I hope that you have had a wonderful family summer. These first few weeks of the year are some of my favourite – it is lovely to have the boys back. May I extend a particular welcome to the 200 new boys and their families who join us each year at Bedford. I hope that your sons have started well and that your time with us is happy and successful.
I write with some news from the summer and some start of year thoughts…this is a long preamble, but there is a point to it!
Philosophical and (no doubt highly selective!) historical background:
According to The Office for National Statistics, one in three babies born in 2016 will live to see their 100th birthday. One of our current Bedford School parents, who runs an educational think tank, has even better and more recent news: he tells me that 50% of people born today will live to be 105. When Bismarck first announced his idea of a revolutionary ‘old age pension’ in the 1880s, he picked the age of 70, perhaps cynically linked to the age expectancy of the time, but one which in fact came down over time. When Roosevelt adopted the idea for the USA in the 1930s, the age of 65 was chosen. The point here is that basic education has not changed a great deal in that time (a classroom now does not look radically different from that of 80 years ago; the core curriculum is broadly similar; exam halls, in some cases, are still the very same buildings); and yet we are educating children now for a life which is considerably longer and arguably much more complex. It is against this backdrop that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently launched its Future of Education and Skills 2030 project, and educational establishments around the world, including our own, are trying to map out what skills and attributes children will need by the time they leave school to help them in tomorrow’s world. Our own mission statement acknowledges directly both the changing nature of the world around us and the challenge inherent therein; yet the ‘brand new’ GCSEs and A-Levels, success in which (understandably) can open doors for a boy’s future, have more than a taste of ‘back to the future’, rather than ‘forward to the future’. I have no problem with a knowledge-rich education, but I do have a problem with a narrow education, with the sole criterion for a school’s success being dished out every August by the examiners Edexcel, OCR or whoever might be the next board.
It is in a landscape such as this that independent education becomes so important, for two or three key reasons. Firstly, the sorts of skills which are emerging as important – communication, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, ethical reasoning, adaptability – are all immeasurably enriched and enhanced by extra-curricular activity, both intellectual and recreational; a boarding education, with all the activity on offer, takes this even further. It is this breadth, in which schools like our own excel (well-resourced as we all acknowledge), which can make a critical difference for the future.
Secondly, most of these skills have always been important. One of Bedford School’s great strengths is its extraordinary longevity, its stability over time, its consistency; but this is largely because, whatever happens to exam systems, the way we work, the advent of robots and massive technological change, the essential character of human beings has not changed through history. Bedford School has always placed character and values above all else; it is that, coupled with the adaptability afforded to independence, which has enabled such stability and strength.
Finally, when curriculum change does happen in this country, it invariably plays into the hands of the independent sector, which has the time, money and freedom to adapt quickly. That the opposite is intended by governments is one of life’s sad ironies.
Start of year assembly:
What I say to the boys at the start of each year in my first assembly is rooted in what I have written above, and is necessary, I strongly believe, to help provide the best future for all. As such, it is always more or less exactly the same – and it was the same again when I spoke to them last week. Some boys have heard it five times now, but I make no apology for that. I cover the following main themes:
- School discipline and self-discipline: it is not always easy to get this right on every occasion in a school of 1,100 boys, but it is so important that we do in order to satisfy every child’s right to grow up in a safe and stimulating environment. The school has responsibility for this, and so do the boys. I make sure that they know this.
- Breadth of opportunity: get involved! I always feel particularly strongly about the Arts in this part of my talk to them. Sport is obligatory for all; the Arts are less so, yet form an important part of their education. There is so much on offer here, even if you are simply a viewer rather than a doer; and I urge them to take part in the programme.
- Responsibility: a core value of the school, yet I always remind the boys that (whether we like it or not) they will be held to greater account by the wider world as an independent schoolboy, that they are in a minority (7% of children in the UK are educated privately) rather than a majority, and that with privilege comes responsibility to all. I relate this to the town of Bedford in particular and also to their online behaviour, and I remind them of our hard-working support staff who spent the whole summer here while the rest of us were on holiday.
- Happiness: we all want all boys to have a happy childhood; I explain that they need to support each other in this by being kind at all times and to all people; it is particularly important at this time for all current boys to make all new boys feel welcome and settled.
If this all sounds rather austere for the start of term, let me stress that I love the start of the autumn term, with its freshness, optimism, renewed friendships and good cheer. I also try to transmit this to the boys. I hope that they have had a good first week back, too.
And so to some news…
The GCSEs were our best since 2010 and our second best on record. No fewer than 43 boys scored seven A* grades or more and a remarkable 22% of all entries in the new numbered syllabuses received a Grade 9, the new top grade (against 4.3% nationally). We were really delighted by this, and it bodes well for the future. There has been considerable syllabus change in the past two years, and (alongside the boys of course) our Heads of Department and teachers should be especially congratulated on all their hard graft to make this happen.
There were lots of great individual stories amongst our leaving cohort, but more generally our A-Level and IB results were not as strong as they have been, especially by our recent high standards. As ever, we have started the process of thorough review. There was much good news, however, in the university entrance statistics, which were again extremely strong at the top universities, with over two-thirds entering a Russell Group university, and three-quarters going to a Times Top 30 university. There was a range of other options, too, and we had boys going straight into work, for instance entering recruitment and an apprenticeship with Ernst and Young, as well as boys going on to music schools, professional sport and overseas universities.
Well done to all those boys and families who represented the school so well on various trips and tours this summer. Duke of Edinburgh and CCF had various trips, and the Art and RE trip departed for Berlin in the last week of the holidays. I found myself in Durham for 24 hours or so, where our chapel choir was giving the cathedral choristers a week off. The boys were terrific, and they joined a lovely OB reunion at St Chad’s College – a feature of many of the boys’ tours. This link to the Old Bedfordian Club continues to bring great benefits to the boys at school and is undoubtedly one of Bedford School’s strengths.
Estate in the summer and looking forward
Twenty-five areas of the school estate were worked on over the summer holiday (out of interest, we have 53 buildings on site). I won’t detail them all, but upgrades have taken place in many boarding houses, on the bottom two floors of the Main Building, the Wells Building, Music School, and Tisdall’s. Outside you will notice we will have nine new hard nets (updating four and converting five grass nets), a resurfaced Astro at Gordon Field and some external redecoration of the Rec Centre.
Looking further forward, we have been working recently with architects and planners about the next stages for the estate. There were a number of very large projects on the estate between 2003 and 2015, so it is probably not unhelpful to have had a break. That said, we are ready now to look more ambitiously at next steps and have been doing so; I hope I can say more about this as the year goes by. Obviously, we are starting from a position of real strength – it is a pretty amazing site, and the Estates Department upkeeps it extremely well.
Forty-six boys start in Remove Form with Computer Science as one of their GCSEs, the first time this has been taken on at Bedford. Our new Director of Digital Learning, Dr Albin Wallace, who joined us last term, has already been making an impact and you will no doubt be hearing much more from him this year. There have been classroom trials in a range of digital technology; the first lessons using virtual reality headsets have been taught in Physics; pupils will be starting new digital leadership courses in both Upper and Prep School, concentrating particularly upon ethics and digital citizenship. Parents now also have the benefit of a regular link to the online parenting magazine, Digital Parenting, which is an interesting and practically useful read; we are in the process of putting together a new digital strategy for the school.
While the 1st XV rugby players warmed up for another tilt at the National Champions Trophy, there was still a National Under 17 cricket final to be played as the boys faced Millfield at Loughborough University on Tuesday. Unfortunately, a loss by 50 runs brought their season to an end, but it has been (as documented elsewhere) a fabulous season. Indeed, last term was a particularly successful term for sport – it is hard to recall a better one – with cricketers and rowers especially at all levels performing amazing feats. I am always wary of naming individuals, for fear of omission, but I should pick out three of this summer’s leavers for specific recognition for particularly extraordinary feats in the last few months: Connor Sheridan became the first Bedford oarsman (we think) in 30 years to win a Gold Medal in the World Junior Championships (in the GB Mens’ VIII); Ethan Vernon broke the World Record for the 3km individual pursuit at the National Youth Track Championships; and Emilio Gay was picked to captain MCC Schools against England Schools at Lord’s last week.
I wish all sportsmen, whether A team or E team, much fun and good learning in the term ahead.
We aim to be a welcoming, friendly and inclusive school. As I wrote above, I stressed to the boys the importance of making a real effort to get to know all newcomers and to help everybody to feel a part of the school as quickly as possible. Anything that you can do to support this as parents is obviously also particularly welcome.
Finally, please could I draw your attention to the What’s On Guide for this term – there is so much variety that there should, hopefully, be something for everyone. Do please encourage your boys and friends to attend too.
With all best wishes for the term ahead,