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Principal’s Speech – July 2023

There is a line at the end of the Blackadder Goes Forth series when the main characters think the First World War has ended and they will not, after all, have to leave their trenches and face the dangers of the enemy machine guns.  Captain Darling says, ‘Thank God!  We lived through it!  The Great War: 1914-1917’.  Alas, as I hope everyone has realised, the war was not finished yet.

There was a time this year when I might have been able to deliver a similar line today, though hopefully not, ‘Thank God! We lived through it!  Radnor House: 2011-2023.’  But, like Captain Darling, we have all had to adjust our timelines, albeit much less catastrophically, and we wait to see how the coming months will play out. 

The new framework for the inspection of independent schools will not include any of the one-word judgements that have proved so controversial in the maintained sector.  Therefore, for as long as Radnor House continues in its current existence, we will be able to use the ISI judgement from 2020 that we are excellent in all categories.  We also know that we have an exceptional future, even if we cannot yet put an exact timeframe in place.  An excellent school with an exceptional future – sounds like a very good strapline to me.

So instead of a final farewell episode for Radnor House this year, the plot rolls on for Series 13, which left me to ponder what else I could usefully share with you today.  I thought about doing a few jokes, but I’m not very good at telling them.

A woman walks into a pet shop and sees a parrot.  ‘How much is this parrot?’ she asks.  ‘A hundred pounds’, says the shop owner.  ‘This parrot is special: it can speak over a hundred words, make coffee and read the newspaper.’  The customer nods and sees another parrot, which sells for a thousand pounds.  That parrot, explains the shop owner, is even more special: it speaks five languages, makes a full breakfast and delivers press briefings.  There is a third parrot, however.  When she asks how much that parrot costs, the customer is shocked to find out that the price is £10,000 and asks, ‘What could this parrot possibly do to justify such a premium?’  The store owner replies, ‘No one knows, but the other two call it Boss.’

If comedy is not the way forward, can I use my age to impart some wisdom? – though age and wisdom are not necessarily connected.  Perhaps I could take up residence in the recently refurbished grotto to set myself up as a latter-day Delphic oracle to guide young people in the ways of the world, as long we can agree with author David Brooks that wisdom does not consist of knowing specific facts or possessing knowledge of a certain field.  It instead consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded.  It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel for the vast spaces beyond what is known.

Now I’m on roll with sage advice, and working on the premise that people apparently need to hear something at least twelve times before it sinks in, I offer another iteration of my updated version of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, adapted to a school setting and, specifically, to the way we operate here at Radnor House.

Number 1 - Work Hard

We all know people who work hard, and I hope we can all agree that such people earn our respect.  Likewise, we know people who do not pull their weight, who spoil things when working in groups and who are obviously not doing their best.  There is an eighteenth-century verb ‘fudgel’, which means pretending to work while actually doing nothing, which unfortunately I am sure we could all apply to some of the people we know – but hopefully not too many of them.

The best teachers work hard themselves and expect their pupils to work hard.  It is good for teachers to be demanding because this tends to produce more year-on-year gains in the skills of their pupils.  Teachers who are supportive and respectful enhance pupils’ happiness and voluntary effort in class.  Psychologically wise teachers, who are both demanding and supportive, promote competence, wellbeing, engagement and aspiration.  The best teachers are those who are most trusted by the pupils, not the ones most liked – though the two often go hand in hand.

Number 2 – Be Kind

As you may have read in Charlie Mackesy’s beautifully illustrated book or seen in the animated film: ‘Nothing beats kindness’, said the horse.  ‘It sits quietly beyond all things.’

In the words of Matt Haig from his novel ‘The Midnight Library’, sometimes we just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays.  We don’t have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.  While we are alive, we always contain a future of multifarious possibility.  So, he says, let’s be kind to the people in our own existence.  Let’s occasionally look up from the spot in which we are because, wherever we happen to be standing, the sky above goes on forever.

Number 3 – Turn Up On Time

Lateness often speaks of disorganisation, apathy or a lack of care.  If Woody Allen was right when he said that the first rule of enlightenment is to show up, then it seems only right to show up on time.

Number 4 – Look Smart

It may be a strange convention that people wearing suits are somehow more reliable, more professional and more effective than people in shorts and a t-shirt, but it’s a convention that most of us have bought into, so it may just be better to go along with it.

Number 5 – Listen

In the words of Susan Scott, the author of ‘Fierce Conversations’, when you are talking you are not listening.  When you talk, all you can do is tell people what you already know.  When you listen, you learn new things.

Number 6 – Pay Attention

This is, of course, similar to listening, but it’s not quite the same.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us that attention is the beginning of devotion.  Distraction and care are incompatible with each other: you can't truly love a partner or a child, dedicate yourself to a career or to a cause, or just savour the pleasure of a stroll in the park, except to the extent that you can hold your attention on the object of your devotion to begin with.

Number 7 – Do What You Are Asked To Do… And Then Do A Little Bit More.

It’s known as discretionary effort and it’s a very powerful way to make a positive impression.  Having recently read Steven Pinker’s book about good writing, called ‘A Sense of Style’, I concluded that Pinker and I would agree that it is about craftsmanship.  It is about wanting to produce something that you really are proud of and that makes a difference to what you are trying to say.  It is too easy to dash off something quick and insubstantial to get the job done rather than to really care about whether it is any good or not. 

I try to encourage my sixth form pupils as often as I can to be proud of what they write, to have passion for what they are doing and to hand in something that really represents their genuine best effort rather than something that just ticks a box so they can move on to the next activity.  It seems to me that we do not care enough about craftsmanship in this day and age, which is a great shame.

But do we need to nowadays?  After all, knowledge is readily available at the click of a button, ChatGPT can allegedly write everything for us and we may all be replaced by AI soon anyway.  If you are not sure about where the future will take us and you need some guidance, you could do far worse than read the works of Professor Yuval Noah Harari – particularly ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’– both of which strike me as wise beyond anything most of us could ever achieve.

In his most recent book, ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’, he tells us that humans have always lived in the age of post-truth.  Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives.  Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered the planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions.  We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around and convince millions of others to believe in them.  As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws and can thereby cooperate effectively.  How else can we explain concepts like religion, money and the fact that wearing a suit makes people take you more seriously?

Harari looks to be right on the mark when he says that perhaps the worst sin of present-day science fiction is that it tends to confuse intelligence with consciousness.  As a result, it is overly concerned about a potential war between robots and humans, when in fact we need to fear a conflict between a small superhuman elite empowered by algorithms and a vast underclass of disempowered Homo sapiens.  In thinking about the future of AI, his conclusion is that Karl Marx is still a better guide than Steven Spielberg.

It is hard to disagree with him when he says that the Industrial Revolution bequeathed us the production line theory of education.  In the middle of town there is a large concrete building divided into many identical rooms, each room equipped with rows of desks and chairs.  At the sound of a bell, you go to one of these rooms together with thirty other children who were born in the same year as you.  Every hour, a grown-up walks in and starts talking.  One of them tells you about the shape of the earth, another tells you about the past and a third tells you about the human body.  It is easy to laugh at this model, and almost everybody agrees that, no matter its past achievements, it is now bankrupt.  But so far, he says, we haven’t created a viable alternative, and certainly not a scalable alternative that can be implemented in rural Mexico rather than just in upmarket California suburbs.

Harari’s best advice to a fifteen-year-old stuck in an outdated school somewhere in Mexico, India or Alabama – though hopefully not in Southwest London – is not to rely on the adults too much.  Most of them mean well, he says, but they just don’t understand the world.  In the past, it was a relatively safe bet to follow the adults because they knew the world quite well, and the world changed quite slowly.  But the twenty-first century is going to be different.  Due to the growing pace of change, you can never be certain whether what the adults are telling you is timeless wisdom or outdated bias.

He is absolutely right when he says the last thing a teacher needs to give pupils is more information.  They already have far too much of it.  Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.

So what should we be teaching?  Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.  More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills.  Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations.  In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

And talking of reinvention, this is also the time when we say goodbye to all of those who have left the school this year.  I appreciate that it can sometimes feel that there are a lot of changes, but what follows is the list for the whole year, not just this term, and it turns out to have just a couple more names on it than it did last year.  From our support staff, who do so much to support us all, as the title implies: Sophie Deegan (Art Technician); Huma Ali (Director of Operations); Pheonix Wilson (Admissions & Marketing); Umar Jaffer (Senior IT Technician); Rafael Aguilar Segnini (Finance – Moving to Radnor Prep); Myriam Stepanian (French Language Assistant); Rosanagh Lee (Sixth Form Administrator); Claire Wood (Pastoral Administrator); and Julie Foulkes-Hannam (Director of Admissions & Marketing).

From the teaching staff: Jessi Jenkins-Wright (Art); Eliza Kimbell (Deputy Head Pastoral); Lewis Phillips (Head of History); Helen Clark (PE & Games, Head of Outdoor Education); Christina Clarke (English, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion); Laura Collier (Modern Foreign Languages); Lisa Dhesi (English); Lawrence Ellard (PE & Games, Head of Wellbeing); Megan Gouldson (PE & Games); Emma Hedley (Director of Digital Learning); Kyle Hicks (Geography); Andrew Hill (Head of Junior School – moving to Radnor Prep); Becky James (Modern Foreign Languages); Jo Jeffery (Physics); Sushanah Shaji (Mathematics); Suzanne Papin (Psychology); Prayagha Sivanesanathan (Chemistry); and Gemma Wood (Mathematics).

Please join me in a round of applause for all these colleagues.

To those who are moving on, we send our best wishes and our thanks for all you have done during your time here.  People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown.  But the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes, so our ability to adapt to change prepares us all well for the host of challenges that always lie ahead.

Last year, I asked the staff to reflect on an aspect of the school that they were proud about.  This year, we put a question in the recent pupil survey to ask them what they thought was the best thing about the school.  There were some reassuring answers about the food, the sports programmes and the long holidays.  But there were also some really lovely answers about friendship, the clubs they can join and the support available from staff.

Specifically, the following caught my eye:

  • My favourite thing about the school is the feeling of being welcomed by everyone;
  • I think the school has very kind teachers and is a safe place to be;
  • We get taught good stuff that will be helpful in our future;
  • How inclusive people are;
  • Art, because it’s mindful, peaceful and calming – and it’s taught really well;
  • Building positive relationships;
  • The lessons are engaging, and the teachers are always enthusiastic and passionate about the subjects.

And, of course:

  • The Radnor House chicken burger.

I will leave the final thought to the investor Warren Buffett, and the story of his personal pilot who asked him how to go about setting priorities.  Buffett told the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wanted out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least.  The top five, Buffett said, should be those around which he organises his time.  But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explained, are not the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance.  Far from it.  In fact, they are the ones he should actively avoid at all costs, because they are the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life, yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

So, if we know how to be effective and we know what we are trying to achieve, in theory we should be able to do anything.  Life, of course, does not really work like that, but it seems to me that schools are honour-bound to offer their pupils the keys to the box of success, even if they cannot always guarantee that what is inside is the panacea for everything.  That is what we are trying to do here and it is what we will continue to do next year and beyond.

Thank you – to parents for your support and trust, to staff for everything you contribute, and to pupils for all that you bring to the school’s progress every day that you are here.  This is indeed an excellent school with an exceptional future – and long may that be the case.  Have a great summer and take care.

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