Late September is always dominated by, on the one hand, focussing on settling in new year 7 students who have made the big transition to secondary school, and supporting them through any teething problems, and, on the other, focussing on open evenings and projecting the school to prospective parents and students who visit us. Last week we had two highly successful open evenings, with attendance at one in particular (which we can monitor by recording how many prospectuses and packs are taken) breaking the records of the past 5 years for any single evening. There is always a tremendous buzz to the school on open evenings, and the occasion brings out a genuine pride and excitement amongst students and staff alike in the work they do and in the kind of school Bennett is. Special thanks to all those students who stayed to help, either in showing visitors around, or in assisting teachers in subject areas, and particularly our superb head girl and head boy for talking with such sincerity and passion about the school. All the information about the open evenings is on the school website for anyone who would like a look.
Apart from our new year 7 students, who are settling in really well to the demands of secondary school, we have recruited the largest ever year 12 (lower sixth) in Bennett’s history. The vast majority of these are former year 11 students who know the school and clearly decided they wanted to continue with us for the next stage. We also have some external students as well joining us, and these too are making a good start to their Bennett education.
Last Wednesday a group of fifteen Bennett students went up to St James’ Palace in London to receive formally their Duke of Edinburgh Gold Awards. This is a record number for the school in one year and demonstrates the success and popularity of the award. One of the characteristics of an outstanding education, apart from excellent exam results, is the development of character, ‘grit’, resilience, team skills. The Duke of Edinburgh Award, especially at its highest level, does this amply. Emerging from the ideas of the German educator Kurt Hahn about character education and learning to tackle challenge, which he began to put into practice at Gordonstoun School, the Award at Gold level not only involves a very demanding three day expedition with wild camping, it also calls for a significant commitment to voluntary service, sport, the learning of a new skill or ability to an advanced level, and a residential. It is more commonly completed later than school age, including at university, because of its demanding nature, so it is a real tribute to so many Bennett students to have achieved the Gold Award whilst still at school.
Education continues as ever to get a seemingly never ending stream of media coverage. So much of the media attention is peripheral to what I would consider as the core purposes of education, however. Recently we have had renewed focus on school lunches – and there is a group of activists nationally who are so zealous on this issue that they want to ‘ban’ parents from sending children to school with packed lunches so as to compel them to eat school lunches. I have repeatedly made it clear that in my view this is unacceptable as an approach. Apart from being completely impractical in a secondary school, it is also a dangerous encroachment into parents’ freedom to decide how to cater for their own children’s dietary needs. I am all for information and education about diet – indeed, we introduced cookery lessons for all year 7 students a number of years ago before the idea was even thought of in Westminster – but I am not in favour of compulsion. People have to make informed choices for themselves about their own families.
This week there will be a lot of media coverage about the government’s decision to count only the first entry at GCSE in the school league tables. The background to this is the growing number of schools entering students repeatedly for the same subject through years 10 and 11, sometimes even year 9, until they get a C grade. My view is that this is bad educational practice, as it makes learning shallow and reduces it to exam rehearsal. However I do understand why schools do it – many are under huge pressure to increase their proportion of C grades and feel that repeated entry is a good way to do this. Although I don’t approve of the practice of repeated entry, I think it is unfair to accuse schools of ‘cheating’ – that is emotive and unnecessary language. I would have no problem with the government making the change they are making, if it seemed to be part of a planned and coherent approach which everyone understood. It does feel though that there is a succession of changes announced one after the other and that people are not understanding, and many are therefore not ‘buying into’ the underlying aims and messages. As far as Bennett is concerned the change will have little or no impact on our published figures, because we do not do repeated entry for GCSEs, or any other qualification, come to that.
Finally, special good wishes to all former Bennett students who are going off this week to start their university courses. It is a really big step in any young person’s life, often involving living away from home for the first time. Spare a thought for their mums and dads as well – it is a big transition for them too!