Celebrations with Year 11 and 13

Over the past few weeks, we have been celebrating with our Year 13 and Year 11 classes of 2022. These students have been through an unprecedented period in education. The A-level exams taken by Year 13 were the first experience of external exams for many of them since their Year 6 SATs, as GCSEs were cancelled for them in 2020. Year 11 did sit their GCSEs over a long, extended exam period, following the disruption of education through the COVID-19 pandemic. Both year groups needed and deserved a party!

Year 13 Ball

The Year 13 Ball took place in Bristol on 18th June. It was a wonderful event, with delicious food and a packed dance floor! There is a full gallery of photos on the Academy website.

Year 11 Prom

The Year 11 Prom took place on 24th June at Cadbury House. The students looked great in their outfits and celebrated in style! A full gallery is available on the Academy website, and the download link for photos from inside the venue is also available – all Year 11 families will be emailed the password for this page.

Sustaining Sustainability

This week Mrs Franklin (the Academy’s Sustainability and Marketing Manager) joined me to present to a national conference of School Business Leaders. We were asked to present our work on reducing the Academy’s carbon footprint towards our goal of net-zero by 2030, and we also took the opportunity to look more broadly at our sustainability priority.

Many of the things we spoke about in our presentation are captured in the blog post I wrote around the #COP26 summit in Glasgow last November – Going Green: Churchill and #COP26. We emphasised how important it is to us that sustainability is one of the five priorities in the Academy’s five-year strategic plan, and that sustainability is driven by our students – as we owe it to them to protect the planet they will grow up on. In fact, I will be judging the students’ Seeking Sustainability competition entries next week!

Solar PV array on the roof of the Athene Donald Building

Mrs Franklin was able to update the conference delegates on the impact of some of our carbon reduction work:

  • Reviewing our controls and boiler optimisation so that boilers are only on when they are absolutely needed has saved 22,000 kWh of energy
  • The replacement of our lighting with LED units has saved 150,000 kWh on electricity
  • The solar panels (or photovoltaic cells as they’re more properly called) which cover much of our roof space across the site can deliver up to 40% of the Academy’s electricity needs in peak summer weather
  • The introduction of point-of-use hot water heaters mean that our boilers can be completely switched off for long periods of time in warm weather, saving 300,000 kWh in gas

Finally, Mrs Franklin was able to present an updated carbon emissions chart which shows we have reduced our carbon footprint by 70% since 2015 – a further 20% reduction since the 2020 figures.

This presentation wasn’t all celebration however. As a school, we have picked almost all of the “low hanging fruit” in our battle to reduce our carbon footprint. The next stage of our journey to net zero involves the bigger challenge: reducing or removing our dependence on natural gas completely. As we look at heating and cooling solutions across the Academy’s estate, to replace our ageing gas boilers, we really want to find low-carbon solutions. Our Trustees last week commissioned work to explore how best to achieve this.

What we already know is that we will need additional funding to enable this work. We also know that the Department for Education is facing an estimated £11.4 billion bill just to bring the school building estate up to standard across the UK – and that’s before they begin to think about decarbonising that estate. And so, whilst we are grateful for the existence of the DfE’s Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems – we feel that it doesn’t go far enough. If we are serious about net zero, we need to tackle the big ticket items which contribute to our carbon footprint: gas-fired heating systems, and emissions from transport. Whilst we can make progress on these issues ourselves, we’re going to need help if we’re going to solve them for good – and that means investment to back up the sentiments.

We know our students are ambitious for a greener future – and we owe it to them to deliver it.

Sponsored Walk and Trek 2022

The Sponsored Walk and Trek are a long-standing Churchill tradition. Our school is beautifully situated in the foothills of the Mendips, and the walk and trek are our opportunity to get out of our school gates and up into the area of outstanding natural beauty that surrounds us.

The Sponsored Walk

Year 7 and 8 take on a sponsored walk from the Sixth Form centre. Working in house teams, they walk from the Academy to Sandford, through the Thatchers’ Orchards, before joining the Strawberry Line. They use the Strawberry Line path to walk up through Winscombe, including the spooky dark tunnel, before turning off up to King’s Wood and, from there, to the trig point before Crook Peak. From there, students get the reward of spectacular views from Cheddar Reservoir to Glastonbury Tor, Brent Knoll, the Bristol Channel and over to Wales.

After a rest stop at the trig point, students head back down through Slader’s Leigh nature reserve for lunch at Winscombe Rugby Club, before returning to the Academy in time for the coaches at the end of school.

It’s quite a walk, with a steep ascent in the middle, but it’s well worth it!

The Senior Trek

Students in Years 9 and 10 take on the challenge of the Senior Trek. The Trek is designed to promote independence as students, in house teams, navigate themselves between checkpoints on the Mendips, based around the peak at Black Down. Sixth Form students occupy the checkpoints, and students are awarded points for the number of checkpoints they are able to get to.

The key to success in the Trek is keeping your whole team together all the time. If you arrive at a checkpoint and your team isn’t together – you are disqualified! This is in place to promote teamwork and also to ensure that students are safe when navigating across the course. Teams arriving together win points for their houses – and this year’s results are below:

Senior Trek Results 2022

The Academy Values

The trek and the walk are designed to promote the Academy’s values:

  • Kindness: students support one another in their house teams to keep going and stick together on the trek and the walk. They are also required to be kind to the environment as they treat the area of outstanding natural beauty with respect, leaving no litter and being considerate of other members of the public enjoying the landscape.
  • Curiosity: students are encouraged to be curious about their local area. From spotting landmarks and landforms, to recognising the plants, birds and animals around them this is an opportunity to experience biology and geography in real life. They also learn a lot about one another – and themselves – when they take on the challenge!
  • Determination: the trek and the walk are big challenges – you need to be determined to keep going! Everyone who completes the challenge gets that big sense of achievement that you only feel when you’ve really had to dig deep to get it done – and that’s exactly what we’re looking for at Churchill!

It’s a huge undertaking for the staff to lead and organise these events, to get over 1000 students out onto the hills and back to school safely. I’d like to thank all the staff involved, especially those who take a lead role in the organisation. But, when you see the students back at school, tired but proud of what they’ve achieved, it’s definitely worth it!

What makes a home? Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History month

Every June since 2008, people from across the UK have celebrated Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM). With celebration, education and efforts to raise awareness of the histories and experiences of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, GRTHM helps to tackle prejudice, challenge myths and to amplify the voices of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people.

At Churchill we are proud to have students from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and heritage as part of our Academy. We work hard to ensure that our school is inclusive to students of all backgrounds, and this means understanding the context and history of their communities. I found the video “Roads From The Past” informative and useful in helping me to understand more about the history of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

I also found this timeline poster fascinating, tracing the history of the communities from 998AD to the present day. I was struck but the long history of persecution and discrimination faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, including in the holocaust of the Second World War and right up to the present day.

Under our Academy value of “curiosity,” we expect our students to be hungry to learn and to seek to fill in gaps in their knowledge. We can all do more to help ensure that everybody – no matter their background, identity or culture – is welcome at Churchill, but making sure we understand each other better. I found the materials around Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller history month really interesting, as they helped me close gaps in my understanding of this often misunderstood culture. I hope that you find the same.

To find out more visit the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month 2022 website here.

Thank a Teacher Day 2022

Thursday 26th May is national Thank a Teacher Day for 2022. The day aims to celebrate the schools at the heart of our communities, and the role that they have played through the pandemic and beyond in supporting children and young people with their learning, progress and development.

For Thank a Teacher Day 2021, I wrote about two teachers who I remember with particular fondness from my own school days. This year, I want to turn my attention to the colleagues I work with as a teacher myself. And it’s important that this isn’t just about teachers – even though it is thank a teacher day! The support staff in schools enable us teachers to do our jobs. The office staff, the cleaners, the kitchen staff, the site team, the network and IT support team, pastoral support workers, counsellors, teaching and learning assistants, careers and business engagement, sustainability, finance and human resources – there is a huge team of colleagues working really hard to make sure our Academy functions properly and effectively. So, although it is the teachers who get a national day of thanks, I want to pay a special tribute today to all the support staff who work so hard at Churchill and beyond.

In particular, I want to record my thanks to Sue Griffiths. Almost anyone who comes into contact with Churchill Academy & Sixth Form will have met or spoken to Sue, as she is the smiling face working behind our reception desk. Sue has been at Churchill since the turn of the millennium, and in those 22 years she has seen and heard it all – but she’s far too professional to share her stories! Her smile, warmth and complete unflappability have ensured that countless thousands of people who have visited or called the Academy have come away with a positive first impression – myself included. For that, we owe her our immeasurable gratitude. Sue will be leaving Churchill at the end of this term, and we will miss her terribly.

And so, to all the teachers and to everyone who works in schools – thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for our children and young people. You are all superstars, and it’s a pleasure to work with you.

Vertical Tutoring

We temporarily abandoned our vertical tutor groups on Wednesday 4th November 2020. The decision to move to horizontal (year group) tutoring was made in the midst of the “bubble” system where close contacts of positive coronavirus cases were sent home for precautionary self-isolation, to minimise the risk of transmission and the disruption caused by close contact self-isolation. At the time, in my letter to families, I said “ We place a great deal of value on our vertical tutoring system, and students will return to vertical tutor groups once the public health situation allows.” We are now well beyond those restrictions and we are looking forward to returning to the vertical tutoring system which is the foundation of our house-based pastoral care system. 

Vertical tutoring means that a small number of students from each year group belong to the same tutor group. There are many advantages to this system:

  • Tutor to student ratio: vertical tutor groups only have an average of five students from each year group. This means that tutors can spend more time with individuals, offering pastoral support and guidance. It also makes it easier for tutors to monitor academic progress, because when a progress report is published the tutor only has five students to work with, rather than up to thirty students in a year group system. 
  • Role modelling and student leadership: vertical tutoring breaks down the barriers between year groups, so that students from different year groups can work together. This enables students in the older year groups to act as role models, peer mentors and sources of advice and guidance to younger students. It also means that students in younger year groups can more clearly understand the future of the educational journey, by seeing first hand the decisions, challenges and expectations of students in older years. This can raise aspiration and leads to a “future-focused” approach.
  • Dynamic composition: in a vertical system, each tutor group’s Year 11 cohort will move on to their next steps and be replaced in September by a new intake of Year 7 students. This means that the tutor group’s composition is dynamic over the years, ensuring that the groups remain “fresh” and there are always new students to work with. 
  • Skills and character: working with students from different year groups every day requires our students to develop and practise important skills of teamwork, speaking and listening, problem solving, creativity, and leadership beyond the context of students the same age as them, which they do in five lessons every day. This is an important aspect of challenge which helps students to develop positively. 
  • Behaviour: research – and our own experience – has shown that properly implemented vertical tutoring systems improve students’ prosocial behaviour across the school. Vertical tutoring can also “depolarise” behaviour, bringing out the best in all students. It reduces the amount of in-year rivalry and “cliques”: students are more likely to be friendly and kind towards each other and make friends with different year students. Older students often behave in a more grown up way as if they naturally feel a duty to model good behaviour.
  • Belonging and house identity: the house is the “home” for students at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, and the vertical tutor group acts as the “family” for students. We expect students from across each house to work together as part of the house team to develop the identity and ethos of the house, in support of the Academy’s aims and values. This is greatly enhanced by vertical tutoring. This will be supported by the formation of House Councils in next year’s student leadership programme, replacing the year group councils which have been in place through the pandemic. 

A letter will be coming home shortly providing details of the tutor group change, and students will have assemblies next week explaining how and why we are going back to normal. Then, on the first day back in term 6, we will be back in our vertical tutor groups. There will be an extended tutor time so that the members of the new tutor group can get to know one another, and expectations and approaches can be re-established. In this initial period, groups will be smaller, including students only from Years 7-10, as Year 11 will be on study leave. The groups will be ready to welcome the Year 6 students (who will be joining the tutor group as Year 7s in September) when they arrive for their induction day on 28th June.

Many generations of Churchill students have benefitted from this system over the years, and many other schools – both locally and further afield – have now adopted it. Any change is always accompanied by some uncertainty, and it is natural that students have become comfortable in their year group tutor groups. These were always temporary – although the twists and turns of the pandemic have forced us to hang on to them for longer than we anticipated we would have to! We know from long experience that vertical tutoring works best for getting students to work together positively, and we look forward to getting back to what we know works best for our students to help them make that positive difference to themselves and one another. 

Exams: the final furlong

Term 5 is a pressurised term – this year especially. It’s just five weeks from Easter to the May half term, with formal GCSE and A-level exams starting on May 16th. The exams suddenly go from seeming a long way off, to being…well, next week!

The final furlong of exam preparation is about finishing touches. Courses have been finished, despite the pandemic disruption. Students have the knowledge and skills they need now to tackle the exams ahead of them. This final few days is all about honing exam technique to a sharp point: what exactly do the examiners want to see in an answer to this particular type of question? How can you manipulate what you know to squeeze as many marks as possible out of each part of the paper? How should you manage your time to ensure you leave enough to cover everything fully?

Despite two years without exams, teachers are well versed in the mystic art of exam technique. Exam preparation classes across the Academy are full of last-minute reminders about what to include, where, and how. In a exam situation, this is almost as important as the knowledge itself!

You can put yourself at an advantage by preparing well. Revision is essential, of course – you can find revision tips in the Revision category on this blog. But just as important is a good night’s sleep, and a healthy meal before an exam. An all-night revision session honestly won’t help as much as you wish it would – the brain works best when well rested and fuelled. Get to bed, sleep well, and have a good breakfast.

Once you’re in the exam itself, there are some general tips that I always swear by:

  • Be sure to answer all the questions – turn every page. Including the back page…yes, every year someone comes out ashen-faced when they realise there were eight questions, not seven.
  • Jot down your key ideas – don’t be afraid to do some rough work, or write down some key notes as soon as the invigilator says “you may begin.” Getting key ideas down will ensure that you remember them!
  • Write something for every question – if you’re not sure, make your best educated guess at the question. If you’ve written something, you’re in with a shout of some marks. If you write nothing – you’re definitely going to score zero.
  • Keep an eye on the time – you know how many questions are on the paper. You know how long you’ve got. Make sure you leave enough time to answer them all.
  • Check – use every minute of the exam. Check for silly mistakes. Check that you’ve written what you think you’ve written. Check for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Give yourself time to add in that extra bit that you forgot the first time through. It could make all the difference.

Exams bring stress and pressure with them – that’s an inevitable part of the process. Managing that pressure is an essential part of succeeding. Being well-prepared is the best way to ensure that the pressure works in your favour, rather than against you.

I hope these last minute tips have been helpful. Above all, I wish all our exam candidates the very best of luck. You deserve it.

Comprehensive advantage

Or why state schools actually provide a better education than private schools

This week, the front page of the Times newspaper declared (in horror): “privately educated to lose places at Oxbridge.” As Sam Freedman has subsequently pointed out, the headline here implies that privately educated students have some pre-ordained right to places at our most prestigious and elite universities, and should be up in arms about “normal” state educated children coming along to take away the places that are rightfully theirs.

This sort of stuff makes me furious!

As many of you will know, I am myself privately educated, and I went to Oxford to study English. One of the unresolved questions in my life is whether I would have got my place at Oxford if I had attended the local comprehensive, instead of being a scholarship boy at a competitive, selective, all-boys school with a long-established and well-designed Oxbridge preparation programme. Almost half of my A-level English Literature class in Year 13 successfully gained places at Oxford or Cambridge – it was “expected.” Was it my natural ability, work ethic and enthusiasm for reading and writing that got me in – or was is the advantage of a system loaded to get students from certain schools into certain universities?

I will never know the answer to that question, but one of my personal missions as teacher and Headteacher is to ensure that students from the state schools I work in recognise that they have just as much right to places at our most prestigious universities and top careers as anybody else. I want to make sure that the playing field is levelled wherever possible, so that those without privilege have equal access to the opportunities that those with privilege take for granted.

Over my 25 years working in mixed state comprehensive schools across the East Midlands and the South West, it has also become abundantly clear to me that a state education is actually superior to a private one. Not necessarily in terms of resources – private schools are cash-rich. Mine had two theatres and its own sailing club, for example; most state schools can’t compete with that. But an education in a comprehensive school gives you something that a private school can’t: the understanding of people who come from a different background to you.

At Churchill, we have students from across the whole range of ability, across a wide range of backgrounds, with different needs, family backgrounds, identities, enthusiasms and interests. Some of our students come from rich, privileged backgrounds; some live in poverty. We are a rich, diverse community. I never had that at my school – I had no idea about how people different to me lived their lives. And that meant that, although I knew I lot about Jane Austen, Shakespeare and the Romantic poets, I wasn’t really that well educated – because I didn’t really understand people who weren’t like me. That part of my education didn’t begin until I trained as a teacher, age 22, in a deprived area of north Nottinghamshire, in a state comprehensive school.

And, more than that, the evidence shows that a comprehensive system actually provides a better level of academic preparation. A landmark report by the HEFCE showed that state school students with the same A-level grades as their private school counterparts went on to get better degrees at the end of university. Something about a state school education prepares students to be more successful when they move on to higher education than those from the privileged private sector. Maybe it’s the inclusion and diversity of their education that gives them the edge to be more flexible, to have empathy, and to work better with a greater variety of people?

It is clear to me, having been educated in the private sector and worked for two and a half decades in the state sector, that students get a better all-round education in state schools than they do in private ones. I have three children myself – my youngest is just finishing primary, and my eldest is in Year 11. They all go to state schools. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You can only focus on one thing at a time

A lens refracts light to focus on one point (the focal point, F); our brains work in a similar way

In this week’s assemblies, I have been going through the Behaviour for Learning Top 5 we are focusing on this term:

  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

Part of the assembly demonstrated why it is important that we focus all our attention on the learning tasks set. The reason for this is that it’s not possible for the human brain to think about two different tasks at once.

Of course, it is possible for us to multi-task. We can walk and talk at the same time, or we can eat a snack whilst reading a book. This is possible because some of the process have become automatic in our brains: they are happening without us really thinking about then. In the examples above, the walking and eating are automatic – we can do them without thinking about them – meaning that our brain’s attention can be freed up to think about the talking or the reading.

What we can’t do, is actually think about two attention-demanding things at once.

We might think that we can – but actually what is happening is that our brain focuses on one thing, and then switches to the other thing, and then switches back to the first thing. This process is called code switching, and some people can do it faster than others – but what we can’t do is focus on two things at the same time. Like the illustration of the cats above, our focus shifts from one thing to another – but it can only be on one thing at a time.

My favourite demonstration of this is the card-sort-and-maths-questions task, as shown to students (with some helpful volunteers) in the assemblies this week.

In this demo, a willing volunteer is given a standard deck of cards and asked to sort them into suits, with each suit in number order, as shown in the illustration above. This is a simple enough task, but it requires the volunteer to think about it to make sure they identify the card, recognise it, and place it appropriately on the table in front of them. The audience watches the volunteer sorting the cards.

Then, I introduce a complication: I ask the volunteer to answer some simple mental arithmetic questions. For example:

  • What is half of 90?
  • What is 37 more than 60?
  • What is half of 8.2?
  • A television programme starts at 11:05 and ends at 12:15. How long did the programme last?
  • Three fifty pence coins have a mass of 18 grams. What is the mass of one fifty pence coin?
  • What is half of 144?
  • What is double 3.6?

Again, on their own these questions are all solvable – with a little bit of thought. So, what happens when I ask the volunteer the mental arithmetic questions, whilst they are sorting the playing cards?

Their hands stop moving.

If they try to keep sorting the cards, they can’t answer the arithmetic question. If they try to answer the arithmetic question, they can’t keep sorting the cards. It’s no reflection on your mathematical ability (or your card-sorting ability, for that matter): it’s a simple psychological fact that your brain can’t do both things at the same time.

So, why does this matter?

The reason why full focus is the fourth item on our behaviour for learning top 5, is that we need to concentrate fully on the task in hand if we are going to do it well. If something distracts us, or takes our attention away from the learning task, we simply cannot be thinking about the task – and therefore, we are not learning effectively. We are like Dug, the dog from the Pixar film “Up”, whose attention is dragged away from the conversation at hand whenever he sees a squirrel…

For our students to be successful, they need to avoid their own personal “squirrels” – the things that might distract them – to ensure that they stay focused on the learning at hand. That requires self-discipline, concentration and effort, but the impact on learning is significant.

And that is why we have made it our focus this term.

Behaviour for learning: getting the basics right

We know that good behaviour is essential for learning to take place. We reinforce this with our Code of Conduct and Effort Grades, and we incentivise it through our rewards system. We know that, over the past few years, it has been difficult to maintain consistency. COVID lockdowns, followed by periods of high staff and student absence, and the disruption to rooming in the Academy caused by works to Stuart House and Lancaster House have all contributed to a “stop-start” feeling for some classes, groups and individual students. We are certainly not alone in this: we have heard of many local schools having to close to entire year groups due to staff shortages this term, which is thankfully not a step that we have had to take.

We hope that we will now be moving into a more settled period. Stuart House is open, and the long ten-day isolation periods for COVID infections are a thing of the past. Given the disruption of recent years, attendance is more important than ever – students cannot afford to miss any more school.

But simply turning up isn’t enough. For real learning to happen, students need to work hard. Learning is difficult; it requires effort. And this is where behaviour for learning comes in.

Behaviour for learning is about more than just being kind, polite and respectful. It is about more than just wearing the correct uniform and bringing the right equipment and making sure your mobile phone is not seen or heard around the Academy. These things are important, of course – but behaviour for learning is about engaging in those actions that will enable you to take in information accurately and store it in your long term memory for later retrieval. It is rooted in our learning values, which are displayed around the Academy every day. 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

It is these values which underpin our approach to learning across the curriculum.

This is one of my favourite videos to illustrate “passive” learning: these characters are well-behaved, but they aren’t able to take action to “unstick” themselves when they get stuck, or to apply effort to solve a problem for themselves. They are forced to wait around for someone to come and help them out. These are not Churchill learners!

When we return after the Easter break, we will be working hard with all our students to refocus on the key elements of behaviour for learning. This includes the Code of Conduct and Effort Grades, and our learning values. But we will also be clarifying and reinforcing our expectations of behaviour for learning in lessons.

In every lesson, every time, we expect students to follow our Behaviour for Learning Top 5:

  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

The return to school after Easter gives us a perfect opportunity to ensure that our students make the most of every moment they have at school, and use it to make progress in their learning. Staff will be working together to ensure that these expectations are clearly explained to students, and that they are supported and challenged to meet them – in every lesson, every time. Because, after the disruption of the past couple of years, we can’t afford to waste a single moment.