Headmaster's Blog

Why a school with a Christian ethos produces radical free-thinkers

"You should know that I'm an atheist, but I'm broadly in favour of Chapel. If we didn't have Chapel we'd all have to sit through some ghastly citizenship address." I was encouraged by those words from a Classics master as a new Chaplain, and remain so as a Headmaster! One of the concerns some prospective parents have is that a strong religious ethos will inhibit free-thinking and robust debate. Actually, I think it's quite the opposite; at a time when adolescent boys and girls are pushing hard against boundaries and flexing their intellectual independence, there is no more congenial environment, in my experience.

A school that is confident in what it stands for, whilst at the same time welcoming of different views and pupils of all faiths and none, has a decided head start in encouraging boys and girls to consider questions of ultimate value and meaning. "Why are we here?"; "Is there such a thing as a real right and wrong?"; "Is there a point to your life beyond the passing on of blind DNA?". In decades of teaching, I have found that the teenage years are the most fertile ground for pupils to really ask and begin to answer these questions for themselves. That accords well with the insights of classical education, which saw that these years were naturally when a child began to develop in logical argument and discussion.

It's been well-said that the Germans have a word for everything; the Christian faith offers a Weltanshauung: a worldview, or way of making sense of reality. It is of course one of a number of worldviews that pupils will encounter as they navigate their way through an increasingly interconnected and global village. It is important to us that all pupils at KHS study the breadth of those traditions in their first three years with us, before they make up their minds about GCSE choices. In Theology classes they will study the Scriptures, doctrine and philosophy which undergird Christianity, alongside a wider understanding of the Western, Eastern and non-religious traditions. What encourages free-thinking debate is that they can't all be right! Instead of a fluffy mish-mash of ill-thought-out opinions, we want pupils to consider critically questions like: "What happens after death?" The Western Abrahamic faiths (including Judaism and Islam) see death as a prelude to another reality; the Eastern faiths (including Hinduism and Buddhism) see it as part of a cycle of reincarnation; the non-religious traditions would say (with Mr Keats of Dead Poets Society) that after death we are "food for worms". Theology is rightly called the Queen of the Sciences because there could hardly be more important questions than metaphysical ones; we want pupils to follow the argument wherever it leads, learn to understand how to evaluate evidence, and make up their own minds.

What is undeniable as a modern issue facing our children is a mental health crisis. So much of the research into why this is the case points the lack of a coherent worldview and an experience of real community: a sense of having no firm moorings in the world. At the most turbulent and insecure time of their lives, boys and girls are exhorted constantly to have high self-esteem and "pursue their dreams", all the while parading themselves for constant comparison in the goldfish bowl of social media. Little wonder, then, that rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm are at record levels. Here KHS unashamedly offers a living faith, and a community which lives it out. The focus for that is Chapel, and of course much of what we teach and encourage is hardly controversial, such as honesty, kindness and patience. In contrast to the more individualistic tenor of our own age, we also encourage humility: that we are guests of a larger reality. I would argue that this makes for better mental health, in whatever form it takes. We also encourage all pupils to feel that they belong, regardless of their convictions or lack of them, and Chapel is an important part of that. It should also be added that they will have a far better understanding of English literature and history, and British Values, alongside the glories of the musical traditions of this country, through encountering that living faith in action.

There will be, of course, Christian teaching that jars with the zeitgeist our pupils encounter online and elsewhere. For this reason we think it very important that there is a weekly forum called Right To Reply. Every Friday the Headmaster offers himself up to the lions' den of pupil Q&A on aspects of the daily assemblies they wish to interrogate and question! It is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job, and I love the free interplay of ideas that results. The current President of our Octagon Society has been a regular attendee for a long time; he has just won a place at Oxford, and disagrees almost entirely with practically everything I think! In an age where it has become sadly necessary for government to intervene to protect free speech at universities, I think that is a healthy sign of our own vitality as an academic community.

The Founder of the School wanted all pupils who came to KHS to evaluate the claims of Jesus Christ for themselves, and make up their own minds. There could hardly have been a more important historical figure, in terms of influence, and so any education would be impoverished without that consideration. One of those claims was the inspiration of the Hebrew scriptures, which teach that every human being is made in the divine image, and thus of worth and meaning. At KHS, we think there could not be a better basis for the idea that human beings have rights, that their thoughts have real meaning, and that we were made for relationships that reflect that. A fertile ground for free-thinking indeed!

How does a tech-savvy School resolve 'the social dilemma'?

This year's must-see documentary is The Social Dilemma on Netflix, which highlights the downsides of social media in terms of adolescent mental health, political polarisation, and consumer manipulation. It's a terrifying behind-the-scenes expose, told through the eyes of those who helped to create the technology, and were initially so optimistic about its power to change the world for good.

How does a school which prides itself on being ahead of the curve on digital learning and preparing a cosmopolitan pupil body for the globally connected lives they will lead address that challenge? Kingham Hill was one of the first schools in the UK to appoint a digital literacy specialist; it was also right at the forefront of restricting the use of devices and giving our boys and girls a sense of proper balance in their lives.

KHS enjoys an idyllic 'bubble' in a scenic, rural Cotswold setting. When smartphones were banned during the School day some years ago, we noticed that almost immediately pupils were enjoying that setting more; breaktimes were noisier, with the sound of children running around the extensive grounds, chattering happily in social spaces, or simply tossing a Rugby ball to and fro on a pitch. Teenagers arrived for lessons with happy, animated faces, sometimes red with perspiration, but always enlivened by social interaction. Of course they complained about it; they were developmentally eager for that dopamine rush provided by social media, which the Netflix documentary explains so well. As the adults in the room, we were glad that the landscape wasn't littered with addicts' silos of individuals glued to their screens, and making no progress in all the social cues and skills that are so vital to professional success.

What is also vital to professional success is digital literacy: the ability to communicate effectively and manipulate information using IT software, as well as navigating the opportunities and challenges of life online with wisdom and character. That curricular programme, overseen by our lead specialist, is a key part of the daily timetable for pupils from 1st Form upwards (Year 7 or 6th Grade in other currencies). Each pupil has their own laptop or Chromebook, enabled by the IT department on a network that safeguards them from all the various cyber threats that might impede their education or personal development. Equally important in that education is the cultivation of virtues, through the School's 'Equipped to Flourish' programme. Surfing the net, exploiting smart technology, and creating digital content would have been science fiction to all but our immediate ancestors, and yet ancient character education is as relevant as ever it was. Discernment, judgement, balance and ethical behaviour are more, not less, vital, as the consequences for professional and personal trajectories are more immediate and transparent than ever they were. Technology should be a wonderful servant; it can be a terrible master.

Computer science is another area where we see that blend of ancient and modern in harmony, rather than in conflict. Coding is a form of language, and a very useful one too, of course! It sits quite naturally in a classical tradition which values word and number; language and order. It teaches the ability to think logically and critically, and provides lucrative vocational avenues for those who learn to do so. Interestingly enough, the helpful nature of restriction and balance is articulated in Michael Lewis' 2014 book Flash Boys, which describes the antics of Wall Street firms frantically seeking to outdo each other in trading connection speeds, given the vast profits at stake. In the book, Lewis asks himself the question of why it is and was that such a great proportion of top Wall Street IT programmers are Russian. Avoiding controversial political answers(!), his own thesis is that by and large, they learned their programming in the difficult Soviet era of the 1980s. They had the benefit of a rigorous mathematical education, but extremely limited time on public computers to test their coding, in contrast to the luxuries of Silicon Valley. Paradoxically perhaps, conceptualising using pen and paper forced them to be sharp, innovative, and precise.

Brain science shows that information is retained more effectively in long-term memory if pupils write rather than type. We think they need to be able to do both. Handwriting in exercise books may seem quaint as the primary method of learning, but the evidence suggests that pupils will operate more effectively online if they have a traditional grounding in grammar, mental maths, and the kind of linear thinking required in composing on paper. There is something of an analogy with science; you need to understand Newtonian physics before you can make the paradigm shift to Relativity Theory. We've lost count of the number of employers, reinforced by annual messages from the CBI, who have told us that they want job applicants who can write a decent letter of application, express themselves accurately and cogently on paper and in person, and demonstrate effective numeracy. An educational leader in the UK recently said that learning times tables was redundant, as pupils could look them up on their phones. We would regard that as a fundamental educational misconception; it's back to that metaphor of servant or master.

Simon Sinek is a contemporary commentator who advocates restriction and balance in the use of technology, particularly for adolescents. Because of its addictive nature, it can tie the brain into unhelpful coping strategies (in the same way that most alcoholics begin doing so at that stage of their lives). He contends that joy and connection are becoming more difficult for all of us, and that view is supported by neuroscientists like Professor Susan Greenfield. The Oxford academic's research, published in the 2015 bestseller Mind Change, shows how digital technologies have the power to physically rewire our brains, for good or bad. Most obviously, we are seeing attention spans shorten, as the nature of life online pushes us towards the immediate, and bombards us with competing demands for that attention. We want our pupils to know how to curl up and enjoy a good book, talk with a friend without notifications intruding, and enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life in our beautiful surroundings.

Our boys and girls will spend much of their lives online professionally, and interact with others on social media, but the social dilemma is that it is not there that they will learn to form true and lasting relationships, or develop the resilience to form real character and experience true joy in life. They need to learn to operate effectively as digital natives, but they also need to know how to remove the filter, and disconnect in order to truly connect.

Karting at Kingham Hill

For those of you with no previous acquaintance with karting, it is the form of motor-racing which launches most Formula 1 stars like Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Ayrton Senna on their paths to glory. Until now, karts were and are powered by petrol engines, with the driver sitting a couple of inches off the ground as the machine makes its way round circuits at between 50-70mph top speed.

Many karters start very young, with Bambino classes for 6-8 year-olds, progressing on to cadet, junior and senior ranks. My childhood in Papua New Guinea precluded that, much to my lasting regret, but probably not to my parents' wallets! For those who take it seriously, karting can be an all-consuming passion, which requires deep pockets and focused commitment. There are essentially two types of karter. There are those, like me, who enjoy the sport through hire-karting; there are indoor and outdoor circuits throughout the UK which cater to the leisure market, and where you 'arrive and drive', without the responsibility of maintenance and upkeep. Owner-drivers have decided to take it much more seriously. Classically it has been a 'dads-and-lads' activity, but one of the great attractions is that it is a sport where boys and girls can compete on an equal footing; my own daughter now races a high-powered machine against other school pupils in the National Schools Karting Association (NatSKA) series. Owner-drivers also need a trailer, a large toolkit, and the stamina to travel long distances all over the country on weekends.

KHS is fortunate to have its own small fleet of low-powered Honda cadet karts, along with the van and trailer to transport them! It means that it is possible to offer pupils a route into motorsport that develops them naturally as drivers and mechanics. As an experience of hands-on engineering, it is hard to beat, and of course we are alive to the possibilities presented by local industry in 'Formula 1 Valley' and higher education. Oxford Brookes University is a national hub for motorsport engineering, and has recently announced that its own Formula Student team will go entirely electric this year. That shift will inevitably happen to karting as well, and there are exciting future study and career possibilities for our pupils in the automotive industry.

Nothing beats, however, the excitement of a race-day. My driving days are few and far between (now that my daughter thrashes me every time we're on the same track), but once you have the bug, even as raceday support, it's hard to kick. Most of the Kingham Hill Racing team compete in the twelve or so NatSKA events annually. We've raced at tracks as far afield as Larkhall in Scotland, to Rowrah in Cumbria, to Clay Pigeon in Dorset. A stringent scrutineering operation, alongside MSA health and safety measures, ensures everyone's wellbeing. Pupils take responsibility for making sure the right tyres for the conditions, at the right pressure, are on, alongside regular maintenance of their chains and safety equipment. Some use data management systems to analyse their lap performance, and where those vital extra tenths are to be gained on the circuit. Each different class will have three laps of practice, as well as four heats throughout the day, with the best three heats counting towards the result. Each NatSKA round counts towards an overall championship, which culminates in a three-day residential trip to the Nationals, at which Season and Sprint Championships are decided.

Pupils benefit enormously from the experience. They grow visibly in resilience, confidence, and teamwork; long journeys and long days make for a tight-knit and cohesive team! In an age when my fear is that boys and girls are a little over-coddled, and protected from risk, this is a controlled and exciting way to give them that opportunity.

And there are great success stories! We regularly bring back silverware from NatSKA meetings, and one or two have gone on to really great things. Our current top driver is a Junior ROK CHampion, and recently also won another national event. Here he is crossing the finish line at Rowrah doing just that.