Angels Dancing on the Head of a Needle

This week brought news of a potential breakthrough with the announcement that the Pfizer vaccine is 90% effective. The UK government has secured 30 million doses of this vaccine and it is hoped that the mammoth task of vaccinating the population will begin as early as 1 December. We still await news from the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine but interim reports on the progress of the Stage 3 trials is most encouraging.

Visiting an A level biology lesson on Tuesday morning, it was fascinating to watch our Lower Sixth Formers become embroiled in a heated debate about the medical and ethical implications of vaccines. To previous generations of students, such considerations might have seemed a little far removed from the classroom. Right now, it is difficult to imagine a more important or relevant topic for debate. I do believe that recent events will inspire the emergence of a generation of epidemiologists and that scientists such as Sarah Gilbert will soon become household names. The struggle to combat serious viruses probably constitutes mankind’s greatest challenge in the twenty-first century.

Students who study Theory of Knowledge within the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme will be familiar with the work of Ben Goldacre. They may have even read his book ‘Bad Science’ or watched one of his TED talks. Goldacre specialises in exposing the misuse of science and statistics by journalists, politicians, conspiracy theorists and pharmaceutical companies. He is a Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University and he has explored topics as disparate as the placebo effect and Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited research on the causal link between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. His work is accessible and, like Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins, he has been known to pack rock venues and he has achieved some sort of celebrity status. Within the Theory of Knowledge course, students explore the methods used within science to appraise and validate new scientific data and potential discoveries. Peer review, confirmation bias and pseudoscientific claims are all explored within the context of a course that is multidisciplinary, discursive and endlessly enlightening.

It is always sensible to exercise caution when contemplating breakthrough moments. You may remember when scientists at CERN announced back in 2011 that they had ‘broken the speed of light’. They claimed that neutrino particles travelling within the Hadron Collider had travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light and that this served to overturn Einstein’s Law of Special Relativity. In reality, it transpired that this ‘false result’ was due to something as prosaic as a faulty computer cable.The fact that scientists were so ready to abandon the notion that E equals MC squared shows how easily we can be fooled or beguiled by that which is new.

The Hadron Collider

Still, whilst it is our responsibility to encourage children to develop their critical faculties and debunk what Goldacre refers to as ‘bad science’, we should recognise that this breakthrough is potentially almost as momentous as the discovery of penicillin and one feels tremendous gratitude for those who dedicate their lives to science. The spectre of a return to normal life by the Spring enables us to now live with a sense of real optimism and boundless hope. There really is light at the end of the tunnel and we can now dare to believe that 2021 will be a year most unlike 2020.

I was supremely proud of all those members of staff and pupils who participated in our Remembrance Day Service. This year our service had to be a little different, but I do believe that we did our very best to honour those members of this community who lost their lives in conflict. The choir performed beautifully and the CCF were brilliant in every regard. We hope that you enjoy watching the service online.

Spare a thought for our Year 11 and Year 13 students who still face a degree of uncertainty regarding public examinations next summer. OFQUAL are set to make further announcements later this month regarding possible contingencies. The Welsh move to cancel GCSEs and A-level exams might put additional pressure upon Number Ten – especially if Scottish Highers face a similar fate in the coming days. This uncertainty seems incredibly unfair. Young people have been through enough this year and yet we are in the extraordinary position of our Year 13 applying to universities without knowing for sure what it is that they will need to do in order to fulfil the entry requirements.

On a lighter and much happier note, our thoughts are beginning to return to Christmas. The drama department’s trailer for A Christmas Carol is a real tribute to all that is being achieved within the department. I am a firm believer that Christmas should wait until well into December, but I think that on this occasion we have every reason to make an exception.l