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Headmaster's Newsletter Friday 23rd April 2021

Dear Parents,

Welcome back! I hope that you were able to have some quality time with family – and, increasingly, with friends – over the Easter vacation, and that you have all been able to get something resembling rest. As the days have been getting longer, and the sun shining a bit more, let’s hope we can look with some optimism to a Trinity that is a little bit more what we are used to. We are all very excited about a term characterized in prep schools by a few assessments, a lot of cricket, and bringing our school year to a successful close.

In our Zoom chapel on the first day of term I spoke to the boys about ducks. Bear with me; I haven’t totally lost it after lockdown and more interaction with the DfE than one could wish in a lifetime, let alone in eighteen months. There was a good reason why I talked about ducks. During one of our pre-Covid chapel services the chaplain spoke about the daemons that appear in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels – the physical appearance of a person’s ‘inner self’ that takes the form of an animal. She wondered what the Headmaster’s daemon might be – which got me thinking. My initial reaction was to go for something like a squirrel monkey, partly because, when I was born, my full head of hair and unusually long arms led to my brother and sister swiftly identifying me as that creature. But the more I thought about it, the less convinced I was by the squirrel monkey idea, and the more my mind wandered towards ducks – loyal, intelligent, lovable creatures of habit. Stop laughing at the back.

Pre-season cricket; right angle turns in Maths; Designing and building marble puzzles in DT; Relaxing at break time

There are plenty of reasons to bring up ducks in a chapel service – services where we might think about creation and life, especially at this time of year when we are thinking about new life. I talked to the boys about looking beyond our own traditions, to other countries and cultures around the world and their creation stories which, believe it or not, quite often feature ducks, or creatures resembling ducks. There is a Mexican creation story, for example, which has a great bird whirling towards the water, its feathers falling and turning into all the waterbirds of the world, including ducks. In Egypt, waterfowl were associated with the goddess Isis in bringing forth the sun. In Nigeria, the Yoruba creation story has the world beginning as a marsh full of waterfowl. For the Magyars in present-day Hungary the sun god turned himself into a diving duck and made humans out of sand and muck from the ocean floor. According to the sacred texts of the Brahmins in India, the world was born out of a cosmic egg, like a duck egg. Ancient texts from both India and Finland feature ducks laying eggs which fall and crack open, the yolk forming earth, and the rest of the egg making the heavens, sun, moon, stars and clouds. The ancient Celts, Greeks, Egyptians, Hindus and Chinese all believed that the sky was the upper half of a cosmic egg.

There is clearly something about ducks, then, that has made them an enduring feature of creation stories around the world. They do not feature directly in the bible, where we are more familiar with references to doves and pigeons, and to a lesser extent storks and herons. But, of course, they do come under the wider category of ‘birds’ – so perhaps we can think of them in Isaiah, for example, where we are asked, ‘Who are these that fly like a cloud?’. But without getting too literal about ducks and their place in scripture, it was worth dwelling briefly on what ducks symbolize. The first thing I noted was the fact that ducks are loyal creatures of habit. It is one of the joys of spring to see a mother duck leading her train of ducklings, following the same route to or from her nesting place that she will have taken year after year. She will do this even if a building has been constructed, obstructing her route, in the meantime. There are true stories of ducks and ducklings waiting patiently for a door to be opened at a new office block or hospital, so they can resume their usual route. There is something quite admirable, I think, about this patient single-minded determination – that nature will quietly trump mankind’s building obsession.

Examining pollen under the microscope in Science

Painting Elmer in Art

Ducks also symbolize loyal intelligence. Recent research at this very university has shown that, beneath their cute and fluffy exterior, there is some intelligent ‘imprinting’ going on in ducklings’ brains. This is the process by which they very quickly work out who their mother is, so they can attach themselves to that mother more effectively than other creatures. This partly explains why ducklings (like Reception boys) can get themselves into such neat lines so quickly, as they waddle behind their mother so soon after birth. This can go slightly wrong, though, and if a duckling is removed from its mother immediately after birth, it can attach itself to whatever it first sees, ranging from cardboard boxes to dogs. This is presumably why Donald Duck is so close to Goofy. Finally, of course, the very fact that these ducklings appear in spring, at Easter – alongside lambs and daffodils on Easter cards – symbolises new life. While Christians are celebrating Jesus’s resurrection – rising to new life from his dark tomb – eggs are celebrated and exchanged to celebrate new life in nature. And those loyal, intelligent ducks can teach us a lot about how we might live our lives from springtime onwards.

So there you are, it wasn’t quite so bonkers after all!

Have a great weekend and a very happy and productive term,

Matt Jenkinson

We have some more awards to add to our Year 8 haul, so many congratulations to: Hugh (Academic Exhibition, MCS), Ethan (All-Rounder Award, MCS), Adam (Music Scholarship and Governors’ Presentation Award, MCS), Leo (Music Exhibition, MCS), Joseph (Music Scholarship and Governors’ Presentation Award, MCS), Tommy (Music Exhibition, St Edward’s), Paddy (Music Scholarship, Marlborough), Angus (Academic and Art Scholarships, D’Overbroeck’s), and Theo (Music Exhibition, D’Overbroeck’s).

Our Year 7s have been enjoying themselves taking part in a number of leadership-style activities over the past week or so: writing to me to reflect on their views on the nature of leadership and the areas of the school in which they would like to take a lead in Year 8; having short chats with my SLT colleagues and I (not really ‘interviews’, but a gentle introduction to the concept) about their letters, experiences and views; doing a little public speaking with Dr Gallagher; and taking part in a series of enjoyable teamwork exercises to hone their skills, before enjoying their well-earned pizza-based refreshments. We are keen to reduce any sense of ‘hierarchy’, and to find opportunities for all of the boys to develop what are increasingly called ‘character’ traits in their final year here. I look forward to announcing the results soon!

Well done to Rishaan in Year 6 for his 50+km bike ride over the vacation, raising money for Children in Need. Rishaan smashed his fundraising target, and the full story appeared in the Oxford Mail: https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/19243404.iffley-village-blenheim-palace-cycle-young-boys-charity-ride/ . Also doing his bit for charity is George in Year 5 who took part in fundraising for National Autism Awareness Week. He walked 19km over seven consecutive days, raising over £100 for the National Autistic Association. Thank you and well done!

As I write this, the emerging sunshine reminds us that it is time for the boys to come to school with hats, water bottles and (on especially sunny days) sunscreen already applied. Many thanks. I am fully aware I have tempted fate and that it will now rain for three weeks.

The very best of luck to the choristers who resume their evensong schedule this weekend. You can keep up to date with services, including livestreams, on the Choir’s YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/NewCollegeChoir/featured

Next Wednesday evening is our Zoom parents’ evening with VMTs and the College Organists. Sign-up information has already been sent out via Parentmail.

Forthcoming events

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

8.25 Charity Committee Meeting

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: Dr Marietta van der Tol, Postdoctoral Fellow, Blavatnik School of Government

18.00 Parents’ Evening with Visiting Music Teachers (Zoom)

Monday, 3 May 2021

School and bank holiday

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Deadline for ABRSM Music Theory exam entries

Deadline for ABRSM Practical exam entries

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

8.25 School council meeting

9.00 Chapel. Speaker: The Revd Dr Mel Marshall, Associate Chaplain, Merton College

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