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I have mused before on the perplexing dilemma which faces parents and careers: the children we love and for whom we are responsible, who used to hang on our every word, at the very moment when they have to make their ‘big’ decisions which will play out in their move into employment - GCSEs, A levels and higher education - start curling their lips at our words of wisdom, and develop, at best, the most selective of hearing when we ruminate on their futures. And yet, if another adult, unconnected with enforcing rules at home, utters an opinion on whether chemistry or geography will prepare our children better for the law, that advice takes root with the unshiftable certainty of gospel. More confusing still, if we share our advice with our friends’ children, we meet with respectful credulity!

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Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time: several months ago, Jan Balon – Headteacher of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (www.laetottenham.ac.uk), our sister school in Tottenham – and I agreed to swap places for the day. Of course, it’s not the first time there’s been a ‘palace coup’ at Highgate: in 2017, as part of our Charity and Community Week I was persuaded to swap places with a pupil who would become Head for the day, and a brisk trade in raffle tickets duly took place, with Joe, now in Year 10, the lucky winner. There were challenges (speeding up my reactions so that I didn’t let down fellow pupils in an interactive Latin vocab quiz on the iPad, and running 1500m in SpEx being ones I recall most, while Joe was given a tour of our grounds and, something never offered to me, allowed to drive our School’s tractor) but I didn’t have to persuade a whole new school that I could be their Head for the day.

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Dr Emma Silver, Director of Wellbeing: When our Head suggested that I “guest blog” as our School’s new Director of Wellbeing, I saw the opportunity to keep the conversation going after Mental Health Awareness Week (Monday 13 – Sunday 19 May). Then I realised that I’d never written a blog before, clinical reports and academic papers but not this. A feeling of dread arose in me, reminiscent of being back in school - a fear of being exposed. I didn’t want to experience that uncomfortable anxiety in my body, or attend to my intrusive negative thoughts, so I kept it all at bay with a large dose of avoidance. Procrastination. It’s the most time consuming activity around exam season for many pupils. It works well to keep that uneasy feeling under wraps but then it emerges, full force, as deadlines loom. This feeling of anxiety and the avoidance is a fairly normal experience. Although not a great way to manage my workload, it is not quite inefficient or stressful enough for me, or others around me, to change. It’s a fine line and, for some, this is a strategy that becomes a much bigger problem that grows, and significantly impacts on their wellbeing.

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We could have been forgiven for wondering what it would take to shift Brexit from the front pages of our newspapers. In recent weeks, answers seem to have come thick and fast: the killing of Muslim worshippers at mosques in New Zealand by a self-styled white supremacist; the murder of a young journalist in Northern Ireland; terrorist attacks on Christian worshippers, in Sri Lanka, on Easter Day; the fire which almost consumed the cathedral of Notre Dame in Holy Week; and the visit of a sixteen-year-old Swedish school girl, concerned that we are running out of time to save our planet, along with the publication of a United Nations report predicting the extinction of a million species. News that makes the headlines is rarely good but the fun of working with young people lies often in their optimism, and their cheerful refusal to accept any obstacles to change: school children’s response to environmental disaster is, thankfully, vigorous and determined!

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I’m not sure the BBC research into numbers taking GCSEs in modern languages was timed to coincide with many schools requiring pupils to decide what subjects they would be taking for GCSE. However, the news last week that numbers have continued to fall such that there are districts in England where no pupils sat a GCSE in French or German at all, certainly provided an interesting backdrop to our Year 9 discussions over option choices. 

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