High Master’s Blog

Term-time weekly blog from the High Master, Professor Mark Bailey

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.

MDB

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.

MDB

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!

MDB

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.

MDB