This lockdown has demanded a lot of all of us and I hope that all our pupils, parents and staff manage some rest over the half-term.
The short daylight hours, screen time, and a climate of ongoing uncertainty have been a challenge for many of us. I would like to pay tribute to my colleagues, pupils and families for being so level-headed in such circumstances. To maintain our sense of balance and perspective, we all now need a few days of rest to prepare for the second half of term.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we have found time to do more than just survive at South Hampstead. We have found time to reflect and to plan, just as we would normally do. We follow a strategy of ‘consistent excellence’. The idea is simple – that in any area which matters, we should aim to provide the best possible experience for our community: pupils, staff and parents. Over the last four years (I am well and truly part of the furniture now), I have seen many of my colleagues tweak, polish, expand, create or revolutionise different curricular, co-curricular, pastoral and other areas of school life.
One area we are injecting additional energy into this year is Computing. I am pleased to share with you that four of our Year 8 students are through to the semi-finals of the National Cyber Security CyberFirst competition which attracted over 6,500 entrants this year. We wish them and Mr Brady, our new Head of Computing, every success in the regionals. Our Year 7 students have considered the legal and ethical implications of using robots, and have been writing algorithms to design products. Perhaps in 20 years’ time, during the next global pandemic, these students will write a much more intelligent algorithm for grading exams than the one used last summer.
This week I started running an informal course for interested colleagues called Aspiring to Headship as I am passionate about creating a greater pipeline for school leadership. One of the group wanted an insight into my typical week, and my answer was that I spend a reasonable amount of my time talking to colleagues, often 1:1, to help them refine and deliver their ideas and to check in on progress against the school’s strategy. It’s these often unseen, invisible moments which give me most joy as a Head.
Parents made me smile the other day when they responded to my survey question asking if they would like to give some positive feedback about a particular member of staff. Pupils answered the question literally, naming teachers they particularly wanted to thank. But many parents questioned the underpinning assumption of the question (I would have expected nothing less) and said they did not wish to thank any particular colleague as they wanted to thank ALL the staff and the school.
Asking the right questions is so important.
I am reminded of this in my ‘Chocolate & Chat’ pupil voice sessions at the moment. All members of the Senior Leadership Team are running such sessions on different areas of school life, and the purpose of my own conversations is to get beneath the skin of some of the data from the school’s responses to the GDST’s Undivided survey and our recent Flair race awareness survey. One question may be met with tumbleweed; another will generate a helpful list of inclusive behaviours pupils have witnessed, as well as some behaviours we need to address.
I am proud that South Hampstead provides an environment in which students can discuss important issues and learn to develop their ability to question, to challenge assumptions and to reflect. Our former Headmistress, Miss Bodington, wrote in her history of the school, The Kindling and the Flame, that the school had never been a ‘type-producing’ organisation. But what does this mean?
Firstly, it means that we should make all students feel included, valued and respected. Nobody should feel excluded due to their ethnicity, their religion, their sexuality or their disability. Secondly, it means that we should celebrate different sorts of character – introverts as well as extroverts, for example – and different intellectual and co-curricular interests. Thirdly, it means we should respect different points of view. If our students leave us thinking there is one school of thought on some of the most important issues of the 21st century, we will not have done our jobs properly. Group think, in my view, is one such 21st century challenge and we must do everything we can to stop it taking root in the next generation of leaders.
Thinking differently in 2021 is not easy – but that does not mean we should not encourage our young people to do this.
Putting discussion, questioning and debate at the heart of our curriculum feels more critical than ever before.
I wish all our whole school community a restful break and I hope that we shall meet again very soon.
Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.