Over the two weeks since the last posting on this blog much has been happening at school. The absence of a recent update is again an indication not of insufficient activity to talk about, but too much activity to find time to talk about it! Last Friday we began ‘study leave’ – which is really just the end of the normal timetable of lessons – for year 11 students who are now in the midst of GCSEs. The end of lessons and the start of examinations can occasion some high spirited activity on the part of students, a fairly recent trend in popular culture presumably propagated through Australian and American TV series. In trying to remember what happened when I finished school – it was so long ago! – I failed to remember anything at all, but one of my school friends with whom I have recently re-established contact through (I am almost ashamed to admit it) Facebook has reminded me with the aid of a photograph that we drew our inspiration from the Iranian Embassy siege which had taken place in the April of the year I left school, the sixth form block taking the place of the embassy! Anyway, nothing like that at Bennett his year. We had a genuinely celebratory and relaxed few hours with a celebration of achievement assembly and service followed by a barbecue and fete in our lovely croquet lawn area. I smiled to myself as students bade me farewell with great gusto on leaving the school, only to be immediately reminded by their friends that they would be back two days later for their first GCSE examinations. Bizarre, but harmless!
A lot of my time has been devoted in the last two weeks to interviewing for new staff from September. This is a process which we have tended to do a bit earlier in the school year than May in recent years, but this year, because there are so many changes to the ways in which schools are funded, not least through the whole scale move to academy status of secondary schools in Kent, recruitment is generally happening later in the cycle. Two weeks ago we successfully appointed a new teacher to lead ICT in the school, working alongside Mrs Miller. We have also appointed some extremely promising new teachers in the English department who, we are confident, will enhance and strengthen our work in this central area, and a new young teacher of Religious Studies last week, who again shows great promise. Today we are interviewing three applicants for the post of Music Director, an exciting new post which is intended to lead the development of a much stronger and more vibrant musical culture in the school. When I say interviewing, there is actually a bit more to it than that. For all teaching posts, we ask candidates to teach a lesson with a real class which is observed by senior staff as part of the selection process, and students’ views on how the lesson went are sought as part of that. For today, we have devised a programme including not only an interview with a panel of staff and governors, but also a presentation, and, given the nature of the role, a task whereby the candidates will be given a who class of students (in year 8 on this occasion) and asked to teach and rehearse a musical item with them, which will then be performed by them in the presence of the other candidates, staff and governors, and the students with whom the other candidates have worked. We hope this will reveal the candidates most able to work effectively with a group of young people and secure high musical standards with them.
On Wednesday this week I spent the day in London firstly working as non-partisan advisor on the panel advising Andy Burnham, Shadow Education Secretary, on ways to develop education policy. This was the third of a series of four planned meetings, and took place in a committee room adjacent to Westminster Hall, inside the Palace of Westminster. Security, as you would expect, is stringent but significantly more courteous than it can be in airports. The discussion was focussed on how developing Labour education policy can most effectively address the problem of the most educationally disenfranchised end of the social spectrum in terms of acess to and achievement in valued qualifications. A problem the last Labour government, despite best intentions, did not manage to solve to any meaningful extent, in my view. After that meeting I rushed across to Lambeth Palace to offer an input to a conference of Church of England heads and chaplains on Church school ethos. Once I had drawn breath from that, I realised what a wonderful location Lambeth Palace is. I had never seen it from the inside before – it actually opens out into a huge courtyard with wonderful old buildings and some splendid ancient fig trees, more like an Oxbridge college than anything else.
One of the things we discussed was the effect on Church schools of the constant caricaturing of Christian faith reported in the media. Only last week, Stephen Hawking, whom many of us might admire for overcoming his disability with such determination, reportedly announced that “heaven is a fairy tale for people who are afraid of the dark; the mind is a machine which stops working when its parts fail; we should concentrate on fulfilling our potential during our lifetime”. The BBC clearly felt that this was a sufficiently worthwhile assault on Christian faith to report in main news bulletins. As usual, it is only an insult to Christian faith if your understanding of Christian faith is very basic indeed. As far as I know the second and third points are not incompatible with faith, and even the first point, about heaven, is clearly referring to a child’s understanding of it. Christian faith is absolutely not about ducking responsibility for this life on the basis that it will all be sorted out in the afterlife. I think immediately of the Christian Aid slogan of some years ago: “We believe in life before death”. At the conference we all concluded that young people need opportunities to understand where these attacks were coming from and that they are based on the most superficial and simplistic understandings of faith.
It was fascinating to meet chaplains in Church schools across the whole range. We all agreed that effective chaplaincy is one of the cornerstones of a Church school and its ethos. Earlier this week our own chaplain, Revd Rachael, stepped in to help out in an examination hall. When I thanked her for doing so, she told me that she had used the opportunity to pray silently one by one for the students sitting there taking an examination. What more eloquent expression can there be of the ethos of a Church school?