Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 26 January 2024

Dear Parents,

Last week I introduced you to Adam Gopnik’s book The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery (2023). I talked about the fact that, while the book is not directly aimed at schools, there were plenty of things that we educators could take away from it. I talked about Gopnik’s celebration of ‘accomplishments’ rather than ‘achievements’ (the former more worthwhile than the CV-fodder latter); about breaking seemingly tricky tasks into smaller chunks; about the joy of ‘flow’ that comes from almost subconscious habits, fragmentary steps; and about the fact that we don’t master something by doing it for 10,000 hours, but by properly applied hours. This week, I’ll finish off by talking about Gopnik’s experience of learning to drive.

Gopnik notes (and teachers like to hear this) that mastery will always involve other masters who guide us on our way. The stand-out section of Gopnik’s book is when he learns, at a relatively advanced age, to drive. We see at work two very different schools of ‘education’. Gopnik learns at the same time as his son, Adam, who has cynically mastered the reductive US multiple-choice-based education system, as summarised when they both go for their driving theory test: ‘Dad, it’s easy — it’s multiple choice ... There will be two answers that are obviously wrong. Then there will be two sort of plausible ones. If you just choose the plausible ones at random you’ll get fifty per cent. Since you do know something, you’ll get more than half of that right for sure. You can’t help passing’.

More wholesomely, the pedagogical hero of Gopnik’s book is his driving instructor, Arturo Leon. Here are just a few of Arturo’s instructions to Gopnik: ‘OK, we’re going uptown, please continue straight ahead — excellent’; ‘If you would just push the car slightly left just here?’, ‘Just slide over. Just slide into the left lane. Just look and signal and sliiide. Thank you! Thank you! Excellent. I’m so happy with the way you did that’; ‘Thank you for doing that so easily. And we’ll just continue here, and now I’m going to stop you here’; ‘Let’s give him the hand, right here ... The hand means thank you, bless you, [something else I won't put in a newsletter]. The hand means everything we need it to mean. Oh, thank you so much for signalling to us! Sharing is caring!’. In these few short sentences, we can see an expert mentor and teacher at work: the calming tone of someone navigating an anxious novice through New York traffic; the mastery of someone who is well aware of the tension and potential danger in their surroundings, but who defuses that tension with a humour that rises above the potential conflict; and the positivity of a teacher who will, no doubt, be encountering imperfect driving, but who keeps their pupil buoyed and forward-looking (except when looking in the rear view mirror).

The Scholars' Concert; Invisible ink in Year 5; Pre-Prep playtime

Arturo’s final lesson for Gopnik comes rather unexpectedly when the driving instructor asks the author how one writes a book. Gopnik is stumped because he can do it as easily as Arturo can navigate New York with a learner driver gripping the steering wheel for dear life. But how can he put it in words? Aside from having an outline, Gopnik answers that Arturo should, well, just do it. Don’t think or worry too hard about it. And this, counterintuitively, might be one of our key lessons about mastering something — don’t try too hard to master it, don’t sweat the small stuff, but just keep going fragment by fragment, bit by bit.

Gopnik argues that there is a performative aspect to mastery: we master things that are seen by other people, and there are certain ‘atmospheric’ effects that are created in that process. ‘Excellence’, he says, ‘always takes place within a context of performance’. Rather than giving licence to meretriciousness, one hopes, Gopnik is saying rather that accomplishment does not take place in a vacuum. Which might make us wonder whether he is being entirely consistent in accomplishment, as opposed to achievement, being valued as something that has its own degree of interiority: if I am joyful about baking a loaf of excellent bread that no one else sees or tastes, is that no longer an accomplishment? Do I need to pass the loaf around to be tasted by others in celebration for it to be so? Gopnik argues that ‘what goes on inside our heads — how we feel about what we’re doing — matters as much as what we actually get done’, which might undermine the wider argument of mastery necessitating public performance.

There needs to be an element of wonder to the accomplishment, argues Gopnik, because ‘All grown-up craft depends on sustaining a frozen moment from childhood: scientists, it’s said, are forever four years old, wide-eyed and self-centred; writers are forever eight, over-aware and indignant. The magician is a permanent pre-adolescent’. But there also needs to be hard graft: ‘Repetition and perseverance and a comical degree of commitment’. By combining these things — the ethereal and the mundane; the letting-go and the grafting; the caution and care but also sometimes just getting on with it — we can indeed reach something resembling mastery or accomplishment. In some ways Gopnik’s arguments and conclusions are not revolutionary: don’t all decent educators break down large topics and skills into smaller, digestible chunks? Don’t they all believe in the value of repetition, while trying to rescue that repetition from the killingly dull? But the value of Gopnik’s book is to remind us of the value of true accomplishment over CV-fodder achievement, to remind us of the value of flow and how we might get there, and to introduce us to Arturo: the driving instructor we all wish we’d had.

Have a great weekend,

Matt Jenkinson

Congratulations to the winners of our eco photo competition: Rufus in Year 4 and Thomas H in Year 7! Please also find attached to the newsletter Parentmail some information about the Big Garden Bird Watch, taking place 26-28 January.

Xylophones in Music; Control skills in hockey; Eco photo competition winners; Investigating magnets in Year 3;

Many thanks to all those parents who have already filled out our 2024 Transport Survey, the links for which were sent out via Parentmail on Monday. If you haven’t yet filled this in, do please take a minute or two to fill it out (the current average completion time is around two minutes!) by noon on Wednesday 7 February.

Speaking of transport … As we approach the half-way point of the academic year, it is worth me reiterating the importance of sensible road use on Savile Road. While staggered arrival/departure times mean that there are many drop-off/pick-up periods that are fairly quiet, there are clearly still going to be some pinch-points. While the school has no mandate over the highways, we can continue to request and promote certain etiquettes when it comes to driving in the area. These are noted in the parent handbooks, but I will mention them again here. I would be very grateful if these simple requests could be spread via year group or locality WhatsApp groups, and also shared with other family members or carers who might be picking up or dropping off:

Please avoid driving up and down, and parking on Savile Road if at all possible. We understand that this is not practical for families with younger boys, but many of our older boys (certainly once they are in Years 7 and 8) are able to meet their parents a little further away from school, including on Mansfield Road. We are very grateful to those families who already use Mansfield Road to ease congestion on Savile Road, and to reduce the need to turn around at the school gate. In general, please keep to a very slow speed and be aware of small children walking or cycling in the vicinity of the school. We all know that they can sometimes be unpredictable in their movements. Motorists can help to minimise risks by heightened awareness of this. Please keep the end of Savile Road clear for cars to turn in. There should be no turning on pavements nor in the entrance to the school while children are entering or leaving the school. Please do not park directly outside the school gate, as this reduces visibility for those families trying to cross the road.

Please keep a careful eye for cyclists, many of whom are quite young. In particular, please take care when opening car doors and be vigilant for cyclists entering and exiting school. Engines should also be turned off when cars are stationary. Please also respect our neighbours’ driveways and entrances and never leave a car unattended across an entrance. Please could parents and carers greet the boys on the school side of Savile Road; this is to reduce the temptation for boys to see the person picking them up and then running across the road, when there are likely to be cars around. The same goes for in the morning: please drop off your sons on the school side of Savile Road, or make sure that you cross the road with them. Please ensure that your sons do not wander off or run around at the end of Savile Road. We do have staff members at the gate at drop-off and pick-up times to help the boys to depart in a calm and measured way, and the more we can do to encourage that the better. We strongly recommend that families with young cyclists, especially those in younger years, walk their bikes down the pavement on Savile Road until they reach a less congested part of the area, and it is safer to resume the cycling part of their journey.

My thanks to all those parents who attended the NCSPA meeting on Monday, giving up their time to organise ways to raise funds. We are looking forward to the NCSPA Quiz this evening. We’ll see if ‘NCS Club 7’ can hold on to their quizzing crown, or whether we have some new pretenders! The prize is £300 of meal vouchers for Mamma Mia pizzeria, generously donated by former NCS parent and restaurant-owner Jon Ellse.

Well done to our Year 8 boys who played in our music scholars’ concert in the Holywell Music Room on Wednesday evening. This is always a lovely event and we wish our musicians well as they head off to impress the teachers at their senior schools (as well as saying well done to those who have already had their auditions!). My thanks to Tom Neal and Isobel Rose for organising, recording and accompanying.

We are looking forward to our Year 4 parents’ evening on Wednesday 31 January at 18.00. My usual notices regarding parents’ evenings: some colleagues like to make an early start so do please arrive a little earlier than 18.00 if you are at a loose end. Please aim to arrive by 18.30 so you have enough time to get around every colleague by 20.00. Parking is available in the playground from 17.00 once the area is clear of boys departing after their enrichment activities. If there are any issues that you feel would need longer than a c.5-minute meeting, please contact the relevant teacher in advance to arrange a separate chat.

Charity Week (5-9 February) is almost upon us, and the boys will be raising money to support Oxford Hospitals Charity. The boys on the Charity Committee were impressed by the diversity of the charity's recent work, which includes initiatives such as: supporting Nursing Research Fellowships; making hospitals more welcoming to older patients; providing housing for hospital staff; supporting children living with diabetes; speeding up treatment for patients with gallstone disease; and establishing karate classes for children with chronic pain conditions. Brett Morrison will be sending a separate Parentmail with more details about the different fundraising events happening during Charity Week. Many thanks in advance for all of your support.

Over the coming weeks, the boys in Years 3-8 will be carrying out their mid-year personal reviews. These increase in complexity/detail as they go through the school, but for all the boys self-review is a powerful tool as we reach this mid-point of the year. The boys will be given a series of prompts for each of their subjects, outlining desirable skills and outcomes in those subjects, and then the boys get to reflect on how far they have progressed so far this year. The self-reflections will then make their way home the week before the half-term break. This way, it isn’t just my colleagues and I ‘reporting’ on the boys all the time, but the boys learning to take greater ownership of their progress, with our help and guidance (of course).

From Craig Bishop: The frost and cold weather finally abated so we could return to the hockey pitches to play some competitive games. First up to play were the amazing Year 4 teams and they played away against MCS. In the three games we saw some brilliant hockey with all of the NCS teams showing good structure and shape to their play. I was particularly pleased to hear about the boys’ passing and trapping of the ball. To develop further, we will work on being more forceful when trying to get the ball into the shooting circle to give our attackers the best chance of scoring. In the C team game Isobel Rose was clearly coach of the day as she guided her team to a 5-1 victory, with Alexander F getting the first NCS hattrick of the season. We weren’t quite so lucky in the other two fixtures, but we saw great progress in both games with Martin S and Theo P in the A team, and Sam P with Rufus K in the B team, all playing very well indeed.

The upper school teams have been very busy these past few days with the A team taking part in the annual U13 Oxfordshire County Cup event last Friday evening. It was a great pleasure to see them in action for the first time this season and competing with the top hockey-playing schools in the county. In all of the games we competed with drive, and if we’d had a little more luck on our side the results could have easily swung our way. The 2-2 draw against Moulsford was a standout performance; having gone 2-0 down the boys showed great character and determination to come back and secure a point in that game. Noah S scored an amazing goal against MCS where he powered his way through from the base line to smash the ball into the top right corner. Emil Y deserves a special mention as he was on his first team debut and was superb in defence.

This week all four U13 teams were in action against Summer Fields and we enjoyed four great games. For various reasons, we went into battle with eleven boys absent, but those who did play gave a fantastic account of themselves. Laurence PA was again brave and fantastic as he volunteered to step into goal this week. George Mc was equally brilliant for the C team on the pitch and showed good leadership as he managed the game for his peers. In the B team game Monty L was player of the match and controlled things well from midfield; his expertly directed passes saw Thomas H score one to level the game and so nearly another to win. Finally, in the A team game, NCS dominated the second half with passing that was crisp, trapping that was strong, and movement that was clear and determined. A great goal from Eddie L made the score 2-1 to our hosts. As the half wore on the NCS seemed camped in the SF half of the pitch and, despite six short corners and another four shots on goal, the game ended 2-1 to SF. The performance goes a long way in showing what this NCS team are capable of should we start with the right mindset.

Upcoming Events

Monday, 29 January 2024

15.30 U12 A Hockey Oxon County Cup, Tilsley Park

Tuesday, 30 January 2024

14.15 U8 & 9 Hockey House Matches, Iffley Rd

Wednesday, 31 January 2024

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Mr Nick Haines, Head of Years 7-11 at D'Overbroeck's

14.00 U11 A-D Hockey v Cranford House, Away

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

18.00 Year 4 parents' evening

Friday, 2 February 2024

7.30 U13 A IAPS Hockey, Cheltenham College, return 16.00

Monday, 5 February 2024

Charity Week begins

Start of Year 8/8S PSB/scholarship mocks week

Year 3-8 mid-year self-reviews completed and sent home this week

14.15 U13 Hockey House Matches, St Edward's

Tuesday, 6 February 2024

9.00 LAMDA Examinations, Dragon

14.15 U8 & 9 House Matches, Iffley Rd

Wednesday, 7 February 2024

8.15 School Council meeting, CLC

9.30 Year 8 HPV Vaccine

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Mr Thomas Rolfe, former NCS pupil

14.00 U11 A & B Hockey v Chandlings, Away

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

17.00 Governors’ Meeting (Conduit Room)

Friday, 9 February 2024

15.30 U11 A Hockey County Cuo, Hawks Astro

Saturday, 10 February 2024

Start of Half-Term