Why schools do best when curriculum plans, ‘flow’ and the science of learning coincide.

I wrote some time back about the importance of Curriculum design, bringing to the fore the example of Singapore who had chosen via 2 steps to ensure that their students made better progress at school. Back in 2014, in a blog entitled The ever-shifting foundations of Good Curriculum design and practice – using PISA/OECD data! I was keen to emphasise as best I could that many advocates were there to highlight that the DfE could learn from such advice, including this report entitled Making Education work – news link here https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25881774

My staff are currently attending to a substantial curriculum review at secondary level, in part brought on through the experiences gained in the classroom and through remote learning caused by the covid-19 pandemic and in part brought about by the competing demands for more effective inclusion, relationship, sex and health education in the light of current societal and governmental demands. It’s a heck of a challenge I have given departments, but such reviews are part of our familiar practice, and we have some great ‘steers’ from those in education that point the way both now and in the past1.

Curriculum plans need to cover the piece required, so over the period of secondary education for ages 11 to 16, we have a first section of subject skill, style and content confirmation (the stuff that separates subjects) coupled with a common approach the ways of working required (habits & responsibilities, both real and virtual). It’s pretty obvious that subject specialism at secondary level is both a real requirement to ensure deep learning happens, though what’s not so obvious is the way learning happens varies hugely between subjects. Every child enters secondary school with the expectation they can read, write and do sums, but many may never have come across a modern foreign language or explicit teaching in practical arts and sciences. Each subject leader has a specialist understanding of the ‘work’ their department needs to have in place prior to the start of a GCSE course of study for years 10 and 11, the last 2 years of compulsory education. In England, the government specifies both the content that needs to be covered and the mechanisms used for assessment at the close, to ensure the students’ success is measured, though it remains the school’s choice still to determine the curriculum methodology and wider ‘cultural’ expectations on their school community. The key area secondary schools need help with is the age range 11 to 14, where breadth of subject and activities is an absolute requirement, but the stitching together of diverse subjects does not necessarily join these together. I’ll return to these specific subject demands as well as to the wider importance of school culture once I have introduced the two other elements in the heading, of Flow and Learning Science.

‘Flow states’ were named as such by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, though I suspect we all have experienced in our own learning those times of complete absorption when ‘stuff happens and gets done’. I guess over many years of lesson observations I have seen countless times when the class of learners have been completely absorbed in the activities of the moment, lessons I would have marked as successful, and honestly seen quite a few when it was quite clear there was no ‘flow’ evident. Whilst on occasion it was fair to blame the teacher directly (talking too much and wasting children’s time on admonitions etc.), more frequently the cause was the inappropriate choice of task for the lesson content chosen. For ease of writing, I’ve cribbed wholesale from Wikipedia the principles of ‘flow’:


Jeanne Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi identify the following six factors as encompassing an experience of flow:

Those aspects can appear independently of each other, but only in combination do they constitute a so-called flow experience. Additionally, psychology writer Kendra Cherry has mentioned three other components that Csíkszentmihályi lists as being a part of the flow experience:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Feeling the potential to succeed
  • Feeling so engrossed in the experience, that other needs become negligible

Just as with the conditions listed above, these conditions can be independent of one another.

Just reading through those components of ‘Flow’, it becomes pretty obvious why the teacher present in the room can make a huge difference to ensuring that learners become engaged in their studies. A child’s trust in their teacher is paramount, knowing they can ask for help and not be criticised. Getting immediate feedback that they are on track requires the teacher to be vigilant, that broader classroom ‘feel’ of calm and that the activity has a personal ‘value’. Trouble is, we can’t enter Flow states that readily, particularly in new unfamiliar areas – there is the pain of new learning to endure before we have sufficient knowledge, skill and understanding to enter Dan Pink’s confidence of ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. If you’ve tried to learn to ride a bike, skate or ski, you’ll immediately re-feel the bruises of those early attempts!

Learning – now hear’s the thing, until recently, entering teaching as a profession did not give a great deal of focus on the underlying principles of how learning happens. Moreover, it’s a pretty obvious statement that at secondary level, most subject specialists were pretty successful when studying their chosen subject at degree level and beyond, which does not make them necessarily effective teachers for those children who have no natural aptitude for their discipline. All secondary teachers understand the importance of starting afresh with their subject, though that does not mean they’ll ignore the ‘work’ previously covered. In England, children are expected to have studied the following National Curriculum elements of history at primary school, to include a range of monarchs up to Queen Victoria, early British History, Romans, Vikings and Saxons any time soon, plus contrasting civilisations of those periods, ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Maya, Benin and/or Baghdad. Those ‘stories from the past’ help inform children’s more general cultural understanding of the value of different peoples’ contribution to the World as we now see it.

The biology of learning that takes place in the human brain commences with new experiences being directed to the Hippocampus, part of the limbic system a group of brain structures in the cerebral cortex responsible for behavioural and emotional responses. We’ve 2 situated in our cortex, just above the ear line, and they managed all the data coming in so we make sense of it, sort it and either cause an immediate reaction to it (movement etc.) or lay down the longer term memory of same into events and spatial recogntion or into learning and memorizing facts and concepts. Bit by bit, these laying down of memories permit higher order skills to be established; experienced car drivers and musicians do not need to worry about how all the moving parts required for their ‘virtuosity’ are connected, such procedural activities seemingly appearing in the subconscious. These ‘constructs’ and ‘schemata’ are built from birth, permit babies to make sense of the world, and over the years we lay down loads of different memories that link ‘Car schema’ in strange ways, not just how to drive one but travels to and from places and in different vehicles. Understanding Schema theory2 is essential in making learning stick, because if a previously constructed ‘schema’ can be accessed, such as ‘Love’, it makes understanding the behaviour of Romeo & Juliet more readily accessible in Shakespeare’s eponymous play.

As a school, we adopted the work of the Learning Scientists for our school culture back in October 2017, in order to pull together all the many strands on theory and practice into one ‘handbook of Six learning strategies’. We’ve also tried as hard as possible to stop using the word ‘revision’, because there is so much more to learning to be done before re-learning can happen, and because work needs to be visited a number of times in a number of ways to truly ensure the concepts have been grasped. We’ve also had to take much more notice of forgetting curves, which highlight just how easy it is to forget new matters within hours of having studied it!

Understanding why curricular design needs a spiral approach is pretty obvious, as that plays into both developing robust schemata that make new learning easier and revisits learning making sure that when exam answers are needed, they are available for immediate use. Providing opportunities for ‘Flow’, having lessons long enough and uninterrupted in which more complex skills can be embedded through learning activities will mean field trips for physical geography or ecological sampling will be the best so flow is established. Indeed visiting a superb drama production can make such a difference to the study of a play; whilst it might not make a difference to an exam answer, it might actually inspire a reluctant learner to dance, act, perform or work backstage, re-motivating them in the process. Establishing the right learning experiences to create the more sophisticated moral and cultural codes we need for individual and societal benefit now present educators with our biggest challenge. It is no longer enough to use examples from US history to establish the presence of race in our curriculum, nor to represent humanity by ignoring the contribution made by females, nor to ignore the appalling effect adolescent access to the internet brings to their understanding of sex and consensual behaviour. Given the fragmentation of the lower secondary curriculum I have referred to earlier, I see my job as curriculum leader/designer to pull together this area into a really coherent whole, to ensure for example the Maths department play their part in social instruction (Turing/Lovelace/Williams) whilst ensuring in a school that manages its boys and girls education on separate sites that ‘nil detriment’ arises through such separation (DfE paper 2021).

I’ll close by making reference to some pretty modern understandings now arising about the growing epidemic of attention deficit, anxiety and mental health in children, now at levels 100 times greater than existed when I first entered the profession. Many of the unintended consequences of moving to a digital world included the swapping by children of external play for screen based games. 20 years ago and more, the damaging loss of play areas in communities began to be redressed by the Children’s Play Council and its successor, Play England, where thanks are due to their ‘sustained, effective lobbying by the Children’s Play Council/Play England (amongst others) that such significant sums of public and lottery funding were committed to play’3. The Play England report in the same year caused a media storm with headlines such as “Go OUT and play! One in three children has never climbed a tree and half have never made a daisy chain” in the Daily Mail at the time. Austerity measures of course overtook the generosity of the government of the day, and we see now even more clearly through the #lockdowns of 2020/2021 how damaging to children’s physical and mental health development is the loss of independent play and its associated risk taking/independent learning/schema development.

If you have not listened to Jose Long’s impassioned broadcast for the retention of Adventure playgrounds on Radio 4, do listen here…https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000zcf5

Anecdotal experience as well as scientific enquiry has confirmed that learning cannot take place when people are stressed and anxious’. It’s worth noting that flight and fight caused by physical stressors stimulate the body’s production of Adrenaline (hormone producing short term -15 minutes- response) , diverting blood to respiration, sense perception and muscle readiness system so the body can act immediately to make reaction. If the stressors remain, then the adrenal gland also produces Cortisol, which shuts down other systems too, such as reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Whilst you can runaway from a physical threat, the invisible threat caused by stress is not removed by either of these hormonal releases. Under such stresses, short or long term, human IQ crashes, and ceases to be able to reason or problem solve4.

All the above means that a school day must take into account all the physical and mental needs of its community, both adults and children. Many current school schedules do not begin to take these into account, putting a huge premium on academic achievement in English and Maths from an early age in the Junior school setting, reducing at the expense now of many of the other requirements for a healthy education. At secondary level, there has been a dramatic reduction in break-time length, meaning many timetables simply do not permit sufficient down time between lessons for the natural effect of rest to lower stress levels to take place. Moreover, DfE and Education leaders have increasingly advocated silence in corridor requirements, further reducing opportunities for play and conversation. With days at school becoming shorter in length, and parents unwilling or unable to permit children to play unsupervised outside, the ‘caged’ nature of childhood is becoming more obvious, and children themselves unable to manage the social interactions between themselves that they would previously have learned at unsupervised play. I don’t have an answer for other schools in this area, but am keen to highlight that for my school we aim to offer a working day covering 8.30 to 4pm with after school hour long activities in which fun and choice have a chance to ‘flow’. Routine is visible everywhere, where visibly ‘kind’ behaviour is noticed and praised, where tech is universally available for each child and can go home too, but in a safer ‘school cocoon of provided services’. Where possible, this means that our boys and girls can come and go to school, learn safely and enjoy their childhood and as an added bonus, do very well academically indeed.

1. Rosenshine’s 17 Principles of Effective Instruction – Unesco paper 2010 – http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/Educational_Practices/EdPractices_21.pdf

2. Evidence for Educators website – https://overpractised.wordpress.com/2022/01/02/catalyse-learning-using-schemas/

3. Urban playground website report 2011 – https://rethinkingchildhood.com/2011/09/28/play-england/

4. Manchester Anxiety Help website explanation – https://manchesteranxietyhelp.co.uk/adrenalin-and-cortisol-in-anxiety-disorders/

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Making plans for life’s journey ahead

If ever there was a time to consider that life is not predictable, ‘now’ in December 2021 is it! My school’s academic term is coming to a close, we have 11 teachers and 11 support staff off currently, which represents circa 10% of our front of class workforce. Just shy of 25% of the children are not able to be in school, partly because they are unwell (7%), partly because their families have been touched by the Omichrom variant, and part because of the need to form a family bubble for the protection of vulnerable family members at home. We’ve been tracking the more general % for the locality, which are rapidly spiking this week, hence the family precautionary measures keeping a larger number at home.
Of course life must go on and the fat that we’ve been able to celebrate Christmas virtually using our pupils ‘on screen’ has in part permitted that drawing together. If you have the time, please check out the spiritual messages that Rev. Sally Lynch (Seniors @St Lukes) and Rev. Jeremy Harris Juniors (@All Saints)

One of our teaching staff in the Outdoor Education unit, James Wragg has chosen to cycle around the coastline of GB, starting in Suffolk some 19 days ago. For our end of term assemblies, James Shared the following video of his ‘making good progress’ and it gives a great take on how life is all about making on course adjustments, rather than assumptions about the pre-laid plans always coming through on song.

James has chosen to cycle anticlockwise around the GB coastline, starting from Suffolk and this is his ‘phone home’ message after day 19. It brought tears to my eyes and pride to my heart.

As James makes clear in his conversation, we all have to check our steps on our journey if not every day, then most days. That’s a great reminder for us for the future, when increasingly industry seeks not to seek new recruits whose amazing qualifications dazzle, but whose pragmatic common sense is non-existent. So long as learning curves still are an excepted understanding of a challenge that the commercial world embraces, in addition to sector knowledge in your industry, you also need bags of experience and common sense at a relatively low level. And you can only get that by putting yourself about a bit – like cycling around GB – go Mr Wragg, GOOOO!

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“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The daily news tells the consistent story of how leaders, in whichever domain they are to be found, have to rise once more to the challenge of command, having just received the bloodiest of noses. This week we have seen Presidents, Prime Ministers, CEOs and the rest receive ‘wounds’ that for many less strong could prove mortal, but because they have experience, strength or simply courage, they’ll pick up once more their challenge once more and, having learned from the experience we hope, not make the same mistake again.

And because my posts do get read over the arc of time, this week (commencing 1 November 2021) has seen

  • President Joe Biden lose the safe Democrat senate seat of Virginia to the Republicans
  • COP26 delegates chose to fly in from all other the world to attend in great ostentation the COP26 meetings in Rome and Italy, as a consequence showing they don’t really care for climate change if it involves not using their Jets as toys
  • President Macron having to back down in the France/Britain fishing squabble around the Channel Islands
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnston probably doing all of the above and trying to change the parliamentary standards process, ostensibly to save the Conservative MP Owen Paterson from suspension for ‘sleaze’, but rather pointedly perhaps to save his own reputation as he is soon to be up before the same process in parliament as well.

Frankly, the Westminster bubble of politics is so not important just at the moment, because the whole matter of Climate change is affecting all of humanity, and in the face of the change becoming Emergency, we need the concerted action of the whole of the developed world, and those we might otherwise wish to pull down are frankly the only people in play who have the power to make a difference right now. And to that end our own Prime Minister has rather rapidly stepped up to the mark. Critics are quick to state that all Boris can do is make rash promises, and there is no clear plan behind the rhetoric to ensure his proposals become deliverable. This is where I reach for Raplh Waldo Emerson once more:

“The good news is that the moment you decide that what you know is more important than what you have been taught to believe, you will have shifted gears in your quest for abundance. Success comes from within, not from without.”

Over the past 50 years perhaps only equalled by the Victorian era, the technological revolution is making things possible that we could previously scarcely believe. Computing power, artificial intelligence, manufacturing at scale in new technologies providing locomotion, power, energy and more, and as a consequence reducing our carbon footprint as rapidly as possible. From EV cells to hydrogen power, the market can grow rapidly if the powers-that-be open the right markets now – to expand the replacement of coal and petroleum products by green methods, or at least other understood methods that clearly do reduce the damaging air pollution, the prime cause of the current conflagrations and weather systems damaging peoples across the globe.

Schools in the UK are very well placed to lead the education required for the future we desire, and government here has a real part to play as well, changing the focus on the striving for the individual at the expense of others to ensure success of the next generation is most assured. The current employment crisis in the UK highlights just how much we need the skills of all of the people, and that we must value those skills differently. Why can we not recruit sufficiently into the area of care, health, education, service (be this civil, military or supply chain)? The obvious answer is that we have been importing these elements of the work force from overseas for so long now, we have forgotten how to develop from within, marked of course by the sheer unwillingness of ’employers’ to pay a competitive salary because it’s been so much cheaper to import.

In reviewing where our former Sixth Formers have gone since 2000 in terms of employment, it’s quite obvious that they have filled every niche, nook and cranny, from hospitals to Hollywood, welfare to waste management, military to manufacture, and they have skills in abundance to offer. Sure the police, military, education, health and care are well represented, as to every where else, in part because the families our children come from have themselves benefited from the joys and challenges of full employment and all that brings. What successful societies do (whether patriarchy or matriarchy, elected or dictatorship) is ensure every member is supported through their childhood journey and when vulnerable as adults too. It’s important to remember that everyone of our own pupil’s homes is likely to model successful economic employment and the security that provides.

One of the unintended side effects for democratic countries is when and where the individual is given greater freedoms to make their own choices but at the ‘expense’ of reduced public services. We’ve seen that in the UK with the ‘loss’ of council housing giving rise to reduced stock and higher costs to tenants, and elsewhere in the world where health care is not provided universally. As the arguments in the UK wage to work out where to build all the new homes we need for our growing population, we see our own government twisting and turning by the month. Not that long ago the headlines were speaking of removing the ‘protection of the Green belt for much needed house building’.

As the Financial Times reported last month “Boris Johnson last year promised to tear up England’s “outdated and ineffective planning system” to make it easier to build new homes. But his proposals have since run into strong opposition, raising doubts over whether the UK prime minister’s reform to fix the housing crisis will proceed. Johnson sacked Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary responsible for the sweeping planning reform, in September. He was replaced by Michael Gove, who has put the contentious proposals under review”. When we read the words ‘review’ this does mean further delay and, if nothing else, the Chancellor of the Exchequer pleased he has not had to reach into the tax pot to pay as early as he might have otherwise. But I digress…

In short, for a country that makes the rules and creates the boundaries within for its society, it is clear we need sufficient freedoms and opportunities to keep the twin flames of innovation and inspiration alive. Britain has done incredibly well with its recycling regimes, a clear example of rules to which society has concurred. I see no reason why we won’t meet ambitious Carbon targets even if the route to which have yet to be established. Many of us have already changed our behaviours, vehicles and purchasing to support local and home brew, but as educators we have to manage the expectations less by preaching and more by supporting the young whose voice is very much in favour of a ‘change for the better’. And so we do need to find even more time in schools for children to practice the skills of risk-taking and innovation, bearing in mind that most of these areas are actually covered by the ‘nice to do’ subjects such as art, drama, music and sport, because the core academic disciplines have been moved from practical and project-based to knowledge base for which there are ‘correct’ answers to be given.

In opinion terms I hear our new Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi talk about the need for state schools to lengthen their working days to encompass the opportunities to permit those most affected during the pandemic through lost learning to catch-up. What he must be very careful not to do is to extend the working day and ‘fill it with stuff’, because that is less needed than providing a secure school ‘working’ environment in which children can be challenged to try things, fall over, bounce back and have another go. I close with 3 further thoughts from Emerson:

“I like the silent church before the service begins better than any preaching”, a great reminder to us all to architect the environment and atmosphere and step aside…

and “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

What we don’t need are ‘clones’ in our children, but individuals of purpose who understand that “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Amen to that.

“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Claires Court Jubilee Tree Canopy project

In order to celebrate two major Jubilees this academic year, the Principals confirm their intention to create a woodland tree canopy and wildlife corridor across its fields at Claires Court Junior Boys by Maidenhead Thicket. The new canopy will be aligned north to south, creating a wildlife corridor between Maidenhead Thicket and its southern boundary with the green way that links Firs Lane and Woolley Firs Environmental Centre on Cherry Garden Lane.  

The first Jubilee is of course the one we missed during last year’s school closures, that  being the school’s Diamond Jubilee to celebrate the 60 years that have passed since the school first opened in September 1960. 

The second Jubilee has been created nationally to mark Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 which invites people from across the United Kingdom to ‘Plant a Tree for the Jubilee’. To be known as “The Queen’s Green Canopy” (QGC), it is a unique tree planting initiative, with a focus on planting sustainably, the QGC will encourage planting of trees to create a legacy in honour of The Queen’s leadership of the Nation, which will benefit future generations. 

Location of the new canopy 

The photograph looking west of Claires Court Fields shows the lovely row of Scots pines that already make one half of such a corridor, though after the 100 or so years the trees have been planted, they are showing their age and gaps are appearing. The new trees will be planted 10m to the west of this line, accompanied by native hedgerow plants to link the larger canopy trees together.  The gap between the two will be kept mown and the trees cared for to encourage that sense of a well-tended landscape for the deers, badgers and other wildlife that traverse our land. 

How families can help

So…we are seeking 100 Claires Court families to choose to provide one of the larger 100 trees needed to create the main canopy corridor and to be identified in time with a family plaque on the tree, provided by QGC.  We have chosen our local nursery, Stubbings, to provide both the trees as well as tree planting kits to ensure the planting is a great success.  Stubbings Nursery will provide each family who purchases a tree the support structure to ensure it thrives which includes the stake and ties plus an environmentally friendly tree protector. The total cost per family will be £69.99. As a certified nursery, Stubbings will ensure that your tree is healthy and that it has been grown in the UK.  

Furthermore, for each tree sold, one tree will be planted in the Amazon through Stubbings’ relationship with the charity ‘One Tree Planted’, www.onetreeplanted.org 

The school will identify the ‘spot’ to plant the tree and provide the bark mulch and fertiliser, plus an additional 14 smaller hedgerow tree whips provided free of charge by Carbon Footprint…we are delighted to have their support.  This in turn will create a double width hedge of 7m length to join to the next feature tree in the canopy.  The hedgerow will be a mix of Crab Apple, Dog Rose, Dogwood, Gorse, Hawthorn, Hazel and Rowan,  providing vital resources for mammals, birds, and insect species. As well as being an important habitat in their own right, hedges act as wildlife corridors allowing dispersal between isolated habitats.  The school is incurring additional costs in this project, and we are delighted to have the support of the Trustees of the PTA foundation in our endeavour.

Purchasing details and timescales 

These plants are arriving in early November, so we wish to work with families to ensure they can plant their tree during this month, and participate in the set up of the hedge.   We don’t expect the planting itself to take too long, circa 30 minutes, and at its close, the family will have planted their major tree along with 7m of hedge which will be one metre apart in a double row – in short,one large tree and 14 whips. 

We will record the precise planting of the canopy tree and adjacent hedge on our map of the school site, and once provided with your photo, upload it onto the Queen’s Green Canopy website and assist you in securing the QGC plaque when available. 

How to get involved

There are just 100 trees available for 100 Claires Court families and we’d like to encourage you to show your interest by completing this form here which will also be promoted at our PTA Fireworks event this Saturday and through our weekly bulletin.   To ensure we plant in November before the ground is too hard, we aim to close the books by the start of half-term (18 October).  For those who have filled in the form to show interest, we will then be in touch via email with details on how to purchase directly online.  The trees available are English Oak, Field Maple, Beech, Hornbeam, Lime and London Plane which will be offered on a ‘first come, first served’ basis as we have a limited supply of each .

We look forward to enhancing the local environment with this wonderful canopy, providing a legacy for the landscape for years to come.  

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Let’s go Zero – How?

Back in June this year, the headteachers within RBWM were all written to by our council leader for Adult Social Care, Children Services, Health and Mental Health, encouraging all schools to start taking steps towards reaching net zero, using the Ashden Let’s go Zero campaign as an exemplar. It’s a splendid example of thought leadership by our current council administration, and it chimed very well with the work we had been planning for many years for our new campus development, as and when that was approved. Our new buildings were of course to be of the latest design, adopting the newest and best of modern technologies, but sadly, the same administration (and sadly the national planning inspectorate as well) thought otherwise. So here we are, Claires Court School in 2021, and what are we going to do to support such plans, given that we are to remain for the time being on 3 sites and in buildings that hark back to the Victorian era?

Firstly, please let’s remember that the school owns its land, both its 2 sites in central Maidenhead and its 60 acres by Maidenhead Thicket. So we have to do as much as we can to reduce our carbon footprint, but I betcha many readers won’t know what the means. So here goes to set the record straight…

“A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, here in the UK is 8.3 tons, to compare two of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average is closer to 4.7 tons.”

Back in June, the UK government set its ambition to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, though it’s definitely more a wish list than the start of a task driven project. I sense that BJ and his ministers are likely to be using more of David Cameron’s nudge theory rather than choosing to things practical themselves, because (if nothing else) they have far too much on currently to resolve the current Brexit/Covid/Austerity crisis.

Believe you me, my school is doing its best to reduce its energy usage, but however hard we try, we will still be running busses, heating buildings, cooking food and all the things humans do to live and survive in C21. Over a decade, it’s fair to say that our human headcount has averaged 1000 in terms of children and 250 full time equivalent adults – there are times when I do wonder whether nursery children should count as a whole number, but to keep me honest, let’s in the end agree Claires Court has 1250 humans under its roof, spread of course across Maidenhead.

To be honest, the data on individual child and adult Carbon footprints a year is reported at really variable amounts, with some quotes for families at 17 tons of CO2 emissions being lower than for individuals, so much so that advice needs to be tailored, not generic. The most important recommendation I can see coming the way of schools is that we should aim to plant One Tree Per Child , I’ll buy that, and that accounts for the first 1000 we have on the stocks. Of course we need to consider our staff do not wish to feel left out, and whilst we have 250 full time equivalents, what with part time roles, job shares and volunteers, we can certainly add another 500 into the mix. And let’s make sure everyone plants one for a friend, someone less fortunate and with no access to trees or land, and that gets us to the 3000 we have to hand.

In due course, 3000 mature trees will provide us with carbon sequestration of 60+ tonnes a year, and even more helpfully scrub the air of pollution toxins and breathe out sufficient Oxygen for 6000 adults – more than enough to cover our local population as well as our school settings across Maidenhead. The nice thing is about our project is that we will still have circa 20 hectares of grasslands also doing their bit for CO2 removal and Oxygen production; adding an additional 20+ tonnes a year removal from the air and supporting a further 3000 adults with their Oxygen needs.This brings the total Carbon Dioxide removal to 80+ tonnes and reoxygenating 9000+ souls across the RBWM.

I’m staggered by the CO2 footprint being so very much bigger than our oxygen needs; this is because of course whenever we travel in a car, train or plane, we burn so very much more oxygen than we breathe. And everything we need is also delivered in the main using powered vehicles, so I can see we need to encourage societal change to accept that growing & making your own makes what we do more likely to be sustainable and that staycations are the way ahead. And whilst winter is coming, we could do with not switching the heating on so early. Oh dear… I’ll think I’ll stick to encouraging everyone to plant trees and grow grass, so Zero or Not, here come the Tiny Forests!!!

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Planning for the future…

My long experience as a teacher of 46 years standing informs me that we should always be planning for the future so that as and when change happens, we have the agility to adapt to those new and unfamiliar circumstances. I have a few strands in motion now for our school and its community for the months that lie ahead and I share with you one of these below , to support the further development of our sports facilities. 

Claires Court School Fields at Ridgeway 

When we purchased the fields adjacent to our Junior Boys school eight years ago, we laid some 14 acres of the fields immediately adjacent to the school as sports fields with two cricket squares, a proactive decision because such new surfaces take time for the land to settle and the grass to grow. Those original plans to use the fields as cricket squares, with the outfields serving as suitable playing surfaces for our winter sports of Rugby and Football, were superseded to accommodate other interests arising.  In particular, as our revised  proposals included using this land for car parking and to support the development of artificial surfaces for hockey, we did not at the time apply for change of use for this specific area of our field from agricultural to education use. 

Since January 2021, we have been actively discussing how best to use this resource and have widened our conversations with local councillors, planners and sports bodies. Whilst our own efforts were underway, one of the major cricket clubs in the town lost access to their grounds and facilities. North Maidenhead Cricket Club has been a major partner with our Senior Boys school for some time, its excellent facilities providing two cricket squares and nets for our cricketers for ten years or so. 

The sudden closure of such a remarkable club, with over 100 years of history and at the time hosts for the Berkshire Ladies cricket squad, affected us all with no notice given. Whilst Claires Court were able to intensify our use of our other partners’ grounds (Boyne Hill ) and guest at Cookham Dean, we still needed the pitches lost from North Maidenhead for our school use.   It also left North Maidenhead Cricket Club in an impossible position and the adult club ceased to play in April 2021.  

During the summer weekday, for cricket on any one games afternoon, we need 7 cricket squares/nets available for age range 9 to 18; we manage our own squares (3), have a formal partnership with Boyne Hill cricket club for the daily provision of 2 more, so the shortfall of 2 is real, and can only get worse as our girls’ increase their engagement with the sport as well.

Understanding that both North Maidenhead and ourselves had lost valuable cricket pitches, I met with Majid Khan, chairman of North Maidenhead Cricket Club and other players, and this summer were able to host some of their junior section on our current junior boys’ cricket facilities.  

As our school does not play weekend afternoon cricket, there’s a natural synergy possible if our application for our own use of our new grounds is successful, as North Maidenhead could utilise this space for their club.  With our sports hall, changing facilities and car parking alongside the new surfaces, already built in the school grounds, it’s a natural fit for both partners. Thus in August this year, we made an application for a change of use for the laid sports turf area from agriculture to education.  This application is now live on the RBWM planning portal, planning application number 21/02500, where all plans and supporting documents can be viewed. 

The whole of the fields as seen are within Claires Court School boundary, with the shaded area showing the grass playing fields laid in 2013. Whilst we propose to use a quarter of the 48 acres for sport, this does leave the substantial remainder for agricultural use, currently hay cropping. Whether winter or summer sports, the activity will be supported by our own school sports building offering changing facilities and toilets, current roadways and permanent parking.  There are no plans or applications for additional buildings, lighting or permanent parking facilities.  The current sports busses we use for carrying our senior boys sportsmen to their games sessions will carry our pupils to the grounds, and no additional traffic is expected to be generated during their normal internal use.

Partnerships with Maidenhead & district sports clubs.

As a major secondary school providing sports education to over 600 boys and girls every day, it’s difficult for a lay person to comprehend why we need such substantial sports facilities. We coach nine sports to county/regional/national/international standard, those being athletics, cricket, football, hockey, netball, rowing, rugby, sailing and tennis. Other sports that we also provide for are golf and swimming. Our active, formal partnerships with local sports clubs include (in South Bucks) Huntswood Golf, Phoenix Rugby, Taplow lakeside and (within RBWM) Maidenhead Hockey, Maidenhead Rowing, Maidenhead Sailing, Boyne Hill, Living Tennis at Bisham Abbey and Little Marlow Athletics stadium. This investment the school makes with its partners helps both school and clubs; not only does it provide additional revenue for the clubs, but it also introduces our boys and girls to ‘club life’ meaning they continue one as sports players beyond school age, with all the benefits for fitness, health and community engagement that brings. 

International sporting legacy

Following the wonderful performance of the amazing athletes of all nations in the Tokyo 2020 competitions this summer, our children have returned to school keener than ever to develop their sport. And as Emma Radukanu and Leylah Fernandez showed last weekend at the US Open tennis finals, international competition and stardom beckons just as adulthood begins, so school is where training and competition has to take place. Our town and its sporting clubs therein has a wonderful history of supporting the development of athletes of all hues, let alone the achievements of those from our own school, such as Ellie Rayer who won Olympic Bronze with Women’s Hockey at the Olympics. That’s something Claires Court certainly chooses to continue further with our boys and girls for many years to come. And we do that best by sharing the development of facilities for all, as our partner sports clubs are sure to testify.

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Schools back…

… I was so hoping to publish our exciting plans for the year ahead today, but we’ve been taken to the wire by other work we’ve had to concern ourselves with, so…

If you are CC Alumni and attending tonight’s social at Boyne Hill Cricket Club, I’ll see you there…

otherwise, please keep your eyes skinned for my update start of term news for the Claires Court Community for the Autumn Term 2021 and beyond.

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Public examinations 2021 – a fair outcome for those students caught up in the pandemic!

A level results are in for the 2021 Cohort, and they will in the main be delighted by the outcomes they’ve achieved at the close of their Sixth Form studies. For the Claires Court cohort, 43% gained A* or A, 76% A* to B, with 88% making their first choice University destination. As this picture looks very similar to 2020, the first year where teacher assessed grades replaced exam grades, it’s comforting to know the teachers have been able to sustain high standards of participation and engagement, despite all the difficulties of the In-Out school we have been required to run for the last 18 months.

It’s clear though that these results are higher than if they had been determined by public examination, marked and determined by independent examiners, so does this ‘grade inflation’ then bring the whole process into disrepute or worse? It’s useful to have the University entrance data to refer to, because with so many applicants winning their first choice place, that’s indicative that higher education isn’t being sniffy at all, and actually are ready to welcome our successes with open arms. And well done them, because the graduates of 2021 are demonstrably a resilient bunch, who’ve missed a host of ‘rights of passage’ events because of the closure of UK entertainment PLC, and yet have found new ways of carrying on their lives with family and friends regardless.

There is a historical precedent to what we have currently experienced. that being the choice by England, Wales and Northern Ireland to move from O levels to GCSEs in the 1980s. This exercise was conducted to ensure that the whole cohort of students passing through secondary school could enjoy a common experience of curriculum, coursework and examination, replacing the apartheid that O level (top 20%), CSE (mid 40%) and non-exam (bottom 40%) had brought to schools prior to their introduction in 1986. Inevitably far more students ‘passed’ GCSEs than ever passed O levels, and ever since researchers have been trying to prove that standards have slipped. In reality, the expansion of general education to all at GCSE has led to the massive expansion of higher education as a consequence; pre GCSE only 5% of the population attended University, where now it is 10 times the size, and the country’s economy benefits massively as a consequence.

Reach further back, and you can find a brilliant spoof report written by Harold Benjamin, back in 1939, a satirical commentary on the nature of schooling and school reform, “The Saber Tooth Curriculum”. Using an alias of J. Abner Peddiwell, Benjamin wrote on the topic of stone-age education. Readers learn that in the Paleolithic curriculum, children were taught how to grab fish, club woolly horses, and scare saber tooth tigers. They needed these skills to sustain themselves – to get food and protect themselves from danger. In time, however, colder climatic conditions prevailed. The local waters grew muddier, making it impossible to see, let alone grab the fish, and the horses and tigers eventually died away. Yet the schools continued to teach fish grabbing, horse clubbing, and tiger scaring techniques, believing them to be fundamentals with inherent character-building and mind-training value. Progressive stone-age educators would argue that new skills needed to be taught, including fishnet making and ways to deal with a new menace, the glacier bear. Through “The Saber Tooth Curriculum” Benjamin shows how schools often conduct themselves in ways that are unresponsive to the emerging needs of the life experience.

If I may draw us back to 2020 & 2021, it would have been entirely inappropriate for us to have regressed students grades from what they were capable of achieving at the time, and what actually they would have achieved given the lottery of the exam room and the requirements of the exam boards to keep grades awarded down to % of the cohort. Using rationing to keep grades down is the current choice of the UK government, the most often quoted statistic being that only 3% are permitted to gain a level 9 at GCSE.

Rationing, whether deliberate or accidental is no way to manage a testing system. Just consider the appalling state the country has got itself into through not running HGV testing – with no drivers able to take the test, we now have a chronic shortage of HGV drivers and we now have the army on standby to provide 2000 drivers to keep our supermarket shelves stocked, though that would probably not help given we have 100,000 drivers missing! I am delighted that the government is reaching in to expand the availability of undergraduate medical places; this is an area of acute rationing the government has managed for years, preferring to recruit the bulk of its missing doctors from other countries around the world. Frankly, that’s its own scandal now, and we need to leave other countries’ leading medics to build their own countries and permit many more of our own nationals to qualify instead.

If next year is to normalise, and see the reintroduction of examinations, then so be it. It’s fair to say we will be as ready for that in 2022 as any, because our teachers always seek to bring the best out of our pupils, whatever the circumstances prevailing at the time. But schools and colleges will give exam boards and government fair warning too; you left us very much to our own devices for 2 years, informing us consistently at the last minute of new matters we had to implement and all at our cost not yours. We are now as aware as we ever have been of the capabilities and capacities of our children as learners, and we’d like to see a reintroduction of a fairer rationing system for the awarding of grades aligned with our efforts this year, namely using grade related criteria rather than % rationing. That’s a whole other technical paper, but for the moment I’ll return to the driving test as best example. When someone passes a driving test, it’s because they have met the criteria for safe and effective driving. None of us would agree to a system that demanded only 55% of those sitting the test on any given day were permitted to pass – if the driver is good enough, they should be graded accordingly!

And finally, it is worth just remarking that our students of 2021 have made an incredible job of winning their pandemic year; shorn of their celebrations, sporting and social opportunities, they have really got stuck in to all those elements that were available, including their school work. More generally, we’ve seen reading flourish, and a welcome growth of interest in craft and domestic skills for life, and more than that a willingness and openness to rise to the challenge! And as that’s why I came into education in the first place, and why I am still committed to the teaching profession, willing myself to treat every day as a school day, one serving up a new lesson to learn from.

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Principal’s Last Word – Summer Term 2021

At the close of our Academic Year, 2020-2021, whether in-school or via remote broadcasting, we have been able to celebrate the high points  (where such language is appropriate during a pandemic!) and contributions of our school, its pupils and teachers alike. In writing to bring this strangest of school years to a close, I do so with my colleagues in the faculty first and foremost to mind. 

Claires Court is an incredibly settled workplace, in part because your children make every day worthwhile working, and in part because as a school philosophy, we aim to place children at the heart of everything, which brings their joy to mind because of that clear focus we must have. Opportunities for further staff development is also one of the core values for colleagues working here, whether that of the mundane kind to gather workplace skills and qualifications to do the job at hand, or of the more far reaching kind leading to graduation, qualified teacher status, Advanced diplomas and Masters beyond, and we are proud to have supported 19 colleagues over the past 12 months. The contribution that such trainees make along the way could not be better exemplified than by Poonam Bharj, George Grose, Emily Pridham or Jess Hurter, completing first degrees, and their subsequent PGCEs etc whilst working at Claires Court, now making a huge impact as front line teachers in the school.

Head of Senior Boys Art, Frances Ackland Snow completed her Advanced Diploma in Therapeutic Application of the Arts and Huw Buckle,  Deputy Head Careers & Innovation fittingly completed his Masters in Education in good time, enabling his next career step into Pastoral Leadership in September. 

In bidding farewell to our staff who leave Claires Court this summer, for some we wish them well in their future careers elsewhere and to others we wish them our very best wishes for the choices they’ve made to retire from teaching. There are 3 standout names to celebrate across the school community, because of their length of service with us across the organisation, because of the support they have given to literally thousands of children in their time with us and because of the impact they have had on the wider school community because of their support for what we love and cherish as a family school. 

First honours go to our Head of Common Room, Mike Miller, who joined the school as a parent back in 1989, and then became our Head of Business Studies through the 90’s prior to the corporate world taking him to South Africa for 3 years before making his return back into post. Not only did that see his wife Liz join our nursery team, but it gave us son Gareth back, initially as student, and then after higher education and employment elsewhere as teacher and now of course Head of Year 7. That sense of family is completed when I record that Gareth’s sister Michelle Coghlan is a leading member of our science faculty and both sets of grandchildren (for Mike that is) are now pupils in the school. Mike’s ongoing links to the Business world as Chair of the Maidenhead and District Chamber of Commerce continue to be of huge value, and we wish Mike and Liz every happiness in their retirement, well deserved after the 32 years they have given to Claires Court.

Departing also into retirement at Junior Boys is Judy Knott, Deputy Head Junior Boys and great support for Dean Richards as Head as well as for the staff and pupils more generally of course. No more fitting epitaph for Mrs Knott written in recent weeks than this by Justin Spanswick, our Executive headteacher. “…a huge thank you to my former Deputy Head and wonderful friend, Mrs Judy Nott. When I moved into Headship at Junior Boys, she was the one who kept me on the straight and narrow, and she ran the school while I learned what I was meant to be doing!” 

Whilst my wife, Jenny will never be able to retire completely whilst I am still at work, she steps down from leading our History department after first picking up the mantle in 1981. Working with Jenny over that 40 year period I have seen the subject flourish and lead our ‘hands-on’ education philosophy all the way through. The department’s legendary residentials, including through the 1990s to Washington and Williamsburg, Virginia, to Berlin more recently, to Ironbridge and Shropshire for the Industrial Revolution and for the past 20 years to the Ypres Salient for GCSE studies, have all given great opportunities to students. A hallmark of her imaginative planning included the use of museums to enrich teaching and learning, from Slavery through the Industrial Revolution to the Cold War and whilst Victorian crime was on the syllabus, Friday night time ‘Jack the Ripper’ walks were perhaps the highlight trip never to be forgotten! 

Our other colleagues departing into well deserved retirement are Liz Robinson (English – 20 years) and Sue Lattimer (French – 16 years), 2 other great teachers of the school whose impact at Senior Girls and in Sixth Form over 2 decades was equally impressive and valuable for those they taught. Of those leaving for  pastures new in September, I particularly commend Charlie Bretherton, currently deputy head pastoral to become Headteacher of Hillview International, a senior school in Malawi, To our other fabulous colleagues, Will Ansell (Sciences), Georgie Carter (PE), George Grose (Juniors), Katie Morgan (Juniors), Dorelle Scott (Maths), Philly Shelley-Smith (Art) and Clive Young (Physics) who are departing for new continents, new challenges and opportunities, we wish you the very best of fortunes ahead.

I am now able to take a break for 2 weeks before the announcement of 2021 A Level and GCSE results. Unlike last year when all was left to the last minute, I am delighted to report that our exam evidence has been scrutinised by the Exam boards, our sites visited by JCQ and results as provided to the boards back in June have been approved. Hopefully that will mean results days (digitally by email and portal) on Tuesday 10 August and Thursday 12 August will run smoothly, and once that work of 2020/21 is complete, I can begin to look forward to the academic year ahead where perhaps the landscape won’t be utterly riven by Covid-19. Builders, decorators and electricians have already moved in on all three sites, our planning team continue to work on our new campus and playing field proposals, of which we will surface further thoughts and developments in the autumn. 

In the meantime, thank you for all of your good wishes and kind thoughts. We cannot remotely have achieved everything for everyone this last 12 months, but wherever located, my colleagues and their teams have continued to work with great respect and integrity, and your support has been incredible throughout. Whether you are able to get away, be that Costa Maidenhead or on holiday elsewhere, have a good one and #staysafe.

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“Good grief” said Charlie Brown. It’s taken me sometime, and now I totally get that.

As a child of the ‘Sixties, my emerging take on the landscape of adolescence and life were of course largely shaped by my life at school, boarding as I did with lots of other children, often as many as 30, in a house owned by my parents. It was an all-boys boarding house for the school my parents founded in 1960, and our ‘social’ existence was shaped by the playground, the opportunity to cycle to and from school, out and about with the other fulltime boarders out and about at the weekend, Mass on Sundays at St Joseph’s in Maidenhead, TV and…

…’Peanuts’, a comic strip drawn by Charles M Schulz, which featured a small boy, Charlie Brown and with whom I identified immediately, Snoopy the beagle dog, local girl Lucy and all sorts of other characters.

I never want to suggest anything other about my childhood other than that it was happy. It’s interesting though to recall that it was an innocent childhood for example, at a time of less-than-more in terms of consumerism, and when much, if not all, we read, saw and watched was in black and white. Colour TV broadcasting didn’t start until ’69, and I can’t really remember dreaming in colour because my consciousness had not appreciated its presence in my limited attention span for what was important then. The cartoon strips I read throughout this period were black-ink-on-paper, as life was more generally of course!

I quote from Wikipedia: “Charlie Brown is characterized as a person who frequently suffers, and as a result, is usually nervous and lacks self-confidence. He shows both pessimistic and optimistic attitudes: on some days, he is reluctant to go out because his day might just be spoiled, but on others, he hopes for the best and tries as much as he can to accomplish things.” It’s so true, almost to this day for so many of us, not least because the events of the last 18 pandemic months, we have truly learned to fear to hope.

One repeating episode through ‘Peanuts’ was Charlie Brown’s efforts to kick a football, and throughout such storylines, just as he moved to kick a football proffered by his friend Lucy, she would pull it away at the moment of impact. Schulz was asked when he was moving to retirement whether he was going to permit Charlie to actually make contact after 50 years, he replied “…permitting Charlie Brown to succeed in kicking a football would do a disservice to the character”. And yet just a little later in retirement Schulz realized to his sadness that he had consigned Charlie Brown to never get to kick the football ever in his lifetime.

A second eternal image of Charlie Brown’s thinking I copy below. How many others of us feel like this too?

Pin on Yep, that's me !!

Having set out my stall, and along the way introduced you to CB, I’d like to move into the current technicolour world of always-on global media, in which of course ‘Peanuts’ is alive and well and can apparently be reprised endlessly on YouTube. 40+ years of headship often tells us that ‘what goes around, comes around’ and perhaps where experience and repeated practice translates into what other’s might call wisdom. My view is that I have just had the luck of having a good memory, and because of same, I do assure you that actually, ‘nothing is the same’ though as with the human genome (real or cartoon), there are very many close similarities, so spotting the ‘variants’ as situations have evolved to break through our armour and defences is an important feature of modern day school leadership.

To this end, I invite you to watch Nora McInerny’s inspiring TEDWomen 2018 talk posted 2 years ago. Nora says it frankly – she makes a living talking to people about life’s hardest moments, and she should know, losing twins, a father and a husband back in one month, October 2014.

Please take time to process what Nora talks us through, both the narrative of her story and the attendant emotions. Because of the immediacy of modern comms, she can not only bring us up to speed quickly on the triple tragedy she faced but also lead us through her subsequent journey. 50 years ago, storytellers did not have that privilege, and perhaps it shows in so far as so many ghastly secrets stayed buried for so long. But I doff my hat off to both story tellers, ancient and modern, because they both told me things I needed to listen to. And honestly, in the person of Charlie Brown, I identified with a boy of his times, and from whom I learned so much. And what did Lucy give me? A love of psychology, which is what I went to Uni to pursue, if only to understand the multiple psyches on show across Peanuts. Thank you Charles M Schulz, I owe you my career in education.

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