72 Weeks: going back to New College, Oxford

Over the October half term break, I was delighted to be invited back to New College at Oxford University. I studied English Language and Literature at New College between 1993 and 1996, before going on to train as an English and Media Studies teacher at Nottingham University in 1996-7.

The Chapel of New College, Oxford

New College is, ironically, one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University. Founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, it was “new” at the time and the name has stuck!

I was invited back to record a podcast called 72 Weeks – so called because that is the average length of time it takes to study for an Oxford University degree (three terms of eight weeks over three years). The podcast brings together two people with a connection through New College, or Oxford more widely, to discuss their experiences and how it has shaped them, in the hope of “demystifying” the Oxford experience and encouraging more people, from more diverse backgrounds, to apply.

With ex-Churchill student Sarah in the gardens of New College, Oxford, October 2022

It was my great honour to record the podcast with Sarah, who successfully gained a place to read Chemistry at New College from the Sixth Form at Churchill in the summer of 2022. Just three weeks into her Oxford experience, Sarah was already thriving and getting her teeth into some serious Chemistry, as well as playing in the College Orchestra and working to start up a New College Ultimate Frisbee Team! It was lovely to hear Sarah reflecting on her first few weeks at university, as well as her time at Churchill and how that had prepared her for the experience.

Sarah (and classmates!) visiting New College in October 2019

Exactly three years earlier (almost to the day!) Sarah was part of a group of twenty three high-attaining Year 11 students that I had taken to New College to help them begin the process of thinking about university applications. We had no way of knowing, at the time, that it would be one of the last school visits we did before the pandemic hit, and that these students would not be able to sit their GCSEs the following summer. But Sarah spoke, in the podcast, about how the experience of spending the day at New College helped her to think: “why couldn’t I study here?” and to visualise herself as part of the community. The visit was one small part in helping her along the way of aiming high and putting her application in. Exceeding her offer of A*A*A? That was down to excellent teaching, a love of her subject, and buckets of hard work from Sarah herself!

One of my great driving passions throughout my career, and especially as a Headteacher, is to encourage students to aim high. The elite universities are not, and should not be, the exclusive domain of the independently educated – but the only way the balance of representation is going to shift is if more state-educated students apply. I’m delighted to say that the trends are positive, and I will do all I can to ensure that this continues.

You can listen to the conversation Sarah and I had with Daniel Powell, Outreach and Marketing Officer at New College, at the link below – or search for “72 Weeks” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favourite podcast platform. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed recording it!

Student Leadership Conference 2022

Last Friday, we held our first Student Leadership Conference at the Food Works SW centre on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare. Following pandemic disruption, it was great to finally realise the vision of this event, which was a great success!

Lancaster House Council outside Food Works SW on our Student Leadership Conference, Friday 11th November 2022

In total, almost ninety student leaders were able to join us in the plush conference meeting rooms of the Food Works SW. On the agenda was a morning of training, to help our student leaders understand more about their role and to build their skills and confidence in delivering on their leadership ambitions. This included sessions on understanding the concept of leadership, and thinking about the best ways to bring about change, as well as training on communication skills and team building.

The afternoon session involved the House Councils working with the Heads of House to develop their plans for the year ahead. These sessions were about taking the theory from the morning and putting it into practice. What did they want to achieve? And how would they go about achieving it?

It was a full day of challenging thinking and participation, but our student leaders rose to the occasion and showed their commitment to their roles. I feel confident that, with their leadership, the Academy will continue to go from strength to strength.

Remembrance 2022: remembering to remember

This week, Mr Slater and Mr Waller have led assemblies on the theme of remembrance, reminding us of the importance of this annual act during the two minutes’ silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

The assembly began and ended with a reading of John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields, with its poignant plea from “the dead”:

To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

We were reminded of how Remembrance Day, and the two minutes’ silence, began in 1919 to remember those who had lost their lives in the First World War. Since then, the act of remembrance has expanded to include all those who have sacrificed in conflict, so that we may continue to live in freedom.

The poppy itself was a symbol of peace, as the bright red flowers began to grow from the churned up lifeless battlefields of France and Belgium within days of the ceasefire in 1918. Mr Slater and Mr Waller reminded us of the work of the Royal British Legion, who are supported through the purchasing of poppies for remembrance. The Legion supports former members of the Armed Forces and their families to cope with the impact of their service, which can often be life-changing. Their work, in support of those who served, and their families, is truly remarkable.

We were also reminded to remember those who are sometimes forgotten – those non-white, non-British servicemen and women who gave their lives for our country in the two World Wars. These people made sacrifices for a country they had often never been to, thousands of miles away, so that we can live in freedom today. For example:

  • Tens of thousands of East Africans were drafted into a non-combatant Carrier Corps to support the British campaign against the Germans in Africa during the First World War. By October 1917, almost 29,000 of them had died.
  • A South African Native Labour Corps provided some 70,000 personnel for service in both Africa and Europe, 616 of whom died when their ship, the Mendi, sank following a collision in the English Channel on 21 February 1917.
  • During the Second World War, some 90 West Indian men serving as aircrew with the RAF were decorated for bravery, including 64 DFCs and 7 DSOs
  • 90,000 West African soldiers travelled more than 6,000 miles to fight in the Burma campaign against the Japanese in WWII
  • By the end of the Second World War the Indian Army, with a strength of over 2.5 million, had become the largest volunteer army in history, and had served on three continents

W e also reflected on those who make sacrifices for us today, in peacetime. The heroic healthcare workers who saw us through the COVID-19 pandemic; the armed forces and emergency services who turn out whenever there is need; those volunteers who give their time and energy to help make our communities better places. You don’t have to give your life for your effort to be remembered.

Finally, our students were asked to think about three things as they mark the two minutes’ silence on Friday:

  • Think of something/someone who has sacrificed something for you
  • Think of something/someone who has sacrificed something for this country
  • Think of something/someone who has sacrificed something for our world

Thank you to Mr Slater and Mr Waller for a really powerful assembly. This remembrance day, who or what will you remember?

The School Sixth Form

I attended an 11-18 school, where the Sixth Form was a natural extension of the main school. At the end of Year 11, it was a smooth transition for me to straight on to the Sixth Form: I knew the teachers, I knew the school, and my friends were all staying on. It made sense!

When I moved into Year 12, however, I was struck by how different the experience felt. The relationship with the teachers shifted significantly: there was still a clear professional respect, but somehow it felt more personalised and connected. The only teacher from my school days that I am still in touch with (thirty years later!) is my A-level English teacher.

I also found a new niche in the Sixth Form as a student leader, working with groups of younger students both in English but also in Drama, where I ended up in charge of the technical theatre team to design and operate lighting for school productions. Whilst I had already been interested in teaching, this experience of working with younger children to help them achieve and deliver a project together really firmed up my career plans.

This is why, in my teaching career, I have always taught in 11-18 schools which have a Sixth Form attached to them. There is something about the presence of the Year 12 and 13 students in the school community that creates a tangible sense of destination and aspiration for our younger students: the Sixth Formers are positive role models. And, for the Sixth Formers themselves, there is that sense of the familiar but also the distinctly different that provides a natural extension of their 11-16 education, on the same site and with the same staff, but seen through a new lens.

There is also the added incentive of A-level teaching, which I have always found fulfilling. The depth, breadth and challenge of the additional subject knowledge required to teach at advance level brings additional subject expertise to the faculty. I have always found that this strengthens the teaching in the main school, as teachers know and teach the next steps beyond GCSE, enabling further stretch and challenge.

We are really proud of our Sixth Form at Churchill. As with the main school, we put achievement at the heart of our provision – but we recognise that an education is about more than just the exam results. That is why the wider offer which being part of a school can provide – leadership and enrichment opportunities, involvement with the community, and the extended curriculum – is so important to us, and such a strong feature of our Sixth Form. The video below really captures how our Sixth Form students feel about this:

2023 Sixth Form Video

We are a Level 3 Sixth Form, offering A-level or equivalent qualifications. The minimum entry requirement to get into Churchill Sixth Form is at least three GCSEs at grade 5 and above and at least two GCSEs at grade 4 and above. Many of the courses also have subject-specific entry criteria. We strongly believe that the vast majority of our main school students can reach the threshold to access this provision, but we also recognise that there are other destinations locally which provide strong alternatives. We provide detailed careers and application advice for students interested in progressing to colleges or other providers for vocational, technical and other post-16 offers: our primary interest is ensuring that students get to the right destination for them. However, if students meet the entry criteria and want to study A-levels or the other Level 3 qualifications we offer, we believe that there is no better place to do it than at our Sixth Form.

This week, our current Year 11 students have had a taster experience on our “Be A Sixth Former For A Day” programme, ahead of our Sixth Form Open Evening next week. We would urge all Year 11 students – whether they currently attend Churchill Academy & Sixth Form or not – to come and find our what our Sixth Form has to offer. We look forward to seeing you!

Celebrating student success: end of term 1

This week I have had the pleasure of attending two great events to celebrate our students’ achievements – the Future Chef Competition, and our annual Sports Awards Evening.

Future Chef 2022

In this competition, our Future Chefs had to plan and cook a main course dish for two people in under one hour, with a maximum budget of five pounds. The students, from Years 9 and 10, worked miracles with the brief, and produced plates of delicious food for the judging panel. Hot foot from our Senior Leadership Team meeting, myself and Deputy Head Mrs James, along with Assistant Heads Mrs Gill and Mr Davies, were joined by Director of PE Mr Hayne to assess the presentation and taste of the dishes, whilst Food specialist Mrs Coman judged the workmanship that went on behind the scenes.

The overall winner was Annabel Isgrove, whose guacamole was a triumph (I’d still like the recipe please, Annabel!), but every dish was delicious and really well presented. One of the real pleasures of Headship!

Sports Awards Evening

It was great to have Sports Awards Evening back in the calendar again! This fabulous, glamorous event is a great way to end term 1, celebrating the sporting successes of our students from the past year. The students scrubbed up well to join Team PE and a host of staff to eat well and enjoy the evening. Guests of honour Tom Stabbins (competitive climber and ex-Churchill student) and Bristol City striker Nakhi Wells helped hand out the awards, with the coveted Sportspeople of the Year trophies being awarded to Zoe Coombes and Benedict Skudder. A full report, with all the photos, is on the Academy website now.

What a great way to end term 1!

Black History Month

October is Black History Month. The month is marked to honour the contributions made to society by people of Black heritage and their communities. It is a time to educate and enrich the world with the importance of Black history.

At Churchill, we mark Black History Month with resources for our tutors to use with tutor groups, to help our students understand the importance of Black history. For example:

And:

We also encourage our students to be critical and independent thinkers. The American actor, Morgan Freeman, has criticised Black History Month as “ridiculous.” “I don’t want a black history month,” he said, “black history is American history.“ So, whilst we do mark Black History Month, we also ensure that our curriculum is rich, broad and diverse all year round – and not just in History.

From our studies in history, geography and RE, to the selection of texts in English, the examples of scientists in Science, artists in Art and beyond, we think carefully about our choices to challenge our students to look at a range of diverse experiences and perspectives. Our learning groups in Years 7-9, are named after significant figures from the fields of different faculties, from a range of diverse backgrounds. These include Mary Seacole, who was named as the greatest black Briton in a 2004 BBC poll, and civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson. In tutor time this week, students have been looking at the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe, Marcus Rashford and Diane Abbott to their respective fields and contexts.

We remain completely committed to being an inclusive school which celebrates diversity. At Churchill, we want to ensure that everybody feels like they belong – no matter their background, heritage or identity. It’s therefore important to bring people together around events like Black History Month to get people to come together to continue to make change for the better – even if it is just one part of our overall strategy.

We encourage all our students to adopt an anti-racist approach, and to ensure that they are allies to their fellow students, who may be different to themselves. Educating ourselves about discrimination and prejudice, and speaking out against injustice, is an essential part of that approach.

Open Evening and Open Mornings

Over the past two weeks, we have opened up our school to children in Year 5 and 6 – and their families – as they weigh up their options for secondary education. The transition from primary to secondary school is a big change, so it’s really important that families can make informed decisions. Whilst we are naturally keen to show off Churchill at its best, we also want families to understand what it’s really like to come to our school.

And that’s where our students come in!

We hold two types of open events. The Open Evening is our showcase, where we put on activities and open up the whole site for visitors to tour, speak to staff, ask questions, and understand our values, our vision and our purpose. The Open Evening is complemented by Open Mornings, where visitors look round the school whilst it is “in action” on a normal school day, so they can get a sense of what it’s like when over 1600 students are in class – or when they move from one lesson to another.

What both events have in common is that they are led by our students. From Year 7 to Year 13, students act as tour guides on both Open Evening and Open Mornings, guiding groups of children and their families around the Academy to show them all we have to offer, whilst answering questions on the way. Our students also work with our faculties on Open Evening, demonstrating Science experiments, rehearsing in Performing Arts, or running activities in English, Humanities, PE, Art and beyond!

We believe that families will get a more honest and realistic impression from our students of what it is actually like to attend Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. We know that they are proud to come to Churchill – and we know that they love to tell people about it! But we also know that they will tell it like it is, from a student’s perspective, which is far more valuable to a family than hearing a grown-up’s sales pitch. We trust our students; they are our greatest asset.

Of course, there will be some questions that our students can’t answer, and we always have staff available to cover those. And the children and their families will want to hear from me about what we stand for, our ethos and philosophy of education, and the practical arrangements for transition. We do this with a video presentation, which plays in the hall on Open Evening, is posted on the website, and emailed out to everyone who books a place on either event. But, even in the video, we want the voices of students to come through. This is why my presentation is preceded by students from the Sixth Form and Year 11 (this year, Stan and House Captain Lauren), and concludes with our newest students, our Year 7s (this year, Evelyn and Nat).

I am always really proud to be Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. But when I see literally hundreds of students staying until 8pm to show off how wonderful our school is, to persuade younger children to come and join us – well, I allow myself to feel even prouder than ever.

What happens on an inset day? September 2022

The day after our Open Evening, staff were back in school for an inset day. Inset is a contraction of “in service training,” and all state schools have five inset days as part of their calendar to provide professional development to their staff. At Churchill, we like to make the very most of ours!

This year, our programme of professional development is focused on our Academy Development Plan, which has three priorities:

  • Challenge
  • The role of the tutor
  • Assessment

Our inset day drew in elements of all three priorities.

Challenge: every teacher a teacher of SEND

The morning was spent reflecting on our provision for students with special educational needs and disabilities. Our aim was to work hard to plan high quality, inclusive teaching to meet the needs of individuals and help them to overcome barriers to learning to support every student to be the very best they can be. We were supported in this work by Natalie Packer, a nationally renowned expert in the field.

Natalie took us through the five recommendations of the Education Endowment Fund’s Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools report. These recommendations, supported by robust evidence, provide the “best bets” for successful inclusive provision for all students.

Natalie also outlined the latest information regarding special educational needs and disabilities, including the Education Inspection Framework from Ofsted and recommendations about a high-quality, inclusive curriculum. Staff – and especially leaders – were then invited to reflect on our current practice, celebrate the many strengths, and identify areas of focus where we can develop through this year.

Lighthouse Schools Partnership

Following our SEND focused sessions, staff had a presentation from the Lighthouse Schools Partnership. The LSP is the multi-academy trust that we have committed to join, and the process of due diligence ahead of this is already well underway. School leaders have been working alongside colleagues from the partnership for many months, but this was the first opportunity for all staff to hear directly from the chief executive, chief operating officer and a deputy headteacher from a current Lighthouse Schools Partnership school. Our guests from the trust laid out their vision, their priorities, and how Churchill Academy & Sixth Form would both benefit from being part of the partnership, and strengthen it. There was then an opportunity to ask questions, and for further discussions. Work is continuing behind the scenes to ensure our transition into the trust goes as smoothly as possible.

The role of the tutor

The afternoon session began our exploration of the role of the tutor, which is our second key priority this year. Mrs James began the session by outlining the role of tutors with our Year 10 students as they start their GCSE courses. Over the coming weeks, tutors will be overseeing the target setting process with their Year 10s, ensuring that our students are fully engaged in being aspirational about their aims and objectives over the coming two years – and discussing the strategies they will need to employ to make those aspirations a reality.

We then turned our attention to six steps to being a brilliant form tutor, before the five houses (and the sixth form) got together to reflect on the skills and qualities that a brilliant form tutor needed. The house and sixth form teams also thought about the programme of activities running through our morning tutor sessions, beginning to plan to ensure we make the most of our vertical tutor groups and all the possibilities they have for growth and development.

This inset day was the starting point for this work, and we will return to it in January to develop it further.

There wasn’t time for us to watch it on the day itself, but the “role of the tutor” session was inspired by the Rita Pierson, whose famous TED talk “every kid needs a champion” provides the impetus for all of us who work in education to remember why we do it, and who we’re doing it for.

Although there were no students on site today, the thinking, reflecting and planning was really hard work. We’re confident that our students will feel the benefit over the coming weeks, months, and years as we continue to tweak, develop and improve our Academy.

Presentation Evening 2022

Churchill’s Annual Presentation Evening took place on Wednesday 14th September 2022 – three years since our last in-person event. The evening celebrated the successes of the Academy community over the previous year, with awards focused on the exam results from Years 11 and 13 complemented by prizes for service to the community, for progress and improvement, compassion, resilience, and attitudes to learning. 

I was joined on stage by the Chair of Trustees, Mrs Anne Oakley, who introduced the evening. Our guest of honour was William Bjergfelt, cyclist with Team GB and competitor in the Tour of Britain. As a (very amateur!) cyclist myself, I have always enjoyed cycling at the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, the Tour de France and Tour of Britain – those athletes are idols to me, so meeting William was a real honour. He gave a great speech about his own experiences in competitive sport, and how his own career has been defined by our Academy value of determination. As an elite mountain bike rider and aspiring road racer, William was involved in a head-on collision with a car in 2015 which left him with a bleed on the brain and his right leg shattered into 25 pieces. His leg was reconstructed with three titanium plates but he was told at the time he would never ride a bike again, let alone race one. William spoke to the audience of prize winners and their families about how his mental attitude was every bit as important as his physical recovery, as he defied the odds to return to elite cycling. He qualified as a para-cyclist for Team GB and returned to racing alongside able-bodied athletes in the Tour of Britain in 2021.

William’s inspiring message capped off a wonderful evening of awards – the full roll of honour can be seen on the Prize Winners page of our website. The Headteachers’ award for achievement at GCSE went to Maddie Pole, and the Captain G. J. Picton-Davies Cup for Best Overall Performance at A-level, was handed to Sarah Browne, who, with 3 A* and 1 A and will be going on to study Chemistry at New College, Oxford.

We were also delighted to award the Barry Wratten Prize for Resilience, for the second time, to Jamie Campbell. Jamie received the award for the first time in 2019, when he received it from the wheelchair he needed to move around the Academy at the time. Now in the Sixth Form, and following many years of surgery and hard work, Jamie walked up the steps unaided to collect the award from the stage. His example of determination was warmly applauded by everyone present.

Welcome back – September 2022

Term has started really smoothly at Churchill. Our staff training day on Thursday 1st September focused on expectations and priorities for the year ahead – with the same messages emphasised to students through the start of term assemblies in the first full week back. Our new Year 7 and Year 12 students had the school to themselves on Friday 2nd September, to acclimatise to their new surroundings and prepare for their “step up.”

Priorities for the year ahead

As a school we are focused on three priorities for this academic year:

  1. Challenge: to ensure that the highest expectations of behaviour, learning and progress are evident in every experience that students have at Churchill
  2. The role of the tutor: to ensure that tutoring engages students in the values, ethos and purpose of the Academy, developing the inclusion, diversity and sustainability agendas and providing exemplary pastoral and academic support and guidance
  3. Assessment: to ensure that assessment provides valuable and accurate formative and summative information which accurately reflects students’ learning and progress, to inform next steps

There is more detail on these in the Academy Priorities and Development Plan on our website. The three priorities have been identified to ensure that our students continue to make the best possible progress through the curriculum at the Academy, with the right balance of challenge and support around them.

Expectations

In the start of year house assemblies, we introduced the Senior Leadership Team to the students and laid out our expectations. These included the six learning values which underpin our systems at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. We believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

These values – especially the first – inform the effort grades we include on each student’s progress report, so we took the opportunity to run through the criteria teachers use to award “Good” or “Excellent” effort grades. We emphasised the fact that any student, no matter their ability, can meet the criteria for “Good” or “Excellent” effort – and it is effort that will ensure the best possible progress and attainment.

We also took the opportunity to run through the Top 5 Classroom Behaviour expectations that we established last year, to ensure that students know what is expected of them – every lesson, every time.

  1. Strong start: We arrive on time, line up and enter the classroom calmly
  2. Full attention: We are immediately silent and face the speaker when called to attention 
  3. Full effort: We apply ourselves with our full effort to the learning tasks set
  4. Full focus: We focus all our attention on the learning tasks set
  5. Calm finish: At the end of the lesson we wait in silence for the member of staff to dismiss us

We also reminded students of the Code of Conduct and the Academy’s mobile phone policy. It has been fantastic to see students stepping up to these expectations in this first week, starting the term in just the right frame of mind. But a school year is a marathon, not a sprint – and we expect our students to maintain their high standards consistently throughout the year.