Parent Survey 2020: the results

Our Parent Feedback Survey was open from 2nd to 12th October 2020. The aim was to get feedback from families about the September Re-opening, and feelings about the Academy’s handling of the return to school in these challenging times. We also took the opportunity to ask some of our standard Parent Survey questions to compare parent attitudes since the last Parent Survey in June 2019. We were very grateful to receive 291 responses to the survey – and here are the results!

Coming back in September

We asked two questions in this section: firstly, how confident were you about sending your child in to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form at the start of September; and then, how confident you you feel about this now, after a month back at school?

The scale for these questions was from 1 (completely confident) to 5 (not at all confident). The picture was reassuring in September and confidence in our covid-safe protocols has increased over the course of the first month, despite (or potentially because of) two confirmed cases. This is a very encouraging endorsement of the Academy’s approach.

We think you and your teachers have done really well in managing a difficult and ever changing situation.

Parent Survey 2020

Communications

We asked: “how useful have you found the following methods of communication with the Academy since September?”

This is another encouraging set of responses. The newsletter is very popular and successful! Communications from me have also been positively reviewed – including this blog! Similarly our video curriculum presentations have been warmly received, although not all year groups had yet seen these at the time of the survey. It appears that communications from and with the Academy are working well.

Happiness

A 93.8% positive rating for this question is very encouraging, especially considering the mental health impacts of the pandemic more broadly. The last time we asked this question the response was 92% positive, so more families are telling us their children are happy at Churchill than the last time we asked.

Safety

The proportions here are very similar to the previous question. The slight shift in responses could be down to covid-related issues causing students to feel less safe. A 92% positive response is still very encouraging, with a small group to work on as we continue to build confidence.

I think communication and leadership have been great and as always the atmosphere and commitment of the staff is outstanding.

Parent Survey 2020

Care

This question received a 90.3% positive response, with an increase in the “don’t know” category compared to the previous questions. This is therefore similarly encouraging. The increase in “don’t know” may be accounted for by families new to the school without sufficient experience yet. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) it received an 89% positive response, so again we can see positive progress in this area.

Teaching

There were more “don’t know” responses to this question – we assume this is from lack of experience so early in the term. No respondents strongly disagreed, with only 12 respondents (4.2%) expressing any dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching at the Academy. The last time we asked this question 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed, so it is encouraging to see this proportion declining.

Homework

It was perhaps a little early in the year to get a representative response to this question, especially as we had instructed staff to start with light homework and increase the challenge gradually, particularly with Year 7 students. This would explain the larger “don’t know” response – although the picture is still encouraging.

“I think you are doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances and I am just glad my children attend a school like Churchill. It is important for my son especially to be in school and have structure to his day and interaction with his teachers. He is much happier in this environment (even if he won’t admit it!)”

Parent Survey 2020

Behaviour

The total proportion of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with this statement was 10.4%, with a 6.2% “don’t know” response. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed, with 6% “don’t know” responses. It is encouraging to see the proportion disagreeing with this statement declining. Whilst the picture is again encouraging, it shows that we should not be complacent about behaviour as there are still 30 families in our community who need to be convinced.

Bullying

The “don’t know” response to this question is very encouraging – nearly half of our families have no experience of the Academy’s response to bullying. We assume this means that neither they nor their peers have been affected by it. The proportion dissatisfied with the Academy’s response to this vital issue has more than halved since June 2019 – 7.6% compared to 16%. These are still more encouraging signs about the positive progress of our work. We know that bullying can happen – it’s how we deal with it that counts.

Leadership

This is a very large “strongly agree” response from families, which is an endorsement of the leadership offered across the Academy though the pandemic and into the reopening phase. The overall positive response was 93.8%. This is a significant positive swing from the responses in 2019, when 35% responded “strongly agree” and 48% “agree”.

“These are strange and challenging times; however my son’s education will be the best it can be…We appreciate the dedication of the staff, the kindness and care. There is a huge sense of your staff not having jobs but vocations.”

Parent Survey 2020

Responsiveness

The larger “don’t know” response suggests that a fifth of families have not had to raise any issues with the Academy. Where respondents were able to offer a view, 90.5% were satisfied with the Academy’s response. 

Values

This is the first time we have asked this question in a parent feedback survey. We will ask it again later in the year as we seek to understand the impact of our values-led culture across the Academy community. The relatively large “don’t know” response indicates that it is perhaps still early for many parents new to the Academy to respond to a question like this – but very few (3.7%) respondents disagreed which is very encouraging. 

Would you recommend Churchill?

This is the “gold standard” question for our offer at Churchill. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) the response was 93% positive – it is very encouraging to see the positive progress as our reputation continues to grow.

In Summary

The responses across each of the key questions were very positive. We have seen increases since June 2019 in the headline measures of “would you recommend Churchill to another family” and across the other key areas, demonstrating that families are even more satisfied with Churchill now than they were then.

There were more “don’t know” responses to this survey than the traditional summer poll, reflecting the relative novelty of secondary school to some families whose children have just joined us. This skews some of the data in relation to the summer 2019 responses, but when figures are adjusted to remove “don’t know” answers the trends are still positive.

In relation to covid-19, responses were very encouraging. Families have great faith in the Academy’s response to the pandemic, and that confidence has increased over the first month back. Within the text comments, it is evident that our comprehensive intake reflects a range of views on this issue. We must always be mindful that we serve a community in which this diversity of opinion exists, and the impact that it may have on the students in our classrooms.

Within the plentiful text comments there are many individual issues to pick up and address, but the overall feeling is one of satisfaction, gratitude and pride.

“As the parent of a new student to the Academy, I cannot speak highly enough of the staff and the leadership team. Communication and interactions are exemplary. My daughter settled in straight away and was made very welcome by staff and students alike. I believe that the behaviour of the latter is very much a successful testament to the culture which staff and leadership clearly work hard to develop and maintain. Thank you!”

Parent Survey 2020

The survey feels like a vindication of our work over lockdown and in the reopening phase, and an instruction to “keep doing what you’re doing” – because it is clearly working.

Assembly: Anti-racism

The Black Lives Matter movement changed the fabric of Bristol itself in the removal of the statue of Edward Colston (source)

This week I produced a video assembly for students on the theme of anti-racism. Over the course of lockdown, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement has caused all of us – myself included – to examine this issue afresh. There is no doubt that racism is a deep and systemic problem in our country and our society. Centuries of discrimination, based on lies, have left us with an enormous legacy of injustice to overturn. It’s a big, difficult problem – there are no easy answers. But I am hopeful and determined that we can be part of the solution, and must start right here in the Academy. Because we know that racism is out there in our country, and in our community – and that is why we need to fight it here in our Academy.

In my assembly, I started by explaining to all students exactly where we stand on this issue, and what is and is not acceptable here at Churchill. What follows here is the script I used for my assembly.

Everyone is welcome

Firstly, everybody is welcome here at Churchill. No matter the colour of our skin, the language we speak at home, where our families come from, our religious beliefs, our cultural background, or where we have lived before: we are all members of this community, students and staff together, and we are all welcome here. Nobody – and I mean nobody – has the right to make anyone feel upset, discriminated against or excluded from this community for any reason. If you make somebody feel upset because of the colour of their skin, the language they speak at home, where their families come from, their religious beliefs, their cultural background, or where they have lived before – that is racist behaviour, pure and simple, and it has no place in our Academy. It simply must not happen.

No excuses

I need to make their completely clear to every single student in the Academy – there are no excuses for racist behaviour in our school.

  • “I didn’t know that word was racist” – doesn’t matter. Don’t use the words if you don’t know what they mean.
  • “But they’re my friend – it was just a bit of banter” – doesn’t matter. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour, whether between the best of friends of the worst of enemies. It has no place here.
  • “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.” – doesn’t matter. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour. It has no place here.
  • “I just wasn’t thinking.” – that’s not good enough. Engage your brain before you engage your mouth. You must take responsibility for your actions.
  • “I was only joking.” – doesn’t matter. The systematic oppression of entire groups is not something you can joke about. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour. It has no place here.
  • “I’m really sorry, I’ll apologise.” – good, I’m glad – that’s the right thing to do. It will help, but it won’t undo what you’ve done and you will still face a serious consequence.

I need to be completely clear – there is never any excuse for racist behaviour in our community. It will not be tolerated.

Be the change you want to see in the world

(Source)

As a community, we must all work together to solve this problem. It is you, the young people in the school, who will go on to build a more inclusive, more tolerant, society. But it is not enough for us all to just not be racist- we must all be actively anti-racist. If your friend is saying or doing something that makes you uncomfortable, if they are expressing opinions which are not okay – call them out on it. Tell them “that’s not okay…you can’t say that.” Tell a member of staff what you have seen or heard – you are not grassing up your friend, you are helping to build a better, more inclusive, more welcoming school. Our first Academy value is kindness. We have to live that value if we are going to solve this problem. And it starts with you – each and every one of you. I know I can rely on you all to do the right thing. So let’s start today.

You can view the assembly below

Open Evening 2020

Open Evening is always one of the high points of the Academy calendar. Our students and our staff love to show off all the opportunities that Churchill has to offer. In normal times, we would have a small army of keen volunteer students showing prospective parents and curious Year 5 and 6 children around. Subject specialists would be on hand to demonstrate and talk about their part of the curriculum; our extra-curricular activities would be out in force; all our specialists would be on hand to answer parents’ questions; children would be collecting stickers from every station on the tour in pursuit of a “future student badge.”

In 2020, this sadly isn’t possible. We have had to adjust to the fact that, in the new pandemic world, we cannot have visitors in. Our priority has to be the safety and health of the staff and students on site, and we are doing all we can to limit the risks. And yet the continued success of the Academy over the coming years depends on our future students, and the smooth transition from primary to secondary we have worked so hard to establish.

For this reason, we have moved our open evening online for 2020. In doing so, we have tried as far as possible to replicate the “on site” experience of a real open evening – but from the comfort and safety of your own home. We have a dedicated page on the Academy website. Here is what you will find there.

Student Tour

Year 8 student guides Ted and Kacey take you on a video tour of the Academy site – with the help of a very cool drone!

Headteacher and student presentations

I look forward to my open evening presentation every year. Not only do I love talking about Churchill, what we do, and why we are here, but I love being joined on stage by our fantastic students.

Every year I am introduced by our senior students, and I leave the last word to our youngest. Every year they write their own speeches, and talk about their experiences in their own words. This year, we have done exactly the same – but on video, rather than in person. I am joined by Ella, President of the Sixth Form Council; Emma, in Year 11; and Erin and Jacob from Year 7. For me, it was especially gratifying to hear from Emma, because back in 2016 she was one of the Year 7 speakers at my first Open Evening as Headteacher. I don’t mind telling you that hearing about her experiences after five years with us brought a tear to my eye!

Question and Answer Sessions

Open Evening is usually the time when parents and children can ask all the questions they want, to reassure themselves about any aspect of secondary school that they might be uncertain about. It is absolutely right that the same opportunity is available this year. Here’s how:

  • Email us your question to openevening@churchill-academy.org: no question too big, no question too small. If you leave us a contact number, we are happy to call you back to discuss things with you: we know it’s usually much better to talk to a human being than to get a written reply! Whatever works for you, we’ll do our best to help.
  • Register for one of our Q&A Webinars: these sessions will feature a short presentation, followed by the opportunity to get your questions answered by me and a panel of our current students. We are running four panels:
    • Tuesday 6th October, 12-12.30pm
    • Wednesday 7th October, 7-7.30pm
    • Monday 12th October, 4-4.30pm
    • Thursday 22nd October, 7-7.30pm
  • You can register for these via the Academy website

Prospectus and Information Booklet

Families tell us that they find the paper documentation we hand out on open evening really useful. They provide the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, and they are a useful reference point to come back to as a reminder of the things that were seen and heard on the night. We have put both documents online for you to download, read on screen, or print out at home:

Treasure Hunt

On our “in person” open evening, we issue a sticker-collecting booklet to any Year 5 or 6 children who come along. The children can collect a sticker from each department they visit, and if they fill their book they can collect a prize from the Sixth Form Centre. It’s one of our favourite parts of the evening!

In order to replicate this, we’ve created a virtual treasure hunt quiz for our prospective future students to fill in. You can find it on the website, or here.

Next year?

We have done our best to provide as full an experience as possible on our virtual open evening. As it happens, on the day scheduled for our open evening this year, it was hammering down with rain – so maybe it was just as well it was virtual! We hope that, by next year, things will be back to normality enough to open up the Academy to visitors again. In the meantime, we hope you like what you see – and we hope that prospective parents and their children choose Churchill.

Attitude to Learning: Effort Grades

At Churchill, we believe a student’s attitude to learning is the biggest determining factor in the progress they will make with us. All students, no matter what their ability or level of attainment, can demonstrate attitudes to learning which will maximise their chances of success.

Attitudes to Learning: where we were

Over the past few years, we have graded attitudes to learning as either Highly Motivated, Engaged, Passive or Disengaged, using the grid you can see here. During the last academic year, we reviewed this system. There were many positives: the focus on attitude to learning was a good one, and the system allowed us to track improvements or declines in attitudes to learning over time. The descriptors we were using were grounded in actual behaviours that students should show, and teachers could observe.

However, students told us that there were too many descriptors: it was really hard to pick out just what to work on next from the large array of criteria. This also meant that attitude to learning grades were quite blunt instruments: they were a “best fit” chosen from a wide range of possible behaviours. Finally, many parents found the headings imprecise: what does “passive” mean? The Academy thinks being passive is not good enough – but this did not necessarily carry across for all students or parents.

As a result, Directors of Faculty and Heads of House worked with Senior Leaders to redevelop the attitude to learning system. The aim was to come up with something simpler and easier to apply and understand, but which would still allow us to track improvements or declines in student attitudes over time. At the same time, we wanted to “raise the bar” in terms of our expectations of students’ approaches to their learning.

Introducing: Effort Grades

The result of this review is our new Effort Grades system. At each reporting point (three times per year), students will receive an effort grade from each subject. They will receive one of four grades: Excellent, Good, Insufficient, or Poor. The system is explained in the student planner on pages 13 and 14. There is also a dedicated page on our website which explains the effort grade system and, earlier this term, I prepared a video assembly for all the students to watch:

Effort Grades Assembly: September 2020

Excellent Effort

Excellent effort means being committed to getting the most out of all learning opportunities available. It is what all students should aim for. A student making excellent effort:

  • Excellent participation in the lesson at all times, and is fully engaged;
  • Actively seeks and responds to feedback on how to improve the quality of their work;
  • Shows great determination and views setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow;
  • Manages their time and work efficiently and is an excellent role model who is highly disciplined;
  • Uses their initiative in a range of situations without always having to be told what to do;
  • Shows dedication and enthusiasm for learning at all times.

Good Effort

Good effort means being a responsible and hardworking student who tries their best all of the time. A student making good effort:

  • Shows a good interest in their learning and is attentive and focused;
  • Responds well to feedback and targets and completes work to the expected standard;
  • Shows determination and is willing to persevere when things are difficult;
  • Takes responsibility for their work and is well organised;
  • Willingly does all that is asked of them and sometimes more.

Insufficient Effort

Insufficient effort means that a student is probably doing most of what they are supposed to do but is failing to push themselves or make the most of the opportunities available. A student making insufficient effort:

  • Often participates in lessons and is generally focused and well behaved;
  • May not try hard enough to improve their work after feedback;
  • Is usually well organised but does the minimum that is asked of them and not much more;
  • Might make a Good level of effort some of the time but this is not consistent.

Poor Effort

Poor effort means that a student needs support or intervention to become a more responsible learner. A student making poor effort:

  • Makes little effort to be involved in the lesson and may disrupt the learning of others instead;
  • Fails to act on feedback provided and as a result may not make much progress;
  • Is not interested in being challenged and will give up without really trying;
  • Spends an inadequate amount of time on tasks and may produce poor work as a result;
  • Takes little or no responsibility for their own learning or behaviour;
  • Effort is frequently a cause for concern.

We aim to use our Effort Grades to help students develop their attitude to learning. Effort grades are sent home with each report, and used by tutors to set targets for improvement. Above all, they are there to clearly explain how we expect our students to approach their studies. Because, in the end, it is the students themselves who do the learning – and the more consistent effort they put in, the greater the reward in the end.

What’s happening inside the Stuart House block?

As students returned this September, they have had their French and Spanish lessons in some very unusual locations across the Academy, including Art rooms and Science labs. Why? Well, because the languages classrooms don’t currently have any walls…

Inside the Languages Well area, last week

We have become accustomed to new, modern facilities at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. The Alan Turing Building for Business, Computing and Social Sciences, the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology, refurbished classrooms in English and Maths, and our new reception and administration area have transformed the learning environment. But over to the side of the Academy site, the Stuart House block remained untouched.

This aerial shot from 1970 shows the Stuart House block in the foreground

The building was added when Churchill converted to a comprehensive school in the late 1960s. Since that time, its flat roof has been replaced and the internal structure has slowly been developed – but, compared to the bright and modern facilities elsewhere, the classrooms were looking tired. They were too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. The walls were thin and not particularly soundproof – not helpful when trying to teach languages! – and the electrics needed work. The building itself was sound, but the interior was in dire need of attention.

As a result we put together a bid for funding from the government’s Condition Improvement Fund. The plan was to leave the shell of the building intact, but to hollow it out inside and rebuild brand new, modern classrooms inside the existing structure. We submitted the bid late last year, expecting to hear back in April 2020. But then, coronavirus struck, and the decisions were delayed and then delayed again. But then, finally, at the end of June we got the news – we had got the funding!

The work will progress in phases, so that we are able to manage the project within our existing facilities. We have started with the languages end as phase one. When that is completed, we will move on to the middle of the building, before finally completing the Humanities end next year.

The Languages Department clear-out, summer 2020

Over the summer the Languages team cleared out their department. It was a de-clutter to end all de-clutters! And once everything was clear, the demolition teams could move in.

The classroom walls came down in less than a week, leaving the empty shell behind. We are now ready for the construction teams to move in, and create the new rooms our students and staff deserve. The LPod has also gone, and will not return: in its place will be two new, separate classrooms for the Humanities department. All the rooms will be built to the latest specification, with special attention paid to sound proofing, climate control and energy efficiency.

The work has also coincided with the launch of Lancaster House, and we are therefore dividing the block into two halves. The languages end, currently being developed, will be reinstated as Lancaster House area with tutor rooms and a social area. Meanwhile the Humanities end, in phase three of the project, will be home to Stuart House – again with brand new tutor rooms and a social area.

The transformation of our learning environment continues. And so, whilst the languages teachers and Lancaster House tutors are currently displaced, they know that it’s only temporary. It’s exciting to see French being taught in an Art room – but it will be more exciting still when it returns home to brand new, state-of-the-art facilities in the coming months. Magnifique!

Putting the plan into action

It’s nearly the end of the first full week with students back at Churchill. It has been simply brilliant to see the Academy full of students again! It has been great to finally put all that careful, meticulous planning into action.

Churchill Academy & Sixth Form now has over 1600 students on the registers. They have been amazing. They have been calm, attentive, and they have worked with us as we have all adapted to the new systems and arrangements. The have shown all the kindness, curiosity and determination we would expect of them – and more. The smiles and laughter I have seen and heard are enough to melt the hardest of hearts!

Year 7 under the new canopy on their first day back

Of course, these are challenging times. This week, we had to respond to a positive test for COVID-19 within our Academy community. It’s the last thing that any of us wanted to happen, but the fact is this virus could infect any one of us at any time. And we had prepared for just this eventuality. Over the summer, I had been on an excellent training and briefing session with the South West Health Protection Team. I had distributed this training to all the senior leaders in school. We had a clear process and protocol to follow. So, when the test was confirmed, we put the plan into action.

We received first-rate support from the Health Protection Team, from North Somerset’s Director of Public Health and his team, and from Public Health England. They worked in partnership with us to establish the contacts of the case, and to implement a plan for those contacts to self-isolate. Whilst it was certainly a difficult situation, it was made easier by this partnership.

Our students, and their families, have been simply fantastic. There is a real recognition that these are uncharted waters, and that we are doing our very best to navigate them. Of course, we are still adapting. Any plan, no matter how meticulous, will need review when it meets the reality of 1600 young people. We are continuing that process daily.

One thing that we have all noticed is how tired we are! The rhythms of remote learning, followed by the long summer break, are very different from the physical reality of a five-lesson day in the classroom. We need our students – and our staff! – to look after themselves. Good sleep routines, hydration, nutrition…and clean hands. Always.

Thank you to everyone in the Academy community for the support you have shown during this first full week. We really appreciate it.

Raising the flag

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

On Friday March 20th, after the last students had gone home, I lowered the Academy flag. It was one of the most poignant moments in my career. At the time, I wrote:

I walked the school for one last time: every block, deserted, empty, silent. It brought home to me that the school isn’t the buildings, the classrooms, the whiteboards and the playing fields. It’s the people. The students and their teachers, the support staff, cleaners, site team and technicians. They are the school.

from Closing for Coronavirus, 29th March 2020

I have been in school often in the five-and-a-half months since that day. Even with Frontline provision in place, and with Exam Support operating from June, the majority of the school remained vacant and empty.

This week, it has come alive again.

First, the staff: positive, excited, and ready. We had planned for so long, so carefully, that we couldn’t wait to get started. Every department was opened up again, classrooms prepared, precautions in place.

Then, the students: our wonderful Year 7s, keen and eager to get started. Our Sixth Formers, Year 12 and 13, bringing all the buzz and energy of their ambition back to the Academy. And today, our Year 11 – prepared by their experience in Exam Support, taking the new arrangements in their stride. Tomorrow – the rest of the school returns.

Walking the corridors of the Academy today to see classrooms filled with young people brought a lump to my throat. I have been so caught up in hand sanitiser dispensers, face covering policies, catering provision and transport organisation that I had not prepared myself adequately for the joy of real human interactions with our students.

“How are you, sir?” asked one Year 13 student today.

I had to take a deep breath before responding.

“I’m fine. So glad to see you all. So glad to be back.”

At break time on Wednesday, I raised our new, five-house Academy flag to the top of the flagpole. As I was leaving school this afternoon, the wind caught it and it flew out, full and strong – as if it was coming to life.

What’s happened with the A-level results?

This year’s A-level results have been the most controversial ever, by a long way. But what exactly has happened? And what can we do about it?

How were the grades calculated?

When the Secretary of State announced on 18th March that schools would close, he also announced that exams were cancelled, but that “we will work with the sector and Ofqual [the exams regulator] to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.” Detailed guidance followed.

Teachers were asked to provide a “centre assessed grade.” In the Ofqual guidance it says: “we asked schools and colleges to use their professional experience to make a fair and objective judgement of the grade they believed a student would have achieved had they sat their exams this year.” These grades were then moderated by the exam boards, using an algorithm designed by Ofqual, to ensure that grades in 2020 were similar (or “comparable”) to previous years.

Why were teacher recommendations so high?

Some parts of the media have accused teachers of assessing too generously, or trying to unfairly boost their own schools’ results. All of this is wrong. Firstly, no data on schools’ overall results is being collected or published this year. There are no performance tables – a welcome move, which has allowed teachers to focus on what really matters: the students and their results.

But, if teachers’ recommended grades had been accepted without moderation, nationally results would have risen: there would have been a 13% rise in A-levels awarded grade A*-B, which is an “implausibly high” increase. Why has this happened?

Put simply, teachers were asked to assess what they believed students to be capable of. Real exams assess how students actually perform on the day. If a teacher believed a student was capable of achieving an A in the summer, then they assessed that student at an A. If that student had sat the real exam, they may have achieved that A. But, if there was a particularly tricky question, or they managed their time badly, or they had a mental blank in the exam, they might not have done. They might have ended up with a B. So the teacher recommended grades were always going to be higher – that was baked into the system, and it is why some form of moderation was needed.

So how did the algorithm work?

The standardisation and moderation process is explained in Ofqual’s interim technical report, published on A-level results day. The report is 319 pages long, which gives you some idea of how complex the process is. It is called the Direct Centre Performance model (DCP). In Ofqual’s own words, it “works by predicting the distribution of grades for each individual school or college. That prediction is based on the historical performance of the school or college in that subject taking into account any changes in the prior attainment of candidates entering this year compared to previous years.”

What does this mean? If we take A-level Maths as an example, the exam board would look at what distribution of grades students from Churchill Academy & Sixth Form had achieved in A-level Maths over recent years. It adjusts that distribution based on the prior attainment (GCSE and other results) of the students taking A-level Maths at Churchill in 2020, and then makes a prediction of what grades it expects to see from Churchill based on that information. The algorithm then adjusts the teacher recommended grades from Churchill to fit the “expected” or predicted distribution of grades.

This is where one of the major problems has arisen. Whilst the algorithm is actually very sensible at a whole cohort level, it forgets that individual candidates are human beings and don’t necessarily fit the statistical prediction. They can surprise us – and, as a teacher, I know that they do, every single day. The algorithm doesn’t account for which students are really revising hard, which students have really pushed themselves, which students have suddenly found a new passion and understanding for a subject…it cannot possibly do this. So, instead, it irons out the students into the distribution that the algorithm suggests, almost completely ignoring the teacher recommended grades. The consequences are explained really well by Alex Weatherall in this thread on Twitter.

It also means that schools which have historically performed well at A-level are at an advantage over those which have not. So students that were recommended A* can end up with a C. And, even more cruelly, students that were recommended to pass an A-level can end up with a U grade – failing an exam they hadn’t even sat. Unfairness and injustice is baked into the system.

What about small groups?

An additional unfairness in the system is that statistical models can’t be applied fairly to small groups. In Ofqual’s own words:

“Where schools and colleges had a relatively small cohort for a subject – fewer than 15 students when looking across the current entry and the historical data – the standardisation model put more weight on the CAGs…there is no statistical model that can reliably predict grades for particularly small groups of students. We have therefore used the most reliable evidence available, which is the CAGs.”

From Ofqual’s Interim Report Executive Summary here.

If you happen to have taken a popular A-level which more than 15 students took at your school, you will have been subject to the algorithm. If your A-level choices were less popular, and fewer than 15 students took that subject at your school, greater emphasis was placed on the teacher recommended grades. Still more unfairness and injustice.

A particular example here is Maths (which a lot of people take) and Further Maths (which many fewer people take). This has resulted in many students nationally getting A-level Maths grades adjusted down, whilst their Further Maths grades go through as recommended, creating nonsensical combinations like a C grade for Maths and an A* for Further Maths.

A further inequality here is that in smaller sixth forms, you are more likely to have smaller cohorts of under fifteen taking subjects. Whereas in larger sixth forms – and especially in large sixth form colleges – cohorts are always larger than 15. Therefore the smaller the sixth form, the fewer adjustments have been made to the grades. So it isn’t even necessarily about which subjects you have chosen, but which school or college you happened to be studying them at.

What about appeals?

If you are unhappy with your grade, you have the option of mounting an appeal. This can be done if:

  1. There is an administrative error and the wrong grade has been put into the system. [We haven’t found a single example of this at Churchill].
  2. If your mock exam result shows that you are capable of achieving a higher grade than your final result.

At the moment, that’s it – there are no other grounds for challenging your result, unless you feel you were discriminated against. Mock exams are not the same from subject to subject, much less from school to school – they don’t always assess the full A-level content, they are much more about finding out what candidates need to focus their revision on in the run-up to the real exams than providing a solid grade. We expect mock results to be lower than final results – of course. In some cases, this route will help – but by no means in all.

The only other option open is to sit the full A-level exam in a special Autumn exam series. But who, honestly, could get a higher grade in October or November, without having been in a classroom since March? This is the longest of long shots.

So what can be done?

Currently, the government is saying nothing will change – but surely this can’t stand. The injustices are too great. I think the options are as follows:

  1. Look again at the algorithm and improve the level of “tolerance” around the grade boundaries so that it prioritises the teacher recommendation when a student is being downgraded, especially if they are being downgraded by more than one grade, or moved down from a passing grade to a U.
  2. Just scrap the whole thing and go back to the teacher recommended grades, like Scotland did. Although this would solve the human cost of all the disappointments, it would devalue the 2020 grades compared to previous and following years. An A grade from 2020 would simply not be worth the same as an A grade from another year. As Ofqual said themselves, the teacher recommendations on their own are “implausibly high” for all the reasons outlined above. It would solve the immediate problem – but create another one for the future.
  3. Open up an additional appeals route for candidates who feel an injustice has been done, but whose mocks don’t help them. Again, a tempting route, but what evidence could be used to support such an appeal? In the end, it comes back to the teacher recommendation, and this route very quickly ends up the same as option 2.

My feeling is that Ofqual need to go back and look again at the algorithm, and account for the human cost of squeezing individual candidates into a statistical model that does not account for their unpredictability, their uniqueness, and their actual performance to date. They might have time to do this ahead of GCSE results next week. But, for some A-level candidates, it is already too late – their university places have gone on the basis of results from exams they didn’t even sit.

Who is to blame?

Fundamentally, this is a government decision. As Laura McInerney said in her column for the Guardian today:

“Ultimately, young people have been caught in a farce presided over by an education secretary who let an obviously problematic results day go ahead with no clear plan and no appeals process. How did that happen? Civil servants busy on Brexit? On holiday? Did the exams watchdog not have the bottle to flag problems? I can’t fathom it.

But none of these questions help the Lilys, Matts, or Aatiyahs, or any one of thousands of young people, to understand how a baffling set of grades tanked their future and they weren’t given a clear way to challenge it.”

Laura McInerney, writing in the Guardian here.

I feel deeply aggrieved for those individuals whose futures have been decided not by their own work ethic, revision, effort and learning, but by an algorithm. We will continue to make the case that what has happened is wrong, unfair, and unjust – and hope that the government listens.

Celebrating Success: The House Cup 2019-20

This has been a year like no other! Despite all the challenges, there has been much to celebrate. In this, our final week, we have devoted ourselves to celebrating success – and awarding the House Cup!

House Cup: Attendance

We have only counted attendance up to March this year…for obvious reasons!

Congratulations to the overall winners: STUART HOUSE!

House Cup: Events

There have been a number of inter-house competitions this year. Not as many as we would have liked to have held, but we managed to squeeze some in!

House Cup: Attitude to Learning

For this competition, we take the average attitude to learning for every student in each house in each year group. All “Highly Motivated” grades scores 100%, and all “Disengaged” would score 0% (nobody actually scored this at Churchill!)

Many congratulations to the overall Attitude to Learning winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Conduct Points

For this competition we total up the net reward points for each house, and subtract any concern points issued. We also do an average score per student because there aren’t quite the same number of students in each house – but this year, that doesn’t change the overall standings!

Congratulations to the Conduct Points winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: House Matches

We haven’t been able to hold all our House Matches this year, but we did have an inter-house virtual House Match Quiz during lockdown!

Congratulations to the overall House Matches winners: WINDSOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Virtual Sports Day

Sports Day is one of the highlights of the Academy Calendar. We didn’t let lockdown put us off, and Team PE ran a week-long virtual sports day this year instead! There were 1.3k hits on the website, with 880 entries from 600 unique users over the course of the week…with a nail-biting finale which went right to the wire!

House Cup: The Final Result

One of the privileges of being Headteacher is that I have no House allegiances at all. This means that I am the only one who has access to the top secret massive House Competition spreadsheet, where all of the points from all the competitions are fed into a secret formula to keep running totals and calculate the winner. And this year, the winner is…

WINDSOR HOUSE!

Congratulations to Windsor, who ran out clear winners. Fortunately, Mr Cross was in school this week, so I was able to hand over the Sports Day Trophy and the House Cup, adorned with Windsor blue ribbons, for a quick photo. What a great way to mark his final year in charge of Windsor!

Congratulations to Windsor House!

Next year, with five houses in the running and (we hope) the Academy open all year, all bets are off and it’s anyone’s game! Remember, every day you turn up to school, every reward point you earn, every grade you get on your report, every competition you take part in…they all contribute to your house total. Everybody counts. Well done to all of you for all your efforts this year!

Getting caught up

News story from the BBC, Wednesday 8th July 2020 (link)

I woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that “Headteachers in England say GCSEs and A-level will have to be slimmed down for next year’s exams, because of the teaching time lost in the lockdown.” I am not one of those Headteachers! Let me explain.

Fairness

If you cut something out of a GCSE or A-level exam, you instantly run into the issue of fairness. Students are at least half way through their courses, and schools up and down the country teach things in different orders according to their own curriculum planning. So, let’s say you choose to cut Romeo and Juliet out of the English Literature exam. School A has already taught Romeo and Juliet but those students won’t be able to use that in the exam – they really have lost time. School B hasn’t taught Romeo and Juliet yet, so they cut it out of their future plan and gain additional time. It’s instantly unfair.

What can you cut?

GCSE and A-level specifications aren’t put together on a whim. They represent things that students should know about in order to properly understand the subject they are studying. Having an A-level in Biology means that you have studied a full range of topics within that subject – it’s like a code for “I understand Biology to this level.” It’s not like any part of that A-level course is any more or less relevant than any other – there aren’t bits of A-level Biology that are just “nice to have” or optional extras. They are all fundamental to your broad and deep understanding of the subject.

And, while I’m on my soapbox, “what is on the exam” is not the be all and end all of what we teach in school. If we want students to be scientists, historians, geographers, mathematicians and so on, we teach them as much of those subjects as we can – including (gasp!) some stuff that won’t be on the test! Just because it’s interesting, and important, and because it’s there.

Comparability

One other problem with cutting back GCSE and A-level courses for 2021 is that you make the qualifications “worth less” than in other years. Students will have to know less in 2021 than other years to get the same grade. This hardly seems fair on the class or 2019 or the class of 2022! And I think it undervalues the work of the class of 2021 if they always know their A grade, or their grade 5, was “easier” to get than in other years. The class of 2020 has been assessed differently, of course – but they had all but completed their courses of study by March 2020. They had already put much of the work in. For employers, further education providers and so on, it’s essential that a GCSE or and A-level has an equivalent value from one year to the next.

Time lost in lockdown?

As I wrote in my recent letter to parents, I feel that this focus on “catch up” and “lost time” fails to do justice to the incredible efforts our students have been going to – supported by their families and by the Academy staff – to keep up with their learning. We can see that the vast majority of our students have been working hard, learning well, and making good progress through the closure period. They have kept up with the curriculum and are well prepared for a return to school in September. Of course, there will be some areas which will need extra focus – there is no substitute for that direct classroom interaction between teacher and student in school – and we will need to fill in some gaps and correct any misconceptions which have arisen. Some individual students have struggled to engage with the remote learning programme, often due to home circumstances, health or other issues. We will, of course, support all our students to address these issues.

However, the academic year 2020-21 will not be solely dedicated to “catching up” the material from 2019-20. We will do what we always do: assess our students carefully to find out exactly where they are with their learning, so that we can see exactly what their next steps need to be. Then, our teachers will guide them on those next steps so that they continue to make progress and flourish, academically and personally.

I don’t call that “catch-up.” I call it education.

Reasonable adjustments

The exams regulator, Ofqual, is currently consulting on a number of adjustments which would relieve the pressure on schools and students over the next academic year. These are mostly minor changes to assessment and course requirements at GCSE, although there are also some proposals there about the dates for the summer 2021 exam season. They are not proposing any reduction in A-level content. I agree with this approach. The students I have spoken to in Year 10 and Year 12 feel the same: they want their exams to be as close to “normal” as possible.

Having faith

This pandemic has confirmed what we have always known: that schools are about more than just exam results. They are about communities, and belonging to something bigger than yourself; they are about care and connection; for us they are about kindness, curiosity and determination. All this talk of cutting back exams, catch up, and “gaps” in learning seems reductive and counter-productive. My experience shows me that, when you put your faith in young people, they come through with flying colours. I can’t wait until our Academy is filled with our students again: I am sure they will surpass all our expectations.