Children v Choice, at the heart of the mental health crisis 2019

I have just spent the day at the University of Kent, in the company of a range of distinguished secondary school heads as part of our sector’s work in keeping up-to-date with Higher Education and their challenges, as well as reviewing the in-house work our sector is commissioning to ascertain the ‘facts’ about HE and life beyond Sixth Form are suitably researched and reported, both to our sector and the wider community, and as appropriate, the National Press.

On the way to and fro Canterbury, I am engaged in the usual chaos that secondary school leaders know well, responding to and discussing solutions for, the usual challenges that a headteacher faces in their daily lives. The radio on occasion is on in the background in addition. This channel-surfing head is learning across the bandwidth of private and public airwaves that actually ‘life as we know it’ is ‘not quite as we would wish it to be’! I am required to authorise (personally or by proxy) some ‘hatching’, ‘matching’ and ‘despatching’ decisions the airwaves are demanding of me.

  1. One of our Y11 pupil has chosen to release ‘shit’ perfume in the main teaching wing, making it almost unusable.
  2. Police and parents report that one of our secondary children has ‘rebuffed’ an approach by an unknown adult female to ‘give her a lift home’ last night.
  3. Danny Baker has ‘tweeted’ a picture of some adults hiding a smartly dressed ‘chimp’ – he’s been sacked by the BBC, what do I think?
  4. Liverpool and Spurs make up the all-Brit Euro Cup final; will Arsenal and Chelsea make it an all British affair for European football trophies this year?

Imagine a Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ)* exam paper 2019 on the above: In the four questions above, some of the questions that need answers are important, and some are urgent. Discuss?

*JCQ have written to all of its public examination centres this year on so many occasions, and visited them as well, to remind centres and subject leaders of the challenges to be met this summer:

  • No cheating by children or adults will be tolerated (plus lots of stuff on connectivity, information sharing etc.)
  • None of the difficult stuff you see in the exams this year will be seen ever again – get used to that!
  • Exam papers have been stolen and otherwise compromised, send back the ones you have got and we’ll send out replacements.

My normal day is spent in such utter chaos, not inflicted by myself or my colleagues or even my school. As I sit in my car near the M20/25 interchange, stationery in the seasonal but now unexpect torrential rain, my brain joins the above up with my ‘urgent preparations’ for Year 11 assemblies tomorrow, a.m. with the rest of the school and p.m. with their parents. Obviously we have way more happening in the background than this; both within a school community of 1500 and as part of the national care and education provision, your average headteacher in mid-May is thinking Budgets, Salaries & Pensions, Staff and Pupil recruitment, Calendar for school events and Staff Professional development, juggling the former with the urgent listed above (and beyond).

Children used to enter secondary school at 11, 12 or 13, and then (whether able or otherwise be then in the same school or other provider for 7 years of 5 + work/apprenticeship. ‘Nuff said.

Now, the 10 year old is presented with choices for 11+ entry. Ofsted grades and greater mobility encouraging further movement at 13+, 16+, 18+, plus the above and all of the rainbow of media info that they receive via social media. Children from an even earlier age are presented with a kaleidoscope of apparent opportunity with which they have no option other than to engage,

What chance do they actually have of surviving in this world in which parents and the wider world present them with choices with so many opportunities to fail? Almost more serous is the climate of fear and flight provided by national and world news bulletins for their information and education. As Simon Sinek makes utterly clear, all the important questions are about ‘Why’; given most of the above demand answers shaped by responses of ‘How?’ and ‘What?’, it is little wonder that our adolescent generation are in such a whirlwind of confusion and unwell-ness.

As I come to the close of this short blog, I see that Chelsea have been pegged back to 2-2 by Frankfurt, but Arsenal have 2 away goals now in the bank. 30+ minutes to go and all remains to play for. Adult or child, all I can be is a supporter and go-with-the flow. There will be tears of joy and disappointment after tonight, depending on which side you support. But life will move on, with a high degree of certainty that the ‘fan’ will remain the ‘fan’.

Children face failure to access their ‘choice’ at 11, find subject choices at 14_ are becoming illusory as Ebacc requirement replaces opportunity, that ‘move at 16’ becomes a prevalent state of mind for ‘subjects’ that ‘suit the learner better’, and that apprenticeships have reduced from 4/5 4 years to 1 as a bare maximum.

It’s time to recognise that we have destabilised almost completely the adolescent years, to no good effect. We need to restabilise the whole landscape; our children need recognisable stability in their environment for years not months, and assessments and examinations that fit a ‘norm’ not an exception.

Choice for us adults has catastrophized the last 10 years or more. High Streets (and the employment that goes with that) bear witness to how change causes much damage. The ‘Brexit’ referendum has not just ‘blocked’ the rest of government, but ‘broken’ our sense of ‘fair play’. Austerity has eliminated most of the flexibility that care, education, health, policing and public authority used to have, leaving a ‘lottery’ in its wake. I want our children and our children’s children to have opportunity lying in wait for them as they enter adult life, as it once did me. They just don’t need to be damaged by ‘false’ consumerism before they are mature enough to choose.

Footnote. I know many who read my words also know the ‘news’ that informs my writing. In case you don’t, please read this article, which is not about my school –

Suffice it to say, that the challenges reported above are challenges I recognise too, and am dealing with really too regularly.

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100 days back at the helm, and no turning back.

Lent Term 2019 has whistled through the first 100 days of my return to Headship. I’ve had some key priorities, not least to establish my credentials anew as Head of Senior Boys to parents, pupils and above all staff, as being a school leader who knows how to ensure important priorities do not get displaced by the urgencies of daily emergencies. So many things have gone well, at both the individual and group level; we’ve had some spectacular successes at the academic level, from very strong Maths GCSE results to engagement with subject challenges at department level.

Unlike most new headteachers, it is not as though I was entering anew into unfamiliar territory, far from it. As Academic Principal, it’s been my responsibility to forge consensus amongst my fellow heads as to our academic policy and priorities, so I’ve always been very aware of the limitations of same when confronting the practicalities of daily life and pragmatism of actually what’s possible. What a headteacher does so much more obviously than Principal or Proprietor, is set the daily tone and temperature of the school, and I have thoroughly enjoyed re-establishing in the minds of so many that they are capable of achievements beyond the stretch of their imaginations.

In part I have done this by 2 separate photo-galleries up our main staircases, one being a changing mix of former pupils found doing their favourite things, the other being an evolving series of photographs of current pupils reaching new heights of achievement. In academic terms, we’ve learned a lot about dual coding in recent years, for example mixing text with images for more effective revision. But schools rarely use the same technique to draw adults and children out of a generic ‘fed-upness’ with school, and yet successful motivational speakers use this technique all the time. A great illustration of this was shown by Mr Wespieser of World Book day, when he combined the key thoughts on the importance of reading for adolescent boys with their singing of the ‘Library card’ song – . OK, it may not have been musical, but to all present on the day, we had clearly and successfully regressed senior boys back to a love of reading!

I’ve sat in on homework coaching on Wednesday evenings and run some Saturday morning detentions too, and it’s clear to me that all of the boys do value the opportunities on offer at Claires Court, though on occasion need the additional support that they have ‘volunteered’ for, so they can make amends and set their record straight. Sport, the co-curricular trips and after school activities also assist in broadening out the demands of skill development for educational success, whether that be in meeting the physical demands of Rowing’s Sheepdog trials, or creative challenge of writing poetry for a national audience. The end of Lent term Commemoration service was the most powerful exhibition yet of the school’s artistic strength, perhaps best exemplified by the dance routine developed by Joe and Caitlin Freeman’s evocation of the recruitment of a young soldier to arms and his subsequent death on the front line (

I conclude this blog as the 2nd week of the Summer term comes to a close. As with many of my staff, over Easter and beyond, work has continued apace, and we’ve had loads of extended trips out, to ski, for netball, for watersports and under canvas for those completing expedition sections of the DofE. Holiday activities have busily rattled on at school too, providing relief for working parents who don’t have the right to break for school holidays as perhaps they might wish. I have my fingers crossed for the next few weeks, in part because we await the new local government to come into post after RBWM elections as a result of this Thursday 4 May elections. That new set of councillors will be charged with determining our planning application for our new campus, and we really can’t hold our breath for much longer! I wish Mr Simon Dudley and the new team at the Town Hall the very best of luck. By the look of the close run election victory won, the’ll need it.

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Elective Action, ‘Having a care, Making a difference’

Return to work after the February half-term break always see the Claires Court community turn itself ‘towards doing good for others’. This pattern of activity harks back to our life as a ‘Catholic’ school, during which time we incorporated the solemn period of religious observance known as Lent. Ash Wednesday services here saw many boys and girls carry a smudge of palm ash on their foreheads, a sign of our mortality carried to remind us that as humans we come from dust and to dust we will inevitably return.

Lent forms an integral part of many Christian churches, across west and east, ‘modern’ and ‘orthodox’. The 40 days that follow are expected to be filled with ‘fasting and prayer, doing penance, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and…’ in my childhood the self-denial incorporated the loss of sweets/chocolate for the children and alcohol for the parents, though not on Sundays, a universally agreed rest day from the purgatory of abstinence.

If this was my experience as a child of the sixties, and still very much one as a head on the eighties and nineties, I have found as I make my return as a headteacher footsoldier at the end of the Teenies, that an adolescent’s view of terms of sacrifice and service seems very, very different. Perhaps encouraged by 3 decades of Comic Relief, Pudsey Bear and other ‘giving Gigs’, abstinence & penance has been swapped out and replaced by ‘giving with a smile’. In short, ‘having a care’ has become ‘FUNdraising, with the emphasis on the personal gratification arising from lots of ‘jolliness’.

Not being by nature a gradgrind, I’ve been trying hard to notice whether my own adolescents have fallen into this self-indulgence, to which the answer is probably – ‘easily done’. And yet, I am indeed very heartened by the choices that they are making to raise issues and agree action-based support for causes deserving of notice. I’ll not cover the whole piece with this essay, but just commence with describing some remarkable work arising in Year 12 and 13. Inspired by last year’s school support of the ISA school in Pong Tek, Cambodia, this year’s Sixth Form have decided to establish a school-based project out in the Gambia. They have put together a video, first rush of which is here:

It seems to me that the younger pupils remain pretty selfless, being readily willing to share and give to others, lessons learned through the effective socialising behaviours of early infancy and nursery. And these Sixth Formers seem cut out of the same mould, perhaps because they have grown through that period of time from ‘tween to early teen’ in which ‘vanity’ becomes apparently something children these days are permitted to catch. Perhaps they need to, rather like chickenpox, so they become immune to it later on, but I’m not so certain, because the characteristics of the vainglorious once learned are hard to lose.

So here’s my pitch for 2019, we need to encourage children of all ages to worry a little bit more, to get cross about some small part of humanity’s ‘stakehold’ which doesn’t feel fairly distributed, and then work with them so they can learn how to make a choice of action to take and then do just that ‘something’ that will make a difference. This will require us as adults to get out of our comfort zone too, so I am not talking about ‘making sure your coca can is recycled’ in the correct trash can. Over the generations I’ve seen so many local initiatives come to successful fruition, most notably the Alexander Devine Hospice (a place) and Kids in Sports (a service). If we don’t clear the waterways of Maidenhead, who will?

Waiting lists for Cubs and Scout groups grow by the yard, because we don’t have sufficient adults finding the time to become suitably qualified. It may be that their time has come and gone (I don’t think so), but it is true that here at school we are tweaking the Year 9 programme to ensure all the boys and girls have the opportunity to pursue the Duke of Edinburgh’s award at Bronze level, squeezing out a bit more juice from what we do to ensure our young people learn that volunteering and acquiring new skills and being uncomfortable under canvas and expeditioning for 2 days without the internet are actually fun things to do.

If we get this right, all 110 of our 14 year old cohort will gain the widest-ly recognised starter qualification in leadership in the World. Here’s the DofE peeps writing about this from their website:

“Global expansion over the last 50 years has enabled the Award to reach more and more young people. Today there are over 130 countries and territories delivering the Award – 63 of these on a national basis. However, the Award is now expanding in other ways, targeting those who have not previously had opportunities to develop themselves. Recent Award projects around the world have focused on involving young offenders, those with disabilities, street kids and aboriginal communities. The impact of the Award on many of these young people is extraordinary: it transforms their lives.

The spread of the Award across the globe is testament to its universal appeal and the vision of its founder. However, even HRH admits that this took him by surprise:

“When the first trial of the Award was launched in 1956, no one had any idea quite what would happen. In the event it was an instant success, and the Award has been growing and expanding worldwide ever since.”

What’s not to like?

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Will commentators with their obsessions about exclusivity ever wake up to reality?

This week’s blog is written not by myself, other than this introduction. Lord Lexden is both a personal friend and one of our school, and of both our association and the Independent Sector as a whole. Below is his letter, published in the Spectator yesterday, which really needs no further explanation nor amplification. Take away, Lord Lexden…

Sir: Those who write about independent education rarely manage to stray beyond the 200-odd establishments they love to pillory as public schools, an antiquated term long since abandoned by all save their critics. This is perhaps because they have usually been educated at such places, or have taught in them. Alex Renton, like the books he reviews, presents a caricature of independent schools as a whole by repeating well-worn charges against the well-publicised few with their ‘faux-Gothic spires’ (‘Old school ties can’t last forever’, 2 February).

The Independent Schools Council has some 1,300 members, varying in size from 50 to 1,700 pupils. Few possess lavishly equipped theatres or vast playing fields. Just 68 have top-class athletic tracks. Most of them stand at the heart of the local communities from which their students mainly come, and work closely with their neighbouring state schools which often share their (usually limited) facilities. Half of them are non-selective. Fees vary greatly, with an average gap of some £2,000 per term between schools in the north and south of the country. More than a third of families pay reduced fees. Parents are well aware that diversity and openness are the independent sector’s most striking characteristics today. Will commentators with their obsessions about exclusivity ever wake up to reality?

Alistair Lexden
General Secretary, Independent Schools Council 1997-2004
House of Lords, London SW1

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#WeRemember – Holocaust Memorial Assembly at Claires Court, 28 January 2019

Eight remarkable ladies have produced a remarkable short film, to support the International Holocaust Remembrance day: “Join us in ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten – 2019 #WeRemember Campaign”. We are asked show them we’re listening. Post your ‘We Remember’ photo with the hashtag #WeRememberor send it by email to 

As you’ll see when watching the film, all the women survived the Holocaust as children. This film formed the centrepiece of our Senior Boys assembly this morning, Monday 28 January, and you can find the full assembly presentation as short movie here – and as slide-show here. I have drawn my graphic below, and pleased to do so. Who knows whether these 8 will be back next year; they certainly don’t think so.

During my assembly, I highlighted some key features of a school child’s life under the Nazis. Children had little chance of avoiding being ‘brainwashed’, most specifically because Adolf Hitler took a personal interest in all german children, seeing as he did their part so clearly in his master plan for the German race. He stated ““Germany’s children’s hearts are mine”, and in the light of the evidence that followed, he made that a reality throughout most of Germany.

Whilst Hitler sought to win the hearts of his own nation’s children, he gave and the Nazi party gave no such affection to the children in other countries.

I concluded assembly with a reminder of one of the clear themes of this term. It is our choice whether we accept the received wisdom in the following process chart: Witness > a sense of Violation > Bypasser syndrome > Learned helplessness.

As we develop our own determination to ‘Notice Better’, we can perhaps accept the alternative: Witness > a sense of Violation > Conscience response > Elective Action.

Indeed, I don’t regard this as a choice for our society. To slightly misquote Garry Herbert: “If not us, who, if not now, when?”

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Into Africa – the Claires Court journey begins

Claires Court’s Global Charity for 2019

Claires Court is supporting Charity Pearl The Gambia as its global charity this year, helping to make substantial improvements to day-to-day life in the Brufut area of The Gambia.

As a result of our initial donation, the community started building a well this month to enable neighbouring villagers who haven’t had access to water so far to have water available 24 hours a day! We are pleased to announce tickets are now available to purchase for our Gambia fundraising evening, taking place on Friday 25 January from 7pm at College Avenue. Lots of curries and African drumming promised! Find out more:

The PTA and School’s decision to support Pearl in The Gambia arises from the inspiration our pupils took from last year’s global choice of Charity, that being the UWC school promoted by ISA in Pong Tek, Cambodia. Sadly, the school’s distance from the UK, number of time lines to cross and huge interest from the other 500+ ISA schools meant that our students’ ambitions to get hands-on could not be supported.

The Gambia provides us with much more scope, not least the enthusiasm that exists in The Gambia to encourage young adults with skills to travel over to promote adult education and skills acquisition amongst their youthful population. The plans for our student-led trip to the Gambia in October half-term 2019 are progressing nicely, of which more details can be obtained from the Sixth Form office via

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‘Exam reforms boost private pupils in race for universities’: Observer newspaper (Sunday 30 December)

An edited version of my letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday 6 January 2019 edition. Below is the full text, with one amendment, updating QCDA name to Ofqual.

Dear Sir

Your front page headline ‘Exam reforms boost private pupils in race for universities’ (Sunday 30 December) leads an article of the worst kind of lazy journalism. 
The core argument proposed by Toby Helm is that International GCSE (IGCSE) qualifications are ‘easier’ than the latest generation of English GCSEs, which the DfE requires its state schools to use, and thus are making it harder for state pupils to get to Uni. 
The new GCSES  may have heavier content, but the % of passes at level 4 (C) and level 7 (A) remain the same as before, and as a consequence have the same level of difficulty as before. This equivalence is managed as a requirement of the exam boards by the government’s regulator, Ofqual. So actually, the exams haven’t got harder at all. 
IGCSEs are changing and developing at the same time, so that their curriculum content has become weightier, in response to the arrival of tougher A levels. These have gained heavier content to come more into line with the toughest international qualifications gained for University entry.

Given that GCSEs and IGCSEs are level 2 qualifications, whatever exams pupils are taking at 16, they don’t meet university requirements for level 3 qualifications, such as A level, which are taken 2 years later, at age 18. Surely Helm knows this?

There’s more to understand though.In the previous generation of English GCSEs, pupil studies involved taking lots of mini-tests, ‘controlled assessments’,  involving the submission of coursework, over an 18 month period, as well as terminal exams at the close. Adding in the opportunity to resit and resubmit, candidate GCSE pass rates inexorably rose, but at the expense of developing the deeper study skills needed for both Level 3 qualifications and University beyond.When (back in 2010)  Michael Gove recommended state schools should consider mimicking the independent sector by taking the more demanding IGCSEs, it was to enable state school pupils to have the opportunity to gain this more advanced skill set for higher studies.The ‘new’ GCSEs are like IGCSEs in that they are mainly terminal exam only, and have ‘heavier’ content than before; thus they are more suited to prepare children for the university entrance examinations. 

Herein lies the rub:

Like many eminent international commentators, such as Sir Ken Robinson and Professor Guy Claxton, I resent the whole trajectory of the recent reforms at both GCSE and A level, whose basic premise is to prepare children for University entrance. Education in school needs to be far broader than this, to assist children to enter adult life as emotionally well-balanced individuals, with a range of interests and passions, willing to play their part as contributing members of their community.
As one of some 500 private school secondary heads, I remain proud to provide a deep, broad and engaging school experience for my secondary and sixth form pupils. Yes, I understand my responsibilities to prepare them for University, but I take even more seriously my responsibilities to ensure my children enjoy their childhood for longer. The arts, sport, community engagement, above all fun and play must enrich children through their teenage years. This is how we can build the adults of the future, with both better skills for life and greater mental well being.

Yours faithfully

James Wilding

Academic Principal and Headteacher

Claires Court,Maidenhead

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