We come once again this week to the start of our annual round of open evenings, this year for parents and children who are thinking abut which secondary school to go to in September 2012, or 2013 if they are currently only year 5. I always really enjoy these evenings, as it is an opportunity for the school to put its best foot forward and show itself off at its best. As head, I try the almost impossible task of summarizing in a single address everything the school does and achieves, as well as giving visitors a flavour of the kind of school Bennett is. I love doing this, because it provides a chance for me to reflect on where the school is in its development, and everything it has achieved over the past year, and, indeed, over recent years. When I do this, I feel tremendous pride and at the same time real humility – nothing of everything we have done and continue to do would be possible without the wonderful colleagues Bennett is so fortunate to have, nor, indeed, without the support of local families and church communities and their children. The continuing success of Bennett is a shared triumph. For those who are interested, my address will be on this website later in the week, and distributed in paper form with prospectuses to all visitors to the open evenings this week and next.
Another rather eccentric pleasure I have at the start of every school year is the practice fire drill we do in September. It is the only time we see the whole school population formally assembled in one place, and I get to say a few words to everyone within the space of ten minutes or so. Once again, I feel nothing other than pride when I see the whole school assembled in this way – this year, as usual, they evacuated the building promptly and quietly, impeccably behaved, and went straight to their meeting points, where they line up with their tutor in alphabetical order – that bit needs to be practised in advance! – to be checked off. Uniforms were smart as students waited patiently for the checks to be complete so they could be sent back to finish their lesson. I may be deluding myself very slightly, but I felt that many seemed keen to get back to their lesson!
Last week we had assemblies led by the team of students who visited one of our African partner schools in Tanzania in July, accompanied by Mr Tyson and Mrs Santaana. They were wonderful assemblies, excellently prepared, and it was really encouraging to see how a slightly disparate and in some cases shy group of students had ‘gelled’ and grown in confidence through their shared experiences in Tanzania. The place they visited is in the Anglican diocese in Tanzania which is twinned with the Diocese of Rochester, but it could not be more different. The schools in the Tanzanian diocese have almost nothing by way of material resources, but they have an eagerness to learn and a warmth towards visitors which puts many of us to shame in the ‘developed’ western world.
As I think I have mentioned before, over the summer I attended a conference in Toronto, Canada, as one of three secondary English representatives. The conference was the biennial meeting of the International Confederation of Principals, bringing together over 2000 school leaders from around the world. There were many notable moments during the four day conference, and I may ‘drip feed’ some of these in this blog. One of the most astonishing, for me, was as follows. We were in a session being led by the Chinese official in overall charge of the school system in Shanghai, officially the highest performing school system in the world, measured by international testing. It is a mega-city of some 35 million people, so over half the size of England. Much education policy being pursued here in England is based on the assumption that we need to ‘catch up with’ places like Shanghai in terms of performance in exams. However, when asked to comment on this, the Chinese official said, and I paraphrase: We are not interested in our exam performance. Our children are good at doing as they are told, and they are very motivated to pass exams. But if China is to have the future we want for it, we must find a way to make our children work less hard, to reduce rote learning in the curriculum, encourage creativity and critical thinking. We will never progress while Chinese parents and society are so obsessed with long hours, loads of rote learning, and massive amounts of homework. Our children need space and time to develop – but it is hard to persuade a culture so obsessed with hard work that this is what we need. We are very keen to learn from Europe and improve our education system by looking at yours. I was utterly astonished to hear him say this – it seemed to fly in the face of everything we think about the relative position of China and the West. Food for thought.