Looking back at my Summer Term blog, which looked forward to an Autumn Term in which we hoped to be ‘embracing normality’, and reflecting now on the term just gone, it has to be said that it was not without its challenges – mirroring those experienced locally, nationally and around the world – challenges which are surely set to continue into the New Year as we grapple with yet further difficulties wrought by the recently mutated strain of the virus. Whilst the remarkable speed with which vaccines have been created, tested and put into mass production is another example of the worst of times bringing out the best in humanity, giving us firmer grounds for hope as we look ahead, the current situation is unsettling and will demand increasing and ongoing levels of emotional strength, resilience and determination to do what is needed to overcome these challenging times.
At one level, in September we did return to a familiar Mill Hill School, with the majority of lessons delivered in person and the relief of being back with friends, classmates and colleagues palpable: at another, we saw Chapel Services, assemblies, and most meetings moving online, and the occasional need arose for targeted self-isolation of individuals, ‘bubbles’ or even year groups as we worked closely with Public Health England. The co-curricular programme was curtailed but kept alive, and the usual calendar of exciting excursions, including those overseas, was largely put on hold. Nonetheless, we ended the term on a high note befitting the festive season, with a Covid-safe staff pantomime, a Christmas Chapel Service live-streamed to pupils, and Christmas lunch with all the trimmings, served to around a thousand staff and pupils – not forgetting the now traditional staff Christmas video.
Key Millhillian events have been honoured, and adapted to suit the times, including the Call to Remembrance at the Gate of Honour, which was live-streamed to the whole School and Foundation Day, which was produced in video format and screened to staff and pupils just before the end of term. As I reflect on our first ever virtual Foundation Day, I cannot help but marvel at how much has changed since the last one, and in doing so celebrate how much remains Mill Hill, through and through, but also how much we, as a community centred in education, have learned – together – in the face of the pandemic.
I was delighted that our Guest of Honour on Foundation Day was Mrs Usha Raman, Head of Sri Jayendra School in Tamil Nadu, with whom we celebrate 20 years of partnership. The themes of Usha’s speech echo our own principles; encouraging pupils to set ambitious goals, both academically and in their co-curricular activities, and above all to go out into the world with the aim of making their contribution to their own communities and beyond, happy and confident in themselves and mindful of the wellbeing of others.
In my Foundation Day speech, I reflected on the past, the academic year just gone, then turned to the future. With so much behind us to be proud of in these extraordinarily challenging times, I have a clear sense of my three key priorities as I lead the School in the coming months and years; consistent academic excellence, development of buildings and continuing to support our community.
At the very heart of School life lies our pupils’ academic work, both in and beyond the curriculum and the classroom. We celebrate our examination results, the impressive range of our leavers’ destinations and the positive observations made in our inspection report and by the Good Schools Guide review; academically, we are indeed a good school, however as we look to the future we will settle for nothing short of excellence in this, our core purpose. I am pleased to say that this work has already begun; Mrs Sam Bernstein, the newly appointed Deputy Head (Academic), brings with her a wealth of experience in the promotion of excellence in Teaching and Learning, and she is already working closely with fellow Senior Managers and Heads of Department to develop a vision for academic success shared by staff and pupils alike.
To find the key to achieving this goal we would also do well to reflect on our School motto – et virtutem, et musas: instilling values, inspiring minds – bringing together as it does the twin virtues of intellectual aspiration and the development of character which, in combination, ensure that Mill Hill pupils are fully enabled to make their own, unique impact on the world beyond school.
Though there have been many changes and improvements to the Mill Hill site in recent years, most have been in the form of repurposing and refurbishment, as with developments to the Sixth Form Centre and the Day Houses. However, the time is now right for a more ambitious building programme. It is fitting that this has begun with the redevelopment of the McClure Music School, which was finished in time for the start of the academic year, and significant improvements to our sports facilities. Throughout his tenure, former Headmaster Sir John McClure, was, indeed, the architect of an unrivalled building programme, overseeing the construction of some of the School’s most iconic buildings. In 2022 it will be 100 years since he died, and we have begun to make plans for our celebration of this centenary. What better tribute to this great man than for me to champion the most ambitious building programme seen at Mill Hill since the Favell Building was opened by William Winfield in 2007!
Developing our buildings is born of both aspiration and necessity as the School roll continues to grow; currently 850 pupils – up by 10% on last year’s figure. We are attracting and retaining ever more pupils and are, increasingly, a school of choice in a competitive field. We are looking ahead to ensure that we develop our Science, Sports and other facilities to ensure that they are of the highest quality and I am fully committed to achieving as many of these goals as is practicable within the lifetime of our current pupils. If McClure were here today, I hope he would approve of my vision and I certainly hope to do justice to his legacy.
Last but not least in my priorities, as I look ahead, is community. As with Sri Jayendra, the sense of community at Mill Hill is very much alive, whether in the One Foundation concept which links our four Schools; the lively interaction between pupils and staff; our connections with local schools such as Copthall, Saracens High and Mill Hill County High School and with local clubs; the active network of support amongst the global Old Millhillian community; or the fundraising and other charitable activities including the provision of bursary support to enable deserving pupils to benefit from a Mill Hill education, regardless of family means. I remain committed to these existing activities, which link us to our wider community, and to expanding and adding to them in the future.
In borrowing one small extract from Usha Raman’s Foundation Day speech, I would echo the following sentiment; “Past success sows the seeds of hope for achieving more in the future. Let us together create new opportunities, new platforms and new avenues that will help this relationship to flourish further and make this world a better place.” What better example of putting the concept of community into practice than our wonderful partnerships, both in Africa and India. Now more than ever we need to come together – as a school, as a community and as a nation, and I do not underestimate the challenges faced in the current circumstances. A simple word like kindness, often referred to in the Foundation Schools, resonates like never before as a guiding principle.
In championing the three priorities I have identified, I will not lose sight of Mill Hill’s overall aims and ethos; we are a School with a great tradition of providing a values-based education, which promotes breadth and balance and nurtures potential in any field, whilst also celebrating individuality, within a safe and supportive community. We are a School that also looks beyond its own walls to promote opportunities for others through meaningful partnerships. It is these aims, this ethos and Mill Hill’s long-standing traditions that provide our bedrock, keep us grounded and enable us to stand firm and unshakeable when tested in times such as these.