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 weremember@wjc.org 

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: http://ow.ly/Cgnx30nh3Fy

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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A very real British ‘Brexit’ is on the cards…

Live from the Claires Court Sixth Form centre 12 noon Wed 12 December 2018

With the excitement gripping the nation this last Wednesday, and our very own local MP (aka Prime Minister Theresa May) very career at stake, the ITV news team came out from London to interview some Maidenhead Sixth Formers on their view on her chances of survival during the ‘Brexit’ vote of confidence she was facing that evening from her own Conservative party MPs. 

The students had about 20 minutes notice, and genuinely scrambled to get the chance. When spoken to afterwards, they were quite shocked that their views had been sampled – in between taking the ‘Vox Pops@ at 12 noon and appearing on the 6 o’clock news in the evening, some feel that their balanced views had been ‘clipped’ to suggest greater divergence of opinion than actually.

Ria Chatterjee, the journalist who interviewed them said:

“Great to see young people politically engaged with such strong opinions and obviously well read and knowledgeable on the issue. It’s hopeful for the future to know that young people are prepared to engage this way”.

As matters turned out, the Conservative Parliamentary party voted for Theresa May in the vote of no confidence, 200 to 117. That has ‘buttered no parsnips’ in the days that have followed, with the EU leaders saying ‘Non’ and the ragged elements from all sections of parliament remaining dominant over those MPs that continue to support the limited Brexit proposals suggested

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“A rising tide lifts all boats”

As many of my readers know, I currently have quite a lot on my plate, being the Academic Principal of Claires Court. We have a school of 1050+ children and 350+ staff actively going about our business, and that does in itself generate ‘busy’ things to do. In addition, we have planning developments slowly and steadily making their way through the process; not just the New Campus application up by CCJB off Cannon Lane, but also short term facility management changes for our water sport of Sailing, as despite the recent rainfall, Sheephouse lake is desperately short of water. We’ve moved a lot of our kit to Bray lake for the time being, but longer term we need to recover our Sailing Club, which means both finding a way to refill from the river whilst preventing South East water from taking so much out of the natural water table that s the usual source of water for the lake. Keeping on the water theme, and as the new header to my blog illustrates, we have a new bridge over the water at Boulters Lock, linking Ray Mill Island to the old St Regis paper mill site, opening up a whole new public amenity on the Taplow Riverside development by Barclay homes. Suddenly we all have a brilliant new walking/running ring free of pedestrian traffic joining up the riverside walk from Maidenhead Bridge to Boulters Lock.
For some time we have been working with the Environment Agency and RBWM to open up above the lock towards Cliveden for our rowing and outdoor education activities. We are taking over the former Thames Water conservancy office on the island, giving us office and dry changing facilities there, and enabling us to row, scull or kayak up past the weir onto the most beautiful reach of the River Thames. There is of course still the little matter of the weir to risk assess and manage, plus infrastructures of pontoons and storage areas to create, but it’s exciting to see long term plans such as these gently move towards fruition.
Whilst the above all sounds terrific, in addition I am preparing for my restart as day-to-day head of the Senior Boys school in January 2019, on the retirement of John Rayer at Christmas. I am learning lots now of course from John and his terrific team; though I can’t emphasise strongly enough how much I am gathering from the (now) experienced headteachers Leanne Kirby (JG) and Margaret Heywood (SG) on the College site, whilst gently assisting in the induction of our new headteachers in post, Dean Richards (JB) and Stephanie Rogers (SF). What with Anne Halpin stepping up from Holiday Activity finance to become our new Holiday club manager, the onward management of our multi-faceted teacher training programme, plus further refinement activities on all of our areas of activity, it’s no surprise to feel that the tide of work is relentlessly rolling in.
And far from feeling submerged by it, there is a huge ‘bouyancy’ and ‘willingness to pitch in’ that is genuinely exciting me. It helps of course to have Justin Spanswick at our sides, getting stuck in to his new role as Executive headteacher, and also to have the incredible support of the administration team my brother Hugh leads. But it’s more than that. We’ve spent years establishing our core ‘values’ programme, and the profound depth and quality of our work to develop a ‘question-based’ curriculum over the same decade is now evidently appreciated within the profession as well as by our pupils and parents. The incredible commitment of teaching and instructing staff to ensure stretch, challenge, exercise, competition and skill development supports our plans has led to extraordinary opportunities and outcomes for all ages within the school. The way our support teams, be they within SEN, Nursing, Library, catering and/or housekeeping just keep relentless on task inspires us daily. And it must be said, that wider of network of professionals elsewhere with whom we must engage are also now giving us the genuine credit we deserve for ‘knowing our stuff’ and giving really generously with our time.
Gary Player may have coined the phrase ‘The harder I practice, the luckier I get’, but that does not quite fit this scenario, does it? I think I prefer the concept of ‘Making positive waves’, whereby with our concerted efforts we bring the tide in, and in so doing lift all the boats and enable them to sail. Since our INSET sessions in September, I have seen so many occasions where our adults working with our children have gone the extra mile, stretched the able, been less helpful yet supportive for the idle, nurturing for the vulnerable and calming for the excited. They say ‘Making waves’
means ‘Causing a disturbance’ or even ‘Upsetting the status quo’. I’ll say Amen to both those, because in what actually is quite a drear landscape of ‘never ending bad & fake news’, in and around Claires Court we have a smile on our faces and a purpose in our steps, lifting everyone to give of and be their best selves each day.

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