Remembrance

Each year I consider it a huge privilege to lead the School in its Remembrance Service where we remember all those who have died in conflict and in particular remember those alumni of the School who made the ultimate sacrifice in either the First or Second World Wars. This year, with it being the centenary of the outbreak of World War One has particular significance.

I am hugely indebted to Simon Williams of our History Department for the superb job he has done in collating an impressive gazette of all those who lost their lives in World War One and I will again draw upon this work in my address. On Remembrance Day I feel that my major task is to link those that went before with those sitting in the hall 100 years on and to demonstrate that all those who fell were living lives not too dissimilar to our own. Our own war memorial was unveiled in 1922 to show “the respect, honour and admiration which we feel for the Old Boys who laid down their lives in the Great War.”

It is estimated that over 1500 Old Nottinghamians, staff and boys, took part in the Great War. Until recently we thought that 202 of those 1500 were killed and never returned. There were 124 decorations, 29 others were mentioned in dispatches. Mr Williams’ recent work though has uncovered a further 30 men who died during the course of either the First or Second World Wars, 26 from the First World War alone. These men are wh0 I will focus my address on this year in our service and there are some remarkable stories to tell.

As a School we want to mark the First World War Centenary in a variety of ways over the coming four years. We have already held a couple of assemblies and these will continue to tell some of the remarkable stories of our alumni and their involvement in the conflict. We have also developed a book of remembrance on our website and have started to tweet the details of some of those who fell. We have completed a full chronology of old boy casualties.

Looking forward we hope to put on a series of trips to the battlefields starting with one for pupils but also looking at doing the same for parents and old boys in the future.

During the course of the First World War we believe that as each casualty was recorded the portrait or regimental badge of the particular old boy was displayed in the Player Hall and we now hope to replicate this 100 years on with the relevant portrait or badge being put on display as we reach the centenary of each man that fell in conflict. This will help our current day students to appreciate the sacrifice that earlier generations made for us.

We have also produced a photo display of all those who fell and we will put this out on a number of public occasions over the coming four years.

We are planning to hold a festival of remembrance around the 1st July 2016, the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme where so many of our alumni lost their lives. At this point we will have completed our work on trying to find any further old boys who lost their lives so we will then add all of the missing names to our memorials.

Remembrance is incredibly important to any school community.   We will continue to do all we can to remember our old boys who fell in conflict. I can only imagine the trauma for my predecessor who lead the School at this terrible time and the impact that so much bad news must have had on the School community. We owe it to all of them to do all we can to remember them.

NHS

School Open Days

At this time of year newspapers and the backs of buses are full of adverts for School Open Days. These are an excellent opportunity to discover more about the potential next stages in your child’s education.  There are though some aspects of school life which can be more difficult to uncover on an Open Day.

One of the most important questions to ask is how will my child be looked after? It can be difficult on an Open Day to show this off so do ask other parents with experience of the School. At Nottingham High School students are placed into tutor sets consisting of three pupils from each year in the School and the tutor and assistant tutor look after the pupil throughout their school career. This sort of continuity of care is hugely appreciated by current parents, indeed it is seen to be one of the strongest features of our school but it is difficult to ‘show’ this on an Open Day.”

Another important issue for parents is how effective are the School communications? Again this is difficult to show on an open day but there are some clues which can be useful. Thus, n the case of Nottingham High School we publish the email of every member of staff on the school website and so parents and students can always contact our staff. In many schools there is just one email address given for all issues to go to and this can mean that you never quite know who you will hear from.”

Depending on how stage-managed an Open Day can be it can be difficult to fully understand the ethos of a school. Here the best thing to do is to talk to as many students as possible. Perhaps find out whether they have been handpicked to show you around or as in the case of Nottingham High School all senior pupils help with this. They can tell you about the approachability of the Head, the strength of working relationships with the staff, whether the staff are happy in their work and quite simply if they enjoy being at the School.

Be careful too of the statistics quoted, if comparing two schools make sure that you have the same figures to compare as these can be presented in so many different ways. Ask about the numbers who get to their first choice university, or on to the most competitive courses such as Medicine or who get to Oxford and Cambridge. These are just a few examples but do ask about what matters to your own child.

Despite all this it is very much worth visiting a school open day but do dig below the surface to ensure that you get to fully understand what the School is really like.

The excitement of a new year

The start of the Autumn Term is always one of my favourite times of the year.  I feel very rested after an excellent summer holiday and some quality time spent with the family.  It reminds me of days long gone by of my own school days when this time of year meant a new pencil case, a new school bag, a blazer just a little too big for me to grow into, the start of the football season and eternal hope that this year would be the one for Arsenal, new shoes, the start of school sport, some new teachers and the occasional new class member.

 

As a Headmaster I still go into the new term with a sense of excitement for the year ahead.  This coming year is a huge one for Nottingham High School as we continue to prepare for the arrival of co-education in September 2015.  We are at the interesting part of the planning now when we start to put into place all of the arrangements that we have spent so long discussing.  This summer’s exam results saw us as the highest achieving school in the local region and this bodes well for the future.

 

Another reason for excitement at the start of a new term is the arrival of a number of new staff.  Those long days last Spring when we undertook all of the interviews have now gone but now comes the exciting part in welcoming them into our team of staff and then seeing them start to inspire our students.  Recruiting excellent staff remains the most important thing I do and when we met them all again last week their enthusiasm shone through and I know that they too are excited by the challenges ahead.  New Heads of Department with energy and enthusiasm do so much to help the School move forward.  I know as well though that they will also be very warmly welcomed by all colleagues and will draw on the experience of those who have been at the School longer.

 

It was exciting on Friday to take a wander around the School.  The real heroes of the summer the maintenance and caretaking staff were busy moving so many boxes around the site and getting things ready for us to start next week.  During the summer we have undertaken a major refurbishment of the Junior School and the Year 7 corridor and surrounding classrooms.  Whilst I knew this was happening I was blown away by the quality of this refurbishment.  The Junior School feels like a brand new school and so much light and freshness has been brought into the building.

 

The start of term also sees Speech Day.  We have so much to celebrate particularly the stunning GCSE results this year.  It is fantastic to have the opportunity to bring the whole school community on the second day of term to celebrate our achievements of last year and to look forward to the new one.  Whilst fitting it all in to a speech which does not go on too long is a challenge, I love looking back in this way as it is so easy to forget just how much we can celebrate as we go through day by day each year.

 

In the next couple of days we also welcome all of our new students into the School.  Each one of these families has chosen us for the next stage of education and this is a huge privilege for us to undertake.  Each one of these students will go on to make their own mark on our school and its achievements and it is a huge privilege for me to address them all as they embark on what I hope will be a fantastic period of their lives.

 

We also have a number of new initiatives to look forward to.  This term sees the start of our new curriculum arrangements.  Again this has involved a huge amount of work over a long period but with a move to longer lessons, a better balance of subject time and a real focus on independent learning we now have a curriculum which I believe will prepare our students so well for university and beyond.

 

Schools should be places full of energy.  As we return this September I look forward to seeing this throughout the School in the way that staff inspire our students and provide them with so many fantastic opportunities.  I look forward to seeing it too amongst our students new and old.  I look forward to meeting the families of many girls looking to join us in the future.  In terms of my list from my own school days though I can still tick off some of the items on the list:

A new pencil case – No albeit that I did get a new laptop at the end of last year.

A new school bag – Yes

A blazer just a little too big for me to grow into – Now a suit I hope still to be able to get into after many good meals on holiday!

The start of the football season and eternal hope that this year would be the one for Arsenal – Never lost this!

New shoes – No

The start of school sport – Yes, September often sees some of the sunniest days down at Valley Road!

Some new teachers – Yes and their energy will bring much to the School

The occasional new class member – I look forward to getting to know all of our new students  and following them as they make their mark on our school.

 

9 Long Years

I had the great privilege recently of attending the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull and after 9 years of waiting was there to see Arsenal win the trophy that all their fans, myself included, had so longed for.  It was a fantastic day and one that will live long in my memory as I was able to share the experience with my son seeing his favourite team win a trophy for the first time in his memory.

This caused me to reflect a little on the nature of success.  Arsenal fans have been very divided on the management of Arsene Wenger.  Some want instant success and have grown ever more frustrated by the lack of trophies in recent seasons.  For many success needs to be instant, needs to be bought if it does not come naturally and must come every season.  The modern world so often demands instant gratification and if it does not come then they call for the head of those in charge.

Yet, there is a different interpretation.  Over these 9 years and many more besides Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League and have never finished lower than 4th.  For most teams this would be a fantastic achievement.  It is made all the more remarkable by the way that during this period the club has also invested in what are seen to be outstanding training facilities and a new stadium which again is the envy of every other team.  Strong foundations have been laid for future success; the club has done this without significant borrowing and with a good deal of style.  It is clear that the club is being run with a clear vision in mind and that this is a long-term vision.

This got me thinking about how schools define success.  The government’s view is very much to look at League Tables and to demand instant success.  The impact of this has been to define success in education very narrowly, typically by the number of A*-C grades achieved including in Maths and English.  There is no doubting that academic success is important to individual students and so in some respects one can understand this focus.  And yet this sort of instant success can be very transitory.  Some schools have achieved it by selecting much easier subjects, some by entering students in exams across the full range of exam boards in the hope that the elusive C grade is achieved somewhere; others narrow their curriculum and focus everything they do on these targets.

Yet, is this how we should be defining success in education?  To me it is not.  Someone once said that education is what you are left with when you have finished school.  Exam results are certainly part of this but equally important are the skills and character you have been left with.  Skills and character traits such as teamwork, collaboration, communication, resilience, empathy, humility are just as important as those results you are left with for it is these things which will define how you can ensure your own sustained success in the future.  These are important not just in the world of work but in your personal life as well and will ultimately define how happy you are.  A good education should also leave you with other lasting effects.  This may be a love of Music, a love of reading, a passionate interest in a particular subject area which can help to define a career.  Involvement in things such as the Duke of Edinburgh award might give you a love of the outdoors or your volunteering might have sparked a lifelong interest in helping others out in some way.  The friendships you make will certainly add great richness to your life and most of us can think back to some of our teachers and understand the influence that they had on our lives which again is lasting.  All of these things underpin lasting success.

Thus, I am proud of the way that Arsenal have defined success in recent years.  Investment in training facilities is bound to help with the development of future successful players and the financial clout in the future will be the result of the investment in the new stadium. Such things will be the foundation of success in the future and just as it was on Cup Final Day it will mean all the more because of the way it has been achieved. Arsene Wenger has developed a long-term vision for the club which is hopefully sustainable.   Schools too must lay similarly strong foundations – we aspire for excellence in all areas as this means that whatever a student’s interest we will be able to develop it.  The appointment of outstanding teachers becomes vital too because these have such a lasting impact on all those that they inspire.  We hope too that our excellent surroundings inspire those that work and study within them.

I often ask our ex-students what they feel that the School has left them with.  No-one ever answers by giving me their exam grades.   Instead they talk about the way that they feel the School developed their characters, or gave them a love of something or about the inspirational difference a teacher had made.  Others speak of how a love of travel was inspired by a school trip or how they have continued with the sport that they started at school.  These are all the signs of an excellent education and yet perhaps impossible for the government to measure.  It is perhaps not surprising that the politicians focus both on the measurable and the short-term in that the 5 years between elections goes past so quickly.  The successes I refer to here are much longer-lasting.  However, I guess in the end there is a middle way because there is no doubt that good exam results lead to excellent university places and then to good, fulfilling job choices.  Thus, a balanced education which strives for excellence in the classroom but which also focuses on so much more besides is perhaps the ideal.  Thinking of it for Arsenal the new stadium, training facilities and the investment in developing young players will be all the more enjoyable if from this point forward it is also matched by the collection of a good number of trophies.  Success breeds success and long may this continue both in my school and for my football club!

True heart and honest mind

On Wednesday of this week I had the great pleasure and honour of announcing that Nottingham High School is to become co-educational in stages from 2015. Since then I have been inundated with emails and tweets the vast majority of which have been very positive about our move.  However, there is a small percentage of people who do not approve of our move and who have been very public in airing their view.  I am buoyed by the responses we have had to our consultation which so far clearly show approval from so many different parts of the School Community.

Those who are opposed to the move have taken a great deal of delight in distributing a blog post which I wrote back in July 2011, a link to which can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/20111015053029/http:/head.nottinghamhighblogs.net/2011/07/16/benefits-of-single-sex-education/

I removed this post some time ago as my thinking had moved on but this too has been portrayed by a few as something I should be ashamed of.  I am afraid that I do not feel any shame in this as I believe that it shows courage to change one’s mind and I want to explore in this post the reasons why I have changed my mind.  I hope that all those who have taken delight in passing on my original post will as freely distribute this response.  I removed the post not as a cynical attempt to bury the past but because I see my blog as a reflection of my beliefs, my philosophy and when I no longer felt the same way I felt it right to take it down.  This was before any decisions had been made, before the final proposals were written and before the School’s Governors reached their own conclusions.

When I wrote the post in July 2011 I did so in response to stories that boys’ schools were in crisis and were close to extinction.  As I pointed out Nottingham High School was in a strong position and that remains the case today.  So why have my views changed so fundamentally?

As the School approached its 500th anniversary it seemed like a very opportune time to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses and look to what the next stage of our development would be. I wanted to develop a fresh vision.  In conjunction with our governors, I decided to take an in-depth look at possible developments for the future.  I started this process with an open mind, as someone has said recently, more like a meerkat than an ostrich!  Amongst the many different scenarios I considered was co-education.  As I embarked on this thought I started from a position of neutrality but this was to change the more I considered it.

My starting place was this report by Professor Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Buckingham University: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/hmcsscd.pdf

Why did I start with this? It was because as a member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference which is the organisation for the Heads of the leading 250 schools in the country it made sense to turn to a piece of research commissioned by them. They are a very well-respected organisation and when I had met Alan Smithers I had been impressed. I knew that this would be a balanced piece because within HMC there are both co-educational and single-sex schools and thus it was likely that this report would provide an accurate summary of the educational thinking on this topic.  When I read it I was struck by its conclusions that good schools are good schools irrespective of whether they were co-educational or single-sex and that there was no evidence at all that a single-sex environment was better.  I have been a school inspector for some time now and reflecting back on the schools I visited and the many inspection reports I have read I understood that what makes for excellent teaching is not the sex of the pupils in front of the teacher but the way in which the teachers differentiate the work for each individual pupil.  This ties in with my own experience – not all boys learn in the same way, not all girls learn in the same way.  Ask any student and you will soon realise that what they enjoy in lessons is a variety of approaches and that there is no one right way of teaching.

In my July 2011 blog post I went on to discuss the reasons why many boys’ schools had converted to co-education and I suggested that this was due to economic pressures.  All independent schools have to be financially viable if they are to survive.  Thus, as part of our thinking to develop our vision for the School beyond its 500th anniversary we looked at a wide range of financial scenarios over the next ten years.  Our School is in a very stable financial position at present so there is absolutely not a need for us to make this move financially.  However, when we were reviewing the future finances of the School, it soon became clear that if we were able to increase the number of pupils in the School beyond our current numbers then so much more would become possible.  For some time we have wanted to expand our Junior School and our Science facilities. We have wanted to develop an astroturf. We also need to look after our school buildings which are approaching 150 years old.  We looked at ways that we could deliver these things in an affordable way.  We looked at what the impact on fees would be.

It became increasingly clear to me that the current economic stability of the School provided us with a superb opportunity to increase numbers to enable us to develop our facilities in the future.  Thus, to an extent, there is an economic reason behind our decision but not as I wrote in 2011 to “protect our financial position in time of hardship” but rather more to use our current strength to be able to invest in the future.  As I said in 2011 a knee-jerk reaction to an economic downturn makes no sense but all of the best-run companies in the world must surely invest in the future when in a strong position and this is exactly what we are doing.  I am a huge Arsene Wenger fan as many of you know and he too showed vision when deciding to invest in the future by building a new stadium at a time when the club were very successful. Some will point at the lack of trophies since as a sign of failure but the reality is that he has laid strong foundations for sustainable success over a long period and at the same time has balanced the books. There is not much wrong with those aims.

Another strand of my 2011 article was about the way that our co-curricular activities help to develop boys.  This, of course, remains the case.  However, my thinking moved on in this respect as well.  I started to realise the social benefits that would result if we could widen these activities to include girls as well.  We aim to provide an education for life and it is important that the School reflects the society that we live in. The modern workplace sees men and women working alongside each other on equal terms. All universities are co-educational. It is increasingly anachronistic to educate boys and girls separately and so we seek to mirror the changed norms in society through this move. Most students will graduate into a world where men and women are expected to work and socialise together, and education should prepare students for that environment. As I started to write the final version of my proposal for the Governors late last year, I was struck by a Times Educational Supplement editorial of 29th November 2013 which stated: “How can boys and girls learn to work with each other if it is made clear throughout their education that working together is detrimental? Is it not a handicap – not to mention sad – that a child could come out of school never having talked to someone their own age who is a member of the opposite sex?”  This was another important staging post in changing my mind from my 2011 position. During the 500th anniversary year I spoke to many, many old boys and I was struck by some of the conversations I had where they were talking about their own life experiences and how that they felt that they were at a disadvantage socially when they left the School because they had not been used to working alongside girls and that they had found it hard to mix.  This will not apply to all boys but clearly there are many boys who are much more introverted and for whom interaction on the buses or at joint events is more difficult.  I read Susan Cain’s inspirational book entitled Quiet which looks at the deal that introverts get in life and in education and this too informed by thinking.  I felt that we needed to make this interaction much easier, much more natural. I am sure that our move will help the ‘Quiet’ and given how many of the population are introverted this has to be a good thing.

Another staging post in my thinking came with the 2012 Olympics. Like everyone else I was swept along by the British success.  The Olympic dream of ‘Being the Best’ struck a note.  This is when I started to think about how we should define our success as a school.  I came to the conclusion that quite simply I wanted the School I have the privilege of leading to become the best school in the region.  A simple aim but not easily achieved.  What did this mean in practical terms? We have always been an academic school so in one respect this is easy we aim to be the best achieving schools in exam terms.  However, our school has always been about much more than results.  We have a strong tradition of producing well-rounded students and our co-curricular programme is central to this.  How though could we improve these activities?  Again I increasingly felt that a move to co-education would do this.  Our Young Enterprise companies are artificial in their all male management teams, our music and drama will be further enriched at all levels by the introduction of girls into the school, we can play our part in providing top quality sport for both boys and girls and in every activity boys and girls will learn leadership activities together – they will learn from each others’ strengths and weaknesses.  It is not a case of putting boys or girls first.  We want the best balanced programme to enable boys and girls to learn skills from each other.  I have learnt so, so much from the women I have worked with in my career and indeed from the women in my family.  A true education has to embrace all possibilities, it has to have the courage to challenge perceptions, to broaden horizons and thus this too led me to believe in co-education.  My vision is that we will develop students who break out of gender stereotypes because they have been given the opportunity to learn, to make mistakes and to be themselves. This is the holistic education we aspire to deliver.

In my 2011 post I also spoke of boys having the freedom to be themselves in an all-male environment.  To an extent this is true.  However, upon further reflection, it became clear to me that one can retain this environment.  I believe very strongly that great schools nurture each pupil as an individual; our role as educators is to find and develop the talents of individuals. We need to find inspirational teachers to develop these talents.  Thus, we have a large choir and singing is an incredibly popular activity.  This though is not because we are allowing boys to be themselves as I suggested in 2011, it is because we have an inspirational Director of Music. This is what matters, great teachers inspire and I have huge faith in my staff to develop the talents of boys and girls alike.

Another reason for us making this move is that so many people seem to like what we offer as a school.  We are down to earth, we have fantastic pastoral care, a superb range of trips, strong sport, fantastic music and drama, a good track record of getting students into top universities.  Parental satisfaction is high and there have been so many occasions when I have been approached by the parents of our boys to ask whether there was any chance of opening up our school to girls as well.  If you believe in education you have to believe in opportunity and the more I was asked this the more I felt that it was right to broaden this opportunity to girls.  At the same time we carry out surveys of the parents on a regular basis – I looked back over these as part of developing my thinking.  Parents love so much about our school but in all of these surveys I could not find more than a very few who chose us because we were single-sex; it was all the other strengths that drew them to our school. Our success as a school is not defined by the sex of the pupils we educate but by so much else besides.  We also survey the non-joiners, those who enquire but do not go on to apply.  In this group there were many who did not want to send their sons to us because we were single-sex. They understood our strengths but felt that this was a barrier to the opportunity. This will now be removed.

My final reflections on my 2011 post are much more personal.  Throughout my time as Headmaster I have tried to reflect on my own performance.  In recent years, as outlined in my previous blog post, I have worked with a mentor who has encouraged me to reflect very deeply on my leadership.  I have come to realise that at the heart of who I am is a desire to ensure that the School I lead is the best it possibly can be.  It would have been easy after the 500th anniversary to sit back. Our academic results in recent years have been the best in the School’s history, we had a superb celebration, success is achieved in so many areas and parental satisfaction is high.  Yet, this is not enough for leaders that stand still soon start to oversee a decline.  One has to challenge oneself and those that one works with to always look for improvement, to strive for more and this move fits with that aim.  Humility as a leader is always important, this role is never about me, it is about all those that I have the privilege to educate and work with. I had to reflect on what was in their best interest.

Changing one’s mind is a difficult process.  It would be easy to be stubborn and just take the quiet life.  It would have been easy to move on to a new school, content with the work I had done in the period up to our celebrations in 2013.  Yet I love what I do, I love the people I work with, I love my School and so started the work on this new, exciting chapter for the School.  Those that have sent my 2011 email around seem to want to show this change of mind as a sign of weakness or as something I should be ashamed of.  I would like to think that the majority will take a different view.  True leadership comes from the ability to take stock, to be brave and steer a different course, to admit when one has been wrong but then do something about it.  That takes inner strength, it takes courage but in the end if you are driven by what you believe to be in the best interests of all then these are steps worth taking.  I realise that I will be defined by the success of this move but am buoyed by the reaction it has received thus far and I hope that all those who have circulated the 2011 post in such a public and negative way will show their own courage in also widely distributing this post.

I am truly excited by our project, I will do all that I possibly can to ensure that it is a huge success and I will continue to reflect constantly on my own leadership.  One of my favourite books is ‘Leadership’ by Rudolf Giuliani who was Mayor of New York City at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks.  I will leave the last word to him:

“The development of beliefs can follow a more winding path, an evolution that may not be applicable to everyone but is irrefutable to the person honest enough to acknowledge it.  Sometimes those beliefs are inconvenient, even painful.  This may lead you away from long-held positions and might even cost you friends.  But a real leader, one who leads from a true heart and honest mind, won’t deny an emerging belief simply because it makes him uncomfortable.”

I was wrong in 2011 and the reading, thought, drive for excellence, and passion for my School that has informed my thinking since then has refined my position.  The overwhelmingly positive reaction I have had to our announcement this week has confirmed that I was right to challenge my previous beliefs and I am privileged now to be leading my school to an exciting new chapter in its long history with a ‘true heart and honest mind’.