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“If I feel unhappy, I do mathematics to become happy. If I am happy, I do mathematics to keep happy.” Alfred Renyi

“The more I paint, the more I like everything.” Jean Michel Basquiat

These were striking quotations to find lodged at the core of last week’s assembly delivered by Polly Brownlee, Head of Mathematics here. Polly had been invited to talk about ‘maths - something even for the non-specialist’ (this week sees Rebecca Hyam, Polly’s counterpart in English, on something ‘even for the non-specialist’ in English). We might have expected the value of maths for the non-specialist to be argued in terms of its usefulness – say, our mathematical literacy in decision-making and in deep-reading the interpretations of our data-rich economy – but, while Polly gave us, almost reluctantly, compelling examples of applications of maths in justice and in police-work, both specialist and non-specialist can find, she argues, value in maths because of its inherent intrigue and beauty.

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An unusual injunction, especially from a colleague – our Deputy Head (Academic) – tasked with the direction of teaching and learning at Highgate. However, the full imperative was to forget everything you know about A levels, and it was directed at parents and carers of our Year 11 pupils who this year included yours truly. I gave it my best shot!

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A Radio 4 piece on the Chief Rabbi’s persuasive drive to respect the Sabbath, featuring a seven-year-old who explained that her iPad was ‘one of her friends’, stopped me in my shaving-tracks recently.

Ironically, of course, I am staring at a screen as I gather these very thoughts – this can’t really be a bleat about technology, therefore. Yet a recent survey revealed that under 21-year-olds wished social media had never been invented; musings on the impact of technology on our privacy and quality of life are getting a serious airing (see Jonathan Safran Foer in The Guardian); clumsy retro brick-phones are on everyone’s Christmas wish-list. Perhaps the non-digital mouse has roared?

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I pop along to at least one assembly a week – Highgate’s assemblies take place in year groups, so there are seven ‘repeats’, a kind of iPlayer assembly loop but with only five days’ catch up – and the diary last week threw up Year 13 and the topic of safeguarding, what young people need to know about a School’s obligation to keep children safe: a politely attentive and engaged audience for what must have felt like a re-run of this important but annual briefing to our most senior pupils. What was blog-worthy was, however, the lovely lead-in by the Head of Sixth Form: Did Year 13 know that it was “National Teachers’ Day”? Sly glance to left field: ‘Thank you for the card, Theo!’ Indulgent laugh from Year 13. Well, National Teachers’ Day, so continued Mr Brunskill, allows each teacher to have three wishes. Mr Brunskill’s? One: that you sign up for Open Day; two, that you bring a contribution to the Harvest collection of foods for the Trussell Trust (‘Stop Hunger’) food bank in Muswell Hill; three, that you create your online fundraising profile for the school’s sponsored walk for the Great Lakes High School in Uganda. It was, if I may say so, one of the best motivational pitches I have seen.

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There’s a bit of a debate in the Maison Pettitt whether the intensification of grey follicles on Dad’s pate is a sign of mid-life allure or a steady march towards irrelevance, but what’s certainly the case is that I am asked more often than was the case how long I’ve been Head, and the sub-text is how long I’ve still got to run! (Answer: the in-tray is still full of things we want done and, whatever my children may say, there’s plenty of enthusiastic energy in the tank!). I am conscious, however, of the number of years, not because I’m counting them but because our youngest child was born in our first year and this year, the fact of his approaching the end of his days in the Junior School has helped me read even more acutely the questions I’m often asked about Highgate from the perspective of parents of ten-year-olds weighing up the choice of school; in particular, how will the School’s achievements, and the ambitions which underpinned them, be played out in the way my son will experience the remaining years of his childhood?

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