Raising aerobic fitness, developing abilities – how schools and happiness make a difference.

I am one of those people who enjoy setting themselves new challenges and acquire a different understanding of the world in which we live. In recent years, I have taken on an allotment, met fellow market gardeners, enjoyed the chatter around a thermos of coffee and definitely learned to lean on my shovel. Digging is one of the most physical activities I have ever done, and I was delighted to read this morning that such aerobic activity has every chance of making me more intelligent. Actually, the research relates not to people of my age, but to children, and that’s even more exciting. I quote from the press release (21 November 2017) from the Universidad de Granada:

Researchers from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven, for the first time in history, that physical fitness in children may affect their brain structure, which in turn may have an influence on their academic performance.

More specifically, the researchers have confirmed that physical fitness in children (especially aerobic capacity and motor ability) is associated with a greater volume of grey matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions.

In particular, aerobic capacity has been associated with greater grey matter volume in frontal regions (premotor cortex and supplementary motor cortex), subcortical regions (hippocampus and caudate nucleus), temporal regions (inferior temporal gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus) and the calcarine cortex. All of those regions are important for the executive function as well as for learning, motor and visual processes.”

Brain scanUoGr

According to the main author of the paper, Irene Esteban-Cornejo, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Granada, grey matter volume in the cortical and subcortical regions influenced by physical fitness improves in turn the children’s academic performance. She writes “Physical fitness is a factor that can be modified through physical exercise, and combining exercises that improve the aerobic capacity and the motor ability would be an effective approach to stimulate brain development and academic performance in overweight/obese children”.

“This scientific paper means an important contribution to human knowledge which should be taken into account by educational and public health institutions”.

“We appeal both to politicians, who make educational laws that are increasingly more focused on instrumental subjects, and to teachers, who are the final link in the chain and teach Physical Education day after day. School is the only entity that gathers every children in a mandatory way for a period of at least 10 years, and as such, it’s the ideal context for applying such recommendations”, conclude the researchers.

Across on my Facebook page, there has been lively debate as to whether UK Independent Schools persist in maintaining privilege per se, and a parallel discussion on the important purpose our existence as centres of excellence  to provide opportunities for children that otherwise would not be open to them. It’s in the opportunities for and provision of physical education that our specific independent school has always had as a key focus, because the positive link between physical performance and intellectual development has always been evident for most children. There is a particular focus in the research that’s easy to miss, and that’s the even stronger correlation between raising aerobic activity and reducing obesity.

How does this tie into setting a healthier mind-set then? The key features of progressing positive mental well-being is to know what things you can’t change, what things you can, and setting out to do the latter.  Here’s Susanna Halonen, the Happyologist on the matter – Susanna’s full article can be read following the link here:

“Let’s start by looking at what research has said about worrying in general:

  • About 85% of the things we worry about never happen.
  • If what we worry about does happen, 80% of us said we handled the outcome better than we thought we would.
  • People who let go of worries instead of stressing over them are much healthier than those who don’t.

So how do you let go of this worrying that sometimes drives you crazy – especially when you’re worrying about things you have no control over? Try the six strategies below to stop worrying once and for all – there’ll be a time and a place for each of them.

1. Accept uncertainty & learn to thrive in it.

2. Call a friend to talk about you worry.

3. Practice mindfulness.

4. Distract yourself with another activity.

5. Exercise!

6. Have a designated worry time and worry notebook.”

What’s interesting about the above is that the act of being physically active, whether that is running, rowing, riding a bike or digging an allotment takes time, and at least 20 minutes or so. In that time, you certainly commence 4 of the 6 activities above, and worries diminish – and often you carry out that exercise with a friend and do make mental notes in your to do list. I’ve written before that any activity worth doing needs to be undertaken for at least 20 minutes of focussed time, most specifically around reading because it’s only once you are deep into a book that the language being taken deep down into your consciousness starts reshaping and make new connections with other learned concepts and understandings.

To conclude, here’s a circular graphic of how the best early years education looks, and see how the science above clearly maps well onto the activities shown in a young child’s life.




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Claires Court – our news of important and exciting developments

newcampus1During the fortnight of half term, my brother Hugh and I have reached agreement with Berkeley Homes over the terms by which Berkeley will partner the School in realising our vision for a new, single campus alongside our Junior Boys site at Ridgeway. Our aspiration for this was first announced some time ago but planning details have taken time to resolve. Our intention now is to move with all speed towards an early submission of plans to the local authority and we will share the timeline for this with you shortly. The new campus will remove many of the shortcomings inherent from our split sites as well as providing a purpose-built environment in which we can deliver the high quality education that you expect. 

We published our info about our project 2 years ago and it’s great to be able to announce we are now pressing on. See http://www.clairescourt.com/new-campus-design for more information. The timeline for the project shows the process as follows:

Month Action
Autumn 2017 Finalise planning application and submission
Spring 2018 Planning decision
Reserved matters applications for housing sites and recreation areas
Late 2018 Commence construction at Cannon Lane
August 2020 College Avenue and Ray Mill Road East sites vacated
September 2020 New School to open


To facilitate this exciting stage in the School’s development, my brother and I wish to announce the appointment of Justin Spanswick, present Head of Junior Boys, as Executive Headteacher from September 2018. Supporting me in my role, Justin will be working across all sites alongside the current headteachers. His role will encompass strategic and compliance matters, including pupil recruitment and scholarships, new campus implications and parental engagement, overview of operational management and designated safeguarding lead.  The organisational chart of what these changes is shown below. 


In turn we are now actively seeking to appoint a new Head to take on the day to day responsibility of the leadership and management of Junior Boys, with effect from September 2018. As part of his role, Justin’s initial focus will be to support the new Head, facilitating a smooth transition into post and ensuring our School values, ethos and learning philosophy continue to be at the forefront of his successor’s vision for the pupils, parents and staff of Junior Boys. Valuable support will also come from our other collegiate Headteachers, Maggie Heywood, John Rayer and Leanne Barlow, and of course the faculty as a whole.

These appointments will release valuable extra time specifically in my working week as I now join my brother to support our ambitious building proposals through to their successful completion, as well as lead the equally careful planning process needed to bring 800 pupils,  their teachers and support staff across Maidenhead to the new campus. Bearing in mind my title, Academic Principal, all the headteachers, wherever they are based, will continue to report on their educational matters to me; likewise for Administrative matters they will continue to report to Hugh.

At this important time in the life of our School, my brother and I would like to thank you for your valued support as we strive to provide your family with the best learning environment and education possible. We look forward to making further announcements later this term.

new campus2


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Another fine mess you could be leading us into…but we don’t have to follow!!!

With each passing release of both government data with commentary from the wider expert community, there seems to be depressing evidence that ‘last year’s innovation’ implementations have become this year’s policy ‘disasters’.  No more so is this true than in Education, and very much across the western, English speaking world, not just the local estate managed by the current Conservative administration.

Across Australia and the United States, in Scotland as well as England, in vocational as well as academic education, national centralised control systems have been implemented, particularly in terms of curriculum coverage and methods of testing, and the outcomes for learners it seems have declined, not improved.

Justin Spanswick, my colleague at Claires Court, is writing in more detail about the amanda-spielman-ofsted_0recent pronouncement by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Children’s services and Skills, Amanda Spielman (otherwise known as the Head of Ofsted) who wrote yesterday (12 October) that “Schools in England are focusing on tests and exams, rather than giving pupils a good grounding in a wide range of subjects”.  She also says a rounded education – or the lack of one – has consequences for social mobility, with less academic children being particularly hard-hit if schools drop subjects such as art to focus on core ones – BBC/news/education.

portfolio-cfeIn Scotland, even worse criticism has developed about their curriculum and the outcomes for pupils.  Known as the Curriculum for Excellence, CfE, it has been seeking (for 15 years since its initial design) to develop the 4 capacities it hopes to deliver for its children: “successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors”. The trouble is these outcome measures on their own are almost impossible to measure and unaligned with actually the process of learning in school. As one secondary school teacher has written a damning open letter to Nicola Sturgeon, warning that Scotland’s curriculum is “utterly failing the children in our care”.

One of the main criticisms of both England and Scotland’s systems is that they have been in constant turmoil since the last but one major curriculum change in 2000. Every year, ‘stuff’ is moved.  These changes include the public exams system itself, linear to modular, terminal exams to coursework, then to controlled assessments, now back to linear.  It has been school ownership and government structures, the arrival of ‘free’ schools and academies, the switching of responsibility for oversight between a heinz variety of masters, including Local Authorities, Multi-academy trusts, stand-alone colleges and looser federations.  Here in England, Ofsted might have inspection rights over the success or otherwise of the school in meeting its educational purposes, but until recently no-one has had oversight of the financial and business management capabilities of the ‘owners’, so a new branch of government oversight, the offices of the ‘Regional Commissioners’ have had to be introduced to ensure there is someone actually ‘watching’ on behalf of the tax payer.

rscsEach turn of the ‘change-wheel’ gives rise to further internal exhaustion of the key workers who actual provide the pedal power for education, leading to the inevitable problem of teacher recruitment not matching the numbers needed to meet population increase and teacher departures via retirement or resignation. The latest developments in Apprenticeships in the UK, the new financial levy on employers and the political priority it has become have been met with a colossal 60+% reduction in apprenticeship take-up because…’the salary offered is just so low!’

In undergraduate education, the recent introduction of the £9000 grant for students in England has already had to be adjusted, because the total cost of a 3 year degree for the most disadvantaged students is predicted to be over an eye watering £50,000.  With the graduate population soon to crest over 50% of the population, the sense that there will be a graduate premium for earnings after in employment is vanishing like the polar icecap. In turn this means that the cost to the tax payer, (after the latest increase in threshold to £25,000 before the student loan starts to be paid back) is going to be greater than if we had retained the original system of tuition fees and student grants, deemed to be so much fairer to those at the bottom of the ‘pile’.

What’s remarkable about the successful western systems of education that are doing really well, such as in Finland and Canada, is the almost wholly absent nature of central, federal control. And that’s why they are successful, because when things change, they changes in a socially cohesive way for all schools, not in a dog v cat street fight of who can win ‘outstanding’ at the expense of ‘requires improvement’.  The framework that both countries have adopted is built around attracting and supporting their teachers as leaders of their profession and of pedagogy.  That lack of central control means no politician such as a Baker, Gove or Greening can dive in and ‘change’ the system for the better.

As the headline suggests, I am fortunate as an Independent School Education leader, I don’t have to follow the latest diktat of government.  Stability and coherence are absolutely essential to the development of deep and rich curriculum-based provision. World research highlights that specialist teaching needs is more effective from the age of 7, so you need schemes of work to remain stable so serious domain knowledge about what works with 8 year olds, for example in geography, history, language and science education develops. It’s a truism that all independent schools are unique, and by that definition must be very different to each other. The reality in a global sense is that we believe in very similar core principles, the teacher being the expert in the classroom, children receiving a variety of stimuli from a variety of teachers from an early age, the extended day to broaden and deepen the opportunities for children and an expectation that the learning journey for each child is going to provide both a worthwhile daily experience, and opportunities to take risks and fail without being named and shamed for so-doing.

isc-logo-800This month heralded the important announcement that there are now more ISC independent school children in schools abroad then there are foreigners attending ISC boarding schools in the UK. The growth of ISC independent school  curriculum provision in countries across the globe can almost be described as an ‘explosion’, with Haileybury for example exporting its model into Kazakhstan.  It also no surprise to see such schools making use of the IGCSE, a world version of England’s GCSE system, which has stayed remarkably stable for 30 years unlike its parent, which is changing once again over the current period of 3 years.

The trouble when tests change, is that, initially at least, the teachers and learners both have to focus on the test because that’s the way the output measure of the new subject curriculum is measured.  Once the new model beds in, then trial, experience and professional judgement come to the fore once again, once the assessment tools have been checked and ratified as working. Learning scientists like to look at change of periods of 10 years or more, so they can assess whether real change over time has happened, or is it just a statistical effect brought about by population variation. Since the current government has initiated a whole scale change to England’s state exam system over a period of 5 years, we won’t get the first indicators of that the change is worthwhile until 2025 at the earliest.  As I write, every assessment system from 5 to 18 is changing; that is simple madness.

Claires Court left the National Curriculum in 2006 and so for the past 11 years has been The Learning Scientistsdeveloping a careful implementation of a broad and deep curriculum now for 11 years.  We have aligned many of our more recent developments with work of leading professional bodies across the globe, and currently we are working alongside the excellent work emerging from The Learning Scientists*, a group of cognitive scientists whose mission is to make the science of learning more accessible to us all, children, students, teachers, parents and other educators.  In so doing they aim to:

  • Motivate students to study
  • Increase the use of effective study and teaching strategies that are backed by research
  • Decrease negative views of testing

At the end of any educative process, we need to have effective measures of the success of the ‘Output’. If the only thing we know about are the ‘Output’ requirements, then we have no choice but to teach to the test.  What research-led education developments permit us to do is concentrate on more on the performance during the learning journey, to focus on the micro-steps that will lead to exceptional performance in the long term, but actually aren’t visible per se as output measures. This could be about engagement and striving, about writing skills and keyboard dexterity, knowledge about software, hardware or thoughtware.

I’ll close with the words of our new Chief Inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, writing in the preface of a new Ofsted report looking at the state school curriculum.  Ms Spielman says schools have a duty to develop each individual child and give them a broad education. “However, good examination results in and of themselves don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding. A rounded education – or the lack of one – has consequences for social mobility, with less academic children being particularly hard-hit if schools drop subjects such as art to focus on core ones. Restricted subject choice for low-attaining pupils disproportionately affects pupils from low-income backgrounds.

In short, everyone deserves a rich and diverse set of opportunities in schools, and if we want  to raise the performance of all of our pupils, this government should focus its priorities still on ensuring that all schools are funded to provide such a curriculum, with high quality specialist teachers employed for the long term. Causing such austerity cutbacks across the public estate is going to cause the worst damage in communities that have the least to support their own outside of the classroom. Whether in Canada, Finland, Singapore, Japan or Shanghai, this is what the authorities understand – deep, quality provision for all reaps the best results.

*The latest blog from the Learning Scientists highlights the reasons why students need to be separated from their mobile phones – Cellphone presence and cognitive capacity.  Please have a look and read, and you’ll see why I rate them as an advisory group for our school!

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So many ways to listen to the voice of the child…

Just a short post this week, in part because it’s been manic here in the ‘engine room’ at Claires Court. Those that have studied the art/science of Leadership in Education* will know that the most successful approaches long term don’t start or end with a clear desk.  I’ve been ‘architecting’ lots of things this month, a new induction day for Year 7 in partnership with the National Trust with a little help from some new friends at the Sea Cadets for example.   Whilst I am delighted to have some existing excellent staff in new roles, and some promising new colleagues with diverse experiences to bring to the mix, there lots of support for them going on, less ‘fun’ induction at Cliveden, more ‘Baptisms of Fire’ joining the team here at Claires Court.

Yesterday, at the Senior Schools Speech Day, Tod Muil and Camilla Slais (head boy and girl) gave a truly remarkable movie presentation, with live voice overs, celebrating the last 12 months of activity here. Their film will appear here ->  FILM  <– though not actually with me at the time of writing. Perhaps even more impressively, Todd Lindley (also Year 13 and a school councillor) welcomed Lord James O’Shaughnessy to the event with a speech of good humour and impressive delivery, recalling for this former pupil of the school a number of weaknesses seen here back in the late ’80s, including perhaps blaming me for losing his Biology book rather than himself.

In their words, indeed in the actions of so many other of the leading school pupils in serving so well at the event, they make clear that Claires Court is about permitting their pupils to have a voice and to exercise that voice as effectively as they can.

20170922_134557Today, at Senior girls, I spotted some ‘speed dating’ going on, a process by which Year 7 were able to meet with and interview Year 11 on a 1:1 basis, asking who they were and what they did, getting to know them better. By the time I entered the hall, the event was well underway, and both sets of girls were completely engrossed.  Year 11 had obviously regressed a bit, finding perhaps some memories they had on starting at Senior Girls; essentially, and really quite quickly, the girls were getting to know each other in a kind, supportive and friendly way.

Lord O’Shaughnessy summarised yesterday the approach to Character education schools ought to adopt, remembering quite well just how close our community was here back in his day, which was it must be said ‘BG’ (Before Girls).  His words were simply – “The Americans summarise it as Be Kind, though I perhaps prefer the concept of Do Good“. Little did his Lordship know that he was shortly to be immersed in the work of the Sixth Form leadership, Andy Giles and Steph Rogers (Head and Deputy Head teachers). As Mr Giles made completely clear the Sixth Form motto takes this move to Character Education to a perfect conclusion: “Aim High, Be Yourself, Make a Difference”.

Amen to that.




*Harvard Business Review specifically looking at Leadership in Education, published Autumn 2016 – https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-one-type-of-leader-who-can-turn-around-a-failing-school

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Back to school, Claires Court style…

Really quite a lot of people have told me just how pleased they are that their children are going back to school, partly of course because the children need to, but also because parental resources have by now been worn pretty thin.  I thought I would document what we have been doing at school this summer, particularly since A level results were published 3 weeks ago, to inform and clarify just how busy schools can be, even though apparently we have no children on site (it has been alleged – just ask Holiday Activities just how many attended each day – usually always over  100, sometimes 150!!!).

First things first. The Academic Principal takes 6 weeks of leave a year, plus bank holidays. As we are a 51 week of the year business, and every week has serious activity of one kind or another therein, I have long learned I can’t afford to be away from work and expect all things to go smoothly. Academic staff of course have closer to the number of weeks the children have on leave, but even they work for almost 3 more weeks than the children on site, because of the requirement we have to train, upskill, collaborate and frankly clear up the old stuff and renew so we can start the new year afresh.  This summer, my leave dates were Fri 28 July to Friday 11 August inclusive, with 2 other days elsewhere.  Hold on to that set of facts.

First and foremost, because of the sheer business of Claires Court, the school offices, Finance, HR, Maintenance and ground staff, Marketing and Registrar stay open throughout the Summer. Arrivals and departures slow it must be said, but we never have less than 80 staff on any one day or so at work during the summer break, and my colleagues have needs and plenty of questions that require  supporting if not answering.  Hats off to them all, our amazing all year round team that keep the business so buoyant.  Jenny and I find it no sweat at all to stay-cation, not because of the above, but finding the time to enjoy our garden, appreciate the food from my allotment is so very restful.  If this sounds like living the life of a semi-recluse, that’s correct. After 185 days of full-on work with children and adults, finding some me-time becomes  pressing for us both.

Because of the Staff work days in the Summer, we have 27 weekdays in which to complete the chosen investment in ‘fabric’ repair work. Senior Boys has undergone a complete front of building face-lift, involving some pretty serious ‘acros’ under the main first floor gable over the front door. In College avenue, a huge volume of refurbishment activity within has taken place; Miss Barlow has a new office on Junior corridor for example, and a new conference room developed from Mr Bevis’ old office, but lots more besides – despite the fact that over 400 children have spent their summer within the Holiday activities we have run alongside.  Holiday Activity staff, most notably Lynne Constantine and Anne Halpin, have developed a quite savage yet hollow laugh when colleagues ask them how their holiday’s been, because of course they haven’t had one.

The most remarkable build this year was reserved by Principals’ assistant turned project manager Claire Samber for Junior boys. 

 As building regulations change, so we must invest, and so we had planned the installation of a new fire escape come balcony for the Mezzanine on the Sports Hall, alongside a new brick replacement for the conservatory at the side of the Year 6 block. We lost 2 whole weeks to the hideous weather of later July, but today both were just about finished and almost available for use.  Many other parts of JB have had a refresh as well, and all in all, Mrs Samber deserves great praise and cheer for pulling off one of the most remarkable transformations the school has enjoyed.

On 2 Thursdays in August, this year 17 and 24, A level and GCSE students, often with parents, come into school to collect their exam results. How those results turn from big data in the cloud into individual candidate summaries for every one is a dark art of course, but includes our Data Manager (DM) logging on at 12 midnight Tuesday to the central JCQ data hub, smashing the stuff for between 2-3 hours, using specialist software that will have been updated at least twice over the previous 2 days, and probably needs a further update from the MIS provider on the Wednesday morning to sort out the final wrinkles.

Obviously, I ‘swan-in’ to work on the Wednesday morning without a care in the world, and review the respective candidate sheets – circa 150 for A level and 100+ for GCSE. Thousands of marks are combined into hundreds of grades, and after a cursory glance (hem hem) spot that the sheets make no sense to me at all. Lots of gaps, holes and otherwise lumpy bits; I point out to DM that there seems to be some mistake.  He politely suggests I might turn the sheet around, and look at the sheet with my glasses on. There is now too much data on the sheet, and what’s more, reporting examinations that ceased to exist 12 months ago. Genuine cursing and steam arises from behind the screen of the DM, and for A levels at least, a further hour of work is required ‘under the bonnet’ so to speak.

I kid you not about the alchemy required to turn data into paper info for candidates. Please bear in mind, we are now dealing with old courses and new courses 50+ in total, letters and numbers for some, little numbers and big numbers for others.  It gets worse. All the numbers and letters that mean something to the students come down on the Tuesday night, but the factually accurate stuff about individual marks for questions and papers are not visible to the teaching staff until the Thursday.  All the staff can’t know before Thursday, otherwise they might break confidence and tell the children what they got and break secrecy, yet all the subject leaders need to check though on both Wednesday and Thursday with a fine tooth comb, because stuff can and does go wrong. On both on days, wherever the Heads of Department are in the world, they log in on line to the specific exam boards for the subject concerned, check the results they can see, read the moderators’ report on their own marking where appropriate, read the Chief examiner’s report where there might be controversy, and throughout all this time keep their fingers crossed. And write to me to summarise what they can see and whether there are ‘issues’ of which to make me aware. As I live with the Head of History (we are married by the way), I have seen this year after year, and the load and demands on them just get more and more burdensome, because of course, the stakes seem to get higher and higher.

Thursday and Friday after both publication days are filled with cheers and tears alike. This year as in most years, the overall results are strong and for some, blooming amazing, for most candidates there is a feeling of the odd subject grade that got away, and for a few the odd is more like quite a few.  Andy Giles, Steph Rogers and Kim Hall in the Sixth Form are superb, and their results handout (17 August) started just before 8 am for the Y13 on whose results University places depend.  I am not very good at the mawkish hanging around, clapping hands and supporting jovially, because the sight of an old man looking excited rarely calms nerves in the young.

What seems to work for me and those students (and parents) that need a bit more help, is to be mobilised by the Head of Sixth Form when the problem arising looks one for the hard bucket. And though we get some rock hard ones, I am usually able to crack most of them I am given.  Now if that sounds grandiose, it’s not meant to; with candidates being able to trade up as well as down, Andy Giles does have some really quite curious issues to solve, and sometimes we just need more eyes on the ‘prize’ so to speak then his.

GCSE results day is much less of a terminal celebration, more of a taking stock and checking whether GCSE grades match A level subject choices, whether A levels are in the correct combination, and whether a switch to alternative BTEC courses might make more sense. Obviously some students  move on to other Sixth Forms, but we enjoy inward migration as well, providing a sense of renewal and refreshment for all. For the Sixth Form team, the work doesn’t end, and it’s quite noticeable just what a big burden they have – holiday has to be taken prior to A level results day, because it’s full on til today, everyday being a work day.

Those secondary staff lower down the responsibility ladder might escape much of the work, but most will still take an interest, turn up to see how their classes have performed, and celebrate/commiserate as appropriate. And of course of these, quite a few are beginning to prepare for the pre-season sports training to commence, Rugby and Sailing both being involved. For primary staff, as Richmal Crompton of Just William might write, they are permitted to be ‘gloriously idle’ throughout this period, because of course they have no results coming down their wires so to speak.

For primary school staff then, we reserve a very special kind of hell. Known as deep cleaning and renovation, every single scrap of their classroom has to be taken down, boxed up and put as far away as possible. This permits the cleaners (the same good people we employ in term time) to go around in a microscopic manner, wiping over with sterilising fluid so that all known germs known to man are killed. The builders and painters usually work counterintuitively to our programme, opening up classrooms sealed with ‘Deep cleaned’ signs and wreaking their own kind of havoc with white boards, fire sensors and such like. Our Domestic Bursar (DB) has his own very special kind of language to use on Discovery days such as these; he has developed a unique way of apologising to his troupe, recovering their torn-up clocking on cards, and as appropriate, even smiling at them.

Once DB declares that the school may now be considered open for teacher’, the primary staff then recommence the Herculean task of decorating their classrooms for Day 1 – that was today. Most staff at least scoped their challenge last week, many could return and start being creative, but pretty much all were still hard at the decorating lark well after 18:00 on Wednesday 6 September. That night, at 18:30, there were leadership, teaching and admin staff all still hard at the grind-stone. ID badges for students, bus passes and back at school letters, lockers and landings still being checked, cleared and made ready.

If you have continued reading this far, well done.  You are beginning to understand why the full-time office and admin teams look forward to start of the new school year – they are able to welcome the teachers back from their break, and cause them to share the load of answering calls, emails letters and such like, all with unique demands and suggestions.  After all, most of the parent queries in recent days are not about nuts and bolts, but academic and pastoral concerns to which only their teachers can make effective response.

This author reserves 3 very special privileges for his own attention.

I take a particular interest in inducting new staff, and 28 of the 30 starters were in for the 1 September for the day. This year’s newbies include experienced hands, teachers, nurses, programmers and support, converts from the City and paralympians switching careers. Teaching and working in schools changes most people for the better, a job/career in which every one can really make a difference, and I take great pleasure in facilitating that change.


Welcoming in the new Head Boy and Girl, Todd Muil and Camilla Slais and their team of School leaders, getting them set for their first big challenge, to prepare the picture show for Speech Day may take them out of their comfort zone, but putting the young in charge of such an operation really does mean we show respect for and value Pupil Voice. School councillor Todd Lindley has the unique pleasure of returning the favour showed to him by Lord James O’Shaughnessy, when he welcomed Todd to the House of Lords in February and congratulated him on winning the Whitbread prize.  James is an old boy of Claires Court, I had the pleasure of teaching him and pointing him in the direction of Wellington College for boarding senior school. James is presenting our prizes at Speech Day, and Todd gets to read out the Lord’s school report from way back when.

Researching and preparing the ‘Welcome back to work’ presentation to the Faculty on their return to school is my third great pleasure. Setting the tone for the incoming Academic year is essential, causing a regathering of common solidarity around the very essence of what makes our school such an outstanding institution for children, teachers and parents alike. This year, I chose to have the event filmed on Tuesday, in the Courtyard Theatre at Norden Farm, in part because it’s quite clear that attending this event for all of us is motivational, and thus in part, being able to share that set of messages to a wider audience seems a good thing.

And finally, and thanks for reading this far, where does the reward for getting ready for school come from. I started my day today with 250+ boys at CCJB, in part to lend moral support to a site that has been through the ‘Samber/Spanswick’ challenge this summer, and in part to see a lot of very ‘new’ boys start.  Looking at the gathering, from their backs so to speak, I know that those boys are incredibly fortunate that their parents have found the funds to bring them to us. When so many commentators of education worry about the growing immorality and perverse logic of school leaders, when the Professor who leads Education thinking at Cambridge talks about schools adopting strategies this year that simply ‘make her weep’, Claires Court remains a beacon of how to be responsible as a seat of learning, how to respect all individuals, whatever their ability, how to stay loyal to those same children, even when it seems everyone else is giving up, and above all how to ensure the children rise above it all, to become remarkable, secure and well balanced adults able to contribute effectively in a society that badly needs integrity to triumph.  And you read that here. And I stand by every word. As I did on Tuesday morning at Norden Farm in front of the faculty, and challenged them too, to live and breathe every bit of ‘them’, the Claires Court essentials.



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Managing reading development at Secondary level

The ability to read is central to a child’s ability to do well academically at school. Claires Court is a broad ability secondary independent school in Maidenhead Berks. We aim to recruit some 100 boys and girls per year group level from Year 7 and above, and on entry we assess each child’s reading age, as well as carry out a more general audit on their learning skills via CEM centre’s MidYIS assessment.  As parents choosing to find their child’s education with us, it’s quite clear their parents have taken a keen interest in their development through their primary years, but many talk of their child’s reluctance to read and of their concerns that there might be some underlying learning difficulty holding them back.  In short, we have our work cut out to ensure that the vast majority of our pupils have reached a reading age of 14 by the start of their GCSE courses in Year 10, when they are 14+ years of age!

To this end, we have developed a range of strategies to assist children (and parents) develop age appropriate reading skills. To start with in Year 7, every child has a library lesson a week as part of their English curriculum, and the libraries are well stocked with contemporary novels and modern factual reference books. This work is supported by author visits and book vents through the year. In addition, every child has a digital reading account providing them with a very wide range of digital books provide courtesy of Renaissance Accelerated Reader, which gives teachers the information they need to monitor their pupils’ reading practice and make appropriate decisions and choice to guide future reading and reinforcement. This internet based software gives each child regular feedback on their progress, supported by the librarians and teachers eager to give praise where due. However and he is a really big caution, silent reading on its own won’t improve the reading age of a reluctant reader.  They specifically need to read out loud to an ‘interested’ reader – we call this RADIO READING.

How might a parent listen to an older child at top primary/lower secondary child read?

Specific focus is given to listening to your child read without seeing the text.  The text can be from fiction, from a school book, from a catalogue or magazine or from that daily paper no house should be without.  Make sure your child has their reading to hand and then…

…sit back and imagine you are listening to the radio

Listen to the unfolding story and if words cannot be read, then leave it for your ‘radio’ reader to work out what word might do instead.  This might require them to read on a bit, but do be patient.

From fiction, capture unfamiliar words and discuss their meaning and usage – not too many, but enough to keep you concentrating on your job as listener.

Magazines tend to use technical language dependent upon the article – perhaps not necessarily useful in the wider context – but words, themes and issues will emerge which are worth an ‘any questions’ on afterwards – this helps check comprehension as well as keeping you involved.

The textbooks have a reading age at least age appropriate if not two years or more ahead.  They contain a technical vocabulary your child may need to become familiar with, so as they read jot down any words which seem technical and unfamiliar to them and you.  At natural points, for a break or to clarify, raise these words and discuss them.  

Papers raise issues of personal, social, cultural and moral development leading anywhere you might wish – often you don’t may feel you don’t need to hear the ‘reading’, but just discuss the emerging issues.  The lovely thing about newsprint is that this is where new words, usage and grammar first come into written use.  Spot the new words and see if they have value for your child.

Many of our families with boys in year 7 to 9 report the value of this personal time they find together.  In a world full of things to do and not enough time, with wall to wall TV and PC, internet and games machine, finding some quiet time to follow this work builds bigger and wider bridges than all might think at first hand.

The departments at Claires Court all produce secondary lists of technical vocabulary for their subject and in each year of key stage 3 (ages 11 to 14).  These are issued at the start of the year, are often reissued with revision guides and can be worked through at home to ensure each child is literate in their reading and their meaning.  It is amazing just how few words exist in the technical lexicon of each subject, so a bit of diligent attention here provides really useful support for the child, whatever their wider reading ability.

And finally – some 8 years ago I remember listening to Gary Chevin, former prison inmate turned Dyslexia researcher, working with Professors Rod Nicolson, and Prof Angela Fawcett. They had just completed his book (2009 – AuthorHouse), Dyslexia: Visually Deaf? Auditory Blind? In short, Gary’s unusual story is that he has no ‘inner voice’, and so unless he reads out loud, he can’t hear the story! This reinforced in my mind that whatever the many root causes of word blindness, even the most challenged adults could discover a love of reading and that there remains significant importance that all to be heard to read out loud and often!  LAMDA exams for this purpose provide significant extended opportunities for boys and girls at secondary level to raise their standards of public speaking up to Grade 8.

This blog was commissioned by the Independent Schools Council to inform and advise. 

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End of Summer Term letter from the Academic Principal


 I am told that our nation’s favourite poem is Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. In my mind, this is a celebration on reaching maturity, a coming of age for ‘grown-ups’! It’s one thing to reach the statutory age of maturity, be that 16, 18, 21 or indeed 25, but that’s no guarantee that ‘common sense’ has arrived, or that ‘shoulders are broad enough to carry the load’.

Most will know the opening and closing lines:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kipling wrote at a time when a person’s gender was certainly one of the determinants in life; born into the Colonial Victorian Era, he died in 1936 on the cusp of the modern age 80 years on, in Education at least, equality and parity between the sexes is assured. The last two Secretaries of State for Education have been female, and in their very distinct ways, Justine Greening and Nicola Morgan have both shown they can take the strain, when conditions around them are tough. Of course our present Prime Minister has not had things her own way this year either; having lost her clear majority in the recent election, she is now tasked with building consensus across a range of political views. It’s quite clear Theresa May has her work cut out to keep UK PLC on the straight and narrow, given the small matter of Brexit negotiations, so perhaps as and when our planning application for our new campus goes in, she’ll still be able to find the time to give our plans for a new school campus a positive nod of approval on the way.

As parents and pupils know, Paul Bevis, our headteacher covering Nursery to Sixth Form on our College Avenue site, is moving on this coming autumn.  Paul took up his appointment as  Head of College in September 2011 and he came already as a friend of the school, having in his previous roles as Headteacher of the Elvian School in Reading and before that Assistant headteacher at LVS Ascot had much contact with both boys and girls staff at Claires Court. Paul joined us at a critical time in the school’s development; we had chosen to leave the national curriculum, and had established the school’s Key Values programme.  We had not yet articulated the learning philosophies needed to underpin the newly designed curriculum to follow, and his broad experience and deep understanding of education matters quickly enabled the school to develop the coherence provided by the Claires Court ‘Essentials’.

Paul’s passion for education also helped us become more aware that all pupils deserve stretch and challenge, not just the more able, and fairly quickly girls of all ages were queueing at his door to provide answers to the head’s thinking challenge of the week. Paul has carried on in like manner, and most of the girls in the school can cheerfully say that he has been their headteacher, one who has known them and taken a keen interest in their personal development throughout their time in the school. As teachers have retired or moved on to new pastures, Paul has taken an acute interest in recruiting staff of the ‘Kipling’ stuff, those who will accept the responsibility to meet the demands of being the ‘best school we can be’ and yet take risks and seek new ways of inspiring learning.  Paul retires this summer to move onto other educational activities not so completely driven by the school calendar and daily bell. He has made his mark quite clearly, with girls demonstrably capable of academic, sporting, musical and artistic achievement of the highest order. Even more impressive, those waiting to take over, Messrs Giles, Heywood and Barlow are ready for the challenge, each really well versed in their responsibilities. The Principals are deeply grateful to Mr Bevis for the excellence of his stewardship and we wish him every possible success in his new ventures, husband of a globe-trotting tennis journalist, grandad and problem solver extraordinaire.

Among other notable staff leaving us this Summer are Jan Price who joined in 1990 to lead our Art teaching at Secondary Boys. Over the subsequent 27 years, she has developed the Art department considerably and her students have enjoyed considerable success here under her guidance, and even more into successful post-graduate employment in the creative arts all over the UK and beyond. Her biggest help over the years has been Mavis Barber, who also is retiring after 19 years with us. Jan and Mavis leave a school that offers Fine Art, Art & Design, Textiles and Photography, and as visitors to our recent exhibitions of GCSE and A-level Arts exhibitions will attest, they leave our school with their pupils at the peak of their artistic powers!

Angela Fowke, Claires Court’s lead school nurse retires after 23 years of incredible service, duties encompassing various responsibilities such as sports coach, relationship and sex education teacher and pastoral lead for Years 7 and 8.  Angela visited me in the autumn of 1993 to impress upon me the importance of adding to the support needed for both children and adults.

Deborah Snow joined the Sixth Form teaching team in 1995 to teach Media Studies, just ahead of Mike Crawley (1997) to lead Photography in our then recently formed Sixth Form, both at A-level. Their  contributions to the academic life of the school have been both distinct (totally different subjects and ways of working) yet really quite similar in terms of encouraging creative flair and independent working. Debbie and Mike are ‘legends’ of the school, owner ‘drivers’ of their subjects, working exclusively with Years 12 and 13 as both academic teachers and personal tutors. Mike’s contribution as the chair of the student common room committee has seen many Christmas parties and Summer balls through to successful conclusion. They’ll both be sorely missed.

Other departing staff include Kate Ing, Assistant Head on the College site going to the Sixth Form at Beaconsfield High School, Hester Goodsell moving to be Director of Music at Notting Hill & Ealing High School, and both Will Ansell and Sharon Renardson off to Australia for entirely different reasons. To these and other colleagues slipping away to fresh pastures at this time we wish them the very best of fortunes in their new endeavours.

In celebrating the arrival of the summer holidays, I do give thanks to all of the staff for their amazing efforts over the past 10 months. The Principals have been incredibly well served by all three headteachers, John Rayer and Justin Spanswick as well as Paul Bevis, and their leadership and management teams, staff, administrators and support workers. The school roll closes with 1109 children and 376 staff, the largest we have ever been. Despite our scale and size, I hope that you our parents and customers will understand that next year I intend to spend even more time out and about with your children, for whom our school exists.

Hearing your views personally is also very important to me.  There were some key points made by parents in the 2017 Parental Questionnaire which I believe require me to make reply, which I do in my feedback document.  Please take this opportunity to read those responses, as they highlight many areas where we have listened to you and actively made changes, including parental information & liaison, food and transport – as well as other important information on how we continually strive to develop all our pupils whatever their age

I am looking forward to being a little closer to the ‘action’ so to speak, to ensure you hear my views and passion for the school a little more often. To paraphrase Kipling:

I can dream – and yet don’t make dreams my master; I can think – and not make thoughts my aim; I do meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

Have a restful summer holiday as and when you can, for surely your children do deserve a break; I know I do!

James Wilding

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