Gateway 1 July 2022

In this week’s update we have:

  • Celebration of Music
  • Little Knellies Graduation
  • Biology Field Trip
  • The Abbey Chill and Grill

and more!

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One voice

Sing and dance to it. Listen, and feel it. We start each morning assembly uplifted by inspiring music and end our service in collective song. Music in the Junior School has the power to shift our mood, whether we’re overwhelmed and need to unwind or demotivated and want to feel energised. There are many favourite songs which ignite significant emotion across our school, either through the accompanying actions which rekindle fond memories of our days in Little Knellies Nursery, or the stirring strength of our Chamber Choir’s three part harmony soaring high – the sensation so mighty that it could seemingly raise the roof of Kensington Hall.

Attending a school much like The Abbey as a child, I grew up surrounded by music. From those early formative days, my teachers influenced my musical palate with an eclectic smorgasbord ranging from ABBA and the soundtrack to Grease, through to Mendelssohn and Zelenka. I understood how the art of arranging harmonic sound brings people together. It gave me a sense of belonging; joining a choir in any new community has always helped me to grow. The post-pandemic resumption of collective singing to unite us as a school each day was one of the most emotional experiences we felt as a school staff and such a powerful symbol of life returning to normal once more. Its loss had been accompanied by the associated deprivation of creativity and connection.

When we listen to music we love, our body responds. When we sing together as a school and as the vibrations of our accompanying student orchestra travel as sound waves into our eardrums, they send electrical signals to our brain, triggering the release of hormones that are linked to improved mood and better quality sleep. Sound waves interact with our nervous system, too, regulating our heartbeat and helping us to rebalance and reach a state of calm. And all the while, the melodies and sounds are moving through our limbic system, playing into our emotions and impacting how we feel. These are the fundamentals of the therapeutic value of daily music in our school, each of us benefiting in body and mind. There is nothing like being in the company of our whole school and feeling the force of the inspiring sound of our entire student and staff body in song. It’s so much more than singing to create beautiful melodies: at its core, it’s about a school community made stronger each day.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the privilege of witnessing lives changed through the experience of our school. There is no doubt that music contributes enormously to bring about such transformation. Learning to read music encourages our students to think laterally and find their flow state. Using our brains and voice helps us to achieve mindfulness. Singing allows us to access far-reaching feelings and then put them to one side when finished, processing our emotions in a healthy, safe way. 

Whether we sing purely for pleasure or are pursuing a music scholarship in our Senior School, children across our school are immersed in music from the age of three – through specialist class and individual lessons, ensembles and bands, recitals, productions and concerts. In recent years, our Junior School students have made wonderful memories singing together in venues as magnificent as The Royal Albert Hall, Birmingham’s Symphony and Town Halls, Winchester Cathedral, The Barbican and Royal Festival Hall in London and the O2 Arena, not to mention local town festivals and theatres. Our choirs have been selected from across the country to perform in the National Festival of Music for Youth on many occasions and have been finalists seven years in a row at the Barnardo’s Choir of the Year Competition. This weekend, we have been invited to sing alongside Reading’s Male Voice Choir in a concert in Reading’s Town Hall. 

And there is really no stopping us. Next Spring, the Junior School embark on their inaugural Choir Tour… St Ives, anyone..?

Gateway 24 June 2022

In this week’s update we have:

  • Lower IV Brecon Beacons Trip
  • #readwithpride
  • Reading Festival of Sport
  • Poetry By Heart

and more!

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There is only one word for the events of this week: exhilaration.

Monday brought the joyous news that Lily and Erin (Upper V) had triumphed in the national final of the Poetry by Heart competition. Their performance of Peter Porter’s ‘Your Attention Please’ was dark, dazzling and unforgettable.

The rest of the week was also full of wonders: celebrating sporting and musical endeavour above all. The Hardcastle Hall rang and echoed with the performances of music competition entrants, and I have never been more grateful that my study gives onto the hall – it was extraordinary to have such wonderful and diverse music as the soundtrack to the week.

The culmination of the event was Wednesday’s final, where those selected to perform came together and simply lit up the room. It was not the technical achievement, impressive as that was, that lives in the memory. It was the expressive performance, the way they told a story through their music, the way they transported all of us and took us on an emotional journey. It was a remarkable evening.

Meanwhile the Reading Festival of Sport @ The Abbey has been in full swing. Community partners from across Reading have been in to work with students; internationals, including alumnae, have spoken about their journeys and showed off their skills and medals; sport scholars have shared their stories, experiences, challenges and advice; and the backdrop has been the remarkable Saatchi exhibition, In Focus: Womens Sport Through the Lens, to which partner schools and the wider public have been invited.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the festival has been to witness the way students have engaged with and spoken about the role models they’ve met and the images that are presently gracing the Hardcastle Hall. They’ve talked with authenticity and passion about sport and about the experience of women and girls; and the heroism of those who have defied expectations and fought for equal opportunity.

To have alumnae Maria Tsaptsinos (Team England Table Tennis) and Sophie Drakeford-Lewis (Team England Netball), both currently preparing for the Commonwealth Games, sharing messages with our current cohort and coming into school has been just inspiring. As with the festival of music, again, it is not just the achievement in itself: it is the way they have shaped and led their lives to fulfil their passions. We don’t insist that every Abbey alumna wins a Commonwealth Medal; but we do hope that each and every one of them finds something they care about enough, and gives of themselves with commitment and honesty. That is our greatest source of pride: every time that any individual student sees a window to express their ideas and to be wholly and uncompromisingly themselves.

And in a week where we have celebrated internationalism, we end by celebrating The Abbey on the international stage. We’ve been invited, along with three partner schools, to address the International Coalition of Girls’ Schools in Boston next week. The topic is Enjoying the Room: Moving the Needle on Girls’ Education. The argument is simple. We will always seek to support and nurture our students to find the path they love in life. On their behalf, let’s be stronger, clearer and braver about celebrating their success in doing so. Time and again the research demonstrates that women from all-girls’ education disproportionately go out into the world and help change it for the better. They are champions: our job is to salute their achievements, and to work every day to provide an education that inspires the champions who will follow in their footsteps, and continue the work of building a genuinely free and equal world. It is an exhilarating purpose that inspires us all.

Will le Fleming, Head

Pride and Joy

June – Pride Month – is a celebration, a protest, a revelation for some and a poignant moment of reflection for others. It originates from the spontaneous, violent rebellion which took place in June 1969 in Lower Manhattan, NYC. Over the years, it has provoked feelings ranging from rage, defiance, fear and uncertainty through to joy, gratitude, freedom and clarity of thought. In many cities around the world, it is represented by a march of determination which has often dissolved emotion, enabling the gift of community support to encourage us to live and love as equals. For some individuals marginalised by societal prejudice, June represents an expression of freedom, an acknowledgement of a daily battle fought by those who are negatively defined by discriminatory views. Significantly, 2022 commemorates fifty years since the first Pride parade in the UK. 

As a school we value compassion, upholding basic human rights with kindness and empowering young people to be themselves, whoever they may be. Our students do not require permission to step outside, to sit comfortably with opposing concepts, nor are they forced to recognise similarities. Our ethos questions the authority of conventions and long-standing traditions that may painfully exclude them from some sectors of society. Through the voice of our student-led Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the promotion of dignity, equal rights and self-affirmation replaces outdated views and calls out any unconscious biases we may hold as a community.  

Our work stands on the shoulders of all those before us who strove for equity. Capturing a school’s strategic journey towards the celebration of difference inspires us all to explore the rich human diversity in which our young children grow. As varied and diverse as our school community is, the experience of our life can be different for each of us. Our recent Junior School Diversity Day shone a light on the vast cultural heritage shared amongst our families. It was a joyous, purposeful opportunity to share our roots and celebrate the value that this offers in our classrooms. It embraced an important message: anyone who walks into our school, no matter your identity, is warmly welcomed. 

Such pride, such joy has been witnessed this week through so many of our students’ activities and achievements. Deep pleasure was experienced by our Junior School Sports and Charity Captains as they visited a local animal rescue centre to donate the funds raised from our annual sponsored Fun Run – witnessing first-hand the impact which their action has on our wider community. Our Year 6 students all participated in a wonderful evening’s Music Recital, which they devised and compèred entirely themselves – a fabulous showcase of collaborative learning, confident music-making and the wide-ranging genre which they enjoy. A Year 2 form assembly creatively retold the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for campaigning for peace through a powerful connection with nature. The children then proudly escorted their families around Abbey Gardens, explaining how their well-informed planting choices were improving the environment, as well as our lunchtime menu! Children in Little Knellies Nursery and Reception competed for their Houses in their inaugural Sports Day event, to the delight of their parents and teachers. In Year 1, children delighted us with  ‘There’s a Sunflower in my Supper!’ – an upbeat musical production which they staged with such a joyous sense of expressive good humour. And our Year 5 woodland warriors returned, elated by the outdoor exploration of a residential trip spent under canvas, in the knowledge that bushcraft survival could be relied upon, should global fuel supply require it… 

All these memories are steeped in our students leading in their learning, with inquiry at its heart; each one has a powerful impact on defining individual identities, through self-expression and meaningful connection with the wider world. Every experience they have helps them become more wholly their own free selves. The freedom to be us, whoever we are, free from prejudice and constraint, is at the heart of Pride month. Every step we take in that direction in society and education is a source of pride and joy for every one of us.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School

Gateway 17 June 2022

In this week’s update we have:

  • Creative Writing Competition
  • Biathle GB Call Up
  • Festival of Sport
  • Lower III Recital

and more!

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Red letter days

Red-letter days were originally exactly what the phrase describes: those days inked in red on the calendars. There are surviving examples going back to Ancient Rome. Festivals, marking the progress of the year: high points to punctuate our lives; days that are special both in anticipation and when they finally arrive, because they are the days we come together.

The Platinum Jubilee, celebrated at the Junior School before half-term and today at the Senior School, is the perfect example. There are many valid political views about monarchy and the shape of society – there is plenty to divide us there. But there is also a simple and unifying truth. A remarkable female leader; a life of service, dedication and commitment; a vivid sense of community and fellowship. A shared moment: that punctuation mark in all our lives. However we spent the Jubilee, and whatever we think of the institution of monarchy, we were reminded of what we hold in common. We are at our best together.

As is the tradition with red-letter days, no sooner has one passed than we look to the next. From 20 June we host the first ever Reading Festival of Sport @The Abbey. Part of National School Sport Week, the Festival will be a wonderful celebration involving people from right across our community.

Commonwealth medallists will share their experiences. Boxing, powerlifting, diving, wheelchair basketball and much more will feature, with Abbey students and members of local clubs joining together.

As part of the celebrations The Abbey will host an exhibition straight from The Saatchi Gallery in London. “In Focus: Women’s Sport Through The Lens” is a remarkable collection of photographs charting iconic moments in women’s sport over 50 years. Brilliant trail-blazing female role models overcoming challenges and raising the profile of their sports and the achievement of women athletes in every field.

The theme of National School Sport Week is ‘belonging – a place in sport for every child’. This matters for all children and it matters especially in girls’ schools. A recent report from Women in Sport found 80% of girls feel they do not belong in sport and 90% of 13-16 girls do not complete the levels of weekly activity recommended for both physical and mental health. Over a third of girls in school report feeling they don’t have time for sport because of the amount of work they have to do.

Two recent experiences were a reminder of how much we stand to gain, if we can help as many young people as possible past the barriers that prevent participation. One was speaking to Ella in Lower IV about her sensational rowing success, including winning the J13 British Junior Indoor Rowing championship in December. In the end, she said, it is not about the training or the technique: it is about facing up, in the hardest moments, to how much you want to succeed. The opportunity to confront that truth, to test yourself in that way, is a rare gift, as is the dedication that leads up to it; both have benefits in every aspect of the way we live our lives. That is what a real and fierce commitment to sport offers.

The other experience was a recent netball tournament at school between current students, alumnae and staff as part of the Year 14 tea. Speaking as a participant in the event, I think it is safe to say not many of the players that day faced the same fierce triumph of will that Ella described. The intensity dial was just a fraction lower, perhaps… but what the day offered was an easy, golden camaraderie; freedom from cares and work; the sheer, joyous, silly, unadulterated fun of a ball, a hoop, running around (well, for some of us, ambling around) – in short, messing around.

What is so wonderful about school sport is that it offers both of these experiences, and everything in between. Air, movement, mental peace, friendship, silliness and fun. And the chance to go as far as every participant wants to travel down the path of dedication that leads to rare self-knowledge. That’s why learning to belong in sport matters so much, and why, in the end, everyone really does win.

As they say, it’s only a game – which is why it is so much more than that. Because if it’s only a game, we might as well play it. And play – playfulness of mind and playfulness of spirit – the ability to live lightly and unburdened and glad-hearted – these things matter. The tea party with the Queen and Paddington wasn’t a nice touch – it lay at the heart of what made the Jubilee special. That same playfulness and celebration of play is at the heart of the Festival of Sport. Events worth marking in red indeed.

Will le Fleming, Head

Gateway 10 June 2022

In this week’s update we have:

  • Fun Run Goes Global
  • Team England Alumna
  • Art Scholars’ Trip
  • Parent Talks

and more!

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Gateway 27 May 2022

In this week’s update we have:

  • Rowing Success
  • Fantastic Mr Fox
  • Pupils’ Concert
  • Artists in Residence

and more!

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Conscious Inclusion

As a diverse British society, we have witnessed significant social reform over the decades. We now agree that equity is humane and logical. Elite tribalism, gender conformity, racial segregation, ableism and heteronormative bias do not ensure equality in an inclusive way. As a school, we agree that alliance through celebrating diversity is intrinsically good. As school leaders, we uphold our moral imperative to mirror the full diversity of life in our school – to nourish all our children so that they know that they are loved and will be educated equally. 

Generation Z are more globalised than ever before. So how do we shape our school culture to best equip them for this world? A child’s primary years are the most formative of their education – the development of their personal character underpins future academic success. It is our job as educators, therefore, to ensure that our teachers are modern and open-minded in their thinking and take brave decisions to positively influence our children’s personal development. 

Our school’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by the voice of our students, steers our school’s strategic development on this. Their starting point has been to conduct a diversity review. Their focus now is to influence our recruitment strategy, our operational activity and align our values to our learning and teaching. Our curriculum is developing to decolonise and diversify our messages. It is exciting, relevant, different. Reform encourages us to reconsider our priorities. 

Fundamental to clearly articulated values is the question: what makes our world good? Our shared histories, art and books are the basis to shaping the future. Our school ensures a forum for healthy dialogue – no matter our racial heritage or sexuality, neurocognitive function or disability – based upon our desire to be quick to listen, not quick to judge. We stave away unconscious bias from the top to the bottom of the school – our governors and the children in our care have an equal voice to shape this vision. We acknowledge a culturally-responsive approach by being curious, kind and compassionate, enabling us to think and adapt with agility, dignity, respect, empathy and an open heart. 

Self-identity and community connection is at the heart of what we do. This week, in the Junior School, we celebrated being happy and comfortable in our own skin. Through morning assembly, I shared the African philosophy ‘Ubuntu’ – that of placing emphasis on being yourself through others. Its culture is rooted in the belief that community is one of the building blocks of society. Yesterday’s Diversity Day shone a glorious light on the social connection of fifty-five countries which constitute our school’s student body, with powerful representation of our intersectional communities. 

This combination of our diverse community as role models and a forward-thinking Human Intelligence curriculum makes for an exceptional education. In our school, everyone can be who they choose to be. We are open to being challenged and are comfortable with being uncomfortable. However, this is not a journey for our EDI Committee alone – it’s for everybody. We strive for a school where everyone feels safe, valued, accepted and included – where everyone is celebrated in every classroom. To build a collaborative community that celebrates the successes and amplifies the stories of diverse people. And through such promotion of acceptance, increased visibility, encouraging celebration and creating belonging, we enable deep learning.

So how do we consciously mitigate our bias? We expand our community’s hearts and minds through ensuring multiple co-existing stories run parallel to the historic norms. Such multiperspectivity helps us to understand the deep value of migration to our world history. We make linguistic and cultural connections – as this week – through celebration of our food, dress and festivals. We counter the dominant narratives of out-dated curriculum content and usualise representation of our diverse community.

When you bring yourself to our school, we ask that you bring your authentic self. How do you know you’ll belong? I hope it will be from the moment you walk through our doors that you will sense a palpable presence of the entire environment being prepared to honestly and authentically welcome all that you bring. That we prioritise action over hollow rhetoric. As a school, we owe it to our children and as a race, to humanity’s evolution. In the words of our African sisters and brothers when they describe the ideology of Ubuntu, “A person is a person through other people…Humanity is a quality we owe to each other”.

Nisha Kaura, Head of The Abbey Junior School