Getting an education

Ruby Bridges, flanked by US Marshals, on her first day of school in 1960

This week I read the fascinating and terrifying story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was born in 19 54 and grew up in Louisiana, USA, in the midst of the civil rights movement. When she was born, schools in Louisiana were segregated – black children and white children did not attend the same schools. This practice had been declared unconstitutional just before she was born, but it took six years for the first black child to attend an all-white school. Ruby was that child.

In early 1960, she passed the entrance test to attend William Frantz Elementary School – an all-white primary school. Ruby’s walk to school on her first day was big news. A crowd gathered, chanting and waving placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. Ruby was protected from the angry crowd by four Federal Marshals. She was six years old.

All the white parents pulled their children out of the school. All the teachers refused to teach whilst there was a black child enrolled at the school – except one. One teacher, Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and taught Ruby alone, in her own class, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” On Ruby’s second day at school, one white parent walked his five-year-old daughter through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school.” Following his example, more parents brought their children to school over the following days, although Ruby continued to be taught by Barbara Henry in a class on her own. She would not be taught in the same class as white children until the following year. Throughout that time she was only able to eat food she had brought with her from home, due to threats to poison her school meals.

The American artist, Norman Rockwell, commemorated Ruby’s walk to school in his painting The Problem We All Live With. When he became President, Barack Obama hung the painting outside the Oval Office as a reminder that the courage of a six-year-old black girl and her white teacher paved the way for a black man to eventually become president.

Ruby Bridges visiting the White House to see her portrait hanging outside the Oval Office with President Obama, and reflecting on her experiences

Reading Ruby’s story this week reminded me of another inspirational young woman who stood up for her right to be educated: Malala Yousafzai. Malala grew up in an area of Pakistan where the Taliban had outlawed the education of girls, believing that only boys had the right to an education. Malala, like Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and continued to attend school. On October 9th 2012, in retaliation for her activism, a Taliban gunman shot Malala in the head in an attempt to assassinate her.

Malala Yousafzai in 2014

Malala survived. She was flown to Birmingham where she recovered, eventually attending an English school in Edgbaston and going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. She graduated in 2020. Throughout that time, Malala has been a prominent activist campaigning for the right to an education – a right which she nearly died for.

In this country we take it for granted that every child is entitled to a good, free education at school. We don’t stop to question it. We take it for granted that all children are welcome in our schools, no matter their background, the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, first language, or where their family comes from. This is accepted as normal. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are very lucky to live in a society where this happens – because it doesn’t happen everywhere. We must remember to continue to defend the importance of getting an education. And we shouldn’t take it for granted.

Prioritising: Eisenhower and Eating Frogs

We are all busy. We have many things competing for our attention all the time. In this week’s blog, I want to introduce you to the techniques that I use to help me to prioritise all the things I have to do. They really work!

The Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix or Grid. It’s often drawn in a different configuration, but I always think of it this way, like a graph!

The idea is simple. You make a simple grid with four quadrants, as in the image above, and you place the tasks on your to do list in one of the four quadrants according to how urgent, and how important, they are.

  • Quadrant 1 – urgent and important: DO NOW. Items in the top right corner of the grid are the most important and the most urgent. They need to be done right away and they cannot wait. The aim is to work smart to make sure as few things as possible end up in this quadrant, by doing them in plenty of time so they don’t become urgent. But sometimes, stuff happens, and it needs to be dealt with right away!
  • Quadrant 2 – important but not urgent: WORK IN THIS ZONE. This is where I try to spend most of my time. Here, you are dealing with things that are important, but not yet urgent. Spending time in this zone should prevent things moving into quadrant 1 where you get panicky as the deadline approaches. It’s also really satisfying to know that you are spending your time on the stuff that matters.
  • Quadrant 3- urgent but not important: GET RID. This is stuff that needs to be done but you don’t really want to spend time in this quadrant. Get this stuff done as quickly as possible – or, if you are lucky enough to have someone else around, get them to do it for you!
  • Quadrant 4 – not important and not urgent: DON’T BOTHER. If it’s not important, and it’s not urgent, don’t bother! Just be careful that the thing you’re not bothering with now won’t actually become important later – otherwise, it might suddenly pop up in quadrant 1 and send you into a panic!

When I first came across the Eisenhower Matrix, it was in a work context. I have used it ever since to help me prioritise my work as a teacher, a school leader, and as a Headteacher. It’s become so ingrained in my mind that I have found it also spills over into other parts of my life as well! Sometimes, the most important thing to do is spend time with your family, or go for a walk, or to take some exercise. Prioritising those things alongside work is essential for my own wellbeing. Over time, I think I have got better at weighing up which I need to prioritise and when – but nobody’s perfect and we’re learning all the time.

Which leads me to my second technique.

Eat the biggest frog first

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Mark Twain

I first came across this quotation from a colleague Headteacher, who shared it with at an event she was leading. It really stuck! What Mark Twain was saying is that, sometimes, we have unpleasant things to do. Things that we don’t want to do, but unfortunately we have to. In those situations, it’s best to get them out of the way as soon as possible. And, given the choice of two things you could be doing, it’s best to get the most difficult and horrible one out of the way first.

I’ll be honest, I don’t always follow this advice. Sometimes, like anyone, I’ll put off that difficult and horrible job and tick off a few simpler and easier ones first. But I know I’m delaying the inevitable and that, sooner or later, I’m going to have to eat that frog. So, wherever possible, I try to follow Mark Twain’s advice and get on with that difficult, horrible job first. Get it done, get it out of the way, and after that everything else seems like plain sailing.

But don’t actually eat a frog. It’s a metaphor. You knew that, right?

Getting your priorities straight

I have found that these two simple techniques really help me keep my priorities straight, and make sure that the important work of running a school gets done. Students could apply these techniques to their school work and home life priorities; maybe even some of the grown-up readers of the Headteacher’s Blog might find them useful too? Let me know if you did – or let me know how you prioritise and make sure you get stuff done. We’re always learning!

Welcome back assembly: kindness

In this week’s “welcome back” assembly, I focused on one of the the Academy’s three core values – and the value for this term – kindness. Before, that I paid tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, who died over the Easter holidays.

The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, started by Prince Phillip in 1956 (the same year that our school was founded), has made a significant difference to countless young people at our school and beyond. The scheme’s focus on young people improving themselves by developing a skill, and helping their communities through volunteering, is an excellent match for our own purpose – to inspire and enable young people to make a positive difference. We thank His Royal Highness for founding and promoting the Award Scheme named for him, and we commit to continuing the scheme in his name as part of his legacy.

Kindness

My assembly urged our students to think about kindness in three ways:

  1. Be kind to others
  2. Be kind to the environment
  3. Be kind to yourself

Be kind to others

Being kind to others is a foundation stone of our Academy culture. We expect everyone in our Academy community to treat one another with kindness. We recognise that nobody is perfect, and that sometimes we all make mistakes – but that when this happens, putting things right is an essential part of our learning and growth.

In the assembly, I spoke about how a single act of kindness has a ripple effect, improving life at the Academy for countless others. A kind word, helping somebody out when they are having difficulties, or noticing when somebody else is struggling, can all help make somebody else’s day better. And when they have a better day, they are more likely themselves to offer a kind word to somebody else in turn. By this method, the wave of positivity ripples out across the Academy community – and beyond.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Unkind words and deeds damage the culture of our Academy by making somebody else’s day worse. That person’s negative experience can also ripple out as they may pass the negativity on to others. This is something we are all keen to avoid, and this is why I urged all our students through the assembly to think about the impact of their words and deeds on other people – and to think before they speak or act.

Finally, I spoke about the importance of making sure that everybody felt welcome, felt included, and felt that they belonged at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. We have seen issues in wider society over this past year with discrimination and prejudice. We are determined that Churchill will remain an inclusive, welcoming community. It is everybody’s responsibility to ensure that we go out of our way to ensure that this happens, and that everyone “belongs” – no matter their background, where they come from, the colour of their skin, their gender or sexual identity or orientation, their family or who they are. These values of tolerance and inclusion are sacred to us at Churchill.

Be kind to the environment

We are lucky at Churchill to have a wide open, rural site, with lots of green spaces. Over the past couple of years we have made a significant investment in continuing to improve this, with our rooves now covered in solar panels, beautiful planting surrounding the central Broadwalk path in the middle of our site, and new trees and saplings planted all around the entire length of the new perimeter fence. Just this week, our students were out working with the Woodland Trust to plant saplings around the site.

It is essential that we all look after the beautiful environment. This includes reducing our waste, caring for our surroundings, and putting all of our litter in the bins. I saw the news coverage of public spaces over Easter as lockdown eased, with many members of the public leaving beautiful green spaces strewn with litter and debris. We will not tolerate that at Churchill – and we hope to instil good habits in our young people so that they will look after the environment beyond our Academy, as well as within it.

Be kind to yourself

Finally, I urged all our students to be kind to themselves. This past year has been tough on everyone, but children and young people especially have seen unprecedented disruption to education and society. They now face an uncertain future as society sets about recovering from the pandemic.

In this context, it is especially important that our students look after themselves. This does not mean lowering our expectations, our our standards – students must continue to push themselves to be the very best that they can be. But it does mean being honest with themselves, with us, and with each other about what is possible at this moment in time, and what is realistic. It means developing and maintaining healthy lifestyles in terms of diet, exercise, work and sleep. It means talking about problems when they arise, and not letting them fester.

It is natural and normal to feel uncertain and frightened, especially when looking around at the world as it is today. But, as Taylor Swift herself said, living a “fearless” life does not mean that we have no fear. It means that we acknowledge what is frightening in the world around us, and we succeed in it anyway.

Happy Easter

The date of Easter moves around in the calendar, according to the lunar cycle. This is because it takes place on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, which is the name give to the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox (when the Sun is exactly above the equator, so that day and night on Earth are of equal length) takes place on March 20th each year, but because the lunar cycle is not synchronised to the calendar year, this means that the date of Easter moves around. It can occur anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th!

We now know Easter as the Christian festival to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but it has its roots in earlier pre-Christian festivals to celebrate the awakening of nature from its winter slumber – a natural resurrection of its own. The very name of the festival stems from the name of an English pagan goddess – Eostre – who was celebrated at beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century AD. He was so influential on developing Christian theology, that the name of the festival stuck to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and spread throughout the Christian world.

This year, more than any other, the theme of resurrection and rebirth seems wholly appropriate. As we emerge – gradually – from lockdown, it does feel like an awakening. The unusually warm weather has certainly helped, alongside the daffodils and emerging blossom on the trees.

The Academy, too, has come back to life since March 8th. Classrooms, playing fields and social areas are once again full of staff and students, making real human connections rather than the stilted digital substitutes we have had to use through remote learning. It feels like a resurrection and a rebirth – and we give thanks for the progress we have made.

I wish all of you in our Academy community a happy, safe and restful Easter. We will see you back at school on 19th April – we have a lot to look forward to!

Year 9 Learning Groups and the Academy Values

Last week’s assembly, coordinated by Mr Davies, explained the people behind the names of this year’s Year 9 learning groups. They are all people with important links to our nearest city, Bristol – and they have all showed the Academy’s values. We hope that these figures from our local history will inspire our current students to similar endeavours of kindness, curiosity, and determination.

Brunel: curiosity and determination

Brunel learning group is named for Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the mechanical and civil engineer who designed the Great Western Railway, Clifton Suspension Bridge, SS Great Britain and numerous significant ships, tunnels and bridges. He was a prominent figure during the Industrial Revolution which began in Britain, and he revolutionised public transport and modern engineering. His endless curiosity led to him finding innovative solutions to engineering problems, and his determination ensured that he overcame the challenges in his way.

Stephenson: kindness and determination

Stephenson learning group is named after the civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson. He was born in 1937, in Essex. He joined the RAF as the only black cadet in his regiment. Many years later he became a Youth and Community Development Worker in St Pauls, Bristol. It was during this time that he campaigned for a bus boycott as he didn’t accept that the bus company wouldn’t employ black drivers. He decided he was going to do something about this! He fought for black people to be treated fairly in public places in Bristol. With Muhammed Ali, he also set up ‘Muhammed Ali Sports Development Association’ to promote sports development among ethnic minority young people to help develop self-confidence  and social interaction. In 2008 he was given the Freedom of the City of Bristol in recognition of the work he has done to bring the black and white communities together.

Fragapane: determination

Claudia Fragapane is a British artistic gymnast who grew up in Bristol. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, she was the first English woman to win four gold medals since 1930. In 2015, Fragapane was part of the women’s gymnastics team that won Great Britain’s first-ever team medal, a bronze, at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. She competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, alongside Churchill Academy alumnus Ruby Harrold. She also finished fourth in Strictly Come Dancing!

Park: curiosity and determination

Nick Park is the famous animator, director and writer behind Wallace and Gromit, Creature Comforts, and Shaun the Sheep. He has been nominated for an Academy Award a total of six times and won four with Creature Comforts (1989), The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). He has also received five BAFTA Awards, including the BAFTA for Best Short Animation for A Matter of Loaf and Death.

He has spent most of his career working for Aardman Animations in the Bristol area. His curiosity has led him to develop a unique and appealing world of claymation animation. Meanwhile, his technique of stop-motion animation – shooting films one frame at a time, moving each model just a fraction between each shot – requires a huge amount of determination!

Blackwell: kindness, determination and curiosity

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol in 1821, although she moved with her family moved to America when she was 11 years old. She was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the USA in 1847, which required determination and curiosity. As a medical doctor, she showed great kindness when she treated wounded and injured soldiers in the American Civil War, despite strong opposition from male colleagues.

Later, she opened her own medical practices in New York (1852) and in London (1871) where she taught, trained and inspired other female doctors to follow in her footsteps. She retired from medicine in 1877 to work as a social and moral reformer, co-founding the National Health Society.

She showed determination, battled all her life and her successes had been monumental. In 1881, there were only 25 female doctors registered in England and Wales but by 1911 there were 495 registered. Her ambition and success has inspired many generations of female doctors to pursue medical careers and achieve the ‘impossible dream’.

Kenney: determination

Kenney learning group is named after Annie Kenney (1879-1953). Annie Kenney was a key figure in the suffragette movement which campaigned for women to have the vote in the early twentieth century. Kenney was one of the few working class women to rise to prominence in the Suffragette campaign. She became a leading figure in the Women’s Social and Political Union and  spent some years working as an organiser in Bristol. She hit the headlines after being imprisoned for several days for assault and obstruction, after heckling Sir Edward Grey at rally on the issue of votes for women.

Kenney was imprisoned a total of 13 times. She repeatedly went on hunger strike in prison, and underwent brutal force-feeding from the authorities. She remained determined to confront the authorities and highlight the injustice of the treatment of suffragettes by the male-dominated authorities.

When the First World War broke out, Annie Kenney accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes from the WSPU in ending their activism. Instead, they took on jobs that had previously been done by men, who were now away fighting, in support of the national war effort. Her actions, and those of others in the movement, led to women gaining the vote in 1918.

Dirac: curiosity and determination

Dirac learning group is named after the physicist Paul Dirac, born in Bristol in 1902. Dirac made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation which describes the behaviour of sub-atomic particles called fermions. He also predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory”. He is widely regarded as one of the most significant physicists of the 20th Century.

Brohn: kindness and determination

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1979, Clifton-born Penny Brohn knew she needed more than just care and treatment for her body: she recognised that she would need support for her “mind, spirit, emotions, heart and soul.” She co-founded a charity centre with her friend Pat Pilkington called the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, which offered patients complementary therapy to support them alongside medical treatment. She showed determination to overcome a great deal of controversy and scepticism to support those living with cancer. Penny Brohn died in 1999, having lived with cancer for 20 years. Her kindness lives on in the work of the charity she co-founded, which provides care to those living with cancer before, during and after treatment.

More: kindness, curiosity and determination

Last but not least, learning group More is named after Hannah More (1745-1833). Hannah More was born in Bristol, where she taught at a school founded by her father and began writing plays. She became known as a poet and playwright, as well as a writer of moral and religious texts, and moved to Wrington in 1802. She campaigned to extend education to the poor, and to girls, who otherwise had no access to schooling. Vitally, More also campaigned against the slave trade. Hannah More is buried beside her sisters at the Church of All Saints in Wrington: you can see a bust of her in the south porch to this day.

A year like no other

I am writing this post on 18th March 2021. Exactly one year ago, the Secretary of State stood up in front of Parliament and announced that “after schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice.” I wrote about the events of that week, and the time immediately around it, in my post Closing for Coronavirus.

My hand-scrawled notes from the Secretary of State’s speech on 18th March 2020

I remember well the febrile, fearful atmosphere of the country a year ago, as an unfamiliar threat advanced across the globe. I remember supermarket shelves emptied of toilet roll, pasta and flour; roads suddenly deserted; skies filled with birdsong instead of airliners.

The Academy has remained open to the children of critical workers and other eligible children throughout, including holiday periods at the height of the pandemic. But, in the 39 official school weeks that have passed, we have been delivering education remotely for 23, and fully open for 16. Through that time we have worked hard to keep our Academy community together and connected, adapting to new technology and new ways of working.

One thing this past year has taught me is how adaptable and resilient we are. We have adapted to circumstances that were unimaginable a year ago, when I had never used Zoom. I didn’t know about social distancing. I didn’t know the importance of a spike protein. I had never worn a face covering.

Socially distanced students during Exam Support, June 2020

Now, a year on, I know about using systems of controls to manage infections; I know about the importance of ventilation; I know the difference between a lateral flow device and a polyamerase chain reaction test. I can navigate Google Classroom smoothly and I have a mug which I can hold up to the webcam so I don’t have to keep saying “you’re on mute…”

My mug has proved very useful in online meetings

This year has also reinforced the importance and the value of education in our society. Expert scientists have delivered the vaccine in record time; highly trained doctors, nurses and carers have helped those most in need. Musicians, actors, dancers and performers have made new connections online. Journalists have kept us informed, seeking the truth and fighting back waves of misinformation and speculation. Never has learning and education been more important.

And this year has also reminded us that schools are more than just places of learning: they are communities which bring people together. Over the past year we have found ways to keep that community going when we cannot physically be in the same space, but there is no substitute for the real human connections that I see every day in the classrooms, studios, playgrounds, social areas and playing fields of the Academy.

Lancaster Lounge at lunchtime

Even in the midst of the global crisis, I can see real progress at Churchill. We have launched our fifth house, Lancaster, and pushed on with redeveloping the Academy site. Our student councils have started up and our student leadership programme is beginning to take root. We have redeveloped our curriculum, responding not just to the technological challenges but to issues of representation, pace and challenge, and links to careers and employment. And we have advanced our sustainability agenda, with increased planting around the site and a focus on the environmental impact of the Academy.

Despite the return of students to schools, the vaccine rollout, and the roadmap out of lockdown, we are not out of this crisis yet. When I sit down on 18th March 2022 to look back again, I wonder what new adaptations and changes we will have made? And I wonder what the world will be like two years on from that House of Commons announcement…

No matter what, I know that the staff and students at Churchill will be going strong. We have been tested this year – not just with lateral flow devices – and we have prevailed. As a society, we will be picking up the pieces from this past year for a long time to come. As an Academy, we are ready to do our bit to build back better out of this crisis, to emerge stronger, and to flourish in the future.

The five-house flag flies over Churchill, September 2020

Yes we can

This has been quite the week for schools. We have had the re-opening announcement: all students to return. Seventy pages of guidance, from lateral flow tests to face coverings to ventilation to hygiene to “bubbles” to cleaning and beyond…with the health and wellbeing of our staff and students depending on its implementation.

Then we have had the decisions on how GCSE, AS and A level, vocational and technical qualification grades will be determined in summer 2021. 113 pages of guidance to digest and synthesise carefully, with the future prospects of our examination candidates depending on its implementation.

Is it easy?

No.

Can we do it?

Yes we can.

When our students are faced with something difficult, they can sometimes feel overwhelmed, and want to give up. It’s our job, as teachers, to pick them up and encourage them, to give them confidence, to reassure them that it can be done – and that it’s worth it. As I contemplate my to-do list, I am thinking about our students. I can’t wait to see them. So whatever needs to be done, will be done – because they are worth it.

If the NHS can vaccinate 18 million people in two months, I’m sure we can carry out 1600 lateral flow tests in five days.

If a team of scientists can drop a 1000kg wheeled robot onto the surface of Mars in a perfect touchdown, I’m sure we can design a robust system that ensures our students get the grades they deserve at the end of this challenging year.

Because, when we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.

Thank you: you’ve done an amazing job

To our staff

Working in a school at the moment is unlike anything we have ever known. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any team work as hard as the Churchill staff since January: it has been awe-inspiring. Teachers have had to re-plan existing curriculum to deliver remotely, finding technological solutions to replace in-class interactions. Providing feedback has become labour-intensive: what would, in normal times, be a quick conversation with a student or working through a pile of exercise books or tests, now requires teachers to open each document individually, adding comments, marks and areas for improvement. Tutors are also phoning or emailing to check on progress, welfare and wellbeing – and this is on top of Frontline provision for children eligible to be in school.

Teachers and support staff are also on the front line as schools address a rise in domestic abuse and child protection issues, and try to support families medically or financially affected by the pandemic. Our staff have mobilised a lateral flow testing operation and implemented a raft of covid-safe procedures, all while keeping the financial, administrative and resource functions of the Academy operating remotely. And managing the ongoing building projects!

The pandemic has tested all of us, in all walks of life, in all lines of work: I am hugely proud of the way our staff have stepped up to the plate and, to extend my baseball metaphor, smashed it out of the park.

To our staff: thank you. You have done an amazing job.

To our families

We really appreciate how hard this year has been for families of students at the Academy. You have had to balance your own jobs and lives with the added challenge of your children being at home, needing the wi-fi and the laptop and lunch and snacks and motivation and encouragement and exercise and help with which year Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech and what’s the atomic number of carbon?

All this whilst you are trying to parent your young people through an international crisis which is causing all of us anxiety and uncertainty about our health, our economy, our friends, and our wider families. We can’t go on holiday, we can’t go out, and we can’t socialise except through a screen. It has been tough – and it will be tough for a while yet. So, for all you have done to support and help our students through this time, whilst holding it together yourselves – give yourselves a pat on the back, and treat yourselves to glass of something good. You deserve it.

To our families: thank you. You have done an amazing job.

To our students

As I have said before, and will doubtless say again and again, it is our young people who are the beacon of light in this dark period of our history. From the chorus of “thank you”s at the end of each remote lesson, to the fantastic work that they are producing, to the kindness they are showing to others in helping them with technical problems, resources and understanding the work…our students have done themselves proud during this lockdown. They have been there, turning up for the Zooms and Google Meets, engaging in the chat, introducing us to their pets and earning an absolute mountain of house points (over 140,000 at last count). It has been tough being separated from friends and classmates, tough to maintain motivation in the face of uncertainty, but they have stayed strong and kept going throughout it all.

To our students: thank you. You have done an amazing job.

To all of you: enjoy your half term. You have earned it.