Red boat climbing frame

Head Master's Blog

Autumn Term 2018

I am sure that we all have opinions on homework and having been in teaching for over 20 years, I have heard the full range from “lots more” to “nothing at all.” It is an emotive topic of conversation and my sense is that this is ever more the case as priorities and pressures in society change. The subject of homework has been in the press of late after comedy writer and actor, Rob Delaney shared his opinions on social media which were supported by Kirstie Allsopp and Gary Lineker. With good reason, they wish to preserve their children’s childhood and allow them time to enjoy other activities without being shackled to the kitchen table, ploughing through hours of mindless and, in their opinion, unnecessary homework. I sympathise but I also think that completing homework is much more than just finishing a worksheet or learning this week’s spellings for a test. At a primary level, it begins the all-important process of self-regulation, of becoming more independent in learning, of developing good habits for life. Most importantly, it should develop a love of learning that reaches beyond the classroom, as the process of learning, and the children’s understanding of its importance, must not be confined solely to hours spent at school.

One article that caught my eye last week was in The Times and was written by Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. The government has come under considerable pressure post budget when significant funding was allocated to repairing potholes rather than to schools, but when it comes to Mr Hinds’ opinion on homework, I have to say that I am inclined to agree with much of what he has to say. We set homework here at BPS and will continue to do so, but that is not to say that we want it to be to the detriment of the children’s lives outside of school. It has to have real value, and that is often the challenge when setting appropriate tasks to be completed away from the classroom. It may be the case that the professional judgement of the teacher leads them to set a reinforcement task, consolidating learning for the future or preparing for a task yet to come. With our younger children, homework is often used to enhance their knowledge of spelling patterns and number bonds, but it is also used to broaden interests and potentially spark a flame of enthusiasm for a topic. Just this week, there were several examples of this in action as I awarded Head Master’s Commendations to James and William in Year 6 for their efforts in Geography and History. Both had been so enthused by what they had been learning that they decided to extend their understanding by completing independent projects, James making a replica volcano and William researching his great-grandfather’s life during the 1st World War. Not only did they produce outstanding work but, most importantly, they demonstrated passion for learning and that was great to see. Now, you may be thinking “how on earth will we have time to make a volcano with everything else going on?” and I am acutely aware that for many, this is unrealistic. It is the fact that James and William were motivated to pursue their interests, not because they were told to or were offered any sort of extrinsic reward, but purely because they were excited enough by what they had learnt in school to use their time outside of school to pursue an interest. It is the process rather than the outcome that is of such value here and whilst the finished projects were superb, it is the mindset that we must look to recognise.

I do believe that homework has an important part to play in preparing children for the future, not just at Secondary School but in their lives beyond school. In his article, also in The Times, Lindsay Paterson supports the idea that homework lays the foundations for good learning habits and goes on to suggest that ‘Homework for young children serves the same purpose as football, music lessons, and splashing paint: it’s about learning how to be a decent, responsible, independent human being.’ As an advocate of homework at Primary level, I would wholeheartedly agree, even if for some children the notion that homework would be alongside sport on their ‘Top 5 things to do after school’ list may be something of a stretch! If used well, it can be a great help to any child but I also offer a word of caution. If your evenings are spent teaching your child because they don’t understand the homework set, or if they are still struggling after 30 minutes and are yet to have their tea, then that it is the time to speak to the school. In my experience, the link between home and school is vital in helping children to develop effective and sustainable learning habits and it is often the case that issues can be resolved very quickly and effectively just by sharing what goes on when it is time to complete homework. As is the case with most aspects of a child’s education, it is the strength of home/school links that plays such an important part in helping children to flourish and when it comes to homework, those connections are a potent tool for success.

Mon 5th Nov 2018, 08:00

If I asked you to name the five pillars of good physical health, you would probably reel off a list in seconds and it might look something like this: Balanced Healthy Diet, Exercise, Good Sleep, Alcohol in Moderation, Not Smoking. If I asked you to do the same with the five pillars of good mental health, well I imagine that the list becomes a little more challenging to put together. ArtThere is no question that mental health issues in young people are on the rise and this alarming trend is one that we all need to take notice of. We read in the press that incidences of anxiety, depression, self-harm and disordered eating have risen 70% in a generation. The Mental Health Foundation reported that 20% of young people in Britain will experience some sort of mental health problem in any given year; 10% at any one time. A 50% increase in the demand for mental health beds for young people between 1999 and 2014 means that the NHS simply cannot meet current demand and in a report into wellbeing among 10-12 year olds in 15 diverse countries (including Algeria, Romania; Ethiopia, Nepal, Germany, Norway, and S Korea), English pupils rated 13/15 for life satisfaction, 14th for body image satisfaction and 15th for self-confidence. I don’t wish to be alarmist folks but we need to take notice and do something about it. I am sure that we all have a theory as to why this is the case, and with National Mental Health Awareness Day taking place on Wednesday last week, I thought that I would share some thoughts on what we can do to buck the trend and make a difference to the lives of our young people.

Without wishing to oversimplify this very serious problem, perhaps we can start with simply addressing an issue raised in The Independent this week and that is ensuring that every child has someone to talk to. In a survey conducted on behalf of the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) charity it was discovered that one in ten children said they feel they have no-one to talk to, or would not talk to anyone in school, if they felt worried or sad. Using figures from the Office for National Statistics, the MHF estimated that this equates to 476,066 children aged between 10 and 15 in the UK. OutdoorsI do think that opening up channels of communication and giving children the confidence to know that there are people who will listen, who will not judge them or think less of them for asking for help, who will understand and empathise, are all key to developing really strong pastoral care systems in schools, and that is certainly what we aim to do on a daily basis here at BPS. How do we do that? Well there are many different ways, some overt in nature such as the use of data from regular surveys to identify those children in need of support. This information, gathered through the use of PASS (Pupils Attitudes to Self and School) has already proven to be highly effective and now forms part of our monitoring of pupil well-being. Some of our support is less overt, such as the use of a Worry Box in which messages can be left for our Deputy Head – highly effective if a child is feeling concerned about absolutely anything but making that initial move to ask for help is just a bit too scary. Our Buddy system provides children with a friend to go to if they need help, and we do find that younger children will confide in their older buddy as a first point of contact. When more help is needed we are fortunate to have the most wonderful School Councillor, who provides expert guidance to those who need it, but the real difference is made by the teachers who work most closely with the children and are best placed to identify when a child needs help or just simply a listening ear. Vigilance is key and it is something that we talk about on a weekly basis as we look to guide our children through their increasingly complex lives.

These systems are all well and good, but it is in addressing the root causes of poor mental health, and helping children to better understand what they can do to improve it, that is really the key to success.I recently attended the IAPS Heads Conference and in one of the seminars I listened to the work being done at Bootham School in York by the Head, Chris Jeffery. PERMA diagram (courtesy of GinaSemensi.com)He shared his school’s journey in achieving their goal which was ‘to enable students (and staff) to develop better ways of promoting good physical, emotional and mental health’, and there were a number of things within his presentation which really resonated with me, the most significant being this diagram.

This is the PERMA Model of Human Flourishing and it comes from psychologist, Martin Seligman’s work on happiness and well-being, and addresses five key pillars which, if followed, can have a big impact on mental health. The first is Positive Emotions - powerful things which have proven health benefits, reducing the risk of type II diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular disease, and they can be actively promoted through certain intentional activities: Showing kindness and care for others, learning new things and being curious, expressing gratitude and noticing or identifying the good things that happen. They have the ability to change mindset and build optimism, crucial components to learning as well as to developing a healthier life. Being fully absorbed in what we are doing, creating, learning or experiencing, both in our work and at play has huge benefits and that is why Engagement is so important. PupilsWe should encourage children to identify, acknowledge and play to their strengths, to take up hobbies that challenge and stretch them and to learn and try new things. Positive Relationships with friends, family, colleagues and those who share our interests in order to create a support network, can act as a positive foundation for good mental health. Face to face contact cannot be replicated by social media and ‘virtual’ contact! Physical connections through eye contact, handshakes and hugs releases the hormone oxytocin, which has anti-depressant effects and positively effects generosity and trust. Having Meaning in our lives is crucial – a sense of the purpose for each day is psychologically important as well; knowing why we’re doing what we are doing goes a long way to bringing enjoyment and fulfilment in to our lives. And finally, Accomplishment related to our strengths and our purpose is especially important; it grows self-efficacy, our belief in our ability to succeed and helps us to thrive. HockeyResearch also shows that ‘grit’ is twice as important as ability in helping achievement. Modestly recognising, owning and celebrating our accomplishments, rather than brushing them off, promotes wellbeing.

Clearly, the consistent application of these principles within the context of our busy and often challenging lives is not always straightforward but if we listen to what children are saying and give them the tools to lead happy and healthy lives, then we are giving them the very best chance to find fulfilment now and in the future, and that should always be our mission.

Mon 15th Oct 2018, 07:14

From time to time I like to explore some more controversial topics in my fortnightly blog and therefore I’m going to put it out there and say that I actually prefer Channel 4’s ‘The Great British Bake Off’ to the BBC version. “Sacrilege” I hear you cry but the Noel Fielding/Sandy Toksvig combo makes me laugh and, yes I’m going to say it, I think I like Pru Leith almost as much as Mary Berry. I realise that this statement may be classed as treason, as Mary B comes a close second to Her Majesty The Queen, but I just enjoy the new show. I also am not at all bothered about Strictly Come Dancing but I realise that I may be going too far now so will swiftly move on. In truth, my enjoyment of this inked in date in our weekly family calendar is dramatically enhanced by the rule imposed by my daughter that we must eat cake during the programme. Before you begin thinking that this is some sort of family baking session, I must shatter that illusion by telling you that we simply buy one from Tesco. Oh the shame of it! I am pretty certain that our children in Years 3 to 6 would be appalled as their baking skills are enhanced on a weekly basis through their Food Tech lessons and as I sat at my desk on Friday afternoon the smell of baking cakes did waft into my study, causing me to get up and pay the children a visit, just to make sure that everything was ok you understand, and nothing to do with a sudden craving for a sweet treat. Earlier in the week, I had returned to my desk to find a delicious slice of jam tart with pastry perfectly cooked – no soggy bottoms here – and it would be fair to say that rarely does a week go by without our children cooking up a storm in our state of the art kitchen.

My reason for mentioning the GBBO is that earlier in the week, I read an article in the TES in which Pru Leith talked about her best teacher, a man who changed her life and who she credits with much of her success today. We can probably all recall a teacher who made a difference and in past blogs I have talked of my great inspiration, the wonderful Mr Marr. In much the same way that Pru Leith was captivated by the personality of her maths tutor, Mr Ralfs, his waistcoat and tweed jacket, as well as his extravagant personality, Mr Marr inspired me through his charisma, his immaculate suits and highly polished shoes, but most importantly his ability to make me feel that he was completely dedicated to helping me. He made a connection and he gave me the confidence and the determination to work through challenges and make the most of my time at school. Much more than this, he shaped my idea of what a truly great teacher should be.

At the start of term, our new Senior School Head, Mr Bart Wielenga, spoke to all members of the Blundell’s community including teachers and support staff, and he outlined his vision for the school, focusing in on the profound impact that we as teachers can have on the lives of those whom we teach. It stands to reason that we will play an important part but the extent to which we can make a difference is determined by our ability and desire to connect with every child, however challenging that may be on occasions. As the Head of the Prep School, I am immensely proud of how our team of teachers, teaching assistants and support staff, all work to make those individual connections with children, and this is reflected in the happy atmosphere, mutual respect and warmth of relationships that are played out every day. It’s not just me who feels this, as our parents were very quick to share their views during our June inspection, and their responses were, in the words of our reporting inspector, “extraordinarily positive” when commenting on how the teachers work to support their children. Educational research is also very clear in what makes a difference to a child at school and provides the best conditions for progress in learning, as summarised in these four key points which were shared with all of the Blundell’s staff at the beginning of the new academic year:

  1. Pupil Self-Efficacy: pupil’s belief in their own ability and their resourcefulness in solving problems is vital and heavily influenced by you.
  2. Teacher Credibility and Relationships: Your credibility as a practitioner and as a reliable human being. The trust pupils have in you.
  3. Positive Peer Influence and Classroom Coherence: The work we do to create a positive environment, both in and out of the classroom.
  4. Students feeling liked by you: It is easy to like pupils who are friendly and compliant. You are the adult!

I am sure that you would all have an opinion as to which is the most important but the one that is perhaps most interesting to consider is number 4. This is not to say that we should look to in any way undermine the respectful distance between pupil and teacher but what is powerful beyond words is the moment when a child knows and accepts that you are on their side. Sometimes this happens very easily but if we want to truly offer outstanding support for every child then we must look to make these connections even when it is difficult. Having spent many hours talking to parents, I have on occasions been surprised by their child’s choice as their favourite teacher and their reasons as to why a connection has been made. What never surprises me is the power that these relationships can have in transforming a previous reluctance to engage in a subject or a propensity to give up when the going gets tough. It is a very significant part of what makes for an excellent teacher and we must never lose sight of it.

Mon 1st Oct 2018, 08:00

Week 3 is about to begin and the start of term now seems like a distant memory. I imagine that there were differing emotions in the days leading up to the first day back at school after the long summer break. I would guess that there were a few nerves and that is absolutely understandable. The children may be surprised to learn that teachers get a bit nervous at the start of the new year as well. A hint of anxiety at what is to come, coupled with the knowledge that it will soon be time for the grey matter to start working again! Perhaps that is just me? Outdoor LearningThe Summer break is a wonderful time but as August comes to an end, our thoughts turn to the new term, new friends, new teachers, new lessons and new stationery! Yes, the final two weeks of the summer break marks the start of the mad rush to buy those ‘essential’ items from WHSmith (other retailers are available). Suddenly the pencil case that your child simply had to have last year becomes “so uncool” and the colouring pens that just two months ago were thought to be in fine working order are discovered to have been left without their lids. You mortgage your house to buy another pack of Friction pens and pontificate about the need to purchase yet another smelly rubber. The ruler has vanished – supposedly lent to a friend, and the calculator that was not turned off in July now has a flat battery in September. Clearly, some of our girls in Year 6 had acquired new fountain pens and marked their first History lesson of the year by running out of ink and then changing the cartridges only to discover that there was in fact, quite a lot of ink left. The carpet in room 6 now bears testimony to this! Sadly, a recent article in the TES arrived just a little too late, as it suggests that much of this stationary is actually unnecessary. I’m not sure that I agree with all of the comments, although the one concerning glue sticks and missing lids is an all too familiar problem!

Swimming Swimming

Aside from this minor ink disaster, the start of term has been very positive indeed, and we welcomed nearly 40 new children across the Nursery, Pre-Prep and Prep School on the first day back. We also welcomed new staff with Mrs Clifford and Mrs Taylor joining us in the Pre-Prep and Mr Genders and Mrs Latus joining us in the Prep. As is ever the case at the start of term, the sun was shining, and day one saw our Pre-Prep children head to the pool for the first of their weekly lessons. They loved it and with 50 children from the Prep school also heading to the pool for their swimming lessons on Thursday mornings, it has been great to see this new provision already having such a positive impact. We have a great deal planned for the year ahead and I was delighted to have the opportunity to share these plans with parents at our Prep Welcome meetings last week. I also shared our vision for imbedding Growth Mindset principles in to every part of our daily lives and asked parents to look for opportunities to ask their children some key questions to help with this. I appreciate that children are not always receptive to answering parental questions after a long day at school but if you find the right moment why not ask them:

  • What was fun today? (Not necessarily Growth Mindset but it is always good to start with a positive!)
  • What did you try hard at today?
  • What made you keep going?
  • What mistakes did you make that you learned from?
  • What will you do to improve your schoolwork tomorrow?

Hockey

The key is to focus on the process rather than outcome, however hard that may be. I am sure that every parent has heard their child say “I can’t do that!” and we certainly know that this can be a very quick response when faced with a challenging task. We are aiming to add just one word to that phrase, and that word is “Yet!” If a child recognises that they can improve through hard work, consistent effort, purposeful practise, the willingness to seek and accept feedback, and the understanding that making mistakes is not only ok but a good thing, then they are well on the way to becoming better learners. We have already done a lot of work on this with children throughout the school but we intend to do more and in mid-October we will welcome internationally renowned speaker, Steve Ingle to BPS to help us further develop our plans. In the meantime, do let me know if you have any observations about how growth mindset has helped your child – I am always keen to hear success stories.

Group at Lynmouth MusicRefreshments at break Outdoor Learning

I have included some of the lovely photos taken since we returned to school, many of which have appeared on Facebook and Twitter. Do remember that there are daily updates to our social media feed and all photos can be found in the Image Gallery on our website.

My best wishes to one and all for the year ahead.

Mon 17th Sept 2018, 07:25