New College, Oxford

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New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

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New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.

Training teachers in Qatar

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A view across Doha, Qatar from the 32nd floor

On Saturday of last week I flew out to Doha, the capital city of Qatar, to work with a group of teachers and school leaders from British International Schools in the Middle East. They had heard about our work at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form and they wanted to find out more, to see whether aspects of our practice could be applied in their schools.

Where is Qatar?

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The location of Qatar; Doha is marked by the red pin

Qatar is a small state poking out into the Persian Gulf, bordering on Saudi Arabia. I went to the capital city, Doha, which sits on the Eastern coast of the country. Qatar was a British protectorate until it became independent in 1971, which is why there are still a lot of British schools there. Doha has recently hosted the World Athletics Championship and preparations are well underway for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. There is a lot of development going on – I saw three massive skyscrapers under construction and air conditioned football stadiums being built in the middle of the desert. Quite something!

What’s it like?

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Two skyscrapers under construction (centre) against the Doha skyline

It’s hot! The temperature was around 35° C during the day, dropping to 30° at night time. Despite the Persian Gulf nearby, the surrounding country is dusty desert. Everywhere has air conditioning, which meant that indoors felt quite chilly by comparison and I had to put a jumper on!

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Doha from the air

The city centre (West Bay) has a spectacular skyline of towers and skyscrapers. Many of them are government buildings, but there are also towers for Qatar Petroleum, the Qatar Olympic Committee, banks and hotels. It’s amazing! The surrounding city spreads out into the desert.

Qatar is an Islamic country and there are many mosques around the city. The call to prayer is amplified by loudspeakers from the mosques, which makes a wonderful noise echoing from building to building! Due to their religious beliefs, alcohol is not available in restaurants or hotels. All the people I met whilst I was there were very welcoming and hospitable. It seemed to me like a country which was very open to international visitors.

What are the schools like in Doha?

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Outside the Qatar International School

I was working at the Qatar International School, a British International School in Doha. It’s an all-through school, with a building for Early Years, Primary and Secondary sections. In their secondary school they study iGCSEs, the international version of the GCSEs we study, and A-levels which are the same as ours. The staff and students are a mixture of British ex-pats, Qatari nationals, and other nationalities who want a British education. This meant that the classrooms were an interesting multicultural blend of all different nationalities. Everyone got along really well!

All the schools were surrounded by high, solid perimeter walls, electric gates and security guards. There were locked pedestrian gates too – one of the schools even had security turnstiles for the students to get in and out. This seemed to be the norm across Qatar – all the buildings I went into had x-ray machines to scan your bags, too. 

School starts at 7am, and finishes at 1pm. The other difference is that the working week starts on a Sunday and runs until Thursday, so the weekend in Qatar is Friday and Saturday. I struggled with that a bit! There are two breaks during the day, but students go home for their lunch at the end of the day – they do not have lunch at school. There are seven lessons in the day, of differing lengths. Moving between buildings means going from air-conditioned-cool to blazing-hot and back to cool again – you have to brace yourself! But apart from that, there were lots of similarities to British schools – their classrooms looked just like a regular British school classroom would.

What were we working on?

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I was out in Doha to work with British International School teachers and school leaders on mindsets and metacognition. These are things that we have been working on at Churchill since I became Headteacher back in 2016. They were particularly interested in our work on attitudes to learning, feedback, and how we are working with teachers and students to unpack the thinking processes behind learning (metacognition). It was amazing to me that our work at Churchill has a reputation which stretches so far – but the colleagues I was working with out there were very impressed by what we were doing and wanted to find out more!

It made me very proud to be talking about our wonderful school in such a different place. Although Churchill has been soaking under torrential rain for weeks, whilst Doha has been in blazing sunshine for months, there was much to be found in common between us. “The way we do things here” at Churchill certainly found an enthusiastic audience in the Middle East!

I had a great time in a brand new environment for me. I’d never done anything quite like this before! But, when I was back on duty outside the food pod on an overcast lunchtime on Wednesday, I did catch myself thinking: “there’s no place like home.”

Silly Walking on The One Show

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As many of you will have seen, last Friday I appeared on The One Show on BBC1 as part of a tribute to the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and their legendary sketch, “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” What? How? Why? Let me explain…

How on earth did you end up on The One Show?

The idea came about from a discussion on a parents’ evening. I was on duty as usual, answering questions and helping with any issues, when a parent approached me. I was expecting a discussion of student progress, but no! This particular parent worked for a television production company in Bristol, and she’d had this idea…

The company (the brilliant Off The Fence) were making a segment for The One Show to mark the 50th anniversary of Monty Python. giphy In the original Silly Walks sketch, the comedy comes from John Cleese sounding and looking very serious in terms of dress and facial expression, whilst doing the silliest of silly walks. The idea was simple: take someone in a serious job, who dresses in suit and tie every day – for example, a Headteacher. Put them in a serious situation which normally requires serious behavior – for example, an assembly  – and get them to do a very silly walk. Film it, and film the reactions. What did I think?

Well, there’s no way you can say “no” to that kind of pitch, is there?

Filming at Churchill

There were a few preliminary meetings and phone calls, and the crew came in to scout the location in March – but the date of the filming was set for April 4th. The first idea was to do the whole thing as a hidden camera stunt, but we soon realised this wouldn’t work. If we wanted to film it properly, we would need multiple cameras and we would need to get permissions from everyone anyway. Instead, we told the Sixth Form that their assembly was being filmed for a BBC Factual Programme (which was the truth!). Many of them assumed it would be on a serious topic, and had no idea what to expect.

The assembly itself went pretty well. The theme was “breaking the mould” and I gave examples of how students should try and find their own individuality, originality and creativity rather than just following what everyone else has done. However, the message was somewhat lost when I started silly walking. Many of the sixth formers, I am sure, thought that I had lost it completely. Even when I explained, at the end, that this was all in aid of Monty Python, the vast majority of students gave me blank looks – I’m not sure the Pythons have the same cultural currency they once had…

I managed to keep a straight face throughout it all, although I did discover that silly walking provides quite a good cardio workout – I was quite out of breath!

Six Months Later

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Television Centre in London. The white tent on the right was where the equipment was set up to film my live silly walk!

In early September I was told that the broadcast date for the film was 4th October – six months to the day since the filming. I hadn’t seen any footage, although I was assured that it had turned out well. I put my trust in Off The Fence! Ellé, CJ and Euan were chosen by random ballot to come with me to the studio – as A-level Media students, this was a golden opportunity to see behind the scenes on a professional live TV show.

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Ellé, CJ and Euan with an actual Dalek inside Television Centre. There was a TARDIS too!

The people at the BBC are amazing. There’s a massive team behind The One Show, and they were absolutely lovely – so professional, so efficient, but really considerate to us all. When we arrived we could see right down into the newsroom which is the backdrop to all the BBC news programmes. It felt unreal.

One of the producers broke the news that they’d had the idea for me to do a silly walk behind Michelle Ackerley and Iain Stirling as they were doing the link into the film. Well, I thought, in for a penny…and next thing I knew I was wearing a bowler hat, rehearsing with a cameraman outside the studio window in front of several very confused onlookers!

There was just time for a quick coffee break before we were ushered into the studio itself for a briefing from the floor manager. The studio is quite small, with cameras, lights and screens everywhere. There must have been a crew of about twenty as well as the audience and presenters, but they all moved around each other like a perfectly oiled machine. It was amazing to watch. And then, before I knew it, I was silly walking, live on national television, outside The One Show studio window…

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It was all over in a flash. The guests were all so professional – James Morrison even held the door open for us on the way out! – and the producers let us sit on the famous sofas for a few pictures. As soon as we got outside, all four of us tried to keep track of our mentions and messages…there were a lot!

Reflecting on the experience, I think it tells me that you should take every opportunity you are given. Even if something sounds absolutely ridiculous, you never know where it might lead!

Thank you to Debbie, Amy and Roz at Off the Fence, Anya, Kirsty and the team at the BBC, and Ellé, CJ and Euan for being such good company. You can watch the episode on iPlayer until the end of October. Normal service will be resumed next week!

The Tower

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The completed Tower cladding (summer 2019)

We were faced with a problem after the demolition of the Tudor block earlier this year. The Tower – part of the original school buildings from 1956 – remained behind. What should we do with the new “end” of the building?

We knew that the exposed brickwork would be covered with cladding, since the walls had originally been internal walls and needed protecting from the elements. We wanted to come up with a simple but eye-catching design to decorate the expanse of white: something which would capture the spirit of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form but which would last; something which clearly showed the Academy’s identity. I knew that the four Houses of Churchill were a key part of this identity…so how could we get the design to reflect this?

The first idea for the Tower was sketched – literally – on the back of an envelope. After that, I superimposed the four stripes, one for each house, onto the architects’ draft plans for cladding the exterior wall using Photoshop.

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First version of the Tower design (with scribbles!) rendered in Photoshop

In this initial design, the stripes started in the same place but then separated out. Once they were flipped over, the design made perfect sense: the four separate houses of the Academy, all heading upwards towards a common shared objective. Like our students, they aren’t all the same, but they are all aspiring, growing, climbing. The stripes show our diversity and what we all share. The expanse of white shows what is yet unwritten – and suggests what is possible.

We are delighted with the final design, which was produced and installed by Naked Signs – carefully, painstakingly, by hand – with the help of a huge cherry-picker hydraulic lift. It certainly formed a talking point for the staff and students at the start of term, with some calling them “the superhero stripes” and others instantly recognising the house colours in the pattern. We hope that our Academy community, and visitors, are equally impressed!