Examinations

The Senior School is in full examination-battle mode! The IB exams were the frontline, two year groups have just received results from internal exams, two year groups are on study leave, and we have just sent our next battalions into action as the Lower School students tackled their internal assessments this week. Armed with clear pencil cases, see-through water bottles, and calculators (without covers), we wave our troops off with fingers crossed and the occasional tear.

But isn’t this a careless analogy? Exams shouldn’t be seen as a conflict, should they? Possibly not, but that mentality certainly helped me. The examiners were my adversaries, and I was going to fight them until I was told to put my pen down. It became personal – I wanted to get every last mark out of each exam paper put in front of me, and any question I couldn’t answer was a painful victory to my faceless enemies.

It possibly wasn’t a healthy approach to exams… but it was a different century back then. In truth, today we try to encourage our students to embrace their exams as an opportunity to show what they know and possibly, dare I say it, ‘enjoy’ the challenge. But we all know it’s hard to enjoy something whose name alone strikes fear into the hearts of so many, and gurgles up uncomfortable memories for so many more. The word ‘exams’, or ‘examinations’, unsurprisingly stems from Latin: ‘examinare’, meaning, amongst other things, to judge. There’s a certain irony here: at The Abbey we make efforts with all age groups in teaching them not to be overly judgemental, socially or academically, at the same time spending 14+ years preparing them to be judged themselves!

So why do we, as civilised nations across the world, put our young people through these nerve-wracking exam seasons? Conventional thought suggests that examinations benefit societies, as they enforce high standards on their education systems. Learning and applying knowledge and skills potentially prepares young people for the world of work, and the exam pressure possibly simulates the stress that they may face in future dynamic and pressured environments. 

But I’m not fully convinced. During the Covid years, teacher-assessed grades replaced exams and I’m not sure that students were less prepared for their future lives, or any less well-educated. There was one thing that they certainly did lack, which may well have been of detriment to some of them at university – the experience of sitting exams!

 

With all information so readily available, at a click of a button or the swipe of a finger, and employers valuing soft skills and hard work over regurgitation, we might witness the end of school exams as we know them in coming years, though current governments, or indeed governments in waiting, have made very few noises to this effect. So, for now, we are stuck with them and the battles will rage on.

Needless to say, we hope all of our students taking or having sat exams are kind to themselves in the coming weeks, and wish them the very best of luck. That said, they and their teachers have worked so hard and with such enthusiasm that luck will hopefully play no part.

George Morton, Deputy Head


We Are Family

This year at The Abbey, we have been celebrating creative arts throughout the school, exploring what happens when we harness the might of community to create art, drive culture, bridge diversity, change outlooks and take charge of our future. 

It takes a village to raise a child and a bold, liberal school such as The Abbey to enable a young girl’s dream to come to life. Behind every one of our Junior School child’s ambitions to master the harp, to sing their first solo or to take to the stage in dramatic performance, is an equally sparkling family – made up of dedicated teachers, tireless administrators and committed estates staff to offer an inspiring learning environment – all banding together to help put our spirited girls out into the world. Our close-knit staff body works hard each day to make happy memories with the young children in our care – a joyful testament to the power of community.

I first launched my career into education as a scientist, following a number of years leading global teams in the pharmaceutical industry. Since then, I have tried to be open about the meaning of my support network of friends, family and professional champions through the various job roles I have held. There have been individual icons who have influenced my thinking as a compassionate leader, a trusted teacher and a progressive educational lecturer. Fellow school Heads with whom I work have had an enormous influence on my thinking and sway on the direction of my travel. The privilege of inspecting numerous other schools similar to our own opens my eyes to developing our school with courage and care. More than anything, however, is my personal, all girls’ education which offered me a nurturing sisterhood, a mindset of possibility and an upbeat view of self belief – which is why I will always stand up for what we do.

In our line of work, we hold a unique privilege. We foster talents and share in a particular thrill as we catch children on the cusp of developing a love for learning something new. We witness countless moments, often leaving us speechless, of children growing in confidence and exceeding our every expectation. Our Junior School offers girls space to grow in rooms full of playfulness, lightness and humour. We offer a buoyant and powerful platform for them to inspire action, to raise meaningful questions, stoke dialogue and galvanise change, growing in strength as young female leaders. Which is what makes The Abbey Junior School’s short-listing for TES’s Independent Prep School of the Year – for a second year in a row, no less – so special. It reflects our desire to offer the very best Prep School experience in the land. It is a delightful, humbling acknowledgement of the power of our dedicated community and the impact we have on the children in our care.

This could not have been more poignantly highlighted than during the recent beautiful funeral service of a student who had not long passed through our doors. Isobel ‘Izzy’ Petersen attended The Abbey from Reception to Year 13 and was a good friend to my younger daughter. She will be remembered for her courage, her fierce independence, her resilience in the face of poor health and her fun-filled, creative mind. Tributes to Izzy reflected through speeches and conversations spoke of The Abbey Junior School’s influence which had developed these traits, enabling her to unfurl her wings and fly the nest towards a career-path which tapped all these strengths. The sheer physical presence of Junior School colleagues at the service celebrating her life, of former Abbey Heads upon whose shoulders I now stand and of the parents with whom I have kept a close personal tie was a devastatingly sad reminder of the power of our school community. The hymn we sang together was one which marks the start and end of each Junior School year; the words “One more step” a mixed source of both sadness and strength. 

So as the nation awaits the world’s largest (and perhaps slightly bonkers) annual Eurovision extravaganza this weekend, it may be worth reflecting upon where the aspirations of some of the endearingly eccentric audio-visual dreams began. And indeed, the generosity of the enormous community in Malmo who will be hosting the extraordinary event. More than anything, may we take a moment to be grateful and proud of the short life we share and to acknowledge the power of community and the creative arts to carry us through the harder times. 

In loving memory of Isobel Alice Petersen, June 2002 – March 2024

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School


Shifting Sands

‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ and ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you’ are just two of many phrases we hear in relation to change as a positive driver.  It’s well known that change promotes creativity and that organisations which fail to embrace change quickly stagnate.  Schools are constantly changing, adapting and evolving, not least through the arrival of new students (and staff) each year.

But what about changes which are thrust upon us, altering our lives in a way we hadn’t anticipated?  For many of us, 5th November 2020 was one such change, as we entered the second pandemic lockdown.  This date is etched in my mind as the day that I received a life-threatening diagnosis which changed the course of what lay ahead for me in an instant.  The changes thrust on me were both very unexpected and unwelcome.  Treatment started immediately, with little time to process what was happening.  This was to last many, many months and was gruelling, impacting my ability to work and to share the domestic load at home.  Life also changed immeasurably for my family from that point, not least because they were unable to visit me in hospital due to Covid restrictions.

In a community the size of The Abbey’s, it’s likely that at any given point some of our families will be facing unexpected and unwelcome changes.  Illness, bereavement, marital breakdown and redundancy are just some of the changes families may be facing.  These challenges may also have a knock on effect in terms of financial concerns, changes to domestic arrangements and associated relocations, potentially impacting friendship groups and support networks.

Parenting is essentially preparing children for the path ahead and an important part of this is helping them to anticipate and be ready for change.  For our youngest learners this might take the form of preparatory visits ahead of starting school or beginning to spend time apart from family members.  A few years down the line parents and teachers will jointly be preparing students for puberty.  For those at the top end of the school there will have been negotiations around organising work, managing money, using public transport and learning to cook ahead of the transition to university and independent living.  When our alumnae return to visit, there’s always a delightful mix of ‘I remember when…’ and ‘I can’t believe that…’ as they revisit familiar territory as well as realising how much change has taken place over time.  

We can prepare our young people for the changes we know they will face but some of life’s biggest changes will catch us unawares. In such circumstances it pays to acknowledge just how exhausting change can be.  Children appreciate honesty and are fearful when they sense that adults are hiding something from them.  Sometimes this may necessitate explaining that we, as adults, do not have all the answers at our fingertips but will work things out as best we can.  Building resilience and not trying to shield our children from relatively minor disappointments can help.  How we ourselves adapt to change is the model our children are most likely to adopt, consciously or otherwise.  ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’

Sacha Heard, Assistant Head, The Abbey Junior School


Teaching and Learning

One of the things that makes The Abbey a wonderful place to work is the passionate focus and interest on teaching and learning among colleagues. That phrase, ‘teaching and learning’, is the catch-all for classroom practice: not just what the teacher is doing – in fact not primarily what the teacher is doing – but how it is benefiting each child, and how they are learning and growing through the lesson.

We have so much activity dedicated to innovation, exploration and creativity in teaching and learning. Learning Innovation Groups, Teaching and Learning Communities, mutual observation, weekly sharing of tips and tricks. At the heart of this activity is the understanding that to teach is to learn – which is what is so rewarding about working with young people.

At the moment I am teaching short courses to each Upper III (Year 7) class. We might cover anything from linguistic philosophy to dualism to the origin of theatre. This is part of our Abbey Ideas + Passion programme (Abbey IP) – learning driven by curiosity and intended to help spark ideas and enable young people to make connections of their own.

The most important reason in my role to teach every Upper III class is to get to know every student in the classroom. And the most important element is not the taught content but the end of each course, when each student has the chance to say how they would run the school – what would they change if they were in charge? This is a very immediate example of teaching and learning: seeking to introduce ideas to students but also to learn from theirs.

Without fail they come up with brilliant suggestions. It is true that they’re likely to propose more zip wires connecting different parts of the building than Health & Safety rules generally allow. But they come up with ideas in every area and show insight, care and thought in all of them.

One of our key principles as a school is Every Student Celebrated. That means everyone being known and heard for who they are. Every single person who works as part of this organisation is listening to and caring for students. It is everyone’s business to know and support them. This will always remain a key principle and we will always aim to do this better: because in so many ways it is what matters most.

All the restless ways in which we think about teaching and learning and how to improve it share one common aim at their heart: to instil confidence, self-belief, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, a readiness to seek and aim for joy. Learning as a celebration of each individual; as a celebration of growth and change and development in life. That is what we seek to teach and what we are privileged, every day, to learn.

Will le Fleming, Head


Wrapped up in books

The theme of this year’s World Book Day was ‘Read Your Way’, championing the enjoyment of becoming immersed in a good book, without expectation or pressure. What we were being reminded, quite rightly I believe, is that sometimes it’s important to make your own reading choices, beyond the curriculum and free from others’ perspectives of what comprises a worthy choice of text. Just as we encourage our students to engage in a wide range of extension and enrichment activities, part of our overarching ethos of ‘stretch and challenge for all’, so we must value and validate their reading-for-pleasure adventures.

Recent studies have shown that reading for pleasure brings benefits far beyond those which might naturally be expected; while of course improved literacy and comprehension are foreseen as part of the package, additional proven advantages include stronger feelings of social inclusion, improved confidence and self-esteem and a rise in levels of empathy. Indeed, some Medical Schools now offer optional literary study modules in recognition of the connection between reading fiction and empathy for patients. As an English teacher, I’m all for that! Aside from this personal-professional interest, of course, this recognition has resonance in terms of post-16 subject choices and combinations, even for those who aspire to enter fields seen traditionally as purely scientific. Harnessing the joy of reading for pleasure at all points of a student’s educational journey is a sustained focus at The Abbey and last week, in particular, saw activities taking place school-wide to support and celebrate World Book Day 2024.

At the Senior School, our Librarian, Ms Wenman, invited staff and students to take and share a photograph of themselves reading ‘their own way’. We were encouraged to take either a conventional snap, perhaps enjoying a book while curled up on the sofa at home, or something a little more unexpected, demonstrating that reading for pleasure does not have to conform to preconceived ideas. It was wonderful to see these photographs displayed on in-school screens and shared more widely through social media channels, depicting members of our School community engaged in the luxurious escapism that a good book can bring.

I took my own photograph at the home of one of London’s many Premier League football teams, combining two of my favourite pastimes in one moment, pre-match, as the opponents warmed up on the pitch below me. We know – and teach – about sport and its benefits for physical health and are recognising more and more the positive impact of sport on mental health and wellbeing. We also know, thanks to work including that of the National Literacy Trust, that those young people most engaged with reading are likely to have better mental wellbeing than those less engaged; University College London advises its students that stress-related reactions, such as worrying, can be reduced by 60% with as little as six minutes a day of reading for pleasure.

It isn’t easy, as we navigate busy, activity-filled lives, always to make time for a good book, one that we have chosen because it delights us (rather than because we have to read it for school or for book group or because we think it’s something we ought to be able to say we’ve read). But if this year’s World Book Day’s impact is to resonate as we leave the imagination-capturing photographs behind, we could do worse than remember this: we are all more likely to enjoy reading when our individual choices are championed and by enjoying reading, we are all more likely to live happier, healthier and more successful lives.

Dr Dawn Bellamy, Deputy Head


Continuity and Change

There’s a lot spoken and written about change nowadays.  As if it were A New Thing, which of course it isn’t, it’s been around for ever.  People change, families change, jobs change; some changes are welcome, others not so much.

As a regular visitor to The Abbey, in different capacities and over a remarkable number of years, I notice both very regular, and sometimes surprising, change alongside enormous continuity.  I have known almost all the Headteachers, from Miss MacDonald who interviewed me as a ten year old, to Miss Hardcastle who was my first Head and my daughter’s, to Miss Sheldon who was also Head when my daughter was at the school, to Mrs Stanley whom I met frequently as an Old Girl, then to Mrs Dent who led the school when I first became a Governor, and finally to Mr le Fleming, whom I helped appoint three and a half years ago.  And I look forward to appointing our next Head in due course.  

Each one of these distinguished school leaders has left a strong mark on The Abbey; some of them have been great builders of labs, classrooms, specialist spaces; others have been great innovators of changes to the curriculum and to the way we manage daily, termly and yearly life.  There will be a proper moment to appreciate fully the mark Mr le Fleming will leave, but not now.  Now is the moment to value so much that has not changed over the sixty five years of my association with the school. 

We have always had a strong sense of what the Abbey is.  An environment in which everyone is held in respect, but one where all ideas and opinions are up for challenge; an environment in which everyone is listened to with care, but one where no one world view is prioritised; an environment in which effort and achievement are equally recognised, no matter what the field.

Some of the detail has certainly changed as the world in which we live has developed.  In those earlier days every school day began with an Assembly – a hymn, a Bible reading, and prayer – now we look more widely for sources that make us reflect on how we live our lives.  Developing a functioning moral compass has always mattered.  Our students work through issues and approaches, while they are at school, that will be central to the way they approach challenge throughout their life. 

And we have always looked for a sense of purpose and a real joy in all that we do here.  We have got better at that over the years.  We understand that being a girl and growing into a young adult is tough.  We support our students to discover themselves as well as  Shakespeare or Linear B or Systems Thinking.  Right now, just as there are big changes in the world, there are some big changes here at The Abbey.  Happily we know how to recognise and respond to opportunities for change; we know how to thrive while we do so.   So that is what we will do.

Liz Harrison, Chair of Governors


Senior School leadership from September 2024

This week has seen the announcement of future changes at The Abbey. One element of these changes is the re-introduction of the role of Head of Senior School for 2024-2025, working alongside the overall Head of The Abbey.

In the wake of this announcement, Sarah and I wanted to write jointly to give more information about what this means for Senior School families and for those arriving this September.

Above all it means a continuity of approach. We already work closely together in our current roles of Head and Senior Deputy Head on all matters connected to the Senior School. We are part of a wider Senior School Management Team. And of course we work collaboratively with all colleagues across the school, united by the common desire to help our students to the best outcomes, the broadest range of experiences, and the highest quality of support.

The principle of an overall Head working in close partnership in this way is already the case across The Abbey as a whole. The Head works closely with Nisha Kaura, Head of the Junior School, and Nadine Doble, Head of Finance and Resources. There is a Whole School Leadership Committee to help bind together the very different work going on to support children from the ages of three to eighteen and to manage the operational life of a large and busy school. All this work is ultimately overseen by the Board of Governors.

The key principle that unites all leadership across the school is collaboration and shared responsibility. We believe that having individuals with diverse voices and perspectives working together as a team is the strongest and most effective way to make positive and sustained progress.

As part of this approach, we publish to all staff at the school a set of principles for how senior leaders will go about their roles. We thought it was worth sharing some of these principles here:

While senior leadership responsibilities are wide-ranging, at the heart of them is to foster,

maintain and cherish the atmosphere and ethos of the school. Senior leaders first and foremost must work in the light of the school’s values of honesty, kindness and courage, and always focus on the school’s aim – to equip girls to live with confidence, purpose and joy.

Leadership should be inclusive, prioritise listening over talking, provide decisive direction but based on a widely consultative approach… It is vital that senior leaders help shape and then share the direction of the school, always with warmth and openness and always ready to hear a wide range of responses and opinions. 

These principles underpin how everyone with leadership duties works at The Abbey. They will of course underpin everything we do in our shared responsibility for the Senior School.

There will be differences from September. Sarah will be front and centre in the leadership of the Senior School, working with students, staff and families, while my role will focus on progress with strategic issues. However, the sense of a joint team working to shared principles will continue to guide both of us in our work, as it does all the colleagues with whom we collaborate.

We know how important continuity is to young people and to parents for whom the choice of school is a serious commitment. We hope that sharing these details of how we work at The Abbey will give reassurance about our understanding of this, and the commitment of all those responsible for the school to everything that makes it such a special place.

Will le Fleming
Sarah Tullis


The Lifelong Abbey Community

I was educated at an all-girls’ school until the age of 16. In this girls-first environment, I was able to explore my varied interests and build real-world skills for life. School taught me that there were no limits on what girls were capable of – I built outward confidence and inner resilience, I had numerous leadership opportunities and made friends for life.

These life skills were first put to the test when I moved to a co-ed school for Sixth Form and found myself as the only girl in top-set maths with a teacher who didn’t believe girls belonged there! After university, I joined a global media company and my career quickly progressed from on-air reporter to senior and then board level leadership positions. At times, female role models were few and far between and I observed how the environment eroded the confidence of some highly-talented women.

An all-girls’ education combined with strong female networks and some progressive male allies, have given me deep reserves of resilience, confidence to take risks and a determination to pursue work of my choice which is meaningful, fulfilling and fun. In my role as Director of Engagement & Development, I have the joy of connecting with the lifelong Abbey community and I see the fruits of an all-girls’ education play out in glorious technicolour! 

The NEW 2024 edition of the Magnolia Alumnae Magazine features many examples: The Abbey’s alumnae span the world and work across every professional sector. Vet Laura Massey-Pugh (2004 leaver) became a world-record holder when she and her husband Stevie became the fastest cyclists to circumnavigate the globe on a tandem; Professor of Oceanography, Karen Heywood OBE (1980 leaver), has a glacier named after her, The Heywood Glacier, on the Antarctic Peninsula; communications expert Sarah Browning (1992 leaver) is an influencer and advocate for kindness; Marine Biologist Emily Armstrong (2011 leaver) is working overseas to conserve turtle nesting habitats; and author Ruth d’Alessandro (1985 leaver) has published her third novel based on the real-life experiences of her mum who was the first female detective in Berkshire.

These stories are illustrative of the spirit I witness in so many of our former students – that there are no limits on what can be achieved by girls and women when fuelled with passion and purpose. This network of visible and active role models matters because gender bias still exists in society today, with the potential to limit personal achievement without the skills and confidence to navigate it. A generation on from my own Sixth Form experience, my daughter attended an open day where she was singled out in a group of boys by the Head of Department to be told that ‘physics was a particularly hard A-Level subject’! Needless to say, as a result, she chose to stay on at her all-girls’ school for Sixth Form and, undeterred, went on to pursue her interests and achieve top grades.

Marianne Clarke, Director of Engagement & Development

Copies of the Magnolia Alumnae Magazine 2024 are available to collect from the Senior and Junior School receptions.

The Engagement & Development Office delivers an annual programme of mentoring, professional networking and social events to connect the lifelong Abbey community and to support and inspire current students. 


Figures of Inspiration

Last night’s inspiring ARCH event, Exploring Entrepreneurship, was a fabulous evening where students were able to spend time with, and ask questions of our esteemed guest list, taking inspiration from the stories and challenges faced by each of them. Those words of advice or encouragement will help students make more informed choices as they head out into the wider world.

And more is to come – Clare Balding joins us on 22 February, when students from The Abbey and other schools around Reading will have another opportunity to unlock an idea or passion from her talk ‘Dare to be Different’. 

People who inspire us and shape us can be pivotal in our lives – and Abbey students are lucky enough to be surrounded by such folk on a daily basis: our teachers.

Do you remember your favourite teacher from school? I’m 50 now and I certainly do: two in fact, and they still inspire me today. The educational scene in 1980s Peterborough was very different from what our students enjoy here at The Abbey. Sadly most lessons were mundane. Sterile. No energy or spark to inspire kids who, despite their playful attitude at times, wanted to learn. It seemed like my educational journey was destined to be unremarkable. 

And then I met Mr Coleman – my new English teacher. He was the Deputy Head, and my preconceived opinion of him was so very different from the classroom experience; it was the first time I understood never to judge a book by its cover. He was engaging, funny, warm and charismatic. His style helped my 40-strong class of disengaged students to sit up and listen. For the first time, hands were going up to answer questions and there was a buzz. Learning was fun!

My attitude at school was not what it should have been, and often my days were spent trying to make my friends laugh rather than understand the subject matter at hand. But with Mr Coleman, I was the model student. I wanted to listen. Absorb his every word. My love of Shakespeare comes from him. Although I am no writer, my love of wordplay comes from him. I was lucky enough to be taught by him for three years, and when he left for pastures new, the entire year group clubbed together for a replica top, mug and scarf from his beloved Charlton Athletic. And in his final lesson, I was privileged to present a spoof ‘This is Your Life’ to him, in front of those who had given up their pocket money to thank him for his help over the years. I cried as I presented it because it felt like such a loss – the emotion is still there, my eyes are welling up now as I remember that beautiful time.

The other teacher I remember was Mr Blades – my history teacher. Now I had been taught historical events by my father during a weekly Sunday lunchtime quiz…a cheap bribe to dry the pots as he washed up, and my sister put everything away in the respective cupboard. I was the first boy in Peterborough to know the achievements of Rowland Hill and his reform of the postal system, and could name all US Presidents up to Ronald Reagan who was in the White House at the time. Those Sundays used to fly by!

So in a way Mr Blades had a head start. I loved history and needed little persuasion to put my best foot forward, but an uninspiring first couple of years failed to light my passion as I hoped. That was until Mr Blades had the dubious pleasure of becoming our history teacher. Boom! From the first lesson we were off…and the subject burst into life. He engaged with every student and made them feel part of the lesson. I remember wanting his approval for any piece of work I completed. He was a genuinely good man. 

Years later I saw him at a bus stop at Peterborough train station, and rather embarrassed I went up to him and asked if he remembered me. “Holliday. Enthusiastic lad at school weren’t you?”. I took that as a back-hand compliment, possibly to do with my role as a tree in a Christmas panto, as my impromptu actions rather took the shine off the lead actors!

“You inspired me to learn Mr Blades, and if I was smart enough to be a teacher, I would like to see if I could teach like you,” I replied. We shook hands and I thanked him for the impact he has made on my life.

So I wonder which teacher it will be that your daughter will remember for life? From Little Knellies through to Sixth Form we have a host of incredible teachers who inspire students on a daily basis, and I hope your daughter will have their very own Mr Coleman or Mr Blades to look back on with genuine fondness.

Pete Holliday, Director of Marketing and Admissions

 


Why do we learn?

Why? Why is the sun yellow and the sky blue? Why do I have to put my shoes on? Why do I have to eat that? Why do I have to brush my hair?

We are all familiar with this routine from young childhood, and I suspect some parents of older children might secretly miss it, a little, no matter how exasperating they found it at the time. The relentlessness of the question why.

It goes away, of course, after a while. Or children stop asking it so openly, at least. But it is there for us all underneath the business of life. Why do I have to study? To get good grades. Why? To get to a good university. To get a good job. To do well in life. But – in the end – why? What is it for?

Much of what we learn at school has a intention, a plan, a scheme. There is a national curriculum framework. We go far beyond its requirements at Junior School with our Human Intelligence curriculum and in the first years of Senior School, but we still meet its targets on the way. Then learning is pointed at GCSEs. Then A levels or the IB. These exam courses are known as ‘specifications’. What a word that is, in the context of education! How precise! How clearly defined!

This learning, pointed at a goal, really matters. One of the three key aims of the school is ‘learning with purpose’ – alongside leading with confidence, and living with joy. But there is a problem here. Finding purpose in life is the key to finding joy. And finding purpose is very different to having it specified for you by an exam board. Achieving a goal is one thing. Working out which goals are truly worthwhile is quite another.

So true education must include and indeed cherish learning that does not link to an outcome, that does not serve as another brick in the road on the way to a set destination. Learning that surprises, baffles, might initially be forgotten until cropping up again in a whole new circumstance, ready to prompt another thought, another idea, another direction to follow.

There are all sorts of ways we encourage our young people to do things for their own sake. These might be acts of kindness towards an individual or the community. They might be activities that may not appeal but are worth a try, because they might surprise you and become passions. And this includes learning things that don’t apparently matter a bit, because you don’t know what they might one day teach you.

All this is prompted by Curiosity Week: the annual festival of learning at the Senior School that never ceases to intrigue, delight, surprise. This year I want to focus on just one talk from the raft of lunchtime lectures and lesson digressions and homework-free exploration at the heart of the week. These talks are given by students and staff in turn, and this one was by Aarini in Lower VI.

She talked about the ways language shapes us, and the ways in which our language shapes the world, and she gave a lovely example I’d never come across before. Some Aboriginal peoples in Australia are so rooted in a sense of place that they seldom use relative concepts such as left and right and instead use points of the compass: for example, if asking someone to move a cup on a table, they might ask them to move it to the north-east.

They also perceive the movement of time itself as following the path of the sun: so if they face south, time is flowing past them from their left-hand side; if they face north, from their right. It made me reflect that most of us, I think, imagine ourselves as facing forwards in time, and looking to what lies ahead. But of course ahead is the one thing we cannot see. What we can see is our past: so time really flows over our shoulders, and we look backwards down its stream. 

If we are to encourage our students to look to their futures – to shape their lives in a way that will help them find purpose and meaning – they have to look into the part of time they can’t see, and to do that, they have to look with nothing but their imaginations. So we must, over and over again, prompt and encourage them to imagine. As far as The Abbey is concerned, that is one answer at least to the question why. That’s what Curiosity Week, and all the wonderful learning for its own sake at every age range, is for.

Will le Fleming, Head