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When Mr Gove introduced the starchy ‘EBacc’, Highgate riffed on the controversy by developing IBAC, a short-hand for our vision of teaching and learning: Independence through Buzz, Aspiration and Collaboration. It has turned out to be a unifying pedagogic principle that has stood the test of time and it serves us well in keeping exams in their place, not starting points for how or what to teach, but necessary staging posts on children’s and young people’s journeys’ to intellectual and creative fulfilment. What, then, is the connection with Bubble Tea?

Well, let me explain. As families with children in Years 6, 7, 8 and 9 will know, year group trips are back on at long last: while Year 7 headed off to Northumbria and Hadrian’s Wall, Year 8 travelled to Lille in Northern France for a three-day sojourn amongst our French siblings, braving the complexities of customs in this post-Brexit era. Bravo to all families (and the home team) for navigating the pre-trip bureaucracy! And a thank you to the wonderful staff who helped our inexperienced travellers overcome homesickness, deal with unfamiliar food and get to grips with communal living and journeying on a grand scale.

On the menu were croissants (and éclairs), of course, from a range of boulangeries and patisseries, and a guided tasting with detailed evaluation as befits a place of learning; art and architecture, too: de-coding Flemish buildings and picking our way through explanatory signs en français; visiting the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle himself, a proud Lillois, as fascinating for the grand homme as for the curiosities of late 19th century domestic life; dipping our toe in the fabulously majestic art gallery, the Musée des Beaux Arts, where the very embodiment of a buzzy historian positively frothed with excitement as she elucidated three-dimensional maps developed to ensure Louis XIV’s expanded frontier cities remained secure, explained why Greek and Roman statues were naked and how Goya avoided being cancelled as he poked fun at the Spanish royal family; the modern art gallery (L.A.M.), a building, situated in rolling park land, designed to recall the industrial heritage of Lille which produced the wealth on which the collection was founded, housing Picasso and Modigliani and so much more (personal favourite: Fernand Léger’s Femme couchée – not only for the painting itself but for the lively confidence with which pupils lapped up and energised the tour guide’s haltering explanations) and a collection of Art Brut whose human stories tugged at the heart-strings. Who knew that the mosaics so beloved of art deco buildings became popular because they kept common diseases such as cholera at bay because they were easy to clean?

A highlight was inevitably the moment when the budding linguist in each of us came to the fore and spoke: Lillois of all ages and backgrounds found themselves interrogated about their eating habits, their hobbies and their holidays. Stolid police officers played game, answering accurately and economically; retired shoppers corrected our fledgling pronunciation; harried commuters dipped into their Northern friendliness and indulged us. Intrepid Year 8s wouldn’t be limited to the scheduled times for their ‘enquête’ (survey) and engaged any passing citizen in their desire to rack up a record number of responses. The realisation that what they had learnt – all those vocab and grammar tests! – actually worked gave pupils and teachers alike a Highgate high.

Lest you think that Year 8 pupils became full-time, unadulterated culture vultures, be assured: less obviously francophone pleasures were in demand. Beautiful old Lille has its fair share of stores peddling fluorescent drinks which were in popular demand. ‘Sir, sir, you should try one’ was the constant cry and so, on day 3, your correspondent gave in and allowed himself to be bought a Bubble Tea. A quite dreadful concoction, it seemed, but a masterstroke in culinary adaptation to youthful tastes! As I slurped the sugary liquids and popped the ‘bubbles’ (seaweed, apparently) on my tongue and swallowed yet more flavoured sweetener, to the ribald amusement of my thirteen-year-old companions, thoughts turned to bubbles and buzz. If the latter is the audible evidence of excitement and activity (and there was plenty), bubbles are the visual expression of enthusiasm and vivacity. And that’s what was on show in Lille last week: youthful effervescence – lively, animated, intense, eager interest.  It was truly joyous to see.

Head trying Bubble Tea in Liile
Mr Adam Pettitt sampling Bubble Tea with the pupils in Lille

The gradual return to what used to be is so very welcome. The spirit of encounter, perhaps less packaged and smoothed than precious annual leave and family vacation, runs through the school trip and exchange traditions: meeting those we don’t know, understanding and appreciating what makes us different and unique and what we have in common, comes a little closer with every new encounter. Political and geo-political events are bringing forward encounters of a different kind as families and schools across the country welcome refugees into their homes and classrooms. The quality and success of those many receptions will be made warmer and stronger still if we keep pushing our boundaries and letting our intrigue and interest in what is new, in what is different, effervesce and overcome nervousness and uncertainty. The young are showing us the way!

Ice Cream in Lille