Mr Chairman, Dr Ahmed, Members of the Bablake community, A very good evening to you, and welcome indeed to this annual pageant! We probably don’t always associate speech days and prize givings with lots of excitement, especially if you’ve got the hard seats in the gallery, but let’s remind ourselves at the outset that each of those in front of me can be proud of achieving something special. So, just as Dr Ahmed’s hand will be aching later on from handshakes, let’s look forward to making sure that ours are burning from congratulatory applause later this evening.
I imagine that ‘excitement’ isn’t necessarily a term that all of us would always apply to education either (and that will often depend on memories of our own school days). Well, I think education should be exciting, even if it should also include hard graft and long hours of learning in the relentless pursuit of excellence. I’ve been reminded of that over the last few days with our new intake of Shell Formers, and I’m excited to be teaching that age-group for the first time since my very first post as a teacher. Asked how they were finding Bablake, one new pupil described it as “simply epic”, whilst another approached me to say: “In all modesty, sir, it’s been really super.”
The shared and ambitious aspirations of parents, staff and pupils are what characterise a community like ours. It’s about raising the bar and saying: “Yes, you can! We can’t do the work for you (and nor should we), but we’re there to guide and support you on your way.” It’s why our curriculum remains unashamedly an academic curriculum, and why pupils from schools like Bablake are still far more likely to enter good universities and to have well-paid and fulfilling jobs in years to come. It’s also perhaps partly what lies behind the setting-up of the new ‘free schools’.
I wish those schools every success (because in every school, children’s futures are at stake), but I don’t think, as some have suggested, that they pose a serious threat to our existence. They can be set up in as little as a year, and they simply don’t offer the same opportunities as a school such as ours. I’m not saying it’s taken us since 1344 to get the formula right, but Bablake’s reputation for opportunity, excellence and care has not been achieved overnight. The ethos and traditional moral values which permeate our happy community certainly don’t lead to complacency, but they form a bedrock from which stems an ardent desire to be even better and to ensure that our pupils are best prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world.
Last year’s achievements are far too many to enumerate, but we’re here to celebrate some fine highlights tonight. University entry was exceptionally competitive, as many joined the queue from last year, and as others cancelled gap years in order to beat fee rises. Virtually all of our A level candidates who wanted to enter higher education this year will be beginning a course of their choosing over the next few weeks, and, alongside other outstanding performances, Oliver Towlson’s accolade of 4 coveted A* grades on his 18th birthday could not have been a better present. Many of this year’s U6th have a strong platform of AS performances on which to build, whilst some will have to raise their aim if dreams are to become reality. The GCSE results were overall our strongest ever, with a particularly fine harvest of A* grades, so we have the highest expectations of this year group at A level. Pupils have also been challenged and inspired by such opportunities as: the Extended Project (on topics as diverse as ‘Did women vote for Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Government?’ or ‘Prime Numbers and the Riemann Zeta function’); Gold Crest Awards for in-depth scientific and engineering research; and participation and success in national finals for the Junior Maths Challenge team and in a Business and Accounting Competition. Some excellent opportunities have been provided through the Gifted and Talented programme, and some pupils will soon be involved in a Sleep Education Study with Birmingham University (although I hope that doesn’t mean they’ll be sleeping through lessons).
[Matthew Hayhurst in the 3rd Year said a few words about his Silver Crest project.]
Chocolate has no doubt provided energy for our sports teams, with some again achieving conspicuous success. The U16 and U19 netball teams won their city and county tournaments, and progressed through their West Midlands rounds to compete in their National Finals. The girls’ U16 indoor hockey team was one of two teams (alongside Repton) to represent the Midlands at the National Finals. The 1st XV rugby team won 13 out of their 16 matches, whilst the U15 rugby A and B teams lost only one match each in the entire season; 12 players from the latter age-group were selected for Coventry, of whom 5 were also selected for Warwickshire. The U16 boys’ hockey team was a Midlands Finalist and the U13 team was Warwickshire's runners-up. U13 boys were also crowned Warwickshire cricket champions. Will Kenney-Herbert won representative honours for Wales in U18 hockey, and Kilian Kleine for Germany in U18 rugby. Lucy Smith was ranked 4th nationally in her age group for the shot put. In the summer, a group of 60 boys and girls embarked on a hockey and netball tour to Malaysia and Singapore.
[Beth Jepson, who has unsurprisingly won a Sports Scholarship for the 6th Form, gave a flavour of her participation.]
Drama and Music have continued to flourish. 'Cabaret' and abridged junior drama versions of 'Henry V' and 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream' played to highly appreciative houses, and ‘absurdist’ plays formed our offering this year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This was Bablake’s 25th annual appearance on the Fringe, and, if you have a couple of hours to spare tomorrow evening, you will no doubt be amused and bemused by their performance at 7pm in the Theatre. We enjoyed some varied and increasingly well attended concerts, and Matthew Lewis was selected to play his bassoon in the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Some of our musicians are entertaining us tonight, and this term will see our second lunchtime concert at the Old Bablake church of St John’s in the city centre. Younger pupils were encouraged by their elders in a colourful House Music Festival, and, as is true of so many of our house events, happy and enthusiastic participation was blended with some quality performances.
[Rory Dulku in the 5th Year told more as well as his hope for an Oscar!]
Staff and pupil enthusiasm and interests meant that extra-curricular activities abounded, and I am grateful to the Parents’ Association for their support of International Week, as well as for their spirited fund-raising initiatives which provide some much appreciated ‘extras’ for our pupils. The Combined Cadet Force and Duke of Edinburgh Award have continued to develop self-discipline and service, whilst educational and recreational expeditions beyond the classroom gave pupils some outstanding opportunities to broaden their horizons. In addition to curricular visits at home in many subjects, there were visits to theatres and art galleries; the annual 2nd Year weeks at Fousseau; language trips, including a Spanish visit to Madrid; a Classics trip to Greece; an Economics and Business Studies visit to Prague; a ski trip to Sugarloaf Mountain; a Geography field trip to Wales; the annual Beth Shalom visits for the whole 3rd Year, as well as the opportunity for two 6th Formers to visit Auschwitz as part of a Holocaust Educational programme; a History and German Department visit to Berlin; a History expedition to the First World War battlefields; and a World Challenge expedition to Mexico and Belize, perhaps known by some of you here as former British Honduras.
[Bethany Gaunt in the L6th recounted some of her adventures.]
Despite on-going economic adversity, pupils have continued to dig deeply into their pockets, and nearly £20,000 was raised for various charities, at home and abroad, whilst a collection of items for Cancer Research charity shops was valued at £4,000. I am sorry that the commitment of our female staff has to be questioned, as none joined the men in growing beards for charity last November. However, two staff, one of each gender, did run the London Marathon. A new and very worthwhile link was established to enhance our Community Service programme.
[Hannah Elsy, one of our School Captains this year, spoke about the link with RNIB Pears.]
We continue to place a very high priority on the pastoral care, support and academic guidance of each individual, and Form Tutors and Heads of Year are at the heart of this. We believe passionately in nurturing the spiritual dimension to our young people’s lives, and several pupils are currently working with Mrs Jackson on our membership of the International Cross of Nails Community, underlying our commitment to Coventry Cathedral’s shared ministry of peace and reconciliation. We have also now selected and trained two groups of pupils to complement our Form Prefects by providing peer mentoring or support to younger pupils.
[Kian Patel in the 5th Year spoke of his role as a peer supporter.]
We asked the Shells to fill in a questionnaire about their experience of Bablake, from first encounters before they chose the school to the end of their first two terms here. Whilst wanting to learn how we could make any improvements, we were very heartened by their responses. Asked what they liked most, the top choices (in order of preference) were: kind staff, friendly atmosphere, lessons, friends, sports, clubs and activities, and the environment or facilities. Asked what they would change- and I’m sure we would have said the same in our day- they wanted: less homework and shorter days. And, something which has never really bothered me, a couple wanted more hairdryers.
Our pastoral care lies at the heart of our commitment to build a happy and thriving community, and we are fortunate to have very well-qualified and talented staff devoted to this aim.
Someone who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of former pupils and their whereabouts was Mr Jeff Vent, previously a Modern Languages teacher at King Henry VIII, but an active member of both school communities after his retirement. He passed away in November of last year, aged 85 and still in possession of a very active mind and a tremendous sense of humour. Several colleagues moved on, some to promoted posts, some for reasons of relocation, and five for what we hope will be a happy and healthy retirement. You will probably have read about them in our newsletters, but the service of those who have taken retirement is worthy of special mention:
Mr Robin Smith was Head of Chemistry at the King’s High School in Warwick prior to joining us in 2005, and immediately throwing himself whole-heartedly into the life of the community. Often to be seen helping individuals with their Chemistry at lunchtimes, he was a true ‘all-round school master’, who contributed fully to the lighting and sound for drama productions, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Chess.
Mr David Parkins was Head of English at Woodlands School before taking semi-retirement and coming to Bablake part-time, also in 2005. He taught in both the English and Learning Support Departments, where his encouragement and experience were highly valued, and he also ran the Creative Writing Club.
Mrs Dianne Surgey came to Bablake in 1996, having occupied various posts since the beginning of her teaching career in 1971, including spells abroad in the Caribbean and on Ascension Island. She was soon given responsibility for Textiles, became Assistant Head of Lower School, and, ever caring and professional, was ultimately head of a very successful Home Economics Department.
Mrs Karen Baker first came to Bablake in 1989 as a part-time teacher of History. After a short break to bring up her children, she returned in 1995. Over the last few years, she increasingly concentrated on Learning Support, where her positive nature, encouragement, care and expertise were highly valued by her pupils.
Mr Peter Burden was a pupil at Bablake between 1961 and 1968. He returned ten years later to teach English, and played a full part in other aspects of school life, including being Head of General Studies and Editor of 'The Wheatleyan' magazine. He maintains excellent links with former pupils, organises Reunion Dinners, and will remain as School Archivist. He is, in addition, a trained Samaritan, and was able to offer counselling to pupils. His 33 year service to Bablake is exceptional.
Please join with me in showing your appreciation, and in expressing our very best wishes.
And, whilst we warm up for applause of our prize winners, please also express your gratitude to all our staff, both teaching and support, as well as to our governors for the time and expertise which they so willingly devote to Bablake.
It now gives me great pleasure to present our guest of honour, Dr Qanta Ahmed. You will have seen from the brief introduction in your programme that we’re tremendously privileged to welcome her tonight. Like all our pupils who step out through our gates for the final time, little did she know what incredible adventures lay before her. Some of us have enjoyed reading her fascinating memoir of her time as a female doctor in Saudi Arabia, 'In the Land of Invisible Women', and she is a regular columnist in the United States, where she writes about issues pertaining to Islam, the Middle East, medicine and global health. She is spending two days with us in school this week, and we have been in regular e-mail contact over the last few months as she has prepared for her visit. Personally I don’t tweet, but, if you wish, you can follow her on Twitter at @MissDiagnosis. Dr Ahmed, you are very welcome, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say once you have awarded the prizes.
But, just before we do that, a final word of thanks to all our parents here for giving us a reason for a school and for supporting us so enthusiastically in the joint and, yes, exciting venture of education.