The Headmaster's Blog
Tuesday 26th November 2013
In the words of Robert Plant: “It’s been a long time.” Since I blogged, that is. But now the Marketing Harpies have had enough: they are pointing once again to my computer, with bony fingers and “Write it or die” etched in their eyes. Will they ever learn that in order to conduct the orchestra, one has to turn one’s back on the crowd? Judging from their faces - which have all the charms of pickled knee caps - no.
Let me therefore begin by celebrating two uplifting sentences from the Bromsgrove 11+ Headmaster’s Essays which I recently marked. The first constituted part of a response to my ever popular suggestion that all teachers should be fired and replaced by computers. One young chap started with pleasing confidence and precocity but just couldn’t sustain it through the final bend: “The word teacher derives from the word teach which means to learn people things.” Elsewhere, in response to my asking what the sun and the moon might talk about, a young lady began her essay with: “The Sun and the Moon? Talking? Sir, that is seriously extreme.”
We have long known that coursework and modules were going but now, alas, alphabetti spaghetti will no longer serve as a means of recording GCSE grades. Michael Gove wants your future sets of GCSE results to look like a car number plate. In a weirdly confusing manoeuvre, English Lang and Lit will be the first to be graded by numbers. Now I don’t wish to be rude, but most English teachers I know can barely operate in base ten, and these grades stop at nine. Recipe for disaster if you ask me. I think it’s fair to say that after all that hard work put in by Marx, Engels and the Red Army, the unions aren’t wildly cheerful with performance related pay, no coursework and new grading systems. Traditionalists, though, sniff a welcome precursor to the return of empire and hanging.
Since my last communiqué, I have dutifully attended the compulsory annual conference of HMC Heads in London: a blokey convention where my infrequent bouts of waking revealed halls of stripy socks, long, loud vowels and Dunhill aftershave. I accomplished much. On the first day I inadvertently wore odd shoes (one black, one brown) and only realised when I went to bed. On the second day I met a hirsute but kindly man on the Edgware Road who said he’d fought with me in World War 1. On day three we were taken to London Zoo. The zoo was good. One Head was made to dress up as a penguin and flap his wings. Then we all got trains back to our respective schools.
A few days prior to the 11+ scholarship interviews, I was stood in the Maple Prep School corridor answering questions from a young hopeful:
“Sir, would you give me a scholarship if I bribed you?”
I replied that I was entirely agreeable to academic preferment via such means. I then scorned his initial offer of a fiver and soon the amounts were heading upwards with gratifying alacrity. A small but excitable group formed, offering me sizeable sums. It was going well when all of a sudden things turned ugly. An enterprising pupil suggested ditching the bribes and, instead, terrorising me into awarding scholarships by training attack dogs to lie in wait outside my house. Despite my protestation that this new idea was hardly playing the game, the talk soon became less of slipping me a brown envelope and more of how pupils might inflict medieval levels of agony such that I would be forced to dispense academic favours to my tormentors. I sloped off, leaving the bunch of little Torquemadas with their gleeful cackles and with Roseanne Barr’s words echoing in my head:
“If, when my husband comes home, the kids are still alive, I figure I’ve done my job.”
Monday 16th September 2013
The “meet the new staff” party at my house is always a thoroughly depressing affair. For most people it’s policemen: for me it’s teachers. Do you realise your children are being taught by people born after Freddie Mercury died? Eh? I’m not sure on any number of levels that we should be comfortable with that. These bright young things may well be charming, exceptional pedagogues with swanky degrees and a mobile-happy finger on the twittering zeitgeist, but if you haven’t punched the air to “Death on Two Legs” while holding a can of Harp, are you not merely existing, rather than truly living? Anyway, during the course of the evening, I eventually found a perfectly seasoned newcomer with whom I had a transcendental discussion about the merits of Genesis’ first two post-Gabriel albums ....
Hyvää huomenta! Finland. It’s the future. Well, a group of educationalists say it is, although Education Minister Truss says it most certainly is not. If the educationalists are right we’ll have to re-open the Pre-Prep as a truckers’ caff and retrain the staff to dole out ketchup and bangers, because there won’t be any children in school before the age of 7. That’s the Finnish way: 90% of brain growth occurs during the first five years of life, and 85% of the nerve paths develop before starting school. “Let this happen unfettered,” cry the people of the tundra: “play’s the thing.” Except it isn’t really the Finnish way if you the look at what happens to your average titchy Laplander before formal schooling. The Finnish concept of “care” (do check it out if you’re not familiar with it) is amazing, and the idea that Helsinki is full of feral toddlers is as silly as Kimi Räikkönen doing a stand up tour of northern clubs. However, the bulldog cannot become the reindeer overnight. So, I don’t think Mrs. Deval-Reed will be ladling the beans for some time yet.
Now I’ve been in some rough pubs in my time .. pubs where even the caged canary sang bass .. but nothing prepared me for Years 3 and 4 in Prep’s “Forest School.” I went down with Mrs. Deval-Reed on Saturday and found a fearsome posse of Davy Crocketts and Calamity Janes: whittling, sawing, climbing, swinging and building stockades. It was less “Swallows and Amazons” than “The Last of the Mohicans”. Admittedly there was more Gortex than face paint, but the Romantic spirit of the Noble Savage was palpable. So, hurrah for an activity that – while professionally supervised – takes young children away from sanitised paranoia, into a world of challenge and adventure, and puts me in mind of Germaine Greer’s wise observation: “Security is the denial of life.” No nanny state here.
I see Harrow are on TV. Well, they are on SKY, so I suppose that means hundreds of lager drinking lads will be gathering in pubs to chant nosily for one house or other during each episode. Always a brave move to allow the cameras in: it’s akin to having the weapons inspectors round. Unless, of course, you were my last school which, thanks to its architectural good fortune, served as home to Indiana Jones, James Bond and a Russell Crowe movie. When Mr. Crowe was filming he was approached by one of my students for advice. I suspect the boy took that advice because his name was Henry Cavill and he played the main role in a certain summer blockbuster called “Man of Steel”. Socrates taught Plato; Plato taught Aristotle; Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. But I taught Superman. Wowzer!
Friday 7th June 2013
I felt like a lobotomised Neanderthal in the presence of Einstein when pupils of our Greenpower Engineering Team recently showed me around the electric car they had just built. How can children build (and race) full size cars? We didn’t build cars at School. We did woodwork. (Our creative summit was achieved by a friend who built an electric guitar in woodwork. It was a thing of beauty but, tragically, too heavy to pick up. To play it you had to stand next to it and strum it while it lay on a table. This did not make for a rockin’ stage show, and our band had to operate in a niche market of ourselves and whoever lent us the table). Anyway, the car is, I think, going to race at Rockingham and there are aspirations for Goodwood. Gone indeed are the days when to make an electric car faster you hitched it to a tow-truck.
Imagine going into the ring with Mike Tyson, lowering your guard and saying “Come on then big fella, hit me with your best shot.” This is akin to how I felt when sending out a parental survey via which all Prep and Senior parents have the opportunity not only to answer a bunch of questions but also comment on the School in any way they see fit. Now the results are in, however, I am not whimpering on the canvas for my mum, but rather undergoing Nietzschean invigoration. Sure, a very few people rained a flurry of merciless blows on the exposed Bromsgrove underbelly, but on the whole people were wonderfully positive and such criticism as there was seemed..... well, essentially Edwardian: a fact for which I am most grateful. Along the lines of: “Look, you’re a decent sort but sometimes even good eggs need a biffing. Now after I’ve thrashed you, I want you to learn your lesson, stand up and shake hands so we can get on with things. Righto?”
Strange how Mr. Gove’s words work on the puerile mind: his love of tablets, for instance, still evokes in me images of children etching Latin onto stone. Now that he wants “I levels”, I am bound to recall the homonymous theme tune to Van der Valk which sat atop the pop charts for four weeks of my early childhood. (Only British oldies will understand .. some of you will have played it on the recorder in 1973). “I levels” will apparently be graded from 1 (inconceivably dreadful) to 8 (godlike), and the core subjects will be effectively free from coursework and modules. But why stop here? For example, perhaps people studying Environmental Studies could take C levels. And so on. Alas, all the fun seems to have gone from the examination hall. We had a teacher who wrote above the wall clock in my O level Physics exam:”Time will pass. Will you?” That’s jail today.
Deep, deep down I’m all flowers and madrigals, but I admit it felt good to don the white hard hat recently and return to the bad, butch world of building sites. It’s he-man country at Housman Hall where two whopping new buildings are going up and two shockers are coming down. From the emerging first floor of the new build one can pose in a hi-vis jacket and hang around flexing a pec next to a pneumatic drill. At such times, I fancy cement dust is, to me, what sea-spray was to John Masefield. But then a real builder appears carrying bricks in his teeth, and I’m obliged to hand back my tough-guy outfit and slope quietly down the Kidderminster Road in a suit. As the now eponymous resident of Housman Hall once wrote:
And now the fancy passes by
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I
Am quite myself again.
Monday 6th May 2013
Bored with chicken drumsticks and keen to escape Gazebogate, I decided to have dinner on Monday night with The Princess Royal at St. James’ Palace. How lovely. Lord Adonis spoke most eloquently (why can’t we all be called Lord Adonis?) and the worth of boarding schools to under privileged children was espoused movingly by beneficiaries. After dinner we mingled over coffee and I found myself with a public figure. Looking to ingratiate myself within the corridors of power, I asked what particular issues were vexing him most at present. His reply was less than I’d hoped for: “Suarez: ten matches fair, do you think?”
Last week saw the annual “Ask the Headmaster Anything” session with the Fourth Forms. Frequently, this foolhardy exercise in pupil democracy gets bogged down in bizarre Sloughs of Despond such as “Why are teachers paid so much?” and “How come I get ripped off at the Tuck Shop?”, but I have to say this year witnessed a battery of mature and considered questions. “What is your favourite part of the School?” was a tester. My inclination was to say “Anywhere they can’t find me”, but I conceded that the green bounded by Thomas Cookes, Hazeldene and Old Chapel had a particular magic this time of year. A subsequent vox pops suggested my hazy Romanticism came a poor second to the Café.
We hosted eleven schools at the Ryland Centre last Saturday in what was surely the largest athletics meet since London 2012. Fed up with me swanning around like .. well like a swan, I suppose ..., the shining ones decided I should earn my keep and do some announcing over the tannoy. Wow! People, I have tasted power and found my destiny: it is standing next to a van in a field, barking instructions and watching hundreds of people from Britain’s most famous schools do precisely what you tell them to. Including their staff. I could barely contain myself. The temptation to start making hoax announcements or inviting everybody to do the hokey-cokey became too great, however, and I had to hand the mic back after an hour.
I commented in Routh Hall last Friday on a very worrying incident. After the School photograph had been taken, a group of boys decided to take their blazers off without Mr. Bowen’s permission (at Bromsgrove this is up there with grand larceny), and then start throwing a ball around near a School building (which is our equivalent of a crime against humanity). The Gods were not smiling on the youngsters, however, because I walked around the corner and almost bumped into them. Like a herd of terrified impala before an advancing leopard, they fled for safety – not on the open savannah of course, but in their day house. All except one. My master class in stalking had panicked one boy and separated him from the herd. Terror was now overriding his sense of direction and so he ran behind a bush. A bush that was smaller than him. He looked at me in the hope I couldn’t see him. I could see most of him. I shook my head in pity and disbelief. But he still didn’t move. Had a Bromsgrove education really brought him to this? Sometimes even a leopard feels it’s just not a fair fight, and so I returned to my lair in dismay wondering if spatial awareness should be on our curriculum.
Friday 19th April 2013
I’ve just been asked by a pupil whether I run this School “like Mrs. Thatcher ran the country.” I said I considered Suleiman the Magnificent to be a more accurate analogy. Unimpressed, the pupil then asked if I wanted a funeral like that afforded the Baroness. I said I’d settle for some shrieking, wailing and people throwing themselves to the ground in frenzies of despair, but other than that we could keep it simple. I chanced my arm and enquired of the political tyro whether she thought Headmasters should have a ceremonial funeral. Her “No Sir” was polite enough and very Bromsgrove, but the accompanying look of pity – something only a teenager can pull off properly – was as engaging as a pickled knee cap. Well, we brought it on ourselves. In Lucy Martin’s words: “The invention of the teenager was a mistake. Once you identify a period of life in which people get to stay out late but don't have to pay taxes - naturally, no one wants to live any other way.”
Not wanting Kim Jong-un to have all the fun, I drove some staff to the cement works the other day. Oh yes, Good Time Chris was back in town. We actually visited the adjacent site where our builders had created one of the new Housman Hall bedrooms on their factory floor. And we brought a real live pupil with us to jump on the bed and test the design, fixtures and fittings. Anyhow, it was in that somewhat surreal environment that I was told there is a boy in this School who needs storage for his three sets of hair styling tongs. Three! For his hair! Am I the only man left who thinks all you need to get ready for the day is a bar of soap and a shower button marked “All Systems Go”?
While in the Prep School at the end of last term, I met a small group of Year 3s who said they preferred books to computers. I knelt and wept in their presence.
I’ve just come out of Chapel where the Senior School had been shown giant photographs on a drop down screen. Photographs of the academic staff when they were babies. I’m not sure what was going on but it certainly wasn’t the Sermon on the Mount in there. Indeed, I fear the School may be traumatised. Good grief, there were some sights. The fashion crimes perpetrated upon those children defy human compassion. It’s easy to see why many colleagues turned out the way they did, and I’ll certainly be more understanding in future. But then I recalled a picture of me as a toddler wearing ... a poncho. What happened to ponchos? And more importantly, what was my mother thinking? Anyway, those days are behind me now. The only fashion statement I ever make is if I miss a spot shaving.
Tuesday 5th March 2013
The scary ladies and I were in the Prep School last week watching creative curriculum lessons. In one class, a little girl told me that the boy next to her was the “number one class genius.” The boy agreed this was the case but generously averred that the young lady was “number two class genius.” At this point another little girl said no, she herself was in fact the “number two class genius”. The original girl thought about this for a moment, acknowledged there might be some truth in the observation, and then cheerfully demoted herself. It struck me that Ban Ki-moon’s job would be considerably easier if we kept that attitude into adulthood.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the difference between a professional musician and a large pizza is that a large pizza can feed a family of four. Undaunted, our young vocal and instrumental heroes recently offered a gripping Senior School music competition, and then the School orchestra gave a cracking performance of the opening movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in Routh Hall. It took me back to a conversation I witnessed during my school days when a friend of mine was arguing the toss with a teacher over homework. The boy’s argument was along the lines of “How come when Schubert doesn’t finish something he’s hailed as a genius but when I don’t finish my homework I get a detention?” I was waiting for a response worthy of Oscar Wilde but, alas, it wasn’t that kind of school. The teacher hit him over the head with a text book.
Bigger and stonier than my gaff, Windsor Castle hosted our Chapel Choir last Wednesday. Evensong in St. George’s Chapel was sublime, and as the Choir pulled their “newsletter faces” for the photograph afterwards, I underwent a shameful moment of hubris. Poor show, I know. But how many schools, when they are one match away from Twickenham in the Daily Mail Cup, would have a choir singing Evensong at Windsor Castle just days before? It seemed to me, in the Windsor twilight, that some schools are so obsessed with specialisation for the sake of tables and charts that they ought to pause and reflect on Hillaire Belloc’s tongue in cheek advice to a young writer: “Concentrate on one subject. Let him, when he is twenty, write about the earthworm. Let him continue for forty years to write of nothing but the earthworm. When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world's great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.”
One trench in to the new Housman Hall build and we’ve only gone and found King Arthur, the round table and all his knights under the car park. There they are, perfectly preserved in full armour with Galahad clutching the Holy Grail for good measure. An absolute nightmare. The Council would never let us continue if they knew, but parents will be pleased to hear we kicked dust over the find and then went back under cover of darkness to pour concrete foundations over the bejewelled Camelot floor. I pinched the Grail and stuck it in the Elmshurst trophy cabinet. Nobody’s any the wiser and the programme is back on schedule. Close one.
Wednesday 6th February 2013
Michael Gove wants performance related pay for teachers. Speaking on behalf of my fellow whinging, stress-obsessed freeloaders, I would humbly point out that this might prove tricky. It’s not that I think idlers who fail to deliver shouldn’t be roasted alive in the ninth circle of hell – I absolutely do – it’s just that Bromsgrove can’t operate like the trading floor. For example ..... let’s say that at some point during my annual fifty three weeks of holiday I prepare a half decent lesson. Unlikely, I know, but bear with me. Under current practice, assuming I haven’t gone on strike, I rock up to School in September and cascade my inspiration over all and sundry that they might secure top results for their pupils. But no longer. Not under Mr. Gove. Now my colleague is the enemy. And, like Dick Dastardly in the much missed Whacky Races, my job is to stop anybody else doing better than me. More anon.
So they’ve found Richard III. I had a hunch they would. Sorry. He isn’t the first man to leave a Leicester pub car park with a reconstructed face, but this whole business has left me bereft for other reasons. You see, my historical knowledge is based entirely on the old Ladybird Books. And in one of those books (I’m talking the proper Ladybird books with the text on one side and a colour picture on the facing page) there is the terrifying image of a man in black skulking into the room where the two little princes are asleep. I don’t care if it’s not true: it’s scared me witless for years. Haven’t slept since. Leave it alone. History should be like a piece of music that takes on its own life after the artist has left us. William Tell becomes the Lone Ranger and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is about a grey railway station and English repression. I’ve no issues with this. Richard has actually done very well out of being misrepresented, so why should scholarship and truth wreck that now? I demand my stories back. Soon they’ll be telling me Vlad the Impaler worked for the Samaritans.
Fewer goodies than usual were found in the General Knowledge entrance examination answers this year. Nonetheless, I was gratified to learn from the 11+ papers that the timpani are in the “concussion” section of an orchestra and that “Covent Garden” is “where nuns go to pick flowers.” James Bond works for King Arthur (somebody please make that movie) and Ireland is ruled from the Kremlin. Otherwise, there’s little to report from the impressive 2013 batch. Except perhaps the charming observations that among the ten largest economies of the world is that of the Hebrides and that the late Sir Patrick Moore presented The Sky At Noon, which sounds to me like a wonderfully evocative black and white western.
Back to my performance related pay. It’s all relative, so if I get better results than the other bloke, I’m flush. Next day I burn my resources (once I’ve used them) and start tampering with X’s whiteboard notes when I’m covering his lesson. Tee hee. I disseminate lies and misinformation when I encounter any pupil not in my class. (“Richard III, Lisa? Did for ‘em both he did, and no mistake.”) I sabotage a top language teacher’s cassette player, replacing a French oral with a dodgy Serge Gainsbourg number, thus getting my unsuspecting rival struck off. In the car park, I slash the tyres on the away team’s coach, ensuring there’ll be no evening revision for Harrow. Finally, I offer private tutors a cut if they help get 3W’s grades up. Ming the Merciless would blush.
But in doing all of this, I’ve forgotten to coach my Hockey 3rd team, who’ve just lost to a local rival for the first time. Aaarrgghh. Pay docked. I can hear Mutley laughing.
Wednesday 23rd January 2013
So, Mr. Gove has spoken. I’ll summarise. From 2015, “Knowledge” will become the Everton of education. With a big fan base and a long history, it’s set to challenge the nouveau “Skills” (Chelsea?) for a Champions League place. Meanwhile, “Memory”, for so long languishing at the bottom of the lowest tier is set to do a Bradford and turn up at Wembley after years in the wilderness. “Coursework” and “Modules” are the Aston Villa and Newcastle of the new order (hanging on but it sure don’t look good). AS levels are QPR (they’ll still exist but won’t attract Premier League clientele). The option to switch allegiance to the IB (La Liga?) remains.
My house backs onto the Prep School’s playing fields, and I have recently had the pleasure of watching carefree young Bromsgrovians gambol and pronk on the snow in scenes reminiscent of Breughel – assuming Breughel had moved to the Antarctic with a herd of springbok. Not really. To be honest, the view from my window looked more like something from Assassin’s Creed. People wary of Darwinism or prone to thinking Lord of the Flies was overly harsh on our little ones need only watch youngsters in the snow. The second a back is turned, the snowball onslaught begins: prolonged and ruthless. Some schools send parents twee Christmas cards of their pupils cheerfully enjoying the winter wonderland. No fear. All that’s missing with our lot is the Attenborough commentary as the pack takes down a fully grown adult.
But the snow didn’t stop me getting in to work: I’m a trooper if nothing else. It’s a good ten metres from my front gate to the Mary Windsor entrance, which is more than enough for catastrophe to strike given that my performance on ice is not so much Torvill and Dean as a new born gnu. I wasn’t the only hero though. Let’s hear it for the Bromsgrove Support Staff who, with shovels and muscles, effected the biggest topographical clearance since Moses had a bash at the Red Sea. Note this, though. Last Friday, when Britain ceased to function, two sets of visitors turned up for full tours of the School. One from Budapest and the other from Berlin. All the Brits cancelled.
I often feel compelled to remind myself how stupid I am. In such circumstances I read the late Christopher Hitchins. Barely a word the super brainy “Hitch” wrote or uttered failed to attract opprobrium and vitriol from some quarter or other. “You have to choose your future regrets” is one of his quieter meditations, however, and I was reminded of this as I looked at our architect’s drawings for the next phases of the Bromsgrove School site masterplan. At Easter we will start work on two new boarding facilities on the Housman campus, and then we will return to the main campus with all the verve of Donald Trump on Prozac. But one has to prioritise, and in doing so one knows that a particular year group will just miss out on this or that wonderful new facility. So, when looking ten years ahead (and that’s what we are doing), those future regrets amass strangely but inevitably beside the mountains of wonder and excitement.
Tuesday 8th January 2013
Happy new year to you all. Only one riff for the first blog of 2013, and don’t tell me some of you didn’t burn the turkey fretting about it.
Clearly the Bromsgrove Headmaster’s new car should have been a diesel Jaguar, shouldn’t it? Eco(ish) British trad, Indian wonga. A slosh of the hi-tech new world order with a twist of wistful yearning for briars and snuff-flecked lips. Elgar goes to Bollywood. In fact, let’s have that up in Latin above the South Gate.
“A little raga with your Finzi, Headmaster?” Don’t mind if I do.
But no. Oh no. You see, I don’t know anything about cars – absolute diddly, honestly - and I made the catastrophic mistake of reading reviews that dealt purely with quality as opposed to image. In other words, I did everything I’d want parents to do when choosing a School. I shunned the dinner party tittle tattle and did some hard core research. I also figured I had no need for a large car and duly looked at the next size down.
And instead of reading “Top Gear Magazine” (which, were it an educational guide, would say: “Oh I’m sure it’s a wonderful School, darling but, strictly entre nous, it’s not quite.. well you know, darling .. not quite .. how shall I say? .. Oh if only one could say “pleb”, darling, but one can’t anymore. More Taittinger, sweetie?”) I read “What Car.”
Never again. “What Car”. If “What Car” reviewed Bromsgrove School I believe it would say; “Brilliant. Go there.” But that honesty is not what one needs in a world where one’s self esteem is based entirely on the approval or otherwise of the chattering classes. I needed an image savvy lifestyle guru (i.e. a Fourth Former) to tell Mr. Laughing Stock point blank that slippered gents who are partial to a little Schubert while pootling down the motorway at 60 mph do NOT BUY...
A BMW 3 Series.
Dummkopf! Forget it’s an omnipresent motoring leitmotif (there are more of them on the roads than Mondeos, I’m told) that does 60 miles to the gallon. Forget too it’s a stolid, conservative staple back home in Munich. Forget even that it gets top marks in perishing “What Car” for just about everything. Remember only that in the UK it’s apparently been hijacked as the car of choice for every non-indicating, boy-racing, taste-bereft aspirational moron in the country. And now I’m one. How did this happen? Did all you BMW 3 series owners know this when you bought one? You thought you were getting Eton but let me tell you, chums, you’ve signed up for Grange Hill. (Apologies to younger readers for the arcane reference).
I discussed the matter with a Sixth Former who agreed the BMW was indeed a cracking car but was perceived in the UK as being the flash alternative for people who can’t afford genuine flash. He confirmed this was a PR catastrophe for a Headmaster on a moral crusade. So what should I do?
Well here’s the thing. Apparently, I wait. That’s right. I wait. Because, it seems, the BMW’s image is changing. The look-at-my-lifestyle aspirants are realising the car’s ubiquity has undermined their reason for buying it in the first place. And I am reliably informed by pupils who know these things that the next brand to be hijacked will be..... Audi. Oh yes. The auto-fashionistas tell me that if I can just hold on for a bit, Audis will start cutting me up on roundabouts and BMW drivers can get back to stopping for old ladies. So, if you’re smugly driving an Audi thinking you are the cuddly David Attenborough of motoring, you can wipe that smile off your face now. Troubled times ahead, my friends.
Anyway, since The Hobbit is on at the flicks, I’ll finish with a word from local lad JRR Tolkien, who said: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” Shame.
Happy New Year!
Thursday 29th November 2012
Last week, after one of my heart-stoppingly awful Sixth Form lectures on Pre-Socratic philosophy, a question emerged that would drive even Xenophanes to the Dog and Duck. To wit: what make of car should the Headmaster of Bromsgrove School own? Consider the dilemma. Too fancy and I’m an over-inflated, preening establishment wannabe with a corrupt value system and a bar tab at the East India Club. Too modest and I’m a self congratulatory hippy whose public efforts to send others on a guilt trip show me up as a squalid little leftie who should know better than to make a crass statement out of his own inadequacy. (You will have gathered this whole business worries me). Now for ten years I drove an old Rover which transcended stereotyping on the grounds nobody quite understood whether I was guilty of avuncular affectation, senility or hipster retro-chic. But it broke. And I’ve had to buy a new car. A lot hangs on this. More next time.
Last Tuesday’s annual Bromsgrove School Foundation Lecture at the RAF Club in London was delivered quite superbly by a parent who also happens to be an Air Marshall and Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff. Indeed, it was while reading out the resumé of the Air Marshall (which includes a CBE, a DFC and a US Bronze Star Medal) that I realised I still have my A level results on my CV. Floundering in a dreary sea of middle aged worthlessness, I got home late and subsequently dreamt that I was standing up proudly in Routh Hall and giving the School a holiday because I’d passed my Cycling Proficiency Test.
The following evening, standing shoulder to haircut with Dr. Thompson, I addressed parents in Routh Hall as to the relative merits of IB and A level. Both have their place and we are blessed with parents who understand that. But there’s no doubt from my in tray that some people still think that those studying the IB find trees threatening and the sun too loud. Such pupils also walk in geometric circles, translate Mr. Bowen’s newsletter into Latin at parties, and wear antennae on their heads thinking they are water molecules. My reply has remained constant ..... What’s not to like?
This week’s Nadine Dorries Award for shunning the limelight goes to The Executive Suite. “The what?” you cry as one. The Executive Suite. A misnomer that promises wooden panels and sumptuous leather armchairs, but delivers an aesthetic experience better suited to hosting a Llanelli 4ths post match punch-up. I am currently in the process of meeting different pupil constituencies (Prep School monitors, new boarders, House monitors etc.) over a series of ask-the-Head-anything lunches, and despite the superhuman efforts of our catering staff, there’s zip one can do to brighten up my repeated meals in this ninth circle of hell. Now I have vowed to do to the Executive Suite what the Romans did to Carthage, but that’s some way off. So please don’t fall for it. Our facilities are sensational, but if you ever receive an invitation to an event in the “Executive Suite” just say you’ve been kidnapped by ninjas.
Monday 19th November 2012
Well it’s finally happened. I had a conversation this morning with a new teacher in the mistaken belief they were a pupil. But then I’ve known for a long time that age is nibbling my synapses. Among other things, I’ve started crying to country music lyrics (and surely we’ve all taken a moment over If my Nose were full of Nickels, I’d Blow it all on You), but I was minded of Kurt Vonnegut’s Line: True terror is to wake up one morning to discover your high School class is running the country. Not funny, Kurt: at Oxford I was an exact contemporary of David, Boris and George. No, I didn’t know them and again, no, they never invited me to that club. So, was I left with an inferiority complex? Yes, but not a very good one.
Page House was opened last week. Now just in case people not involved in Prep boarding think this is merely the final raisin on Bromsgrove’s buccellato, think again. It’s the Waldorf Astoria in there. If it weren’t for the giveaway that most of the besuited people within are under five foot tall, you could be forgiven for ordering Singapore Slings from the Common Room. And I hope you all approve the large stone colonnade on the west side of the building. This Athenian Agora touch is designed to imbue the Prep pupils with Socratic wisdom and Periclean aspirations. It also protects the windows from rugby balls.
I had a strange encounter on Conway Road a few evenings ago. A passing gentleman berated me for parking my car with two of its wheels on the pavement. Quite right too. Except it wasn’t my car. I just happened to be standing next to it. I told him this but he wouldn’t have it. Curiosity and masochism compelled me to stick around and take the rest of the tirade like a man. At the end the stranger threatened to have the police tow the car away. I said what a good idea. He told me not to get clever. I said I’d never dream of it and repeated that it wasn’t my car. But he wouldn’t have that and off he went again, threatening the car with this, that and the other. I said it wasn’t my car. We were there for a while.
Following the inspirational, solemn ceremonies of our Remembrance Sunday (at which the CCF were quite superb), the Pre-Prep Remembrance Service took place the next day. Imaginative, moving and respectful though the event was, the lingering memory for many in the audience will be the home footage of a six year old interviewer. After – inevitably - asking his great granddad how one went to the loo on a wartime bomber, the little chap became a hysterical wreck when he learnt his hero poured poo over the enemy from a great height. When you’re six, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Tuesday 6th November 2012
Methuselah was nibbling Farley’s Rusks the last time I blogged. Anyway ... Our new Officer Commanding of the Combined Cadet Force asked me to announce in Routh Hall assembly that after a live firing exercise, Bromsgrove cadets went on to excel themselves in the administration of First Aid.
Should I be worried?
At the height of Northern Ireland’s troubles, I recall somebody saying something like: “Anybody who claims to know what’s going on here doesn’t understand what’s happening.” A few weeks ago I felt much the same way at the HMC Heads’ annual conference in Belfast. This event is where the Fu Manchus of Britain’s finest independent schools gather, each eager to assure the world that leading an HMC School was a moral notch above drug peddling or gun running. And yet ... we were housed in a building proudly marketed by the locals as “Europe’s most bombed hotel” (take that, Holiday Inn Sarajevo); we had our annual dinner in the Titanic Centre, billed as the home of “The world’s most famous disaster”; and I had my hair cut by a Mr. Blast.
A few weeks ago I received a letter of complaint saying the School was high handed because it didn’t listen to the parents. Now that would be fine had these parents complained to me before. But they hadn’t. This was the first time I’d ever heard from them. So, their first and only complaint to me, at any rate, was “you don’t listen to complaints.” Hmmm. It reminded me of a response I received to a survey I sent out in my first year here to gauge how I was performing in the eyes of the staff. Teachers had to answer a number of questions, and I was intrigued to receive this from a legendary grumpster (who left many years ago):
Do you find the Headmaster approachable: No
Have you tried to approach him with an issue: No
If the answer to the previous question was “No”, why not? No point.
Gotta love it.
Monday 17th September. First day of my annual trip to the Far East. I had been awake for thirty three hours when I reached the lobby of my hotel. My mobile phone rang. Extreme tiredness had affected my brain and so somehow I answered the phone without cutting off the caller in the process. This has never happened before. To my horror and amazement I heard somebody speaking. I felt like Alexander Graham Bell. I was close to collapse, the lobby was noisy and I could smell fish balls. The voice on the end of the phone said it was the BBC, and would I offer a view on Michael Gove’s pronouncement regarding the abolition of GCSEs. I was intending to say that now wasn’t a great moment but I realised the voice on the phone was saying “You are live in ten ... nine .. eight ...”. I’m not entirely sure what happened next. There was an interview of sorts I know, but I sensed increasing bemusement on the part of the interrogator as chronic fatigue syndrome plus my increasingly vocal attempts to wrestle my overnight bag back from a fearsomely zealous porter intruded upon the conversation. I fear at one point I might have asked the nation to leave their things in my bedroom. Anyway, it was all over pretty quickly and I’m not entirely sure they’ll be using me again.
Friday 14th September 2012
Salvete. Welcome to the first Headmaster’s blog of academic year 2012/3. It’s not The Brothers Karamazov, I’ll grant you, (where Dostoyevsky took two years, I’ve been known to whack this baby out over break time) but there are fierce creatures in rooms above me who insist all good schools need a blog. (Or was it all schools need a good blog? In which case I’m toast). Anyway, they come over shirty if I don’t hit the qwerty, so tippy-tap is the order of the hour. What’s in it for me? you ask. Oodles. My loyal readers have before now won champers, relived the Wurzels golden moments (sic), and voted in that crucial Halle Orchestra versus Sugarbabes debate . I venture to hope that everything you never wanted to know about Bromsgrove is here. Who says great Schools need to wear starch every day? Welcome one and all.
Every year, at the end of August, just before term proper begins, I journey to Oxford with a handful of staff, all the new international pupils and those feral Antipodeans upon whom we have taken pity by employing them as gappies. It’s a trip that opens minds and hearts. Not really. Once we’ve parked up, Mammon’s hapless slaves (the majority) actually go shopping while a dissenting cadre of keen beans and future monitors comes with me around my old college. Upon breathing the rarefied air of my alma mater, I adopted hushed tones and told one innocent looking new girl that the quadrangle on which I had lived was 700 years old. Her immediately asking if I’d witnessed its construction nearly led to an unseemly punch up.
Last week, during my opening Prep School Chapel talk – an event I like to think makes the Gettysburg address sound like a Teletubby monologue – I began to motivate the seven year olds by telling them that on my first day of School, aged five, I was locked out of the classroom and duly started crying. I went on to discuss why I had nothing to offer the ancient Romans, how the Yugoslavs had conquered Australia and why it didn’t get any easier as you got older. As the youngsters filed out in bewildered silence, staring at me with suspicious eyes as they passed through the Chapel porch, I could see I had made an early connection. Establishing bonds like this is very important when running a large School.
As the molar fears the drill, so I dread the School gym. Last week I clambered aboard a cross-trainer (this is a machine, not an angry Mr. Mullan) and saw on the television screen in front of me a fearsome, hunky dude yelling at me to work harder. I looked at him and thought, “Yes, darn it - with a little more work, I too could have a body like that.” Anyway, it transpired a few seconds later that what I had been looking at was the “before” model. For those who don’t know, that’s the tubby guy prior to embarking on his training programme. Suddenly the “after” model appeared: a block of human granite with a trilobite stuck to his midriff. I got off the machine forlornly and went down to the cafe for a bun.
Tuesday 29th May 2012
Civilisations have risen and toppled back into oblivion since my last blog. I’m cool with that: there’s a School to run. Alas, the marketing Furies upstairs have a rather more contemporary, not to say aggressive, take on the significance of blogging. Indeed, those little incisors that were grazing my heels last week have now become gaping maws, closing around my stumbling legs, and threatening me with torments that would have Hieronymus Bosch turning queasy. So, since I value my knee caps, let us take the M5 to the Three Counties Showground and the Malvern Spring Gardening Show.
Q) “What do you get if you divide the circumference of an apple by its diameter?”
A) “Apple Pi.
With dextrous wit and urbane sophistication I entertained visitors at Bromsgrove School’s award winning garden. And not just any award: this was a first prize in a show visited by tens of thousands of people. I was in awe of the exhibit, because last time I mowed my lawn I found a wheelbarrow. Two female members of staff and pupils from all three sections of the School should be feeling immensely proud of themselves. The theme was sustainability and bees, so some of our smallest dressed up for the occasion in bee outfits. My suggestion that I too would look mighty fine as a bumble bee excited people less than I had hoped.
Gardens have not been kind to me, as I told the Prep School in Chapel only last week. When I was the same age as our little Pre-Prep bees, I auditioned for The Selfish Giant. There were numerous speaking parts, so imagine my disappointment when I was told I would not be the Giant, nor The North Wind, nor one of the children, but the tree. I rallied a little when I realised that the tree was actually home to the boy Jesus, and that the giant would fall dead at my base, upon which moment I would shower him with blossom. It wasn’t King Lear, I’ll grant you, but I told my teacher it was an honour to be THE TREE. I wouldn’t let her down.
“No, Christopher,” said Miss. “Not ‘the’ tree; ‘a’ tree.”
They’d only gone and created another tree, not in the original story, whose job was to stand in silence for the entire play with his arms out. As my fellow tree dropped coloured paper over the giant’s head, I shed silent tears. It was like auditioning for the Sound of Music and being cast as an Alp.
Now that I’m a School gym-freak (sic), I’m catching up on contemporary dance music while falling off machines. Sadly, I’m of an age when all I hear is a cracking riff from my jeunesse doree ruined after ten seconds by some wannabe gangsta from da hood rapping over the top. And why is everybody called something like “Slee-Z featuring Dod –G” ? Why can’t they just play the original James Brown? And why am I so old?
Tuesday 1st May 2012
Nearly three years ago, in a small seminar room in Oxford, the scary ladies and I came up with a masterplan for the neglected Worcester Road end of the campus and for Prep School boarding. The scheme lacked humility. Many governing bodies would have thrown it out. Typically, our governing body did not. They asked for details.
Almost done. Sure there’s some touching up required, but every new building of the Worcester Road development is now operational. I’ve just hung out and had a cup of well posh coffee in Café 1553: you’ll love it. And yesterday I went to the new gym and entertained guests by screaming “Make it stop, oh please make it stop!” a lot. I’ve seen people dancing in the shiny studios; Mary Windsor has been thriving since Christmas: Oakley is a joy; the Hospitality suite last week witnessed its first major event for around 150 people; the arena has already been booked by national sports teams and will host the England Schools hockey finals next year. Page House (possibly the UK’s largest Prep School boarding house) will be finished for September, as will the new extension to the Health Centre.
On it goes. Energy and purposeful change remain our mantra.
During the Easter holidays I found myself gettin’ down wid da crew in the newly built but as yet uninhabited Oakley House. By this I mean I was helping the Bursar and Director of Estates attach labels to the girls' pigeon holes. Me at my demotic best you might think. Not so. I immediately bagsied the bourgeois job of putting the labels on the pigeon holes, while Bursar and Head of Estates acted as the lumpenproletariat by peeling the labels from their backing and handing them to me in alphabetical order. However I was soon demoted because in the Bursar’s prosaic eyes I wasn’t putting the labels on straight enough. Get her. Anyway, the Bursar now took over and, despite my protestations, I was unceremoniously relegated to peeling labels and handing them to her in sequence. Relations were now frosty. Worse was to come. But let’s pause for a moment.
Next week the statue arrives. The final aesthetic flourish to the Worcester Road project. Inexplicably, none of the governors seemed interested in a fifty foot statue of me, designed along Stalinist lines, with a square-jawed, flag-carrying Headmaster striding boldly forward, grateful children clutching his bronze boots. As a result we’ve had to go for something else. Herbert Read said that “Art is pattern informed by sensibility”: the only definition of art I have come across that resonates with me. It is evident in the sculpture that is set to appear next Tuesday. Please like it.
Back to labelgate. As the Bursar neared the end of the job (and there are lots of girls in Oakley), I discovered I had sometime earlier dropped a label and therefore overlooked a name. A name that began with a letter significantly nearer “A” than “Z”. I suddenly remembered what it felt like to kick a football through your mum’s kitchen window. Reverting to the passive tense, as one always does in these situations, I informed the Bursar in a mousy voice that there had been a tinsy-winsy error and that she’d need to peel off the labels and start again. In the following moments I had time and cause to muse on Christopher Morley’s observation that a man who has never made a woman angry is a failure in life. I felt like a king.
Tuesday 27th March 2012
I went on Mumsnet for the first time last week. Not because I’m becoming a mum - no gags about the midriff please - but because I heard the site was a cornucopia of gossip from the chattering classes about independent schools. And it is. Oh boy it is. But where’s Bromsgrove? Mamans, I am sorry to report we are all but invisible. The only thing I could find about Bromsgrove School was a lady saying she “wouldn’t touch it with a barge poll” (sic). Now while I’m perfectly happy not to be touched by this good woman’s nautical election process, I was rather peeved to see so little in the way of scandalous and unfounded rumour. I felt quite left out. Come on mums. I’ll start you off: “Bromsgrove’s been going downhill ever since Michelle Obama said it wasn’t right for her daughters....”
Last week I saw a revival of Billy No Buzz in the Pre-Prep. The actors were three. Age not number. Much as Aristotle defined the essence of great tragedy, I have applied my own rules to determine whether a Pre-Prep work is successful or not. My criteria for an outstanding production at this age are: no crying, no fighting and no falling off stage. I am delighted to report that the players adhered to the dramatic unities and that the morning was a triumph, darling.
Q. Who is the patron saint of actors?
A. St. John the too, too Divine.
Only one person wrote in regarding the appalling grammatical error in the last blog. You’re a very polite audience.
Eager to assuage my high brow longings, I followed Billy No Buzz with Pirates of the Curry Bean. The eleven- year- old Sid James and Charles Hawtrey doppelgangers confirmed that what happens to a child’s sense of humour between Billy No Buzz age and Pirates is akin to coating a snowflake in creosote. A vast and wonderfully talented cast revelled in dodgy puns, crude slapstick set ups and glitzy Busby Berkeley routines. Sadly, I loved every minute.
And then it was Birmingham Town Hall to hear Vivaldi, Bach and Handel. Four hundred people listened to our brilliant young soloists and mighty Choral Society. Coming so hard on the heels of our St. Paul’s performance, it was a fitting end to a historic musical term. As the final chords of Handel’s titanic Coronation Anthems faded in the great civic building, I thought of the Billy No Buzz cast. It will be their turn sooner than any of us would wish it.
Have a wonderful Easter.
Wednesday 14th March 2012
“I’m so bad at lying,” moaned the Upper Sixth former, rocking back and forth with his head in his hands.
Where was he? In my office about to be expelled? Regretting his two timing ways with a longstanding girlfriend? No. He was sat behind me in an IB lesson on Oligopolies and had just lost an exercise on game theory in which the object was to make as much dosh as possible for your business. The game had been won by a baby faced assassin at the back of the class whom I had previously considered to be a young lady of unimpeachable standing. Everything my lovingly wrought School Mission statement stood for had been usurped in the fifty minute lesson I had just witnessed. Not since Luke Skywalker discovered Darth Vader was his dad had anybody been so taken aback. We will return to this sorry state of affairs in a minute.
An hour before Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I slipped quietly away (as in left the coffee shop rather than passed over the great divide), and wandered off to look at a couple of the City’s churches. On every corner of my walk I saw Old Bromsgrovians, many in their OB ties, strolling about the city waiting for the service to start. One was a girl – an international pupil - who had left last year, and another a gentleman who had last sung in Bromsgrove Chapel over sixty years ago. Later, inside the Cathedral and a few minutes before our Choir sounded the opening notes, I noticed these two OBs walking in together. They sat down next to one another. Soon the Choir had infused the cathedral with ethereal grace, and – looking at those two OBs – I could not help but be moved by how very, very far this great School has travelled.
And then we all piled into the House of Lords. Well, not all of us. Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, had kindly provided a venue for the party animals in the congregation to raise awareness for Bromsgrove School Foundation. Actually, the reception almost never happened because Digby gave the coach driver some kamikaze instructions and his vehicle full of guests became wedged in the approach road to the Lords. Nonetheless, the battle weary revellers eventually escaped and found their way to a wonderful event that sought to impress on everybody why we need to widen access to our School. My sincere thanks to Digby, the governors and all who place inclusion and opportunity before arid social elitism. Thanks also to the kind lady serving the posh canapes who took my “I couldn’t eat another thing” to be the meaningless social nicety I intended.
“But lying is bad,” I pleaded. “Come back to the light. Walk with me my child.”
I was told game theory wasn’t lying, so much as the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent, rational decision-makers.
“But you’ve all been telling porkers to one another. How can this be righteous?”
Tomorrow’s business leaders left the classroom oblivious, and I approached the teacher who was awaiting my assessment.
“That was the most morally reprehensible lesson I’ve ever witnessed,” I said.
“Thank you Headmaster.”
It was as if I’d given him an ASBO.
Monday 27th February 2012
Having done the rounds in the Pre-Prep I am currently going to lessons in the Senior School. I scored a creditable 5 out of 11 in a test on the rise of Italian fascism and narrowly missed getting a Kit-Kat. I was also challenged but not utterly lost in a recent Maths lesson (I won’t tell you what year group though, given the School turns over many millions of pounds and I’m supposed to be in charge). But not all lessons have gone so well for me. In one, the pupil next to me asked if I could assist with Question 1. I said unfortunately I couldn’t as I didn’t understand it. Question 2 perhaps? No, I didn’t understand that either. Well what about question 3, boss man? At this point I had to confess to not having the foggiest idea what was going on.
Last week I was invited to an evening event in Birmingham Town Hall for Leaders of the Midlands. Given I’m not even the leader of my corridor, I was somewhat surprised to be there, but it turned out to be a jolly affair with the Managing Director of John Lewis, Andy Street, on fine form as guest speaker. I admit my leadership technique (sic) has been compared before now to that of Vlad the Impaler (why can’t we give him a break?) but I’ve also tried to follow this suggestion of David Lloyd George: “Don't be afraid to take a big step when one is indicated. You cannot cross a chasm in two small steps.” Well, not unless you’re Bugs Bunny.
I don’t want to stray into Mr. Bowen’s Senior Newsletter territory here, but the Fourth Form play, Shockheaded Peter was, in the words of a young member of the audience, “like amazing.” Just stunning. The leads and supporting players were sensational, and the imaginative flights of the production were as creative as anything I’ve seen in the Studio. Bravo. But let’s not forget all those who worked behind the scenes in the high pressure jobs:
Q: How many stage managers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: I DON'T CARE - JUST DO IT!
Somebody should inform the United Nations that the Headmaster of arch-rivals King Edward the Sixth Birmingham and I had both lunch and dinner together last week. At one point I was seen walking around his School holding a KES umbrella. Sorry. Anyway, their Head let on that an old sporting cup had been sent back to him, but he discovered that it actually belonged to us (the confusion arising presumably because we are also a King Edward the Sixth School and for a long time retained the same nomenclature). But guess what? They’ve gone and kept our silverware on the grounds that we’ve won enough cups.
I’m priming the CCF for a Commando raid.
Monday 6th February 2012
As a Headmaster I am compelled every now and then to ascend the pulpit of an eminent Prep School and hold forth. Last Sunday was a case in point as I found myself in the delightful Chapel of one of our finest establishments. My primary aim on these occasions is to avoid creating schism and inciting religious war among the young, but no matter how I try to keep to matters eschatological, I always seem to end up telling seven year olds wholly inappropriate stories about what happened when I was last in the pub. I can’t help myself, even though I see their teachers throwing disapproving glances at me, and parents whispering down to their little ones: “It’s Marlborough for you, my lad.”
I don’t want to milk excessively the entrance examination papers, but I think there is a category of answer that is neither funny nor ridiculous but which you wish had been correct. For example, this year I asked pupils to identify the sources of five famous quotations. How very plausible to hear that “Go ahead, make my day,” was coined by Margaret Thatcher, and that the last words of Mahatma Ghandi were: “They think it’s all over. It is now.”
I note that Newt Gingrich's most popular attack on Mitt Romney came in the form of an accusation that the Mormon candidate was so un-American he had the gall to speak French. This spectacularly crass and frightening assault comes at a time when 57% of pupils taking GCSEs are not sitting any language whatsoever. And yet ... Goldman Sachs’ projections for GDPs in 2050 don’t just have the likes of China, Brazil and India up in the top five: they also have countries such as Mexico and Indonesia riding high above the UK. As Mitt Romney would say: On doit se réveiller et sentir le café.
A few days ago, one of the scary ladies shrieked in horror when she realised I was taller than her. I told her that I’d been taller than her for the seven years I’d been here and quite possibly longer than that, but she wouldn’t have it. Curious, I then asked one of the ladies in Administration how tall she thought I was and she said “Five foot seven”. Increasingly deflated, I asked one of the retired policemen who works in our gatehouse:
“You should be an expert on this sort of thing,” I said: “How tall am I?”
Fearing for the safety of the nation, I returned to my office where my PA told me that her mother had seen a picture of me in the paper and said “He’s not very tall, is he?” My PA then asked a Head of Department with a top First and a Doctorate how tall I was.
“Well,” he said, “I’m five nine and I tower over him.”
My last full medical had me at six foot.
Monday 23rd January 2012
This is the only time of year when I feel like a real teacher from central casting. The 11+, 13+ and 16+ entry papers are flooding in and I can skulk about the Common Room justifiably moaning about my mark load and how unreasonable it is to expect me to ... etc. etc. Feels good. Best answer so far has turned up on the 13+ General Knowledge paper.
Q) Name a mammal that lives in the sea
A) Sea Horse
We like this kind of thinking at Bromsgrove.
About three years ago, as part of the General Knowledge paper, I asked 13+ candidates to fill in the final, missing word of famous film titles. So, for example, they would see “Live and Let ..” and I would expect them to write “Die”. What actually happened had me writing scripts in my sleep as I tried to invent plotlines for the following epics: Lawrence of Manchester; Bridge on the River Tweed; The Empire Strikes Lucky; The Good, The Bad and the Really Quite Unfortunate; and that most cerebral Bond movie of them all ... Quantum of Physics.
My favourite account of an entrance examination is Winston Churchill’s, whose experience at Harrow is described, unedited, below:
I was found unable to answer a single question in the Latin paper. I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question " I." After much reflection I put a bracket round it thus "(I)." But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle : and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow.
There’s no way of doing this next bit tactfully but I think, as a service to mothers, I need to share something with you. On my Essay Paper for the 13+ candidates this year was a statement for discussion:”Everyone has to lie sometimes.” Now then, the vast majority of candidates who chose this topic used the same example to illustrate why lying is sometimes necessary. What example is this? Well, in the words of one candidate: “It’s like when your mum’s going out and says to you ‘How do I look darling?’, and you have to say ‘Really lovely lovely, mum’ even though she looks a right state.”
Like I said, I’m not commenting ... just passing it on.
Monday 9th January 2012
I doubt the Head of Eton received “Holy Cow! It’s The Wurzles Christmas Album” as a seasonal gift from one of the parental body. You will recall that “The Wurzles” was deemed second best answer to a recent quiz held on the blog, and the runner up is clearly trying to persuade me that the artistic output of these cider drenched warblers is superior to that of the winning answer – the Hallé Orchestra. I’ve played the album and I think it fair to say I’ll never be the same again. That men can make such music such as this is indeed remarkable. Thank you.
Just before Christmas there was a quiet celebration in a dark hut. Me and a crowd of hunky dudes. We raised our plastic cups and sipped the warm fizz with some satisfaction. The builders were handing over four of the five new buildings to the School. Now because of the landscaping works (and I’m not talking a few daisies here .. think Great Wall of China), the South end of the campus still looks like the set of War of the Worlds, but amidst the mud and din we have a useable Mary Windsor and Sports Arena. My thanks to the Scary Ladies for ensuring the builders remained cowed and frightened throughout the process.
Oxbridge results are still coming in but already I’ve had some dreadful news. For many years I have successfully avoided sending a pupil to my old Oxford college on the grounds that if they went and found out what I’d been up to, I’d have to resign and live on top of a pillar for the rest of my life. Well, one of our pupils sneaked under the radar and has gone and got themselves a place there. A quarter of a century has passed since I left. Is it enough I wonder? Anyway, I’ve packed a trunk and a false moustache just in case.
Ignore Robert Peston. The recession is over. How do I know? Well, when I arrived at Bromsgrove I got a fair few letters (usually from people whose children had been refused entry) that began “If I ran my business like you run your School” and proceeded to make clear that Bromsgrove and I were as dysfunctional as News International. Since 2008 I haven’t received much in the way of swaggering contempt as I suspect even the Shining Ones have been subdued by recent economic woes. Imagine my delight, then, when on opening the New Year mail I find a letter beginning “If I ran my business like you run your School....”. Good times can’t be far away. Happy New Year.
Wednesday 7th December 2011
On Friday night I had two Oxford PPE hopefuls in my office for a final tutorial with their glorious leader. I nodded appreciatively as they spoke about things I didn’t understand, and waved an approving hand whenever quotations I didn’t recognise from philosophers I’d never heard of were cited. I then asked both students to offer a solution to the Eurozone problem in sixty seconds, but immediately got lost when one of the pupils described the European economy in terms of arcane political theory. Finally, I was asked if philosopher X was responsible for theory Y, and I said I didn’t know. We all shook hands and off they went to Oxford.
Consider the humble tea towel. No, seriously. How elevated it must feel when, once every year, the soap suds are left to drain away of their own accord because the proud rag adorns the head of a Pre-Prep shepherd. If “Come to the Manger” lacked a Cecil B. DeMille budget, it sure hit home in the lumpy throat department. (This may be because the play was not marred, as was a production some years ago, by a fight breaking out among the three wise men). Meanwhile in Prep we had “The Peace Child” which should be compulsory viewing for some of the role models (sic) playing in the Premier League. The Seniors turned in a transcendental “Midsummer Night’s Dream”, while tonight we have a charity concert (staff and pupils performing) for the flood victims in Thailand. And yet .. and yet .... a prospective parent told me yesterday that Bromsgrove is still perceived to be dominated by sport. I will set my reply to music and have a dance troupe deliver it.
I am going to sing “Baby I love you” at the Charity Concert. Why? Because you should never trust a pop song that purports to say more than “Baby I love you.” Look at the lyrical abominations that have arisen as bands try to say things beyond the proper metier of pop (which is teen angst round the soda fountain). I mean, what’s this about?
"I drew a line,
And they’re millionaires. Millionaires I tell you.
In the middle of Gordon Green stands a Christmas tree. Yesterday evening, as darkness fell, we had a two hundred and sixty strong floodlit CCF Review on the south side of the tree, overseen by a naval Commodore. To the east, at the same time, in a brightly lit Routh Hall, pupils chatted, served and performed at our Christmas party for local senior citizens. North, our many caterers were busy in their kitchens preparing hundreds of evening meals, while to the west, the administration workers processed a myriad online forms and accounts. And on the other side of the world, a different Bromsgrove School also prepared for Christmas. And the children there will, from time to time, be thinking of a place a long, long way west of them. An ancient, special place where for hundreds of years, young people have looked forward to this time of year. And from where I, the most fortunate of Headmasters, now offer Season’s Greetings to you all.
Thursday 24th November 2011
I was explaining in our Senior School assembly recently that whereas many countries will only define a civilised environment after analysing moral, intellectual and artistic advancement, the British do it on the spot by watching how a child behaves in the vicinity of a door. Open a door and let others through, and you are a Renaissance youth, beloved of adults and numbered among the blessed. Try to go through a door before an adult, however, and you a reprehensible Visigoth, toppling the towers of empire and determining in three second that visitors will choose another “more civilised” School for their child. Never mind examination results: British Schools are really all about what happens near doors.
International parents may not know that we have a chain of fitness centres in the UK called David Lloyd. (David was a great British tennis player. That’s not the same as a great German or Russian tennis player, I admit, but David got the ball back over the net sometimes and is subsequently a national treasure. He is now a hugely successful businessman and discerning art collector). In the Bromsgrove branch of David Lloyd there is, understandably, much talk of Bromsgrove School. My gym-based Stasi (when they are not working the School car parks in trenchcoats and walky-talkies) duly keep me informed. This week, for example, I was given a peculiarly (and, I pray, untypically) David Lloyd take on the number of pupils supposedly doing a certain course in the Lower Sixth. It was wrong by a factor of ten. A factor of ten! When exasperated, the Cherokee Indians famously declared: svgi inageehi giniyaluga. It means Let's go hunt for some wild onions.
I always thought Aristotle tutoring Alexander the Great was the coolest teacher/pupil combo I had ever come across. However, I had the good fortune to sit next to Sir Eric Anderson at a lunch this week. Sir Eric has been Headmaster of three Schools, Provost of Eton and Rector of Lincoln College Oxford. He is an expert on Walter Scott and a hundred things besides. And he has also given Aristotle a run for his money, for in his time, Sir Eric has taught: Prince Charles, Tony Blair and David Cameron. Who knows if right now, in Bromsgrove, a young teacher is inspiring a trio of future Titans.
Anyway, back to the door thing. For the days immediately following my announcement, I witnessed moments of bewilderment and terror as pupils neared these oblong arbiters of human decency. Even with no adult in sight, Bromsgrovians were scanning the horizon to ensure that by no conceivable means could they be accused of letting a door close on someone. Pupils were hesitating before open doors even when no one was coming the other way, fearing the threshold as one might a portal to the planet Tharg. I saw one pupil hold the door open at lunch only to find hoards of pupils filing through and setting him back a hundred places in the queue. Indeed, had I not relieved him, he’d still be there now. Thinner, but with his skeletal fingers clutching the handle. “After you” has become as common a phrase as “Any chance of some more chips, please?” We are in a golden age –the Athens of Pericles – and it may even last to the end of the week.
Monday 14th November 2011
Long standing readers will recall the summer of torment when I inexplicably rubbed Factor 50 suncream into my eyes rather than adopting social norms and applying it to my skin. Well, I went one better last half term and damaged my ligaments in a curious cycling accident. Curious because the cycle in question was nailed to a gymnasium floor. Let me explain. Dismounting with butch gusto, I forgot to extricate my right foot from the strap. I duly fell into the lady cyclist next to me (my right foot still attached to my own bike). Since this unfortunate lady was listening to her I-Pod and in a state of blissful detachment, the sudden appearance of my head in her lap was unsurprisingly followed by a panic-induced flurry of blows to my face. As I was still strapped in to the next door bike and therefore unable to move, I had no option but to lie there and take the beating like a man.
I’m not sure I have ever been as proud of the School as I was on Remembrance Sunday, and not simply because of the levels of respect, smartness and discipline on display from our pupils. More because those pupils represented over thirty nations who had spent periods of the twentieth century engaged in the most terrible conflict with one another. After our services, I watched British, Russians, Germans, Chinese, South Africans and a host of other nationalities walk away together into the crisp, bright morning. Sometimes, life really can be obviously and upliftingly symbolic.
On Wednesday evening, the third annual Bromsgrove Foundation Lecture was held in the Lansdowne Club, off Berkeley Square in London. The superb Dame Julia Cleverdon gave the collective conscience and intellect of a one hundred and fifteen strong invited audience a thorough shaking. Dame Julia (one of the Fifty Most Important Women in Britain according to The Times) has herself a list of achievements as impressive as Smokin’ Joe Frazier’s uppercuts, but readers of a noble vintage will extend serious respect when I tell them that she once worked in .....wait for it ... Industrial Relations at British Leyland in 1972. While the import of this position may be lost on younger readers, venerable observers will surely acknowledge that Damehood is poor reward for what has to be industry’s equivalent of climbing Mount Everest in leotard and flippers while carrying a Yak.
I should add that when the gym staff pulled me off the terrified lady and the situation was explained to her, she apologised. Despite feeling and looking like a pizza (puffy and bulbous at the extremities but fine in the middle), I apologised in turn for entering her life so abruptly and without proper introduction. As the staff applied ice to an ankle growing quick as bamboo, I struck up polite conversation with my onetime assailant and discovered that the lady had young children and was thinking about appropriate schooling. Ever the trooper, I suggested, through my tears, that she take a look at Bromsgrove. She said she would. She hasn’t.
Friday 30th September 2011
Keen to excite the parental body beyond all human imaginings, I thought I might remind you of the fact that Bromsgrove is a founder member of HMC.
“Well I never!” you cry, pouring your cornflakes over the floor: “how undeniably thrilling.” Indeed, I can almost hear the scattered applause around the globe.
Or, more likely, are you actually saying: “HM what?”
HMC, The Headmaster’s Conference. It first met in 1869 and has now grown to well over 200 schools (some with Headmistresses now) which include all those you find in crosswords such as Eton, Harrow etc. A Headmaster has to be elected onto this venerable body, and if your School starts slipping up in terms of results or standards, you get the heave–ho. The annual meeting is next week in St. Andrews, Scotland. The press and senior politicians come along to hear the musings of this veritable swelling of Heads. Ambitious young tyros jostle to be seen with the Head of Eton but run like wildfire if they think they might be photographed with me. I might take my gorilla mask this year to liven things up still further. Floreat Bromsgrovia.
I was speaking with a group of Prep School children in my office yesterday and we touched on the nature and importance of the CV in later life. It struck me that many of these pupils will be employed in jobs whose titles have yet to be invented. In times long gone you knew where you stood with a job title. One might have said: “Hello, I’m a puddler” or “Would you be in need of a cordwainer? It’s different now: pupils who have just left can expect to be Modality Managers. But what of the future? Well, in and around Silicon Valley, they already have a Chief Dreamer, a Friction Arrestor and, my favourite, a Goddess of the People. How lovely.
Finally, the results of the question posed in the last blog. Avid readers will recall I had contemplated the multitude that had passed through this School over the centuries. That got me a-thinking. Could anybody, I wondered, name a band who had changed all of their line up and subsequently enjoyed greater success without a single original member?
In third place, and the most popular answer by far, came The Sugababes. In second place (and surely the most terrifying response): The Wurzels. (I confess I have lost sleep over this. The parent concerned is a highly intelligent and articulate soul, yet openly admitting to knowing this kind of thing is surely tantamount to keeping bodies in the basement). But in first place – by a country mile – The Hallé Orchestra. Since a dodgy first gig in 1858, they have been through literally scores of line up changes and emerged stronger than ever. Great answer. Warm fizzy goodness to a member of the Prep School staff who can now look forward to benevolent Headmasterial glances and rapid promotion.
Tuesday 6th September 2011
Righto. Welcome one and all. My top conversation of the holiday was with a prospective international pupil.
“I have always wanted to see the Garden of England, Sir.”
“But that’s Kent.”
Awkward pause. Subsequent slow realisation on both our parts that the pupil thought he had applied for Bromley. Further doubts ensue when pupil expresses interest in History (Bromley hasn’t been in Kent since 1963) and Geography (Bromsgrove is over 100 miles away from where he thought he was).
Parents have received formal notification of our results and sundry achievements over the summer, so I’d like here to mention something that isn’t on the website or on headed paper. It’s this: more pupils sat public examinations at Bromsgrove over the summer than attend an average Stafford Rangers home fixture, and more public examinations (A level, AS level, GCSE, IGCSE, IB, BTEC etc.) were taken than there are stars visible to the naked eye at any one time. Bravo to the staff who processed the results. Epic.
My butch swaggering around the building sites this summer saw me chomping a Yorkie or two on the living roof of the new sports arena. It really is quite a thing. You could hold a grouse shoot up there. As for scale, I have been taken aback by the size of the new Hospitality Suite. The first floor is a whopping space with wonderful views. So, if you are a parent cheering your children on through horizontal rain this term, salvation is at hand in the Senior School at least. In a few months you’ll be sipping piping hot tea (laced with whatever you keep in your hip flask) in the equivalent of a Royal Box at Wembley, waving cheerily to your bedraggled warriors down below.
I’m sure all discerning parents watched TV highlights of the High Voltage Festival over the summer. This is the rock festival where one person from a famous band of forty years ago gets three or four younger people to help him recreate the magic of 1973. The bands retain their original names, of course, to give the impression nothing has changed, even though only the bass player is still alive from the original line up. So, instead of calling yourself “Creaky Bob Patterson and Five Young Blokes”, you remain “Washington Farmhouse Kitchen” or whatever you were. I ponder this merely because Bromsgrove is 500 years old and none of the original line up is with us. So, can anybody think of a band without a single original member who became all the better for it? Glass of Babycham for the best answer.
Monday 27th June 2011
We think a certain Bromsgrove 1st XI player has just made the most runs ever in a season and, with a double century, accumulated the biggest single score in Bromsgrove history. When I speak of this remarkable feat, I am minded of my own sporting greatness, not least when my mother told me to look out for my little sister on the occasion my Primary School took us to the local swimming baths. Keen to impress my tiny sibling, I demonstrated the art of the shallow dive. Having been forced to witness the demonstration, my sister took time to watch the small pool of blood form on the surface of the water before nonchalantly informing the teachers that her brother was still underwater and less visibly active that one might have hoped. I was rescued by a fully clothed life guard, and rushed to a major Liverpool hospital at where my head was stitched back together.
You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the diet for a while.
Quantum physicists tell us that electrons can be in two places at the same time. I’m not sure what the fuss is about because a decent sprinter on an old-style whole School photograph could pull off the same stunt. However, the quantum physicists seem pretty smug about it, but - if we’re so clever - can any smarty pants tell me why, after a twentieth birthday, one’s shirt remains forever tucked in, whereas until that joyous occasion it can escape the confines of outer garments as if possessed by the spirit of Houdini?
You will be expecting me to say something about strikes and pensions.
This is my last blog for a couple of months, and while I’d love to tell you I can barely type for tears, the fact is I’m about to defrost the sausages and crack open a celebratory Tia Maria. When I was little, I read a magazine called 21st Century that predicted mankind’s future. In it, jet liners were as large as ocean going ships and flew at five times the speed of sound. Space had been conquered and we had colonies on distant planets. In a state of perpetual peace we lived in mile high cities (unless invaded by unpleasant aliens whom we invariably saw off with aplomb). So when somebody tells me that blogging or twittering is “like amazing”, I can’t help but think of a certain emperor and his clothes. Anyway, I’ll be back in September, and I’ll do as I’m told. But deep, deep down it will always be “Space Cadet Edwards reporting for duty, sir.”
Have a wonderful summer.
Monday 20th June 2011
So, just as Britain’s A level students are in the midst of the most important examinations of their lives, Michael Gove says (in language statelier than mine) that the GCSE and A level exam system is about as useful as a chocolate frying pan. Nice timing, boss. For a well intended man with some deeply sensible ideas, our Secretary of State for Education needs to remember that our pupils can only do the examinations adults put in front of them. Telling those pupils while they are in the middle of the examinations that it’s one big dumbed down mess is about as motivational as Vlad the Impaler delivering Thought for the Day.
While we’re on exams ... a Senior pupil guide was taking some Year 8s on a tour of the Senior School last week. He said to them that there’s a rumour the Head is going to abolish A level and make everybody do IB. See a previous blog to understand why, were he old enough, this fine young man would receive a bottle of champers. (And see the link on our website’s homepage – next to my mug shot - for what the Head actually thinks).
I should be a politician. Here’s the education debate in a nutshell:
• Twenty years ago: Terminally examined GCSE and A level is too hard. Life isn’t about examinations or learning your history chronologically. Lots more soft subjects, coursework, modules and retakes please. Everyone’s a winner. What’s that? You want a university place with three E grades? You betcha. Celebrity Studies anyone? (Cue dodgy MOR classic “Everybody Is Beautiful In Their Own Way.”)
• Ten Years ago: Aarrgh! What have we done? It’s all too easy. Millions of A grades in Music Tech and Psychology. Parents and teachers doing the coursework for the children. Thousands of schools pushing soft subjects so they look good in league tables. Nation of idiots. Help! What can we do?
• 2011: Phew. Terminally examined GCSE and A level are just brilliant. Now we’re talking. Maths, Languages, proper British History, no modules, no retakes. Is this cool or what? Look out China!
• 2020 AD ..... Aarrgh! What have we done? It’s all too hard. Life isn’t about examinations or ....
And this will stop when the sheet ice returns and homo sapiens hands the planet over to the roaches.
Two of our Sixth Form Physics students have been published. One is holding a Cambridge offer and the other is off to study Mechanical Engineering. I called them in to offer congratulations and cheerily asked them to explain to me what their article was about.
Won’t be doing that again.
Monday 13th June 2011
Just as Toad wanted a motor car, so I’ve decided I should be living on a houseboat in Chelsea. I was in London over half term for a meeting of an editorial board, and afterwards, I strolled a section of the Thames Path. And suddenly there they were: all the fabulous Bohemians sunning themselves on their houseboats while everybody else huffed and puffed their lives away. I was smitten. Anyway, I will be speaking to the Chairman to see if he is happy to fund my early retirement. If I don’t turn up at Commem, you’ll know where to find me .....“Sweet Thames, run softly ‘till I end my song.”
Pity the small group of Senior boys who, having finished a public examination, decided to sneak onto the Prep School playing fields for a kick about with a football away from the prying eyes of teachers. Sadly, they timed their illegal fun for precisely the same moment I was holding a meeting with the scary ladies in my house (which backs onto the Prep School). Out charged one of the ladies. Seldom have I seen such an exquisite blend of terror and bewilderment on the faces of the young.
Together with some business and local government leaders, I had the opportunity to debate a few key issues of the day with four MPs last Friday. I was reminded that for every arrogant crook in the Lords or Commons, there are numerous hard working, honest, intelligent people doing their level best to make our lives better.
I thought the Prep Sports Days were a joy. Well done to everybody involved and thank you parents for the wonderful support. I have long known there are certain events I would lose if pitted against a top Year 7 or 8 pupil, but this year I felt bound to question whether I could hold my own against the best Year 3s. We would appear to be raising a species of superhumans. Tiny people went flashing past faster than Ferraris, and somebody threw a cricket ball further than I can walk.
There are nine governors’ subcommittees which meet every term, so if you throw in the full board meetings as well you end up with thirty governor’s meetings of some sort or other that take place over the course of a year. Last week the Finance and Property Committee (FPC) met. Not so long ago, any combination of the words Finance, Property and Committee would have compelled me to make a daisy chain, put it in my hair, sit in a wood and strum Syd Barrett songs. However, the time and expertise given freely to this School by governors is humbling, and at FPC especially it is a privilege to have input from people who help ensure this School, for all its flair and fizz, is founded upon a bedrock of prudence. I’m not going to kid you and say I could almost become an accountant, but I am intensely aware of and grateful for the wisdom and energy of others as they help take this School to greater and greater heights.
I saw Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood over half term. In the Royal Albert Hall. Decades ago, when Clapton first started playing, people got the blues if:
a) their woman had done gone left them
b) it wasn’t for bad luck they’d have no luck at all
c) they were born under a bad sign
However, looking at the Albert Hall audience it occurred to me that the closest to the blues Eric’s current followers are likely to experience is having to settle for tiger prawns because the monkfish was off.
Tuesday 26th May 2011
This week’s Friday weigh-in revealed I had shed a pound while one of my fellow dieters actually put on two. I am experiencing deeply unChristian emotions.
The Pre-Prep deserve loud Yaroos from us all. They passed with distinction what can most charitably be described as a very detailed external audit. Distinction, but not perfection. Where did the Pre-Prep fall down? Gentle readers, I must tell you that the serving of fruit scored only 1 out of 7. That’s some pretty rubbish fruit serving if you ask me. 1 out of 7. Does this mean that our little ones don’t get enough fruit? How can this happen? OMG! What next? Scurvy? But I’d forgotten this is 21st century Britain. Mrs. Deval-Reed explained that if you serve fruit as we do with a serviette (how civilised) you score 1. Serve it on a plate and apparently you score 7. God’s own country.
Bromsgrove Senior School staff are making even bigger strides than my fellow dieter’s tailor. A few are leaving for serious promotions at the end of this year and I offer my congratulations. Two, for example, are off to be house parents at well known boarding schools. Wonderful stuff. Now rumour (see below) can turn this triumph of professional development into something very different. The fact is, last year only one member of staff left the Senior School and I put that statistic on the School Risk Assessment. Seriously. I’m thrilled people like it here so much, but if schools do not aereate themselves, they become clogged and stodgily complacent. If every full time member of staff stayed ten years (which is a long time), we should have eleven teachers leaving each year from Senior School. So even a leave of fifteen, for example, would be perfectly normal for most schools this size. Some people here get shocked when it’s five. Chill. Every school has a place for Mr. Chips, but we need a fair few Fries-To-Go as well. Good luck to them.
Rumour is a school’s anti-matter. Allow me to paraphrase and grammatically improve Wikipedia: The observable universe is apparently almost entirely matter, but do other places exist that are almost entirely antimatter instead, and what might be possible if antimatter could be harnessed? This week I have been told I have a new dog (I don’t). I have moved away from the School house (I haven’t). I am better (What? Spooky!). Anyway, I’ve decided it might be fun to spread a few stories myself to see if they get a run in classroom and car park. Incy wincy fibs made up by me for subsequent embellishment. A prize for any angry person who reports one of my own stories back to me as truth, and extra champers to anybody whose variant is barely recognizable from my original hare. Now then, did you hear that this year’s Commemoration Day will be sponsored by Tescos? No? Well apparently ...............
Elsewhere on this website I have written a brief tribute to Roundy Rudell who died suddenly last week. Whether you knew Roundy or not, I hope you will find a minute to read it. He was an extraordinary man who gave much to this School and believed passionately in its young people. We will miss him.
Site manager Jim is in charge of the sports section of the new build, and whenever academic staff walk round the new arena and satellite buildings, he rightly insists we don safety wear. But no safety helmet fits me properly. This is because I have a huge brain. (Well, that’s my take. Mrs. Edwards says my cranial issues arise from the fact that I am the only post-Neanderthal hominid not to have evolved away my occipital bun). Jim’s attempts to force the safety helmet down over my prodigious bonce saw a gleeful management team rejoicing rather too easily in my humiliation. Whereas the real builders look mean and manly in their rugged safety gear, I feel like a flour baby with a lego hat.
Monday 16th May 2011
One of the Furies from Marketing was away last week so I thought I’d assert myself and not write the blog. Remind them who was boss. But she came back unexpectedly and checked up on me, asking why no blog had been forthcoming. I stood my ground, put my hand on my hip and went all teen strop:
“I’d really love to have written something earlier but - you know what? - I literally couldn’t be bothered.”
Her response was swift, candid and unnecessarily physical.
When you are building sports facilities on the scale we are, it is inevitable, understandable and wrong for people to suggest that the Arts have to take a back seat. This term I spent evenings at the Bromsgrove Festival listening to our choir sing the African Sanctus (the Birmingham Post review called Mr. Kingston a “local legend”) and, along with Mr. Bowen, taking pupils to the Bromsgrove Festival Young Musicians final. I have witnessed a stunning Words and Music evening in the Prep, a slick Charity Fashion Show for the shining ones in the Senior School, and a virtuoso Housman Verse Prize performance from the worthy winner, Alistair Aktas. Due to governor duties at another School, I regrettably missed the Chamber Choir performance at St. Swithin’s Worcester, but all should note too that auditions for next term’s Midsummer Night’s Dream have been cracking on apace in a week when numerous RADA certificates were awarded.
So, yes, it is a whopping big sports arena, but let’s all remember: our orchestra plays Mozart Symphonies.
This week, the diet (thank you for not asking) was given a mauling due to a mighty induction lunch with a new governor. I was wondering why I still felt hungry after so large a meal until, on leaving the table, I realised I had deposited most of my goodies (including the raspberry coulis) over the floor around my chair. (Whoever dreamt up eating coulis with a fork was clearly the same sadist who put an “s” in the world lisp). Sheepishly following the governor out, I inadvertently stepped in the coulis and trailed it down the carpet. It now looks to visitors as if I butcher my guests and drag them into my dining room. The detention queue might look more nervous than usual this week.
My unpopularity graph is likely to go Alpine because I have just made up the new Senior School monitors. It’s for the most part a democratic process. Staff and pupil votes are counted, and house recommendations assimilated. Yet the plethora of extraordinary young people in the current Lower Sixth (we could make up two or three times as many monitors as we do) means some exceptional pupils do not join the team. I am always touched by the pride and the utter lack of cynicism of our older pupils, manifest especially in their total respect during the solemn signing in ceremony. But that means feelings run high. Accusations that I am biased towards or against a particular gender, race, House, subject, examination system, or even extra-curricular activity have all, in the last six years, been levelled at me by disappointed parents and pupils. At times of such emotion, reason is sometimes as intangible as froth on a daydream. Best to concede and let myths go out into the car park and unto the world.
I lunched at the Prep School this week with the young people who have volunteered to be “buddies” for other pupils. They told me the biggest problem people face in schools is gossip. Same with adults, I said. At Prep Chapel earlier in the week I had recounted the ancient tale of the mouthy woman who one day, regretting her careless words, went to the village wise woman to ask how she could undo the hurt her gossip had caused. The wise woman told the villager to pluck a chicken and drop the feathers along the road. The villager, thinking this was some kind of magic spell, did as she was told and returned to the wise woman the next day. But all the wise woman said was: “Now go back to the road, collect the feathers and tell me what you find.”
The villager did as she was told. When she returned to the wise woman, the villager said:
“Some feathers were still there, although in different parts of the road, but some had vanished on the wind. I’ll never get them back.”
And then she realised: so it is with words.
Tuesday 3rd May 2011
I have decided to become unfathomably gorgeous for Commemoration Day.
“Come, come, Headmaster”, I hear you say; “how can one improve on perfection?” And I thank you for that. But maybe – just maybe - I’m a teeny bit overweight. By three stone, say. Anyway, after an abortive first diet over Christmas (I know, I know..), I am now in a weight losing competition with both fellow blimps and more streamlined models who erroneously think they are tubsters. I have already told Senior Staff to strike me if they see me eating desserts. My ribs sting. But at least the lady who hit me found my ribs. My competitors have set themselves ambitious target weights. As for me ... I’ll just be happy if well meaning people stop rolling me back into the sea when I’m lying on the beach.
Terms have rhythms, and the Royal Wedding is not the only new syncopation. The International Baccalaureate examinations are underway. We are not used to the public examination season beginning so early. Indeed, results will be out and university destinations known just after Commemoration. So, the Senior School is not going through the late spring phoney war period to which we have been accustomed. It is now and it is for real. We wish all our IB candidates every success.
Readers may recall that as we broke up for Easter I was heading off to London for the launch of Lord (Digby) Jones’ new book: “Fixing Britain.” I’m not in the business of plugging all Old Bromsgrovian’s books, but think of this volume as the antithesis to Princess Beatrice’s hat. (I initially thought –honestly - that some of the Abbey’s masonry had fallen on poor Princess Beatrice’s head and that she was stoically soldering on). Whether you agree with Digby on every issue or not, this hugely entertaining trip round the bay is paradoxically a ludicrously sane account of national problems and solutions in Asia’s century. The chapter on UK education is searing. And as far as I’m concerned, anybody calmly advocating policy delivery via a technocracy rather than leaving it to the vicissitudes of career politicians deserves to be heard. Anti-establishment and highly recommended.
I went and got some Factor 50 suncream in my left eye over the holidays. Sadly this happened just as the doorbell rang. I don’t know if any of you have suffered from directional issues when squirting the Factor 50, but I promise you, Hieronymous Bosch could not have dreamt up the torment I was going through as I answered the door to a stranger. I started yelling and clutching my face as she said “Hello.” Blistering agony then compelled me to bang my head against the porch and howl. For my finale, I staggered into the drive groaning and flailing like Dr. Jekyll after a drink. She ran off. Those of you plagued by cold callers, take note.
While the holiday saw mighty and very visible progress in the multi million pound developments in the Senior School, we should recall a quieter moment that took place over the weekend in the Prep School. The untimely death of John Ormerod, who as Headmaster led the Prep School into the twenty-first century, was a sadness to all who knew him. I did not know John, but was moved by Saturday’s ceremony attended by his wife Jane and family. The new Prep School cricket pavilion will be known as the Ormerod Pavilion. John apparently loved cricket beyond measure and even –according to Jane - banned football in summer break times, insisting the boys practised their batting and bowling instead. The building will have a special place in many hearts.
Monday 4th April 2011
History has taught me two things:
a) Never invade Russia in winter
b) Don’t get smart with fifteen- year-olds
The latter observation is based on two recent incidents in a Fifth Form set. A few weeks ago, while teaching these paragons of nonchalance, I incorrectly attributed a quotation to Stalin.
“It was Lenin actually,” came the languorous correction from the back.
“Man errs as long as he strives”, I thought, quoting Goethe to myself. But I could see the class were thinking more along the lines of “You’re some loser, dude.” Not to worry; I would use shock and awe to win them back.
My chance came this week with Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess”. Many of you may know that the poem’s big surprise comes when we realise the elegant portrait on the wall is of a woman the narrator had killed. Eager to spook the naive teens, I slowed the pace of the lesson with masterful ease, slipped effortlessly into my Vincent Price whisper and asked:
“Can you guess what he keeps on his wall?”
“The rotting corpse of his wife?”
Schizophrenia struck early this week. Monday began in Maoist fashion with the massed choirs of the Pre-Prep piping me out of the building with Happy Birthday and showing their blind obedience by giving me twenty-one congratulatory claps. But by lunch time I’d heard that I’d resigned.
To be fair, this morale-boosting dispatch usually does the rounds whenever I call a Senior Staff meeting at short notice. Once the staff realise that it really is just another meeting on academic issues rather than a teary Headmaster’s farewell, I sense bunting being shoved slowly back into pockets and fridge doors closing reluctantly on the Veuve Clicquot. I walk around the campus afterwards saying “Good-afternoon” to people; but behind the polite rejoinders, I detect a weary “Still here then?”
Just as every Friday afternoon is set aside for the architect’s meeting, so Wednesday morning is for the weekly Project Review meeting with Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Pernickety quantity surveyors, burly Site Managers, enigmatic Health and Safety nabob, frenetic Estate Manager, the Scary Ladies, bemused Headmaster etc. Some of you may have seen the informative plaques appearing on the more historic Senior School buildings (funding kindly supplied by Senior PA, texts from Mr. Bowen,), and I got to wondering if, in a hundred years time or so, any of the five new buildings currently under construction will have granite slabs attached to their walls celebrating the achievements and vision of our generation. Again, I thank you all for your forbearance in the face of this unprecedented construction. We won’t let you down.
It’s been Upper Sixth reports week. This means my penning (yes, I still use a pen) advice and encouragement at the bottom of each document. Bromsgrove Upper Sixth pupils tend to be stunningly impressive and so it’s a genuine pleasure to read about and comment on progress. All the same, litigation and the threat of a lengthy stint of bird have taken a good deal of fun out of report writing. Gone indeed are the days when a Geography teacher could write “I’m amazed Algernon can find his way home”. I will now confess to having written a small number of alternative, private reports on the very few pupils who are not cutting the mustard: things I would have said were I not so concerned about prison food. One day.
In the week those unstoppable Year 8s became National Rugby 7s champions (remember, they became National Prep Hockey champions the previous week) I suggest we all give a big Yaroo! for the fact that Bromsgrove is more James Brown than Radiohead. (Before complaints of misogyny or worse flood in, I’m thinking specifically of “Get Up Offa That Thing”). No shoelace bands here, thank you very much. On Friday evening I watched a hilarious Year 6 production of Aladdin; on Saturday night the Choral Society and Chamber Choir moved us with a haunting Chapel concert; Sunday saw the England Under 18 Rugby team (coached by our own Mr. Mullan) play at School; Monday night will see me giving a speech at a dinner for Foundation donors, and on Wednesday evening I’ll be in London at the launch celebrations for Old Bromsgrovian Lord (Digby) Jones’ new book, modestly titled “Fixing Britain.” At Bromsgrove we are, in the words of the Godfather of Soul, most certainly “Sayin’ It and Doin’ It.”
Have a wonderful Easter.
Monday 28th March 2011
You’ll doubtless all be hissy-fitting with expectation, waiting to hear about this week’s state visit to Pre-Prep. Well it was Reception and Nursery this time. The majority of the young Bromsgrovians were courteous to a fault, though during one brief exchange, a particular four-year-old displayed Aristotelian logic, Daliesque surrealism and a positively Saturnalian disregard for the order of things all in one go. He was pulling plastic letters out of a sand tray when he called out to me:
“Oi! Edwards! Come ‘ere.”
I swept across the room in the hope nobody had heard the unconventional nature of the summons.
“Do you know my brother?” he said.
“No.” I said.
“Well I do.”
And then he went back to pulling letters out of the tray. Conversation over.
The Year 8 boys won the national rugby sevens title at Millfield, and the Under 16 girls lost their cherished national netball title by one extra time score at Southampton. Two amazing Bromsgrove teams of whom we are immensely proud. The best I can offer the girls is a four hundred year old observation from Francis Bacon: “There is no comparison between that which is lost by not succeeding and that lost by not trying.”
Monday and Tuesday were, in the argot of the Upper Fourth, well big.
Take a bow Mrs. Bateman and team who organised a very large Sixth Form conference on problems facing the developing world. It was demanding, in your face, meaningful, big-issue education of the highest order. Visiting state and independent schools, and eminent guest speakers from venerable universities swelled the ranks. There was but one downer: I, the Chairman, had lost my voice. By the time it came to questions and answers at the end, I was doing little more than mooing into the microphone in response to some very challenging observations from the brightest young minds in the Midlands. On Tuesday, the Combined Cadet Force inspection, superbly organised by Mr. Stephens, saw my moo morph into a deeply unattractive bleat (had I gone down on all fours I could actually have doubled up as a regimental mascot. Now there’s an image to savour). However, what a Utopian sight greeted the inspecting Brigadier: so many nations represented by the cadets; young people whose forebears had fought one another (sometimes over centuries) standing shoulder to shoulder in the Bromsgrove sunshine. I left with a sense of optimism such as most Everton supporters will never know.
I miss the barneys of bygone Senior Parents’ Liaison meetings. Thursday evening’s gathering was eminently civilized. Sure, car parking has replaced the weather as the new conversational black (I’m not sure if the last ten words hang together in any conventional sense, but you get the drift), yet good constructive points were well made by engaged parents for the betterment of the School. Wistfully, I thought of angrier us-and-them days, and especially a parental letter I had received years ago when I suggested we change the nature of Saturday School: “Congratulations Headmaster. You have, overnight and singlehandedly, turned a once great international institution into a provincial backwater.”
At least I knew where I stood back then.
On Tuesday, the new Foundation Director, Jane Rogers, came in for a meeting with some key Foundation players. Some of this country’s most successful people have thrown their weight behind the ambitious long term goal of the Bromsgrove Foundation: to make Bromsgrove a needs blind school by raising mighty funds for bursaries. Recent additions to the board include Sir David Arculus (look up Sir David on Wikipedia if you’re not familiar with the business world and you’ll understand the calibre of person I’m talking about). That people such as this are willing to be Bromsgrove trustees is humbling. I am excited beyond measure as to what we can achieve, even though I know it will be one of my successors who reaches the magic number and says: “We now welcome applications from absolutely anybody, regardless of household income.” However, next academic year we will, for the first time ever, give out over one million pounds in means-tested bursaries. What an ironic shame that this week, of all weeks, saw the School attacked in the local press for high-handedness in the community.
Much remains to be done if we are to deconstruct the stereotypes. Take my situation. Mum and dad were born in Anfield, Liverpool (currently residing very near the bottom of the poorest postcode in Britain table). Dad left school at 14, mum at 16. I was the first in my family to go to university because of the sacrifices they made. But in the eyes of some, I suspect, that’s all irrelevant or inconceivable now. I came into the world fully formed as posh, privileged and, presumably, out of touch. Insanity. But Bromsgrove has to reach out still more: we must try to change perception rather than wait for some social epiphany. Huge task. Bromsgrove’s educational DNA needs to be shared, not kept in test tubes.
I’ve been invited to a conference at which Titans from Gove to Mandelson, Starkey to Dimbleby will be sharing thoughts on the future of education. One Head is going to argue that in order to be successful, Heads must model themselves on Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider. Oh dear. My movie role model is very different. Lie low. Be quiet. Do great things if you can. Deliberately lose a hundred little battles in order to win the war. Let egos puff and swell around you, and let false rumour run riot if people are gullible enough to believe it. You will be remembered for your deeds.
I am Keyser Soze.
But a nice version obviously. Friendly. Personable. Not given to blowing up ships. That kind of thing.
Namby-pamby Heads will sometimes tell you theirs is the loneliest job in the world. Rubbish. We all know John Tracy has been up there alone in Thunderbird 5 for forty-seven years, so we can scotch that self-pitying bagatelle from the outset. However, there has been a sad change to my routine: this is week three without my little workmate of thirteen years, Jude the Border Terrier. Now, where there used to be a basket in the corner of my office and the sound of contented snuffles, there is only a skirting board that needs painting.
Monday 21st March 2011
“You’ve got to write a blog,” they said.
“Why?” I said.
“Because you are Headmaster of one of Britain’s largest and most successful independent Schools,” they said. “And other Heads are blogging.”
“Reason enough for me not to,” I replied. I’m genuinely impressive when I’m angry. “Our parents get proper newsletters written by wise, literate staff. They don’t need self indulgent bilge. I won’t blog. I won’t do it, I tell you. You can’t make me. I am my own man.”
Here’s my blog.
Apparently I’m supposed to tell you what I’ve been doing. Well, I’ve been contemplating that mothership of ugliness, the word “blog”. No coincidence, methinks, that at least two unpleasant three-letter words which make little boys giggle can be made from its letters. My own anagrammatic mistrust is encapsulated in the nasty sounding “Glob”. Will they let me write a glob, I wonder?
“Headmaster, don’t be deliberately obtuse: just cooperate and tell the world what you’ve been doing in the last seven days.”
Frankly, the idea that the world could give a pant-hoot about what I’ve been doing is as fanciful as Mr. Mullan coming to School on a jetpack. It’s not that I don’t do interesting things. I do. I mean to say, I write songs about members of staff. That’s fun. But, as I’m sure you will understand, this is not something I can share with the world. No, what my team want from me is a diary of the working day. They want me to sound busy and impressive so parents will think:
“Gosh, he puts some hours in. Top man.”
LAST WEEK – DAY ONE
A week ago ... let’s see. Aha! I was having breakfast at the Ivy restaurant in London. But should I be telling you that? Parents may have already put their fists through the computer screaming “My fees are going on WHAT?”
Put down your swords, mes braves, ...... I was invited by the New York Times and they took the hit. Bromsgrove’s input was requested at a breakfast conference on issues facing higher education and their subsequent coverage in the world press, specifically the International Herald Tribune. All the other delegates were representing universities so I was the only person in a suit. I hope my mother’s reading this.
On the train back I wrote two references. There we go again: that’s the kind of thing I hate about blogs. Who could possibly care? ”On the train back I wrote two references.” Stephen Fry is venerated for tweeting things like that, but – in the name of all the saints - why? I did lots of other things on the way back, but none of them is as edifying as the closing chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, which you could all be reading instead of this. Brace yourselves for my other roller coaster moments on the train: I read over my extensive papers for the imminent meeting of the full board of governors and – sorry parents – I stared out of the window from time to time, remembering the odd line of Philip Larkin.
Back at School I had a two hour meeting with the Executive (more about these scary ladies later) and architect. This pow-wow is a weekly fixture while the huge new build is going on, and I’ve learnt much. (Why, only last week I proudly told my wife I was late home because I had been “value engineering”. She reminded me I can’t even turn a television on without help and proceeded to make further unkind and hurtful comments). I then met two sets of parents on sundry matters of good and ill, had a meeting with a pupil who has been signed up by Birmingham City (great, provided he doesn’t score against Everton), and then taught an early evening lesson in my office to the impressionable young. I finished my admin to the soulful guitar of Robert Cray. Here endeth the first day.
LAST WEEK - ALL THE OTHER DAYS
A day by day account of a Headmaster’s comings and goings is clearly going to drag. This could turn into Anna Karenina without the exciting bits. Which is the same as saying this could turn into Anna Karenina. Let’s speed up.
Cometh the weekend, cometh the governors. Every term the full board meets, and matters weighty and grave are discussed in the Cookes Room. We look solemn and intimidating and reach mighty decisions. Some Heads are pinned down by governing bodies who are themselves shackled by the weight of a School’s history. At Bromsgrove governors’ meetings, we soar above the mires of timidity and invariably alight upon broad and sunny uplands where fat sheep safely graze. I am immensely grateful and fortunate. June Longmuir and former Chairman Matthew Horton retired at the AGM: they have given service such as few will ever understand, and Matthew effectively gave me the opportunity to become Headmaster of Bromsgrove. I am minded of Ghandi: That service is the noblest which is rendered for its own sake.
I spent a morning in the Pre-Prep observing Year 2 lessons as part of the School’s “Teaching and Learning” thrust during which I will see teaching in all year groups across the School’s three constituencies. Mrs. Finlay’s class began with the question “Who was the fourth man on the moon?” I beat a hasty retreat. No six year old is going to get the better of me in public. They talk some rot, these six year olds. Apparently Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. Madness. Next they’ll be saying a cartel of Old Etonians is running the country. Note to self: speak with Mrs. Deval-Reed about dodgy content of year 2 lessons. (And how come everybody is so happy in the Pre-Prep? They need to read some Thomas Hardy).
Inevitably at Bromsgrove, I watch a fair bit of sport throughout the week, and selecting highlights will lead to torrents of complaints, but ... are Year 8 classy or what?
This time of year, I interview candidates every week for Senior School teaching posts. We are blessed with a plethora of mightily talented applicants, but some are half my age and I am obliged to fight a blind, irrational fear of this demographic. The hideously bright person sat before you may well have a double first from Cambridge, but how can you employ somebody who doesn’t know who Jimmy Page is? Exactly.
Lots of interviews, then, plus the hosting of a fifteen strong international delegation coming to see how we do things; a governors meeting at another school where I am Chair of the Education Committee; heaps of prospective parents; a stunning pop and jazz evening; two complaints; detailed in-house debates about the future curriculum both in Prep and Senior School; and the leitmotif that is Senior staff appraisals. Each member of staff is given a thorough appraisal every two years by pupils as well as line managers, and the final conversation takes place in my office. I always ask appraisees something along the lines of “If you were me, what would you do differently?” Worryingly, answers have been getting longer.
Since much of a Headmaster’s time is spent having confidential conversations – many of them sad – I am wary of accusations of selectivity or even censorship in these musings. There is often a ground bass of insecurity beneath the lively Chaconne of young lives, and this week it played too loud in one instance. Like the music of the spheres, it usually hums quietly behind the teenage years, though it sometimes, albeit very rarely in Bromsgrove, drowns the melody. It will be forever thus. We are not the Garden of Eden; we are a School.
I did some more teaching to Oxbridge PPE hopefuls. My lesson on the relationship between Upper Palaeolithic cave art and the Pre-Socratics was a blast and greatly enjoyed by two people