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03
May

Celebrating the School Birthday

Whenever I tell people that I am a teacher, they almost always make the same reply.  They tell me about a teacher they remember from their own school days.  They repeat to me verbatim what that teacher said to them – often something inspiring or encouraging but sometimes, alas, the opposite.  Their school days may have been many, many years ago but the memory of what their teacher said stays very fresh.  (A comment to me by the teacher in charge of Careers at my school –  ‘well, of course, it is easier for girls because you can either be a success or marry a success’  – still has the power to annoy me!)  This reminds us what a big impact teachers can have and what an important job teaching is.

Currently, though, the standing of the teaching profession is lower than it has ever been in my career – and recruitment levels to the profession are correspondingly depressed.  Time, then, to redress the balance in a small way by celebrating the joys of teaching – and what better opportunity than our School Birthday?

For 141 years, the High School has been a magnet for talented teachers and, though some of them have passed through its classrooms and corridors uncommemorated (except in the hearts and minds of their pupils at the time), others have left a permanent legacy.  I think of Miss Straker with her motto – ‘work or go!’ – or the formidable Mrs Gee, immortalised in legends and a Bryan Organ portrait.  I think of KM Peyton, Art teacher turned prize-winning author, and Mrs Wanda Davies – the lady with the famous bicycle.

Currently there are 77 teachers at the High School.  Their teaching roles are as varied as one can imagine, from Mrs Waters in Pre-School to Mrs Hymers and Mrs Tansley, who specialise in A Level Business and Economics for the Sixth Form.  Some are relative newcomers, while Mrs Dadge has been at the High School since it opened in Hardingstone in 1992.  Many of us have been lifelong members of the profession while others, such as Mrs Forsyth and Mrs O’Doherty, have had other careers (engineering and librarianship respectively), besides.

Whatever our many difference, we all have one thing in common – our love of the work we do.  This is what we celebrated in our Assembly.  Our speakers (Miss Brandon-Jones, Mrs Dadge, Mr Donaldson, Mrs Forsyth, Mrs Halstead, Mrs Hill and Mrs Petryszak) entertained us with their stories, inspired us with their philosophies and moved us with their tributes to the job they love.  Everyone in the room, from the Reception girls to the 6.2s, could take something of lasting value away.  Many doubtless will.

The contributions of past generations of teachers form the geological underpinnings of our remarkable school. The contributions of the current generation are building a launch pad from which our students will take off and fly.  Some of them – who knows? – may become teachers.

 

05
Apr

Day in the life of a Head

Pondering my parting message to you for the spring term, my mind travelled down the list of my appointments for just one day of this week (Wednesday, as it happens) and it struck me that my Day in the Life of a Head made a very suitable Life in a Day of the School.

And what a day it has been!  A Class Assembly from Year 4 on Water was a model of cross-curricular learning, featuring science, ecology, oracy, singing and (a first for me) tanka poetry.  A few steps across the Dining Hall, the Sixth Form Rock Band were centre-stage for a very different sort of Assembly, going through their paces with covers from, among others, Arctic Monkeys.  This was closely followed for me by a visit to Reception, finding out more about how the girls use the outdoors for their learning.  The flower beds in their garden are ready for planting and – more joined-up learning here – Mrs Shaw is hoping that the class can make soup from the carrots that they grow this season.  A spell with Year 2 practising number bonds through an Easter Egg Hunt in the grounds completed a deep dive into the many ways in which junior girls can learn through adventure and exploration.

Late morning brought a planning meeting for our visit from BBC’s Question Time team.  Interest in current affairs is at an all-time high among our students and so great excitement greeted the news that we had been selected as the venue for the 9 May Show.  We are keen to make the most of the opportunity for them to gain insights into the logistics of the programme as well as introducing them to the cut and thrust of contemporary political debate.  All the budding TV producers, journalists or politicians out there – this one is for you.

The afternoon brought a final meeting with a 62 student whom I have been supervising for the Extended Project Qualification, as she prepared to submit her final product.  It is always a pleasure to take part in this programme, as individuals take on ambitious projects, juggle their many commitments and wrestle with ethical and methodological questions to reach their final goal.  It has also been particularly stimulating for me to supervise a project on mathematics, quite a long way from my specialism, in a programme that encourages the demolition of subject barriers in the pursuit of original intellectual inquiry.  A better preparation for university research would be hard to find.

If I stretch a point and include the full 24 hours since tea-time on Tuesday, the line-up of events becomes even more remarkable. Four o’clock found me at a Private View we  hosted at the University of Northampton of ‘Yuli’ – an extraordinary film about the life of Cuban ballet phenomenon Carlos Acosta.  Not only did we premiere the film a day before it was shown in Covent Garden but we were also able to meet the Director, Icíar Bollain (a Madrilenian living in the UK), who had generously accepted Ms Diez’s invitation to take part in a Q&A with our students.  (This they did in Spanish, naturally.)  With our GCSE Language oral exams kicking off and the German exchange visit winding down (and planning for the finale of our Erasmus+ project continuing in the background), this has been an intense week for building European links and has taken us several steps forward in our bid to increase the international awareness of all our students as they head towards a global workplace.

Minutes after the film credits rolled, it was a quick change of scene as we began our annual Sports Awards Evening in the Senior School Hall.   With a new format and a dazzling line-up of prize winners and guests, the evening reminded us what a very successful year this has been in sport – culminating in the U16 netball team being placed 11th in the National Finals.  International netballer, Eboni Usoro-Brown, had earlier in the evening delighted girls in the Junior Awards with her story of playing for England, and her 5 tips for success (including ‘enjoy the journey’) hit the mark exactly for her eager audience.  With the summer season yet to start in earnest, it is clear that huge numbers of girls are ‘enjoying the journey’ of their life in sport.

That, then, was my day (and what a privilege to be able to call this work!).  From Reception to 62, rock music to ballet – via netball and number bonds, politics and poetry – school is a kaleidoscope of experiences and opportunities.  Every girl, every day.

Little wonder, then, that we are ready for a break when the end of term comes.  Whatever the spring break brings for you, I hope that it is happy and healthy.

15
Mar

Out of sight but not out of mind

Without a doubt the purpose of school is to educate, and the primary focus is understandably on students and teachers. It is surprising to realise therefore that, in common with most other schools, there are almost as many support staff as teachers at Northampton High. Why should this be? And what do they all do? Particularly when the school is closed during the evenings and school holiday periods.

It is reassuring that almost 50% of the support staff are directly involved in supporting teachers and students whether they be Science Technicians, IT Technical support, Teaching Assistants, Before and After School Care, Nursery Nurses, School Nurse, Counsellors or Examination Invigilators.

We have made a conscious decision at Northampton High to keep all school services in-house rather than contracting these functions out. This means that we have experienced teams of caterers and cleaners who take a great pride in keeping the domestic side of school running smoothly and to a high standard. The beauty of having in-house teams means they are flexible and responsive to the needs of the school community, whether this is during term time, or to support the community use of the building in the evenings, holidays and at weekends. It also means that these staff are generally long serving and very much an integral part of the wider school community which adds value in so many ways.

Our administration team take care of the two school Reception desks, transport administration, financial administration, examinations, database management, HR, marketing and admissions, trips organisation, ordering goods and services, as well as supporting teaching staff with routine administrative matters. I think anyone who has had reason to visit or telephone, either the Senior School or Junior School Reception, will acknowledge that they received a warm welcome and help with their enquiry.

This just leaves our Premises team who cope admirably with the running of a 27 acre site and school mini bus service. They are on hand 7 days a week to meet the demands of the school and out of hour’s lettings. The growing demands of compliance involve them dealing with the management of tree surveys, legionella, water risk assessments, asbestos management plans, health and safety, COSHH risk assessments, grounds contracts, swimming pool plant and our several school boiler rooms. They are an experienced team with a wealth of knowledge about the school site and infrastructure and are always on hand to carry out work requests from teaching staff. One of their favourite tasks is getting up at 3 am to open up the school to wave off a trip! Or being woken at 2 am when the intruder alarm has been activated by a display falling from a wall!

It feels like there has been a need for increasing numbers of support staff over the years brought about by an increase in legislation, inspection regimes and compliance, adherence to best practice in safeguarding and the need to risk assess just about everything we do. It would be good to think that the additional support staff have eased the workload of teachers but this is most certainly not the case. The job of the teacher is as challenging as ever, demanding a huge level of commitment, talent and many working hours. However it is true to say that the school could not operate with the dedicated team of support staff that also work hard, often behind the scenes, out of sight, and sometimes out of hours.

One of the joys if working at Northampton High is that all staff come together to form a community united in its aim of doing the best it possibly can for our pupils. This applies to all staff, whatever role they have to play.

08
Mar

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day (IWD) offers an unmissable opportunity to shine a light on an area of human endeavour where women’s role has traditionally been too much in the shadows.  This year, with our recent Music Department refurbishment in mind, we have chosen to celebrate the contribution of women to music composition.  The hashtag for IWD 2019 – #Balance for Better –fits beautifully with this.  IWD is not about claiming that women are better than men are but, rather, proclaiming that balance (or diversity, to put it another way) is better than narrow exclusivity.

Men have, it almost goes without saying, achieved amazing things in music. (Just think of Byrd, Bach(s), Buxtehude, Beethoven, Brahms, Bizet, Bruckner, Berlioz, Bartok, Barber, Britten, Bernstein, Birtwhistle, the Beatles and Bowie – without moving from one letter of the alphabet!)  Women have, however historically found it very difficult to get any of their music heard.  This has been true for all sorts of reasons – to do with the way money, power and time were distributed in society and to do with deep cultural attitudes, which disapproved of women taking the limelight.

It has been easy, then, to study and enjoy music (especially classical music) without ever meeting any women composers and easy to believe that women just aren’t there in the tradition. Jessy McCabe, the student whose high-profile challenge, a few years ago, of Edexcel on its exclusion of any women composers from its A Level Music Specification, hit a chord (ouch!) with a mass audience and, since then, change has come rapidly.  Jessy’s action (backed by our own CEO, Cheryl Giovannoni) was a brilliant example of the power of persuasion – which we can all take inspiration from – and opened a doorway into a new world in which women composers, past and present, are popping up everywhere.

From Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century nun, writer, composer and a true pioneer, to the current luminaries of the composing scene, many of whom (Anne Dudley, Rachel Portman and Anoushka Shankar, for example) we have been celebrating in school over the last few weeks, we have discovered a plethora of prodigies to counterbalance the traditional canon.

Allied to this, IWD is also a perfect platform to celebrate the wealth of composing talent and originality we have in our midst, as our own students enjoy the opportunities in school to express their ideas and hone their skills, assisted by the recent addition of a state-of-the-art Music Technology Studio.  We were, for example, delighted to hear Théa Deacon’s own original composition, inspired by a masterclass with Kerry Andrew at a Summer School at the Purcell School, in Assembly a few weeks ago.

Finally, Mrs Care’s specially created film focusing on the many women in key roles within the contemporary scene was a timely reminder of just what a vibrant professional field the British music industry is for young women to enter, at a time when many schools are easing music and other creative arts into the margins of their curriculum.

When sharing my own personal A-Z of women composers with the girls today, I left Y blank – with a challenge that said ‘Y could stand for You!’