A half termly blog by James Priory, Headmaster.
Play, play, play!
20 June 2017
This year’s Portsmouth Festivities has been inspired by the theme of ‘play’.
The programme includes a series of pop-up events, for example, which are part of PlayCode City, an interactive game in which audiences have the challenge of experiencing performances and events in locations around the city and collecting secret codes. Like Sherlock Holmes- himself created here in Portsmouth- we are invited to play the game:
“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game’s afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”
The game: a form of mental and physical competitive play which tests the participants’ skill and endurance, possibly even their luck; something that is designed to be fun, but which has its own rules and rewards.
Despite the festive sunshine, however, the mood is far from playful at the moment. There are some very mixed emotions being felt by people given the tragedies we have witnessed in Manchester and London, unsettling change politically, and the profound national self-examination taking place as we struggle to find meaning in what has happened at Grenfell Tower. In her birthday message, the Queen acknowledged that it was “difficult to escape a very sombre national mood.” So much so, that any idea of play runs the risk of seeming dangerously frivolous.
It reminds me of another Portsmouth author, Charles Dickens, and the eerie moment when Pip is introduced to Miss Havisham for the first time in Great Expectations.
“I am tired,” said Miss Havisham. “I want some diversion. Play. There, there!” with an impatient movement of the fingers in her right hand; “play, play, play!”
Such is the coldness of the house, the iciness of its inhabitants, that Pip is unable to find the spontaneity he needs to launch himself into a game.
And yet in a Bible reading on Sunday at the Festivities Opening Service in Portsmouth Cathedral, we heard the Prophet Zechariah encouraging people to look beyond the destruction of Jerusalem and to imagine a city restored:
“And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.”
Play, it seems, is what Zechariah offers as the alternative to destruction and exile.
So what is play and why does it matter?
Psychologists have long recognised the importance of play in child development as a form of experiential learning. Parallels are often drawn with animal behaviour: the evolutionary argument that animals which play fight will more quickly develop the skills needed to hunt; the theory of social bonding that animals which play together are more likely to stay together. The problem for researchers has been that those animals which play the most do not always demonstrate the most improved skills. And if there isn’t a direct benefit, then why indulge in play when it can be so dangerous? Could it be that animals play simply because they enjoy it?
We now know that when a young animal experiences stress its brain changes so that it gradually becomes less sensitive to stress hormones. Play, because it offers experience of fight and flight behaviour, activates the same neurochemical pathways as stress. Animals which play will be able to recover more quickly after a stressful experience in their adult lives.
Earlier this year Cambridge University invited applications for an exciting new post, the Lego Professor of Play. They were hoping for a candidate with a “child-like mindset”: someone who would be playful, curious, open-minded and creative. A ten year old boy applied, writing: “I love to play, especially with Lego, and I am also very good at explaining things because I love to talk. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Unfortunately, the lack of a PhD was felt to be a barrier to his appointment. But the boy’s letter was a lovely illustration of what the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget has argued: that children don’t just have less experience or less knowledge than adults, they think in a fundamentally different way- an insight which Albert Einstein described as “so simple that only a genius could have thought of it.”
There has been growing concern for a long time now about the inhibition of child development through lack of opportunity for play- whether it has been the dramatic reduction in the number of playing fields; the shrinking of the distance that children typically are allowed to play outdoors because of concerns for their safety (by 90% since the 1970s when I was growing up as a child); or the retreat into a virtual world with all the challenges that social media can bring.
It is no accident that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the right of all children to engage in play and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. Play is the starting point of creativity, the space in which to be spontaneous, to express oneself, to solve problems, and to learn to imagine things in a completely different way.
No wonder then that there is so much interest in providing opportunities for adults to be playful too. Just look at the offices of technology giants like Google, whose aim is “to create the happiest, most productive workplace in the world.” Scooters, slides, chillout zones, Lego walls…It might seem more like a theme park than a workplace, but there is evidence that creative environments such as these help adults to be more open to collaboration, to think more freely and optimistically. Play is not just for children; it has a significant value in the lives of adults as well.
Last night, local state and independent schools came together under the banner of the Portsmouth Festivities to collaborate in a Play in a Day. Each group was given a child’s toy and challenged to improvise a piece of drama around their object. The results were fascinating. Here were modern teenagers creating their own moral tales about the importance of developing a life of the imagination. An empty card box became a portal to another world. A tennis ball became a way of linking different people’s lives through a simple game of catch.
As one group concluded, echoing Einstein again, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
It was telling that an audience of parents and teachers, almost all of whom- me included- had been absorbed in our mobile phones before the show, left at the end smiling, talking, inspired to interact. The performances were a reminder to us all, children and adults, of the need to find time and space in which to be creative and play.
Mental Health Matters
21 April 2017
It has been a week of unexpected news. But even a snap General Election couldn’t stop the revelation about young royals admitting to personal issues of mental health from being a major talking point in the media this week.
Both Prince Harry and Prince William have spoken candidly about their experience of coping with the death of their mother, Princess Diana, whilst growing up in the public eye. Mental health experts have praised the princes for breaking the taboo about the dangers involved when young people bottle up their feelings.
Virgin Money’s CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia was also in the news, talking about her struggle with post-natal depression and the challenge of managing stress despite being one of the country’s leading businesswomen.
In a report published this week by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) British teenagers, initially at least, appear to be less happy and more prone to stress than their counterparts in many other developed countries.
The report indicates that 72% of 15 year olds admit to anxiety before exams, against an OECD average of 55%. Only 28% of teenagers felt very satisfied with life. British pupils reported a level of 7.0 on a life-satisfaction scale from 0 to 10, below the OECD average and sixth from bottom of 28 countries.
On the other hand, motivation levels are high: 90% of British teenagers are determined to be the best in what they do, and 95% want to achieve top grades in all or most of their courses. Managing expectations seems to be the obvious challenge here. As a speaker at our ‘Women in Leadership’ forum commented here recently and wisely, “Success is much more likely to be a zigzag than a straight diagonal line.”
Such statistics as those reported by the OECD can make for depressing reading. But it is important to remember that there is a lot than we can do to support young people and to enable them to support themselves and each other.
This year we have taken a number of initiatives as a school to support our pupils’ emotional health and wellbeing.
When we redesigned our school day, moving from 8 x 35 minute lessons to 6 x 50 minute lessons, we experienced a very positive change. The school day is now significantly calmer with pupils and teachers reporting that deeper learning is taking place.
The timetable change has also made it possible to introduce a fortnightly session dedicated to our new Pastoral Curriculum. Now delivered by a specialist team of staff, pupils are encouraged to explore three key themes: ‘health and wellbeing’, ‘relationships’ and the opportunities and challenges associated with ‘being in the world’.
Instead of staging a traditional school play in the spring term, Year 9 and 10 pupils created a film which tackled the issue of coping with bereavement in school. They worked alongside professional actors and film crew, as well as their teachers, to produce their very own film, Fine, which we hope will now go on to provide a brilliant resource for other schools to use.
We all know how powerful it can be simply to talk a problem through or to feel that someone else is willing to listen. Interestingly, the OECD report commented that “spending time just talking is the parental activity most frequently and most strongly associated with students’ life satisfaction.” Everyone has a role to play, therefore, which is why Mental Health training is now part of our Inset programme for all staff.
This week, we were delighted to open the Health and Wellbeing Centre, an excellent new facility for our school medical and counselling team which has been under development since last summer. It provides an important space for the benefit of all members of the school community, discreetly located but accessible and attractive.
From 8-12 May we will also be running a Mental Health Awareness week to coincide with events planned nationwide by the Mental Health Foundation. A series of talks and workshops led by pupils and staff will culminate in a presentation by Olympic swimmer Katie Sexton MBE, patron of Off the Record, a charity dedicated to supporting young people with mental health issues.
In their respective interviews this week, Prince Harry and his brother William drew attention to the complex challenges that any young person can face, whatever their background and situation. Sometimes these difficulties can seem overwhelming for everyone involved. But Harry and William also showed how to deal with such difficulties: by acknowledging them and having the confidence to talk about them.
It was a great message and one we will be continuing to affirm here at school.
Astronauts, Rabbits and Resilience
Monday 16 January 2017
Just before Christmas the media seemed to be filled with announcements of unexpected celebrity deaths. There were two names, however, which struck a chord with me. One was an astronaut who had walked in space. The other was a civil servant who had written a novel about rabbits. But what was it that connected them and why exactly did their names mean so much to me?
Watership Down was the first film I ever saw at the cinema. I was spellbound by this strange, dark story of a band of rabbits abandoning their warren and beginning a quest to find a new home safe from human destruction. I remember acting it out afterwards with my younger sister, hopping up and down the stairs in our rabbity, fantasy world.
A few years later and I was old enough to read the novel for myself, by now one of the bestselling children’s books of all time. I was gripped by Hazel’s ingenuity and then by the poignancy of his death as he is called away to the spirit world- the same passage chosen by Adams’ family to mark his death on Christmas Eve.
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was Head of English here at PGS and was told that a local author called Richard Adams had donated some of his books to our newly refurbished school library. I had no idea he was living in Hampshire or that there was even a place called Watership Down.
I gave Adams a call. Now on the cusp of his 90s, the famous novelist invited me to his house for lunch. It was wonderful spending time in his study surrounded by his books. It was even more exciting when he waved a key at me and asked if I would like to drive on to the gallops on Watership Down so that he could show me the places which had inspired his story about Hazel and the other rabbits.
We stood together on top of the Down- Richard with his snow-white hair and red scarf. I felt as if I had come home, which was strange, because I had never been there before except in my imagination.
Meeting the astronaut Piers Sellers was very different. The space shuttle Atlantis had just completed what was believed to be her final mission to the International Space Station and we had the opportunity to host the entire shuttle crew in their first public appearance anywhere in the world. We had invited over 4000 children from other schools to meet the astronauts at Fratton Park.
My job was to welcome the crew and to take them to the Historic Dockyard to see HMS Victory, top of their sight-seeing list. Dr Sellars, the only other Brit in the party, was excited to be back on home soil.
I remember the astronauts being fascinated by the similarity between the technology on board HMS Victory and the way in which confined spaces had been engineered on the NASA space shuttle. I also remember their humour. They were constantly cracking jokes, closely bonded from years of training together and from trusting each other with their lives in space.
They were also incredibly down to earth, ironically; particularly Piers Sellers. Here was a NASA expert in climate change who had completed six space walks, but who seemed to carry all this experience with quiet confidence and self-assurance. It was humbling to be with him.
So why focus on these two people? What connection can there be between a space-walking astronaut and a fictional rabbit?
Well, a lot of people have been very gloomy about 2016 and have been talking about 2017 with dread. The tabloid press has pointed to the unusually high number of celebrity deaths as evidence that this has been a jinxed year; others cite Brexit and the election of President Trump as evidence of global political turmoil.
Piers Sellers himself, writing exactly a year ago, highlighted his concerns about climate change and the profound dangers facing our planet. Richard Adams had a similar message about the threat to our environment.
And yet, both Sellers and Adams, astronaut and novelist, didn’t give in. They didn’t throw in the towel and walk away. In fact, they did the opposite. They went to work. Literally, in Dr Sellers’ case. Diagnosed with cancer in January 2016 he rejected the idea of a bucket list in his precious final months and opted instead to carry on working at NASA so that others could benefit from his research.
In his own way, Richard Adams does the same. He tells a story in which the hero refuses to accept defeat and instead leads his friends to a new life and a brighter future. And who’s to say that his work is any less powerful because it is delivered through the world of fiction?
Ultimately, how we choose to see the world and, indeed, how we choose to see ourselves is entirely up to us. It’s an extraordinary power and yet it’s amazing how often we forget to use it. We have it within us to decide whether we see our experience negatively or, instead, to look at life in in a far more positive light.
It’s called resilience. It’s something all of us need to develop in order to make the most of our lives whether for our own benefit or for the benefit of others.
That’s why I was sad to hear that Piers Sellars and Richard Adams had passed away just before Christmas, but also thrilled to have known them and proud to have been able to welcome them both to our school.
It’s in their spirit that I wish everyone a very happy and resilient New Year.
A time for girls – and boys – to feel empowered
Wednesday 16 November 2016
Exactly forty years ago, Tracey Villar became the first girl to attend PGS. She joined because she wanted to study medicine at Cambridge and was confident that the school would support her in her aspiration. It didn’t matter to her that she would be the only girl in the school and even now smiles wryly at the suggestion that she was in any way making history.
Things really did change, however, and not just for Tracey, now a well-respected GP specialising in geriatric care. By 1991 PGS had become fully co-educational and twenty five years on we now have more girls than boys in Reception and Year One, and a Sixth Form in which 45% of pupils are girls. There are almost as many Tracey Villars now as there were boys in 1976.
In a BBC poll commissioned to mark a significant birthday for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s World, 9 out of 10 women said that they were happy to be female, a significant shift in viewpoint from previous surveys.
There is still, however, concern about gender inequality. Women still earn less than men in many industries in the UK despite the Equal Pay Act having been introduced 45 years ago. From 2018 companies who employ more than 250 people will be expected to report publicly on the earnings of men and women in an attempt to close the gap.
Misogyny may have sparked controversy in the recent U.S. Presidential Election, but it did not stop Donald Trump from triumphing in the final ballot. On the other side of the Atlantic, it is perhaps not without significance that Theresa May, a champion of positive discrimination who has supported women-only short lists within the Conservative Party, is now the UK’s second female Prime Minister.
To celebrate the education of girls at PGS, we invited a panel of inspiring women to talk about their lives and careers: women from the worlds of politics, sport, medicine and business.
What surprised me, however, was their complete lack of interest in promoting a feminist point of view.
Instead, the speakers encouraged us to be open to opportunities and to have the confidence to take risks. Integrity was strongly emphasised. Resilience also mattered if we were to be able to cope with disappointment, especially given that success rarely moves in a straight trajectory. Above all, we were advised that personal fulfilment- happiness- is fundamental, and that this can come from benefitting others and making a positive difference in the world rather than feeling that we somehow have to win at all costs, whether to others or ourselves.
There were moments of sharp humour; disarming honesty about the role that luck had sometimes played in achieving success; but also emotion, as when one of our speakers shared a long-held desire to have a family in the future and another reflected on making her way in life without the support of a family, finding herself on her own in India.
There is an obvious risk in assuming that gender can by itself unify or define us. Many supporters of Hillary Clinton will have been dismayed by this realisation when the outcome of the U.S. election was announced last week.
The empathy, compassion and humour shown by the speakers at our Women in Leadership event are qualities I believe which are as relevant and important to young men as risk-taking, resilience and confidence are for young women in today’s competitive world.
Thanks to Tracey Villar and the vision of those who enabled her to join the school all those years ago, PGS is now a place where girls and boys can learn from each other whilst being themselves, uninhibited by self-consciousness about gender, and confident instead in their own individuality and potential.
Jelly Beans and Biros
Wednesday 21 September 2016
Over the summer I had the opportunity to visit Kikaaya College School in Uganda with whom we have a learning partnership supported by the British Council.
It was the first time that I had visited the school and the first time I had ever travelled to central Africa. As we jolted along the village road to the school, the car horn blasting as a signal for the school’s drummers to begin beating a Ugandan welcome, my heart was pounding. Excited though I was, home felt a long way away, four thousand miles in Portsmouth.
The irony, of course, is that within moments my son, Ben, and I felt exactly that- at home- such was the warmth and enthusiasm of the welcome we received from the pupils and staff in Kikaaya.
The young people were eager to hear about life in the UK and at PGS, in particular. In our classes together, we talked about identity and how we see ourselves and each other. They enjoyed learning about Sherlock Holmes, a character created in Portsmouth and, of course, an expert in identifying people. There is now at least one student who wears a deerstalker to Kikaaya College School each day!
As they were learning about us, so we were discovering an enormous amount about their lives and families, experiencing their food and culture and learning about their future aspirations: to be doctors, engineers, business leaders, teachers.
To reward the children for sharing their work in class I had taken with me a bag filled with PGS jelly beans and biros- the kinds of things we give to visitors on Open Mornings. Each time I invited a student to take a prize from the bag, whether they were in their early teens or early twenties, it was extraordinary that every single student chose a biro. For them, having a pen with which to write was incalculably more valuable than jellybeans, however colourful and sweet. It was humbling to realise just how strongly they valued their education.
As the new school year gets underway back in Portsmouth, it has been exciting to share my visit to Uganda with pupils and staff at PGS. Inevitably, my visit has made me think about the different ways in which we place a high value on opportunities to learn.
In the Junior School, the children are really enjoying the new Connected Curriculum in which creative connections are made between subjects. In the Senior School, pupils and teachers are experiencing a brand new timetable in which lessons are now 50 minutes. The Pastoral Curriculum has been embedded in the teaching timetable. Feedback so far has been very positive about the calmer pace of the day and the opportunity for greater depth of learning.
We are also celebrating 40 years since the first girls were educated at PGS. Co-education feels like second nature to us now, but the anniversary is a powerful reminder that we are a school in which girls and boys learn together, a school which seeks to bring the best out of all our young people.
We are already thinking about how to build on our partnership with Kikaaya College School. Ideas include enabling pupils in both schools to make videos of science experiments so that they can share results and learn from each other. Planning is a underway for a third expedition to Uganda in 2018.
In the meantime, we shall be packing visitors’ bags for Open Morning with a greater awareness of just how important the pens are alongside the treat of the jellybeans.
To view a short film of the trip to Uganda, please click here.
Can you imagine a world without song?
Tuesday 3 May 2016
Can you imagine a world without song?
You may not be a fan of TV talent shows like The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent. You may not be someone who bursts into operatic vibrato whenever the shower turns on. But can you really entertain the idea of a world where the human voice never sings but only speaks?
How would Leicester City fans have vocalised their mood last night as a near-miraculous Premiership title was finally confirmed? Indeed, who’s to say that the fans’ singing hasn’t played its own part in driving the team to this season’s success? We certainly know about the motivational power of song in Pompey.
Can you imagine a playground or camp fire where the possibility of song is extinguished? A journey by car or coach where nobody ever joins in song? A church without hymns? A ship without shanties?
Or what about a protest march? How many times in history has the ability to sing been a defiant expression of what makes us human and free?
It was exactly these ideas which choral director Dominic Peckham challenged us to consider in an inspirational concert of vocal music recently in Portsmouth Cathedral.
Junior School pupils performed a scintillating African song which Dominic had taught them in a workshop earlier that day, whilst Senior School singers performed the premiere of a mesmerising new piece by Associate Composer Alexander Campkin. As the concert came to its finale, around five hundred parents, pupils and staff were on their feet singing in rounds and even having a go at beatboxing.
Our ability to create music from our own bodies and voices is exciting to discover and share. There is something visceral about it, but also something simple and pure. Above all, it’s fun.
Today marks the start of a national conference here in Portsmouth as Heads and Directors of Music gather from schools and cathedrals across the UK and overseas belonging to the Choir Schools Association. We share a love of choral music and a profound belief in the value of music education for all young people.
As schools we are committed to providing opportunities for creative experience and expression, which is why so many of us are concerned about the exclusion of the creative arts from the Government’s English Baccalaureate.
The absence of the arts seriously limits young people’s ability to explore and express themselves, to understand their cultural heritage, to empathise with others and articulate their own individual aspirations. It seems incredible in a world of diminishing resources where the ability to innovate is critical, that we should be rationing opportunities for children to think creatively. And when we are concerned about young people’s well being, why limit their opportunities for creative expression and play?
Over the next two days we will be celebrating choral music in all its diversity and reflecting on how we share that experience through community projects and creative partnerships.
Happily, this year’s conference also coincides with the 25th anniversary of a choral gap year scheme which has provided opportunities for a generation of young people to be involved in school and cathedral life and, at the same time, develop their musical talent. At a special service last night, the cathedral roof nearly came off such was the sound generated by choral scholars past and present.
Over ten days in June, the Portsmouth Festivities will stage events throughout the city giving people of all ages the chance to enjoy the creative arts. As a school, we are proud to have been a founding partner of the festival and are excited to have seen it grow.
This summer, performers include the London Contemporary Orchestra, the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers, the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, and world record holding beatboxer, Testament, as well as young musicians and up and coming singer-songwriters from across Portsmouth.
Now there’s something to sing about.
Digital Age Relationships for Young People
Sunday 14 February 2016
The blog article this half term by the Headmaster was picked up and published by The Telegraph on Valentine’s Day.
So, who will be your Valentine this year?
As the High Street turns crimson and St Valentine’s Day comes into view, florists and chocolatiers will certainly be hoping we are asking ourselves this question.
A survey by the U.S. Greeting Card Association in 2010 estimated that teachers receive more Valentine’s Day cards than anyone else. Whether this is because teachers by their nature create an overwhelming sense of affection or, more prosaically, because they are the ones collecting in the spare red card and scissors at the end of a lesson in card-making is unclear. Most teachers I know will probably just be relieved to remind themselves what their loved ones look like when the February half term break arrives.
Given the universal celebration of romance associated with 14 February, it is interesting to consider what it is that we actually teach about love in school today.
We recently held a Sex and Relationships Day for pupils in Year 9- an event we run once a year with self-conscious irony. Feedback from pupils showed that it had been a valuable opportunity outside of the usual timetable pressures for them to reflect on how they see themselves, to consider what makes a relationship meaningful, and to ensure they feel equipped to make informed and safe choices for themselves and each other.
It’s a sign of changing levels of maturity that this used to be a day offered to pupils in Year 10, and of course there are aspects of sex education which come considerably earlier in a child’s learning. It’s all a far cry from my own educational experience which seemed to be a haphazard combination of Carry On films and Biology lessons on amphibian anatomy, which is probably why I never became a doctor and find my children regularly offended by my sense of humour.
But what exactly is the place of ‘love’ in our otherwise sensitive and practical PSHE programmes?
Is ‘love’ as a notion slowly being squeezed out of the curriculum along with creative arts: too touch-feely to survive in the crystalline world of STEM?
Has it become a four letter word- to quote Joan Baez- which schools would prefer to avoid given its dangerous connotation of inappropriate relationships?
Or is there still room for the kind of nostalgic sentimentality which Tony Little, former Head Master of Eton College, expressed so beautifully in his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (the word ‘emotionally’ presumably left on the cutting floor with all those slivers of red paper) when he concluded that, “Great teachers use their heads but teach from the heart”?
A couple of years ago I was contacted by a former pupil who asked mysteriously if he could come into school in the holiday and light some candles on a staircase. He explained that he was bringing his partner- herself, a former pupil- on a surprise return trip to their alma mater. His plan was to propose to her in the place where they had first caught each other’s eyes. There were candelabras being installed and violinists stationed in the stairwell before our conversation had even finished, old romantic that I am. Happily engaged, they sent a generous gift of books for the school library, which thoughtfully included at least a few literary romances amongst the titles.
Love, it seems, is alive and kicking, but managing relationships in the digital age can be doubly fraught for young people today. There is the pressure to make declarations in the public arena of the internet, and an expectation of sometimes sending more than a Valentine’s Day text, sacrificing personal privacy with an image destined for Snapchat. Simply understanding what is meant by an online ‘friend’ can be enough of a pitfall for the unwary.
One of the biggest challenges facing young people, I feel, and which can lie at the root of so many issues relating to issues of mental health, is whether or not they accept and love themselves.
Young people can be their toughest own critics and can need much more help in coming to terms with themselves than we might think. Realising that everyone goes through periods of doubt and uncertainty can be wonderfully liberating.
I have been genuinely surprised, for example, to see just how positive an impact there has been in my school by the introduction of PGS Pride, a forum which engages with issues relating to equality and identity. We have had some inspirational speakers- some of them from within our own community- and even took part in Portsmouth’s first Gay Pride Parade last summer.
There has been a marked reduction in issues relating to the use of homophobic language, a change which has been all the more powerful because the message about tolerance has come from the pupils themselves. There is no doubt we have become an even more compassionate school.
Throughout this week we are selling roses to raise funds for our link school in Cambodia- a kind of distance relationship for the school as a whole. Pupils have been invited to nominate someone within the community to whom their Valentine gift will be delivered as an expression of appreciation and, yes, love.
If anyone is in any doubt, however, about who should be their Valentine this year, I have a simple suggestion: send it to yourself.
For many young people today, learning to love themselves, and being able to say this to the world might just be the most important declaration they make.
Thinking Creatively About Teaching and Learning
Monday 11 January 2016
At PGS we have celebrated three new years since the autumn: the start of the new academic year in September, the beginning of a new liturgical year with Advent in November, and now the transition into a new calendar year in January.
Schools are full of beginnings. As teachers, we are constantly introducing young people to new ideas, new experiences, new ways of seeing things; helping them to form a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them.
But we also have our view of the world as teachers challenged and changed by the pupils, whether it’s thinking creatively about new ways of communicating what we know, or answering new questions asked about old assumptions. The novelty which comes from seeing things afresh should never be an experience exclusive to pupils.
Interestingly, the verb to learn, which comes from Old German meaning to find or follow a track or path, was also the form of the verb used most commonly in Old English, laeran meaning to teach. Learning and teaching are shared experiences, even interchangeable sometimes.
This year we have been looking afresh at the way in which we do things as a school and thinking creatively about opportunities to enhance teaching and learning.
In the Junior School, for example, we no longer require pupils in Year 6 to sit an entrance assessment to secure their places in the Senior School. Instead, we look at how pupils have performed in their class work and consider their potential to thrive in the Senior School setting. This removes any need for further assessments and, importantly, frees up the children’s time to enjoy a much more creative and connected curriculum, leading to some amazing independent learning projects in Year 6.
In the Senior School, we have decided to change the length of our lessons in a new, two week timetable from September. Instead of a daily programme of eight 35 minute periods, we are changing to six 50 minute periods each day. This will mean less time spent moving between classes and more time spent learning.
Changing the timetable has also given us the opportunity to embed Personal Social Health and Economic Education (PSHE) within the curriculum for the first time, giving proper lesson time to what we call the Pastoral Curriculum.
At PGS we like to think about where our pupils will be when they are 25, which means enabling them to learn about themselves, their interests and aspirations, their ability to develop positive relationships and thus approach the future as confident, resilient and rounded individuals. Bringing this kind of discussion into class time gives it much more value and promises to be personally enriching for everyone.
In 2016, we are also enjoying developing our digital technology to enhance teaching and learning. This year we introduced the use of tablet devices in Years 9 and 12, making more regular use of Google Apps for Education and engaging with pupils’ own knowledge and understanding of mobile technology to support their studies. Our experience has been so positive that we are rolling this out to the next year’s Year 9 and 12 pupils too, giving us four year groups from September who will be regularly using tablets alongside traditional text books. Next year we will be introducing Computer Science as a GCSE option for the first time.
The creative thinking going on amongst teachers and pupils about the ways in which we teach and learn remind me of those beautiful lines about beginnings and endings from
T S Eliot’s Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The Polar Bear Express – the Value of a Sense of Humour
Friday 13 November 2015
This week I travelled to London to attend a meeting of Heads and Deputies from a group of leading day schools. We had been promised a key note presentation on the future of education by Valerie Hannon, Co-Founder of the Innovation Unit, in which she would consider the post-millennial generation and how our world is rapidly changing for better and worse.
It was a talk designed to make us think: what kind of education should we be offering for young people in the future, and what are the values and skills we wish to develop in the adults of tomorrow given how the world is already changing?
I was sharing the journey with Deputy Head (Academic), Mr Goad who was catching the train from another station. At this stage of the day, rather than worrying about anything post-apocalyptic, the only issue we were concerned with was how to find each other on a busy train.
Red carnations had been ruled out as everyone was wearing poppies for Remembrance. We agreed instead that he would look out for me and wave vigorously as the train zoomed past at Fratton Station for our Brief Encounter at 7.54am.
And duly wave he did. I boarded the carriage, confident that we would be united in a matter of seconds only to find myself bumping into a former pupil now training hard to become a patent attorney.
By this time the train was on the move and spatial awareness had deserted me. Unable to locate Mr Goad, who thought I had abandoned him for a complimentary coffee in First Class, and too embarrassed to work my way through the train again, I waited until we arrived at the next station platform and innocently pretended I had only just joined the train.
I couldn’t help thinking of the polar bear in BBC One’s The Hunt who spots a seal on a raft of ice- no resemblance to Mr Goad intended- and slips into the water with the plan of popping up a few minutes’ later to give the seal a (rather less than) happy surprise.
Unfortunately, Arctic waters are very confusing as well as cold. When the polar bear’s head reappears in the jigsaw of ice, he is further from his quarry than when he started. He disappears for a second time and again he comes up in the wrong place- Mr Bean style- this time so far away that his expression of bemusement is only just discernible in the distance.
The seal, meanwhile, lolls in the sun, blissfully unaware of the comedy of errors in the background.
It is at times of frustration like this that, as humans at least, we can draw on a valuable reserve: humour.
Humour is one of those qualities we say we value highly in others but do not always find quite so easy to summon up in ourselves. It is even cited in job descriptions, for example, as a desirable feature of candidates.
In an interview in school recently, a hosting member of staff accidentally knocked over a candidate’s glass of water flooding their salad lunch. The candidate’s response was gracious and warm-hearted; so much so that I am now considering the merits of introducing such a character test into future selection processes.
In Westminster, Valerie Hannon talked powerfully about the need for creativity, resilience and a coherent sense of self in a hyper-connected world if we are to navigate the future successfully.
A sense of humour, incidental though it may seem, is pretty fundamental in developing such qualities. Humour provides perspective; it is a way of acknowledging when things don’t work out the way that we had expected; it makes connections, establishes a shared understanding and trust with other people; it is a form of enterprise and creativity.
Whilst the polar bear’s ribs will have hardly been tickled by his misfortune, I certainly found myself smiling ruefully as I went in search of the elusive Mr Goad.
Monday 17 August 2015
Last week’s record A Level and IB results came as great news for everyone involved in the school. What better reward for all that hard work by pupils and staff than to see so many young people receiving outstanding grades and opening doors to such an exciting range of university courses?
A Level is changing from this September, with many subjects becoming entirely linear and losing the halfway review that AS modules allowed. It will take a few years for all subjects to become part of the new linear system nationally, but it means that those receiving their GCSE and International GCSE results this week will have a very different experience from those heading off to university in the autumn.
There should be significant advantages. For a start, Sixth Form pupils will no longer sit public exams in all their subjects at the end of Year 12. Like those who opt for the IB diploma- which has always had written exams at the end of the two year course- A Level students in future will be able to use the additional teaching time to develop a richer, more mature understanding of the subjects in which they have chosen to specialise.
PGS pupils are usually great at remaining committed to their wider interests and activities in examination years, but the removal over time of AS modules will help to reassure everyone in the Sixth Form that it is possible to balance that Physics practical and History presentation with a peer mentoring session and music rehearsal.
There will, though, be some apprehension as the new system settles in. Pupils won’t be able to rely on the short, sharp shock of AS grades if they have a tendency to coast, and nor will they be able to take advantage of re-takes as modules are phased out. The new A Levels (or old, depending on your perspective) should be a better test of independence and depth of understanding.
There is concern, though, that the creaking machinery of examination boards will struggle to provide the quality (for which read accuracy) of assessment needed whilst reformed and unreformed A Levels overlap each other and when GCSE reform is also kicking in too. Ofqual have been closely monitoring the performance of exam boards as re-mark requests fast escalate. The spectre of a single national exam board might just be looming into view.
And what about the universities? As Higher Education becomes increasingly international, university admissions departments are well versed in making offers to candidates unable to rely on AS grades to guarantee their academic credentials. GCSE grades, however, will become more potent as hard currency, especially as there are nagging concerns about the reliability of A Level predictions. Independent schools, though by no means perfect in this regard, are recognised as having greater accuracy in forecasting outcomes than any other school or college sector. Nonetheless, expect to see greater use of aptitude tests for the most selective university courses.
Above all, I hope that pupils- and their teachers too, for that matter- will have the freedom and opportunity to enjoy their Sixth Form studies even more, confident that the qualifications they are working towards are respected by universities and employers, and without feeling that they have to jump through hoop after public examination hoop to arrive at a point at which they can be said to be intellectually ready for Higher Education and the world of work.
Learning ought to be a lifetime’s habit and joy and the Sixth Form should be where sparks are lit and breathed into life rather than being extinguished by examination.
I am looking forward to news of GCSE results this week and, of course, keeping fingers crossed for everyone in Year 11.
But most of all, I am excited about welcoming those Year 11 pupils – and so many other interesting individuals joining them from a range of other schools – as members of a new Sixth Form cohort, eager to begin their A Level and IB studies in just a few days’ time. Let the adventure begin!
Monday 27 April 2015
Today we welcome election pundit and Master of University College, Oxford, Sir Ivor Crewe, to what promises to be a lively Politics Society discussion. Later in the week, the Theatre will once again play host to Question Time, though on this occasion David Dimbleby makes way for Head of History and Politics, Mr Lemieux, as the candidates for the seat of Portsmouth South prepare for the searching questions of a Sixth Form audience. Yes, the General Election is coming to PGS.
In honesty, there has been an election mood within the school for some months now, and not just because of what was happening in Westminster. In January, we invited pupils to express their interest in becoming part of a new Whole School Council. The Council has met twice and is already generating ideas about the school’s development from a pupil perspective. A pupil survey has given further momentum, helping to identify those aspects of school life which pupils are happy with- and views vary depending on year group, of course- and those which they would like to improve or change.
In the midst of this debate, it has been excellent to see the results of the survey affirm that almost everybody enjoys being at the school and would be a positive advocate for PGS. But it is also encouraging to see that pupils would like more opportunities for responsibility and to be able to influence decisions about life at school. The new Council- building on the work done by individual year group councils- is a natural next step.
But it certainly isn’t the only way that pupils have a voice at PGS. Every year I interview each pupil in Year 11 about their school experience and their aspirations for the future. I learn a lot about what works and what we need to do to ensure that those pupils are well supported as they move into the final two years of their school careers.
Pupils have also played an active part in the process of some staff appointments. When we were appointing a counselling team last year, it felt right to involve a panel of pupils. The pupils’ questions and insights were brilliant and provided a different but very mature perspective, thanks to which we now have an excellent staff team in place working creatively and responsively to pupils’ needs. It was the same with the most recent appointments of two heads of sport, in netball and hockey.
We now have pupil representatives on the Council of Portsmouth, which brings together young people from schools across the city. One of our Year 11 pupils has even become Peer Lead in a pioneering experiment to develop restorative justice in Hampshire, in which young offenders are invited to reflect on the implications of their actions by a panel of young people, and thus learn from their mistakes.
Over the weekend, pupils of all ages took part in debate with a more international flavour at the annual Model United Nations Conference. The Portsmouth Point blog, available on this website, has been a fantastic outlet for pupils’ ideas, opinions and observations on the world.
And on the day of the General Election, as well as casting their votes in our Mock Election, pupils will be taking part in a Charity Ballot to choose the two charitable causes they would most like to support in our Mufti Day this term.
The pupil voice is making itself heard, which is why Thursday’s General Election debate should be fascinating.
Exam Change on the Horizon
Wednesday 11 March 2015
There are daffodils blooming in the flower beds at school and it will not be long now until swifts are whistling around the Quad again, some of them perhaps setting up home in the nesting sites in the walls of the new Sixth Form Centre.
Yes, the countdown to summer has started and with it the countdown to some major changes in our public examinations.
From this September, the Government is introducing new GCSE courses in English and Maths which will be graded numerically, with scores of 7-9 replacing the more familiar grades A-A*.
More significantly, modular A Levels are being phased out and replaced by linear programmes in which written examinations are delayed until the end of the course. AS Levels will still be available, but as standalone qualifications, no longer boosting A Level grades with the chance for a mid-course re-sit.
It all represents a toughening up of the public examination system: an attempt to reverse grade inflation and to reassert the so-called UK gold standard.
The problem is the ambitious timetable set by a Government determined to introduce enormous change in such a short amount of time. Conversely, the fact that not all subjects will be ready for ‘reform’ straightaway means that pupils will be studying a mixture of modular and linear A Levels until at least 2019. Mathematics and Modern Languages, for example, have both been pushed back to allow more time for new specifications to be developed.
It is yet another headache for universities trying to manage the complexity of applications and offers, especially when Wales and Northern Ireland have pledged to stay modular whilst England gradually goes linear.
Many schools and Sixth Form colleges are expressing concerns about whether they can afford to sustain less popular subjects at a time of costly reform. Indeed, there are signs that the curriculum options in some Sixth Form settings are already narrowing as their focus moves from four modular courses to a fixed menu of three choices. The risk of unintended consequences is all too apparent, with subjects otherwise critical to our knowledge and economy in danger of being dropped by nervous schools and cost-cutting exam boards.
And all this at a time when Ofqual admits, that the examination system cannot cope with the number of complaints made about accuracy of marking.
So what does this mean for PGS and how are we responding to the countdown to change?
As an independent school we have a much greater degree of freedom to choose our curriculum and our approach to public examinations. Although we do not wish to jeopardise our pupils’ ability to compete for university places and employment, we are able to take a longer and more holistic view about what their education is for, especially in the Sixth Form.
From September, we will continue to expect our pupils to study four A Level subjects with the option to drop down to three in the final year. Everyone will experience PGS Plus, a creative programme of optional short courses, visiting speakers and voluntary service. And everyone will be encouraged to complete a piece of independent research for PGS Extend, to develop a specialism relevant to their university applications.
We are also committed to offering the International Baccalaureate diploma as an alternative to A Level, enabling pupils to study six subjects with a more international dimension. More than 100 pupils will have successfully completed the IB diploma this summer since its launch. Like the new A Levels, the IB is a fully linear programme with exams at the end of the two year course. Having experience of managing the IB alongside A Level is one of the reasons why we feel confident about our ability to deliver reformed (linear) and unreformed (modular) A Level subjects at the same time from next year.
We have decided not to enter pupils for the standalone AS qualifications, preferring to use rigorous internal exams to test pupils’ progress at the halfway stage, allowing us to maximise teaching time for A Level. We are also introducing an additional teaching period for each A Level subject in Year 13.
At GCSE, meanwhile, we will be staying with our current mix of International GCSEs and home-grown GCSEs, allowing academic departments to select the course they believe is the best preparation for the Sixth Form. That said, we shall be following closely any changes in the options available at IGCSE to ensure that our pupils continue to be well served in their choices.
It is a challenging time for schools, but we feel well positioned and prepared. Yes, we are determined to sustain our pupils’ excellent track record of success in university applications, but we would like to achieve this by providing them with as rounded and enriching an experience as possible. How else can we deliver on our promise to prepare young people for where they are at 25 and not just at 18?
A few days ago, I welcomed an eminent predecessor, Mr David Richards, back to PGS. As Headmaster, David had led the school into independence when it was threatened with closure in the mid-1970s, and been responsible for admitting the first girls into the school.
He was delighted to see the new facilities and proud to hear about the achievements of girls and boys alike. But what pleased him most, surprisingly, was the greenery in the Quad- the budding trees and sprouting crocuses.
“It somehow symbolised relief from the austerity which prevailed before, and in turn reflects the evolved character of the school,” David wrote afterwards.
The countdown to summer and public exam reform has begun, and I for one cannot wait to see the swifts return.
Words of Encouragement
Tuesday, 6 January 2015
Just before Christmas I was lucky enough to find myself travelling with pupils and staff to Vermont: a land flowing, if not with milk and honey, certainly with maple syrup and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
We had travelled to ski in the Green Mountains and for all the excitement of our journey I was feeling apprehensive. It was ten years since I had last sunk my feet into a pair of ski boots. Would I still be able to stand up properly? Would I be able to control myself when we started to go downhill?
Luckily, I wasn’t on my own in feeling in need of some encouragement. As well as fellow novice, Mr Charles, there were five other pupils for whom this was going to be their first ever skiing experience. It was comforting to know that we would be beginners together.
As with any sport, confidence is key. Yes, some of us spun out of control occasionally, or rather too regularly inspected the bark on the pine trees lining our descent, but we had a brilliant instructor who took care to ensure we were bonded and motivated as a group. Snowy-haired and constantly smiling, he was always offering words of praise even when we collapsed in a heap at his feet. No negative was without a positive in Killington Ski School.
By the end of the week, thanks to the supportive dynamic of the group and our instructor’s calmness and good humour, those wobbly beginners from day one were shooting down black runs and slaloming through fir trees. It was fantastic to see the progress we made, reminding me of some words from a reading in an excellent Advent Carol Service I had attended in Portsmouth Cathedral: “Therefore, encourage one another, build one another up, as you are doing.”
The Green Mountains in Vermont are famous not only for skiing, but also as the resting place of America’s greatest poet, Robert Frost. As we headed back home to Boston, we passed a New Hampshire farm where Frost had once lived with his wife and children, and where he christened a small creek after the tree frogs that burst into song there each spring.
Frost’s poem about Hyla Brook is very simple. The brook, he admits, can completely disappear in the summer and not look or sound like a brook at all. And yet, because it is part of their home, it is loved, whatever state it is in. He concludes: “We love the things we love for what they are”, implying ‘what they have been’ and ‘what they might yet be’ as well.
New Year is a time for resolutions and if we were to focus on one thing in 2015 I would make it this: that we make it a promise to ourselves and to each other to speak words of encouragement and so build each other up. To adapt Robert Frost, to ‘love the people we love for who they are’ rather than to deconstruct others for what they are not.
We all know how powerful it can be to be praised. A few positive words, a moment of affirmation, and we feel ten times taller, ten times more confident.
In my experience, PGS pupils are very good at supporting each other. The ski instructors at Killington agreed: they were as keen to commend the pupils for looking out for each other on the mountain as they were to praise their dexterity and confidence on skis.
From New Hampshire to Old, from Vermont to the Solent, therefore, I wish everyone a very happy and encouraging new year.