One the best parts of my job as Headteacher at Churchill is the time I get to spend with our students. I try to make time to talk to as many as possible during the day, whether on duty or on my daily “walk the school” when I visit lessons and see how things are going. I am always impressed by our students’ achievements, their humour, and – of course – their kindness, curiosity and determination.
One of the real highlights is when I get students sent to me so I can congratulate them on their achievements. These can be things they’ve achieved in and out of school, academically or personally – but, most regularly, it’s when students hit the milestone to be awarded a Headteacher’s Commendation.
A Headteacher’s Commendation is awarded when a student has amassed 125 conduct points in a single academic year. Conduct points are the sum of reward points (positive) and concerns (negative). We always want to see students with positive conduct points scores, as this shows their rewards outnumber their concerns – but the higher the positive score, the better!
Rewards can be earned for anything from good homework or classwork, contributions to lessons, showing the Academy’s values, participating in activities or representing the Academy. Amassing 100 points or more is quite an achievement – so hitting 125 is extra special.
I was delighted to hear that the first six students had reached the Headteacher’s Commendation milestone this month. This achievement means they have racked up conduct points of a rate of three every two school days! Last year, I was handing out certificates virtually via email – but this year, I have had the pleasure of being able to meet our commended students in person again.
Now that I have given out my first certificates of the year, I know that more will follow. That means I can look forward to weekly visits to and from groups of students whose dedication, effort, application and contribution has earned them the right to receive their certificates. I can’t wait!
My welcome back assembly this week was delivered as a YouTube video, rather than live in the Academy hall, due to the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. And that is – inevitably – how I opened my assembly: going through the COVID protocols for the month of January with a run-through of the rules about face coverings; expectations around twice-weekly testing; an explanation of the teacher’s role in balancing the need for good ventilation with a comfortable working temperature in winter; and an update on what we know about vaccinations for 12-15 and 16-18 year olds.
Once this reminder was out of the way, I wanted to focus my assembly on the importance of effort in learning. At Churchill, we have outlined the six things we know make the biggest difference to learning.
These six things are grounded in educational research, and our experience and data shows that students who show these behaviours in learning are the most successful in terms of their progress and outcomes. And there, right at the top of the list, is determined and consistent effort.
Our effort grades system sets up the expectation that all students will make at least “Good” effort. Anything less than “Good” isn’t enough – so it is graded “Insufficient” or “Poor.” It’s really important that our students know what teachers are looking for when we say we are looking for “good effort,” so we have set it out really clearly in their planners – and in my assembly!
We have deliberately tried to write the descriptors for our effort grades as things that teachers can see the students doing in their classes, so that it makes it clear for the students how to show the teachers that they are trying their best. And those students who really push themselves can show that they are putting in excellent effort:
In my assembly, I talked about two students whose effort grades were tracked through Year 9, 10 and 11, and how they did in their GCSE exams (these examples were from before the pandemic, when exams still took place). The percentages shown are the students’ average effort grade score across all their subjects.
Student A started Year 9 with below average effort grades, but worked really hard to improve them. Despite a small dip in the middle of Year 11, this student got better and better over time – and this investment paid off. The student made, on average, 1.3 grades more progress than similar students nationally in their GCSEs. The difference: the effort they put in.
Student B tells a different story. They started Year 9 roughly where student A finished Year 11 in terms of effort, but gradually declined across the three years. The result of putting less and less effort in each time: the student performed, on average, one and a half grades less well across their GCSEs than similar students nationally.
We see this played out time and time again across the students we teach. In class, all students are taught the same lesson, but they don’t all learn the material equally well. There are lots of factors in the mix to explain why that is, but the single biggest differentiator is the effort that the students put in. That is why, at Churchill, we put such an emphasis on effort grades – and it is why, at the start of 2022, I used my assembly to remind students of why if matters, and what we expect.
The London fireworks to mark the start of 2022 were truly spectacular, but broadcast without the usual crowds lining the banks of the Thames. It felt to me like a very appropriate way to kick off this year: a determined attempt to put on the very best show possible, despite the challenging circumstances.
We have seen this throughout the pandemic, as the discussion of lateral flow tests, hospitalisation and death rates, and the relative transmissibility of variants has become morbidly routine. Over the first weekend of the holidays, I was queuing in a makeshift marquee at Bath Racecourse to receive my booster jab from a military medic in camouflage fatigues, drafted in as part of the battle against Omicron. A small artificial tree in the corner was an attempt at festive cheer, but I admit it felt like something out of science fiction. I was more encouraged by the incredible organisation mustered at such short notice, and the wonderful volunteers giving up their time to protect the nation. I was also delighted to finally get an “I’ve had my Covid Vaccination” sticker, having not been offered one at my first or second dose!
As the new year began, I was braced for the expected announcements about schools for the term ahead. A year ago, we were being told that schools would be open before a U-turn on the evening of 4th January closed them all. The vaccination programme means that this year, we are able to keep schools open. We are grateful for this: we know how to do remote learning really well, but there is no substitute for being in a classroom, with your teachers and your peers. Of course it isn’t convenient to turn our gym into a testing centre or to stagger the start of term; it isn’t comfortable to wear a face covering all lesson; it’s a pain to have to swab your nostrils twice a week and then report the result to the NHS and to the Academy Google Form; nobody likes having an injection. But these are the things that mean we’re in classrooms, together, this January, rather than locked down in our homes.
I’m not a big one for new year’s resolutions, but as the clock ticked over to midnight on December 31st, I gave thanks for all the efforts everyone has made to get us here. We certainly have tough times ahead, but we’re in better shape, now, than we were a year ago. Despite the challenges, we can still put on a good show. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22.
Nothing says Christmas like two inflatable dinosaurs following Scooby Doo, Scarlet Witch and a group of nuns down the Academy concourse! Our Sixth Form have excelled themselves this year with a fantastic fancy dress parade and a brilliant end of year revue. Merry Christmas!
In that first post, I took comfort in the Academy community – my colleagues, our wonderful students and their supportive families. We all pulled together through the chaotic, scary winter months with determination and hope.
Later in January, we administered our first lateral flow tests. They are so much part of life now that it’s strange to think of them as unusual – although I do look back with fondness on our testing stations which I insisted were named after Taylor Swift albums…
February and March
As the lockdown continued, this blog offered guidance on how to help your child in lockdown, and offered thanks to staff, students and families. Towards the end of the month we were able to start planning for the return to school, which was scheduled for March 8th. Thanks to incredible efforts behind the scenes, we were ready to welcome our students back – 1600 lateral flow tests later! Students returned to the newly opened Lancaster House area, and separate year group bubbles.
I ended the month with a run down of the names behind the Year 9 Learning Groups for 2020-21: Brunel, Stephenson, Fragapane, Park, Blackwell, Kenney, Dirac, Brohn and More – all famous Bristolians.
April and May
Something like normal service was resumed as the spring turned into summer. There were posts on Easter, and a focus on the Academy’s core value of kindness in my “welcome back” assembly after the holiday. I had a fantastic response to my post in May about Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, at the age of six.
Before we knew it, we were saying farewell to the Year 13 and Year 11 classes of 2021 in the “last day” celebrations. These groups of students had come through unprecedented uncertainty and still finished with a smile!
In the summer I was gripped by football fever as England ploughed through the delayed Euro 2020 competition all the way to the final! Although it didn’t end in glory (this time) I felt so proud of the team and what they represented about our country – as well as the promise they showed for the future.
It was the best way to end the school year, after all the challenges which had been thrown at us!
September and October
Before we knew it, we were back – another round of COVID testing was quickly and efficiently conducted, and we were back in lessons and relishing the challenge. It was particularly great to catch up with some of our new Year 7 students early in the term – my hour with Charlotte, Issy, Maddie and James, as they gave me lots to think about, and lots to be proud of.
COVID hadn’t gone away, of course, and we were soon back in masks and wrestling with rising case numbers in students and staff. At least this year we have been able to give some clarity to our examination years about what is happening in advance – a task I attempted in my post “what’s happening with exams in 2022?”
November and December
November saw the #COP26 summit in Glasgow, which was the perfect opportunity to lay out our sustainability strategy: the progress we had made so far, and the steps we still need to take if we are to realise our ambition of being a zero carbon school by 2030. In short: we’re doing well, but there is still a lot to do!
Our Christmas Concert was a fabulous return to the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare, with the joy of music-making finally unleashed from its pandemic shackles. The telling of the Christmas story in student-composed songs by the Junior Choir is always a prompt for the first mince pies of the season for me!
And now Christmas itself is just around the corner. The country is under stricter restrictions again with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly – in some ways it feels like history repeating itself. But what this year has shown us is that – even in the midst of crisis – when staff, students and families work together, schools can accomplish amazing things. Bring on 2022!
Whenever you get results back from a test, an assessment, or a piece of work, there are two competing priorities at work in your mind. On the one hand, you want to feel good. You want to feel proud of what you have achieved. You want your teacher, or whoever has assessed the work, to have recognised the effort you have put in and what you have achieved.
On the other hand, you want to learn. You want to know how to improve so that you can get even better next time. Your eye is instantly drawn to the questions you got wrong, to the notes in the margin, which tell you that you’re not quite there…yet.
It would be great to turn in the perfect piece of work, to get it back 100% correct, with full marks and a shiny gold star on it. That would feel amazing. But, as I tell students and their families when they join the Academy in Year 7, if you’re getting everything right then you’re not learning anything. The chances are the work wasn’t challenging enough: it just gave you an opportunity to show things that you already knew, or to practise skills you had already mastered. That has its place – but the real learning happens when you’re grappling with material you haven’t quite nailed down yet, or attempting a really difficult problem that you haven’t quite grasped…yet.
Researcher Dylan Wiliam calls these two types of response to feedback “ego-involved” and “task-involved.” When you get your work back, or receive some feedback, your ego is always involved. This is the part of your brain that wants to preserve your wellbeing. It wants you to feel good about yourself. It wants you to think you’re brilliant. The problem with this is that it gets in the way of learning. It means you will be afraid to try difficult and challenging tasks, in case you fail: it protects you from the damage to your self-esteem that failure can dish out.
In the other side, a “task-involved” response means that your first reaction when getting your work back is not to react emotionally, not to act to preserve your wellbeing, but instead to think. A task-involved approach means that you are analytical in response to your feedback, and focused overwhelmingly on the learning you can gain from it. Of course, you are interested in what you did well: it’s important to recognise the progress you have made, the hard work that’s paid off, and the knowledge and skills that you have secured. But you are also focused on the room for improvement: the silly mistakes you’ve made, the ideas you hadn’t quite grasped yet, the bits of knowledge you had misunderstood or not expressed clearly enough. And – crucially – you are focused on what you are going to do about it. How you are going to avoid the same mistakes next time. The bits of the course you are going to go back over. How you are going to improve.
It’s impossible to divorce the emotional “ego-involved” response altogether. It’s natural to feel disappointed if a mark isn’t as high as you wanted, or if you made a silly mistake that dropped you from one grade to the next. That’s normal! But, at Churchill, we work really hard to help our students to manage their emotional responses to feedback, and focus as rapidly as possible on the learning that comes from it. Because the only point in doing school work at all is to learn from it!
Over the coming days, our Year 11 students are getting their mock exam results back. There is a lot of emotion tied up in these results for our students, especially with the additional pressure that the pandemic has placed on mocks after two years of cancelled public exams. But the most important thing for our Year 11 students – and for any students, at any stage, getting a piece of work or an assessment back – is to focus on the learning. What did I do well, and how can I improve? What does this assessment tell me about where I am in my progress in this subject? And what do I need to do to make sure that I continue to get better?
The grade or mark you get on an assessment only matters twice in school: in your actual GCSE exams in Year 11, and in your actual A-level exams in the Sixth Form. At every other point in school, the grade or mark is not the most important thing: it’s what you learn from it.
A couple of years ago I started to keep a list in my phone of all the books I read each year. It’s great to look back over them and take stock of what I’ve been reading!
In 2020 I only managed ten books. In my defence there was a lot going on that year and I didn’t really get my normal holidays due to the pandemic! I’d also note that one of the ten was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which was 720 pages long and took me ages. It was worth it though, as I explain in my books I read in 2020 post last year.
This year I have managed 21 books, so I’m feeling quite proud of myself! If you’re looking for a recommendation, here are my favourites (in no particular order!)
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
By Suzanne Collins
Suitable for Year 8+
I love the Hunger Games books, and Suzanne Collins revisited the world of Panem for this prequel following the early life of Coriolanus Snow – the President Snow of Katniss Everdeen’s story – in the early years of the Hunger Games. As well as adding additional colour and detail to the world of the books – including the origin of the “Hanging Tree” folk song – I found this a gripping and exciting tale, with lots of twists and turns.
A Skinful of Shadows
By Frances Hardinge
Suitable for Year 7+
I think Frances Hardinge is my current favourite young adult author. I read The Lie Tree last year and Deeplight this year as well, but A Skinful of Shadows was really terrific. Set in the English Civil War, it mixes historical fiction with some supernatural fantasy as the twelve-year-old narrator, a girl called Makepeace, discovers that she has inherited a paranormal gift from her family – the ability to host the ghostly spirits of the dead within her. This discovery leads her on a breathtaking adventure – part espionage thriller, part gothic horror – that had me hooked throughout.
By Susanna Clarke
Suitable for Year 9+
Every now and again you come across a book of such audacious originality that you marvel at how boundless the human imagination really is. This was one such book. The concept of this story is so unexpected that I find it astonishing that anyone could ever have dreamt it up! Piranesi, the narrator, lives in a strange house with many rooms and levels, which also hosts an ocean. He is surrounded by statues, and he is alone except for the occasional visits of someone known only as The Other. As Piranesi explores, he begins to suspect that the world he knows is not all that it appears to be…to say any more would be to spoil the story. If you read it, prepare to have your mind blown!
By Maggie O’Farrell
Suitable for Year 10+
In another breathtaking act of imagination, Maggie O’Farrell tells the story of the life and early death of Hamnet, William Shakespeare’s son. We know from the historical record that Hamnet was a twin, and that he died aged 11. Scholars have long imagined that Shakespeare’s grief for his lost son inspired the play Hamlet, written a few years later. O’Farrell takes these ideas and spins them into an enthralling tale, where Shakespeare himself is really a fringe character, who is never mentioned by name. This is, rather, the tale of his wife, Agnes, who is brought to vivid life in simply stunning prose. An unforgettable read.
A Promised Land
By Barack Obama
Suitable for Year 9+
In this first part of his autobiography, President Obama takes us through his early life, his education, his entry into politics and into his first term in the White House. It is a long read, but all the more fascinating for it. As well as giving the inside view on what happened, Obama explains the rationale for decisions he made – good and bad – and the consequences and responsibilities he carried as a result. What I found most touching was his discussion of balancing his career with his responsibilities as a husband and father: having read Michelle Obama’s book Becoming a couple of years ago, it was fascinating to see her husband’s perspective on the same events and issues. The book concludes with an account of the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks: you can feel the tension in every word on the page. I can’t wait for part two!
An American Marriage
By Tayari Jones
Suitable for Year 11+
This was the first book I read in 2021, and I loved it so much I went on to read the author’s first book, Silver Sparrow, in the summer. The novel tells the story of a young black couple, Celestial and Roy, in the southern United States. Their marriage is placed under pressure when Roy is arrested and convicted for a crime Celestial knows he did not commit. The unravelling of the consequences of this fateful event is brilliantly told, and the novel explores the complexity of racial tensions in America throughout. Tayari Jones is an astonishing writer – Silver Sparrow is just as good.
Anything is possible
by Gareth Southgate
Suitable for Year 7+
I was caught up in football fever this summer as England looked like they might just win something! Although that didn’t quite go to plan, Gareth Southgate’s calm, positive leadership of the England setup as been an inspiration. In this book – aimed at children – he uses his own life story to pass on messages about how to achieve your goals (not just in the footballing sense!) with wisdom, good sense, and practical advice. I gave a copy to each of our new House Captains this year to help them in their leadership roles – they said they liked it too! Highly recommended, whether you’re into football or not.
To The Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
Suitable for Year 9+
I last read To The Lighthouse when I was at university, as part of my degree. I was reminded of it when it was the subject of an episode of the Literate podcast, reviewing the New York Public Library’s books of the 20th century, and picked it up to remind myself why it was so special. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a book in which very little happens: in the first section, the Ramsay family and their house guests spend the afternoon and evening together at their holiday home; in the short middle section, “Time Passes”, taking in the First World War and the changes to the family; and in the final section, several of the characters return to the holiday house to complete the long-promised but not-completed journey to the lighthouse off the coast. It doesn’t sound like much, but Virginia Woolf uses it to explore the depths of human relationships, the nature of art, and our perceptions of one another. Her writing is simply astonishing.
As you can tell, I love talking about books, so if you’ve read one of the books on this year’s favourites list, please tell me what you thought of it in the comments below. I’m also open to recommendations for my “to read” pile, which is currently substantial but not endless!
Christmas always comes early at Churchill, as we hold our Christmas Concert in late November! This year we were back at the Playhouse theatre in Weston-super-Mare, where we last performed Sweeney Todd in February 2020. It was great to be back!
The Performing Arts team have been amazing in keeping music, dance and drama going through the pandemic last year, where there were restrictions on choral singing and playing woodwind and brass instruments. Thankfully, this year those restrictions have been lifted and the team have been unleashed! As a result we had performances from Brass, Flute and Clarinet ensembles, along with Concert Band, Big Orchestra and String Orchestra, giving us fantastic pieces from their repertoire including classical, modern and festive music.
There were also four choirs on the bill: the classical Chamber Choir, our Youthful Spirit gospel choir, the Year 7-10 choir and the massed ranks of the Year 7 and 8 Junior Choir which closed the show. There’s no doubt that the Junior Choir was a great way to finish the night, telling the Christmas story through music (and synchronised actions!) There were some incredible soloists fronting the choir, with Lucy Donovan, Anna Pope, Ella Phippen, Ben Marks, Ben Payne and Joe Armfelt wowing the audience!
The concert also showcased our student leaders, with Peter Skeen (Year 12) conducting Big Orchestra, Bori Gunyits and Miyah Barker (Year 13) conducting the Year 7-10 choir, Toby Wilson (Year 10) arranging pieces for Big Orchestra and String Orchestra, and the highly efficient backstage crew led by Mimi Mendl and Mia Wakeling (Year 13). All of the songs performed by Junior Choir were also composed by our students!
The first half concluded with an early showcase for next spring’s production of Rock of Ages. The stage was fizzing with energy and the double cast gave us a taste of what to expect when we return to the Playhouse between 16th and 18th February 2022 for what promises to be a spectacular show.
A huge thank you goes out to all the staff from the Academy and the Playhouse who helped get the concert together, to the wonderful audiences across the two nights, and to the amazing students who owned the stage. It felt good to be back!
Perseverance is defined as “continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time.” It seems to capture the spirit of our time: our determination to overcome the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, our commitment to battle against climate change, and to heal the divisions in our society. None of these issues have easy or quick solutions, but we know that the reward will be worth the effort.
The Cambridge Dictionary was alerted to the currency of “perseverance” in 2021 because people looked it up over 243,000 times. 30,487 of these searches were between February 18 and February 24, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars on February 18. The rover, like Curiosity before it, captures the distinctly human spirit of achieving the apparently impossible: landing a car-sized robot on a planet 380 million kilometres away, and driving it around on the surface. As if that wasn’t enough, Perseverance deployed a tiny helicopter on the surface, which flies around in the Martian atmosphere. It’s called – appropriately enough – Ingenuity.
We can’t help but be inspired by the achievements of the NASA team behind Perseverance and Ingenuity. Although our personal challenges may be more modest than flying a helicopter on the surface of Mars, they are no less worthy or worthwhile. Becoming the best people we can be is not a short or simple task. It takes commitment, effort and time. It requires a “never give up” spirit. This is something we pride ourselves on at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. It’s why our vision is “to set no limits on what we can achieve.” Because – if we persevere – we can accomplish incredible things.
Remembrance Day is a vital moment for us to call to mind those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can enjoy the freedoms that we have today. During the silence we observe, we all experience an identical minute between the bells, but in our private inner worlds each person has an unknown and unique journey as we reflect on what remembrance means to us.
I always preface the silence with my classes with a little about why Remembrance Day is particularly important to me. I tell them about my Grandfather, an officer in the Royal Navy, serving in the Arctic convoys and captaining a minesweeper, before working on the Pluto programme to supply fuel to the beaches on D Day. After the war he returned to teaching as Headmaster of Grasmere school, where he worked until retirement. Sacrifice is not always about death. We remember the fallen but also those who were – and still are – prepared to risk their lives to defend our society. We can learn a lot from their individual sacrifice for the collective good.
Each year I display a poem on the board for the students to read if they wish. Some like – or need – a focus for the minute. Previously I have used Sassoon, Owen, and McCrae, but in recent years I have favoured Mametz Woodby Owen Sheers. This poem is so resonant and powerful in its description of the uncovering of the remnants of the battle of the Somme in peacetime as farmers plough. Sheers has spoken eloquently of the inspiration for the poem as he visited the site:
Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.
As we remember the Great War it is our duty and privilege as teachers to help the next generation reach back into the collective memory of our violent past and hope with all our hearts for a peaceful future in their hands.
Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers
For years afterwards the farmers found them – the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades as they tended the land back into itself.
A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade, the relic of a finger, the blown and broken bird’s egg of a skull,
all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white across this field where they were told to walk, not run, towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.
And even now the earth stands sentinel, reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.
This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave, a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm, their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre
in boots that outlasted them, their socketed heads tilted back at an angle and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.
As if the notes they had sung have only now, with this unearthing, slipped from their absent tongues.