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.

Building for the future

The future of technology

Throughout the Academy’s closure – apart from a few weeks’ pause during the total lockdown – our building contractors have been carrying on with the building of the extension to the Athene Donald Building.

The extension to the Athene Donald Building nearing completion

The extension, when complete, will house two brand new Technology workshops. It’s been great to be back in school for Exam Support the past few weeks, seeing the new equipment being delivered: pillar drills, saws, and machines which I don’t even know the names of!

The rooms are really fantastic: airy and spacious, with the latest kit and great innovations like power supplies which retract into the ceiling so there’s no messy cabling to get in the way of the workshop. Our students (and staff!) are so lucky – they’re going to love it in these rooms!

Goodbye to the past

Because the Academy is closed, we have been able to demolish the old Technology classrooms ahead of schedule. These rooms were the last remnants of the original 1956 design buildings, after the demolition of Tudor in spring 2019. Unlike that three-storey block, this small single-storey building was flattened in a matter of days.

The footprint of the old Technology block – completely flattened in less than a week

What’s next?

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed many things, and the 2020 round of the government’s condition improvement funding has been no different. But, just as the existing projects were being concluded, on 29th June 2020, the outcomes were announced – and Churchill Academy & Sixth Form has been successful again! This time, we have been awarded funding for two separate but concurrent projects. Firstly, over £250,000 to completely secure the Academy’s perimeter, with modern access gates and fencing to keep our students, staff and site safe. And secondly – and this is the best bit – over £1.5 million to completely rebuild the interior of what is now the Stuart House block.

This will transform the tired, dilapidated classrooms that house our Humanities and Languages faculties and Stuart and Lancaster House. The bid also includes brand new toilet facilities, social spaces, offices and meeting rooms…basically tearing down every internal wall in the building and starting again from scratch. It’s an incredible opportunity!

The coronavirus delay means that our original plan to complete the first phase of the works before September is not achievable, so there will be some disruption as the works progress in phases through the block. However, if the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that Churchill staff and students can overcome any kind of disruption and thrive!

Taking stock

Looking back over the past four years, we have successfully secured funding for:

The total additional investment in our site now stands at over £8.5 million between 2016 and 2020 – an incredible achievement, which will benefit generations of students to come.

A day in Frontline

Frontline provision in action; markers on the floor aid social distancing

Our Frontline provision in Student Services opened on Friday 20th March, just two days after the closure of all schools was announced by the Secretary of State. As Year 11 had their last day event, our library was open to support the children of workers who were critical in the national effort to fight coronavirus, and to support students in specific vulnerable groups who would benefit from time in school. It has remained open ever since: through the school holidays, and on Bank Holidays.

PE Activity in the early days of Frontline

Initially Frontline was staffed by volunteers from the Academy staff who put their names forward to work in school. All through the national lockdown, these staff came in to work with our students, carrying letters confirming that they were entitled to be out of their homes as part of the national effort. Students were supervised to continue with the same remote learning as their classmates, but under the guidance of Academy staff.

Students at work in Frontline

Over time, Frontline has grown and evolved. We have been able to accommodate more students, and the provision has been more specialist. Initially, there was no uniform; now, aligned with Exam Support, students are back in their polo shirts and hoodies. Whilst students are still supervised to complete their remote learning, there are also creative and PE activities, as well as one-to-one support for those students who need it. There have also been art and crafts, cooking, and even gardening!

From the beginning of term 6, Frontline has been completely separate from Exam Support. Frontline has a separate staff team, and a separate part of the site divided by a temporary barrier fence. We have been rigorous in ensuring that there is no cross-over between the two provisions, keeping each in its own protective “bubble.”

I would like to pay tribute to those teachers, administrators, and assistants, who came in during the height of the pandemic to support our young people, and who continue to show the selflessness and integrity which is the hallmark of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form staff. Those staff have been so impressed with the Frontline students. Even in today’s meltingly hot temperatures, they have been excellent: resilient and determined to succeed no matter how unusual the circumstances.

We are all conscious that this most unusual type of school will not – we hope – be needed again. But in this particular crisis, at this unique point in history, Frontline has done a fantastic job.

A day in Exam Support

Our sign welcoming Year 10 and 12 back to the Academy

It’s been a momentous week, as Year 10 and 12 students returned to the Academy from Monday 15th June for the first time since March. It has been a delight to walk the corridors of the Athene Donald building this week, to see the classrooms once more full of students and teachers learning and working together.

However, this is not “normal school.” We are permitted at most a quarter of Year 10 and Year 12 in at a time. Students must observe two metre social distancing at all times. It feels strange at first to keep those distances, especially when walking. Markings on the floor help to remind everyone, and it soon becomes more natural.

Maths lesson in Exam Support

The classrooms are all laid out with one student per desk, positioned two metres apart. Students remain in their place at all times unless given permission by the teacher. Some students said they actually preferred having a desk all to themselves – no distractions, and lots of space to spread out!

A level Economics in Exam Support

Year 10 and 12 are kept separate. Year 12 are using the new entrance into the Athene Donald extension, before going up on to the first floor. Work is still going on in the extension to fit out the classrooms and complete the finishing touches. We expect handover towards the end of June – I will give you a guided tour in a future Headteacher’s Blog. It’s looking great!

Hand-washing before coming in to class

Year 10 are based on the ground floor. Students must wash their hands before entering the classroom in the morning and after break. Hand sanitiser is used when students leave for break after their first session. The foot-operated portable hand-washing stations we have bought have really helped to ease the transitions and ensure that students don’t have to stay in the socially-distanced queue for too long before getting back in to class.

Socially distanced break time

Break time has been a vitally important part of the day. Many of our students haven’t physically seen each other since the Academy closed. The ability to re-start those friendships in person, and find out “how was your lockdown?” has been invaluable. There has also been a lot of comparing of lockdown haircuts! The social side of being in a school community is essential, and even though ball games are not permitted and everyone has to sit two metres apart, it’s been heartening to see smiles on students’ faces as they catch up with one another.

Week 1 Video Assembly

Students have a half hour introduction, with a video assembly from me and some well-being activities, before moving on to their subject specialist content. They have two hour long lessons, plus a half-hour lesson either side of a staggered break time. Many of our students in week one remarked on how tiring it was to do three hours of lessons in a classroom after all that home learning – wait until we get back to a full five-hour day in the Autumn term! We hope…

The students and staff have been fantastic. Everyone has stuck to the systems and ensured that we can all stay safe. It’s been a great team effort, and the first step on the road towards a full re-opening – whenever we are permitted to achieve that safely.

Next week, we will take a look inside the other school operating on our site at the moment: our Frontline provision, based in the library and Student Services.

Within the constraints

This has, without doubt, been a testing time for all of us. We have all had to live and work within constraints that, as the new year dawned just over six months ago, would have been unimaginable. Schools are certainly no exception.

Some of the constraints placed on the wider re-opening of secondary schools are:

  • Class sizes of no more than 15
  • No more than a quarter of students in the eligible year groups on site at a time
  • Reduce mixing, so that students stay in the same groups throughout the day in school
  • Split day rotas are not allowed – you cannot have different students in school in the morning and the afternoon
  • Maintaining social distancing
  • Enhanced hygiene and cleaning processes

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of a Headteacher’s time during coronavirus closure is spent reading page after page of detailed guidance from the Department for Education. Much of the remainder is spent unpicking and re-doing plans and risk assessments when that guidance changes or is updated, or a new piece of guidance comes out. And it is vital that we do, because the safety of our students and staff depends on it.

Socially distanced classroom in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

These constraints have implications for the wider re-opening of schools. Let’s take the class size of 15 to start with. If this remains a requirement in September, we will require twice as many rooms and staff to accommodate our students as is normally the case – or, we will only be able to have half as many in school at a time.

It is this issue which caused problems for the government this week. The UK government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, Our Plan to Rebuild, said that “the Government’s ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible.” But the government’s own class-size limit of 15, published alongside the recovery strategy, applies to primary schools too. Either the limit had to change, or the ambition could not be realised. This week, the Secretary of State for Education announced that the latter was the case – it is not safe to increase class size limits yet.

Portable hand-washing station in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

What’s next?

This week, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the House of Commons where he said:

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education: Statement on the wider opening of education settings, 9th June 2020

The English teacher in me always reads such statements critically and with an analytical eye. Gavin Williamson’s statement has been carefully constructed to provide plenty of room for manoeuvre: “we will be working to bring all children back to school in September” does not mean that it will necessarily happen, or that all children will be able to return to school in September on the same days or all at the same time. “Exams will take place next year” does not mean that exams will necessarily look the same next year as they have done previously. The truth is, we do not know what schools will look like in September, and we don’t know what exams will look like next year. Yet.

We have also had the announcement, from the Prime Minister again, of a “massive catch-up operation” for schoolchildren over the summer. This came as a surprise to those of us who work in education; we have been told categorically by the Department for Education that teachers will not be expected to open schools over the summer. So who will deliver this “massive catch-up operation”? And where will they deliver it? Will children come? And will it make a difference? We are promised more details next week. I await with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

Social distancing markers on the floor of the Athene Donald Building

Who’s to blame?

It has been frustrating to see certain parts of the media blaming teachers, or teacher unions, for the fact the schools are still closed. I have had full, frank and regular discussions with the teacher unions at Churchill. They have, of course, been keen to look after the interests of their members and ensure that it is safe for staff to return to work in schools. That is what a union is there to do. But those conversations have been constructive and helpful. They are supportive of the safe wider re-opening of schools. Because of those conversations, our teachers are happier and more confident to return to work during a pandemic than they would have been without them.

As for teachers, I am one and I work with some of the very best. We care deeply about our students – all of them. We want what is best for them. We are desperate to see them again. We want the Academy’s corridors to echo with children’s voices, we want to see them enjoying their learning and social time again. But, above all else, we want them to be safe. And that is why we cannot open more widely than a quarter of Year 10 and Year 12 at at time – yet. Because the government tells us that it is not yet safe to do so.

“It is because the rate of infection is not yet quite low enough, and because we are not able to change our social distancing advice including smaller class sizes in schools, that we are not proceeding with our ambition to bring back all primary pupils at least for some weeks before the summer holidays.”

The Prime Minister, Statement at the coronavirus press conference: 10 June 2020

Our position at Churchill is that we will always aim to open as widely as possible, to as many students as we can, within the guidelines laid out by the government. We will continue with that ambition. But we will not – cannot – risk the safety of our students and staff.

We are all operating within the constraints laid out for us during this crisis – and we will continue to do so, for as long as this crisis lasts.