Rock of Ages

There are many, many privileges in being a Headteacher, but one of the unparalleled joys of the role is seeing your students absolutely smash it out of the park. I’ve seen it on the sports field, I see it in classrooms, I see it in exam results; this week, I saw it as the casts of Rock of Ages melted the faces of enthusiastic audiences from the stage of the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare.

The musical – which ran in its original version for 2,328 performances on Broadway – is set in the Los Angeles rock scene of the 1980s. Big hair, big egos and rock’n’roll excess are the order of the day, as aspiring rock star Drew (Brett Kelly/Matt Lucas) and wannabe actress Sherrie (Ivana Eamesova/Nina Campbell) try to make it big. Along the way they are variously helped and hindered by the big characters of LA’s Sunset Strip, against a backdrop of a threat to the Strip’s very existence from the wrecking ball of arch efficiency-enthusiast Hilda (Emma Cekaj/Maddie Pole). The whole affair is punctuated by songs from the classic hair-metal bands of the period – Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Journey and more.

These are some big songs, with big tunes and big notes, which need big performances – and the students delivered. In fact, such is the talent on display that the show had two casts, each as fantastic as the other. Each performance also featured two bands – one on-stage, and one in the orchestra pit – and those bands were different each night as well! They were note perfect, nailing every riff and solo in perfect synchronisation with the on-stage action.

The main cast were simply amazing, but what made the show for me was the strength in depth. The dancers, chorus, and hilarious cameo performances had the audience in raptures. The costumes, make-up and hair (there was some REALLY big hair!) were all amazing, and the behind-the-scenes crew ran the production like a well-oiled machine – sound, lighting, props and set were all exemplary.

One of our priorities over the past few years has been developing leadership skills in our students. Well, here it was: students selling programmes, students directing scenes, students running the bands, running the backstage, running the show. Students working with one another across years, across houses, across friendship groups, supporting one another in a massive team effort. It was no surprise that the other cast was packing the back row of the balcony to cheer on those on stage when they were “off” – that is the spirit which this production has created, and it ran through the theatre like electricity.

I did have a word with Mr Buckley, Director of Performing Arts and this production, about the propensity for his shows to coincide with major incidents. You may recall that Singin’ in the Rain was almost derailed by the Beast from the East snowstorm in 2018; Sweeney Todd went on stage in 2020 just before we were all locked down by the pandemic; and this year’s show coincided with Storm Eunice bringing a red weather warning and winds of over 90mph. Mr Buckley reminded me that correlation is not causation, and that the third Academy value is determination, and that I should take Journey’s advice – “don’t stop believing.” Quite right – the show must go on!

And go on it did – a thrilling, professional-standard performance, sizzling with energy and joy and the release of being on stage in a packed theatre again. I could not be prouder of everyone involved.

Talking about mental health

This week, 7th to 13th February, is Children’s Mental Health Week. The theme this year is “growing together,” as we are all encouraged to think about how we have grown and how we can help others to grow.

When I was at school, mental health was not discussed at all. As I have grown, it has moved out from the shadows and we now live in a society which is much more open and accepting to discussions about mental health and mental wellbeing. My own learning and understanding has also grown over this time, especially as the subject is so important for all educators to understand. Mental health, after all, has a direct impact on learning.

Natasha Devon (source)

One of the “lightbulb moments” for me in understanding mental health and wellbeing was when I listened to Natasha Devon, a well-known mental health campaigner, talking about the subject on the Are You Convinced? podcast. On the podcast, she invited listeners to think about mental health in three steps, by drawing the equivalent to our physical health.

Keeping healthy

In the first step, she talked about proactive or preventative steps that we take to keep ourselves physically healthy. This might include eating healthily, getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking taking regular exercise. What similar steps might we take to ensure that we keep ourselves mentally healthy?

Reflecting on this, I was able to think of a few things that would help me. For example, I might limit my intake of social media or cut out things that I know are likely to cause me stress. I might ensure I am talking to my friends and family, sharing any worries or concerns – and making sure that I am a listening ear for them too. Getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking regular exercise are just as good for mental health as they are for physical health. And I monitor my physical health regularly, so I know when I need to exercise more, or get more sleep – the same is true of keeping myself mentally healthy.

Everyday health issues

Natasha Devon went on to say that we all experience everyday issues with our physical health. We all get cuts and scrapes, colds and headaches, bangs and bruises in our everyday life. We are able to manage them ourselves, and we wouldn’t seek a doctor’s advice unless it was chronic, serious or stopped us from doing our everyday activities for more than a couple of days. But we might seek advice from the NHS website, or a pharmacist. We might put a plaster on, or take a paracetamol, until we had recovered.

Devon says that the same is true of our mental health. Worries, fears, everyday stresses and anxieties, feeling sad or unhappy – these happen to all of us. It isn’t pleasant, and it might knock us back, and we might sometimes need a little help to be able to cope. The mental health “plaster” or “paracetamol” might be talking it through with friends or family, perhaps speaking to your tutor, teacher or a trusted adult, or turning to online resources or apps for help. There are a range of these available:

Serious Health Issues

Finally, Natasha Devon argued, some of us experience serious physical health issues. These are relatively rare, but serious. With our physical health, she talked about chronic conditions, serious illnesses, infections, broken bones – the sorts of things that have a significant impact on our daily lives for a long period of time, that we may be hospitalised for, and that we need professional help to deal with. In some cases, these problems can be “fixed” and we will get better and back to normal. In other cases, they can be treated, but we will need to learn to live with them as part of our lives, and cope with the impact that they have on our daily activities.

The same is true of mental health. Some of us, at some point, will suffer with mental health issues that are chronic and completely debilitating. In these situations we may be hospitalised, or we may be unable to carry on our daily activities. In these cases, we cannot recover without professional help. We would not try and fix a broken leg ourselves: the same is true when we are “broken” mentally.

The role of the school

I found Natasha Devon’s characterisation of mental health, as equivalent to physical health, really helpful. We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. It can fluctuate on a daily basis; on some days we feel better than others. Aches and pains and ups and downs are part of normal life. We don’t ignore them; we respond and take actions to help ourselves feel better. If things get really serious, we seek professional help from a doctor.

Just like with physical health, the school has a key role in keeping our students healthy. We educate our students about their physical health through our curriculum – the importance of a good diet and exercise, how to look after ourselves – and we do the same with mental health. When students experience a bump or a scrape or a bruise – mental or physical – we can help to a certain extent, and signpost information to assist, but usually if it’s serious we will suggest referring to a doctor. Our school is not a hospital; our expertise is education, not medicine. We wouldn’t try to set a broken limb in a science lab: the chances of us getting it wrong and making it worse are quite high. So we rely on experts in the health services to take over.

What we can do is listen to the experts. We have plans in place to support students with serious, chronic or significant physical and mental health needs, so those students are able to access education alongside their peers. We can help them when things are difficult, and we can work together to find ways to overcome challenges.

And, above all, we can make it clear to our students that they need to look after their mental health just as much as they look after their physical health. They need to talk to their families, their friends, Academy staff and, if necessary, professional experts to make sure they are able to keep learning successfully.

I’m pleased we’re talking openly about mental health nowadays. I think it’s better for everyone.

The principles of public life

Accompanying the documents I signed in January 2016, as I became Headteacher of the Academy, was a copy of The Seven Principles of Public Life, sometimes known as the Nolan Principles. The principles:

“apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder. This includes all those who are elected or appointed to public office, nationally and locally, and all people appointed to work in the Civil Service, local government, the police, courts and probation services, non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), and in the health, education, social and care services. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources.”

From The Seven Principles of Public Life, published 31st May 1995.

As a Headteacher, I am a public office-holder. I am a servant of the public, and a steward of public resources. I signed those principles, and I remember them. I take them very seriously and do everything I can to uphold them in every aspect of my work, and the work of the wider Academy. The principles are:

  1. Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.
  2. Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.
  3. Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.
  4. Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.
  5. Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.
  6. Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.
  7. Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour and treat others with respect. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs

I find these principles inspiring and helpful. They genuinely guide my work. I know that upholding them will give people faith in me as a leader. Their widespread adoption gives people faith in the wider public services, because there are good people working there, behaving ethically, honestly, openly, selflessly, and conducting themselves with integrity. If ever I fall short, I work hard to put it right.

If public servants are dishonest; if they are selfish; if they are biased; if they dodge or avoid the scrutiny and accountability that they should submit themselves to; if they conceal the truth, our faith in them is shaken. And not just in them: failure to adhere to the seven principles of public life undermines our faith in the wider system, not just in the individuals who fall short.

That is why I take the principles so seriously, and do all I can to demonstrate selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership in all that I do. And I would expect all servants of the public to do the same.

Commendations

Round one of my first commendations of the year

One the best parts of my job as Headteacher at Churchill is the time I get to spend with our students. I try to make time to talk to as many as possible during the day, whether on duty or on my daily “walk the school” when I visit lessons and see how things are going. I am always impressed by our students’ achievements, their humour, and – of course – their kindness, curiosity and determination.

One of the real highlights is when I get students sent to me so I can congratulate them on their achievements. These can be things they’ve achieved in and out of school, academically or personally – but, most regularly, it’s when students hit the milestone to be awarded a Headteacher’s Commendation.

The Academy’s rewards milestones

A Headteacher’s Commendation is awarded when a student has amassed 125 conduct points in a single academic year. Conduct points are the sum of reward points (positive) and concerns (negative). We always want to see students with positive conduct points scores, as this shows their rewards outnumber their concerns – but the higher the positive score, the better!

Rewards can be earned for anything from good homework or classwork, contributions to lessons, showing the Academy’s values, participating in activities or representing the Academy. Amassing 100 points or more is quite an achievement – so hitting 125 is extra special.

I was delighted to hear that the first six students had reached the Headteacher’s Commendation milestone this month. This achievement means they have racked up conduct points of a rate of three every two school days! Last year, I was handing out certificates virtually via email – but this year, I have had the pleasure of being able to meet our commended students in person again.

Now that I have given out my first certificates of the year, I know that more will follow. That means I can look forward to weekly visits to and from groups of students whose dedication, effort, application and contribution has earned them the right to receive their certificates. I can’t wait!

Welcome back assembly: make your effort count

My welcome back assembly this week was delivered as a YouTube video, rather than live in the Academy hall, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. And that is – inevitably – how I opened my assembly: going through the COVID protocols for the month of January with a run-through of the rules about face coverings; expectations around twice-weekly testing; an explanation of the teacher’s role in balancing the need for good ventilation with a comfortable working temperature in winter; and an update on what we know about vaccinations for 12-15 and 16-18 year olds.

Once this reminder was out of the way, I wanted to focus my assembly on the importance of effort in learning. At Churchill, we have outlined the six things we know make the biggest difference to learning.

The six things that make the biggest difference to learning

These six things are grounded in educational research, and our experience and data shows that students who show these behaviours in learning are the most successful in terms of their progress and outcomes. And there, right at the top of the list, is determined and consistent effort.

But what does effort look like? Back in pre-pandemic times, we worked hard to describe what our expectations of student effort were. The result of this work was the launch of our effort grades system in September 2020 – which you can read about on this blog here, or on the Academy website here.

Our effort grades system sets up the expectation that all students will make at least “Good” effort. Anything less than “Good” isn’t enough – so it is graded “Insufficient” or “Poor.” It’s really important that our students know what teachers are looking for when we say we are looking for “good effort,” so we have set it out really clearly in their planners – and in my assembly!

Good effort

We have deliberately tried to write the descriptors for our effort grades as things that teachers can see the students doing in their classes, so that it makes it clear for the students how to show the teachers that they are trying their best. And those students who really push themselves can show that they are putting in excellent effort:

The effort grades that students achieve in their reports three times a year are really important to us at Churchill. We count students’ effort grades towards the House Cup: every Good and Excellent grade adds points to the House total! We also track them carefully to see how students are improving their effort, so we can congratulate them. Alternatively, if their effort is declining, we will try to understand the cause of this and offer support or challenge to them so they can bring it back up. But, vitally, the only one who can control the effort that a student puts in is the student themselves: they must take responsibility for the investment they make in their learning.

In my assembly, I talked about two students whose effort grades were tracked through Year 9, 10 and 11, and how they did in their GCSE exams (these examples were from before the pandemic, when exams still took place). The percentages shown are the students’ average effort grade score across all their subjects.

Student A started Year 9 with below average effort grades, but worked really hard to improve them. Despite a small dip in the middle of Year 11, this student got better and better over time – and this investment paid off. The student made, on average, 1.3 grades more progress than similar students nationally in their GCSEs. The difference: the effort they put in.

Student B tells a different story. They started Year 9 roughly where student A finished Year 11 in terms of effort, but gradually declined across the three years. The result of putting less and less effort in each time: the student performed, on average, one and a half grades less well across their GCSEs than similar students nationally.

We see this played out time and time again across the students we teach. In class, all students are taught the same lesson, but they don’t all learn the material equally well. There are lots of factors in the mix to explain why that is, but the single biggest differentiator is the effort that the students put in. That is why, at Churchill, we put such an emphasis on effort grades – and it is why, at the start of 2022, I used my assembly to remind students of why if matters, and what we expect.

You can see the assembly below:

Happy New Year: I’m feeling ’22

The London fireworks to mark the start of 2022 were truly spectacular, but broadcast without the usual crowds lining the banks of the Thames. It felt to me like a very appropriate way to kick off this year: a determined attempt to put on the very best show possible, despite the challenging circumstances.

We have seen this throughout the pandemic, as the discussion of lateral flow tests, hospitalisation and death rates, and the relative transmissibility of variants has become morbidly routine. Over the first weekend of the holidays, I was queuing in a makeshift marquee at Bath Racecourse to receive my booster jab from a military medic in camouflage fatigues, drafted in as part of the battle against Omicron. A small artificial tree in the corner was an attempt at festive cheer, but I admit it felt like something out of science fiction. I was more encouraged by the incredible organisation mustered at such short notice, and the wonderful volunteers giving up their time to protect the nation. I was also delighted to finally get an “I’ve had my Covid Vaccination” sticker, having not been offered one at my first or second dose!

As the new year began, I was braced for the expected announcements about schools for the term ahead. A year ago, we were being told that schools would be open before a U-turn on the evening of 4th January closed them all. The vaccination programme means that this year, we are able to keep schools open. We are grateful for this: we know how to do remote learning really well, but there is no substitute for being in a classroom, with your teachers and your peers. Of course it isn’t convenient to turn our gym into a testing centre or to stagger the start of term; it isn’t comfortable to wear a face covering all lesson; it’s a pain to have to swab your nostrils twice a week and then report the result to the NHS and to the Academy Google Form; nobody likes having an injection. But these are the things that mean we’re in classrooms, together, this January, rather than locked down in our homes.

I’m not a big one for new year’s resolutions, but as the clock ticked over to midnight on December 31st, I gave thanks for all the efforts everyone has made to get us here. We certainly have tough times ahead, but we’re in better shape, now, than we were a year ago. Despite the challenges, we can still put on a good show. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22.

2021: the year in review

January

2021 started in what can only be described as chaos. As I wrote in my first post of the year, Looking up whilst locking down:

“We returned to school on Monday 4th January with the Secretary of State having “absolutely” given a cast-iron guarantee that exams were going ahead, and the Prime Minister encouraging all parents to send their children in. At 8pm, we were told all schools would close until half term and exams were not going ahead. The spiralling confusion of often contradictory last minute announcements, with missing, confusing or late-arriving guidance, has meant that this past month has been the most challenging of my entire teaching career – and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

In that first post, I took comfort in the Academy community – my colleagues, our wonderful students and their supportive families. We all pulled together through the chaotic, scary winter months with determination and hope.

Later in January, we administered our first lateral flow tests. They are so much part of life now that it’s strange to think of them as unusual – although I do look back with fondness on our testing stations which I insisted were named after Taylor Swift albums…

Nine Testing Stations, nine Taylor Swift albums…it was meant to be (although I wish I’d put them in the right order)

February and March

As the lockdown continued, this blog offered guidance on how to help your child in lockdown, and offered thanks to staff, students and families. Towards the end of the month we were able to start planning for the return to school, which was scheduled for March 8th. Thanks to incredible efforts behind the scenes, we were ready to welcome our students back – 1600 lateral flow tests later! Students returned to the newly opened Lancaster House area, and separate year group bubbles.

I ended the month with a run down of the names behind the Year 9 Learning Groups for 2020-21: Brunel, Stephenson, Fragapane, Park, Blackwell, Kenney, Dirac, Brohn and More – all famous Bristolians.

April and May

Something like normal service was resumed as the spring turned into summer. There were posts on Easter, and a focus on the Academy’s core value of kindness in my “welcome back” assembly after the holiday. I had a fantastic response to my post in May about Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, at the age of six.

Before we knew it, we were saying farewell to the Year 13 and Year 11 classes of 2021 in the “last day” celebrations. These groups of students had come through unprecedented uncertainty and still finished with a smile!

June

Source

In the summer I was gripped by football fever as England ploughed through the delayed Euro 2020 competition all the way to the final! Although it didn’t end in glory (this time) I felt so proud of the team and what they represented about our country – as well as the promise they showed for the future.

July

As the academic year drew to a close, I used the Headteacher’s Blog to set out our Academy Priorities for 2021-22. These have formed the backbone of our developments since September. And, despite the COVID restrictions, we were able to have an amazing Activities Week, culminating in a fantastic Sports Day.

It was the best way to end the school year, after all the challenges which had been thrown at us!

September and October

Before we knew it, we were back – another round of COVID testing was quickly and efficiently conducted, and we were back in lessons and relishing the challenge. It was particularly great to catch up with some of our new Year 7 students early in the term – my hour with Charlotte, Issy, Maddie and James, as they gave me lots to think about, and lots to be proud of.

COVID hadn’t gone away, of course, and we were soon back in masks and wrestling with rising case numbers in students and staff. At least this year we have been able to give some clarity to our examination years about what is happening in advance – a task I attempted in my post “what’s happening with exams in 2022?”

November and December

November saw the #COP26 summit in Glasgow, which was the perfect opportunity to lay out our sustainability strategy: the progress we had made so far, and the steps we still need to take if we are to realise our ambition of being a zero carbon school by 2030. In short: we’re doing well, but there is still a lot to do!

Our Christmas Concert was a fabulous return to the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare, with the joy of music-making finally unleashed from its pandemic shackles. The telling of the Christmas story in student-composed songs by the Junior Choir is always a prompt for the first mince pies of the season for me!

And now Christmas itself is just around the corner. The country is under stricter restrictions again with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly – in some ways it feels like history repeating itself. But what this year has shown us is that – even in the midst of crisis – when staff, students and families work together, schools can accomplish amazing things. Bring on 2022!

Getting your results

Whenever you get results back from a test, an assessment, or a piece of work, there are two competing priorities at work in your mind. On the one hand, you want to feel good. You want to feel proud of what you have achieved. You want your teacher, or whoever has assessed the work, to have recognised the effort you have put in and what you have achieved.

On the other hand, you want to learn. You want to know how to improve so that you can get even better next time. Your eye is instantly drawn to the questions you got wrong, to the notes in the margin, which tell you that you’re not quite there…yet.

It would be great to turn in the perfect piece of work, to get it back 100% correct, with full marks and a shiny gold star on it. That would feel amazing. But, as I tell students and their families when they join the Academy in Year 7, if you’re getting everything right then you’re not learning anything. The chances are the work wasn’t challenging enough: it just gave you an opportunity to show things that you already knew, or to practise skills you had already mastered. That has its place – but the real learning happens when you’re grappling with material you haven’t quite nailed down yet, or attempting a really difficult problem that you haven’t quite grasped…yet.

Researcher Dylan Wiliam calls these two types of response to feedback “ego-involved” and “task-involved.” When you get your work back, or receive some feedback, your ego is always involved. This is the part of your brain that wants to preserve your wellbeing. It wants you to feel good about yourself. It wants you to think you’re brilliant. The problem with this is that it gets in the way of learning. It means you will be afraid to try difficult and challenging tasks, in case you fail: it protects you from the damage to your self-esteem that failure can dish out.

In the other side, a “task-involved” response means that your first reaction when getting your work back is not to react emotionally, not to act to preserve your wellbeing, but instead to think. A task-involved approach means that you are analytical in response to your feedback, and focused overwhelmingly on the learning you can gain from it. Of course, you are interested in what you did well: it’s important to recognise the progress you have made, the hard work that’s paid off, and the knowledge and skills that you have secured. But you are also focused on the room for improvement: the silly mistakes you’ve made, the ideas you hadn’t quite grasped yet, the bits of knowledge you had misunderstood or not expressed clearly enough. And – crucially – you are focused on what you are going to do about it. How you are going to avoid the same mistakes next time. The bits of the course you are going to go back over. How you are going to improve.

It’s impossible to divorce the emotional “ego-involved” response altogether. It’s natural to feel disappointed if a mark isn’t as high as you wanted, or if you made a silly mistake that dropped you from one grade to the next. That’s normal! But, at Churchill, we work really hard to help our students to manage their emotional responses to feedback, and focus as rapidly as possible on the learning that comes from it. Because the only point in doing school work at all is to learn from it!

Over the coming days, our Year 11 students are getting their mock exam results back. There is a lot of emotion tied up in these results for our students, especially with the additional pressure that the pandemic has placed on mocks after two years of cancelled public exams. But the most important thing for our Year 11 students – and for any students, at any stage, getting a piece of work or an assessment back – is to focus on the learning. What did I do well, and how can I improve? What does this assessment tell me about where I am in my progress in this subject? And what do I need to do to make sure that I continue to get better?

The grade or mark you get on an assessment only matters twice in school: in your actual GCSE exams in Year 11, and in your actual A-level exams in the Sixth Form. At every other point in school, the grade or mark is not the most important thing: it’s what you learn from it.

The best books I have read in 2021

A couple of years ago I started to keep a list in my phone of all the books I read each year. It’s great to look back over them and take stock of what I’ve been reading!

In 2020 I only managed ten books. In my defence there was a lot going on that year and I didn’t really get my normal holidays due to the pandemic! I’d also note that one of the ten was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which was 720 pages long and took me ages. It was worth it though, as I explain in my books I read in 2020 post last year.

This year I have managed 21 books, so I’m feeling quite proud of myself! If you’re looking for a recommendation, here are my favourites (in no particular order!)

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

By Suzanne Collins

Suitable for Year 8+

I love the Hunger Games books, and Suzanne Collins revisited the world of Panem for this prequel following the early life of Coriolanus Snow – the President Snow of Katniss Everdeen’s story – in the early years of the Hunger Games. As well as adding additional colour and detail to the world of the books – including the origin of the “Hanging Tree” folk song – I found this a gripping and exciting tale, with lots of twists and turns.

A Skinful of Shadows

By Frances Hardinge

Suitable for Year 7+

I think Frances Hardinge is my current favourite young adult author. I read The Lie Tree last year and Deeplight this year as well, but A Skinful of Shadows was really terrific. Set in the English Civil War, it mixes historical fiction with some supernatural fantasy as the twelve-year-old narrator, a girl called Makepeace, discovers that she has inherited a paranormal gift from her family – the ability to host the ghostly spirits of the dead within her. This discovery leads her on a breathtaking adventure – part espionage thriller, part gothic horror – that had me hooked throughout.

Piranesi

By Susanna Clarke

Suitable for Year 9+

Every now and again you come across a book of such audacious originality that you marvel at how boundless the human imagination really is. This was one such book. The concept of this story is so unexpected that I find it astonishing that anyone could ever have dreamt it up! Piranesi, the narrator, lives in a strange house with many rooms and levels, which also hosts an ocean. He is surrounded by statues, and he is alone except for the occasional visits of someone known only as The Other. As Piranesi explores, he begins to suspect that the world he knows is not all that it appears to be…to say any more would be to spoil the story. If you read it, prepare to have your mind blown!

Hamnet

By Maggie O’Farrell

Suitable for Year 10+

In another breathtaking act of imagination, Maggie O’Farrell tells the story of the life and early death of Hamnet, William Shakespeare’s son. We know from the historical record that Hamnet was a twin, and that he died aged 11. Scholars have long imagined that Shakespeare’s grief for his lost son inspired the play Hamlet, written a few years later. O’Farrell takes these ideas and spins them into an enthralling tale, where Shakespeare himself is really a fringe character, who is never mentioned by name. This is, rather, the tale of his wife, Agnes, who is brought to vivid life in simply stunning prose. An unforgettable read.

A Promised Land

By Barack Obama

Suitable for Year 9+

In this first part of his autobiography, President Obama takes us through his early life, his education, his entry into politics and into his first term in the White House. It is a long read, but all the more fascinating for it. As well as giving the inside view on what happened, Obama explains the rationale for decisions he made – good and bad – and the consequences and responsibilities he carried as a result. What I found most touching was his discussion of balancing his career with his responsibilities as a husband and father: having read Michelle Obama’s book Becoming a couple of years ago, it was fascinating to see her husband’s perspective on the same events and issues. The book concludes with an account of the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks: you can feel the tension in every word on the page. I can’t wait for part two!

An American Marriage

By Tayari Jones

Suitable for Year 11+

This was the first book I read in 2021, and I loved it so much I went on to read the author’s first book, Silver Sparrow, in the summer. The novel tells the story of a young black couple, Celestial and Roy, in the southern United States. Their marriage is placed under pressure when Roy is arrested and convicted for a crime Celestial knows he did not commit. The unravelling of the consequences of this fateful event is brilliantly told, and the novel explores the complexity of racial tensions in America throughout. Tayari Jones is an astonishing writer – Silver Sparrow is just as good.

Anything is possible

by Gareth Southgate

Suitable for Year 7+

I was caught up in football fever this summer as England looked like they might just win something! Although that didn’t quite go to plan, Gareth Southgate’s calm, positive leadership of the England setup as been an inspiration. In this book – aimed at children – he uses his own life story to pass on messages about how to achieve your goals (not just in the footballing sense!) with wisdom, good sense, and practical advice. I gave a copy to each of our new House Captains this year to help them in their leadership roles – they said they liked it too! Highly recommended, whether you’re into football or not.

To The Lighthouse

by Virginia Woolf

Suitable for Year 9+

I last read To The Lighthouse when I was at university, as part of my degree. I was reminded of it when it was the subject of an episode of the Literate podcast, reviewing the New York Public Library’s books of the 20th century, and picked it up to remind myself why it was so special. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a book in which very little happens: in the first section, the Ramsay family and their house guests spend the afternoon and evening together at their holiday home; in the short middle section, “Time Passes”, taking in the First World War and the changes to the family; and in the final section, several of the characters return to the holiday house to complete the long-promised but not-completed journey to the lighthouse off the coast. It doesn’t sound like much, but Virginia Woolf uses it to explore the depths of human relationships, the nature of art, and our perceptions of one another. Her writing is simply astonishing.

As you can tell, I love talking about books, so if you’ve read one of the books on this year’s favourites list, please tell me what you thought of it in the comments below. I’m also open to recommendations for my “to read” pile, which is currently substantial but not endless!