Two weeks from the October half term and it already feels as if we are well into the second half of this autumn term. The switch back to GMT and the dark evenings, with all the challenges they bring for our sports and other after school activities, really signals the onset of winter for me. November is the month of remembrance, of course, and as we enter the year during which we will commemorate the outbreak of World War I, the Great War, this week at school we kept the annual two minute silence at the moment the guns fell silent on the Western front in 1918. The Last Post was played across the school tannoy and all classes stopped their work to reflect on the sacrifices made in the wars of the twentieth century and into our own day. We concluded this with a prayer for peace among the nations.
Today, 14 November, we welcomed a special visitor to the school. Sir Jonathan Evans was until April this year the Director General of MI5, the Security Service. He was in school to give a talk to a group of students from Bennett, and some visiting students from neighbouring schools, about the work of MI5 and his own career with the Service. Students listened with great interest as he described some of the aspects of the work of MI5 in areas such as counter-espionage and anti-terrorism, and disabused us of any idea that ‘Spooks’ has anything much to do with the real thing. I was not surprised to hear that because I know how far TV school dramas such as ‘Waterloo Road’ are from reality! (However, Sir Jonathan did confess he had not watched ‘Homeland’, my own current favourite!). In students’ questions after the talk, the ethical dilemmas posed by intelligence work featured large, and his responses focussed on the strong culture of accountability in MI5 and the importance attached to promoting awareness of the possible legal and ethical issues amongst intelligence staff. Hopefully, the session served to sow a seed of interest in this kind of work amongst students: recruitment to the intelligence services, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ is open to any graduates – gone are the days when it was done through a quiet ‘tap on the shoulder’!
Our period of application for places at Bennett for September 2014 closed at the end of half term, and I am pleased to be able to report that once again we have record numbers of applications, reflecting the high level of interest in places at our school. While this in encouraging for us, the kind of school we are and the work we do, it also potentially makes it more likely that not everyone who has applied will be able to be allocated a place. This is unfortunately the dilemma our system of open application to schools by parents creates, and it is not easy to see how it can be avoided, other than by schools being as responsive as they can to demand for places. I, for one, would certainly not want a situation where parents were compelled to send their children to a single neighbourhood school – I think that parental choice, despite the problems it creates, ultimately is good for school improvement.
Year 7 is not of course the only point where there is mobility and choice for young people. The sixth form is another such point, and last night, Wednesday, we had our sixth form open evening. Although the majority of people who come to this are Bennett year 11 students contemplating their own options for study in the sixth form, we also have each year an ever higher level of interest from students from other schools. Indeed, I noted that the very first application received this year was from a student at another school in Tonbridge – I shall discreetly refrain from saying which one!
As we move towards the end of November, we realise that Advent will soon be upon us. The closing weeks of the Church’s year, before Advent begins, are ones when we traditionally focus on ‘last things’ – the theological focus on our final destiny is known as eschatology. Many of the Sunday readings in these weeks are themed on the reality of the final triumph of Christ as king both at the end of time and also in our own lives. This sense of ultimate triumph changes at the start of Advent into expectation. Triumph and expectation are two profoundly Christian realities in our lives it is worth reflecting on at this time.