Blog Archive 2015-2016
Where do I start this blog today?
Many of our students will be off-site over the next five school days, engaged in Challenge Week activities. A number of students in Year 8 have gone to France and Year 9 will be on camp. In addition to the residential visits, all the remaining students will have an opportunity to go on a day trip or visit. I am very grateful to all the staff who have made Challenge Week such a success.
Two weeks ago, I organised a conference for the Catholic Heads and Deputies from within our Diocese and I was pleased to secure Father Denis McBride as one of our Keynote Speakers. During his presentation, he talked about identity and who we are. The component parts of our lives, for many of us these are numerous, help define our identity which in turn is probably the strongest component of our personality. I am not a psychologist, but I suspect there is a theory surrounding this. My identity is a function of being a married, Catholic, Christian, Headteacher, having a family, middle aged … the list can go on. With this identity comes expectations; equally, the component parts provide us with an anchor and security. As part of the conference we celebrated Mass at the Cathedral. I would recommend finding an opportunity, as I did during Mass, to sit with God and contemplate your identity and what it is that defines you.
Today, Brexit + 1, I have felt slightly uneasy in school; a number of other staff have reported similarly. A student came up to me and said, ‘why did we leave Europe?’ I know other students have asked similar questions to staff. Being questioned by a teenager took me back to those moments of contemplation with God, where I examined my identity. If you are in your forties or younger you have known nothing other than being European, for good or bad it is part of our identity. Well the events of 23rd June have taken that away and I have not been in control of the process, which might explain why I feel slightly uneasy.
Whether you believe leaving the European Union was a good idea or not, we now live with the consequences in very uncertain times. As a Catholic community, the events of 23rd June require a response. This Sunday, 26th June, we will listen to St Paul's letter to the Galatians, which, considering recent events and future predictions about the future is particularly poignant.
" Serve one another, rather, in works of love, since the whole of the Law is summarised in a single command: Love your neighbour as yourself. If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community."
We now have to pray that our leaders at home and across Europe demonstrate the gifts of wisdom, justice, honesty and integrity in their decisions over the next few months.
It would be naive to think that it will be ‘business as usual’; most aspects of life will be touched by the Brexit decision. Will it have an impact on education? The answer will be an emphatic yes, not least because a change in national leadership or political party always results in ‘toe punting’ the educational football harder or in a different direction.
The Easter holidays seem but a distant memory now. My thanks to staff who ran the trip to Sorrento and all the staff who ran Easter holiday revision sessions.
During the first week of term, I watched the Dance Showcase and attended the Design Technology Showcase – both events were a success; well done to all the students and staff involved. Particular thanks, also, to the staff, parents, Governors and visitors who were judges at the Design Technology event; I know that we were all impressed at the standard of work on display. Also at the beginning of this term, a group of Year 9 and Year 10 students entered a national Science competition, this followed on from success in the regional finals. There will be more about these stories in the next edition of Oaklands News. On Sunday 24th April, Mr Sumba completed the London Marathon, raising funds for CAFOD and our Genocide Memorial Project; congratulations to him.
For Year 11 and Year 13, there are not many days left until the exams and most classes are feverishly involved in revision. Whilst our energy and effort is currently focused on these students, the spotlight is beginning to move to Year 10 and Year 12. In English and Maths, Year 10 students are the ‘guinea pigs’ in the most far-reaching series of GCSE reforms since the transition from ‘O’ Levels in 1987. If you are in your mid-forties, you were probably the last of the ‘O’ level generation. Due to the piecemeal manner in which the current changes have been introduced and with a sense of what is to follow, the changes have received mixed reviews. I would have hoped that somewhere in the mind of the architect of the mayhem was a desire to make teaching and learning more engaging and enjoyable for teachers and students, as well as raise attainment.
The argument for change has been rehearsed by numerous pundits. The comparison between the performance of students in the UK and other nations is regularly cited (apparently our system is not tough enough!). It is difficult to envisage a more far-reaching decision than to increase the demand of GCSEs, so as to align standards with attainment in other allegedly more successful nations. The accuracy with which we will be able to predict performance will be one of the casualties of a new system; out goes the baseline against which predictions can be made. This will be difficult for parents when they ask the question, “What grade do you think he or she will achieve?” Most Headteachers are expecting a significant recalibration of overall performance.
National historic exam data is alarmingly revealing; it is difficult to make a like-for-like comparison, however in 1988, roughly 40% of students achieved five higher grades (if you include Grade 1 CSE) compared to approximately 69% now. It is reasonable to assume that for the vast majority of schools, grading in English and Maths in 2017 will be challenging. This does not mean students will have worked any less hard than their predecessors. This challenge will be repeated in most other subjects in 2018. I sincerely hope this recalibration does not take the nation back to 1987.
It is difficult to find a silver lining in this. However, all schools will be in the same position - we will all be doing the same qualifications and measured using the same matrix. Accordingly schools’ staff and students cannot be blamed for the drop in grade rates between 2016 and 2017, provided the drop is within a statistically viable range.
We have been aware of the changes to the examination system for over 24 months. However, in many subjects the final specifications for teaching from September 2016 have only recently been released. Despite this, the level of sophistication in Key Stage 3 has already been ‘ramped up’ and this will continue over the next year. Similar to all schools, we are considering the number of GCSEs taken by students and how we develop a learning culture that prepares students for intensive terminal exams. Any change to the number of GCSEs taken will not apply until the current Year 8 start their GCSE courses.
Two years ago we were able to refurbish the toilets in the Hall area. It has always been my intention to tackle the other facilities, funds permitting. The subject of school toilets appears in almost every School Council meeting; students want and deserve up-to-date facilities. In all the sets there are significant issues related to the quality of the fittings, drainage and lack of ventilation. In these straitened times, a dilemma presents itself - toilets or staff? However, I am very pleased to report that we have manged to secure funding to refurbish the student toilets in Thomas More Block and work will start at the beginning of the summer holiday.
The other positive funding news relates to Newman Block - for at least the last fifteen years, despite remedial work, we have been unable to solve the problems related to water penetration. The structure of the building is sound but the roof, windows, seals, fittings and associated external panels require significant work. Fortunately, we have finally manged to secure funding from the DfE for £680k to carry out the necessary repairs. This work will commence towards the end of the summer holiday. I am very grateful to the team who have worked to secure both of these funding streams.
Unfortunately on Wednesday 20th April, an Oaklands Sixth Form student was knocked down whilst crossing the road outside the school. For parents, having to take a phone call where they are told that their child has been involved in a road accident is an experience none of us want to encounter. The student concerned has been very brave and will make a full recovery from the injuries.
This incident serves as a timely reminder about the danger of road traffic and the responsibility parents have to reinforce safe practices with their children when crossing the road. A slight lapse of concentration and an accident can happen to anyone. Last year we ran a road safety campaign in school.
I would be grateful if you could follow the link to the resources used.
Here you will find information related to road safety for students, parents and teachers. I would encourage you to go through this and direct your child to the resources. A short conversation with your child about the issues raised on this website could be a life saver.
Whilst it was not a contributory factor on Wednesday many people, old and young, walk around the streets plugged into their headphones, simultaneously texting and only giving a cursory glance at the traffic. To minimise the risk crossing the road, all our senses need to be as alert as possible.
Thank you for discussing these issues with your child.
My last blog created more feedback than usual on the topics of similar schools, how schools are measured, the curriculum and the change to the exam system; I will return to this further down.
Over the half term holiday, a large number of students enjoyed trips to New York and skiing in Italy. I am very grateful to the staff who gave up the break to make these adventures happen and in addition, for the many hours of preparation which go on ahead of the events. Particular thanks to Mr Bamford for the ski trip and Mr Smith for the New York trip. A number of parents commented that these are trips of a lifetime. For students, it is something which will generate life-long memories.
I also want to recognise the sacrifices that parents make - residential trips abroad come at a significant cost. Many families have been paying for these trips over the last year or so; on behalf of your children, thank you for this.
This half term we will all have an opportunity to enjoy the school production of Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter's musical version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. The cast, crew and orchestra have worked hard rehearsing the show and tickets are available through the school website and from the Finance Office.
Homework is a vital part of the curriculum and parents should sign the planners at regular intervals. The vast majority of homework is also set on Show My Homework, so if your child is absent from class, there is no excuse for not attempting the set homework as it is available through Show My Homework.
I am always delighted when parents provide feedback on something I have written, whether via email or the conversation in the back of church or across the meat counter at Sainsbury’s - this is one of the consequences and pleasures of living in the community close to the school. I have tried to pick up on a number of the themes that emanated from the questions you raised following the last blog.
If schools are not similar, how will parents use the data to compare one school against another?On its own, data does not tell a story about a school. It is only when it is contextualised and becomes information that a comparison can be made. For example, the headline GCSE statistic does not tell a parent what qualifications the students take.
If some qualifications are easier than others, why at Oaklands do the majority of students take at least two sciences, a humanity and a modern foreign language?
The answer to this could get rather technical. The complexity of one subject against another is measured using national statistics and this does reveal that it is easier to achieve a higher grade in some subjects than others at ‘A’ level and GCSE. The subjects that are mentioned in the question are more difficult than others. Recent national figures show that students who take French GCSE achieve half a grade lower than they do in English and Maths. At Oaklands, we believe it is important for youngsters to study a modern foreign language; the vast majority take it to GCSE and do well. Equally, we believe in the importance of humanities and science. Our curriculum is balanced; alongside these subjects, students can study a range of creative and practical GCSEs. This has served students well for many years and is popular with parents, colleges and local employers.
If students took different subjects, would the overall pass rate rise and the league table position improve?
The current measures focus on 5+ A*-C, including English and Maths and Value Added. As the former measure includes English and Maths, changing the other three subjects may make a marginal difference. Equally, moving to IGCSE or equivalent in English, or similar in Maths may have made a difference. School who have taken IGCES in some subjects suggest higher grades are more attainable. For a Head, it is important to consider the motives for moving to a different curriculum offer; I would be concerned if the motivation behind curriculum design or exam selection was to crawl further up national league tables. Notwithstanding, if youngsters take a majority of more difficult qualifications then this will have a negative impact on school’s ‘value added’. For example, students may achieve a ‘C’ in French but if they had taken another subject they may have achieved a ‘B’ grade. If the majority of students in a school take a modern foreign language then the value added measure will be suppressed.
I have a child in Year 8. Will the school be changing the GCSE curriculum for the Ebac in two years’ time?
In short, the answer to this is no. Many schools are changing their curriculum not just because of the Ebac, but because of the new methodology used to measure school effectiveness. This is called Progress 8 and Attainment 8. This measure will look across a range of subjects and will weight some subjects more than others; the measure is designed to be more rigorous. Some commentators maintain this will be fairer and will make it more difficult for schools to ‘game’ the system. Publicising this new measure will be problematic and I suspect difficult to understand. The new floor standard for progress (the minimum schools should achieve) will be ‘0’, zero. Schools will move up or down from this figure in 0.01 increments. Based on our 2015 GCSE results, we achieved +0.2 for progress, which was statistically higher than all other schools. I will look again at this with parents next year.
My child is taking some GCSEs grades 1-9 and others A*-G how will this be measured and recorded?
Yes, this is likely to cause some confusion for parents, students and future employers. It is important that every youngster does the best they can irrespective of the method of assessment. All schools are seeking a little more clarity indicating how both grading systems will be recorded and used to measure schools. GCSE certificates may well record A*-G in some subjects and 1-9 in others.
I have a child in Year 7 and one in Year 6. The Year 6 child will not come to Oaklands with SATS levels what will this mean?
We are working hard with our primary schools to understand how their curriculum has developed. We hope that more students will arrive at Oaklands with an age-appropriate mastery of English and maths. At Key Stage 2, the tests in English and maths will reflect the new national curriculum, and are intended to be more rigorous. Children arriving at Oaklands in September will have a raw score (the actual number of marks they get), alongside their scaled score and whether they have reached the national average. The score needed to reach the national average has yet to be announced. We will continue with CATS and baseline assessments in Year 7.
Why does Oaklands do so well in the Ebac?
The core curriculum which was introduced in the late 1990s includes French, humanities and double science; these are all Ebac subjects. The vast majority of students undertake this and do very well and as a result we are in the top 10% of Hampshire schools by this measure. RE is generally recognised as a humanity, however is not included in the measure.
It has been my turn again this week to lead assemblies; something I always enjoy. We looked again at our mission statement and in particular how being united by the cross was lived out ‘on the ground’.
Our work at Oaklands is guided by the Gospel values of faith and integrity, dignity and compassion, humility and gentleness, truth and justice, forgiveness and mercy, purity and holiness, tolerance and peace, service and sacrifice, respect and responsibility.
There is one word that captures this and it is “love” and it is very well summarised in Paul’s letter to the people in Corinth. I challenged students to undertake selfless acts of love through random acts of kindness. We all watched this video:
In January, the national performance tables were published. Whilst many Headteachers maintain these are not important, we all compare our performance with each other. Oaklands does well with the gold standard of 5+ A*-C, being significantly higher than national. For English and Maths, our youngsters make considerably better progress compared with national expectations. Again, with the Ebac, we are in the top 10% of state schools in Hampshire.
One of the comparators that is often used is against similar schools. I have an issue with this as no two schools are ever the same. The DfE provides a list of ‘similar schools’, however when you start drilling down into how similar these schools are, many of them are not similar at all. For example we are a Catholic school and therefore 10% of our curriculum time is devoted to RE; this is not similar to most schools on the list. In addition, the vast majority of youngsters take GCSE RE and do very well at it; in most non-Catholic schools the uptake for GCSE is pitiful.
I then started to look at other aspects of the curriculum in ‘similar’ schools. The average number of science GCSEs taken per student at Oaklands is 2.26, compared with a Hampshire average of 1.85 and an average of 1.79 in the six neighbouring local authorities. This is not immediately obvious when comparing national data. The number of students taking a modern foreign language tells a similar story - at Oaklands it is 0.75 language GCSEs per student, compared with the Hampshire average of 0.55 and an average of 0.56 in the six neighbouring local authorities. The final indigent in this petri dish of exam comparison is what is examined: at Oaklands it is GCSE, many similar schools use IGCE or similar qualifications where the rigour of the exam has been questioned by many commentators.
Our physical location also tells a story; we have the recruitment challenges of being a coastal school where we can only recruit from the 180 degrees above us. An inland school can recruit from all four quadrants.
I think you would agree that whlist there may be some similarities that we don’t sound too similar to other schools; we sound more unique than similar.
How schools are measured, similar or not is about to change. The new performance measures will shortly only consider GCSE examinations and across a broader range of subjects; the government recognise this as the new gold standard. Whilst schools can still use other qualifications they will either no longer count or their weighting in school performance will be very much drastically reduced.
This term started with our certificates evening. We were privileged to have two speakers in Chris Lubbe, international speaker and former body guard to Nelson Mandela and James Ward Prowse, former student, Southampton and England under 21 star.
Chris Lubbe talked about his life in South Africa around the time of apartheid and his experience growing up in this regime. Chris outlined the horrors of apartheid and how personal experiences had influenced and motivated him to make a difference. As an adult he campaigned for a free and democratic South Africa. He then went on to explain how his relationship with Nelson Mandela as a bodyguard had a significant influence on his life, particularly with respect to forgiveness and reconciliation. He concluded by saying that he hoped the pupils would take with them the powerful message of forgiveness and how lucky there were to be part of a school community where everyone was valued, irrespective of their background.
Chris will return to Oaklands at the beginning of Lent to talk in assembly about values, forgiveness and reconciliation
James Ward Prowse left Oaklands about three years ago at the end of Year 11. He was part of the Southampton Academy programme. James talked about his journey from playing football locally as a youngster through to making a decision to join Southampton. James gave a very strong message that to be successful you need to demonstrate commitment. He talked about the sacrifices that have to be made along the journey. James also recognised the importance of having a team around you to help you along the way, this could be your parents, teachers or coaches.
Both speakers were inspirational and one parent said;
“I loved both of them. I could have listened to them all night. Chris’ story was mesmerising, the ability to forgive is a lesson to us all. What a fine role model James is for our kids; it just shows if you want something enough and you are prepared to work hard, dreams can become reality, it’s a pity more students did not hear this, he was brilliant”
More information and pictures from the event can be found in the Oaklands News.
This term promises to be busy with Year 11 students taking mock examinations and Year 9 considering their options. Christian Unity Week starts on the 18th January. In addition to considering elements within the Christian tradition we will also use our assembly time to consider other faiths.
Many Year 13 students have now received university offers. Success at GCSE has proved to be highly valuable for these youngsters in securing places at universities all over the country. In addition to University, students have also secured high quality apprenticeships.
Can I wish all students the best of luck with the term.
I have always been a Star Wars fan, so when the tickets were available earlier in the Autumn for Episode 7, I was first in the queue … I wanted to see it before I heard any spoilers ... don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything here if you have not seen it!
So on 18th December I saw the spectacular, John Williams iconic theme start up and I was transported back to 1977. I was a 10 year old again, similar to at least three quarters of the cinema, who were couples in their 40-somethings. The music transported me into the intergalactic world of Star Wars. The Star Wars Logo burned through the screen as words began to inch up vertically - “Luke Skywalker has vanished…”. Words that tell a story. A story of good battling evil, a story of heroes and villains, individuals and personal relationships but not great armies, light versus darkness, and of beloved characters.
The Force Awakens re-awoke my love of the first movie and turned my inner fan into my outer fan. Such that the following day I went out and purchased a BB-8 Droid (my wife would not allow it to go on my Christmas list!).
There are very few films which leave me grinning for two hours, but this is one with its homages to the previous films. It was the classic Star Wars story with a very familiar tale with similarities to the plot of previous episodes; but that’s a good part of what makes it so awesome – the retelling of the classic tale and the stirring of nostalgia in the audience.
For many attending midnight Mass on 24th December is a family tradition. During this the congregation listen to the retelling of the start of another familiar story, full of nostalgia. A story of good versus evil, of a hero and of villains and not of great armies. It is a chance to encounter beloved characters in the story once again (sounds familiar?); Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, and of course the Baby. Our hearts are stirred because the Christmas story begins the greatest story ever told (it leaves Star Wars in the shade!); not just in that it is true. This story begins in Bethlehem with the birth of the Christ Child, ends with – SPOILER ALERT – the defeat of evil, once and for all. Jesus showed the world the extent God would go to show his love for us and on the cross.
One character in the new film has a restlessness about her past. As she wrestles with this, one of the best lines is delivered - “Dear child, the belonging that you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.” There is something in this for us as we look forward to a new year. We will find true happiness if we look ahead of us and have the courage to place our deepest hopes in an unlikely hero who was prepared to die on the cross for us.
Finally, “May the Force be with you” must be a crib from “The Lord be with you”. Sorry George Lucas, we got there first!
I try to update this blog once a month and this is the first time I have written following the GCSE results in August. Since then the national political landscape has shifted, England won the Ashes, a new cohort of students has joined the school and our ex-Year 13 have marched off to university, apprenticeships or employment, thanks to very successful ‘A’ Level results.
Many parents are now waving a child off to university; if this is the first time, the experience can be an emotional roller-coaster. During ‘A’ level results day, the pride that parents feel is visibly evident, knowing that their child has the golden ticket to the next stage in their journey. However, conversations with parents of students going to university, particularly where it is the first child to go, reveal some anxiety over financially supporting them and the ability of this 18 year old to cope with surviving independently. “He’ll have to learn how the washing machine works”, one parent told me. Other parents who have already sent students off in previous years recall how different it is living at home when the routine changes due to a child leaving.
Inevitably, a child leaving home means probably, for the first time, parents knowing considerably less about their youngster’s life than they used to, although what you did know might have made you uncomfortable at times! Fortunately technology has made this a little easier to cope with; many students live their lives on Facebook and most of them have a mobile phone, paid for by the parents.
Good luck, therefore, to all our students moving on this year and the parents left behind.
On Thursday 24th September we held our annual Open Evening. We normally expect about 300 families but this year it was closer to 400 and we ran short of prospectuses. An open evening can be an edifying experience. Parents often talk about being able to feel the ethos of the school. Over my career I must have visited hundreds of schools, from those with brand-new buildings, to some of our oldest independent schools, some Catholic, others not - the ethos varies. Parents can read prospectuses, interpret results and look on-line but no matter how good the statistics or the information, you can’t ‘feel’ the school or experience the ethos without a visit.
After last Thursday one visitor commented to me: “I visited your school for your Open Evening with my Grandson and I felt compelled to write to you to compliment you and your fellow Teachers on your wonderful school I had heard things about your school before but we were met by very polite and informative children who took us around, the pupils we met are a credit to you and their parents.”
As an ardent advocate of Catholic education (you would expect nothing less from me!) the ethos or feeling that is present in Oaklands and other Catholic schools can be named as the presence of the Holy Spirit; we should not be ashamed to acknowledge this.
My vocation to teaching has been enriched, stretched and encouraged by the presence of the Holy Spirit in Governors, fellow teachers, students and supporters that I have had the privilege of meeting and working with - not all of them have been Catholic! The popularity of our school at Open Evening convinces me that more and more people can see the good news that Catholic schools have to share even if they find it difficult to use our Catholic vernacular to express it.
The school has again performed very well in both ‘A’ level and GCSE more information will be published on our website before the start of term. Our GCSE results are up and the number of A* grades has increased significantly compared with 2014.
This is a particular stressful time for students and parents; the next stage of a youngster’s journey is often determined by the outcome from these important results.
For teachers this is also a difficult time; as exam grade publication time approaches it begins to play on the mind. I for one find it difficult to sleep the night before the ‘A’ level and GCSE results. Nervousness is fuelled by an exam system that has some unpredictability, the facts of which are difficult to dispute: Once upon a time, not too long ago, teachers used to be able to predict exam performance with some accuracy; we would tell students, “if you get 50 marks you will get a ‘C’ grade”. This year grade boundaries have been moved again in some subjects. For example, in Edexcel GCSE Maths higher tier, it is now up at 65 marks compared with 57 a year ago. The accuracy of marking also gives cause for concern, last year over 45,000 exam grades were changed after schools challenged the results.
All Headteachers are naturally competitive beasts, publicly we may deride league tables, but privately we all have half an eye on them. We all want our school to do well and the very best education for our students. Not only do we look at other local results and statistics,we all look back at other schools where we have worked earlier in our careers.
At this time of year schools will report statics in different formats. At Oaklands our students only take GCSEs and our current policy is for students to take GCSE in Year 11. This is not the case with many schools across the country. As they say ‘the devil is in the detail’ and often the small print. Some schools will ‘lump’ together resits in the August Headlines. Others will quote the overall pass rate rather than the 'gold standard' which includes English and Maths. Some schools are still plugging away at equivalent qualifications soon to be abolished from the staristics. For example, the IGCSE English qualifications taken by many youngsters in other schools does not, in the eyes of the government, compare to the rigour of GCSE English language. There is significant historical evidence to confirm that equivalent qualifications have inflated exam scores.
The statistical data available to schools has grown exponentially over recent years. For parents in year 5 and 6 in the process of choosing a secondary school interpreting this is exceptionally difficult, particularly if the school statistics are based on exams that will not be available when their youngsters reach key-stage 4.
The government continues to tell us, and it is true, that we have the best ever, most highly trained and qualified workforce in our schools. Added to this we are regularly told that the number of good and outstanding schools continues to improve and impress. If the national trajectory describes an improving picture then you can reasonably expect to see significant grade inflation at GCSE. However, over last two years this has not been the case. 2014 saw a drop in national pass rates as measured by the gold standard of 5+ A*-C including English and Maths. When this year's statistics are finally crunched I suspect they will be broadly similar to 2014.
This conveniently brings me back to the issue I have already described with grade boundaries; It appears to be the mechanism used to control the pass rate. At Oaklands there were 12 youngsters who scored between 57 and 65 in Maths attaining a 'D' grade this year. Last year a similar score would have been graded with a magical 'C'. It could be argued that moving of grade boundaries is the prerogative of the exam board; it provides them with a mechanism to compensate if a paper one year was more challenging than the next, if there was some consistency in the paper complexity year on year this would not need to occur.
The intention to create an exam system that is transparent, robust and consistent is laudable. I fear we are some way off this. Students starting GCSE this September will have a hybrid curriculum, assessment and grading system as new GCSEs are phased in. I fear we have got some way to go before we develop an exam system that values what students can achieve and prepares them for the world they will inherit.
I am sure most of you were as shocked as I was about the death of Charles Kennedy earlier this term The tributes to him continue to punctuate other media stories. There was clearly more to this man than the image distilled by broadcasting moguls.
Not that I often read the misgivings of Alastair Campbell, in fact, they are probably not good for your health. However, he published this in The Times on 7th June:
“As I toured television studios on Tuesday to pay tribute to Charles Kennedy, I bumped into Shirley Williams, who was doing the same. The older she gets, the more I admire Shirley, whose growth in wisdom is not matched by a diminution in vitality. But there was one thing she said that I felt I had to deny: that, but for his drinking, Charles could have been a truly great politician.
Drink was part of who Charles was and part of the humanity that people were talking of all day. To me it was like saying Winston Churchill could have been even greater but for his “black dog” and his tendency to drown it in scotch, and Bill Clinton would have had a near-perfect presidential reputation had he not had the sex drive of a Kennedy (JFK, not Charles).”
It was the statement, ‘Drink was part of who Charles was and part of the humanity that people were talking of all day’, that touched me. (Not that I am a closet alcoholic). Campbell is alluding to this: it is our failings and vulnerabilities that make us totally human. Being vulnerable does not mean you are being weak, Kennedy certainly was not a push-over. It takes a lot of courage to expose your vulnerabilities.
On the 12th and 13th June I attended the National Catholic Headteachers’ Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon. In reality it is actually a cross between a conference and a retreat. It is one of the only national events that attracts Heads across phases and both the maintained and independent sectors. Uniquely, it provides an opportunity to examine the distinctiveness of the Catholic system without reference to the pervasive influence of government education policy.
The principal speaker was a pocket sized Filipino nun called Sr Mary John, who is currently Head of a girls school in Manilla. Most of her presentation provided us with an opportunity to reflect on our core purpose as Catholic educators. Towards the end of her presentation she talked about tolerance, not just promoting and respecting, A.K.A. British Values, but celebrating it. She went on to say that students in Catholic schools really grow when they are welcomed as they are, with their gifts and their vulnerabilities together. Imperfections should be seen as both gifts and opportunities. It is this that brought me back to Charles Kennedy and shines a light on the uniqueness of our role and the privilege of working in a Catholic school.
By now you will be aware of the Diocese intention to alter the structure of its schools. Andy Hastilow, Chair of Governors, sent around an e-mail informing you of the changes. The governors encourage you to take part in the consultation.
“Trembling and bewildered, the women (I am sure if it had been men it would have been the same) went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”. Mark's account of the discovery of the empty tomb is read in our churches over the Easter season. I always find this account a little bewildering as it is almost another denial of what was happening by those who knew Jesus very well. Why were they not shouting ‘Alleluia he has risen’? I can identify with these women, they were probably afraid and uncertain; we have all been in this situation.
Pope Francis urges us to join in the “New Evangelisation”, telling our family, friends and classmates about Jesus. Often we feel uncomfortable, afraid and uncertain to share our faith and at times we can’t find the words to do so. In the same way that we may make a New Year resolution, why not stir the spirit and make a post Easter pledge to tell others about the faith we experience in our encounters with Jesus.
We have been blessed with good weather for most of the holiday. I am sure many youngsters have enjoyed being outside. I hope that you all had a relaxing Easter holiday and whether you were at home or away that you enjoyed spending time together as a family. A dose of sunshine is a good antidote for a return to school.
A big thank you to the staff who took students to Barcelona over the holiday; the trip was a great success. I also appreciate the work undertaken by staff who held revision and catch up sessions over the holiday. This was service beyond the call of duty.
For students in Years 11, 12 and 13 this term is extremely important as public examinations loom large on the horizon. The secret to success is thorough revision. Every August when the results are published, I ask parents about their experience of helping their children through exams. Their replies are always a combination of supervision, encouragement, bribery and tough love, so I do not underestimate the task ahead of parents in the coming weeks and months.
Students must ensure they achieve the maximum number of GCSEs and A level qualifications which means a concerted effort across all subjects. At GCSE good qualifications in Maths and English will be critical for the vast majority of opportunities available post 16.
There have been many examples in the past where students have lifted their performance by one or two grades between the mocks and the actual exams through dogged determination. Working together is the key ingredient in enabling youngsters to gain excellent qualifications and the future that they deserve.
Over the last few weeks there have been a number of events in school that I would like to reflect upon.
Our assembly time over recent weeks has been given over to Faith Unity. Rev. Simon Coleman, an Anglican Chaplain from Portsmouth University, together with our own Khudayja Datoo a practicing Muslim led the assemblies. Both speakers talked to students about their faith, myths, perceptions, respect and contemporary issues. The assemblies demonstrated how different faiths and traditions can come together in solidarity to find the common ground that unites us.
Developing a deep understanding of citizenship is a vital part of a youngster’s development. Part of this is an understanding of the democratic process. Learning about our history contributes significantly to this; I recently observed a fantastic lesson where youngsters learned about the evolution of one political party in the 1840s. Whilst learning about the history is part of the process, developing a deeper understanding of current political issues is also key. On 6th March representatives from all the major local parties visited school. They were all subjected to a fierce grilling by our sixth formers, many of our Year 13 students are old enough to vote. For the political panel there clearly was nowhere to hide. Belinda Ludlam, Head of Sixth Form, skilfully hosted the ‘Question Time‘ style debate.
It is not often they let me out for the day, so to receive an invitation to the Royal Commonwealth Observance at Westminster Abbey was one not to miss. On 9th March, with Mrs Hopkins, we took eight excited students to London. The service was held in the presence of the Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, they were joined by the Prince of Wales, Duchess of Cornwall and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The event celebrates the shared purpose, friendship and values that bind member states together as well as highlighting a desire to find solutions to the problems that exist in some of the member states. Our students were amongst a family of over 1000 other youngsters from the Commonwealth. This year the theme of the service was a ‘Young Commonwealth’ reflecting the fact that over 50% of the Commonwealth population are now under 25. Not only was it a pleasure to be invited, it was a privilege to take eight fantastic students out to London who were both a credit to the school and their families.
More information about these three events will be posted in the next Oaklands News.
You know that niggling feeling that you get when you’ve got an idea bubbling just underneath the surface and can’t quite express it – then again perhaps you don’t but it’s one with which I’m often afflicted. I experienced this when reflecting on my journey from London a few weeks ago. I was returning from the National Conference on Catholic Education and had found myself killing time at Waterloo station waiting for the Havant train. I found myself listening to one of the station personnel who referred to the traveling masses as customers, this jarred somewhat. When did passengers become customers? I know very little about the etymology of the word passenger. My command of modern foreign languages is sadly limited, but I suspect it is French and has something to do with passing, which in turn suggests something temporary. This makes some sense as none of us hope to be a permanent fixture on a train!
Customer is the language of commoditisation and managerialism. Whilst there is nothing wrong with these concepts, it does, for the commuter, redefine the relationship with the train company, something I am not entirely happy with. Perhaps customer is a chosen term because then they do not have to guarantee you passage from one location to the next.
Something similar is happening in education. For many universities, understanding that students are customers is the key to setting tuition rates. For others, even mentioning the words student and customer in the same sentence is betraying the fundamental principles of education. I have played around with suggesting that customer should be a metaphor for how we should treat parents and children – but this hits the same deep rooted problem of traditional perceptions of the relationship between provider and customer and whether it is the language we should even go near in our schools.
Despite my deep rooted concerns there is a hint of something in the concept of the customer that is worthy of consideration. This is why it is important to seek the views of students and parents via surveys and questionnaires, we have student councils and we involve students in the interview process for staff. Through these conduits we view the school experience through the lens of the customer (ouch!). A deep understanding of the student and parent experience can provide the foundation and should certainly be a driver for many of the decisions we make.
Over the last few months we have had a number of staff who have had or are expecting babies, sometimes twins. It is always a joyous occasion when a colleague tells me of a pending arrival. One of the first tasks for new parents is to name their children. For teachers this is often difficult because certain names conjure up images we may wish to forget! In addition to our name, in our working lives we get given names, titles, or tags that define our responsibilities or describe our work. When I worked as a surveyor on building sites many electricians were called ‘sparks’. Our job descriptions say something about us: if you get named a 'team leader' then that shows that the organisation trusts you to look after the work of a few people.
In the Gospel reading last Sunday we heard Jesus saying to Simon, “Simon son of John you are to be called Cephas”. Cephas is also translated 'Peter'. Peter means Rock. You could be forgiven for being a little confused in interpreting these translations until we realise that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the gospels were written in Greek and we speak English. From what we know about Peter he seems an unlikely choice to be called ‘The Rock’. Jesus knew better and trusted Peter. When Jesus asked his disciples "Who do you say I am?", Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" and it is this statement that prompts Jesus' famous words, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus has defined Peter’s future role.
We must not lose sight of the names we are given that describe our role and calling, something that originates from our baptism; in addition to our Christian names, we are called to be disciples of Christ and this defines the responsibility we have been given. Fortunately we do not have to do this in isolation and we do not have to look too far to see there is quite a job to do.
The powers that be, have made things so much harder for schools to meet the standards. This summer, our exams changed to being linear, this means that where previously students have been able to study modules and take exams at intervals during the year, we have reverted back to an exam at the end of GCSE and A Level courses. Many exams have changed with coursework elements disappearing or being significantly reduced. All in all the exam process now is much harder than it was for students over many years and, as a result, schools and the staff within them have had to adapt accordingly. Whilst other schools may have and continue to ‘game the system’ to improve league table positon, this has not been our way and it is mine and the governors view that this does not serve students well. Although it remains controversial, against the Ebac measure which strips out all the equivalences leaving schools with the tougher GCSEs, we remain one of the top Hampshire Secondary schools. Not bad for a truly comprehensive intake. At the beginning of this term we received the GCSE value added measure. Our value added has always been good. I am very proud to report that this year’s measure has significantly surpassed expectation.
Congratulations to all students in Year 13 who have sent their applications to the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) well before the January deadline and have been receiving offers from their universities of choice. Again this year we have nearly one hundred university hopefuls some of who are Oxbridge hopefuls. All these students need to secure the highest possible A and A* grades on their A2 courses. Enormous thanks and congratulations go to the Sixth Form tutors for their preparation of references and support in helping students write their personal statements.
Busy Year Ahead
The Christmas season was particularly busy for the Music department. In addition to the Peripatetic concert, they contributed to the Christmas Fayre, Christmas Music Concert, Carol Service and events in the local community. My thanks to Miss Flood and her dedicated team. The Chaplaincy team also worked overtime. In addition to preparation for the services, concerts and masses, Mrs Floyd also invited KS3 forms into the Chapel at registration time to reflect on the Advent message. The term ahead promises to be exceptionally busy for both students and staff with Year 11 currently taking their mock examinations, the Year 9 Courses Information Evening, various Parents’ Evenings and not forgetting our full school production of ‘Oklahoma’ in March.
Finally, at the beginning of a new term it is important that the school gets back to its normal rhythm as quickly as possible and students continue to deliver the high standards that you and we expect. Please read the articles and reminders throughout this newsletter.
Thank you for your continued prayers and support.