The cyclical nature of school life is a wonderful thing. Every September, without fail, we start afresh. There’s always something invigorating about newness, and we get an energising dose of it on a regular basis. And when I say we, I mean all of us at school.
Pupils are excited to experience new subjects, new classmates, new teachers, new sports options, new form tutors, maybe even a new school. Teachers can’t wait to get to know new classes, teach new texts, introduce new topics and try out new ideas. Catering staff have innovative recipes, gardeners new plants. Even Heads look forward to welcoming in the new year by setting the tone, usually in a series of talks for colleagues and pupils.
This year we decided that on the first day of term I would speak to our Senior School pupils in their pastoral groupings: Year 7, Year 8 and Years 9-13. (Junior School and Pre-Prep children heard from their respective principals, Philippa Studd and Sally Hancock.) While that meant I was wheeled out six times that day – we split Y9-13 into four sets of three Houses – it also allowed me to tailor my messages accordingly.
Year 7 were treated to a quick run-down of my family (wife, three children, one still at Highgate) and pets (the cats Tom and Jerry, and Alfie the friendly spaniel) and why I have a Swedish middle name: all part of the humanising process.
More importantly, I talked about the two things you need to do to fit in at Highgate. The first is to understand what I called the “essential, transformative, wonderful quality of community” – and that it has a cost. Not monetary, but in terms of effort and application, sometimes putting yourself out there. Welcoming each other, regardless of where they had been in Year 6; ensuring they go home feeling that they have been welcomed by others, and done something to welcome someone else; and creating a community where no-one feels that they need to become like someone else, to change, to be welcome or to belong.
The second is that they are to leave behind any worries about whether or not they are clever enough to be at Highgate. They evidently are. However, they have picked on discussions of Highgate’s position relative to other schools, our (excellent) GCSE and A level results, and their parents’ pride at having a Highgate pupil in the family. This can make children feel they must constantly excel, including in every test and exam. We choose our pupils for the way they work, and respond to advice; if they are here, it’s because we believe they are in the right place to thrive in their unique way. Highgate, and they, are about much more than exam results – a drum I bang loud and often. I also urged them to read, read and read: not all the time, but every day. This will be whole-school focus for the Senior School this year.
Year 8 is great, not least because these pupils are still able to study the full curriculum, having not yet had to narrow their experience by dropping a subject, apart from choosing only one of Spanish, Russian, German or Mandarin – itself an agonising decision. Year 8s also need massive earmuffs, not as winter accessories but to insulate themselves from people asking or telling them what subjects they are good at, or enjoy. Year 8 is a time to be free, while brains are still growing so fast and furiously; every one of their intelligences is there to be strengthened and nourished.
I also put a massive health warning (it was even in bold in my notes) on test outcomes and exam results, and parents’ reaction to them. The tyranny of exam technique must not be allowed to get in the way of learning which is fun and sustaining; not for nothing is my tagline that all exams have a distorting effect on what we teach and how we teach it. There is great virtue in working for yourself, securing your understanding by your own efforts, of being and becoming excited, passionate about your potential. And, of course, I rooted for reading.
We made good use of having the older year groups, 9-13, subdivided into three Houses at a time. This emphasised the inter-generational character of this part of the school. These older pupils can look out for the Year 7 and 8s, ask for or pass on wisdom within the House, and tap into the network of younger alumni for thoughts on universities and beyond – in effect, becoming multiple sources of freelancing sibling advice, part of that community I spoke to Year 7 about.
Years 9-13 will also have enjoyed the image I painted of myself as a teenager; not fitting in at school as one of only two pupils whose family refused to buy them uniform (the other was my sister), while desperately trying to fit in outside school by wearing the same as everyone else, right down to a canvas orange belt, worn high with one end hanging low – thank goodness this was a pre-social media era.
My point here was that two processes, both important, can clash. Young people will, naturally, seek common identities with their age group, but at the same time must be allowed to feel they belong without suppressing who they really are. Instances of sexism and racism, for example, are often characterised by perpetrators showing off, playing to an online or in person gallery, wanting to fit in, to gain approval, by calling out differences. We draw our red lines here on that basis: protecting people’s right to be themselves, while also promoting a sense of community. We believe that a sense of belonging is achieved not by being the same, looking the same, speaking the same, but by welcoming and understanding and not judging what is unique about a person.
Let your Houses become the vehicle for belonging, I urged them. Which is more or less where I began with Year 7. A positive, affirming way to start the year.