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Headmaster's Address


Welcome back, and I would like to start by thanking all the pupils who helped out at the legendary annual Leysian institution of the “24 Hour Visit” for pupils moving through to Year 9 – either from Moulton or from other schools – which happened the end of last term.  This is such an important part of the Leys calendar and I am very grateful to all of you who gave up your first day of the holidays to come and help with the induction of those pupils who will be joining us in September.

Next I have some certificates to hand out, and I will start with the good news that three further writers have been chosen to be published in the ‘Power of Poetry’ competition, where the main theme revolved around using poetry to present something about which the author felt passionately. I have certificates to present to these three writers, and they are: Anagha A, Aurora R and Ella T.

Next to the British Physics Olympiads.

Last term, a number of Lower Sixth and Year 11 pupils sat the British Physics Olympiad, Senior and Intermediate Physics Challenges. These were national competitions with over 12,000 entries.

Mr Harmsworth describes them both as a challenging mixture of problem-solving questions in often unfamiliar Physics that require confidence and tenacity. Topics familiar to those studying the school courses also appear, but with more twists than a plate of fine spaghetti that naturally require very careful untangling and substantial effort.

In the Intermediate competition, Bronze Awards were achieved by 26 pupils, so I won’t read all their names out but congratulations to them all. Upper Bronze Awards were received by Catriona B, Charlie M, Eric X, Sam W, Samuel M, Tomas F B and Zac R. Let’s give them all a round of applause.

I have certificates for those who gained Silver Awards, given to those in the top 25% overall. They go to Alex W, Caspar A, Diogo Kong F S, Leon P and Louisa H.

Finally, I am delighted to announce that Dominik S secured a Gold Award, an achievement that ranks him in the top 10% of those who entered. Please come forward Dominik to collect your certificate and our applause.

In the Senior competition, Mr Harmsworth tells me that the written paper was much more challenging than previous years and that it was not easy to mark either, with the official mark scheme corrected twice by the organisers. It is not only for the very top students, but for all those who like to engage in solving problematic questions and it certainly lived up to this billing.

Commendations have been awarded to Harry L, Joseph M-K and Ryan Y. Bronze certificates have been given to Emma H, Eric Z, George G, Jack X and Lincoln C. Let’s applaud them.

Meanwhile, coming in the top 30% of all entries, I’d like the following to come forward to collect Silver Awards: Caleb S, Martin P-S and Neev G.

Finally, and despite the definite increase in difficulty this year, a record four individuals have achieved Gold awards, in the top 10% of all entries. I’d like them to come forward for our congratulations please: Edward S, Richard T, Terrence J and Weng Ga C.

Very well done to all those who took part in these competitions.

And now to my theme for today.

Many years ago when I was working at a previous school, I used to run the boys’ squash.  There were some decent players and we had a good squad, but there was one young man in the team whose approach I found very frustrating.  For the purposes of this talk I’ll call him Matt.

Matt used to play at around Number 3 or 4 in the team – he wasn’t our best player, but he was pretty good – a useful member of the team, certainly.  Sometimes I felt he could have tried harder; it always felt to me that he kept something in reserve.  Nevertheless, on merit he deserved his place in the team.  For the first match of the season, he turned up in his tracksuit – as expected – and when it came to warming up before his game, he kept his tracksuit bottoms on – fine, I thought, he’s still getting warm; I was amazed, however, on a pretty warm day on heated courts when he kept his tracksuit bottoms on for the entire match, which he won, quite comfortably.  I had a word with him afterwards – and said that in future, I’d expect him, when he was representing the school in a match, to take his tracksuit off to play – nobody plays to any sort of level of seriousness in tracksuit bottoms, after all.  Over the course of the next few weeks, I noted that he resisted this very strongly – he always seemed to have a different reason why he didn’t want to take his tracksuit bottoms off.

On one occasion I remember saying to him that I simply wasn’t prepared to let him take to the court in his tracksuit bottoms and at that point he said: “But I don’t have any shorts on underneath – I couldn’t find them; I think they must be in the wash”.  Yet again, he’d found a way to resist my instructions.

It took me several weeks to work out what was going on.  I should say that there was something in his play which also gave it away.  I noticed that Matt wasn’t the sort of guy to win a tight match, 3-2.  In fact, he wasn’t the sort of boy to lose a tight match, 3-2, either.  He tended either to win quite decisively, 3-0 or 3-1, or lose by those margins.  He won plenty of his matches at Number 3, but he hardly ever won a match if he lost the first game.  Slowly, the penny dropped; I realised that, for Matt, consciously or unconsciously, not taking his tracksuit bottoms off was not simply an oversight.  It wasn’t something medical or about body image, either – I checked with the pastoral staff and he was perfectly happy to do other sports in shorts, like everyone else.

More recently came across the technical term for what he was doing, and when I read about it I immediately thought of this boy, even though this had happened years previously.  It is a phenomenon known as self-handicapping – and it has been observed not just in sport but in business, in schools and in family life.

Essentially, self-handicapping reveals just how far people are prepared to go to protect their ego, even at the expense of their own long-term success.

Matthew Syed, author of several books including my beloved Growth Mindset bible, ‘Bounce’, describes how he first saw self-handicapping in action during his final year at Oxford.  “We were about to take our final exams (writes Syed – and I remember the same thing, too) and we had all prepared well for the big day. Over the final twenty-four hours the majority of us spent our time going through our revision notes for a final time. But one group of students did something very different. They sat outside in the garden area frolicking and drinking cocktails, didn’t take a single look at their notes, and made sure that everyone knew that they were going to a nightclub later that evening. They all looked pretty relaxed, joking about the coming exams. “To me”, writes Syed, “it didn’t make sense. Why jeopardise three years of work for the sake of a night on the town? What could they possibly hope to gain by arriving at the first exam, one of the most important days of their lives, with a hangover? The most surprising thing of all was that many were among the brightest students, who had worked diligently for the preceding three years.”

It was only years later, when reading about the Fixed Mindset, that the pieces fell into place for Syed: he realised that these fellow students were so terrified of underperforming, so worried that the exam might reveal that they were not very clever, that they needed an alternative explanation for possible failure.

You can see that the same was true of my squash player: he was willing to handicap his own chances of success in order to gain an excuse for possible failure.  If he won, he could say to himself (and to anyone prepared to listen): “And I didn’t even have to take off my tracksuit bottoms!” whilst if he lost, he had a ready-made excuse: “Well, I didn’t even take off my tracksuit bottoms”.

The phenomenon of self-handicapping seems, on the surface, perplexing: executives who breeze into a vital sales pitch without reading the relevant material; brilliant university students who suddenly decide to get drunk before a crucial exam.  But viewed through the prism of my old friend, the Fixed Mindset, or rather I should say, my old enemy, the Fixed Mindset, it makes perfect sense.

Self-handicapping can have short-term benefits. If you can pin a particular failure on some external factor, it cushions your self-esteem in the event of a poor result. But this misses the real lesson in all this. What is the point of preserving self-esteem that is so brittle that it can’t cope with failure? Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardise learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about – and the common theme linking successful people, organisations and systems is a healthy and empowering attitude to failure.

Of course, you shouldn’t seek failure, but you certainly shouldn’t be so fearful of it that you flee the field of battle.  You should seek opportunities to test yourself, embrace those opportunities, notwithstanding the possibility that you might come up short.  Most of the success which looks effortless to outside observers, isn’t – it’s forged on the back of challenge, hard work, and facing up to difficulty.  Here’s a fact:  most success in life is effortful, not effortless, and it is built incrementally, on the basis of the scars of experience.

Self-handicapping gets in the way of this; it’s a strategy designed to avoid the invaluable lessons which only experience can bring.

It’s like eating a Big Mac (other equally unhealthy fast food brands are available) may bring a short-term surge of happiness, but in the long run, if you get into the habit of it, it brings a whole load of negative consequences, and it inhibits what you and I, and this school, should be all about: human flourishing.  So get out there, take off those tracksuit bottoms (literal or metaphorical), and give it your best shot. Have a great term.