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I spoke to Year 9 pupils in assembly recently about new beginnings: for me, as well as for them. This is my first term as Acting Head of Middle School (Year 9 and Strategic Lead) (it really rolls off the tongue!) and like the pupils, I had mixed feelings about returning to school at the end of a long summer holiday.

The pupils were no doubt excited to see their friends again and get stuck into lessons, but this was in some cases tempered with anxiety about settling into their new House and form group, and adjusting to new teachers. As the mother of a fantastic but demanding toddler, I admit that part of me was looking forward to a break from 24/7 parenting duties, but I was also excited and a little nervous about my new role.

As I told the pupils, this is the great thing about the academic cycle: every September is an opportunity for a fresh start. When I’m not looking after Year 9, I teach Latin, and the Romans had an expression, tabula rasa, which literally means ‘a scraped-clean writing tablet’ (the English word razor derives from ‘rasa’). The Romans used these tabulae, wax tablets, to record things like business transactions and loans of money. It was common for politicians canvassing for support to promise tabulae rasae, or blank slates, as part of their election promises: everyone’s debt would be literally wiped away. I made the same promise to the new crop of Year 9s: whatever sort of Year 8 they had, this September is a chance to wipe the slate clean. On their part, that means dropping any preconceptions they might have about certain subjects or people, and letting any grudges or arguments from previous years go – I’d love them to start the year with an open mind. For my part, I’m looking forward to getting to know the year group from scratch (even if I’ve told them off in the past!), and I’m starting on the assumption that they’re all wonderful people. I was lucky enough to spend time with some pupils on the PSHE day last term, and I was genuinely impressed with the thoughtfulness and maturity that that group of pupils showed – they’ve set the bar high for the rest of the year group!

In his start of year assembly, the Head spoke about the importance of belonging. Our Year 9 pupils all belong to the Highgate community, and now they belong to a House as well. I urge them to make the most of the opportunities this offers: to meet new people, try new things and take advice from older pupils in the House when it comes to big decisions like GCSE options. I was a Head of House for seven years, and one of the most rewarding parts of the role was seeing pupils who were initially reluctant to take part, either because they were shy or just a bit disengaged and ‘too cool’ to show enthusiasm, developing a genuine sense of house spirit, volunteering for competitions, getting excited about singing and cheering on their peers in the athletics competition at Parliament Hill. I want pupils to embrace that sense of belonging; as I told them, it doesn’t mean they have to be best friends with every member of their form group, or like the same stuff as them, or hang out with them at weekends. Regardless of how close we are to other members of our school or house community, we can respect them and recognise their value and the contribution that they make.

Having promised pupils a blank slate and a fresh start, I returned briefly to the priorities that Mr Kenmir emphasised last year. As pupils join the Middle School, expectations are higher, but fundamentally those priorities remain the same: work hard, play hard, be empathetic and be responsible. Fairly self-explanatory, I hope, but a final word on ‘play hard’: getting involved, whatever that looks like for each individual pupil, is the best way to cement that sense of belonging we all thrive on. I can’t wait to see them get stuck in!

Heather Isaksen About the author
Heather Isaksen, Acting Head of Middle School (Strategic Lead, Head of Year 9)
Heather joined Highgate in 2014 as a Classics teacher and spent seven years as Head of Northgate and Senior Head of House before joining the Middle School team. She would like to spend her free time running, doing yoga and reading, but mostly finds herself watching Teletubbies and following bin lorries up the street.