As I am writing this post on New Year’s Eve it is perhaps appropriate for me to reflect back on the resolutions I made last year.  In the first assembly of the year I said the following:

“It is traditional at this time of year that people set themselves some resolutions for the new year.  I try to do this every year.  Whilst like most people I have mixed success in actually sticking with them I have in the past managed at least to stick at a good number of them.  Thus, back in 2010 I decided that I would try to write one blog post a month and I have managed this pretty much since then.  For this year, I have decided that I would like to read more and thus have set myself the modest task of reading at least one book a month, hopefully I will be able to stick to this one.  As some of you will be aware I also enjoy running so during this year I want to run at least 300 miles.  Again I have not set an impossible target but this is one I will have to work at through the year.  Another target I set last year was to reduce the number of items on my To Do list at any one stage.  As I start the new year my list is just half the length it was at this point last year and hopefully I can reduce the list still further in the coming months.”

I know through Twitter and a number of conversations that I have had that there are a few people out there who have been following my progress towards these goals so here is the final update as to where I have got to:

Blog Posts: With this post I will have written 8 this year.  Not quite at my one a month target but it has been a particularly busy year with the School’s 500th anniversary year and the extra work that this has involved did slow up my production of posts at various stages.  However, I do want to keep this going so I will repeat this aim of one a month for the coming year.

Reading: I have achieved this and am currently half way through my 14th book of the year so more than one a month!  I have enjoyed reading more this year.  The best two books I read relating to education were Quiet by Susan Cain and Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.  Susan Cain’s book was all about introverts and how they can be effective leaders and was a very inspiring read.  It made a huge amount of sense and it is a book I will return to in the future.  Multipliers is all about how to effectively distribute leadership and this has proved to be very practical in establishing the new senior management team at school.  Its basic premise is that the most effective leaders multiply the talents of those around them rather than diminish their talents through wanting to take all the glory themselves.  I guess with both of these books I enjoyed reading about styles of leadership and then reflecting on my own to further improve my practices.

The majority of my reading though has been just for pleasure and amongst the highlights here were the ‘Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’, the Stieg Larsson trilogy, the ‘Book Thief’ and ‘The Hundred Year Old Man who climbed out the window’ as well as a recent biography of Thierry Henry.

14 books in a year is not a huge number by any measure but it is the most I have managed in a year in recent times so a successful resolution.  I intend next year to try to read two books a month so 24 in total, perhaps over ambitious but with a number on my shelf and on my ipad which have been there for a while it will be good to make a significant dent in these.

Running:  I set myself the ambitious target of running 300 miles in 2013 and with my final run of the year this morning I have fallen just short having run 267 miles this year.  Whilst a little disappointed not to have managed just 33 more I am pleased that I have managed to sustain my running this year despite how busy I have been.  Indeed, the reason for taking up running seven years ago was a training course I attended on ‘Managing People Effectively’.  As part of this course we were taught a lot on how to look after yourself so that you were more effective in your work.  At the end we had to pledge to do one thing consistently to do this and I chose to start running.  I have thus kept that particular resolution for seven years now and this sustained commitment is surely what good resolutions should be about.  I have been out for 55 runs this year.  My usual route is 5.7 miles and my best time of the year came back in October with 51 minutes 54 seconds.  I only started timing the runs in September to provide further motivation to keep going and this has proved successful although the strong winds in recent weeks have certainly slowed me up (slowest time of the year was 54.40!).

I am determined in the coming year to get up to 300 miles over the course of the year.  This year I have realised that there are a number of weekends when I am away and it is not all that practical to run so I will have to use the holiday periods to catch up more on runs missed at other times.  I have done this in the latter part of the year but just gave myself too much to do in order to quite reach the 300!

To Do List: This has been a great success and I have 100 fewer tasks on my list today than I had on the same day last year!  I have worked hard at this and now have better systems to ensure that I stay on top of the many, many tasks that I have to do more effectively. I intend to try to maintain this progress next year.

Thus, in summary my targets for 2013 were largely achieved or I got close to achieving.  The list for 2014 is as follows:

  1. Write 12 blog posts.
  2. Run 300 miles.
  3. Read 24 books.
  4. Maintain task list at no more than 50 items at any one time.
  5. Lose some weight (with all the 500th anniversary celebrations I am pleased to have ended the year weighing no more than I did at the start but I hope in the coming year to lose some!).
  6. More time with the family – 2013 with all its many demands was the busiest year of my career by some distance so hopefully 2014 will provide an opportunity for me to resume a more effective balance of my time!

I do very much appreciate that this whole post has been very self-centred.  However, I did find the motivation of having gone through last year’s list in assembly very motivating at different parts of the year so I hope that this post will serve in a similar way in the coming 12 months.  Do please use the comments section below to let me know what your own resolutions will be this coming year.

Dispelling some myths…

Each year we conduct some telephone interviews amongst those parents who have enquired about the High School but who have not gone onto apply for places.  Clearly we are looking to see if there are any lessons for the future and are particularly interested in those factors which we can influence.  I am pleased to say that most of those we survey have been impressed with the school and it is often due to their own circumstances, financial or otherwise, why they do not chose the School for their son.

Every time we undertake this research though it shows that there are some misconceptions that people have and I thought it would make for an interesting blog post to address these.

Misconception 1: Pressure: There are people who look at our fantastic academic success as a school and perceive there to be a great deal of pressure on pupils.  This is absolutely not the picture I recognise as I walk around the School.  The High School is all about developing boys with all round personality.  This is why we put such emphasis on our activities and clubs and just today we have held an activities day for all of our students – Year 7 visited the Zoo, Year 8 undertook lessons in life skills such as DIY, cooking, sewing and ironing, Year 9 made their own short movies.  All of these as well as the regular activities such as scouts, Duke of Edinburgh, cadets as well as all the music, sport and drama mean that boys enjoy a rich variety of experience.  Whilst all of us here at the School have high aspirations they are very much individualised, each boy is encouraged to do his best but we understand that what this will be will vary from individual to individual.  Boys enjoy their lessons, there are really positive relations with the staff and if you talk to any of our students they will tell you that this really is not a pressured environment.  Some parents feel that their son might be overwhelmed by the pressure of academic and sporting achievements expected – this could not be further from the truth.  Boys are encouraged to do their best but we believe that they must become self-motivated and that they should enjoy their learning.  They will never be pushed to achieve what they are not capable of.  Whilst our sporting programme is strong, boys only ever play with those of similar ability which is why we are so proud of putting out D teams on occasion as well as providing opportunities for the most able.

It is though pleasing to note that our survey also showed that our staff are friendly, inspirational and welcoming and our pupils are seen to be polite and mature but equally importantly warm in their welcome and confident.  Not all boys arrive here with confidence but this is built through our regular activities programme so that by the time that boys leave us they are well-rounded, quietly confident but not arrogant young men.  This quiet, understated confidence is important to us.  Parents were impressed with the facilities, the clubs and the learning was seen to be fun and interesting – just what we aim for.

Misconception 2: The nature of our bursary fund.  We do produce a Frequently Asked Questions sheet about our bursary fund but there are some misconceptions here.  Help is available towards fees and this can range from a small amount of assistance for middle-earners through to full fees.  There are also funds which we can use to support bursary boys going on school trips.  Despite our best efforts not all those who enquire to the School are aware of our bursary scheme but I would encourage every parent to read the FAQs sheet on our website as this talks you through the whole scheme and allows you to see if it applies to you.  We do also include all of the curriculum trips, sports fixtures and even entrance to all our plays and concerts within our published fees structure.  Again this is not the case in all independent schools.

Misconception 3: Lack of local friends: We are aware that some families do not choose us because their sons want to stay near their local friends.  This is understandable but I would say that you do not have to lose your local friends just because you join the High School.  Here you will make new friends but there is still plenty of time in the week when boys can stay in touch with their local friends.  Many of the boys here are still involved in activities in their local area and would say that they get the best of both worlds with friends made through the High School alongside those they have in their local areas.  For those that use the school buses that too is an opportunity to chat with their friends as well as meeting girls from the Girls High School!  In Year 7 we set no homework in the first couple of weeks and this is partly to allow boys to go to see any friends from their old school that they may be missing as they start at their new one.

Misconception 4: Nature of results in comparison to other schools.  Schools are increasingly good at marketing themselves and can be very selective about what results they publish.  At the High School we believe in being very transparent about this which is why we publish on our website a full set of GCSE and A Level results both for this year and the last few which includes every exam taken in every subject.  We do put our results in for League Table purposes again because we want to be transparent in our dealings with those considering our schools.  It is a pity that there is not a standard way that all schools have to publish their results to enable parents to see the differences between schools.

Misconception 5: Social Mix. Many people feel that independent schools are full of the privileged rich.  At the High School over 10% of our intake receive bursaries but more importantly even than that is the fact that we have a real socially diverse mix of families who have chosen our school.  Many parents are making significant sacrifices in order to afford the fees and thus we really do have a mix of all backgrounds.  Our parents are more likely to be taxi drivers than hedge-fund managers!  There will be many state schools in leafy suburbs where there is less of a genuine social mix as parents have had to pay a premium on their house price to afford to live in the catchment areas of the best schools.  We have a map of where all our pupils live and it covers the full city and county area and shows visually the diversity of areas where our pupils come from.

In conclusion, it is fascinating to try to understand the complicated decision making process in choosing schools.  We prefer it when parents and boys come to visit us as that way they can get a better feel of what to expect.  Above all if they come on a school day they can see the enjoyment on the faces of the boys they will encounter, they can talk with them about any of their concerns and they can really start to understand our ethos. It really is a friendly, welcoming place with a soft heart and an enjoyable place both to work and to come to school.

The Value of Adventure

As a School we believe passionately in giving boys opportunities for travel and adventure and this summer boys have been travelling as far afield as both Bala and Bolivia taking part in adventurous pursuits of one sort or another.  There is, of course, an element of risk in any such adventure but with rigorous risk assessments underpinning each trip we feel confident that we have done all we can to ensure that such trips go smoothly and safely.

Over the course of this holiday I have been lucky enough myself to do four ‘adventurous activities’ and this has got me to reflect on the value of facing these experiences.  The first three of these were on a family holiday in Costa Rica.  We started with some white-water rafting.  Now, I am not the most confident swimmer so it was with some trepidation that I heard that we would be negotiating rapids for up to an hour and a half.  Yet, this time passed incredibly quickly and provided many highlights.  It did though bring home to me how lucky I was to have such an expert guide steering the boat from behind.  The same is true on many school trips, they rely on the skill and enthusiasm of so many teachers who have often taken the trouble to visit the planned location before and in every case who have considered what the risks might be.  I loved the rafting but was grateful to my guide on two occasions for grabbing hold of me as I was about to be swept into the water!

Our next adventure was rather more sedate and this involved doing some horse-riding.  This is something which I had not done for many years.  In this case there was no guide to hold me on to the horse and as with many school trips you have to be prepared to give something a go.  As a participant on a school  trip there will always be times when you are trying an activity for the first time, perhaps by trying rock climbing on our Bala trip or skiing down a mountain for the first time.  Such experiences though are really character forming and the smiles at the end when the challenge has been overcome are both genuine and well-deserved.  Those fortunate enough to have these things to look forward to may well be nervous beforehand but with some gentle encouragement from the staff anything is possible.

My third experience was zip-wiring.  Here I reflected on the trust you need to have both in your equipment and in those organising the activity.  We stepped on to a high platform above the trees and launched down the wire in one case for a kilometre.  I am no fan of heights so I had to face a few fears here as well but our guides put us at ease and earnt our trust and this too is at the heart of all great teaching.  Students have to trust their teachers whether this be in the classroom or outside of it.  Such trust always has to be earned but once gained means that you can work together for the benefit of all.  In my case the guides here helped to overcome any nervousness involved in heading off the platform at great speed, in the classroom it often involves building confidence around new skills or learning new skills such as how to tackle in rugby.  The quicker the trust is built between teacher and pupil the more successful such confidence building is.  When you are at the top of a high platform the trust has to be built very quickly indeed.

My final adventure came last week when I was fortunate enough to be invited by a High School old boy to take to the skies in his two seater aeroplane.  We travelled in a loop from East Midlands Airport up across the hills of Derbyshire to Sheffield and then in a loop back across the Vale of Belvoir.  Above all else this made me appreciate the beauty of the landscape, a feeling that I had also had so often whilst in Costa Rica.  We live in a very special world and we must learn to appreciate it at every opportunity.  Those who have travelled with the School this summer will have taken in many superb sights and I hope that they too took the time to appreciate what they have seen and realise just how lucky they are to have the opportunities they have to travel.

P.S. The photos of me looking much more scared on each activity will not be published!