..a stimulating, well managed environment for learning has been created. Here as in other areas, a concern for detail makes the school a special place.
This year's Prizegiving Speech, as presented by Headmaster, Mr Andrew Webster, at our annual Prizegiving Ceremony, Trinity Theatre on Saturday 13th July 2019:
I often find, whenever I'm leading a prospective tour that I lose myself for a moment and find that I'm on the tour with the parents marvelling at the children and what they're up to. I then catch the couple waiting patiently in my peripheral vision and it takes a few seconds for me to remember I'm the one who should be showing them around. I was in a STEAM lesson the other week with a couple and the children were so engaged. They were dissecting owl droppings, finding the remains of small rodents and identifying these remains against a chart. One of the year 4 boys turned around to me, with this look of pure joy on his face and said, and I quote, "Mr Webster, picking bones out of poo, does school get any better than this?"
And these are the moments we're looking for, not necessarily all poo related but the moments of inspiration and real engagement in their learning. It's lovely to show off our school on tours, the facilities we have, the things we do but it's not what really matters, what matters most is the impact that it is all having on our children, your children, on an individual level, on a daily basis.
What should that impact look like? Absolutely, individual success and progress across the curriculum, absolutely, the development of their character, their compassion, ambition and curiosity. These are our core aims but is there something even more fundamental that we're aiming for?
I recently listened to a speaker who was an expert on persuasive language and hidden meaning, he was also an illusionist and a magician, so not the kind of guy you want to get into a card game with. He talked about the importance of understanding people's true motivations if you're going to really engage with them. He does weddings and gave the example of when a bride to be asks him "what tricks do you do?" what she's really asking is "will you make my wedding better than my sister's?"
I get lots of frequently asked questions on tours. Class sizes? Curriculum? Academic results? Ethos?
I've been reflecting on whether we can simplify these fractions down to one common denominator. Could all the questions I get on tours be boiled down to just one? Is there a core thread which runs through everything? I would suggest it's; Will they be happy here? Because, fundamentally, this is all that matters to us parents. Above all else, we would choose for them to be happy.
I'm not talking here about superficial happiness given by a bag of sweets and an hour on the Xbox. I'm talking about current and future contentment, fulfilment, a sense of accomplishment and belonging.
Do you have small classes really means, will the teachers really know them and like them and look after them? What are your results really means how do you inspire them to do their absolute best, to push themselves further than they thought possible and be brave? And, do they have hot lunch every day really means, Anita's curry smells amazing and can I have some to takeaway?
We are all ambitious for our children but this deep-seated happiness always wins in a game of top trumps. For example, we might daydream about their future careers. We may imagine them as Prime Minister (although perhaps not at the moment), walking out onto a professional theatre like this one for real one day or perhaps at Twickenham with a red rose on their chest (sorry, it was quite hard for me to say that last sentence, in my mind of course, different location, different colour jersey). But if a crystal ball told us they would be unhappy in any of those jobs then we would do everything in our power to guide them elsewhere.
And yet, although this is all that matters, as we grow up, life and culture seem to often get in the way and we lose sight of the things that make us happiest.
The question I've been reflecting on is, when do children's dreams change and why? Ask any 5 year old what they would like to be when they're grown up and their imagination and ambition knows no bounds. I want to be a firewoman, a superhero, a policeman, a Knight, a doggy! What's interesting about this list which you'll hear repeated in every Infants school throughout the world is that every person (or animal) on it, fictional or not, help people. Five year olds place the highest value on roles focused on making others happy. In contrast, countless surveys of teenagers over the last 10 years have placed being rich and or being famous (or worse, marrying someone rich or famous) at the top of their list of life goals. They are even indifferent to the job or career they have to do to achieve fame and fortune, this is just a means to an end which suggests that liking their job is an irrelevance. Whilst we're on the point, 5 year olds, again, unlike most teenagers, have irrepressible levels of self-belief, creativity and optimism. I read this great story on an educational forum of a Reception teacher who went up to one of her children during arts and crafts time and asked the little girl what she was drawing to which the little girl replied "I'm drawing a picture of God". The teacher smiled and said "But sweetheart, nobody knows what God looks like"; unperturbed, the child just carried on drawing and said "well, they will in a minute".
We must all reengage with our inner 5-year olds and not lose sight of our common goal of pursuing happiness in life. I believe the key to fundamental happiness at school and in life in general is to get the balance right between individual and community.
I believe it is so important that every child grows the confidence to find their voice and discover, as Happy Feet put it, their 'heart song'. The teenagers in those surveys have lost sight of or have yet to find out who they truly are and what lights a fire inside them. The things that sparks their curiosity and ambition.
I believe all children have a passion waiting for them to discover. We've seen examples of it on stage this weekend. Something that when they do it, an hour feels like a moment and it speaks to their very inner core. I use the word passion deliberately, avoiding the cliche of every child has a talent, talent suggests that you have to be good at something to enjoy it which is not true, as every golfer will know, and there's also the insinuation that we automatically enjoy things we are good at, also an untruth. I'm particularly good at stacking the dishwasher but I wouldn't class it as a hobby.
I heard two great examples recently of heart songs being unearthed in childhood.
Bear Grylls tells of how, when at Eton, he was unable to concentrate on lessons and would constantly be planning risky adventures. One such plan led to him leaving his dorm, camouflaged, in the middle of the night, with the idea that he would scale the clock tower of the tallest building on campus without equipment and so single handily, he managed to climb a number of stories, past barbed wire and then climb vertically for the last 5 metres. He managed to get to the top and got out his pen knife to scratch his name into the tower only to find another solitary name, scratched there decades before and undiscovered until that moment, it was faded but he could just about make out the name, it read, Ranulph Fiennes.
At the other end of the spectrum, Gillian Lynne was one of this country's most decorated ballet dancers and choreographers the West End has seen, responsible for Cats and Phantom of the Opera. She passed away last year at the age of 91 having been made a Dame in 2014 for her services to the arts. When she was in primary school, her mother was called into school and told that there was something wrong with her, she couldn't sit still and her behaviour was poor. In desperation, Mum took Gillian to a child psychologist who spent some time talking to Gillian in front of Mum and then said to her that he needed to speak to Mum outside the room for a moment. As they got up, he turned on the radio and when outside, he told Mum to just watch through the window. Gillian immediately got up and started moving to the music. The doctor turned around to Mum and said, "your daughter isn't sick, she's a dancer". The very next day, Gillian was sent to dance school and the rest, as they say, is history.
Both of these stories highlight the untamable passions that were inside Ranulph, Bear and Gillian. Or were they untamable? Perhaps in a different circumstance with different opportunities and adults around them, they would never have been unearthed. There would have been countless moments in their childhoods where that inner passion might have been crushed by conformity. Indeed, what if Gillian had gone to a different psychologist who took Mum outside the room to explain a prescription for a medication that would 'calm her down'. For all the Ranulphs, Bears and Gillians, how many children go through childhood without the freedom and encouragement to explore themselves.
What's concerning is that the world we live in today is full of opportunities for adventure and discovery and yet it is also a world that puts huge pressure on all of us to portray an image of perfection, to conform to stereotype, and so we pretty ruthlessly streamline our lives and increasingly only give value to the things we're really good at or fit with what's expected from us.
We're obsessed with having order in our lives and seeing them as linear. School, university, job. But our lives aren't linear. A 3-year-old is not half a six-year-old. Our lives are organic and we continuously recreate them and ourselves with every new experience and encounter. We're equally obsessed with putting each other in a box, you are that type of person; and yet we are complex characters with unique personalities, strengths and experiences to draw from which can't be demonstrated with a piece of paper full of dates, numbers and letters.
Humanity's greatest asset is our diversity. Human development has relied on those who were willing to innovate, be different, and question the status quo. Anyone here with a sibling or any parent of two or more children are well aware of how unique we all are. Despite sharing so much genetically, all siblings, even twins, are consistently dramatically different from one another. It's what makes us human. You don't get a litter of 9 spaniels and find yourself saying, "well, these 8 like going on walks and flushing birds out of hedges but this one would rather stay at home and is planning a sponsored silence for the RSPB". Diversity is humanity.
So, when we say we aim for every child to feel success, we aim for so much more than for them to reach and surpass their potential academically or to overcome difficulties in areas of the curriculum they find challenging. We're aiming for them to begin to really start to discover themselves. What makes them unique? What makes them really tick? What makes them happy? And the key here is to create the culture of compassion, ambition and curiosity which gives them the inspiration and confidence to begin this lifelong and ever-changing journey of self-discovery where they take responsibility for their learning and their lives and know that they are not what has happened to them but what they choose to be today. As Mary Poppins says, "anything can happen if you let it". We regularly remind the children not to be passive learners and allow school to happen to them. Developing this independent and responsible mindset is absolutely key to achieving real success in all respects.
However, it can't all be about self. True happiness comes from community as well as self. We are social beings and must feel a sense of purpose that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. Our very special culture and location means we invest in each other and in the community around us more than any school I've known. We will invest in this culture even further next year and also continue to invest in the children's broader horizons and energise them in the task of their generation, to look after and sustain our planet.
We have much to celebrate this morning and so I will end part one here but I look forward to writing to you all at the start of next term and outlining our plans for the year and how we will further enhance this culture of happiness and success I've touched on here today.
I'll leave you by returning to the wedding magician I mentioned earlier. He was addressing an audience of headteachers and at one point, he asked us in pairs to take turns to sell our schools to one another. As you can imagine, there was lots of talk about facilities and warmth and small classes. He said the tangible rarely persuades anyone of anything. Instead, he asked us to turn to each other and without thinking, finish this sentence, "At the heart of what I do is..." And so, I turned and without thinking, said something that came from somewhere deep down and really surprised me, I said, "At the heart of what I do is making the world a better place". It was a real moment of self-realisation. A reminder of how privileged we are to do the job we do. If we can raise 200+ happiness ambassadors who all seek to make the world a better place then I think we'll have done a pretty good job.
ANDREW WEBSTER, HEADMASTER, THE MEAD SCHOOL