Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 10 November 2023
Remembrance Week is the most poignant week of our school year. In chapel on Wednesday we had our Remembrance Service, during which I read out the names of the NCS fallen. The boys stood respectfully during the silence, and heard the Last Post reverberate around the chapel. Our guest speaker, Major (Retd) Helen Merrington-Rust spoke about the Chelsea Pensioners, Chelsea Hospital, and the significance of Remembrance for that very special community. The ceremony must mean different things to different year groups, as they grow up and become more and more aware of the realities of war. The oldest among the boys will also be increasingly aware that these horrors are still around us, and that we do not need to look very far to find those who are affected.
In 1939 the Head of English at NCS, E.C. Fry, penned what he called ‘The NCS Front’. In this account of the Second World War back home, on Savile Road, he beautifully evoked the school’s position within a long history — a history which inevitably involved war — and noted the continuity and change in our little corner of Oxford when seismic changes were afoot a few hundred miles away. It is, by turns, reassuring about the school’s position in relative privileged safety, while still being cognizant of the dangers not very far away. Conflict wasn’t on the doorstep but, despite Fry’s protestations about life carrying on as normal, in many ways it was still very close:
The very earth so patriotically shoveled into sandbags in September, to shield the windows of the air-raid shelter in Mansfield College, was originally piled there to strengthen the Royalist lines round the city during the Civil War. It may once have stood the shock of a cavalry charge by Cromwell’s Ironsides. Now the same soil might have to serve as a protection against a very different kind of raid, but in her time Oxford has endured many sieges, and she is ready to endure many more. New College was founded in the middle of a war with France that lasted for a hundred years: no wonder that it is not disturbed when the Government says that it is prepared for the present conflict to last for three. This School has lived on through six centuries of intermittent fighting. Old Boys of ours have served in battles from Agincourt to Ypres. The Wykehamist Foundations have seen too much of History to get excited about headlines an inch high.
Perhaps this atmosphere of ordered tradition helps to explain why NCS has taken all this unpleasantness on the Continent so very calmly. Other schools may have been hastily transplanted to the Outer Hebrides or Land’s End: NCS is still firmly anchored to its normal moorings in Savile Road. The Choir of St Paul’s has been transplanted 200 miles to the West of Cornwall: syrens or no syrens, the Choir of New College is still at its post singing daily Evensong without fail. Other Seats of Learning may have been commandeered by the Ministry for Co-ordinating the Correlation of Co-operation or the Women’s Auxiliary Earthquake Service, but at this establishment it is still “Business as usual.” Here in Oxford every other educational institution seems to be playing a confused game of General Post, in which College A moves into College B, and College B moves into College C, and College C moves into College A, and everybody congratulates themselves on the efficiency of democratic organization. Everywhere far-sighted officials are busily converting Schools and Colleges into Hospitals and Offices, and Hospitals and Offices into Schools and Colleges. Meanwhile, uncommandeered, unevacuated, uncamouflaged, unbarraged, unsandbagged, unhonoured and unsung, New College School pursues the even tenor of its way.
Of course we have had our troubles. If Germany had not invaded Poland, there would have been no black-out, and then Chapel would still be at 6.15, and then the Choir could still get plenty of football, and then we might win a few matches. Such is the grim chain of Cause and Effect in History. Perhaps if Adolf Hitler were still a harmless house-painter, Mr Hall would still be with us, and so we should all feel very much happier. But on the whole we have, like the rival High Commands on the West Front, nothing whatever to report. It is a case of All Quiet On This Front Too. If we were to issue our own War Communique it would read something like this:-
“Our numbers are still at full strength. Our general routine is exactly the same as usual. We have had one or two air-raid drills, the Day Boys come to School with their gasmasks, and the Boarders have to black the house out every evening, but these are the only signs you would notice that there is any important difference between last term and this one. We shall be carrying on straight with work, games, and Choir duties, and with all other regular activities.”
That is all. Nothing dramatic, nothing sensational, nothing heroic. We in this minute sector of a very safe area of the Home Front cannot do very much towards winning the War. But all we can do is go on functioning smoothly and steadily as a School, which, after all, is what we are designed to be. War or no war, somebody has got to go on teaching, and somebody has got to go on learning. In his first message to the public early in September, the Prime Minister said, “Whatever happens, the work of the nation must go on.” It may not be a pleasing thought in Form IIIb, but that stern command applies not only to factories, mines, farms and dockyards, it even applies to Mental Arithmetic and Latin Grammar.
I wish you a peaceful weekend,
Enormous congratulations to all of our Year 7 and 8 boys who took part in their performances of Henry IV, Part 1 this week. There was fantastic acting, line delivery and music – all in the beautifully candle-lit setting of New College chapel. It is a pretty unrivalled space for the boys to perform Shakespeare ‘in the round’, and they certainly rose to the occasion. I would especially like to thank: Chris Gausden for taking the lead with the direction and production; Tom Neal for leading the music; Elizabeth Hess and Emma Krebs for masterminding the wonderful costumes; Dave Bustin and Paul Mulford for helping with scenery (the new throne built by Dave is phenomenal); Jemma Kilkenny for her design work; Peter Cui for recording the play; and Brett Morrison all those colleagues who helped to usher and supervise the boys along the way. It was, as ever, a joyful whole-community event, and we’re already missing the iambic pentameter.
We are looking forward to our senior recitals (15 November, 17.30) and our junior recitals (20 November, 17.30) – the very first in our beautiful new auditorium! Please note that parking is available, first come first served, in the playground – but that parking is not available until 17.00 because we want to get the boys departed safely from their enrichment activities if they are not staying for the recitals. When arriving c.17.00 please be very careful of any boys who may still be crossing the playground; the same goes, of course, when you are departing. Latecomers are requested to enter the auditorium via the new external side stairs (there’s a door at the very top of the stairs) to avoid having to walk by the stage while boys are performing.
From Stephen Young: On Thursday some of our Year 6s took part in the St Edward’s Mathematics Challenge. This was a team event with Samuel and Henry C in one pair and Tom D and Yoav in the second. The competition is an annual event run by Douglas Buchanan and the challenge consists of three different timed tasks testing pupils’ mental arithmetic, problem solving skills and teamwork. I was very proud not only of their mathematical skills, but also their outstanding behaviour and teamwork.
From Elizabeth Hess: On Thursday afternoon a small group of boys from Years 3 to 6 attended the Oxfordshire Book Awards. They were among representatives from at least 28 schools from around the county. The boys buzzed with ideas of what to ask the authors, listened impeccably to a variety of speeches, and were keen to demonstrate their extensive literary knowledge with the golden ticket questions. The afternoon was expertly compered by local author and OBA patron, Jo Cotterill, who introduced the authors and their winning books to the audience. Through the three categories of picture books, primary and secondary novels we explored how laughter helps in coping with challenging situations, that artwork can carry a story, and the importance of accurate and extensive research. Despite the wide variety of stories, there was a general inclusive theme that books can inspire and help build a better world. The afternoon ended with the boys meeting the authors and consuming cake, before returning to NCS. We were proud of how well they represented the school and look forward to everyone reading the shortlist to decide the winning books for the Oxfordshire Book Awards 2024!
From Isobel Rose: Thank you to all those who have signed up to Enrichment Activities for Hilary 2024. Please note that priority booking for current year groups ends at 8.00 on Monday 13 November. Parents can then add their sons to the waiting lists of all groups on a first come first served basis. All booking for Enrichment will then close on Monday 4 December to allow registers to be finalised before the end of term.