Term-time weekly blog from the High Master, Sally-Anne Huang
Thursday 8 October 2020
I hope that this finds you well and that your sons are continuing to enjoy the term, in spite of our need to cope with some positive COVID-19 tests in recent weeks. Please may I re-iterate my thanks to the boys for their sensible conduct at this time and to the families immediately impacted for their rapid support which has made handling these situations so much easier.
As you may know, I have been hosting the virtual HMC Conference over the last three days; I am hugely grateful to my colleagues for their support which has allowed me to do this. As Chair of HMC (the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference), I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to reflect upon the current situation in schools through my speech to members. This gained some media attention, most focused on my request that the younger generation be afforded some respect. Therefore, I thought that parents might wish to have sight of the entire speech – not in that I feel you have need of my views, but more because it makes reference to the positivity of our fantastic pupils at St Paul’s.
In other positive news, I am delighted that Walters and Cohen, the architects of our new General Teaching Buildings, have been shortlisted for an award for design excellence. The virtual awards gala of the American Institute of Architects UK Chapter, is due to happen on 28 October.
Finally, may I thank you for your continued patience as we continue to cope with the lack of Hammersmith Bridge. We are as frustrated as you are by the lack of progress by those in authority over this problem and we continue to look for options which might make life easier for you and your children.
Thursday 1 October 2020
This week has obviously presented challenges to the school given our first positive Covid-19 diagnoses of the term. With the national picture, this was always probably when rather than if. The boys who have been affected – and indeed the whole year group – have been entirely sensible and helpful which is pleasing but in no way surprising. I am hugely grateful to the teams on site for professional and prompt action and to the teachers for delivering remote learning to the Lower Eighth.
In spite of this, the school continues to flourish – the Club competitions are up and running, our talented pianists are preparing for a virtual piano recital in October and the Thomas Gresham Committee is hosting the annual fundraising quiz next Thursday to raise funds for the Bursary Appeal. Today also marks the beginning of Black History month and there are a number of events planned over the coming weeks which will reflect this year’s theme of “Dig Deeper, Look Closer, Think Bigger.” Whilst inclusivity should be part of all we do and is addressed throughout the year, we still feel it’s important to mark this moment in the calendar.
On a personal note, many of you will be aware that I am the current Chair of HMC. I will be hosting the association’s conference from Monday- Wednesday next week. It is an enormous privilege to represent the independent sector at this time, when everyone in education is working so hard; we will also be discussing topics specifically relevant to St Paul’s, including arts and music education and the future of the curriculum. The ‘virtual’ nature of the conference will mean that I will remain very much in touch with the school during this period. However, as you know, we have exceptionally strong leadership on site at all times and I am grateful for the support of my colleagues at this time.
Thursday 24 September 2020
Many thanks for your continued support as we operate in the world of Covid-19; the boys have continued to respond to guidance and – at the time of writing – we have had no positive cases. Obviously, our lives are still full of hand sanitiser and risk assessments but there is an increasing sense of normality around the school too. It was fantastic to see so many boys playing touch rugby in their year groups on Saturday, and I have also had the privilege of beginning lesson observations as High Master this week. This has been a pure joy, with both teaching and learning at exceptional standards, even with restrictions in place.
We are acutely aware that recent headlines may be contributing to anxiety for our pupils. Please do let us know if you feel your son needs any kind of increased support. I am especially aware that the Sixth Form and Upper Eighth must be concerned about public exams – or the potential lack thereof. I know the academic team have stressed that pupils should not feel that every piece of work is life changing. Their teachers will guide them on this and balance the need to provide evidence of standards with the importance of wellbeing.
With every best wish to you and you families.
Thursday 17 September 2020
We have had another positive week in school and I remain grateful for the cooperation of the pupils and the hard work of the staff. It has certainly been a joy to see so much sport happening on site and I know the societies and club activities are growing too. It has been a remarkable achievement to get things up and running so smoothly. When Caroline Gill, Fourth Form Undermaster, told me that some of her new pupils had declared that school was ‘fun’, I knew we were succeeding in overcoming the limitations of the world in which we currently live.
Sadly, we are still having to make choices we would rather not make and find the best possible outcome when the ideal scenario is not possible. Thus the parents email had from Dr Killick yesterday regarding Colet Day. We are disappointed not to be meeting in the cathedral but I am grateful that Rev. Knox has come up with an alternative to mark the day and still join in with St Paul’s Girls’ School.
As the term goes on, we continue to re-invent ways of keeping our community as vibrant and engaged as ever. Amongst other events, we have had a virtual open day, an online event for new parents and (a particular highlight for me) a ‘Topical Tuesdays’ lecture from Professor Bailey. Do let us know how you think these things are going and if you have suggestions for other ways of communicating. In the meantime, I hope this finds you well and that your sons have enjoyed all that has been going on so far.
Thursday 10 September 2020
This has been an interesting week for me as I have settled into life at St Paul’s. Of course, it is an enormous privilege to be joining this exceptional community and I have had a long time to look forward to it. However, many of those I meet expect me to be somehow disappointed or anxious given the numerous curve balls and hospital passes that are landing on all school leaders’ desks this month. Yes, we are opening in the middle of a pandemic. Yes, the A level and GCSE experience was like no other. And yes, to add to all of that, there is a closed bridge.
Yet, at the risk of sounding too Dickensian, if these are the worst of times, they are definitely bringing out the best in people. And, in many ways, I have been fortunate to arrive at the school at this precise moment since there can have been few times when the professionalism and care of colleagues, the respectful and considerate approach of pupils have been more on display. I am sorry that parents cannot come on site right now but, if you could, you would be so impressed by the hard work of the support teams (the cleaners, caterers, estates and security teams have been the backbone of all we are doing), the flexibility of the teachers and the positivity of the pupils.
I am aware that you have concerns, as we do, arising from the limitations of these times. There are lots of separate voices speaking loudly about Hammersmith Bridge and many different ideas for a possible solution. Please trust that the school is exploring all possible avenues with local and central government and other local schools. We are also in touch with the project team working on the bridge on a regular basis. We will keep you in the loop as we know more but please trust that we are as concerned as you are regarding the present situation. You can find more information about the shuttle bus service below, but we are adjusting this service in these early days in response to the feedback coming in, and I am glad that this is supporting so many families. We are, however, aware that lengthier commutes are impacting on boys’ time in the evening and the academic teams will adjust homework expectations in the short term to balance this.
We have also had some parents get in touch with regard to the co-curricular programme given the limitations imposed by Covid-19 control. This has been up and running since Tuesday and our intention is for it to grow as the term progresses. Dr Killick has provided more details. We are aware that many families would like to see greater provision for music and that is also on our agenda. I do know that some of our decisions around Covid-19 may seem draconian but, as schools around the country are already being partially or wholly closed, we must do all we can to limit exposure to the virus and to keep the pupils at school, where they belong.
I would like to thank those of you who participated in the Zoom ‘Meet the High Master’ event on Monday. That was a new experience for me! However, it was certainly very useful as a two way means of communication and it is now our intention to repeat the event at suitable times during the year. In the meantime, I would not want you to feel that we underestimate the challenges before us as school community – but I am confident that we will be able to face them.
Thursday 2 July 2020
We have finally reached the end of the most disrupted term in British educational history since World War II. A skeletal staff has kept the school site open throughout lockdown; the transfer to remote learning has been very successful; and the shift to phased relaxation of lockdown has been navigated as best we can, in order to welcome as many pupils back to site as possible. We have also attempted to keep the community active in lockdown. This monumental exercise in adaptation has required flexibility, commitment and goodwill right across the community: for which, thank you.
Many pupils and staff have struggled with the lack of direct social interaction, and some have been denied the opportunity to say farewells as they would have wished. The departing Upper Eighth Form have been exceptionally cohesive and friendly as a year group, and have consequently set a consistently positive example to the rest of the school. A clutch of academic staff are leaving, and we thank them for their service and wish them well hereafter. The quality of the relations between staff, pupils and parents—informal but purposeful, more akin to a university than a school—is one of the defining characteristics of a Pauline education, and it is founded upon the contributions of such colleagues.
Richard Girvan has been here since leaving Cambridge University, and he returns to the fenland capital as Principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation. He has influenced the lives of many in 17 years here, and—on top of all else he has done—he has been a central figure in creating the outstanding safeguarding and pastoral systems and culture that are unrecognisable from those when he became Surmaster in 2012. We wish him and his family well.
Paulines are independent, smart, savvy, sassy, and fun, and those who are also self-aware are supremely well equipped to serve society. Working with and for them has been a delight. Schools are highly complex institutions, with multiple human interactions, so leading them is an inexorable mixture of unpredictability, challenge and reward. St Paul’s is an exceptional school—by history and acclaim—and consequently these characteristics are amplified. The last nine years have been the most challenging and rewarding of my professional life. I have been grateful and humbled to have been tasked with steering the most impressive super tanker of its type on the educational oceans. The quality of the people on the vessel, and their manifest belief in, and passion for, the school have rendered the task much easier. Thank you. I look forward to following its progress and continued success.
Thursday 25 June 2020
As we come to the end of this school year, the last for our departing Upper Eighth and for me, I am struck by what a surreal term it has been for all of us. Disorienting, confusing, anxiety-inducing, and in many ways dissatisfying. I think all of us have shown incredible resourcefulness and resilience, and responded as well as we possibly could to the circumstances and I particularly wish to thank my colleagues for all they have done to ensure continuity of teaching and learning and school administration since 20 March.
It has also highlighted for me, shortly before I leave, the things I will miss about St Paul’s. The face-to-face contact with pupils and colleagues, the atmosphere in the atrium, the lively debate around the dining tables, the camaraderie and connection on the sports fields, the sounds from the Pepys Theatre and the Wathen Hall, the bonhomie around the site. For our Upper Eighth, I hope, it has been a brilliantly enjoyable and wonderfully enriching 5 years (or two for those who joined us at 16). For me, it has been 17 years of exactly that. I am hugely grateful to all of those I have had the chance to be alongside during that time, and will remember St Paul’s with great fondness.
I wish the school community every success as it continues the work to overcome the challenges presented by our present situation, and then to use what we have learned through this process and over recent years to remake an even better school in the future, continuing the work already begun to make us more diverse, more inclusive, more environmentally conscious and sustainable, more equitable, more supportive. I look forward to returning from time to time for OP and community events and hope to see you there when I do. Have a fantastic summer and all the very best in the months and years ahead.
Richard Girvan – Surmaster – Head of the Senior School
Thursday 18 June 2020
This week we have welcomed back onto site small groups of Fifth Form and Lower Eighth pupils, while remote teaching continues for the majority of Paulines. The government has prioritised the return of primary age pupils, and we will increase the number of SPJ pupils on site further from this coming Monday. All of this is subject to compliance with the government’s strict guidelines, which requires the school to produce risk assessments for each section of the school, to preserve 2m social distancing, and to confine pupils and teachers within small ‘bubbles’. Most of the teachers onsite have volunteered to return, and I am most grateful to them for their willingness to do so.
As a result of the government guidelines, our onsite capacity is greatly reduced. We have considered the prospect of some return for other year groups before the end of term, but the numbers and groups could only be small, and the logistics are impossible within current guidelines. A reduction to 1m social distancing for September would make a material difference to our operational capacity.
Meanwhile, the recent national protests to raise awareness of racism are understandably a trigger for self-reflection, heightened awareness and institutional action, and members of our community have been active in offering a varied range of perspectives. Our responses will be well-considered, enduring and aligned with our values. A Pauline education teaches pupils how to think, not what to think, and also promotes tolerance and self awareness. Such qualities are essential to addressing inequality. They are the qualities that Thomas Clarkson, Old Pauline, possessed.
These are also the qualities which, I hope, contributed to the remarkable achievement of having two OPs on the shortlist for the Wolfson Prize for History this year. The winner, David Abulafia, is from an ethnic minority background, and the other OP, Toby Green, has re-written the history of pre-colonial Africa, and written a new A Level module for OCR History on the same subject. This is not a boast, but a genuine expression of pride: and also a recognition of our continuing and future responsibilities.
Thursday 11 June 2020
Next week, we look forward to welcoming the first group of Fifth and Lower Eighth pupils back on to site, in line with government guidance. The R rate in SW13 is low by national standards, and we have extensive risk mitigation measures in place, so we are confident in these tentative steps.
We have no hint yet on what will happen in September, because that will be determined by the unfolding trajectory of the pandemic and the government’s response. It seems likely that much more onsite activity will be permitted—we certainly hope so—and that would be greatly aided if the social distancing measure is reduced from 2m to 1m. We are already planning for a range of scenarios, and we will keep you informed as the government guidance is released. The sports programme will also be influenced by the evolving advice from the relevant sport governing bodies, but, again, is likely to be curtailed. We expect that a good deal of other co-curricular activities can go ahead with appropriate risk mitigation.
Over the last week, we have received a number of letters and petitions from OPs and Paulines urging the school to tackle the societal issue of systemic racism, and we have posted our response on our website and social media channels and the statement is available below. The response underlines what is already available to Paulines, and what else we intend to do.
Yet this is not a matter that we have suddenly begun to address, although the appalling events in the US are a powerful reminder of the need for action. We do encourage all Paulines to attend existing school societies, such as BAME or Spectrum, which seek to celebrate diversity of identity and offer a platform for conversation on feminist, BAME and LGBTQ issues. We also encourage them to participate in our volunteering programme. Finally, the cultural building blocks for tackling inequality are the behaviours that we actively promote: kindness, tolerance, compassion, and self-awareness.
There is still much to do, so the sooner we are all back onsite together, the better!
Thursday 4 June 2020
I hope that you enjoyed the Remedy break, and are keeping well and safe.
As I write, all pupils are adjusting to the new post-Remedy timetables, the Sixth Form are starting their A Level subjects, and the Upper Eighth can choose from a menu of University taster courses. I am especially grateful to staff for constructing the latter programme from scratch, and for creating such an enticing range of options.
In line with government guidelines, this week we welcomed back the U2s into SPJ for lessons: around 80% attended. The government also recommend that Years 10 and 12 return to schools from 15th June, so we are preparing a programme of activities for these year groups at SPS (the 5th Form and L8th) from then until the end of term. The government are clear that these pupils should not return to a full timetable, and only one quarter of each senior year group can be onsite at any given time, but we will be offering a mixture of activities, instruction (e.g. career, universities) and face-to-face time with teachers. Parents have been surveyed, and, like SPJ, we expect about 80% of the pupils will be onsite. Detailed risk assessments are constructed, and have been shared with staff and relevant parents for comment in advance of the pupils’ return.
Just before Remedy we surveyed parents about the online provision to date, and the results were very pleasing. Well over 90% of 270 respondents were positive about the pastoral support, about their child’s engagement with the teacher and other pupils, and about teacher responses to requests for help with learning. Heads of Department report that progress through course material has been good, so there is little sense that pupils are behind because of the shift to online teaching and learning. There were some areas of improvement for us to concentrate upon, especially online co-curricular provision, as a result of which we have just launched an online hub and other initiatives. We all acknowledge however that there is no substitute for us all being gathered together onsite.
Meanwhile, we have a variety of virtual community events to keep you connected this half term. Dr Ben Still, a Physics teacher here, kicked off a very well attended session on Tuesday evening, and details of future events are given below.
We will of course keep you informed of our plans going forward when we know what is happening. Thank you for your understanding in this fast changing and novel situation.