Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 12 January 2024

Dear Parents,

A very warm welcome back to NCS after what I hope was a happy and restful break, and a very happy new year. A couple of weeks ago, as the calendar turned from 31 December to 1 January, the spectre of New Year’s resolutions began to loom. According to scientific studies of New Year’s resolutions – and, yes, such things exist – last year, 58% of the adult population intended to make a New Year’s resolution. That is, they decided that there was something in their lives they weren’t happy with, and they resolved to change it starting from 1 January. Professor Katherine Milkman argues that people are inspired to change their behaviour on occasions like the new year because ‘you’re extra motivated to tackle your goals because you feel you can turn the page on past failures … That was the old me, but the new me will be different’.

In another study from three years before, we got to see the range of things people were unhappy about: their physical health, weight, eating habits, sleep patterns, approach to their work, spending too much, not spending enough time with friends and family, not having enough hobbies, not being happy in their personal lives. By far the most popular resolutions were those first categories: to do with physical health and weight. But these were also the very resolutions that people found very difficult to keep. Another survey by the Strava app, looking at 800 million pieces of fitness data, predicted that 80% of people would abandon their fitness-related resolutions by 19 January. A study in the 1980s by John Norcross, saw 77% of people sticking to their resolutions after one week and 40% after six months. 19% – one in five – were still following their changed behaviour after two years.

So New Year’s resolutions seem to be quite easy to make, but very difficult to keep. To change our behaviour it has been argued that we should frame the change in a positive rather than a negative way. Instead of saying ‘I will lose weight by stopping eating ice cream’, you are apparently more likely to be successful if you say ‘I will lose weight by eating fruit for dessert’. Resolutions are also sometimes too vague to be successful as there is no definite plan behind them. Instead of saying that we want to be healthier or happier, we should be coming up with a manageable point-by-point plan of how we can do those things. In educational institutions around the world, this week there were no doubt heads telling their pupils about the positives of making New Year’s resolutions. I didn’t do that. Or, rather, in chapel on Wednesday I aimed for a more subtle message.

The Battle of Culloden in Year 8 History; Finding new words in Year 2 Library time; Identifying 'town and country' in Year 1 Geography; Investigating moments in Year 8S Science

Yes, it is a good thing to look at our behaviours and to think of ways that we can amend what we do to make ourselves healthier and happier. But I don’t think that such ‘reviewing and improving’, as we frequently call it at NCS, should be focused on one calendar day in Winter when many of us benefit from some of our unhealthier creature comforts to get us through the season. As the statistics we’ve just seen show us, putting a lot of pressure on this one day of the year often leads to a lack of success in maintaining any changes. If we are more forgiving of ourselves, and set ourselves more manageable personal reforms at sensible times, with a careful and realistic plan, then changes are more likely to be successful.

I also told the boys that I want to guard against a mindset in which too many of us (myself included) can get trapped: the mindset of perfectionism. If we are not careful we can use New Year’s resolutions as an excuse to change something about ourselves that doesn’t really need changing, because we are in the pursuit of perfection. A resolution to go to the gym more, for example, might be healthy if it is to increase our health and fitness; it is profoundly unhealthy if it is in the pursuit of a so-called ‘perfect’ body. A resolution to do better in school or at work is healthy if it is within sensible timeframes and boundaries, and as part of a balanced lifestyle; it is profoundly unhealthy if we are only ever happy with ‘perfect’ marks or constant promotion towards the ‘perfect’ job.

Aside from the fact that we aren’t really going to achieve perfection, the negative fallout of the quest for that perfection is becoming increasingly obvious across society. This is another peril against which we have to guard ourselves, especially young people who can grow up seeing apparently (but not really) ‘perfect’ lives portrayed through social and other media. Or who might be encouraged to think that their value comes from achieving perfection in the short, medium and long terms – perfect grades, the perfect university, the perfect job etc. etc. etc. The potential consequences of such an approach to life have been neatly summarised by psychologists: ‘beating yourself up when you think you’ve failed … falling into a vortex of self-loathing at minor rejections … an ever-present stream of self-criticism … a risk factor for a host of disorders’. What are the solutions? According to Professor Andrew Hill, not seeing minor mistakes as massive problems helps, as does offering rewards for characteristics alongside high marks. Changing our mindset from ‘should’ to ‘it would be nice, but it’s not the end of the world’ helps us to refocus on high standards rather than perfectionism.

So let’s reframe our approach to New Year’s resolutions, and maybe remove them from 1 January altogether. Instead of saying we ‘should’ do this or do that, let’s say ‘it would be nice if we did this or that, but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t manage it’. This way we can hopefully nudge our behaviours towards more sustainable healthy changes, ones that are more likely to be successful, and ones that are more forgiving of ourselves as imperfect humans. Looking for improvement should not be the same thing as looking for perfection; and that process needn’t just begin on 1 January.

I wish you all a very happy and fulfilling term, with sensible and sustainable self-improvement.

Matt Jenkinson

Congratulations to Kate Lam and her husband, Lee, on the birth of Millicent earlier this week. We look forward to meeting her in school very soon!

The Hilary calendar is available online at https://www.newcollegeschool.org/whats-on

Some parents’ evening dates for your diaries: Year 3 and 8S parents’ evening – Weds 17 January; Year 4 parents’ evening – Weds 31 January; Year 5 parents’ evening – Weds 28 February; Year 8 parents’ evening – Weds 6 March; Pre-Prep parents’ evening – Weds 20 March at 17.30. With the exception of the pre-prep parents’ evening, all other parents’ evenings formally start at 18.00, though there are usually some colleagues happy to make an early start if parents are at a loose end and wish to arrive a little before 18.00. Parking is available from 17.00, once the playground is clear of boys heading home after their enrichment activities. Please aim to arrive before 18.30 to allow time to get around all of the teachers. If you would like to talk to a particular teacher for longer than c.5 minutes, please get in touch with that teacher to arrange a mutually convenient separate time.

A reminder from Nick Hanson that all entries in the eco committee’s photo competition should be sent to him at nicholas.hanson@newcollegeschool.org by this coming Monday, please.

From Elizabeth Hess: Could all books borrowed from the school library for the holidays (or earlier) please be returned or renewed immediately so new books can be taken out. There are some lovely new books the boys might enjoy. Please return any entries for the Christmas Quiz by Monday 15 January so the successful family can be given the Chocolate Santa. Please let Mrs Hess know if the boys have read any of the books shortlisted for the Oxfordshire Book Awards (so housepoints can be given) and keep reading!

The Oxford Brookes Science Bazaar will be back at the Headington campus on Saturday 3 February 2024. This free event is most suitable for 5-16 and this year’s theme is ‘Curiosity’. There are five zones. ‘Happy and Healthy’ - find out what it is like to be a paramedic, experiment with nutrition, meet our physiotherapy students, and try your hand at keyhole surgery. ‘Life Factory’ - discover how vaccines are made, get curious about venomous mammals, find out where caterpillars go in the winter, and explore life up close with our microscopists. ‘Mind Your Brain’ - learn about languages, and discover more about what we think. ‘Tech Zone’ - get behind the wheel of our formula racing car, meet a robot dog, discover more about the power of the sun, become an astronaut. ‘Discovery Zone’ - get creative with Chinese calligraphy, test yourself on your recycling knowhow, relax with a wellbeing crochet workshop. Please see the attached flyer for information about timings and booking.

Upcoming Events

Monday, 15 January 2024

17.30 Music Scholars' Masterclass (Auditorium)

Wednesday, 17 January 2024

8.15 Charity Committee Meeting (CLC)

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Dr Julian Murphy, Headmaster, The Oratory

14.15 U11 A-D Hockey v MCS, Headington

14.15 U13 A &B Hockey v Abingdon, St Edward's

18.00 Year 3 and 8S parents' evening

Friday, 19 January 2024

15.30 U13 A Hockey Oxon County Cup, Hawks Astro

Monday, 22 January 2024

19.00 NCSPA Meeting (CLC)

Tuesday, 23 January 2024

9.00 External Assessments for Prep School Entry for September 2023

14.15 U9 A-C Hockey v MCS, Away

Wednesday, 24 January 2024

8.15 Eco Committee Meeting (CLC)

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Professor Zoe Waxman, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

13.00 Rehearsals for Scholars' Concert (Holywell Music Room)

14.00 U13 A-D Hockey v Summer Fields, St Edward's

14.15 U11 A-D Football v Hatherop Castle, Home

18.00 Music Scholars' Concert (Holywell Music Room)

Friday, 26 January 2024

9.00 Reception Vision Screening

19.00 NCSPA Quiz and Curry Night -- sign-up only (Sports Hall; rounds begin at 19.30)