Monday 27 February 2023
I am hounded the moment I enter the classroom. My Year 8 were victorious in a ‘Beat the Teacher’ Sherlock Holmes challenge last week, and they are now wholly expectant of promised chocolate. Children don’t forget such things, however this morning I have. I will pay my debt but I first need to ensure that I’m complying with allergies, laws, and new school rules around food. Year 8’s disappointment quickly subsides as today they are filming a group task at various outside locations around RMS. Most pupils enjoy filming and editing, and the class respond really well to this challenge – they are all great pupils.
Before lunch, I find a colleague with a challenging family context, just to hear how it is going and to check in with them. Words are pretty limited for any of the really important moments in life, and I can only imagine what the colleague is going through, but it’s important that I hear from them, try to better understand what they’re experiencing, and offer the School’s support and my own to remind them that we’re here to help as needed.
In the Dining Hall, I sit with a couple of Year 11 pupils to check the levels of GCSE stress they are each experiencing – different, but mostly managed sensibly. I learn as much about how their friendship developed when they were both boarders, and it’s a lovely story to hear. Students in all schools mostly provide great support to one another, and there is a great deal of care and kindness throughout our community.
Tuesday 28 February 2023
First up today is a pre-school meeting with Desmond, a colleague who oversees overseas Trips (among many other things), to hear some of his challenges. It is revealing to hear more about the difficulties he has been experiencing post-Covid. One large school travel firm has let us down three times in recent months, most notably when a Vietnam trip had to be cancelled with only a couple of months’ notice because the operator had not booked the flights as contractually promised. Currently, there is a travel firm who says they can accommodate the previously agreed booking if we accept one small adjustment of the students sharing beds! How they can begin to think this might be acceptable is beyond me. Desmond’s understanding in part is that during the Lockdowns good staff left these organisations, and the same quantity or quality of experienced staff are not back yet, with all the subsequent consequences. In addition, there is a determination from the travel specialists to recover income previously lost due to Covid, and so all travel costs are greatly increasing, from a short coach trip down the road to long haul destinations. This makes every trip more expensive for parents.
Tuesday and Wednesday are two days of Pupil Leadership interviews in which I play a part alongside the Sixth Form leadership team in selecting our two Head Pupils and their Deputies who will lead our Pupil Leadership team over the coming twelve months. These are always especially rewarding days because the young adults here are exceptional and I will get to hear more about them, from them, of their views on our school, and about how we could improve our school (more on this below).
Over lunch, I meet with two governors and my predecessor as Head to select the recipient of a 100% Bursary award. Decisions are reached, but the truth is that it’s ethically complex to make decisions around transformative bursaries for a number of reasons:
- There are more great pupils than there are bursary awards.
- How do you choose one great 10 to 11-year-old pupil over another?
- How do you ensure that the family’s financial context is as stated? Our bursaries are for families who could not otherwise afford an independent school education.
- What about the pupils who we have shown our wonderful school to, who have thrown themselves into the process, but who don’t win the award? Is it right to show them “What you could have won” as it were?
The final meeting of the day considers staffing with Sophia, our Academic Deputy. These are always complex decisions to reach too, and this is a follow-up meeting to a longer one with the Heads of School present – it takes time to get this right. As at most schools, our staffing costs are 70% of total costs at RMS. So there is only 30% of our income to cover everything else: rent, utilities, food, resources, investment in our facilities, etc. Every year at every school there are a number of departments that feel we could benefit pupils by employing an extra colleague, and some of these cases have legitimacy. But of course, we cannot simply add to the wage bill in this regard. One added complication at RMS (which we accept and work with, but that is nevertheless always a significant context) is that we pay more rent than most schools (over a million pounds a year for our beautiful grounds) and so everything else must be managed very carefully indeed. Our teacher-pupil ratio is lower than most independent schools (this is part of what our parents pay for), and we also wish to ensure that next year we are able to give all RMS staff a suitable pay increase that they deserve and that I feel is due to them.
Sophia and I talk through each of the departments, considering where investment could have the greatest impact on our students, where it could be delayed, and where there is no negotiation because a new staff member is simply required to cover the teaching. It’s a really tricky set of cost/benefit conversations, and we know that some departments will be disappointed. I am often reminded of Rafa Benitez’s short blanket metaphor, which is applicable to school spending as much as it is to football tactics: “If you cover your head, you have your feet cold, but if you cover your feet, you have your head cold.’ We can’t cover everywhere simultaneously – that’s not an option in any school I have known, and any sense that all independent schools are loaded isn’t based on the reality of life for the overwhelming majority of independent schools.
The Sixth Form, UCAS, and Careers Team give a superb evening talk to our parents on “Current State of the University and Careers Landscape”. It is a fluid landscape, fast-changing, and as always I am left with no small degree of admiration and appreciation for colleagues’ expertise in this area.
Wednesday 1 March 2023
It’s another day of Pupil Leadership Team interviews with Year 12 students. These interviews are joyous and really useful, as always. We hear what the students love about RMS, including lots of feedback on what we get right and the many opportunities here. “I feel comfortable and can be myself at school” was one of many really lovely lines we heard from incredible students.
We also ask Year 12, “If you could improve one thing about RMS what would it be?” And it is these answers that interest me most so what follows below are mostly answers to this question. Not all of these points are possible, or some may have a very particular context, but I share them with relevant colleagues noting that “at the very least we need to read, listen, and think about it all. They make very many really good points, and they know more than us from a pupil-centred point of view, which is what we’re about. Please think about this carefully, discuss it with your teams as appropriate, and decide which bits we can action and/or get onto SDP.” Here is just a sample of the suggestions from our wonderful Year 12 of ways we can further improve RMS…
Careers – “We still need more pathways for different careers and to broaden parents’ minds beyond university as the best next step”.
Charities – “Expand the Charities’ Committee to involve students across all year groups in the school”.
Current Affairs – “Little things go a long way – the form tutor playing the news prompts debate and understanding”.
DEI – While it was said by many to be an area in which we are greatly improving, there was a pupil who requested “more subject-specific diversity within the curriculum” and they are right.
Links with boys’ schools – “More interaction with boys’ schools, across all years”
Prize Days – “It always ends in upset: some win lots, others win none. I know that you bear this in mind, but make the winners win fewer prizes. Have more high-profile rewards over more than this one day”.
Ruspini (our Nursery) – “You should make more links between the Ruspini children and pupils in Years 7-9 because that would help the Years 7-9 see and contribute beyond their world, and connect to the larger school more.” They gave an e.g. of “Talented Y7-9 pupils having a short session with Ruspini to show off their skills as a ballerina, footballer, or gymnast” and then to answer Qs or do a little work with the nursery children.
Tutoring – “Have Years 10-11 in vertical forms like in Sixth Form. This would reduce the intensity of these years and help with GCSEs”.
Vaping – “More and stronger education about its dangers”
Year 9 – “It’s a transitional time in many respects. Pupils’ maturity is in very different places. So, the school needs to integrate more across year groups, particularly to help Year 9.”
Well-Being – “Have more outdoor activities other than sports for students at lunchtime”.
One clear point that came across from the interviews was how much these students looked up to our Pupil Leadership teams when they were younger. Younger adolescents are heavily influenced by older adolescents (we know this from research), and the more schools can utilise this, the better for all students.
The day ends with Year 8 Parents’ Evening, and I am back to being an English teacher for a great set of pupils for most of the evening. A parent of a boarder catches me late on to thank us for “Phone free Wednesdays” in Harris House. All of our parents have appreciated the merits of Ms. Scullion’s fab initiative. The pupils are getting there too – it’s great for their well-being and the number of board games played and increased noise in the Common Room on Wednesdays is a testament to its success.
Thursday 2 March 2023
Ahead of the retirement of an incredible colleague, Mrs Brown, the next two days are focused on the first round of interviews for two new deputy heads for our prep school. Today it’s for the Pastoral and Operations Deputy role, a post for which we had received a lot of applicants, however I’m not going to go into detail here because sadly, and for a variety of different reasons, we didn’t feel that we had the right candidate for our school from the candidates in today and so chose to readvertise. The fit has to be right from all points of view.
The day ends with a wonderful evening’s music at our Chamber Concert. The pupils are extremely talented. Our Music Department across our Prep, Senior and Sixth Form is truly exceptional at present, with three very special individuals in Mrs. Bentham, Mr. Werner, and Ms. McNally-Mayne. Of course I enjoy the evening greatly, but I cannot help but think of Yeats’ line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. Inevitably, some day in the future this glorious triumvirate will break up as somebody moves on. All good things must pass. However, until that day comes I can end evenings by greatly enjoying Chamber Concerts and marvelling at what they have built here for our musicians at RMS.
Friday 3 March 2023
The first round of Academic Deputy interviews for our Prep School progress very well today, and we invite three great candidates back for the second round next week. I am excited by them all.
I phone a series of parents whose daughters will receive 100% bursaries at RMS from September. The independent sector should offer more transformative 100% bursaries and is doing so every year. Given our history, RMS should offer more transformative bursaries, and we have increased the number of pupils in receipt of these for each of the last four years, with numbers increasing by seven more pupils each year from September 2023. This is a very good thing. I know from past experience that these conversations, with families who simply could not begin to afford an independent education, will stay with me over the coming years as I see their daughters enrich our school and benefit from their time here as they grow and develop into individuals ready to shape their future and the future of society. It is more ethically complex than one might imagine to award transformative bursaries, and it does inevitably lead to some disappointment (as do Pupil Leadership selections and job interviews for Prep School deputies), but we absolutely must keep doing it and increasingly so each year.
Coincidentally, the week ends with a call with Richard from The Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation, a social mobility charity focused on harnessing the power of educational opportunities at independent schools to benefit young people who need them the most. The advantages of an independent education should not be the exclusive preserve of those born into privilege. And the increasing number of schools working with Springboard agree with this sentiment. Richard wants to see if we can make it work for another Springboard student to join us at RMS, and after hearing about her context I agree that we’ll work together to try to make this happen.