Head Master’s story in the beginning of 2021

When I started teaching at Westminster School in 1990, I had already been teaching for nine years at one of the UK’s leading independent schools.

However, I was totally unprepared for the pace and excitement of lessons. The practice of well-crafted lesson plans that I had hitherto established for my teaching did not fit neatly with the way in which Westminster pupils operate. They engaged, they went far beyond the lesson content and objectives with their questions, with their thoughts, and their understanding. As a teacher one had to be prepared for so much more than the lesson objectives: really knowing your subject was essential, as was being prepared for the remarkable!

I was particularly struck in one of those early lessons when discussing the consequences of global warming and the possible impact on London of rising in sea levels. At that time, doom and gloom scenarios suggested large parts of London could disappear as the level of the River Thames rose: but one pupil, was unconvinced. Where is the evidence? And it is this question, time and time again which surfaced in lessons. Westminster pupils want to understand. They want to see the evidence, understand its origins and then draw their own conclusions, shaping their own thinking based on certainty.

Understanding the evidence is no less true in education, and it is often especially difficult to comprehend the statistics released by schools to showcase their strengths. By not looking at all the evidence, choosing selectively one piece of data will inevitably lead to flawed reasoning and ill-founded judgements. In my time as Deputy Head Academic at Westminster, I frequently found myself heaving to explain statistics to parents and the media. What is undisputed is that Westminster has an unparalleled record of academic success over a remarkably long period. Educational initiatives have come and gone: new qualifications have been introduced, yet the academic outcomes have remained of the highest order.

To measure Westminster School’s outcomes by A levels alone is one such example of deficient understanding at best, or disingenuous analysis at worst. Since 2010, Westminster has offered the more demanding Cambridge Pre-U alongside A levels to pupils in the Sixth Form. When the Pre-U grades are converted into A level equivalents, Westminster School has been the only school in the UK where over 50% of all pupils each year have achieved an A*; in fact, since 2015, each year over 54.5% of all grades at A level/Pre-U have been at A*. While only 47% of A level grades in 2019 were at A*, 70% of Pre-U grades were at A* equivalent, giving an overall figure in excess of 55% at A* equivalent for the leavers.

Academic success is seen in all the key measures of achievement for different age groups. At GCSE, Westminster has consistently been one of the two best performing schools nationally with results at A*, and regularly outperforms all other schools in the UK with the total number of offers and places secured by its leavers at Oxford and Cambridge – an annual success rate of close on 50%. This level of academic performance is also reflected in the data for the Under (Junior) School. Here pupils have an impressive and unrivalled record of top academic outcomes, evidenced in the number of pupils winning Queen’s scholarships to the Great (Senior) School.

Yet at no time can these outcomes be considered a foregone conclusion. Innovation, reflection, creativity and a passion for education are the foundations which have enabled Westminster teachers to continue providing a leading education in the UK and to maintain its world wide reputation. New approaches are discussed, planned, trialled, and outcomes judiciously evaluated. Data is used to ever greater effect to enhance pupil performance. In 2020, the adaptation to online teaching has provided a further stimulus to this culture of pedagogical advance, with learning to continue uninterrupted – and the efforts of teachers being lauded by pupils and parents alike.

▲ Rodney in discussion with Mr Xia Jianhui, Counsellor of Education Section of the Chinese Embassy in the UK at Westminster School.

Indeed, 2020 has reaffirmed for all of us that we can take nothing for granted.

The pandemic has affected lives in every country. It has changed our patterns of work, and play. It has impacted on our relationships with friends and family. It has changed how we move around the world. Individually we have all had to adjust, to be prepared for new and very often difficult situations.

Personally, the period in quarantine when I returned to China was a time for considerable self-reflection; two weeks of my own undiluted company. The realisation when I arrived in my room in the quarantine hotel and the door was shut that I would not leave for two weeks was a complete shock to the system.

▲ At the end of November 2020, Rodney met with the preparation team in his residential place the moment he was released from quarantine.

The sense of helplessness and total isolation was palpable. Adapting to a new existence, breaking the day up into different tasks, setting time aside for exercise all became part of the routine to survive. Setting small challenges, surviving for one day, for one week, and over half way to escape provided a structure and contributed to my survival strategy. Never before has the arrival of coffee and a croissant from Starbucks at lunchtime been more eagerly awaited. Missing family and friends; eating every meal for a fortnight in solitude, those days in quarantine really made me appreciate the importance of human contact in our lives. We are infinitely poorer without.

▲ Rodney and his son George

For the CWS preparation team, Covid-19 has meant that the study trips to Westminster School for first hand training have been halted. However, the resilience and commitment of the teams both in China and the UK was evident through the frequent online seminars and discussion groups that were quickly established – and which continued through the British school holidays. Work has continued uninterrupted, though we long for the time when we can all be together once again.

The sanitised view of life from the phone screen and the computer screen offer us ways to interact, but the non verbal communication, the direct face to face interaction with others are far more powerful and enabling as we live our lives and embrace the challenge of creating a shared future. This is where schools – the classroom, the playground, the sports hall – have a critical part to play in preparing the next generation; intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, discussion, friendship, empathy, compassion – traits and qualities that can be inculcated and nurtured through a well designed curriculum, advanced pedagogy and a holistic approach to education.