Testing, testing, 1,2,3…

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Over the course of this week, we have run the first round of our lateral flow tests for coronavirus in school. It has been really successful, and I am pleased to report – at time of writing – that of the 212 tests carried out, all have been negative.

Our testing centre, ready for its first visitors

The testing programme for schools was originally announced just before the end of term 2, but the full guidance wasn’t released until New Year’s Eve, which led to a somewhat fraught Christmas break. As you will all know, the first week back wasn’t exactly smooth sailing either, with a national lockdown announced at 8pm on the first Monday! But once we had navigated that particular storm, we were able to get our heads around setting up testing for the students and staff working in school.

The Department for Education originally announced three strands to the testing programme for schools:

  1. Mass testing of students in school – students to take two tests, 3-5 days apart
  2. Weekly testing of staff working in school – this has now been increased to twice weekly
  3. Daily testing of those identified as close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19

Since that initial announcement, the Department for Education has “paused” the third strand, in line with medical advice. Close contacts will now be advised to self-isolate, as has been the case in schools since September.

The first two strands, however, are going ahead as planned. The aim is to minimise the risk of transmission: by testing people in school, any identified asymptomatic cases can be isolated. This will prevent them from unwittingly spreading the virus. It also gives greater reassurance to those of us continuing to work and learn in school.

Consent remains absolutely essential in our administration of the testing programme. We will only carry out tests where we have explicit, written consent. We do not require a test of anyone, and we will always respect the wishes of those that choose not to undertake a test. Also, if students are uncomfortable or upset, we will do what we can to support them – but they do not have to go ahead with the test, and can say “no” at any time without any consequence. As it happens, everyone has been fine with it – but these principles are very important to us at the Academy.

The training and support materials from NHS Test and Trace are excellent. Everything arrived on time, as announced, with clear instructions. There was online training which helped spell out how to get everything set up, and how to run each of the roles in the testing centre. I have always loved the NHS – and this programme has only increased my respect for the work of our health service.

We set our testing centre up in the Academy Hall, with its newly-replaced floor shining and pristine, giving the whole place a lift! Academy staff volunteered to take on the various roles within the system. Everyone has been trained and registered with NHS Test and Trace.

Our testing centre labels: Testing Station and Taylor Swift have the same initials, so each Testing Station was named after a different Taylor Swift album. I only wish I’d put them in the right order, but they were laminated before I could correct it!

The tests work using a swab of the back of the throat and the nose. This is not a very pleasant experience, but all the students and staff who have participated have shown the Academy value of determination and just got on with it! The testing team have put on a good soundtrack of background music too, which means that people aren’t so self-conscious when swabbing the backs of their throats.

Email received from testing centre staff about our students in Frontline

Once the swab has been taken, the testing centre staff prepare a sample using extraction fluid, which is then dropped into a lateral flow test cartridge. It’s called “lateral flow” because the liquid in the sample “flows” sideways along the strip, revealing the result after it reaches the far end.

A lateral flow test in action

Each test is timed, as you have to read the result between 20 and 30 minutes after the test has been started for it to be valid. One red line on “C” (for “Control”) means the test has worked. A red line on “T” (for “Test”) means that the test is positive for coronavirus.

A positive test result on a lateral flow test doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. This must be confirmed by a PCR test, which is processed in a lab. Anyone testing positive must self-isolate until the confirmation is received, just in case.

Equally, a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have the virus. You can still catch it; you can still spread it. Therefore, in school, we have continued to reinforce the importance of hands, face, space – even though everyone has so far tested negative.

It is strange to see my colleagues kitted out in full PPE, and the Academy Hall transformed into something resembling a field hospital. But these are strange times, and we will continue to do all we can to keep our staff and students safe.

Looking up whilst locking down

There is no such thing as failure: only success, and learning.

I came across this saying from a colleague Headteacher many years ago, and it has always stuck with me. When things are going badly, it’s easy to be downhearted; it’s tempting to give up. In those moments, when things are bleak, it’s all the more important to think about the positives: what am I learning from this situation? This is at the core of a growth mindset approach, and as the author of Becoming a growth mindset school, it is important that I practice what I preach – at this moment more than any other.

I did not write a post on the Headteacher’s Blog last week. I don’t mind admitting I was feeling pretty negative. In the education world, I had spent much of the Christmas holidays trying to work out how to turn my school into a coronavirus testing centre, having been told that this was required almost on the last day of term. The full guidance on testing in secondary schools was released, with the Department for Education’s usual sensitivity, just before 6pm on New Year’s Eve. We returned to school on Monday 4th January with the Secretary of State having “absolutely” given a cast-iron guarantee that exams were going ahead, and the Prime Minister encouraging all parents to send their children in. At 8pm, we were told all schools would close until half term and exams were not going ahead. The spiralling confusion of often contradictory last minute announcements, with missing, confusing or late-arriving guidance, has meant that this past month has been the most challenging of my entire teaching career – and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.

Beyond education, the headlines were scary: spiralling cases, a climbing death rate, a winter lockdown, and angry mobs storming the seat of the world’s most powerful democracy intending to overturn the legitimate outcome of an election. It was tempting to think that everything was falling apart.

But, amidst the darkness, there is always light.

At Churchill, I am surrounded by fantastic colleagues. The leadership team were all on Zoom within minutes of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday night, undoing all the planning from that morning and preparing solutions and arrangements for the next day, the next week, and the term beyond. We were able to distil clarity from the confusion: I was able to email all staff with a summary of those plans by just after 9pm, and publish an update to the website and to the Academy’s social media accounts by 9:30pm.

The wider staff have been incredible. Plans were shifted and adapted quickly. At the centre of all our decisions were the students: what would be best for them? How could we make sure that our education, care and guidance could continue as smoothly as possible, despite the disruption? In particular, our focus was on our exam-year students, who now faced uncertainty and doubt. How could we reassure them, and ensure that they stayed focused on the task in hand? Seeing this commitment and dedication to our vision and purpose, even in the face of anxiety about the risks of the situation, was truly inspiring.

We have also never known a term like it in terms of parental support. One family sent me a box of tea and biscuits to keep me going, which I opened at the end of a very long Wednesday – it was just the tonic I needed! Every day, we receive emails of thanks and encouragement. These make a huge difference to our morale; it’s always nice to feel appreciated! The pièce de résistance, I have to say, came in the wake of the Secretary of State’s declaration that parents should report their children’s schools to Ofsted if they weren’t happy with the remote learning provision. Several of our parents were amongst the thousands across the country who wrote into the schools inspectorate, not to criticise, but to praise the Academy for all we had done for their children. One of them advised inspectors to take a look at Gavin Williamson’s performance instead: this went down very well with the staff in school!

In the wider world, the roll-out of vaccines promises an eventual end to the pandemic. Democracy has prevailed across the Atlantic. And even though 2020 was, by all accounts, a bad year, it did give us two Taylor Swift albums: amidst the darkness, there is always light.

And, at the heart of all we do at Churchill, we have our fantastic young people. The students in Frontline have adapted well to a new type of schooling. Attendance at remote learning has been exceptional, and teachers have been so impressed by the commitment and engagement of our students. Even though we only see the majority of our students at the moment in little rectangles on a screen, they are the beacons of hope that will see us all through.

Christmas at Churchill: 2020

We won’t let a few little things like a global pandemic, last minute government policy announcements, gale force winds and torrential rain dampen our festive spirits! Christmas at Churchill was a little different this year, but still spectacular…

Sixth Form Fancy Dress

The Revue was a online spectacular this year, with a live-streamed TV studio and interactive fun! All in the traditional Sixth Form Christmas Fancy Dress, which this year was even more inventive than ever.

Sports Awards 2020

Our annual Sports Awards spectacular couldn’t happen in person at a luxury hotel this year, so Team PE transported it to a Christmas celebration instead!

Headteacher’s Quiz

The annual Headteacher’s Quiz is always a hotly-fought contest and this year was no exception! Tutor groups competed in our online Google Quiz to see which tutor group and which House would be crowned the Quiz Champions 2020. When the results were all tallied up, the overall winners were:

  • Top Scoring Tutor Group: 10LJAH – well done Lancaster House and Mr Hayne!
  • Winning House (highest average score): STUART HOUSE! Many congratulations to everyone in Stuart.

You can have a go at the Headteacher’s Quiz yourself here. Merry Christmas!

2020: the year in review

January and February

Little did we know, twelve months ago, what a seismic shift the year ahead would bring. 2020 began as it ends on the Headteacher’s blog, with a bit of “taking stock”. I wrote “into the twenties” on the fourth anniversary of me starting as Headteacher at Churchill. Despite the year we’ve all had, we have continued to progress: we now have 1617 students at the Academy, including 287 in the Sixth Form, and we have seen still more investment in our site and buildings this year with the work to redevelop Lancaster and Stuart House still ongoing. In February, we celebrated the award of “Transforming” status for our work on the Climate for Learning at Churchill.

Our vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – informed the development of the Academy’s five-year strategic plan over the course of January and February. This vital document is the template for Churchill’s continued progress through to 2025, and will inform the work we do throughout this period. The fact that it stood up to what was to come is testament to the careful thinking and developmental work of the Trustees involved.

February ended in triumph, with an astonishing production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The production, music and performance were simply breath-taking.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb 2020,

March

I am so glad our students got the opportunity to be on stage in front of a live audience, given what followed so shortly afterwards. We barely had time to announce the introduction of a fifth house for Churchill, before the onrushing tide of the pandemic overwhelmed everything.

My post Closing for Coronavirus runs through the events of March in detail. Looking back at it now, it seems like a distant dream. I gave an assembly – a physical, in-person assembly – to all students, a year group at a time, on Monday 16th March, running through what we knew at the time and giving the instructions on how to wash hands properly. In the assembly, I said we were “staying open.” On Wednesday 18th, closures were announced. On Friday 20th March, I lowered the Academy flag.

Of course, schools never really closed. We were always open – from Friday 20th March onwards – to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We stayed open, through Easter and on Bank Holidays, to support the national effort. We kept education going for our students in their homes. And we waited.

April and May: lockdown

I remember those late spring and early summer months, living in lockdown, as a bizarre contradiction. On the one hand, I was constantly gripped by fear: fear of this unknown virus, fear of other people carrying it, fear of everything apparently collapsing around us. But, on the other hand, there was a strange tranquillity: no traffic on the roads, no aeroplanes in the sky, and the surge of nature around us as life went on regardless.

The “clap for carers” brought our local community together, out on the street to share in our admiration for the incredible work of the NHS and key workers. VE Day came and went, and from their homes our musicians put together gospel and chamber choir arrangements, and other performances, collected on the Performing Arts Podcast.

Lockdown Youthful Spirit: Lovely Day

June and July: wider re-opening

As the summer moved on, we welcomed back Year 10 and Year 12 students – our current Year 11 and Year 13s – to Exam Support. Socially distanced, in classes of no more than 15, we saw the first signs that things could – eventually – return to normal. Our students and our staff were fantastic, adapting to this strange new world with DIY haircuts and exceptionally clean hands.

Meanwhile, Frontline (our key worker and vulnerable student provision) continued to expand and develop, making sure that education continued for the students and families who needed it most.

And, behind it all, the extension to the Athene Donald Building was finished and – even through the disruption – the House Cup was awarded (to Windsor!).

August

The summer break was strange this year. We had ended July preparing for the full re-opening of schools in September, a simply staggering effort to adjust our normal process onto a covid-secure footing in line with the ever-shifting government guidance. And then, as the summer wore on, the catastrophe of the exam results season hit. I wrote in detail at the time about what had gone wrong with the A-level results. Before the GCSE results were published, the controversial moderation algorithm had been abandoned and students were awarded their Centre Assessed Grades instead. I have never known a more chaotic and uncertain time in all my over twenty years’ experience in education – I still shudder when I think about it.

But we barely had time to take breath from that, before…we were back.

September and October

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

The Academy opened its doors in September to all our students again. Things were – and still are – different, with the language of “year group bubbles” and “hands-face-space” becoming quickly familiar. We had our first confirmed case on September 8th, and the impact of the pandemic has continued to be felt across North Somerset ever since. Despite the challenges, our students and staff continue to amaze me with their resilience and energy, as they show all the kindness, curiosity and determination we expect of them – through face coverings, hand sanitiser and disinfectant, through open windows and classroom doors, through year group separations and self-isolations…the Churchill spirit keeps shining through.

We were heartened by the results of our parent survey in October, which were a ringing endorsement of our work so far. And the term ended on a high note as Imogen Beaumont (Year 11) was named as one of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year.

November and December

As the days shortened, the second national lockdown was announced. This time, however, schools stayed open. We were so grateful to have our students with us, and to keep face-to-face education going this time. Many of the aspects of managing a school in a pandemic, which would have been unthinkable merely months ago, have become familiar routines. Our use of technology has been transformed, with Google Classroom now embedded across the Academy and our ability to blend in-class and at-home teaching and learning developing all the time.

And so, as we approach Christmas, we are in a different world. The crowds cheering on the Sixth Form Fancy Dress Parade, the massed Junior Choir at the Christmas Concert, Christmas Dinner in the Academy Hall…these familiar staples from Christmas 2019 are just not possible in our new pandemic normal. But we will not be deterred! It may be different, but it’s still going to happen – and there will be one final post on this blog before the end of term to celebrate Christmas at Churchill 2020.

This has been a year the like of which none of us have ever seen. Let us hope that, over the coming twelve months, we see the retreat of the pandemic and the return of the freedom to do all those things that help make us the school we are: our extra-curricular programme, working across year groups, and the big, showpiece Academy events which give our students their chance to shine. I wish everyone in our Academy community a safe and merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.

Ten books I have read in 2020

I have always found an escape in books, and this year more than any other I have needed that outlet, to be taken away into another world and to lose myself in fiction. Here are ten books I have enjoyed in 2020 – some suitable for students, some for adults. I hope you find it useful!

The Binding by Bridget Collins

Suitable for: Year 11+

This is a beautiful book, laced with magic, where mystical “binders” can remove people’s troublesome memories and imprison them within the pages of hand-made books. But what happens if someone opens the covers to read them?

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Suitable for: Year 9+

I’ve really like Laura Purcell’s distinctive brand of spooky Gothic horror. It reminds me of Wilkie Collins or perhaps Daphne du Maurier. This story sees a young nurse, haunted by her past, caring for a mute and paralysed old woman in a mysterious old house, surrounded by bone china. Gradually, the house and the woman’s chilling past is revealed…

Afternoons with the blinds drawn by Brett Anderson

Suitable for: Year 11+

Back in the early 1990s, I was a massive fan of Brett Anderson’s band, Suede. I loved his first book, describing his early life and the origins of the band. This second book races through the band’s ascent to fame, and subsequent disintegration under the pressures of media scrutiny, addiction and egos. Anderson writes so elegantly, that even the squalid parts of his story acquire a seedy glamour. It captures that period of my youth perfectly.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Suitable for: Sixth Form+

This novel tells the story of the last Empress of China, and is based on a true historical story. I knew nothing about it before starting – the book was my Secret Santa present last Christmas! – but I found myself captivated by the secretive, ritualistic world of the Chinese Emperor’s court and the power struggles within.

Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman

Suitable for Year 9+

I love the “Noughts and Crosses” series, and this latest instalment was recommended to me by my son. It didn’t disappoint, bringing the saga right up to date with plenty of pointed commentary on political corruption and intrigue. If you’re expecting a resolution, thought, you’ll be disappointed – it ends on a terrific cliffhanger!

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Suitable for: Year 7+

This was a great read during lockdown! It tells the story of Faith, who discovers her father’s dark secret: a mysterious tree that grows in darkness. The fruits of the tree reveal truths – but the tree only grows when fed on lies. But, as Faith discovers, lies themselves can quickly get out of control…

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Suitable for: Year 10+

This book tells the story of a school under attack by terrorist gunmen, in real time. It was absolutely terrifying, ratcheting up the tension with twists and turns a-plenty. As a Headteacher myself, it was like living out my worst nightmares – but in the safety of a book!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Suitable for: adults

When Miss Dunne heard I was reading this book, she offered to counsel me when I got to the end. She was right: I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as emotionally draining, harrowing and affecting as this epic story, following the lives of four friends who meet in college in America to their lives in New York and beyond. Dealing with trauma, abuse, and self-harm, this is by no means an easy read – but its characters will stay with me forever.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Suitable for: Year 9+

This book is part-autobiography, part-manifesto. James Rebanks uses his life story, growing up on a fell farm in the Lake District, to describe how farming has changed over the past forty to fifty years. He describes the damage done to the landscape and the ecosystem by intensive, chemical farming, and how he has adapted his own farm now, as an adult, to work in harmony with nature rather than against it. A powerful, important book.

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

Confession: I haven’t finished this one yet! But I am enjoying the lyrical, atmospheric descriptions of the Carolina marshlands where the heroine, Kya Clark, grows up in isolation. At once terrified of other people, and at the same time yearning for company, this tension drives the story forward. I can’t wait to see how it ends…

If you’ve enjoyed any books in 2020, I’d love to hear about them. I’m always on the lookout for recommendations!

Staying safe online

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that more and more of us are spending more and more of our time online. The internet is a blessing in times like these, enabling us to connect, interact, stay in touch and find the help we need, all without leaving our homes. For schools like ours, the ability to harness technology to deliver education when students are not able to be in school has transformed the education landscape.

Although the internet is incredibly useful, there are also risks. We work hard with our students at Churchill to help them understand how to stay safe online, but it is always worth reminding our students – and ourselves – of the basics.

The basics of staying safe online

Google’s Be Internet Awesome curriculum provides a good outline of the fundamentals of safer internet use for students:

  • Share with care – communicate responsibly
    • Encourage thoughtful sharing by treating online communication like face-to-face communication; if it isn’t right to say, it isn’t right to post.
    • Create guidelines about what kind of communication is (and isn’t) appropriate.
    • Keep personal details about family and friends private.
  • Don’t fall for fake
    • Be aware that people and situations online aren’t always as they seem.
    • Discerning between what’s real and what’s fake is a vital lesson in online safety
  • Secure your secrets
    • Create a strong password – you can R3pl@ce le++ers wit# sYmb0ls & n^mb3rs 1ike Thi$
    • Don’t use the same password on multiple sites
    • Don’t share anything online that you wouldn’t want your grandma, your teacher or your future employer to see
  • Be Kind
    • The Internet is a powerful amplifier that can be used to spread positivity or negativity. Set an example: be kind and spread positivity
    • Stop the spread of harmful or untrue messages by not passing them on to others
    • Block unkind or inappropriate behaviour online
    • Provide support if you see bullying online
  • When in doubt, talk it out
    • If you come across something questionable online, talk to a trusted adult
    • If you know that one of your friends needs help, encourage them to talk to a trusted adult – or ask an adult for help yourself
THINK before you speak (or post online)

Checklist for families

We all want to support our children with their use of the internet, but more often than not they know more about the online world than we do! The following checklist is a helpful way of ensuring that you are doing all you can to support them with being safe online.

  1. I have talked to my child about the sites they use. Show an interest and take note of their favourite sites. Research them, find out how to set the safety features and learn how to report any issues directly to the site.
  2. I have checked that my child has set their profile settings to private. Social networking sites, such as snapchat, are used by children to share information, photos and just about everything they do! They need to think about the information they post as it could be copied and pasted anywhere, without their permission.
  3. I have talked to my child about their online friends. We know that people lie online about who they are and may create fake identities. It is very important children understand this. Whether they are visiting a social network or a gaming site, the safety messages are the same. Ensure that your child never gives out personal information and is only “friends” with people they know and trust in the real world.
  4. I have set appropriate parental controls on my child’s computer, mobile and games console. Filters on computers and mobiles can prevent your child from viewing inappropriate and possibly illegal content. You can activate and change levels depending on your child’s age and abilities. You can also set time restrictions for using the internet or games. Many parents and carers take phones/devices away at a certain time – say 9pm. This has been shown to aid mental well-being too.

Encourage your child to tell you if they are worried about something online – Sometimes children get into situations online where they don’t feel comfortable or see something they don’t want to see. By opening up the communication channels and talking to your child about the internet, their favourite sites and the risks they may encounter, they are more likely to turn to you if they are concerned about something.

Sources of help

If you want to know more please visit: https://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents.

Internet Matters has a useful summary of the age limits for different social media services here. Please note that WhatsApp is not designed for use by children under 16.

If you are concerned that an adult has made inappropriate contact with your child you can report this directly to CEOP or the Police.  You can also find help if you think your child is being bullied, or if you’ve come across something on the internet which you think may be illegal.  Visit the Safety Centre at www.ceop.police.uk/safety-centre .  If in doubt, please contact us at the Academy.

You can also see my previous post: Top 5 Safer Internet Day Tips.

Getting to grips with Google Classroom

Since the start of this academic year, we have moved all our homework and online learning on to Google Classroom. This is a hugely powerful platform for teachers and for students.

For students

Mr Hart helpfully prepared this “student guide to Google Classroom” earlier in the year to help our students get to grips with the system:

As well as Google Classroom, all students have access to a Google Drive with the full suite of apps: Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, Slides for presentations, and a wealth of other apps integrated into the Google Suite.

Google Classroom also has a superb app, available for both iOS and Android for smartphones and tablet devices. This means that students don’t need to have a laptop (although Classroom works well on those too!) Work can be accessed online, completed on paper, and a photograph uploaded if necessary, all from a single device like a mobile phone.

For teachers

Google Classroom is fantastic for teachers. It enables teachers to set work, mark it online, and return it, all within the online Classroom. Alternatively, work can be set for completion and physically handing in. Behind the scenes, Google Classroom also enables teacher to keep track of marks, and communicate with students about their work.

Teachers can create assignments and add in all the necessary resources for students to work on. This can include a Google Meet if students are self-isolating. Students receive a notification when there is a new assignment and are able to “hand in” the assignment in on Classroom. Classroom sends a notification out to students once the homework is graded, so students can review grades and feedback.

Teachers can also share learning resources, reading materials, videos, links, and handouts. This allows students to refer to them at any time, or collaborate with their classmates on learning. Resources and assignments are saved in date order in the Classroom Stream, so students can always go back to revise what’s been covered.

Teachers can also send announcements to the whole class, which students receive via email. They also see these announcements when they log in to Classroom, through a web browser or Classroom’s mobile app, available on iOS and Android.

Students can message teachers directly with questions and/or comments on assignments and announcements in the classroom stream. Students can also collaborate with each other for team assignments by working on shared projects in Docs, Sheets, and Slides at the same time as each other.

For parents and families

Parents and families cannot log in to Google Classroom. Instead, you can opt in to get an email summary of your child’s work in Classroom, which includes information about upcoming assignments, missing work, class activities and projects.

We have found the best way to use the Guardian Summaries is to go through them with your children. It can be especially helpful if your child has the Classroom app with them on their phone, tablet or other device, so you can see what’s happening.

Ask them about the work they’ve completed: what did they find interesting about it? Ask them to explain some of it to you: if you understand their explanation, that’s a good indication that they’ve learned it well!

Discuss work with deadlines coming up with them too. Have they got a clear plan for the week ahead? When are they going to complete each piece of homework? Encourage them to ask questions if they aren’t sure, using the Classroom Stream, email or messaging aspect of the Classroom. This builds their independence and encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. At the same time, make sure their messages and emails to staff have the appropriate tone: “Dear Mr / Mrs / Miss…” is a good way to start, and a “thank you” is always welcome!

For work that is flagged as “missing” or “overdue” in your Guardian Summary, it’s worth checking that your children have clicked the “hand in” button for all their tasks. It’s easy to forget to click the “hand in” button on Google Classroom when students are handing in work on paper in the classroom! If work has not been completed, encourage your children to catch up, and to discuss any missing work with their teachers. We understand that, in these difficult times, sometimes deadline extensions are necessary – but we do expect all work to be completed.

As ever with any new system, we are learning all the time. All staff have had additional training this term, and we are all exploring the many features that Google Classroom has to offer. We’re sure we’re only just getting started!

When the pandemic hits

Nationally and locally, the impact of the pandemic has really ramped up since half term. From September, we have seen isolated cases, in both staff and students, resulting in self-isolations for contained “bubbles” of students across the first term. Since we have been back, the situation has felt very different.

Latest case figures for North Somerset from the BBC tracker (source)

Cases in November in Years 8, 9 and 10 have meant over 600 students from Churchill self-isolating at home as potential contacts. This picture is reflected in the national school attendance figures release this week:

  • Attendance in state-funded schools steadily increased from 87% in early September, to a period of stability of between 89 to 90% from 1 October to 15 October.  After half-term attendance was at 89% on 5 November but decreased to 86% on 12 November.
  • On 12 November, attendance in state-funded secondary schools is 83%, down from 87%. The drop in attendance is mainly due to the increased number of pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus. (source)

Everyone has been disrupted. Two of my three children have been sent home from their school this month to self-isolate due to positive cases in their year group bubbles. I really do understand it from both sides, as a parent and a Headteacher. I understand the frustrations. I understand the inconvenience. I understand the upset. I understand the anxiety.

None of us want to be in this position: we all wish it was different. But wishing won’t change the reality of education in the middle of a pandemic.

What happens when a case is notified?

In school, notification of a positive case launches a very clear but complex process:

  1. Contact the family: make sure we have all the correct information about dates, symptoms, test results, transport arrangements, attendance, and any social contacts.
  2. Run the contact tracing: we have a report in our Management Information System that pulls out all the students that are “contacts” with a named individual. We cross-refer this report with the student timetable and, if necessary, seating plans to identify students that need to self isolate. We also identify any staff contacts of the confirmed case to check social distancing, ventilation in the rooms, and any other issues.
  3. Seek advice: having run through the written guidance, I always check with the Health Protection Team that my interpretation is correct. They have been brilliant – always available with a prompt response and clear, helpful advice, including confirmation of dates and self-isolation durations.
  4. Prepare letters for the confirmed case, the identified contacts, and the wider Academy
  5. Contact parents and families of identified contacts: all other operations stop in the Academy office as every available colleague takes to the phones. If the notification comes out of hours, all available senior leaders work through the contacts from home.
  6. Organise collection: staff supervising the students use walkie-talkies to communicate with reception when individuals are ready to be collected
  7. Formal notifications: it’s my responsibility to notify the South West Health Protection Team, Department for Education, the local authority, school transport (if applicable), the Trust Board and the wider staff. These notifications never include personal details of the case – only that we have a confirmed case, the year group, the date of the test, and the number of contacts required to self-isolate.
  8. Follow up: often students who have not come up on our contact tracing self-identify that they have spent time with a confirmed case at lunch or break time. We check the circumstances of these contacts, and provide advice accordingly. At other times, the Health Protection Team want a follow-up discussion to check responses and offer support. There are sometimes further details to clarify, or further contacts to identify.
  9. Implement remote or blended learning: staff need to re-plan their teaching to accommodate full or part-classes learning remotely at home. Webcams, visualisers and other tools are used to provide live or recorded video content; Google Classrooms need to be updated with lesson content or learning tasks. We need to check staff absences or isolations, and ensure that any cover work is adapted to work remotely.
  10. Welfare checks: tutors begin the process of “touching base” with self-isolating students, addressing any issues with remote learning, health or wellbeing. These checks take place by phone or email, at least once a week during self-isolation.

This is our new reality. At any time, with one positive test, the whole process kicks into action. The ramifications spread far beyond the Academy, to all those families who have to drop everything to come and collect their children, reorganising schedules and arrangements at a moment’s notice.

It has to be this way. If we are going to protect the vulnerable, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and slow the spread of this virus, we have to take immediate action to isolate any potential contacts of a confirmed case. But the disruption is massive – and it’s not just happening at Churchill. Every single secondary school in our area has isolated large groups of students this term. And the South West – although cases are rising – is not the worst-hit region. In Hull last week, one in four children was at home self-isolating.

What can we do?

There has been much talk about implementing rota systems in schools, so that year groups only attend for two weeks at a time with two weeks off. This was proposed by the government back in August, and at Churchill we have a contingency plan for this eventuality if it is called for. But I can’t see that this will fix things: if a positive case is confirmed in a year group bubble that is on the rota to be in school, they will have to go home to self-isolate anyway. What then?

Year 7 under the canopy this week

To my mind, schools should stay open. For this to be sustainable, we have to protect ourselves as much as we can. We must rigorously stick to the covid-safe protocols in school, and the protective measures and restrictions in wider society. And, when a positive case is confirmed, we have to isolate the case and any possible contacts to prevent further spread. Until a vaccine is in wider circulation, this is our new reality.

Leader of the free world

President-elect Joe Biden in a portrait from 2013

Like many others around the world, I have been gripped by the US elections over recent weeks. The long, drawn-out vote count added to the drama, as it was not clear for several days who would emerge the winner. When the tally reached its critical point in Pennsylvania, and the media declared Joe Biden the winner, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of relief and celebration coming in from the news crews around the world.

As a Headteacher and a public servant, it is my duty and my role to ensure that I do not promote a particular political point of view. For this reason, this blog is not about the policies or political persuasions of the Republican or Democratic parties or their candidates. Rather, I am interested in the models of leadership that the candidates provided, and the implications for our young people.

Leading in public life

When I became Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, I had to return a signed copy of the Seven Principles of Public Life to the Department for Education. These principles, also known as the Nolan Principles, apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder in our country. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, and as such we are expected to uphold the Nolan Principles. They are:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

As a Headteacher, I try to not only uphold but also actively to model those principles in my daily work. It is also part of my responsibility to ensure that all staff who work for the Academy uphold the principles too.

The impact of Donald Trump

Donald Trump playing golf (source)

The Nolan Principles are part of UK government guidance, and they do not apply in the United States. Some might say it’s just as well. Over the past four years, the elected President of the United States has not provided a role model of leadership that I would want anyone to look up to. He has lied, misinformed, bullied and bludgeoned his way around the world stage, seemingly looking out more for his own self-interest than the interests of others. His statements and actions – or lack of them – have legitimised racism and misogyny, unravelling decades of progress towards equality in a few short years. His refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis – the single biggest issue facing our planet at the moment – has lost time that we do not have in the fight against pollution and the journey towards decarbonisation. And his preference to create his own “alternative facts,” even in the outcome of the election, has undermined our ability as a society to trust those in authority.

In Donald Trump, I do not see a selfless leader: I see self-interest. I do not see a leader who acts with integrity. His interpretation of the world around him is entirely subjective, laden with discrimination and bias and often ignoring the factual evidence. He seems to act without accountability or openness, refusing to submit himself to scrutiny. He lies. He does not exhibit any of the principles of public life in his own behaviour. In doing so, he undermines the concept of leadership and damages the idea of public service.

I was moved by political commentator Van Jones, who was brought to tears in his reflections on what Trump’s defeat meant for him as a parent and an American. “Character matters…telling the truth matters…being a good person matters.”

What about Joe Biden?

I am not naïve enough to think that Joe Biden – or any politician – is without self-interest. He has been a politician for a long time, becoming a Senator in 1973 – the year before I was born. But throughout his long political career he has always embodied the idea of public service. He talks about the idea of integrity and equality instilled in him by his grandfather:

“He wanted me to understand two big things: first, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honour. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sort of romantic notion of what politics should be- and can be. If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people’s lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game. Nearly forty years after I first got involved, I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe- as I know my grandpop did- that my chosen profession is a noble calling.”

Joe Biden, from “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”

He has also been visited by personal tragedy. In 1972, a car accident killed his wife and 13-month-old daughter. He found himself, aged 30, a single dad to his sons Hunter and Beau, both of whom were injured in the accident. Then, in 2015, Beau Biden – himself on track for a promising political career – died of brain cancer at the age of 46. In the wake of the election, commentator Piers Morgan wrote movingly about the impact of these tragedies on the now-President-elect. Piers Morgan is not somebody I am used to agreeing with, but on this occasion his reflections on the impact of grief on Joe Biden brought tears to my eyes.

In the article, Morgan recalls Joe Biden ringing him up at home to thank him for a piece he had written in tribute to Beau Biden following his funeral in 2015. Morgan recalls Joe Biden’s words:

“It’s so important to remember that however bad things may seem, a lot of people are going through a lot worse than you and the way they get through it is other people reaching out to them to give them solace, and in finding a purpose…What I learned when my wife and daughter died was that when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. My purpose then was to be there for my sons and to use my position as a Senator to do as much good as I possibly could, especially for those who need it most. I feel that so strongly again. My purpose now is to think, ‘What would my Beau want me to be doing?’

From Piers Morgan’s MailOnline column, 7th November 2020

The answer, eventually, was to run for President again. This time – after unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008, he has won. Whether he will be a good President, a successful President, remains to be seen. But, like Van Jones, I am more hopeful with Biden as President than I was with Trump: more hopeful that we will see decency, honesty, integrity, accountability and leadership in the White House.

Kamala Harris

Vice-President elect Kamala Harris (source)

My final reflection on this historic election is the success of Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is set to be inaugurated as the first female Vice-President in US History, and the first woman of colour elected to the office. Her victory speech paid tribute to her mother, and the generations of women before her who had blazed a trail for her election. And she offered a vision of hope:

Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.

Kamala Harris, from her victory speech (source)

What Harris’s speech captures is that a leader has enormous power, as a role model, to shape the future. For the past four years I have not been able to look to the United States for a model of leadership that I would want my children, or my students, to aspire towards. With the election of Biden and Harris, I am more hopeful that the principles of public life will apply, not just at Churchill, but to our political leaders as well.

Open during lockdown

I am writing this post on 5th November 2020, the first day of the new national restrictions imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS, and save lives. This is the second wave, so we’ve been here before: except, this time, schools are staying open.

Year 7 in a group of 6 under the canopy

I will never forget March 2020, and the first lockdown. COVID-19 was new to all of us then. In the week ahead of closure of schools, student attendance dropped away. Significant numbers of staff were unable to come in, and we had to close – first to Year 12, and then to all students.

This time, some things are the same – but some are very different. The anxiety is still there, of course: but student attendance this week has been 95.7%. We are used to the routines of wiping down desks, hand sanitising, face coverings, and year group bubbles. And, as everything else closes down and society begins another month of “stay at home,” school carries on.

We are pleased that schools are staying open. We firmly believe that our students are better off in school: no matter how good remote learning is, there is no substitute for being in a classroom with an expert teacher. We know that it is there that our students will get the best educational experience, and make the best progress.

We also believe that the “normality” and structure of the school day is good for mental health and wellbeing. Of course, it’s not quite as “normal” as any of us would like: our extra curricular programme is severely limited; the cross-year-group work that is a hallmark of the Churchill experience has had to be suspended; we cannot hold in-person assemblies or run our programme of trips and visits; and the big events, concerts, presentations and performances that we look forward to are all on hold. But even so, the routines of a five-lesson day, seeing friends and continuing to learn in person is stable, reliable, and welcome.

The bottom field in autumn

This lunchtime, it was a crisp and clear autumn day. As I did my normal circuit of the Academy on duty, I saw Year 10 tearing round the 3G after a football, and throwing and catching, kicking up the autumn leaves, and booting a rugby ball into the bright blue sky above the top field. Year 8 were enjoying the wide open space of the bottom field. Year 9 were on the tennis courts, in small groups, excitedly discussing the sex and relationships education sessions they had had that morning. Year 7 were under the canopy, and up on the grassed area behind the library, their chatter filling the air as they prepared to deliver the speeches they’d been working on in the morning. And Year 11 were being Sixth Formers for the day, making the most of having the run of the Sixth Form Centre and trying out courses as they consider their post-16 options. It felt…well, it felt like a normal day at school.

The top field in autumn

Against the backdrop of strangeness and uncertainty, the familiarity was welcome. We have implemented multiple measures to minimise risk – but nothing we do can eliminate that risk entirely. Despite the uncertainties, despite the challenges, we are so glad the flag is still flying, and our Academy is still full of staff and students learning and working together. That’s how we like it: we will do everything we can to keep it that way.