HM Prize Giving Speech 2019

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and boys, and a very warm welcome to Bishop’s Prize Giving 2019. Just that first sentence marks this event out as being rather different, a break with tradition as we start and finish the annual celebration of our boys’ achievement as the shafts of Autumn sunshine pierce the windows of the Nave. For the first time in living memory our new Year 7 boys are at Prize Giving with the rest of us too; in fact this will be the first time that they have been in this wonderful place for a school service at Bishop’s. The first of many – so boys you are especially welcome, read, watch and listen carefully to what goes on here, as this shows what Bishop’s is all about. The young gentlemen who are collecting prizes are a little further down the road than you, and that very long list of university places will probably be you in 7 years’ time. It’s all here on this Thursday afternoon – awe and splendour, legacy and tradition, spirit and celebration, aspiration and high achievement and, at the very heart of all of that, nearly 1,000 boys. Thank you all for joining the school this afternoon, and I do hope that you enjoy the novel experience of emerging through the North Porch onto a bright sward amid a bustling cityscape, rather than stumbling out into the gloom and drizzle of an autumnal mid-evening…

I’m delighted to welcome Nick Beer here this afternoon too. You’ll have seen from the programme that Nick has had a fascinating career working in the maritime sector; for a while he had an equally challenging role as Chair of Governors at BWS. In fact I am in the unusual position of welcoming two ex-Chairs of the BWS Governing Board here this afternoon to join Jill Horsburgh, who is the current incumbent. 3 Chairs of Governors simultaneously! I am bound to wonder – can you have too much of a good thing? Surely not, but as you may guess I will probably not be giving them any opportunity to compare notes after the service…!

We arrive here riding the wave of a very strong set of results from our boys in both Year 11 and Year 13. The media, local authorities and the Department for Education fixate as ever on baseline data and statistics of performance and progress, but I prefer to focus more on outcomes and opportunities. Because those GCSE grades were so good our Year 12 have started their A level courses in fine fettle, and as you can see from today’s programme the A level boys did themselves proud too. We should all be very proud of what they have achieved, and equally pleased and proud that they are now progressing to competitive universities across the country. The Bishop’s diaspora continues to grow, and I wish them all the very best as they prepare for freshers’ parties on campuses across the UK…

The fact that our boys did so well is not a case of mere happenstance. So much work goes into the routine classwork through the year, very often unseen, as my colleagues put in all the support that is so vital for success. But now that so much more information is migrating into the digital environment it is possible to get a more accurate handle on the scale and scope of the effort that is going in. Insight, the school’s information portal opens the door so that parents can look a little more into the workings of the machine. Homework diaries are now a thing of the past, and I suppose that dying with them are some of the perennial excuses for missed deadlines that have been honed by generations of Bishop’s Boys decades.

Development of new working methods enable learning to be more flexible and unavoidable, but the effort still needs to go in from the staff. That is exactly what happened, in spade loads, last academic year. Beyond the classroom the same was true, as our sports teams took on high quality opposition across the region and the country, our musicians showed both bravery and panache, our thespians gave John Buchan an excellent run for his money at the Studio Theatre and our Duke of Edinburgh Award boys made us the largest and most successful school unit in the region. There were trips galore, including our first multi-sports tour to Japan and a rather poingnant visit to Brussels for our politicians. There is breadth – real breadth,which we should all celebrate, and that is one of the reasons that today is important as reading through the pages of the programme is another way to get your finger close to the pulse of the school.

The scale of activity can also be amply demonstrated by some numbers. Schools are rightly keen to invite outside speakers to talk to students to inform, educate and entertain, but also to inspire and raise aspirations for the future. In 2018-2019 over 90 speakers visited this school to talk to our boys (and girls from South Wilts too), quite remarkable. Another example of scale and ambition to do things well was the BWS Higher Education Fair, organised by Sally Armstrong and run in the Sports Hall in February; 66 universities from the UK and overseas, employers, training and gap year providers were there, and the event attracted around 800 visiting sixth form students from 8 other schools.

Our Oxbridge Briefing Evening the night before attracted around 300 students and family members from across Wiltshire, Hampshire and further afield. Our regional influence and importance is growing, and this is also reflected by our digital footprint; nearly 2,000 followers on our main twitter feed, 44 individual school twitter feeds from French to Fishing, and from the Library to Lacrosse. Our LinkedIn connections number almost 2,000 as well, and earlier this year the BWS Alumni Office completed the initial trawl of around 11,000 alumni on our database. Big numbers representing a broad base and masses of communication and networking.

I think that I should probably single out the Maths and Science Departments this year for a special mention for several reasons – simply stellar outcomes in the various super-curricular challenges and Olympiads at a variety of levels, including some of the top marks in the country in every case. At the senior level one of our star scientists secured a Roentgenium Award, the second for BWS boys in two successive years. And lower down, our Year 10 boys won the National Top of the Bench Competition run by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Our boys have secured a record seven competitive Arkwright engineering scholarships, double the number of the previous year (there are only around400 awarded annually in the UK) and this success is mirrored by BWS teams winning engineering competitions across the country. No real surprise then to see so many boys proceeding to scientific disciplines at the most competitive universities, including 18 to Oxford and Cambridge this year; the future looks bright.

Of course September 2018 and this September are marked by the influx of our larger year groups as the demographic bulge moves inexorably upward through the age range. It’s good to see; the school feels very busy and full on, especially at break times and we have had to look at how we manage space around the site. The arrival of an army of table tennis tables (courtesy of the Parents’ Association) has created a new dimension to the school’s House competition calendar and sporting potential; a strong performance from our ping-pong players bolstered our performance in the County Sports so that we emerged as clear winners this year. It’s good to see so many youngsters travelling down Exeter Street to Britford Lane in a blue and white caterpillar that is larger than ever, and it’s even better to see them competing on the sports field. Competition is growing steadily at the grass roots level, and participation too; I can’t wait to witness the effects of the expansion as our bigger year groups come through to senior level. You can see the impact of more boys lower down too, for example in music where the orchestra is well populated with enthusiastic string players, the Choir is big and there are more musical groups than ever. That list of musical grades achieved in the programme is as long as I can ever remember, and the standards at House Music showed lots of evidence of musicality and sheer guts from even our youngest Year 7s.

2018-2019 was the year where we announced the move to coeducation at sixth form level – albeit the change will not take effect until our first girls join Year 12 in September 2020. Last year, therefore, was the year of planning and this current year is one of recruitment as we open the door of opportunity to both girls and boys to join us from the start of the next academic year. We believe that what we can offer at Bishop’s is absolutely distinctive in many respects – the extraordinary prospect of learning within the most beautiful Cathedral Close in England, close to the centre of a marvellous market town (including thriving fast food outlets and coffee houses; the meal deal has never looked so attractive!); a high quality, well-resourced academic curriculum taught by subject specialists who love what they do; real diversity beyond lessons and one-to-one mentoring and support to which other institutions can only aspire. We are taking the message out to a broad range of other schools to make sure that there is a good level of awareness of the Bishop’s package throughout the region. We really do offer something that is unique in so many ways – a World Class Education in an unforgettable setting.

Our sixth form will grow with time. We anticipate a good level of interest for the next two years with girls applying for the first time, and thereafter of course our larger year groups will have finally arrived at Year 11. If the current pattern is retained then year groups are likely to rise to 150-200, and so the size of the sixth form will grow considerably. That is healthy, as the Sixth Form is such a vital entity for a big, thriving grammar school; in many ways the students in Year 12 and 13 are the trail blazers for the rest of the school, often setting standards, demonstrating what is possible, making things happen for younger boys and acting as ambassadors for us all. Today’s programme says all of that and more – if you are below Year 12 then that will be you in years to come. No pressure whatsoever then…

I thought that it might also be helpful to deal with a couple of questions that have arisen from parents, usually in the aisles of Waitrose – often one of the best places to have a candid conversation (unless a member of Year 12 is stacking the bread within earshot!). Yes, we are tightening the entry grades for Year 12 a little to ensure that boys and girls who join us will be happy and comfortable working at BWS. Our grades will also allow more flexibility overall too; we recognise that there are those for whom Maths is a foreign language, and equally some for whom writing an essay is a form of medieval torture. We are that rarity these days, a broad church with room for specialisation. Don’t worry if your son or daughter is in a lower year and you are wondering if there will be space; we don’t anticipate turning anyone away who has made the grades, and boys will not lose their places to girls! Naturally we will be carefully designing the pastoral support, counselling, enrichment, mentoring and extra-curricular programmes to ensure that they will be suited to coeducation. The great thing is that without exception my staff are really looking forward to welcoming our first girls into Year 12, as we all believe that they will bring an added dimension to the sixth form. Those of us who have been teaching mixed gender classes for the past 20 years or so know that this is the case…

I hope that together with the detail of the programme what I have said has given you a clear impression of the school as it has operated over the past 12 months, and that also you have a clear feeling for the year to come. 2019-2020 presents the prospect of further growth, strengthening of results, broadening of opportunity and change in the senior school. I thought that I’d finish by reading a very short section from my Salisbury Journal column earlier this month. “The start of the Autumn Term is an odd time of year to be in teaching, one where everyone has to go back to square one yet again. But it’s also rather wonderful. When I delivered my address in the first whole school assembly I could almost feel the pent-up potential of nearly 1,000 youngsters sitting in the Sports Hall in front of me. What, I wondered, will this fantastic group of boys achieve in the next 12 months?"

That is for next year and the years to come; for this afternoon, thank you for listening and enjoy the rest of Prize Giving 2019.