Headmasters and Head of Senior Schools’ Speeches, Senior School Prize Giving, Wednesday 1st July 2009.

Wednesday 1st July 2009

Headmasters and Head of Senior Schools’ Speeches, Senior School Prize Giving, Wednesday 1st July 2009.

Chairman of the Board, Headmaster, Ladies and Gentleman: What a year! It is no easy task setting up and running a new school, but as Big Chris, the lead character in the British Gangster Flick, ‘Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’, so memorably says as he takes his leave, ‘it’s been emotional’.  Now, while I am not leaving (I have far too much work to do here), it has definitely  ‘been emotional’.

Heads usually begin speech day by waxing lyrical about how good their public examination results were in the previous year.  I am confident I will be doing the same after the first substantial group (our current Year 10s have gone through IGCSE), but for now that will have to wait.  Many times this year I have spent time writing about or addressing audiences, in the spirit of justifying exactly what we do here:  so I have got a captive audience here and now’s my chance to ram the message home!  For some years now the press have talked about grade inflation.  First we changed to GCSE from O Level back in 1988 and then we introduced A* grades at GCSE.   Then we changed the A Level system to an AS/A Level system.  All the while exams became less rigorous and more and more young people got the top grades.  Now we have an A* at A Level and over 30% of papers are graded A.  Here’s how one, admittedly tongue in cheek, paper, called ‘THE EVOLUTION OF CLASSROOM QUESTIONS’ would have it: 

Maths exam question in 1970: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Maths exam question in 1980: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price or $80. What is his profit?

Maths exam question in 1990: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. Her cost of production is $80 and her profit is $20. Your task Underline the number 20.

Maths exam question in 2000: By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20 a) What do you think of this way of making a living? B) How did the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees?  Note- There are no wrong answers.

Now while this does the current exam system somewhat of a disservice there is some truth in it.  It does then explain one of the reasons why we have chosen Cambridge International Checkpoint Examinations as opposed to SATs in Year 9; why we have chosen the more rigorous Cambridge IGCSE over the GCSE and finally, and most importantly, why we have chosen the IB Diploma over the AS/A Level.  We want our children not just to get great grades (this is very important), but to prepare our young people for the rigours of the world beyond the Repton Arch.  Of course this is not the only reason.  We have chosen these curricula at each Key Stage to ensure that the young people become independent learners, develop a fascination for the world they live in, pursue knowledge with vigour, learn how to learn and see learning and the pursuit of knowledge as a life-long endeavour. 

We have chosen this curricula because we believe in internationalism and respect for all faiths, races and cultures, rather than supporting narrow sectional interests.  Our curriculum, and all we do in the school, are wedded to the principles of developing respect for the world we live in.

We have chosen our curriculum because we know that universities and increasingly employers are recognising that the IGCSE and IB Diploma are far more suitable for preparation for life beyond school and far more discerning in terms of marking out the good from the outstanding.

More specifically, we have chosen the IB Diploma because, like our other curricula it allows individuals to develop over two years, rather than being examined ad nauseam every year and even twice a year, something AS and A2, with suffocating results, has imposed on young people over the past 10 years.  Children need space to breath and grow; they need space to develop their own opinions, because they all have them.  Without a chance to express them, substantiate them with evidence and explanation and be able to argue a case they will remain frustrated and unexcited by education, teachers and teaching.  Few will not be excited by what they have on offer here as the teachers are so good; but what does unexciting, staid and almost entirely didactic teaching lead to?  It leads to what Jonathan Smith, the long time Head of English of Tonbridge School, turned author, described about his experience of French classes (apologies to Mr Dace as I know that would not happen here) in his book ‘The Learning Game’.  Now, while it makes for a great story and I have similar stories about my experience of boarding school at a Catholic Prep School and Military Secondary School, it does not signify good teaching.

With another victim we played classroom cricket.  This was not so much the work of a lone fisherman hero, this was one-in-all-in.  On one side of the room sat the batting team; on the other side, the bowling.  We tossed up before the lesson to decide which side was which.  There were elaborate ground-rules, insisted upon by our scorer- umpire, a saintly scholar.  The general thrust of the lesson-long contest was that the batting side scored runs by making the teacher come up with various stereotypical remarks of his.  You scored one run for ‘Oh, come on!’, two for ‘Good grief, I’ve just told you that!’, three runs for ‘Pull yourself together, boy!’, four for ‘What on earth have you been doing all this term!’ and six for ‘One more squeak out of you and its detention!’

The batting side spent forty whole minutes not learning French but asking any kind of damn-fool questions to ensure the teacher said any of the run-scoring phrases.  As the total grew the batters occasionally clapped, calling out, ‘Shot!’  The aim of the bowling side was more limited.  It was to make the teacher say only one phrase, ‘You silly boy!’  Every time he said ‘You silly boy!’ you bowled out the batsman, you took a wicket.  But to make him say ‘You silly boy !’ ten times in forty minutes, i.e. to bowl a side out, was extremely difficult.  Clearly conditions favoured batting.  With a greater range of options the batters became more and more smug, grinning, nodding, and giving each other the thumbs-up as they knocked the ball around, picking up a ‘Good grief!’ here and a ‘Pull yourself together!’ there, while the bowlers, ever more desperate for a breakthrough, sprayed it all over the place.

With seven wickets down and less than a minute to go, the umpire-scorer whispered, ‘Last over.’  One kamikaze bowler now risked his all on a question so brain-dead, so mindless, so asking-for-it that he risked being hit for six, three hours’ detention, but the teacher cracked, banged his fists on the table in fury and shouted:

            ‘You silly, silly, SILLY boy!’

            At which the bowler screamed:


            (I failed O-Level French.)

Now this certainly apes my experience of my Christian Brothers Prep School, despite the Spanish Inquisition like discipline, we spent the vast majority of our time running rings round them!  In short, bad teaching and a failure to understand how to motivate children leads to poor classroom control, however ‘strict’ the teacher is. 

Of course what we have are excellent teachers who know just how to motivate young people and it is to them that I give my thanks and praise.  Foremost among them are the excellent Heads of Department and Housemasters.  These are all key people, but not least the Housemasters- we have all witnessed the development of fantastic and competitive house spirit across the year through the numerous inter-house events, but most important of all has been the outstanding pastoral provision that the House system facilitates.  While thanks go to all the staff, it also goes to the other central pillars of what I call the triumvirate- the boys and girls and the parents.  Thank you to the students for their unfailing good humour, for (on the whole) their very hard work and for their continued attempts to improve on their practice.  We are blessed with an excellent student body, who are testament to our very supportive parents.  These parents have recently established both the Friends of Repton and a senior specific branch of this body.  They are already active in establishing a significant support network to complement what the staff and students do.  Together we will go from strength to strength. 

Lastly, but not least, thank you to Evolvence and Khaled al Muhairy for their, and more specifically his, unstinting backing for what we are already striving to achieve here.  We have set out to establish the best school in the Middle East and one of the best International schools in the world.  We will not rest on our laurels as we work towards achieving this goal, because like the students we teach, we too will continue to learn, we will, to adopt business speak, always consider ourselves a ‘learning organisation’, we will listen to all our stakeholders and we will, by and by, keep getting better and better.  Like these prize winners, who deserve our plaudits, along with many of you that have not been specifically rewarded today, we will let success breed success.  Well done to all of you and I very much hope you have an excellent holiday.  I trust all will return well-rested, sharp of mind, fleet of foot, with craft in their hands and ready to help Repton go from strength to strength.  Thank you and enjoy the summer.


Pheidippides and the Art of Glorious Failure, Senior School Prize-Giving, 1st July 2009

Ladies, Gentlemen, students and honoured guests.

Can I begin by extending a massive ‘well done’ to everybody in the Senior School for a highly successful first year in existence. All of us, whether student, teacher or parent, can take great pride and satisfaction in what we have achieved this year. It is not all been plain sailing, but we end the year with a growing reputation for excellence and the potential to go to new heights from next August. Many congratulations! 

If you fly home or indeed anywhere on Emirates, there is in their excellent entertainment programme a trivia quiz, with various categories of questions. One of the categories is inevitably History and amongst many daunting questions is ‘Who ran from Marathon to Athens to tell of the Greek victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon of 490BC?’ You get four possible answers, one of which is Pheidippides, the correct one. Some of you probably know that, on reaching Athens, he gasped out the words, “We have won”, and promptly died on the spot.

It is a wonderful story, probably owing more to legend than reality,  reflecting a glorious if ultimately futile deed. Pheidippides was not a winner, never a loser, but did his best at what he did best, which was running, in the end paying the ultimate sacrifice. The hall today is full of potential Pheidippides, boys and girls who perform at their best, day after day, and get no tangible reward, certainly not a prize today.

My talk this afternoon is for you, because, when I was at school, I never got any sort of prize until I was in the sixth form when I got one for football. If you have not received a prize today, do not despair, take heart. Do not be deterred and learn from the experiences of the historical characters I am going to share with you. All of them faced setbacks, some more than the others, and yet all of them succeeded in one way or another.

Let me start with a historical legend associated with the great Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. During the winter of 1305-1306, he was on the run from the King Edward I of England. As the English soldiers combed the Scottish countryside looking for him, Bruce took ship and, in straightened circumstances, found refuge in a cave on Rathlin Island, just off the coast of Ireland. Exhausted, alone and in despair, he became absorbed in the efforts of a spider trying to spin a web across the roof of the cave. Each time the spider failed, it simply started all over again until, after the seventh failures, the web was spun. Bruce took heart. He had already been defeated by the English seven times, but never lost again and was firmly on the road to his great triumph at the battle of Bannockburn and the Scottish crown.

The moral behind the tale is of course: ‘if at first you do not succeed, then try, try again!’ But is the story historically accurate? Unlikely, as the earliest reference to it is in the Tales of a Grandfather, Sir Walter Scott’s examination of Scottish history, written over five hundred years later in 1828-1829. Moreover, the idea of never giving up is found in other royal hagiographies. For instance, according to Persian folklore, the great Mongolian 14th-century warlord, Tamerlane, spent several years as a fugitive, though he was inspired not by a spider, but an ant! Personal inspiration comes in all shapes and forms.

Tamerlane is probably best known today as the leading character in one of Christopher Marlowe’s greatest plays, Tamburlaine the Great, written in 1587 or 1588. Marlowe, though a great Tudor playwright and probably second only to Shakespeare in reputation and contemporary fame, was, as a person, far from a saint.

Despite attending King’s School, Canterbury, and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, it is doubtful Marlowe would have won many school or university prizes. A volatile character at the best of times, he distinguished himself at Cambridge by being absent on far too many occasions, and only got his MA by order from the Privy Council. This was possibly a reward for embarking early upon his other career as a spy. His end was perhaps fitting: stabbed in the eye after he attacked an equally dubious acquaintance following an argument over paying the bill in a Deptford tavern.

Marlowe was probably one of those people who liked to live on the edge, possessed a destructive temper and seems to have been attracted to trouble. These are the sad lessons for us all of his short, tragic life. But his literary talents are undeniable if, through his personal shortcomings, they were lost to everybody at the age of 29.  Shakespeare paid tribute to him in As You Like It, where he quotes a line from Hero and Leander, another of Marlowe’s plays, and also makes an obvious reference to his untimely death.  

You have probably all heard of Christopher Marlowe, but I doubt many of you are aware of the American statesman William Jennings Bryan. Known as the ‘The Great Commoner’, Bryan believed passionately in the rights of the people, he was a true democrat and a key figure in the early Democrat Party, the political party that has given us Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton and today President Obama. What is remarkable about Bryan is that he too, like Robert the Bruce, never gave up, fighting three presidential elections in 1896, 1900 and 1908. He was the first presidential candidate to go on the ‘stump’, or travel around the country, but, in stark contrast to Bruce, he never tasted ultimate success, losing all three elections and never making it to the White House.

But history has nevertheless been kind to Bryan. He was genuinely a good and decent man, not characteristics you necessarily associate with successful politicians, and this proved his legacy. Arguably the greatest US president of all time, Franklin Roosevelt, said of him in 1934: "I think that we would choose the word 'sincerity' as fitting him most of all...it was that sincerity that served him so well in his life-long fight against sham and privilege and wrong. It was that sincerity which made him a force for good in his own generation and kept alive many of the ancient faiths on which we are building today.

Bryan failed in the principal political goal of his life, but, through strength of character, he succeeded in helping to shape the essential values of one of the two great political parties of America. Bryan was also a very devout man, with strong spiritual feelings, never a weakness, but in his attitude towards Charles Darwin, a feature of the later years of his life, he has come to symbolise some of the issues which still confront middle America today.

At this point, I can almost hear 46% of you saying, “You are a man and all you talk about are men!” So I would like to present to you a remarkable woman, who almost single-handedly overcame the social stereotypes of being a woman in early 19th-century Britain. Throughout her life, Elizabeth Fry was accused of neglecting her duties as a wife and a mother. As she had eleven children, ten of whom survived successfully into adulthood, this is very unfair.

But her achievements, or cause, were remarkable. Like William Jennings Bryan after her, Elizabeth Fry cared for her fellow man, or woman. Prompted by a family friend, she visited Newgate prison in London. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women's section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. They did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept. She returned the following day with food and clothes for some of the prisoners, and thus began her career as the leading advocate of prison reform.

Other causes followed, such as the abolition of capital punishment, establishing shelters for the homeless in London and opening a training school for nurses, which later inspired Florence Nightingale. Girls, you   are fortunate indeed to live in an age where talents are rewarded, irrespective of gender. By the way, Elizabeth’s husband eventually went bankrupt, with so many mouths to feed. Who got his business back up and running. You’ve [probably guessed it: Elizabeth.

I would like to finish with somebody Elizabeth Fry knew. He was in some ways a misfit, and yet he left a very large imprint on world history, following a lifetime’s pursuit of a single, wholly admirable goal: the abolition of the slave trade and, thereby sounding the death knell of slavery. William Wilberforce was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, or in simple terms he had money, courtesy of his father. No great success at school, his fortune got him into St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he relentlessly pursued his interest in cards, gambling and drinking.

When Wilberforce got around to thinking abut a career, his thoughts turned to a politics or the Church and, influenced by his great friend, William Pitt, the future prime minister, he plumped for the former. At the age of 21, he became an MP and began a career in Parliament stretching over forty years. Yet, despite his friendship with Pitt, he never served in the government.

Why? Put bluntly, he was one of the most disorganised men ever to be prominent in British political life. One aspect of this was his chaotic approach to answering letters, which actually meant most of them never got answered. Sack loads just seemed to disappear. Pitt once wrote to him in despair, “Pray write one line!” His wife even discovered a letter from the President of the United States, of course unanswered, stuck to the top of a drawer!

Yet consider this, why was the US president writing to him? For twenty years, until success in 1807, Wilberforce led the campaign, both in and outside Parliament, to abolish the slave trade. Here is truly the work of a lifetime, in which he just never gave up, suffered defeat after defeat and yet carried to fruition his dream. In so doing he placed principle above politics, mankind above party and moral success above personal ambition.

One of Wilberforce’s great talents was as an orator, something which you, as Reptonians, would already seem to excel in, if the recent balloon debate is anything to go by. He gave many fine speeches in Parliament, but on this occasion I would like to leave the last word not to Wilberforce, but to probably the greatest failure at school, Winston Churchill. On forming his wartime government in May 1940, he told Parliament, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Nobody has ever really put it better!