With much excitement, we have returned to school to begin a new academic year.  The start of a new school year always fills us with a sense of optimism and anticipation – so much to look forward to and so much promise ahead.

Our theme for this year is Rebuild, Retain and Refocus.  After such a strange time, we want to rebuild the essential aspects of St John’s life which the pandemic diluted. From interaction between year groups and singing in Chapel, to eating copious quantities of toast in senior houses, we will recapture the things we love and have missed. But last year was not all bad – as we adapted to accommodate Covid restrictions we discovered new things that worked within our school community – and we want to retain those positive discoveries. Our Sixth Formers valued the year group identity they forged within their bubble for example, so we are creating corridors of year group tutor rooms to keep those connections strong; while younger pupils benefited from being outdoors much more at lunchtimes and so that will also continue.

Crucially, we will refocus on the things that are fundamental to our ethos. We will embody the essence of our High Hopes, High Standards, High Spirits motto. We will live optimistically, with ambition in all areas of school life, and will hold ourselves to the highest standards in and out of the classroom, on and off the pitch, and with and beyond the walls of our school. We will live life with energy and enthusiasm, we will find time to laugh, and we will include all members of our community as we try to live life to the full, remembering our core value of kindness.

As we begin this year, it is our High Hopes that I particularly want to consider. Many of us were caught up in the excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics this summer. As a keen rider for many years, I always enjoy the equestrian events but this year I also loved new sports, particularly the skateboarding and the climbing.  We’ll all have different favourite moments across the breadth of sports on show but, regardless of their sport, a unifying trait amongst the competitors was their pursuit of excellence.

Just think about that commitment and drive. Day after day, month after month, working to perfect performance.  Hours of training, a carefully controlled diet, limited opportunity for fun or socialising and lots of sacrifice.  A long-standing school friend of mine was a world championship rower, and even she would admit that her friendships took a back seat when she needed to focus on her sporting goals. Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed described training for such elite sporting events as “an infinity of sacrifices that permit the gradual sculpting of the body and mind for a supreme day of destiny.”  Every single athlete at the games had pursued excellence, and they had attained excellence simply by being there, regardless of whether they won a medal.

The philosopher Plato described excellence in these words: “Excellence is not a gift, but a skill that takes practice. We do not act rightly because we are excellent in fact we achieve excellence by acting rightly.”  I like this concept, and it is a good one to have in mind as we set out on the year ahead.  Achieving excellence takes practice: lots of it.  And we can all engage in that in all areas of school life.  It’s certainly possible that we won’t achieve excellence in everything we attempt, but there’s nothing to stop us trying with determined effort and some sacrifices.  Maybe all it will take is fewer Netflix box sets of the course of the year or 10 minutes more fitness training after school. Those decisions are ours to take. As Edmund Hillary, the explorer, said: “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”

However, excellence isn’t achieved by being alone.  And it certainly shouldn’t be at St John’s. Among the many moments of excellence at this summer’s Olympics, the gold medals won by Tom Daley, with his diving partner Matty Lee, in the synchronised 10m diving, and by Charlotte Worthington in the BMX, shone out.  I remember first watching Tom Daley compete at the Beijing Olympics when he was just 14 years old.  Since then, he has had moments of brilliance and of disaster before finally becoming an Olympic champion this summer. He described standing on the podium with these words:

“You know when you see the movie of all the things, a flashback in your head of all the things that were really hard and challenging and difficult and then all the good times, the bad times, the people that helped you get there… it all kind of just came flooding back. There are a lot of people behind that medal, and just everything came to that moment of pure elation at having done it after 20 years of training.”

Charlotte Worthington won gold after pulling off a backflip 360, which had never before been landed in women’s competition, and which she failed to achieve successfully in her first two attempts. Apart from winning the gold medal, almost the best moment of watching this were the post event interviews with Charlotte and Hannah Roberts, the US competitor who had been widely expected to win and with whom Charlotte had lived and trained in recent months. Charlotte paid tribute to Hannah, telling the BBC:

“I’ve been dreaming about this for four years and it still feels like I’m dreaming. It was incredible. I’ve not been doing that trick for that long, but we’ve been trying to find that big banger trick and when we found it we were like, ‘I think this is the one’. And to be honest I wouldn’t have any of those tricks if it wasn’t for Hannah. So Hannah’s made me push so hard since day one. This is the first time I’ve ever beaten her. So if it wasn’t for Hannah Roberts we wouldn’t be this far anyway.”

Reflecting on her silver medal, Hannah was equally supportive of her rival, saying she was: “super proud of Charlotte” and “honoured to take second place to her”.

These athletes embody the idea of excellence through sheer hard work but also demonstrate the importance of mutual support, humility and respect.  As we start this academic year, I want all of our pupils and staff to aim for excellence. It will take hard work and determination. But I also want us all to remember that to achieve excellence we need to support each other, rejoice in each other’s successes, support each other in our moments of struggle and live our core values of kindness with everyone within the community.

It is wonderful to be back, and we can’t wait to see what the academic year 2021/22 brings.