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The Prevent Agenda

I am someone who is sceptical of government initiatives; sceptical of the latest duty that we have to comply with; sceptical whether government policies actually have much impact on the ground other than make work for us to do and provide Ofsted with a stick to beat us.

But I am not sceptical about the rise of fascist and proto-fascist organisations in this country who march and gather on the streets in immigrant communities to promote fear and hatred.

I’m not sceptical when an MP is murdered by a far-right extremist.

And I’m not sceptical about the continued rise in attacks and hostility against Muslims in this country.

I’m not sceptical when I cycle through Hendon in the morning sometimes and I see security guards outside every Jewish infant school and every Jewish primary school and when I hear recently that Jewish cemeteries in Hendon have been vandalised and desecrated.

And I’m not sceptical when I hear students at schools not far from here in London have disappeared and are then seen again taking part in some crazy religious war thousands of miles away.

Or when a place just yards away from the hotel I stayed in Berlin in October was attacked by a mindless zealot with a lorry and no humanity.

And, so, yes, I do think this is something to do with us, and I do think we have a responsibility to educate the young people in our charge to think critically and sceptically themselves, to base their views on evidence and not just faith.

And so, yes, I do think the Prevent agenda is something to do with us and something to take seriously.

I think it would be a good start to remove religion from schools, except comparative studies and private, individual practice. People should be free in my opinion to choose and practise any religion they want in any way they want. But it can’t be right that there is a legal duty on schools to have a daily act of worship of a predominantly Christian nature. And I don’t think it’s right that so many schools are religious: Catholic, C of E, Muslim, Jewish schools all over the place. Let’s separate education, which is a social function, from religion, which is a private and individual choice. Let’s allow students of any religion to attend any school and, in that way, seek to mix them up as much as possible so that they encounter people from different communities.


Mock Exams


Sometimes students dismiss mock exam results as unimportant. They say that at GCSE they didn’t do well in mocks but still got good grades in the real thing. They don’t really believe there is anything to worry about, or they do but they push it right down because it is too frightening to contemplate.

A levels are different from GCSEs. I am sorry, but they are: GCSEs lend themselves to cramming, to lots of memorising at the last minute. Some students passed their GCSEs by this strategy, but it doesn’t work at A level.

Here are the grades achieved by my AS maths group a year ago, with their actual AS grades (names redacted):

Name C1 Mock AS Grade

You will see that 18 out of 21 got the same grade, or one more or less, in the actual AS exams as they got in the mock. Of the other three, two climbed four grades and one climbed two grades. So the vast majority of students failed to get significantly different grades in the summer. I remember very clearly student ‘A’ and student ‘T’. They totally changed their attitude, they were like different people, totally serious and driven; they worked so hard, eating up extra work. I had been convinced after the mocks that student ‘T’ in particular would fail but by the summer, I was disappointed that he missed the A grade by a couple of marks.

Now, my subject is maths, and advice varies by subject, but most under-achievers simply do not do enough work, that’s the fact. And if you think you are working hard, well you have to work harder, because that’s what it takes. Use your free periods better, use evenings and weekends. See your academic work as your priority and do what needs to be done.

But it is also a question of what work you are doing. We know that many students waste their time. They waste it in low level activities (highlighting key points) and avoiding the challenges of hard thinking. And they allow themselves to be constantly interrupted by social media and other online distractions so they never get into a flow. They play music and kid themselves it is helping.

So have a chat with your teacher about what work you should be doing. And put aside all your devices when you’re working.

In my subject, the challenge is often about resilience. Students give up too easily and check the mark schemes/solutions, and they never really learn to think things through for themselves. Crucially, you should never give up: if you are stuck you need to spend time thinking about it, trying one thing and another, checking for errors, doing it again, reading the text book and notes, looking for similar questions, over and over until you gets it right. That is the only route to success.

Challenge yourself with past paper questions. Never give up. If it takes three hours to get a question fully right, that is three hours well spent. Once you conquer a question, find a similar one to test yourself one. There is no short cut to success.

The time is nigh. You have to decide what are you doing here? How much are you willing to invest in your future, in success? Every single Woodhouse student has the ability to achieve high grades. What is in question is not ability: it is mindset.

Welcome to the Model UN

Welcome to the Woodhouse College Model UN. As the world watches Donald Trump’s inauguration in a few hours time, we gather to debate and consider international relations in an unprecedented time. I have a few reflections before we start.

Forgive me, I am old. I was born in 1961 a few months before the Berlin Wall went up; I was born a child of the sixties. The sixties was an age of contradictions, on the one hand it was called the age of Aquarius, the era of hope; on the other hand, it was a time of fear with the threat of world war 3 and nuclear annihilation hanging over us.

After the Berlin Wall went up, the Cold War dominated international relations for the first 30 odd years of my life, with many proxy wars and confrontations taking place around the globe.

As a toddler, the Cuban missile crisis caused people to fear war breaking out between the US and the Soviet Union. It was close, a few minutes to midnight, people said. My parents left me at home with a babysitter and demonstrated in Grovesnor Square outside the US embassy against the Vietnam war. I was pushed in a buggy on the Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons, a movement that grew and became the campaign for nuclear disarmament, CND.

I remember my RE teacher at school telling us at school that nuclear war was likely in our lifetime, and the government issued a leaflet to all households called ‘Protect and Survive’ – what to do in the event of nuclear war. It had advice on how to hide under the kitchen table. Meanwhile the growth of CND culminated in a huge march against nuclear weapons over a million people with slogan ‘protest and survive’.

War after war took place around the world, most with USA and Russia backing different sides. The Iran Iraq war, which you may not know much about, lasted 8 years with a million dead and many more injured, Saddam Hussein backed, incidentally, by the west, who supplied him with those same weapons of mass destruction that later triggered their own invasion.

The Israel Palestine conflict  goes on to this day, with Israeli expansion and settlements condemned across the world but underwritten and supported by USA.

And terrorism is not a new phenomenon and featured throughout my life, from the red brigade and the PLO and IRA in the 70s to and Al Qaeda and Isis today.

When the Wall came down, some declared ‘the end of history’, but it all continued, repeated invasions of Afghanistan and the Middle East. Russia and the west playing out their games.

And all this time, who did reasonable liberal people look to save the day? Who did they call upon to reduce the danger from nuclear arsenals, from proxy wars? Who did they ask to stop and prevent wars, from Vietnam to Cambodia, from Yugoslavia to Iran and Iraq, and now Syria? The united nations. And when 2 million marched in London against Tony Blair’s war in Iraq, their demand was no war without UN resolution. They saw the UN as a white horse, part of the solution, part of the way forward to peace.

But the UN let us down every single time. The UN has been repeatedly ineffectual and weak. The big powers block anything that is against their interests. The Israel Palestine sore remains an open wound, oozing poison into the region and into the world, and what has the UN ever achieved there? What has the UN achieved in Syria?

Lenin called the UN’s predecessor the League of Nations a Thieves’ Kitchen, a “piece of fakery from beginning to end; it is a deception from beginning to end; it is a lie from beginning to end”. Is the UN any different?

So we now live in bleak times. The mantra of the Blair years “things can only get better” seems unbearably innocent and naive. With Brexit at home, the rise of proto-fascism across Europe and Donald Trump in the Whitehouse, it is hard to locate  hope for the future. I feel doubly affected: I am both a British citizen and an American citizen – I hold two passports. I am equally depressed by Brexit and Trump, both of which could end as appalling disasters – not for the rich and privileged, but for ordinary people.

In this context, what advice can I offer? What optimism can I put forward for you? I am at a loss. I am of the generation that has failed to solve the problems of the world and has handed to our children a world with fewer opportunities and greater challenges than my parents handed to me.

So I have just one thought for you. Voltaire, that great figure of the enlightenment, who was part of a movement that changed Europe and brought in rationalism and tolerance and ideas of equality and human rights; Voltaire write a book Candide. He wrote it in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake that killed up to a hundred thousand people. There were many  who tried to understand such a disaster, tried to work out what it meant that their God had allowed so many to die. Some said that ‘all is for the best in this best of all worlds’, but Voltaire couldn’t believe that to be true, and he tried to find hope in a seemingly hopeless world.

His famous conclusion to the book is this: ‘il fault cultiver notre jardin’. We need to work our garden, a metaphor which I remembering originally struggling with in my French A level at sixth form. President Obama put it more plainly yesterday in his final press conference in advice to his daughters: “we have tried to raise them”, he said, “to understand that when you get knocked down, you pick yourself up and get back to work.”

So my advice, for what it’s worth, is to get on with your lives, to do the right thing for the right reasons. As you work through this weekend, remember that politics is not a game. Politics is not about one-upmanship, winning a debate through procedural manipulation or sophistry. Politics actually affects people’s lives. Have principles, live by them and make the world a better place.



Open Day Speech November 2016

Open Day 2016

I believe that this is the best place in London to come to study A Levels. Our aim is to stretch and inspire our young people, both academically and personally. We are about academic excellence and personal development.

People ask if are a specialist school, and we are. Our specialism is A Levels. That’s all we do. No little ones doing Key stage 3. Our teachers don’t rush from a difficult year 9 class for a bit of a breather with the year 13s. And we are not an FE college – no adults, no part-time students or vocational courses. Just A Levels, just enthusiastic students keen to do well and to progress to university.

There is something special about a good sixth form college, an academic sixth form college. That’s probably why some schools market their sixth forms as sixth form colleges; and some FE colleges market their A level centres as sixth form colleges. But they are not. So welcome to the real thing.

The fact that we specialise in A-levels means that we have a big range of subjects – and perhaps the key thing is that they can be studied in almost any combination. When I was at school I was desperate to take maths and history at A-level, my two favourite subjects. And I couldn’t. Because they were in the same block: I could only take maths or history. Last year, with around 650 new AS students, not one student had a clash, not one couldn’t do the combination they wanted.

And the fact that we specialise in A-levels means we have excellent study facilities – take a look today at our breath-taking library and two learning zones, and at our labs and other accommodation and our new 3G pitch. And it also means that our staff are specialists too, experts in their subjects and in A-level pedagogy and assessment. And you might be surprised at our class sizes too, the average across the college is currently exactly 20 with no class over 24.

And it means that we specialise in advice and guidance in the university application process, that all our staff are involved, and that there is plenty of support and expertise – because 95% of our students go on to university, see us as a bridge to university – so we see it as part of the core of who we are.

People often want to know about myself. I have been Principal since January 2013, Vice Principal here for 4 years before that. I have been a maths teacher for 30 years now, and I still teach. I teach because … because I think it is important for a head to retain some classroom contact, but mainly because I love it and would never want to give it up!

I have been until last year a part-time Ofsted inspector – I have been inspecting sixth-forms since 2001, two or three inspections a year. Perhaps because of my Ofsted experience, I take a very self critical approach to school leadership, never complacent, always looking for ways to improve. As part of that, we listen very carefully to views of students and parents – we welcome complaints as it gives us an opportunity to engage with parents and improve what we do.

And I am a Woodhouse parent. Both my daughters went to local schools and then came here for sixth form. As a result, I understand the experience from the point of view of parents and new students; the worries of students, for example, about making new friends and of parents that they might be making too many friends and how best to support them during this important time of their life.

I would like to tell you a little about the College community, what it’s like here. Our students come from across north London, from over 180 different schools, one from this school, a couple from there, half a dozen from another. They are diverse in all sorts of ways, a real cross-section of the London population, but they are all ambitious and they are high achievers. They are here because they want to be here, because they want and expect to do well. They mix well, and form a supportive, friendly community in which all have a place. When you join the Woodhouse community, it is not like joining another school’s sixth form where you are the outsider – here, everyone is new together, and we are very proud that Woodhouse students make friends for life.

Our students are proud to be part of the College, and when they leave they are upset and tell us how much the college has meant to them. And they continue to be part of our community even after they have left, on twitter, facebook and our alumni organisation, many coming back to give talks and to mentor students.

We are quite a large college, most of our new students say. But actually overall we are only the size of a medium comprehensive school. Despite the fact that we have a lot of buildings and spread out over a large site, we are smaller than many of the schools you go to. Smaller than Ashmole, East Barnet, Mill Hill County, Fortismere, APS, Highgate Wood, for example. And we have smaller class sizes than many sixth forms, especially in popular subjects. But, of course, the year groups are big – because everyone is in Year 12 or year 13.

The feel is quite schooly in some ways – we have the same strong pastoral framework as a school, with registrations, notes from parents if ill, form groups, tutors monitoring progress, reports and parents evenings, just like a school. Students do not get lost in the system – why would they, after all, since we are the same size as a medium comprehensive school.

And we are tough on students where their attendance or their work is not up to scratch. Perhaps I should spell that out: if you want to go to a college because you want to be left alone by teachers, left alone to do the work or not, left alone to attend classes or not, left alone to do your own thing like the adult you feel you are, well there are colleges like that. Woodhouse is not one of them. We will chivvy you and follow up on our concerns, and we will demand excellent attendance and all work handed in on time, and we will intervene if we think you are underperforming. We believe in a strong relationship with parents, and we get in touch where there are concerns. Our retention is very high – we don’t lose students – which says something about the support we give them, but also about the nature of our students, who are lively, ambitious and committed to success.

We are not an exams factory and our ethos is to provide a bridge to university and adulthood. We provide a huge number of opportunities for students to get involved in activities outside the classroom, and this coming year we are expanding our offer.

With the changes to the A level curriculum, we are taking the opportunity to deliver even more extra-curricular activities which are meaningful and which enhance students’ development, skills and progression. We are calling this new programme Woodhouse Plus. Students will be able to choose from a large menu of activities including:

  • Extended project
  • Duke of Edinburgh – Gold or Silver
  • Learn a language : Japanese, latin, German, Spanish, …
  • Specialist career academies for business, law and medicine, STEM, architecture, and others. Including speakers, trips, internships and work experience, support for university applications and tests
  • Oxbridge academy
  • Leadership skills
  • Volunteering
  • Debates, model UN and other public speaking and personal presentation skills development
  • Sports leadership award

Plus a huge sporting programme involving teams and short courses and opportunities to try out different sports

Plus student societies such as amnesty, femsoc, freetrade group, LGBT group, subject societies – like History.

Our students are always quick to come forward with new ideas and to volunteer for activities and events. As a result, there is always something going on, always a cake sale in the social area, notices of events in our student bulletin. Lots of our students do volunteering, mentoring, buddying and charity fundraising.

I say we are not an exam factory, but of course the measure of a school is in their results. This year, once again, our A Level results place us in the top 5 sixth colleges in the country when measured by the A*-B pass rate, which is one of the most representative and fairest measures. Last year was frankly not one of our best for A levels, although our AS level results were very good and bode well for this coming year.

We usually have a 99% pass rate at A level. In fact, so does everyone, because most schools weed out students at the end of Year 12 who are heading for failure. One of the questions you might ask as you go round schools is how many they lose at the end of Year 12? We lose hardly any.

Beyond the pass rate, we usually have about

  • Two thirds grades at the high A*-B grades, last year dipped very slightly under that
  • 10-12 students to Oxford/Cambridge
  • 15-20 students to medical school
  • About 50% to Russell Group universities and more to other good universities ( such as Bath or the Courtauld Institute for art history, US colleges, and many other world-class courses in Britain outside the Russell Group)

I need to say something about the A Level curriculum, which has changed this year. As you may know, A Levels have gone linear.

This means that they are now two-year courses with the exams at the end of Year 13. Like they used to be when I was at school.

AS exams still exist but don’t contribute to the A level grade, and so like many schools, we have decided not to do them. Instead we will be able to use the summer for teaching and other activities, and we will have internal exams at the end of Year 12.

So: most Woodhouse students will take three A level subjects for the full two years. A few will take four, just like they used to in the old days, but students will no longer drop a subject as they go into the second year.

To be clear, all universities except a few medical schools are making it clear that they will assess applications on the basis of three A level grades, that there is no advantage in taking four or in taking AS levels. Quite a few are bringing in their own entrance tests, and so students may have to do extra work, take extra time preparing for those entrance tests, which is another reason to concentrate on only three subjects.

We are taking the opportunity to increase the amount of teaching per A level subject. Our teaching time will increase by 20% by a whole extra lesson in each subject. That’s another question you might ask at other sixth form open evenings – are they increasing lesson time or just using the opportunity to save money?

Many of you will need some help in choosing your subjects, especially now that most of you will be doing only three subjects. It is very hard to ask a 15 or 16 year-old to choose subjects which may determine the rest of their life!

My advice is this:

  • Firstly, if you are interested in a particular career or potential career, make sure you research carefully. Don’t just rely on hearsay and rumour. For example, every year students tell me they have heard you have to do maths for medicine, but it’s not true; it’s mostly not true. All the universities publish what A Levels they need for individual courses. Spend time researching them, and ask staff here today.
  • If you have no particular career in mind, choose subjects you are good at and you enjoy. Do not do a subject just because you have heard universities like it.
  • Do as much research as you can on subjects that are new to you – like psychology, sociology, philosophy, classics, etc. Find out what they are like.
  • The Russell Group advises that students take two facilitating subjects – many of you will be aware of this. It is a good guideline but it is only a general guideline for keeping options open. Many students ignore it and still happily and easily get into RG and other good universities. Facilitating subjects are not a requirement per se.
  • Don’t assume you should only do facilitating subjects – not even the RG say that. A couple of years ago year we had a student last year got into Cambridge to study History. Her three A levels were History, Eng lit and Theatre Studies. Theatre Studies is actually a brilliant subject for high flyers because you learn self confidence and communication skills through it. I think it is easy to see how a subject like theatre studies could help potential medics for example.
  • Think very carefully before you take any science subjects – sometimes that doesn’t work out well. Students up and down the country tend to do very well or very badly in science. Only do science or maths if you are genuinely good at them, genuinely enjoy them.

When you start here, we will give you the opportunity to change courses if they are not what you expected. But it is always better to get it right in the first place.

You have a lot of choices for sixth form. You are lucky, living in London, with free bus travel, surrounded by a large variety of excellent sixth forms. That means a lot of opportunities for you, but it means you have to think carefully.

And it’s an individual decision. The place that’s right for you is not necessarily right for your friend.

Do you want to stay at your own school? That is a good decision for a lot of people. You know what that’s going to be like.

Or go to another school sixth form? Many schools are under financial pressure at the moment, they have big holes in their budget. So they are looking to squeeze extra students (externals, they call them) into their sixth form. But it does mean joining someone else’s sixth form where you are an outsider.

Or come somewhere like this where everyone is new together.

So, what kind of person is right for Woodhouse? What kind of person thrives here?

  • You need to be academically strong. Our average student has mainly As at GCSE
  • You should be genuinely interested in your studies not just to get the grades but because you actually enjoy maths or English of history and you like studying them. Woodhouse students enjoy studying, enjoy the challenge of working hard and at a high level.
  • And you want to be challenged – both academically and socially – you are ambitious and want to progress, want to develop as a person.

Finally, a word about our application process. Our applications open today, online via our website. The deadline is January 16. We are likely to get in the region of 4500-5000 applications – for 650 places, about 7 applications for every place. We are no longer interviewing this year. So we will offer places on the basis of your application and your school’s reference.

Our main criteria are:

  • Predicted grades
  • Distance ( we usually limit offers to around an hour and a quarter journey time)
  • Subject combinations

So – thank you for coming. Prospectuses available outside in the social area. Feel free to wonder around. Have a look at the library and the learning zones. Staff are in departments, ready to talk and answer questions. Around 300-400 students have volunteered to give up their Saturday to help and to answer your questions.

Your choice of sixth form is a big step, and so is your choice of subject, so think about what you are interested in, what you are good at, what will help you with particular career options, and go and talk to the right people whilst you are here.

Enjoy the day and the rest of your weekend.


A message for our ex-students

Every year, I do a big talk at open day, and I tell people that Woodhouse is a special place. And I say that it is special because our students are special. And I truly believe that. Woodhouse students are kind and courteous and well-meaning and a pleasure to be with.

Sometimes I look around the world and despair. There is so much madness, intolerance, violence against people who have different beliefs, so many people who are incapable of seeing things from someone else’s point of view.

But then I think of the young people at Woodhouse, such a diverse community, where tolerance and respect are the rule, where people can be themselves without apology or fear. At Woodhouse, people look out for each other, and they care; at Woodhouse, students volunteer to take part and to help out. And I think, perhaps, there is hope for the world.

Now you are about to leave us and go out into the big world. Remember us and come back and see us. Join our alumni and keep the connection. Once a Woodhouse student, always a Woodhouse student!

Most of you will go on to university. It is quite a scary thing to start again at university, to make new friends and get used to a new environment where you are living independently. I hope that your experience here will help you, that you will feel prepared for that fresh start. Be confident and take advantage of opportunities. Don’t be afraid to take risks and live the life you want to live. Walk tall – you’re a Woodhouse student!

And some of you will be joining the world of work, as a gap year or permanently. That’s a big step. Be happy in your work – you will spend a large proportion of your adult life at work, so it is important to be fulfilled and challenged. Most jobs provide enough interest and satisfaction if you have the right attitude, but be prepared to move on if it doesn’t.

Finally, remember your friends and stay in touch with them. Sometimes friendships need a bit of work if they are to survive and thrive. Don’t neglect old friends just because you make new ones. Friends and relationships are actually the most important things in life.

Keep in touch. We like ex-Woodies to let us know on twitter and facebook how they are doing. Send us pictures of your graduation, wedding and babies!

A Big Welcome & A Few Words Of Advice

Welcome to Woodhouse College.

This is a College of extraordinary people who do extraordinary things. Students who come from all over north London – from over 180 schools – and form a vibrant community. Every year we have students who go on to medical school, to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge, to colleges in the USA, students who get into specialist institutes of excellence for their area (like the Corthauld for art history or Bournmouth Arts uni for animation and film). We have students who come back to us every year, who want to ‘give back’, who mentor and support our current students. Welcome to the extended Woodhouse family. We hope you will be very happy here and that you will pursue your ambitions with confidence and success.

Firstly, many congratulations on your GCSE results. I know that they are good, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. You had a job to do in passing those exams, in managing that revision and that workload, and you did it. So well done.

There is good news and bad news about GCSEs. First the good news. GCSEs are important, and your results will still matter and count in the future. They will be the first thing that universities look at when you apply there, and future employers will look at them too. They matter here too: we use them (as do many schools and colleges) as a baseline for your A level progress. Your GCSE results are used to calculate Minimum Achievement grades (MAGs) for each subject. Yours might be, say, a B in a particular subject. This means that you should be aiming at least for a B in every homework, in every test, in every assessment. If you are not hitting at least a B, we will think something is going wrong, and so should you.

So GCSEs are important, but there is bad news too. I am sorry to be blunt, and I apologise if this upsets you, but the truth is that GCSEs are relatively easy. I am not saying they didn’t require hard work: to manage your time, revising for 8 or 9 or 10 subjects is a big job, a difficult job. But the content is easy in comparison with A levels and degrees. Easy in that much of GCSE is about memory, about knowledge and recall and application, but less of the higher order thinking of analysis and evaluation. And that’s why some of you got away without working that hard in your GCSEs, you were able to coast and then do good revision at the end and that was enough.

But that won’t work at A level. People find that hard to believe, and there will be some new students who don’t believe me, who think that it worked at GCSE (coasting through on the minimum and then revising hard) and so they’re going to do the same at A level. “It worked for me, why change a winning formula?” But it doesn’t work at A level.

Let me spell it out for you: there are two main types of A level students – those who work hard throughout the year, and those who underachieve.

But actually, in a way, that’s good news. The secret of success at A level is not about intelligence, it’s about hard work and attitude. Every single student at Woodhouse has the capacity to get straight A grades. It doesn’t matter if your friend or the person next to you picks up things quicker or can explain things more clearly or gets better marks; you can get an A grade in every subject. But it will take real hard work and commitment. Not good revision at the end, not brains and ability: hard work and commitment all the way through, and right from the start.

Never give up. Don’t understand something? Then spend time puzzling it out, read about it, ask someone, try it again the same way or a different way, sleep on it, keep at it. Never give up.

If you’re not thinking hard, then you’re not learning. Real learning is when you’re having to think hard. So writing out notes, highlighting or underling, these do not count as worthwhile learning activities and mostly are a waste of your time, unless they are simply a preparation for something else. Again – there will be some who don’t believe that: your success at GCSE was built on the ability to highlight things beautifully in an array of different colours. But at A level, that’s not enough, and it won’t get you to the high grades. You have to get out of your comfort zone and into your challenge zone, concentrating on what you find hard and difficult.

So make sure every homework is as good as it can be – if it takes hours and hours and hours, then that’s what it takes, and that’s what it needs. Make sure you use your time out of class well, your study periods; get to know the library; use the learning zones. Don’t spend too much time hanging out in the social area.

It was interesting and inspiring watching the Olympics this summer. I heard an interview with some athletes talking about their training regime, the hours and hours they put in, trying to improve their performance. They can spend weeks and months working on tiny technical adjustments, trying to get it right, failing and failing until they get it right. In fact, they spend most of their time failing, and learning from their failures, and not giving up, and trying it again and again, and sometimes trying it in different ways. I think we have a lot to learn from them. Of course, they are professional athletes. That’s their job. But then you are professional students; and this is your job.

I want to say a few words about your personal experience of College. Most students settle in easily here, and within a few weeks you will be regarding it as your college, which of course it is. We are very proud that when students leave here after two years, they leave with gushings of love and affection for each other and for staff and the college.

But there will be some of you who find it harder to settle in. There are some students who are naturally shy or come from a smaller environment and are less confident about making friends. I want to ask that you, that we, all of us undertake to look after everyone in the community, to be open and friendly to everyone. I was at a festival a couple of weeks ago – don’t worry, it wasn’t one that you go to, wasn’t Reading – is was a small folk festival in Oxfordshire, just the one stage, about 20,000 people. And the thing is: everyone was so friendly, just chatting to everyone else like easily and warmly. That’s what it needs to be like here: if you see someone standing on their own, go and talk to them. We look after each other here.

And as you go through your time here, there will be times when you are upset, unhappy or worried about things. You can talk with your teacher or your tutor – they should usually be the first persons you might think about talking with. But there is also your senior tutor (a bit like a head of year – you will meet them at the next assembly) and the head of the department. You will see me walking about, and I am always happy to talk to students and hear from you – I teach maths as well as being college principal ( I will be teaching some of you), and students in the learning zones often ask me for a bit of maths help.


Just a word on the college curriculum. Most subjects now are linear and on new syllabuses. That means that your A level grade after two years comes only from the exams at the end of year 13. There are still AS exams at the end of Year 12, and they are important because universities see those results. But they don’t count towards your final A level grade. However, there are a few subjects (maths, politics, …) which are still modular, and the AS grades in those subjects count as 50% of the final A level grade. This is a bit complicated but we will return to it in the future. Most of you are doing four subjects and almost all will drop to three next year. Some will decide to drop to three during the course of this year, and that’s okay – in many schools, students are only studying three subjects now and there’s no disadvantage. If you decide after a few days that you have made a terrible mistake with one of your subjects, we will give you the opportunity to apply to switch subjects, and your tutor will tell you more.

We have a few rules and expectations – not as many perhaps as your old school, because we are an adult environment, but these are some of them:

  • There are places to work (library, learning zones): please respect these as quiet working spaces.
  • Attend all your lessons and be on time
  • Do all your work on time and as well as you can
  • No smoking anywhere onsite

Perhaps more important than college rules are our values. We are a liberal college with liberal values. That means we welcome all students, no matter their race, religion, gender or sexuality. We believe in the right of people to be who they are and express themselves as they are, and we won’t pigeon hole you in boxes or demand you conform to convenient labels. And we demand the same of you: that you respect your fellow students and staff for who they are. They may be the same religion as you but see it and express it differently; they may be non-binary in their gender identity; and you might have to get used to that, but that’s a responsibility on you and not on them. You will find that we have far more in common that unites us as a community than that which divides us.

Finally, make sure you know what’s going on. Get your college emails on your phone – your tutor will explain how. Check out the college bulletin that comes out twice a week, follow us on twitter and like our facebook page.

Things get serious next Monday when lessons start. So spend the weekend buying stationery, and getting some sleep, because we want you to get the new year off to a good start. It’s the end of a long summer. Some of you are barely recovered from wild times, festivals, late nights and so on. Need to look after yourself! It can be very tiring starting somewhere new, meeting new people, getting to grips with A level work: you need to listen to that old parents’ refrain – get enough sleep, eat breakfast, exercise, look after yourself.

So just to finish: this is a great college. Students here achieve their ambitions and dreams, and they do that through hard work and commitment. Everyone here works hard and no one has to cover it up or pretend about it. But this is also a social place, a place of opportunities – many of our students do sport, they volunteer, they take part. There are a huge number of trips and clubs and activities. Through engaging with all this, students are able to grow and develop new skills and to become more confident in who they are and who they want to be. Our aim is that these should be the best, the most fulfilling two years of your lives.








What is special about these students?

What is special about these students?

Straight A students

They all got straight A* grades across all their A level subjects. But what is special about them that enabled them to do that? And what is special about the other 80 who got a mixture of A and A* grades?

Are they super-humanly intelligent? Is there anything the rest of us ‘mere mortals’ can learn from them?

I have been thinking about them and their achievements. I believe that they are not super-people, not geniuses, and it is not just natural intelligence that gave them their A*s. In fact, I believe that any of our students could emulate their success and achieve at least straight A grades.

There are three factors, I think, that contributed to their success:

1) They are into their subjects. They want to know more about the subject, soak up new knowledge, interested in connections between different topics. They read relevant articles and books, watch TV programmes or videos, undertake additional reading just out of interest. Being into your subject looks different for different subjects (in my subject – maths – it doesn’t involve much reading!), but you get the idea.

Now the key thing here is that we can all be into our subjects in that way, because it’s a frame of mind. After all, let’s be honest, every single subject is intrinsically interesting; there are legions of people who follow every subject as a hobby or passion or job. How could anyone say that history, for example is boring? Millions of people read books of history, watch documentaries, visit websites to find out more: how can it be boring?

My partner loves museums. More than I do. When we are on holiday, she always wants to visit museums, and I am often not keen. For example, in the Lake District one time, she wanted to visit the pencil museum in Keswick whilst I wanted to go walking (although, to be fair, we had been walking for five straight days at that point). But seriously, a pencil museum? So, when we visited the museum, I might easily have closed my mind to it, determined that it would prove to be dull, keen to uphold my self-image as the kind of person who doesn’t find pencil museums interesting. But actually, on that day, we had been having a good time and I was feeling positive, so I went in with an open mind, prepared to be engaged. And – of course – it was great. You can learn a lot about the history and culture of people through pencils. There were loads of fascinating exhibits (like the WW2 airman’s pencil where the rubber at the end screws off to reveal a miniature compass on the inside and a map of Europe smuggled inside in case they get shot down). In a sense, it came down to my choice whether to adopt a frame of mind to be interested or bored; on that occasion, I chose to be interested, on another I might have chosen to be bored and I would have missed out.

A level subjects are the same – it’s about your attitude. If you find it boring, it is actually you that is being boring, you who have closed your mind, you who have decided not to be engaged. Being into your subject might look and feel different in different subjects, but in all subjects it is a matter of your attitude.

2) A* students work hard. They do all their work to the best of their ability in the appropriate time frame. They don’t leave things to the last minute. If they are absent, they catch up. They work hard for tests and assessment because they see them as an opportunity to gauge where they are. They do extra work, extra reading, extension materials, and they use their free periods well. They regard themselves as a full time professional student and their academic work is their priority. This doesn’t mean they do nothing but work; it doesn’t mean they don’t have an active social life and other interests; they are not perfect people. But they have a desire not to fall behind, an internal drive to make sure they understand everything and are confident and on top of their learning. All this is a matter of attitude.

3) I was talking with one of our straight A* students, and she said that she reckons about 50% of the work that most students do is not actually helpful to their progress. They are wasting their time and not concentrating on the most important types of work.  Successful A* students don’t run away from challenge, and they don’t spend their working time doing easy stuff inside their comfort zone. They know that if they are not thinking hard, then it is not valuable work. So when they find something hard (which they often do), when they don’t do as well as they wanted in a homework or test, when they identify a topic as a weak point, they concentrate their time and energy on it. They do extra work on it. They go over the homework/test questions again. They don’t just read, and highlight and copy out notes; instead they test themselves against hard questions, they write essays and essay plans; they do past paper questions, concentrating on their weaker areas.

I teach maths. Every homework, I get some students who hand in their work with some questions missing. When I ask, they say they couldn’t do it. So they give up, they hand it in incomplete. I explain it to them, they nod, and move on. Such students will never get a high grade. A and A* students don’t give up; they spend hours or days on a single question. They look in the text book (or elsewhere) for extra questions on that topic to test that they have truly got it. They are like many of us adults who do crosswords or sudukos for fun – we enjoy the challenge and we don’t easily give up. We get satisfaction from that eventual light bulb of enlightenment. This intellectual resilience – not giving up, trying different strategies, determined to get there in the end – has a cumulative impact that means they become better, more effective learners and they rise on a steep curve of progress, whereas those who give up just flatline. This is also a question of attitude.



So, what marks our A* students from the rest? Not intelligence, attitude.


It’s not easy to change and to adopt the right approach. I have been trying to lose weight; it’s very straightforward, I know what I have to do: eat less, drink less and exercise more. Easy. But actually doing it, that’s the challenge, and it’s proving harder than I would like. So knowing what you have to do is one thing, doing it is another.


If a student is motivated, if they want to go to a particular university or course, if they want their family to be proud, if they want to be proud of themselves, then they have to get it together find the motivation, to commit to the right attitude, the right approach. They have to walk the walk, all year.


I believe every single one of our students can get straight A grades next summer. I say that based on 30 years teaching experience: every one of our students has the intelligence and ability. So I say to all our lower sixth and upper sixth students, if you want straight A grades, you should believe in yourself; you can do it. You will need to:

– make the decision that you are going for it

– be clear exactly what you need to do

– get on and do it