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Vineeth wins competition with his video on the amazing, complex story of retroflexes – the sounds that bind together the Indian sub-continent

Sixth-former Vineeth Rajan’s presentation on Indian linguistics has been announced as the winner in a national video essay competition run by the Cambridge Language Collective.

The collective – a collaborative blog written and produced by Cambridge University linguists – awarded Vineeth joint first prize in the senior individual category for his closely argued seven-minute film entitled Retroflexes: The linguistics of South Asia.

Danylo Gutsulyak, of Year 10, was awarded joint-second place in the junior individual category for his entry entitled Das Lagerfeuer, while two other QE boys – Year 10’s Darren Lee and Tejas Bansal, of Year 9 – were also shortlisted.

QE’s Head of Languages, Nora Schlatte, said: “My congratulations go to all our successful entrants and especially to Vineeth on his submission, which was not only impeccably researched, but also very attractively presented.”

Vineeth, of Year 12, put the video together over the first half of the Easter holidays, articulating his argument throughout with his hand-drawn illustrations, and making extensive use of time-lapse photography.

He described it as a “deep dive” into the history, phonology and sociolinguistics of retroflexes, which are the distinctive sounds that are formed by curling the tongue back behind the upper jaw’s alveolar ridge. It is, he says, a topic that has long fascinated him.

Vineeth explored the various academic theories about the origins of these sounds and how they developed. He looked at why retroflexes are common across hundreds of different languages throughout the Indian sub-continent, yet are relatively rare in other parts of the world.

He acknowledged that anyone seeking to track the origin and development of sounds faced a harder challenge than linguists tracking the written language, pointing out that all the theories he was explaining about retroflexes were necessarily speculative: “Although words can be securely etymologised to one source over another, phonological influence is often harder to trace back.”

After setting out the history, he took a look at the present-day situation, mentioning the “characteristic Indian English sound that Apu [from TV’s The Simpsons] is perhaps notorious for today” and how people have adjusted the way they speak to “try and elevate themselves from this lowly regarded pronunciation”.

Vineesh concluded: “This is what is amazing about retroflexes: the profound impact that they have on the complex sociology of south Asia, spreading across the tongues of people from a diversity of cultures, religions and backgrounds in a way that nothing else possibly could….Retroflexes seem to bind all of south Asia together. Despite making us seem homogenous and often risible to the western world, [their] history can give us a glimpse into the complex interactions between diverse cultures thousands of years ago.”

Vineeth, who aspires to be a biochemist and geneticist, published the video on his own YouTube channel, Genespeak, which focuses on both biochemistry and linguistics.


Arnav named among Britain’s best young biologists

Sixth-former Arnav Sharma is among an élite handful of young scientists selected to compete for a place in the UK national team after his success in the British Biology Olympiad.

Arnav, who was one of eight QE A-level students to win gold medals in last month’s British Biology Olympiad (BBO), will soon be taking part in a virtual selection process to decide who will represent the country in this year’s 32nd International Biology Olympiad (IBO).

Congratulating him, Biology teacher Andrew Collins said: “Arnav’s success stems from his curiosity to delve into topics of Biology to unravel the precise mechanisms behind concepts. He is motivated by interests which range across a number of topics from the Kreb’s cycle* to the behaviour of ants in a colony, for example. He carries out experiments with care and is able to use his background knowledge to interpret data effectively.”

The national team selection process that he is taking part in is being hosted online by Warwick University’s School of Life Sciences and involves practical and theoretical training and assessments.

Dr Collins added that Arnav’s prowess as a biologist also benefits his classmates: “His enthusiasm sparks lively discussions in lessons and helps stimulate others to read beyond what is covered in the course and make unexpected connections between ideas.”

If he is successful in the national team selection, Arnav will join some of the top pre-university Biology students in the world, undertaking both theory and practical tests alongside young people from more than 60 countries.

Along with Arnav and his fellow gold-medal winners, a further nine boys received silver medals and three took bronze. Thus, 20 of QE’s 21 entrants won medals, while nationally only 25% of the 8,476 competitors were medal-winners. All the QE contestants were from Year 13 and volunteered to take part, competing online from home. They completed two multiple-choice sessions of 45 minutes each.

Biology teacher Mev Armon, who supervised boys on  Zoom, said: “We value the BBO because it gives our students the opportunity to go further than their A-level syllabus, offering them a new level of challenge.”

* The Kreb’s cycle, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) or citric acid cycle, is the main source of energy for cells and an important part of aerobic respiration.



Expert’s festival feedback helps make up for missing live audience as QE’s musicians shine

With coronavirus restrictions this year putting paid to QE’s usual spring concert for some of its most advanced musicians, the School instead staged a special online Grade 8 and Diploma Festival with an expert external appraiser.

The event, which is now live on the Music department’s YouTube channel, featured 13 musicians, from Year 7 through to Year 12, playing in the School Hall.

Listening and watching online was Christopher Sparkhall, Director of Music at Canford School in Dorset, who gave the performers immediate feedback on their performances and then sent them longer, written feedback a few days later.

QE’s Director of Music, Ruth Partington, said: “We devised this festival because we wanted to give these accomplished young musicians the opportunity to practise performing in front of a knowledgeable and friendly stranger.

“It was very deliberately billed as a festival, not a competition: in normal years, the boys might have expected a warm round of applause from a live audience; instead, Mr Sparkhall gave them feedback that, while honest, was both generous and constructive.”

Mr Sparkhall, who was an Organ Scholar at Oxford, is an examiner for the ABRSM (the examination board of the Royal Schools of Music) and is on the senior examiners team as reviser for AQA GCSE Music. He sings with a semi-professional chamber choir, Sarum Voices.

The first half of the festival featured seven pianists, all of whom have either achieved Grade 8 and are now working towards their Diploma, or are working towards Grade 8. They played pieces by composers including Debussy, Grieg, Chopin and Rachmaninov. Shreyas Iyengar,  of Year 7, who is pictured, top, performed Passepied, written by 19th-century French Romantic composer Léo Delibes as part of his incidental music for the play, Le roi s’amuse, by Victor Hugo.

Following a short interval, the festival continued with musicians playing the viola, alto saxophone and cello, and with performances by two singers, Shivas Patel, of Year 12, and Arjun Patel, of Year 10.

After alto saxophonist Conor Parker-Delves had brought the festival to a conclusion with his rendition of Robert Planel’s Prélude et Saltarelle, Mr Sparkhall said: “Such accomplished playing! What a wonderful end to a brilliant afternoon.”

  • Miss Partington recently led a research process to make the key choice of which grand piano should be purchased for the recital hall in QE’s new Music School, which is due to open in the autumn. During a week’s testing, piano teacher and accompanist Tadashi Imai played two instruments brought in on loan. The Music department then unanimously picked the Yamaha CF6 over the other instrument, a Bösendorfer 214VC. The School’s Foundation Trustees (Trustees of the Endowment Fund of the Schools of Queen Elizabeth I in Barnet) have agreed to pay for the piano, valued at just under £75,000. Expressing her gratitude for their contribution, Miss Partington said the aim was now to raise a further £30,000 through giving to QE’s new Piano Fund to cover costs for other pianos and equipment.
March of the roboteers

After a busy spring of online competitions, the Summer Term opens with all four QE teams now qualified for this year’s VEX EDR Robotics World Championship.

Hyperdrive and Override first reached the virtual international finals next month and then Tempest and Hybrid safely made it through, too, reports QE’s Head of Technology Michael Noonan.

Their achievement capped a term that saw the School host two successful international remote robotics events.

Head of Technology Michael Noonan said: “Both events saw the QE teams demonstrating great problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills as they made lots of last-minute adjustments online in order to optimise their robots or deal with technical faults.

“Boys are very happy that they can physically work on their robots now we are back in School. Everyone is looking forward to the world championship, and, with restrictions now beginning to ease, we are all hoping for more events before the end of the year, too.”

Teams from Canada, Taiwan, the US and UK, including one from QE, took part in the first QE-hosted event, which was held during lockdown.

The second QE event was a bigger remote skills tournament close to the end of the Spring Term. Twelve places were available, three-quarters of which were reserved for UK teams. Hyperdrive, competing in their first event, represented QE, together with Override and Tempest. Hybrid were unavailable. The QE teams took on five UK and three US teams close to the end of the Spring Term.

Each robot first had to pass an inspection before taking the field. Conducted over Zoom, the competition involved each team having 30 minutes to try to complete three ‘driver’ runs (where the robot is controlled by a driver using a remote control) and three ‘programming’ runs (where the robot moves around the field based on pre-programming – so once it starts there is nothing more you can do).

When competing on their own in such events (as opposed to directly against another team on the field of play, as would happen in an ‘in-person’ competition), the aim is to amass the highest score by picking up red balls and tipping them into the goals, while also ‘de-scoring’ as many blue balls as possible, dislodging these from the bottom of the goal stacks.

The winners were one of the two teams competing from Galion High School from the small city of Galion in the state of Ohio; they scored 110 points in the driving section and 45 points in the autonomous control section. The remaining US team were an independent team from Newnan, Georgia, who were placed second in the competition, with a score of 114 for driving and 28 for autonomous control (and were competing from a garage at 6.30am local time!).

The highest-placed UK team went to an independent team, which included one QE pupil, Year 11’s Yash Shah.

QE’s Tempest team came fourth with their highest score to date – a “highly respectable 122 points in total; 95 in driver and 27 in programming”, said Mr Noonan.

The event was administered by Mr Noonan, with Technology teachers Stephanie Tomlinson and Shane Maheady, and Technology assistant Jemima Snelson, handling the refereeing and scorekeeping.

Competition continued even on the very last day of term, when all the QE teams competed in a UK live remote skills event hosted by the Vex Robotics Training Academy in Warrington. Tempest and Override came third and fourth, with total scores of 132 and 113 respectively.

Stars of stage…and now screen

When the Spring Term lockdown forced a sudden end to rehearsals for the School play, QE’s young actors harnessed technology so that they could still perform to an audience.

With the help of QE’s resident Theatre Director, Gavin Molloy, members of the Year 8 drama club learned, staged and filmed dramatic monologues from home .

And, after weeks of preparation and practice, at the end of term, their highly varied work was revealed to classmates, staff and parents alike as the monologues went live.

Crispin Bonham-Carter, Assistant Head (Pupil Involvement) said: “The speeches were taken from a range of classic and modern texts by authors ranging from Charles Dickens to Michael Morpurgo. The boys went to great lengths creating costumes, props and backdrops in their own homes.”

The recorded Zoom videos were put together in an online showcase, which was watched in School by boys during form time and has now been published for parents on the School’s eQE online platform.

Fifteen boys took part in the showcase, which was split into two halves for the presentation on eQE.

Their selections drew on some of the best-known authors and stories from the history of English literature. Ash Iyer performed from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; Soham Kale read from An Inspector Calls by J B Priestley; Simi Bloom picked one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Adi Dhan chose Dickens’ Great Expectations.

But more modern authors were certainly not forgotten: Aadam Aslan’s monologue was taken from Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. Keon Robert performed from The Class, by playwright and Game of Thrones actor Luke Barnes, while Karan Somani performed an excerpt from Roy Williams’ play about boxing and racism, Sucker Punch.

One boy, William Joanes, read from the play that was postponed, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name.

With lockdown over, full-scale rehearsals to put on this award-winning play resumed towards the end of term. It will be staged in June as the 2021 School Play.

Counting the cost: Oxford professor speaks to QE economists on the effects of the pandemic

Sixth-form economists turned out in force for a lunchtime Zoom talk on ‘Covid-19 and the Economy’ from a leading Oxford economist.

The speaker, Michael McMahon, Professor of Economics at the University of Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at St Hugh’s College, is a leading expert on communications in central banks. His interests also lie in monetary economics, fiscal policy, business cycles, and applied econometrics. He worked at the Bank of England for many years and now serves as a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council.

Professor McMahon is also a Lead Editor of the Economics Observatory, a website that seeks to make economic research and government policy accessible to the general public, to which his latest contributions have focused on understanding the effect of the current pandemic on the UK economy.

His talk was given to QE’s Economics Group: Advanced Lectures – an enrichment activity targeted at those wishing to read the subject at the best Economics departments in UK universities. It was organised by Economics teacher Gustavo Ornelas-Almaraz following an initial approach to Professor McMahon by Year 12 pupil Ethan John. After Professor McMahon finished his presentation, there was a short period for questions.

Dr Ornelas-Almaraz praised the strong attendance at the event, especially given that it was held on a Wednesday – a day when many of QE’s sixth-formers are free to leave early. “The talk was both well attended and well received by our Year 12 economists. “

“They were particularly attentive to the portions of Professor McMahon’s lecture in which he laid emphasis on how the current economic situation will impact young people as they are thinking about their job prospects for the future.

“In all, it was an interesting and timely talk to our Economics students, and I am grateful to Professor McMahon for the time he spent in preparing and delivering his presentation; we have invited him to visit us in person in Barnet when the time is right.

“I have shared the resources that Professor McMahon provided amongst the students, and I am sure they will use them in their preparation for their A-level exam next year.”

Economics is a popular choice of degree subject at QE. Of this year’s 39 Oxbridge offers, seven are to read Economics at Cambridge, while one boy has an offer to read Economics & Management and another to study Politics, Philosophy & Economics, both at Oxford.

“Strengthening the connection between your ears and fingers”: senior musicians learn jazz improvisation from a master

Renowned saxophonist, composer and educator Mike Hall kept QE’s senior musicians on their toes with a masterclass on jazz improvisation.

His hour-long, richly illustrated, online talk focused on examples of improvisation by two of the jazz greats, Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.

The boys now have a couple of weeks to submit recordings of their own improvisations before Mike runs another two masterclasses in which he will offer them direct feedback on their work.

Director of Music Ruth Partington said: “This was a great event and we are very lucky to be able to welcome a player of Mike’s stature ‘to’ QE. At this time of year, we would normally be holding our annual Jazz Evening, so the timing of this first masterclass was particularly appropriate.

“Mike’s talk combined the perfect mix of approachability with some challenging concepts for our advanced students. He talked about how to improvise over chords using the notes of the chord, about guide tones and about specific scales such as minor pentatonics.

“And he included some live demonstrations on Zoom: it was wonderful to hear him play.

“The audience clearly enjoyed his presentation, and there were some interesting questions at the end.”

The class briefly covered the history of jazz, with Mike stressing that it is an “aural music…[that] should be learned initially by listening to and emulating great players”. He moved on to the specifics of improvisation, including the need to acquire the requisite skills, such as “strengthening the connection between your ears and fingers”.

Mike was Head of Jazz Studies at the Royal Northern College of Music for 20 years, during which time he directed well over 100 concerts with the RNCM Big Band.  He still teaches at the RNCM and has also taught at many jazz summer schools and been a consultant and composer for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM – a Music examinations board).

He began with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and then spent 20 years with Michael Garrick, the late English jazz pianist and composer – a period which saw them tour Malaysia as well as make several CD recordings and national radio broadcasts.

Today, Mike is a regular member of the Echoes of Ellington Orchestra and runs his own jazz duo, quartet and octet, for which he also writes.

A video of the masterclass can be seen on the QE Music department’s YouTube channel.

On the money: QE boys’ prognosis for a post-pandemic world wins Bank of England film competition

A QE team have won the Year 11 category in the Bank of England’s schools film competition with their analysis of the likely lasting effects of the pandemic on business and employment.

Abir Mohammed, Dhruv Syam and Ansh Jassra put together a polished three-minute film featuring footage from around the world on the competition theme of The changing workplace: same spaces, new realities. The 2020 competition, entitled Bank Camera, Action, challenged entrants to explore the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the way we work, on jobs and on the economy.

Congratulating the boys on their success, the judges in the annual competition said they enjoyed watching the boys’ film, The Bank of QE, and were impressed by their filmmaking skills.

QE teacher of Economics Krishna Shah said: “I am extremely proud of the three of them and delighted that all their hard work in putting the film together has been rewarded.”

All three boys took on the role of producer, with Abir also acting as editor, while Dhruv was the narrator and Abir and Ansh were both interviewed on-camera.

The film looked at the possible permanent impacts of the pandemic both on individuals and on different sectors of the economy. The boys stated, for example, that:

  • Those without access to the technology needed for remote working could lose out, leading to a possible rise in inequality;
  • Small firms could find themselves unable to compete with large businesses on economies of scale;
  • Unlike those in “on-line service hubs”, such as London, people living in areas of the country concentrated on manufacturing could find it difficult to work from home, putting such areas at risk of mass unemployment and poverty.

It considered the environmental benefits of reduced levels of commuting and outlined possible technological solutions to the difficulties in maintaining work-life balance that working from home often entails, such as using separate electronic devices for work and personal life and screen-time blocking apps.

And Dhruv added: “New technologies have the potential to transform the future of work – things like low-latency whiteboards and faster 5G internet completely bringing back the spontaneity of the office.

“Ultimately, the question is not whether remote working is here to stay, but to what extent.

“Most firms will choose a mixture of both [office working and working from home], but even small shifts in global work patterns will have a profound effect on all our lives. Let’s see what the future holds,” Dhruv concluded.

They won £300 for the School to spend on filmmaking equipment, as well as a £25 Amazon eGift voucher each and a certificate signed by Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey.


Consider the pupfish!

The latest episode of the Roundness podcast series from The Queen’s Library highlights the grave unintended consequences that can arise from man-made changes to the environment.

Podcaster Surya Bowyer, QE’s Head of Library Services, warns that we disregard the “interconnectedness of the world’s natural systems” at our peril in a 36-minute episode that features a variety of expert voices and spans the globe, from Egypt and Ethiopia to France and Spain, and from the Amazon to the US.

But he begins the episode in one particular location, inviting his listeners to consider the extraordinary case of the pupfish – in fact, of one specific pupfish whom he names ‘Steve’. Steve, he explains, is a Sonoyta pupfish, a rare and threatened breed that is specially adapted to cope with the harsh conditions – extreme heat, very salty water and lack of oxygen – found in the waterways of the Sonoran desert straddling Mexico and Arizona. It is thought to live in an area covering only around four square miles.

“What Steve ‘knows’ is that during the breeding season, his scales turn an intense bright blue in an attempt to try and woo Linda, Brenda and the other pupfish,” Mr Bowyer says.

Understanding Steve’s remarkable metabolism – including his ability to produce alcohol – could hold benefits for medical science, Mr Bowyer says. “By considering the pupfish we could gain a better understanding of cancer cells.”

Yet, he says, the Sonoyta pupfish’s very existence is threatened by the damage done to the environment by the construction of the border wall ordered by former US President Donald Trump.

Mr Bowyer then looks at the negative effects that overlooking environmental issues has had across the world and throughout history. He recounts the fatal outcome for one 12th-century French nobleman poisoned by another type of fish living in a polluted environment.

And he reflects on the changes in economics – a discipline which used to characterise environmental concerns as mere ‘negative externalities’, but is now increasingly understanding that the unexpected knock-on effects of pollution make it impossible to regard environmental factors in isolation.

The Consider the pupfish episode of the Roundness podcast is available from the Library pages of the eQE online platform and from normal podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Blazing a trail for QE’s linguists

A national French debating competition is to become an annual fixture in the QE calendar after two Sixth Form teams showed the way with strong performances.

With only a week’s notice, Anshul Sajip and Zeke Essex, of Year 13, and Awad Shah and Vineeth Rajan, of Year 12, volunteered for QE’s first appearance in the Joutes Oratoires*.

In the debates, which were held virtually after school hours, the QE linguists had both to defend and to oppose three motions, covering civil liberties, the environment and artificial intelligence.

Congratulating them for their enthusiastic participation in the event organised in this region by St Paul’s Girls’ School, Languages Assistant Joelle Simpson, said: “The motions would not be altogether easy to support or defend in English, let alone in the French language!

“Both teams received strong scores throughout, and Awad and Vineeth won two out of three of their debates,” said Mme Simpson, who prepared the teams.

“They all found the experience a very valuable one and blazed a trail for future cohorts. Thanks to them, the event will become an annual feature in the QE calendar.”

Unfortunately, with 39 teams competing in the London region and only eight able to proceed, the two QE teams did not reach the next round.

The three motions were:

  1. Governments should have leeway to limit individual liberties in times of health crises
  2. Green economic growth is an illusion
  3. Artificial Intelligence is a threat for humanity.

QE’s Head of Languages, Nora Schlatte, was a member of the jury, and saw Vineeth and Awad in action. “Their research, poise and accuracy of language were amazing,” she said “Vineeth’s opening speech was described as ‘un modèle du genre’ [a model of its kind] and both boys responded very well to some challenging questions. Participating in something like this, especially remotely, is really daunting and they did brilliantly.”

* The term joutes oratoires dates back to the Middle Ages in France, when jouteurs (literally ‘jousters’) would duel in verse.