is going to be repeated again for the next school year with both winter and summer games and even more young people competing.   Hopefully initiatives like this will help to inspire more and more youngsters to get involved in competitive sport.

So will there be any legacy from 2012?

In my view, there will be an increase in the number of young people wanting to participate in sport and the schools are ready for the challenge as are local sports clubs who will see a surge in new members.

But legacy is also about facilities. The venues in London are fantastic but what about those more local to the majority of the population? Money is being invested locally but there is still more to be done. The only local major athletics facility at Harvey Hadden is in dire need of additional investment. Young people are inspired by modern and up to date facilities so if we are to retain their interest in sport we need to ensure that public facilities are attractive and fit for purpose.

I really do hope that schools rise to the challenge.  I know that in my school, there will continue to be a number of key aims – encouraging participation and enjoyment, ensuring competition for all whatever their ability and developing a lifelong interest in sport amongst our pupils.   Hopefully such an approach will help in creating a future generation of Olympic Champions.

Martin Smith, August 2012.