Reviewing an extraordinary year

Mr McCarthy celebrated a year characterised by many challenges and successes when he addressed the school at Prize Giving, screened on the headmaster's YouTube channel.

In a forest there is a tree. It is a handsome tree, insofar as a tree can be considered handsome. It isn’t the biggest tree in that part of the forest but as healthy as any other. It is straight, broadly symmetrical and so balanced, with an even spread of lush green foliage. It stands strong with deep roots and every year, as trees do, the foliage turns and departs to be replaced by fresh shoots in a reassuring cycle of maturation and renewal.

The arborists who look after the tree, have taken great care over time, pruning back when required, training the branches where necessary and providing treatments to give the leaves the maximum possible sunlight and nourishment. The health of the tree is excellent.

However, over recent years, a number of storms have hit the forest. One storm came across from mainland Europe, and while the worst was thought to be over, it has not dissipated entirely. Yet the tree stands firm.

Before Christmas last year, a second, lesser storm, preceded by bright red skies swept across our forest but this didn’t amount to much and the tree stands firm.

The third storm’s origins are up for debate, but it certainly came to us from an easterly direction and this was a storm without precedent in its ferocity. All the trees in the forest took a battering. Some big trees with overhanging limbs were cleaved apart. Small trees, without developed root structures, were upended and tossed aside. Trees that had tried to spread their roots out too far had to retract those roots quickly in order to preserve their nourishment and increase their chances of weathering the storm. Big trees lost many of their leaves; some lost so many that they may never fully recover.

Our tree, because of its strong, balanced roots and straight symmetrical profile stands firm in this last storm, just as it has weathered every storm for the last 82 years.

Our tree, because of its strong, balanced roots and straight symmetrical profile stands firm in this last storm, just as it has weathered every storm for the last 82 years. Not because it has some divine right to do so but because the arborists strive to take meticulous care of its roots, its trunk, its branches, its twigs and its leaves. Our tree stands firm.

Of course, I am not really talking about trees, I am talking about our school but I believe that the metaphor is a good one.

However, we do not want the 2019/20 academic year to be defined by Brexit, a nervy General Election, or the Covid-19 pandemic. We celebrate here the whole year, with its many challenges and successes. We rightfully celebrate our pupils and, against that backdrop, we recognise team and individual achievement and effort across the life of the school.

A time to be prepared

In my retweet of the United Nations, all the way back on February 28th, I agreed that ‘This was not a time for panic - it was a time to be prepared’.

When the lockdown arrived, we prepared as quickly as we were permitted (some 48 hours) and sure enough, by Version 3 of RHOnline! we had achieved in 5 weeks what it has taken the Open University 50 years to achieve - a comprehensive, whole-school online learning environment with a near-full academic and pastoral timetable, online storytelling, together with physical and creative challenges for everyone from Robins to Form 7.

We have been the envy of many schools and I am immensely proud of RHOnline! and of all the staff from every sphere of school life, for believing in the vision and delivering to our pupils.

It is impossible to find the words to describe the levels of challenge we have faced as a community. The wheel was invented 3,500 years ago, yet to go entirely online and then back again, in part, and then return in full, but in bubbles, we feel that we have reinvented that wheel hundreds of times over these last few months. The Easter holidays and the summer half term break dissolved away in a flurry of activity with every aspect of a busy school’s life reassessed, repackaged and relaunched to keep life and learning as normal as possible.

I say thank you to the staff, knowing that it can never be enough, but I say it anyway. It has been an especial privilege working with you in these difficult times.

I congratulate all of our families too for the way in which you have been patient, adaptable, supportive and keen to ensure that your children get the best out of the opportunities against the backdrop of severe uncertainty.

And I congratulate our pupils for their resilience, patience, kindness to each other and for sharing their imaginations with us in cyberspace.


So what does a review of this extraordinary year look like? Let’s have a closer look at the cross section of our school life in 2019/20. Let’s take a trip back in time.


It was a record year, with eight scholarships awarded to our pupils.

At the Heads’ conference back in September I listened to David Davis MP who focused on the need in this country for what he referred to as ‘an intellectual revolution’. He explained the how and why - we need to accept as a society that to do things well and to do things right and to the proper depth takes time, resilience and commitment. It’s time, he said, to celebrate intellectualism in the young and to move away from the shallow, superficial 160 character absolutist and self-obsessed existence of a social media driven world.

There were no fewer than 8 scholarships awarded to our pupils this year in art, music, sport, all-round ability and, of course, academic prowess.

I couldn't agree more and it is schools like Russell House that are at the forefront of keeping children’s feet on the ground, while still asking them to reach for the stars.

When we look again at the continued progress made by our children during lockdown and the destinations of our Leavers, we can be reassured that we are achieving our aims. There were no fewer than 8 scholarships awarded to our pupils this year in art, music, sport, all-round ability and, of course, academic prowess.

English & Drama

The English & Drama Department has had another strong year, beginning with a runner-up at the Caterham School Poetry Live Competition, in the form of Form 7 pupil, Tommy.

Before the word lockdown was in use Britain, Form 7 were preparing for the Public Speaking Competition on the topic of The World On Our Doorstep. Little did we know that the world would be united in lockdown just weeks later and the children would have to adapt to presenting via video.

But adapt they did and they created a bank of varied and interesting speeches about deforestation, music and art around the world and how transport has brought the world closer together. Our eventual winner was Björn, who spoke about My Global Fridge having researched the worldwide sources of the everyday items in his fridge.

Science and PSHE

Two of our big development drivers over the last twelve months have been our community work, both locally and globally, and our development of sustainability.

The Farm, spearheaded by the Science and PSHE departments has, in spite of it all, been developed at the bottom of the Paddock and will soon see Covid-secure chickens and sanitised vegetable crops aplenty, to join the Environmental Science project that is the pond.

We have enjoyed school wide Environmental Awareness Weeks during which so many answered the call to Walk to School, whatever the weather. Meat-free Monday was less popular, but in time it is hoped that all the children will at least understand the reasons behind it.

The cross-year Eco Committee was duly elected and put to work identifying areas in which the school can further reduce waste. They have run successful campaigns to reduce water loss in school, plant out the pond and sew seeds in the vegetable garden. Single use plastic within school has been reduced and, although there is a way to go, we are thrilled with the progress made as a community.

That intellectual revolution I mentioned earlier was also very much in evidence as we stormed to the national finals of various academic quiz competitions. These fun format, but fiendishly difficult challenges have proved immensely popular. Our team won the regional heat in the General Knowledge Quiz to join our Science Quiz team as national finalists.


Competitive Maths is always a firm favourite among Russell House pupils and, while many of its events succumbed to Covid19, two pupils took bronze in the UK Primary Maths challenge. This is never easy and so truly is a remarkable effort.  


All the way back to September and the U11 football team opened their account with a tournament win, once again victorious over much bigger local opposition. It was noted just how much ‘togetherness’ and team spirit made the difference in the closer games. No sooner had the medals gone in the cabinet and the squad were at it again, this time winning a tournament in something called futsal.

Not to be outdone, our netballers took silver honours in a local tournament in the early part of Spring 2020. And then in early March, came third in the London and South qualifiers, to book their place at the nationals, where they came runners up in the Shield Final - a wonderful result for the girls.

The girls and boys’ teams admirably represented the school in cross country events with Harry cementing his place as a force to be reckoned with in this discipline, as he bagged second place from a large field of competitors in a big local race and then went on to take 2nd at the Kent Schools’ championship in November.

Gymnastics is now regarded as a key strength of the school and once again the hard work of the sports department has paid off, with the standout story being the sheer consistency in performance by our pupils. Early in the academic year, our U11 boys finished 5th at the IAPS Nationals. In December, it was silver for the girls’ team and a bronze for the boys’ team in the Regionals. Come January, there was more success, with gold in tumbling in the Regionals, earning a place at the Nationals, silver for the Sports Acrobatics mixed pair and bronze for the boys’ pair. More success followed in February with a bronze in the Regional Floor and Vault.

Another discipline involving mats is Judo, which featured prominently again this year with Reuben taking silver in the IAPS nationals, though it has to be noted that he was one penalty away from the gold.

And we say goodbye to two young men who have had individual and joint success as the strongest tennis lineup we have enjoyed for some time. Our dynamic duo achieved top ten placings in the Winter Tours National Finals and a host of individual accolades.

But of fundamental importance, is the way in which our pupils represent the school and early this year I enjoyed a notable increase in the number of positive comments that I received from members of staff at other schools, other Heads and members of the public. Thank you to all our pupils for consistently getting things right off the field, just as they do on it.


Our music remains energised. The Chamber Choir enjoyed numerous performance opportunities, entertaining at Open mornings and Grandparents morning and also singing Christmas Songs for the commuters at Sevenoaks Railway Station. They were involved in a Choral Day at Sevenoaks School and premiered a performance of Don’t Steal Our Future by Chris Dyer. The Russell House Orchestra has grown to over 30 members who love to perform and of course, Russell House sings!

Interestingly we discovered this year that currently 80% of our pupils take instrumental or voice lessons, with many taking more than one.

A measure of progress in music is, of course, the ever popular Trinity and ABRSM exams and I am delighted to report that our pupils have enjoyed an 86% attainment of Merit and Distinction grades this year.

Even in lockdown, we found time to be musical and artistic with the well-supported Arts Festival and the Portrait Gallery. 


We are very fortunate to have such an active and well-supported Parent Association and I marvel at the creativity, efficiency and enthusiasm that our parents have to support the school.

I would like to thank those at the helm of the Parent Association for their work on committee and to the army of helpers across the whole school, who give their time so willingly and to such great effect, in providing opportunities for the school community to come together, to raise money for good causes, or simply to have fun.

Your efforts are too many to list but I must thank you all for facilitating the next phase of the Russell Hall Project, the new lighting has already enhanced our drama, as seen in Dream On, the Leavers’ production broadcast last week.


Over the course of this year we set in motion our desire to build and support, with UWS, a school in Ishma, Nepal. With that as the focus of our fundraising this year, together, as a school we raised £2,355. The global pandemic has reached into every corner of the civilised world it seems and so I must report that the school is currently closed. However, the building is there and we have enjoyed sharing photographs of it and the smiling faces of children, much like those found around Russell House, leaving us safe in the knowledge that we have already made a positive impact on the lives of these children, half a world away.

I cannot go without a mention of the efforts by Form 7 on behalf of Foal Farm. The immensely popular onesie-day raised £361 and, in gratitude, the school was awarded an honorary sponsorship of the Naughty Nine, a group of previously abandoned sheep!

I must also make mention of the brother and sister duo, Daniel and Alice, who spontaneously set up a ‘guess the number of sweets in the jar’ and sold off their cuddly toy collection to raise money for charity. More recently, Kiran was spotted outside his house selling cookies to passers by in support of the NHS. These are wonderful examples of the kinds of initiative and thoughtfulness that we want to instill in our pupils.


To say that we have enjoyed the company of this Form 7 would be a gross understatement. The usual wrinkles and bumps of school life aside, this group have been so very much ‘together’ throughout and they have been kind and supportive of each other in ways that many leaving forms do, but even more so.

They have handled their many successes and disappointments throughout this year with a developing maturity that leaves me firm in the belief that each of them is ready for the next stage of their educational journey. They will always be the covid-crew but the enhancement of self-reliance and IT wizardry witnessed leaves me in no doubt that they are the better for it.

Some of that IT wizardry was evident in putting together their summer production, Dream On! this term, which was rehearsed both exclusively online, exclusively in person and often a hybrid of the two, not to mention performing to camera, while social distancing in bubbles of various colours. The show was thoroughly enjoyable, a wonderful end product and a testament to the children’s and the school’s ‘can do’ attitude.