William Godwin gathered about him a disparate circle of friends. A non-conformist and one-time minister, he was married to Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley. Radical thinking about the nature of society and the relationship of people to each other around hierarchies was his stock in trade. Clearly something his household was all too familiar with; it could not be avoided of course. Wollstonecraft was a pioneering feminist and their daughter was proficient in a number of languages, would run off with the poet Shelley at 16 and have written Frankenstein by the age of 18.

An unconventional household in many ways, but the social circle that gathered in his Hampstead home created a school for thought that encouraged unconventional thinking, challenged perceived norms and looked to make a difference in the world. Writing in 1852, John Henry Newman set out his understanding of what the foundation purpose of a university education was. His ulterior motive was nuanced, his collection of dialogues and essays are part of a concerted effort to see the establishment of a university for Catholics in Ireland. In setting out his thinking, he saw the acquisition of knowledge as a keystone of the edifice, but he went further lobbying for the university on religious grounds. Both men understood the value of education and the reason education establishments exist.

Over two sessions with parents this week, I set out our school’s guiding principles, our accomplishments over the past two years and some indication of our direction of travel. It was gratifying to see the room full on both occasions and to have the opportunity to answer questions and hear from parents about how you see our progress. I will recap the sense of those discussions.

In essence, we exist for three reasons: we are Academically ambitious for the children; we create a Belief in themselves and instil a Compassion for the world. Nietzsche wrote that with a ‘Why’ he could cope with any ‘How’. Essentially, when you have a reason for something it allows you to understand what it does, or in his case to cope with it.

Academic ambition

This realises itself in our desire for each child to be his or her best. I have no concept of an ideal ‘Best’, I will leave that for the Platonists and Neo-Platonists to argue over. I do have a clear understanding of how incremental improvement can be made. The best set of public examination results in 15 years attests it.

We have a sophisticated back office function that salami slices every child’s academic results in tests and assessments through the year and allows in-year adjustment to improve performance. Are children aware of this? Largely not. Are parents? Only at parents’ evenings when you will receive three messages from all staff about your child in that subject. Where they are, what they need to do to improve and how we are scaffolding the move to that higher plane. Children are not burdened by the worry of forensic focus on performance because their teachers/coaches are using the data to make adjustments.

I explained the programme of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) we provide to staff and the role we are playing in the national debate about education. Having hosted one national conference for teaching and learning, our second – on Bahaviours for Learning – will take place on 29th June and you are all welcome to attend. We will not charge members of the school family, all of our parents and grandparents are welcome to come to listen to the discussions. Please contact Mr Picardo if you would like to book tickets.


Belief in oneself is the greatest factor in improved performance but not only academically. Our purpose is not to fill minds with data, facts about the world and those in it. Knowledge is intrinsically a good thing, it is also at times – and at many times – instrumental, but it is an intrinsic good essentially. Through interactions with staff and the opportunities to develop oneself as part of the huge variety of clubs and activities, children come to a belief in themselves that persists as a quiet and humble confidence that is without arrogance or self-promotion. There is no need when one’s comfortable in your own skin.

Aristotle is quoted as saying that the mark of an educated mind is the ability to think a thought without accepting it. Building Belief within the children allows them to do just this. The opportunities in every aspect of our co-curricular provision facilitates this and much more. It encourages giving lots of things a go, of taking appropriate risks and struggling with difficult things. It builds character.


Building one’s character is only effectively done when one realises that success and happiness are intrinsically linked to Compassion. Looking to others and for opportunities to support both locally and globally are essential ingredients. It is the case that wealth makes misery comfortable, but the generation of it for its own sake makes us all Scrooge, hoarding chattels for the final countdown when the person with the most toys wins, but wins what?

Our social engagement has seen themed weeks around the environment, life changing visits to Ghana and plans for Peru and Thailand. Our Stock Market Investment Club will see, over time, a pot grow the better to allow those who would not otherwise be able to access our education enjoy it to the full. It is an ethical, student to student led initiative that has a profound charitable end while growing Belief and Academic ambition. Supporting student leadership is something we are working hard on, one of our Sixth Form is speaking at our national conference in June and is working with a team of her peers and staff to organise a national student conference next term.

There was discussion within this week’s parent meetings about what we call ourselves, how this is understood and how easy or not we are to find as well as how we are engaging with technology and what that might look like going forward. There is work to be done on all these fronts. Our journey is a partnership in process. The collective engagement of families with everything we do points to one unassailable truth. In all of our activities we are dedicated to Academic ambition, Belief in our capacity to be authentic and Compassionate in realising that the best things in life are selfless. The involvement of so many parents and extended family in everything we do is at the heart of giving life to our reason to be. This makes our community much more a family than a circle of friends and I am grateful to you all for everything you do for it.

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)

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