Headmaster’s Speech at Academic Prize Giving

Ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls, thank you for being here this evening, particularly the night before the first Control test of the year. This is our way of trying to even things up so that all the other boys in the school have a chance of making it to this prize-giving next year.

We as a staff are grateful for this opportunity to congratulate the top academic achievers of 2015. Many of you will have strived to do your best in order to be a part of this ceremony and I believe that represents the true spirit of our school.

Although we all know that taking part is a key element in sports, school events and life in general, recognition of achievement can be what makes us push ourselves and reach our full potential. The prize winners are a true representation of everything that we stand for here at Northwood – these hard working, articulate young Squires and Knights are a credit to the school and an inspiration to many among their peers. It is through achievements such as those we recognise tonight that we are clearly able to see the skill, high expectation and commitment of our staff and pupils and these prize winners are great examples of what we hope for from our boys.

‘The future of a state depends upon the education of its youth’ – first attributed to Greek philosopher Diogenes. (Also used by the Hitler Youth, but that is another matter)

When I look at the pupils before us today; when I see their hard work; when I share in the celebrations of successes; when I am witness to their kindness and support for each other; when I hear tell of their exemplary conduct in school activities, I have every confidence that the young men that will one day leave Northwood School will be precisely the kind of young people who will make a positive difference to the world, the country, from the domestic sphere to the international stage, and all points in between.

In that list of things that make me proud I note that academic achievement is but part of the interrelated dispositions that make up what Aristotle would have defined as ‘the good citizen’. So often, when we discuss education in this country we mention two connected but not identical ideas – education and assessment or testing. When I meet with new or prospective parents, many describe to me their aspirations for their sons in terms which prioritise a ‘rounded’ education. At Northwood, we share that belief and thus we have developed a code, a promise if you will of the qualities which the education that we offer will aim to nurture.

It is clear, from the evidence of government reports and statements from the whole spectrum of employers that there are more people than ourselves that know that what the world needs is a majority of young people who are well rounded, who are good communicators, who are both the expert and the ‘doer’.

This demands of young people precisely the kind of dispositions that we absolutely know the world needs: resilience, determination, leadership, co-operation, social responsibility.

We are very clear that this is the educational ethos that informs this school and that the teaching staff believe in and articulate.

One aspect of education that has requires particular focus is that of resilience.

Your success will be built on being true to yourself, warts, irresolution, moments of fragility, doubt and all.

The resilience you do have is because, from an early age, your parents encouraged you to develop a sense of perspective. In modern-day South Africa, perspective seems to me to be an extraordinarily precious commodity.

I remember, listening to an interview with Andy Murray, one of the top tennis players in the world, after he was knocked out of a major tournament in the first round by a much lower ranked player. Media frenzy raged and yet his press conference statement was straightforward and wise: ‘nobody died here. I lost a tennis match.’

Another instance for you: picture a Maths lesson. A question is posed: student eyes darted left and right. There was an eerie calm, no resolution, some panic. Silence reigns until the teacher says: ‘What’s the worst that can happen if you get this answer wrong right now?’

Parents, you are part of this process of perspective-giving. If we take that broad sense of true education, it cannot possibly be the case that everything is achieved at school. The most powerful influence on a child’s perspective is that which is modelled by its parents. Thus we need to be very careful that our understandable desire to protect and encourage doesn’t translate into responses which actually have the effect of saying that a B grade is a failure; that to be in a set other than the Top Set is indicative of a problem and, dare I say it on an occasion such as this, that not winning a prize renders all other achievements in the year as negligible.

Boys, let me tell you something. I received recognition at school; I received recognition at national level at sport and I won R27,50 in the Lottery last week. Boys, it is very nice to win prizes and we are incredibly proud of our prize-winners today and they should be proud of themselves but let’s be clear, if you link motivation to winning prizes in life, you set yourself up for disappointment. Because the greatest prize of all is when you can look yourself in the eye and say, ‘I tried my absolute best and I know I’ve done a good job’.

Andy Murray, said that what his coach had instilled in him and what had made the difference to him is that he now learns more from his losses.  School from Grade 8-11 is a safe place to learn from relative ‘losses’, to develop perspective. A B grade is not a failure; it’s a work in progress. Each and every one of you in this school is valued. I believe that all of you have something remarkable to offer to the world.

I also want you to remember that this humdrum, ordinary, take-it-for-granted thing of going to school and learning – in a school which values you; in a school which is ambitious for you – would be seen from the perspective of millions worldwide as the most priceless gift on earth.  From that perspective, each and every one of you in this hall today has won a prize beyond value.


So, to return to the quotation with which I began: the privilege of your education is something that you should never feel obliged to apologise for. But if we have genuinely educated you, you will know that with this privilege comes the responsibility of turning your excellence in all that you do to the advantage of others. Let that spirit inform all that you do, all your academic successes and all the steps that you take on the way to becoming the change-makers of the future.

And to surrender this spirit …? Now that would be failure.

(Mr P McAvoy – Headmaster, Northwood School)


Latest Articles

New Headmaster Announced for Northwood

Read More >

75 Bikes for 75 Years

Read More >

Northwood Variety Show 2023

Read More >