Curric. 07

Sep 22, 2007

Miles Berry

My speech to parents at our annual Curriculum Evening…

Good evening ladies and gentleman. It’s great to see so many of you here for our curriculum evening again this year. I hope that those of you with children in years 1 to 6 have appreciated the chance to meet your child’s new class teacher, and I’d like to express my thanks to my colleagues for setting aside time for this, and for the super displays you see around the hall: I’d encourage you to have a glance at the ones for other years before you head home, as they do give a real sense of the progression that happens as children make their way up through the school.

A year and a half ago, as part of my interview for this job, Mrs Kirkham and the governors asked me to present on my vision for the school in 2010. Not knowing the school at all well back then, I based much of what I had to say on three aims for what I thought education at a place like the Convent School should be about. I thought it might be interesting this evening to have a look at those aims, and see how well we’re doing in meeting them.

First off, was the idea of a school where people learn to think for themselves.

We remain resolutely committed to the idea of discovering and developing our children’s God given potential in every aspect of their lives. The care, the dedication shown by my colleagues in their work with the children is evident to anyone who spends any time at the school, our inspectors included. Thanks to this, and our small classes, I think it’s very clear that we do ‘count in ones’, that we go such a long way to meeting each of our children where they are, nurturing them, challenging them, and helping them, step by step, along their own educational journey.

The help varies, from child to child, from subject to subject, from year to year, and from day to day: for some there’ll be lots of support: and I must say how grateful I am to Ms Swindells in managing our ‘special needs’ provision, with our three tier approach of in-class support, focus support groups and one to one support from Mrs Spence. On other occasions, the best help we can give a child is to really challenge them to strive for excellence. From time to time, my colleagues will send children to my study with pieces of work – the sense of pride, of achievement that the children have in these splendid examples of what they’ve done invariably brightens my day and is, I believe, something which all our pupils have. The foundations of a lifelong love of learning are laid early on.

We’re experimenting more with providing time on the curriculum for the children to think: from Year 1 up we’re setting aside an hour a week for what we’ve labelled ‘critical skills’ – a chance in the week to look beyond the knowledge, skills and understanding of the separate subjects to things that sit across and go beyond traditional boundaries. It’s early days for us with this, but we’re hoping to give time for puzzles, problems, philosophy, space for reflection on the week’s lessons, a chance to think about thinking, and learn about learning.

One of the ways we do all we can to encourage pupils to think for themselves is through an emphasis on independent learning. The idea of a personalised education is one the maintained sector is coming round to, but for us here there’s more to this than everyone working at their own pace, there’s an acknowledgement that education as a person means not only provision tailored to a child’s ability, but also tailored to their enthusiasms and aspirations.

Our ever expanding co-curricular provision is one way we seek to meet this: I’m delighted that our list of after-school clubs now includes things for Key Stage 1 and Reception, as well as more choice than ever for the upper prep.

The opportunities for independent work within the curriculum are important too: seeing the enthusiasm with which the children set about the task of English Speaking Board preparation was an undoubted highlight of my first year – yes they were hugely polished performances, but I was even more impressed by the quality of the independent research that went into choosing prose, learning poetry and putting together their presentations.

Our facilities for independent learning are good here – Val Wilding’s sterling work in the prep school library gives us a much loved room with a superbly chosen stock catering for all subjects and all tastes in children’s literature, and our recent expansion of the prep ICT room opens up lots more opportunities for us to use computers as a tool for learning: witness yesterday’s launch of our pilot online maths homework for Years 5 and 6.

The notion of our independence is key here. Yes we do pay attention to all that happens in the maintained sector, but there’s a heavy responsibility to think these innovations through for ourselves, with a view to seeing how well they fit into our own, very special, context. Take as an example our maths curriculum. For the maintained sector, a lot of time has been spent over the last couple of years reviewing and revising the Numeracy Framework – giving a greater sense of pace, putting slightly less emphasis on using calculators, putting slightly more on written calculations: all things which we here feel very positive about, and so this year we’re moving our maths programme up to Year 4 over to the new framework. And yet, for Year 5 and Year 6, the new framework doesn’t suit us so well, so we’re ploughing our own furrow, focussing more on the imperative of getting all our pupils to the standard needed for entrance exams in January of Year 6, in which, I’m quietly confident we’ll match last year’s 100% success rate in placing everyone at their chosen schools, and then providing a broader, enriching mathematical education, and not, I’m delighted to say, worrying about the SATs the following May.

The second aim I shared back at my interview, was for a school where people care about and support one another.

The school’s faith, of course, underpins all that we do, and I think one of the things that sets the Convent School apart from other schools is the extent to which our faith is worked out in practice; in the care, the concern, the love that exists in the relationships which make up the community of our school. The pupils are so good at looking after one another, at helping each other in class, in the playground, on the games field, and beyond school. I don’t think it coincidental that this happens in the context of a school where each day starts and ends with prayer, where assemblies are acts of collective worship and where all, nursery through sixth form and staff, come together for Mass. Another of the highlights of my last year, was the chance to take a day out with Year 6 at their reflective, inspiring, affirming retreat at St Lucy’s convent.

It was no surprise that the inspectorate recognised our provision for spiritual, moral and cultural development as outstanding. Gratifying as this was, even here we look for further improvements – this year we’re integrating previous provision for RE, PHSME and Circle Time within a single subject area of Religious and Moral Education, exploring what elsewhere can be an all to secular emphasis on personal and social development from the particular perspective of a Catholic school, and holding true to our founder’s ideal of a school where “knowledge of the world is seen in the light of faith”.

The care the pupils show one another is, I think, nowhere more evident than on the sports field. Our emphasis on developing noble personal qualities, courage, commitment, concentration and the rest, through our sports provision, and the encouragement for all to take part is not at the expense of striving after excellence here. Our fixtures programme continues to expand, for both boys and girls, and the sense of working together as a team, and our sense of fair play, have, I’m sure, played no small part in our improving record of success in matches against other schools. Again, the co-curricular programme illustrates how enthusiastic our pupils are to take part in sport with one another – this term alone, we’re offering football, rugby, fun run, netball, basketball, karate and short tennis, as well as lunchtime coaching for the U10 and U11 teams.

This sense of care, of concern is further developed through time away from school. Our range of educational visits does so much to broaden our pupils’ horizons, to make the things they’re learning far more real that we could in our well resourced classrooms – Year 3 head off to Liss on Thursday to help with the Roman excavations, and Year 5 are soon off up to the British Museum to see Egyptian artefacts for themselves.

It’s our residential programme though where the relationships between the pupils are really strengthened – Year 3 have a sleepover here at school to look forward to, Year 4’s trip to Marchant’s Hill does much to bond theses classes together as they tackle a lot of outdoor challenges, Year 5 have a wonderful week living together on the Isle of Wight, and Year 6 are thoroughly immersed in French culture on their residential visit to Picardie.

In this, as in every area, the children’s first teachers are you yourselves: the values, the sense of self-discipline, the sense of honour that they have, does you great credit, and the support they give to one another mirrors the support you give to us, for which we here are all grateful. We couldn’t do what we do without you.

The care and concern we have for one another though is not, nor should it be, limited to the school community. My third aim, was for a school where people are equipped and inspired to ‘make a difference’.

Our ongoing commitment to maintaining a central place in our curriculum for creativity and the arts is one of the ways in which we do this. The sheer quality of our children’s work in art is quite breath taking, thanks I’m sure to the inspiration they receive from their teachers in this, as so many other, subjects. They love their art lessons. More wonderful still, is the joy that their work brings to others – to you, their parents, I know, but also to the other children – the number of times I see children from other classes taking a real delight in the art work displayed around the school, something which so many of my visitors also comment on very favourably. The prep school work on show at the summer arts festival was excellent. Creative arts week was, I know, a highlight for children and staff alike.

Drama continues to be a great strength, and will, I know, develop yet further when the arts centre is eventually opened. Alongside the showpieces of the Christmas productions, are the wonderful lower and upper prep assemblies which children and class teachers put together week after week – done for their fellow pupils and the greater glory of God.

Music too goes from strength to strength – over half of your sons and daughters are learning instruments, and their standard continues to improve. It’s been a great treat to hear the prep school orchestra entertaining folk at PTFA events, we continue to sing and play in the wider community, and worship at prep school assemblies is now led by our outstanding Chanteurs chamber choir.

We make a difference in other ways too. We have a sense of responsibility towards the wider community and the world. It’s been great to welcome into school people from a range of charities. I was hugely impressed by the enthusiasm with which prep children set about raising money for comic relief and the Good Shepherd Appeal, and I know the visit from the Indian Sisters made a lasting impression on us and on them – closer links with other schools within the community of Our Lady of Providence is something Mrs Kirkham and I are keen to pursue.

We have a growing concern for the environment. We’re ever conscious of the drain we put on our world’s finite resources and of our carbon footprint. Classrooms have recycling boxes and our new ICT facility has been implemented with a close eye on sustainability and reducing power consumption – our 18 workstations now use less electricity than the previous ten. The children’s awareness of these issues is quite acute. We have a ‘save the Earth’ environment theme day later this term, which you’ll hear more about before long, and we have a week long focus on science, technology and the environment later on in the year. I’d encourage any of you who can to explore car-sharing for the school run or the use of our school coaches.

So, we are a school that comes ever closer to the ideal of a learning community. Not only are we a school where the children’s learning is what matters, where it is at the core of what we do, but we’re also a place where we teachers and the other staff continue to learn and develop as professionals. I am so impressed by how willing those I work with are to embrace change. Furthermore, we’re a school where we continually review what we do and seek to develop, to improve: it would be all to easy to rest on the laurels of our outstanding inspection report, but rather we continue to move forward: integrated religious and moral education, critical skills, ICT and maths developments, extended co-curricular provision, as well as things like German for Year 6, a more integrated approach to Early Years provision, and a restructuring of our timetable. Our willingness as a school to reflect, to review, to improve, is a willingness we see everyday in your sons and daughters – they are wonderful, they’re each a credit to you, and thank you for continuing to trust us with their education.