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The Head's Prize Giving Address 2018

They say a good speech should have a good beginning and a good ending, and the two shouldn’t be too far apart, so let’s see if we can make that happen in the next few minutes.

I’ve certainly enjoyed the beginning to my time as the Head of Radnor House Twickenham. I’ve met lots of new people, listened to their views and tried to steer a course accordingly. It certainly feels that there is a lot of goodwill around and that people can see the school is moving forward positively.

There has been plenty to be proud about, both inside and outside the classroom, with impressive progress in many areas, from our rowers and cricketers to our actors and musicians.  We made a genuine difference with MaDD and we have raised thousands of pounds for charity, climbing mountains both literally and figuratively.  We have worked hard and played hard, which is exactly what we need to do.

Rather than reviewing the year, as often happens on such occasions, which works for some but not always for all, I’d prefer to look forward today and talk more about the future than the past, though my first story comes from a previous age.

One day St Benedict came to a town where three stonemasons were hard at work.  He asked the first one what he was doing and without looking up the man replied that he was cutting the stone to make a brick.  The second stonemason was more enthusiastic and he said he was helping to make a wall.  The third man turned his face to the heavens and, with a radiant glow, he said, ‘I am helping to build a cathedral that will last for thousands of years and show the glory of God to all the world.’  If you wanted an example of a limitless mind, it’s right there.

The vision of everyone involved with the Radnor project is to create the best educational experience we can for the children.  We are looking to produce the successful people that the world needs tomorrow, future-proofing them for the many challenges ahead. 

A hundred years ago, the first headmaster of Stowe School, J F Roxburgh, was able to describe the ideal pupil as being ‘useful at a dance and indispensable in a shipwreck’, but times have changed a lot since then and we must do all we can to make sure the children here today are ready for their world, equipping them for the working environment through skills such as teamwork, resilience and creativity. 

It won’t always be easy, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be interesting.  As the entertainer Derren Brown put it, probably as he was about to hypnotise some poor soul or cut them in half, “Courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it.”

People are usually afraid of change because they fear the unknown, but the single greatest constant of history is that everything changes, and it is changing nowadays faster than it has ever done.  I have always thought that the purpose of learning is take people to the edge of their comfort zone and then take them further, and I agree wholeheartedly with the sociologist Benjamin Barber when he said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures: I divide the world into the learners and the non-learners.”  And it is learning to deal with tomorrow that is most needed.

Last week, I was asked to update our entry in the Good Schools Guide and I noticed a comment that said, “There is a trade-off, I suppose, between results and values.”  With respect, I fervently disagree because I see no reason at all why we cannot have both.  I like having my cake and eating it, as you can probably tell.  Excellence, after all, is one of the core values. 

To achieve such excellence, we need a culture of high expectations, with no excuses, a high performing environment where everyone strives to be the best they can be, leading ultimately to the creation of the best version of Radnor we can be. 

This is not an attempt to move the school from its core values and founding principles – quite the opposite.  No one will ever be asked to do something of which they are not capable.  No one will be told that an A*, or a 9, is all that matters.  That is not education.  Everyone, however, will be asked to do their best at all times.  The American educationalist Marva Collins always said to her pupils, “You must help me to help you.  If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything.  Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.  I don't expect perfection, I expect excellence.  I expect 100 percent effort in all you do.” 

These ideas are not just based on clever quotations; they have science to back them up.  The journalist and author Matthew Syed is a firm believer that it is effort rather than talent that matters.  He highlights how one of the most important qualities in life is grit, with resilience being a powerful predictor of success in everything from maths to music. 

It is those who take risks, who keep going even when they mess up from time to time, who ultimately reach their potential.  The belief that something cannot be done destroys the grit that is essential to success.  If children can be taught that the brain is like a muscle that grows with use then they will no longer give up but will instead be more inclined to persevere.  They will recognise that by striving they will grow the mental muscle to succeed.

The neural architecture of the brain actually changes if people stick at things.  Functional MRI scans reveal, for example, that the area of the brain involved in finger movement is far larger for concert pianists than in the rest of us.  But, crucially, they were not born like this: it grew in proportion to years of practice.  In other words, it was built through perseverance. 

Pupils who recognise their potential for growth do not regard failure as a reason to give up, but as evidence that they are progressing.  They recognise that they will learn faster if they are being stretched, and that if they are being stretched then they will mess up from time to time.  The crucial thing is to get up again.  Why?  Because they see a connection between striving and ultimately succeeding.  And the neuroscience suggests they are right.

Studies have shown that great entrepreneurs fail many times before they build the business that makes their fortune.  Henry Ford’s first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, collapsed, as did his involvement with the second, the Henry Ford Company.  But these failures taught him valuable lessons about the importance of pricing and high quality products.  The Ford Motor Company, his third venture, changed the world.

Great sportspeople demonstrate the same fortitude.  Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, missed more than 9,000 shots during his career, lost 300 games and on 26 occasions was trusted to make the game-winning shot, but missed.  “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.”  Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a free kick at the World Cup, his first goal in 45 attempts in international matches from a dead ball situation.

The point is not that we all share the same potential, but that none of us will reach our potential unless we persevere.  Working really hard is what successful people do.  Contrast Homer Simpson’s message to Bart: ‘If you want to get on in life, son, you’ve got to work hard.  Now turn on the TV to see if we’ve won the lottery’.

Dutch researchers conducted a study where they asked two groups of students to answer trivia questions.  One group was asked beforehand to spend five minutes thinking about what it would mean to be a university professor, while the other group was asked to think about being a football hooligan.  The first group – and they were all of equal ability – got 56% of the questions right, while the second group got 43% right.  The first group didn’t know more than the second; they were simply in a ‘smart’ frame of mind.  The difference between 56% and 43% is statistically enormous – just by some simple use of imagination first.

Simply praising a child’s intelligence risks harming their motivation and their performance.  Instead, it is the effort and application that need to be credited.  In a survey of people who felt they had not yet been able to fulfil their potential, one student at university commented, “I remember often being praised for my intelligence rather than my efforts, and slowly but surely I developed an aversion to difficult challenges.  Most surprisingly, this extended beyond academic and even athletic challenges to emotional challenges.  This was my greatest learning disability – this tendency to see performance as a reflection of character and, if I could not accomplish something right away, to avoid that task or treat it with contempt.”  I have always felt the same about ice skating!

Most abilities have to be nurtured and developed.  Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not focused, honed and exercised.  Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities.  Harry Potter is a good example.  Removed from his distinguished wizard family and brought up by ignorant muggles, he arrived at Hogwarts without any experience in magic.  It took him seven books to gain a firm command of his powers and knowledge of his unique abilities.

For Harry, and everyone else, the key to learning is passionate teachers. Great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.  They set high standards for all their pupils, not just the ones who are already achieving.  They challenge and nurture.  They teach pupils how to reach the high standards.  They continue to learn along with the pupils, with the best teaching characterised by high expectations, imaginative activities and high levels of engagement, with only the lightest of touches from the ‘guide at the side’, not the ‘sage on the stage’.  And I firmly believe that the children at Radnor House are exceptionally blessed by the quality of the teachers in their classrooms.  The advantage of having worked in four other high performing schools is my ability to make comparisons, and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the teachers here are as good as any I have worked with since… well, since a certain team last reached a World Cup semi-final!

Today, we say goodbye to four teaching colleagues – Miss McMillan, Mrs Lee, Mrs Parrouty and Dr Rawstorne.  Mr Bharadia is also allegedly leaving us, but this is the third time he has been wished farewell and so far he has always come back!  And Gaëlle Kéruzec, our French Language Assistante is moving on to pursue a teaching career.   We thank you for everything you have contributed to the school during your time here and we send our best wishes for the future.

Our final challenge is to permeate the school with the value of respect, of kindness, where we keep asking, “How can we help?”  We need to remind ourselves all the time of the need to treat each other with dignity, fairness and compassion.  But we must also remember that we need to draw the boundaries between what is appropriate and what is not.  When we are talking, we are not listening.  It’s like sneezing and keeping your eyes open – it can’t be done.  When we talk, all we can do is tell people what we already know: when we listen, we learn new things. 

And we want to achieve all this by being inclusive, not exclusive, for example through our new academic enrichment programme that we will launch next year and which I would encourage everyone to get involved with.  If you have expertise and/or a story to tell, come and share it with the pupils. 

In response to a challenging lesson witnessed this year, a colleague commented that a rising tide lifts all boats, and while that might be a risky comment to make when we are sitting here next to the river, it is surely the way forward.   

A checklist for a successful organisation would be:

  • passion and purpose
  • structure and systems
  • imagination
  • regular reflection. 

While we may not have them all in equal measure yet, we are certainly heading that way and I am determined we will reach such a point before very long.

Thank goodness Martin Luther King did not address the March on Washington with the immortal line, “I have a Development Plan,” or “I have a letter in response to a recent survey”, but he did urge his followers: “Take the first step in faith.  You do not have to see the whole staircase.  Just take the first step.” 

In 2011, many of you took that first step in faith at Radnor House, and you all have done so since.  Together, let us share the visions of such great minds in the coming years, summed up by the ambition of that third stonemason to build something of lasting value, and make sure we create a school that allows every child every chance to make the very best of their talents.

Thank you.  

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