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Challenging stereotypes, changing mindsets: Black History Month at QE

Representatives of Perspective, QE’s new pupil-led initiative, have joined senior staff to highlight the importance of Black History Month.

School Vice-Captains Thomas Mgbor and Ayodimeji Ojelade, of Year 13, have been speaking in assemblies at the School, while teachers have also led assemblies and the academic departments are uploading resources to the eQE digital learning platform throughout the month, promoting discussion and awareness in all the subject areas. Pictured here is a Year 12 assembly on Black History Month themes led by Head of Year Simon Walker.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “I am pleased that we are doing more to celebrate black history, especially during Black History Month, and I congratulate Thomas, Ayo and our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassadors on all the hard work they have done.”

Mr Enright added that QE’s forthcoming comprehensive review of the curriculum being carried out in connection with the launch of a new School Development Plan covering the period 2021-2025 will incorporate the themes of combatting racial bias.

The departmental materials, curated on eQE, showcase the work of influential black artists, scientists, poets, engineers and musicians; examine issues such as historical inequality in the protection of intellectual property, or the way in which colonial powers redrew national borders; and consider such questions as the social construction of race, and where our knowledge of black history comes from.

As well as assemblies with contributions both by the Vice-Captains and some Heads of Year and the eQE content, other Black History Month activities at QE include:

  • The release of a list of anti-racism books by The Queen’s Library; and
  • Short videos from alumni that are being used to stimulate discussions on Black History Month in form groups.

Thomas said: “This experience has been really eye-opening for us. The ability to learn more about our own culture has redefined what black history was, especially within the UK. Understanding the contribution of black people within the UK has shown us how black history is British history”.

One of the first Old Elizabethans to respond to his and Ayo’s request to set out their thoughts and experiences on video was Ifeanyi Chinweze (OE 2008-15), who recorded separate films for Years 7-9 and Years 10-13.

In his video for the younger boys, Ifeanyi began by introducing himself, saying that although his family originally came from Nigeria, he has lived in the UK for his whole life. He recounted his personal history of the “hurtful” comments he received as a teenager, as others questioned his love for the performing arts (including debating, public speaking and acting).  “In my teenage years, I became aware of the fact that this choice of passions was unusual for young, black men like me and I was constantly reminded of this by my peers. At the time, I was often called an ‘oreo’, or asked why I didn’t act like a real black guy.” (Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘oreo’ as a ‘usually disparaging’ term meaning ‘a black person who adopts the characteristic mentality and behaviour of white middle-class society’.)

“It’s important to understand that racism is not limited to hate crimes or acts of violence,” said Ifeanyi, adding that although such comments do not always indicate malicious feelings towards black people, they could nevertheless be hurtful, whether said as insults or as jokes. And, he added: “They can reveal stereotypes, or skin-deep images that people hold of others….It is these stereotypes that produce prejudices…but if we learn to talk about our experiences and our perspectives, we share things, we can understand each other and challenge internal biases and stereotypes. We can propagate change in our mindsets, starting from our local environment and spreading. So, I would like to encourage you to ask questions, to discuss and to understand why your words might be harmful to someone else.”

Perspective, which was established last term in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter protests, is a forum looking at a range of societal issues, including racism. Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in October 1987.

QE boys among top winners in competition to help astronauts survive their ‘lockdown’ journey to Mars

QE pupils, including both teams and individuals, have taken three of the top eight prizes in a summer competition to create a flight manual for astronauts travelling to Mars.

Lev Shafran, Achint Thakkar and Ye-Sung Baek, who are now in Year 12, collectively won the Best of Key Stage 4 Award in the second stage of the Galactic Challenge Journey to Mars Digital Competition, together with a teammate from another school.

The Science Award went to Medushan Thevadaran, also of Year 12, while the Illustration Award was won by Dylan Domb, pictured above, of Year 11. A further seven boys won gold awards, 15 took silver and six gained bronze.

Congratulating the winners, Head of Physics Jonathan Brooke said: “This was a popular competition among our boys, with 47 participants in 20 teams from Key Stage 3 through to Key Stage 5. It was an interesting challenge, requiring them to apply their skills in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] and to develop in areas such as teamwork, communication and leadership.

“There were also a few telling parallels between the challenges faced by astronauts confined to a spacecraft and those endured by the boys during lockdown.”

The competition to create the flight manual for a mission set in the year 2041 was the second stage of the competition – ‘Mission II’. QE boys also performed strongly in the first stage.

Chair of the Galactic Challenge Aadil Kara, who is also an Old Elizabethan (OE 2010–2017), explained that when Covid-19 forced the cancellation of in-person events, including one due to be held at QE, the organisation had instead launched the digital competition to allow participants to enter from home.

For the Mission II manuals, pupils were asked to propose ideas to help the astronauts stay physically and mentally healthy in isolation. They were also tasked with designing the overall configuration of the spacecraft and with suggesting experiments to be conducted during the nine-month journey.

After a rigorous anonymised judging process, the winners were announced. In their feedback, the Digital Competition Team praised the:

  • Use of floorplans by Key Stage 4 Award-winners Lev, Achint and Ye-Sung to show astronauts the location of facilities on their spacecraft, The Aion. with eight separate modules serving different purposes. “There was excellent consideration of backup resources, and the use of shifts amongst crew members was an interesting proposition.”
  • “Real scientific principles” underpinning the manual for Science Award-winner Medushan’s Genesis I “Medushan referenced physical phenomena in lots of areas, including fuel used in the propulsion system, osmosis used in the water reclaimer, and dietary modifications for the astronauts to mitigate against radiation exposure.”
  • “Impressive illustrations” from different elevations provided by the Illustration Award-winner, Dylan, for his Explorer Vessel Cyclops. “Dylan also used labelling and annotations throughout to bring the diagrams to life, explaining the purposes of all the components on the vehicle.”

Commenting afterwards from the Key Stage 4 Award-winning team, Lev said: “I am proud to have worked with such an outstanding team, and I would love to work with them again. I learnt both organising and entrepreneurial skills through the transitioning of a product into a specific format, and it has further inspired me to pursue my interest in astrophysics and aerospace engineering.” Achint said that not only was it a “rather interesting experience since it enabled me to research and predict the form that space travel might take 30 years into the future based on the technology which is growing right now and which might be useable sooner than people think” but it also required him to do some wider reading, which was good preparation for the A-level Physics he has now begun. Ye-Sung added: “I’m most proud of an element of the spacecraft that actually didn’t make it into the final submission, as we didn’t have time to put it in. It was a solenoid that would have blocked solar wind, ensuring the relative safety of those onboard.”


The words I love: pupils discover their teachers’ favourite poems

The English department celebrated National Poetry Day by putting together a collection of QE teachers’ favourite poems which included verse that was variously inspiring, thought-provoking and just sheer fun.

Staff from across the departments took part, showing pupils that poetry is enjoyed by teachers from all subject areas. Boy were invited to approach them during the day and ask them about their choices.

The selected poems ranged from ancient to modern, from the emphatically high-brow to some much-loved examples of nonsense verse.

The anthology included poems by two Old Elizabethan poets, George Mpanga (George the Poet, 2002–2009) and QE’s poet-in-residence, Anthony Anaxagorou (1994–1999). Anthony, who runs a weekly poetry workshop for the boys, gave his reaction to the National Poetry Day initiative: “The students of ‘QE Boys’ continue to show a great appetite and appreciation for poetry, which is so heartening to see.”

Head of English Robbie Hyland explained why he had asked colleagues to reveal their favourite lines: “Everyone has a connection with poetry at some point in their lives – we read poems as children, study them at school, and encounter them throughout everyday life. I hope that by sharing poems that resonate with us, we can spark conversations about the values, ideas, and memories that matter to us as individuals.

“The staff have nominated an incredibly wide-ranging selection, from poems that inspire, to poems that address problematic issues in the modern world. I’ve really enjoyed reading the selections which teachers have nominated.”

Boys were informed about the plans for the day during registration, when they were shown a PowerPoint presentation of the teachers’ choice of poems and led in a brief discussion. In total, some 45 poems were picked by 34 teachers.

Here is a selection:

  • Grounded, by Anthony Anaxagorou: chosen by Headmaster Neil Enright
  • Poem 85 (ōdi et amō), by Catullus: chosen by Mr Hyland
  • The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost: chosen by Technology teacher Sean Kelly
  • Home by Warsan Shire: chosen by Deputy Head (Academic) Anne Macdonald
  • First They Came, by Martin Niemöller: chosen by History teacher Akhil Gohil
  • Errinerung an die Marie A., by Bertolt Brecht: chosen by Languages teacher Rebecca Grundy
  • Ozymandias, by Shelley: chosen by Head of Library Services Surya Bowyer
  • He is blessed as a god by Sappho: chosen by Assistant Head (Pupil Involvement) Crispin Bonham-Carter

The top photos show Year 8’s Pranav Challa and William Fawcett asking History teacher Simon Walker and Geography teacher Helen Davies about their choices of poem – T S Eliot’s Macavity: the Mystery Cat and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky respectively – with Mr Hyland also joining them for the chat.

The full selection of the teachers’ chosen poems has been added to the School’s eQE digital learning platform, where there is also a National Poetry Day resource to encourage further exploration of poetry.

From the founding fathers of Economics through feudalism to £50 notes, Ayushman’s essay covers a lot of ground

A Year 13 pupil has been named runnerup in a highly regarded international Economics competition, beating off other participants from around the globe. 

Ayushman Mukherjee ranged widely in his entry to the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) competition, drawing on experts and episodes from across the centuries to reinforce his contentions

His arguments, which even included suggestions for improvements to the A-level Economics syllabus, found favour with the judges as they evaluated entries from sixth-formers around the world. Ayushman was in Year 12 when he submitted his entry. 

A record-breaking total of more than a thousand students from Hungary to India took part in the competition to win the Dorian Fisher Memorial Prize. The prize is named after the wife of Sir Antony Fisher, the founder of the IEA. Sir Antony was also a co-founder of the Fraser Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Pacific Research Institute, the National Center for Policy Analysis, the Centre for Independent Studies, and the Adam Smith Institute.  

This is Ayushman’s second major success in an IEA competition this year: in the spring, he was part of a QE Year 12 team which took second place in the institute’s Budget Challenge event.

QE’s Head of Economics Shamendra Uduwawala said: “We congratulate Ayushman on his achievement. His essays have demonstrated his thorough grasp of economic principles and history, and it is underpinned by the additional research he undertook. He should be very proud of himself.” 

All contestants were offered a choice of essay titles in the competition. Ayushman, who is looking to read Economics at Cambridge and is the current House Captain for Leicester House at QE, had to produce three pieces of writing: firstly, there was a 1,200-word essay, for which he chose the title, What exactly is economic growth and why do some parts of the world grow more rapidly than others? He began this by citing one of the “founding fathers of Economics, Alfred Marshall who famously advised, ‘Every short statement about Economics is misleading.’” 

Secondly, he wrote a 500-word article on What does the concept of rationality mean in economicsin which, inter alia he explored the question of whether it could ever be rational to burn a £50 note – and, thirdly, he penned another 500word essay entitled Identify an area of economics that you think should be given more attention in the A-Level or IB syllabus and say why this is so. 

Ayushman said: “My entry explored the determinants of economic growth, the nature of rationality, and the role of economic history in the classroom. 

“Initially, I was somewhat bewildered by the 500-world limit – it really isn’t a lot to work with! But I felt as if I managed to get a concise and polished message across. I tried quite hard to make it accessible to the average person, not just to academics. I believe this resonated with the judges.” 

In the three pieces, he explored the roles of institutions in economic development (looking at the aftermaths of two important events in English history, the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and the 1688 Glorious Revolution), economic growth after civil wars, and the role of ideas and innovation. He also looked at the intricacies of economic rationality, and at the drawbacks of a “homo economicus” (that is, an individual with an infinite ability to make purely rational decisions).  

Finally, he articulated the need, in his opinion, for a rigorous education in economic history to be included in the A-level syllabus, suggesting it would better to explain the models that are currently taken for granted in economic education and to portray them as less infallible. 

Ayushman, who received a £250 prize, added: “This year’s competition was particularly fierce, so I’m grateful to have seen my effort pay off. I explored some really fascinating topics, which I think is going to be a great head start for university.”  

He was particularly surprised at the “great” reception he has received since the result of the competition were announced. “I’ve had people messaging me to ask about certain topics I’d mentioned – like certain periods in economic history, or recommendations for wider reading in that particular subject. It’s a really great feeling.”  

  • To read Ayushman’s competition entry in full, click here.
Surya’s pandemic poem wins place in new book

A poem by QE pupil Surya Senthilkumar is being published this month in a special anthology created to raise spirits during the coronavirus crisis.

Year 8 boy Surya’s poem, The Pathway to Triumph!, was selected to feature in an international collection of writing from the Young Writers organisation entitled Write To Unite – Together We Stand.

Young Writers Editorial Manager Jenni Harrison said the anthology aimed to “spread positivity, give thanks, share stories, purge worries and record [contributors’] thoughts during lockdown.

“It’s history in the making and will make an incredible keepsake of an unprecedented time,” she said, adding that more than 4,000 adults, children and families had been involved in the project, contributing writing in various genres.

Surya’s 10-line poem, which is set out below, includes a call for unity – “Only as one will we overcome this disaster” – and a paean to front-line workers battling the virus – “Let us praise the NHS staff at toil”.

Asked for his reaction to his success, he adapted the last line of his poem, saying: “Endeavour from the beginning, and you shall succeed till the end!”

Surya’s triumph comes as GCSE poetry workshops led by QE’s poet-in-residence Anthony Anaxagorou get under way at the School again, helping to develop boys’ creative thinking and writing skills ahead of their English GCSE. Old Elizabethan Anthony (1994–1999) made headlines last month when he spoke out against a Government announcement that poetry was to become optional in next year’s GCSE English examination.

For every copy of the book sold by Young Writers, £1 will be donated to NHS Charities Together. Young Writers is an organisation that has been promoting poetry and creative writing within schools and through poetry competitions for the past 29 years.


The Pathway to Triumph

For the nation, we have loved for years,
Our faith and effort shall polish away the tears,
Thy actions must roar wiseness and care,
Avoiding the faces of sorrow and despair,
Only as one will we overcome this disaster,
By being resolute we can prevent the spread faster,
Let us praise the NHS staff at toil,
Valiant and loving, holding our nation up like soil,
So, let us conquer this misfortune together,
By being wise and cooperative, we continue to endeavour!


Mathematical perfection! Trio’s maximum possible scores

Three QE boys scored 135 out of 135 in the 2020 Junior Mathematical Challenge, as the School recorded an exceptional number of strong performances in the annual competition.

Hisham Khan, now of Year 7, and current Year 9 boys Jothusan Jeevakaran and Saim Kahn were among 117 QE pupils to be awarded gold certificates in the national challenge, which this year was held online only and entered by pupils from home.

All 384 boys in Year 7 and 8 were invited to take part earlier in the year, and 318 of them – 83% – won either a gold, silver or bronze certificate, even though such certificates are given nationally to only the top 40% of entrants, to whom gold, silver and bronze are awarded in the ratio 1:2:3.

Assistant Head of Mathematics Wendy Fung said: “It was another very good performance this year, showing the strength in depth of Mathematics in the lower years at the School. My congratulations go especially to Hisham, Jothusan and Saim for their outstanding achievement.

“Much of the success achieved by our youngest boys in the challenge stems from the excellent guidance and help given to Year 8 by the Years 10 and 11 mentors at our Élite Maths (Junior) group: we are very grateful to them for giving up their time and passing on their wisdom.”

To win gold certificates this year, entrants had to score more than 102 points; for silver, the threshold was 86, and for bronze, 70.

The annual event is run by the UK Mathematics Trust. The usual follow-on rounds for successful entrants – the Junior Olympiad and Junior Kangaroo – are not taking place this year.

Here are two sample questions from this year’s Junior Mathematical Challenge – answers and explanations below.

1. The mean of four positive integers is 5. The median of the four integers is 6. What is the mean of the largest and smallest of the integers?

A 3   B 4   C 5   D 6   E 8

2. A group of 42 children all play tennis or football, or both sports. The same number play tennis as play just football. Twice as many play both tennis and football as play just tennis. How many of the children play football?

A 7   B 14   C 21   D 28   E 35

Solutions & explanations

1. The mean of four positive integers is 5. Therefore. the sum of the four integers is 4 × 5 = 20. The median of the integers is the mean of the two middle integers. Since this median is 6, the sum of the two middle integers is 2 × 6 = 12. Hence the sum of the smallest and largest of the four integers is 20 − 12 = 8. Therefore, the mean of the largest and smallest of the integers is 8 ÷ 2 = 4.

2. Let the number of children who play only football be f, the number of children who play only tennis be t and the number of children who play both sports be b. Since there are 42 children, f + t + b = 42. Also, since the number of children who play tennis is equal to the number of children who play only football, t + b = f . Therefore f + f = 42. So f = 21 and t + b = 21. Finally, twice as many play both tennis and football as play just tennis. Therefore b = 2t. Substituting for b, gives t + 2t = 21. Hence t = 7. Therefore, the number of children who play football is 42 − t = 42 − 7 = 35.

Multi-disciplinary magic helps QE to a top place in international competition

A Year 10 team’s hi-tech lockdown project was placed third in an international competition aimed at stemming the global tide of plastic pollution.

The Prata Neptunia team combined their skills in Technology, Mathematics and Chemistry and also produced a slick video presentation to promote their design for an autonomous hovercraft robot.

Competing against teams from more than 40 countries, Ashwin Sridhar, Anish Rana and Merwan Singh impressed judges from the British International Education Association with their use of artificial intelligence to tackle plastic waste in rivers and canals, reducing its harmful effects on flora and fauna.

A second QE Year 10 team, called Ocean, won the Best Effort prize in their category in the competition, which was launched in January.

Head of Technology Michael Noonan said: “My heartfelt congratulations go to the boys, who began their projects when we were deep in lockdown and thus had to overcome some significant obstacles in putting their entry together. Although narrowly missing out on the grand prize, the team are proud to have had their project acknowledged on an international scale and to have learned countless new skills along the way.”

The BIEA International STEM Innovation Challenge invited young people from the age of nine to 21 to research, write a report and design a solution to Save our shores from plastic waste through STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). In its brief, the BIEA pointed out that one lorryload of plastic is dumped every minute worldwide – the annual equivalent in weight of 40,000 blue whales or 1.6 million elephants. The competition drew entries from schools in countries including China, the United States, Argentina, Norway and Indonesia.

Ashwin took on the role of Project Manager and Lead Scientist for Prata Neptunia, while Merwan was Lead Researcher and Anish the Lead Robotics Designer.

By using hovercraft technology informed by artificial intelligence, the trio were able to devise a design that could travel across multiple terrains, both land and water, and target different types of plastic. These notably included microplastics, which have become a huge problem worldwide because of their devastating effects on marine life.

The team learned project-management skills in order to optimise their time effectively, from the use of Gantt charts to task delegation. They designed prototypes at home, building and testing parts, and investigating processes to remove microplastics in order to determine the feasibility of their design.

As part of the overall design process, they applied skills acquired in Technology lessons before finally designing their solution on CAD software.

Their work led to an invitation from BIEA to participate in the virtual international finals, where they were awarded their third place in the 15-17 category.

Anish said: “We started our journey back in March and were quite behind, compared to other teams, which started earlier. However, through thoughtful planning and hard work, we were able to pull together to create a product we were proud of in time for the due date.”

Unable to meet up freely or access all the resources of The Queen’s Library, the boys worked from home and used technology including Zoom calls to co-ordinate their work.

“We all saw plastic pollution as a big problem all over the world: the BIEA competition has targeted a global crisis that needs fixing.”

The competition gave him and his teammates the opportunity to deploy their skills and knowledge to tackle this crisis, which, he said, has shown him “how we can all work together to solve it”.

Anish added: “Of course, we had our ups and downs, but overall the competition was a great experience with a satisfying conclusion.”

The trio’s project required some fairly advanced Science, as they investigated methods of removing plastics, which led to their inclusion of PETase, an enzyme which catalyses the hydrolysis of Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) to monomeric mono-2-hydroxyethyl terephthalate (MHET). MHET is then broken down into Ethylene glycol and Terephthalic acid (Benzene-1,4-dicarboxylic acid) using the enzyme MHETase.  The team also delved into fluid dynamics – encompassing Mathematics and Physics – to optimise their design’s motion and efficiency.

The Ocean team, Jashwanth Parimi, Utkarsh Bhamidimarri and Siddarth Jana, also started their project relatively late and had only about a month to complete it.

Jashwanth said: “During multiple Zoom calls, we learned much more about plastic pollution and, eventually, we designed an idea that we thought was suitable for solving the problem. Then we each split into our specialised areas to fulfill the requirements of the project, but we still all helped each other in each of our project areas until we finally finished.”

The team designed a multi-terrain vehicle that used a net in order to collect macro-plastics on both the ocean and the mudflats. “Our project was innovative since we tried to consider all the wildlife on all the terrains, such as fish and snails, and so on.”

Keeping poetry in its rightful place at the heart of education

Old boy and QE poet-in-residence Anthony Anaxagorou has spoken out against this week’s Government announcement that poetry will become optional in next year’s GCSE English examinations.

Anthony was quoted by the BBC in its report on reaction to the announcement from examinations watchdog Ofqual, while his fellow Old Elizabethan, George the Poet (George Mpanga 2002–2009), was also pictured and mentioned in the article.

And Headmaster Neil Enright said today: “Poetry is, and will remain, core to the curriculum at QE. Throughout last term’s remote learning, staff ensured that poetry kept its important place in lessons delivered through our eQE virtual learning platform.

“We also found that encouraging boys to compose their own poems was a very stimulating, creative activity for the lockdown. And prior to the pandemic, Anthony’s workshops were always a popular draw for the boys.”

Ofqual originally proposed that there would be no changes to the English literature GCSE examination in 2021, but, following a consultation in which some respondents argued that it was hard for pupils “to get to grips with complex literary texts remotely”, the organisation has now said schools can focus on a smaller number of texts.

All pupils will have to write about a Shakespeare play, but they can choose two out of the three remaining content areas: poetry; the 19th-century novel and post-1914 British fiction and drama.

In response, Anthony (OE 1994–1999) said: “Poetry shouldn’t be regarded as an analytical exercise, a response to memory, a means of introducing literary device. Poems do so much more, getting into spaces [and] subjects other modes of language can’t.

“Presenting it as an ‘option’ does nothing but reduce its cultural value more.”

During the Summer Term, School departments including English and Modern Languages ran a number of poetry competitions, and boys’ poems were published in The Arabella – a magazine featuring the work of pupils which is published by the boys.

Teachers found ways to teach poetry remotely, with, for example, the English department making extensive use of pre-recorded video with Year 12 classes, particularly for challenging passages in Shakespeare, Chaucer and the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Eight get gold! QE shines in national Biology contest

Eight QE boys have been picked in the top 5% nationally among the thousands who participated in this year’s Intermediate Biology Olympiad.

In fact, 51 of the 56 QE boys who entered the prestigious competition closely connected with the Royal Society of Biology this year achieved recognition for their performances.

Biology teacher Mev Armon said: “It is tremendously encouraging to have this independent confirmation that we have so many able biologists in our Sixth Form. My congratulations go especially to our eight gold-level candidates, whose performances were very impressive indeed.”

The Intermediate Biology Olympiad is open to students in the first year of post-16 education. It aims to test their knowledge of the subject and to encourage them to continue studying the biosciences beyond school.

This year’s lockdown competition involved a one-hour multiple-choice paper to be taken online, with questions covering GCSE topics and content from the first year of the A-level curriculum. The major areas covered: biological molecules; cell structure; the immune system; exchange surfaces; circulatory systems; plant transport; molecular genetics and biodiversity.

In addition, to the eight gold winners, 14 QE boys achieved silver – a level reached by the top 16% of students nationally – and six took bronze. A further 12 boys were ‘highly commended’ and 11 ‘commended’.

Since 2015, the Intermediate Biology Olympiad has been run by UK Biology Competitions, a Special Interest Group of the Royal Society of Biology, which was set up in 2010.

The eight gold winners, all in Year 12, are: Aqif Choudhury; Bhargab Ghoshal; Ari Karthikeyan; Vivek Nair; George Raynor; Rukshaan Selvendira; Arnav Sharma and Paarth Singhal.

Scholars and citizens: workshops prepare sixth-formers for their place in the wider world

With their examinations behind them, Year 12 came into School for a series of workshops aimed at helping them prepare for a new academic year and at giving them a little time to reflect at the end of an extraordinary term.

The socially-distanced pastoral workshops focused on the personal development of the sixth-formers, but also gave them a chance to catch up with their friends and teachers. In line with Government guidance about emerging from lockdown, QE has been providing opportunities for Years 10 and 12 especially to spend time at the School in recent weeks, beginning with end-of-year examinations for both year groups.

The Year 12 sessions, which were spread across two days, included: group assemblies led by Head of Year 12 Helen Davies; individual meetings with form tutors; guidance on the UCAS personal statement to ensure the boys are ready for their university applications next term, and workshops led by two Old Elizabethans, Bilal Harry Khan (2003-2010) and Kam Taj (2004-2011), both experts in their respective fields. Bilal’s workshop was entitled Reflecting on Privilege & Anti-oppression, while Kam’s theme was Intrinsic motivation.

Headmaster Neil Enright said: “We felt it important to give our Year 12s an opportunity to consider  their own progress this year and to reflect on what has been happening in the wider world, while also looking forward to the new School year.

“We have worked with both Bilal and Kam before as a School and I was delighted that they were able to help us on this occasion by leading workshops which are both, in their different ways, of great importance for our pupils.”

After leaving QE, Bilal read Theology at Cambridge. He then worked locally in Barnet in a post that involved helping keep young people safe in the borough. After that, he worked in the charities sector, at first running workshops for young people and then also beginning to design the workshops. He is now a diversity and inclusion practitioner, flying all over the world to talk to CEOs and other senior leaders about issues “that might be uncomfortable”. Bilal has also become an important national media voice on such issues.

He told the Year 12 boys that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, this was an important time to reflect on issues that, in fact, “have always been there”.

Among the activities during the workshop, he asked the boys to close their eyes while he read out a series of statements and to put their hands up if they could relate to that statement:

  • “Did you have breakfast this morning” (all put their hands up)
  • “Do you feel safe walking down the street at night” (most did)
  • “When growing up, did you easily find books to read with characters from your background? (only one boy did)
  • “When shopping, do you easily find plasters that match your skin colour” (again, only one)
  • “Do you find it easy to gain access to a toilet when in town” (all).

The boys then discussed in pairs which statements stood out to them, and what it felt like when they kept their hands down for a question. In a group discussion, they examined whether they had previously thought about these issues, and if not, why not – which provoked comments such as “They don’t affect us,” and “We just accept it’s normal.”

On the question of “Do you feel comfortable calling the police if there is trouble?”, one boy answered in the negative, saying he “did not feel safe around the police”.  Bilal pointed out that the police were meant to be there to keep everyone safe. This led on to a further discussion around BLM, looking at people’s bad experiences with the police, including the possibility of even losing one’s life, as George Floyd did in the US.

There was also a discussion about the concept of privilege, with Bilal challenging the participants to think about where privilege comes from. The boys again talked in pairs and fed back into a group discussion about how privilege is maintained. Citing the widely quoted axiom, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it”, Bilal stated: “By reflecting on this, we can make changes.”

Bilal encouraged the boys to consider the diverse aspects of “all human identity”, taking them through the components of the acronym, GRACES: Gender & Geography, Race & Religion, Age & Ability, Class & Culture, Ethnicity & Education, Sexuality & Spirituality.

In his workshop, Kam, a performance coach and motivational speaker, began by asking the boys how motivated they felt on a scale of 1–10 by a show of hands.  One placed himself at 1 and most said 5 or 6, with none saying 8, 9 or 10.

The aim of the workshop, he explained, was for them to think about what motivates them and about what they could do to boost their motivation.

Kam described motivation as a “fire from within”; boys should not rely on other people or external circumstances to motivate them – “The only chance of our fire burning brightly and sustainably comes from within.”

At Cambridge, Kam saw other students seemingly having it all – getting everything done academically, whilst playing varsity-level sport and having great social lives. It was only in his third year that he “got it together” himself, he told the groups.

After university, he became a management consultant, which gave him opportunities to start looking at what separates top performers from others.

He then developed his ‘motivational fire formula’, which involves a combination of heat, fuel and oxygen. The heat is the intention (“What’s my goal and why I want it”), the fuel is realisation (“Being aware of what we want and making it happen”) and the oxygen is action (“Just do it!”). He added that actions need to continue in order to keep motivation going (“Action begets action”). Worrying, however, could serve as a “fire blanket of expectation” in this model, stopping people from taking actions.

He invited the boys to reflect on this formula – and on what they are missing in their lives. The formula could be stated as an equation: Motivation = intention + realisation + action – expectation

Looking further at intentions, Kam asked the boys what their goals were. The answers included “getting into medical school”, “being a great climber”, “being happy and getting by”, “being more successful than my parents in ten years”.

“The more clarity we have about what we want, the better the actions we choose,” said Kam.

He then went through the eight criteria of “empowering goals”, namely: values-driven; enriching; controllable; attainable; specific; measurable; flexible and harmless (to oneself and others).

He emphasised the importance of being positive, urging the sixth-formers to “think about the person you want to become”. They should focus not on what they want to avoid, but on what they want to attain, he advised. “If you say: ‘I don’t want to fail’, you are still focusing on failure.”

Kam also introduced the power of visualisation, giving as an example the fact that he used to visualise himself sitting in the examination room at university completing a three-hour paper calmly and confidently.