The coronavirus crisis moved so quickly, there was barely time to take stock. We were, of course, aware of the virus spreading across the world. We were aware that this would reach us, at some point. But we carried on. School felt quiet, an oasis of calm normality away from the screaming news headlines and the parade of opinions on social media.
We prepared, of course. At Churchill we had a comprehensive Critical Incident Plan in case of disaster. We always talked about it as the plan we would use if a jumbo jet crashed on the school field. As it happened, the disaster was not a massive bolt from above, but a microscopic, invisible invader, creeping unseen between us. But the plan worked just the same.
On Monday 9th March, senior staff developed the first closure plans. The computer network team drew up a set of procedures to enable remote learning to take place at an unprecedented scale. We implemented enhanced cleaning processes while we were still open. The administration teams began to plan to make sure that all the usual functions of the school could continue from afar: phone forwarding, video conferencing, “grab bags” of key paperwork. By Thursday 12th March, all staff were briefed about what would happen if we were to close. And on Thursday 12th March, it was still an “if.”
By Sunday night, it was clear that things were moving very quickly indeed. On Monday, I met with all staff and gave an assembly to every student in school, a year group at a time. There was a risk, of course, gathering them all together in the hall like this. My judgment was that having them in an assembly did not bring them into any closer contact than in their classrooms, or at break or lunchtime, and that they needed to hear the same clear and consistent message.
On Tuesday, 327 students were absent. I declared a critical incident and implemented the carefully prepared plan. Year 12 lessons were suspended from Wednesday, as we began to run short of staff to keep the school fully open. We put in place plans to open our Student Services provision to care for the children of key workers, and to distribute Free School Meals in the event of closure.
When the Secretary of State made his statement to Parliament on the evening of Wednesday 18th March, I knew that he was going to announce school closures. But it was clear that this was no temporary measure: “until further notice” was an indication that this was going to be a lengthy closure. The cancellation of all exams was confirmation that this was serious. I stood in my kitchen, watching BBC Parliament on my iPad, and I wept. I cried for all the students who had worked so hard for exams which would not take place; I cried for the staff who care so much about the children, and the school; and I cried for the community that would be so difficult to maintain remotely.
Difficult, but not impossible.
And so I pulled myself together, and I got on with it. Year 11 and Year 13 were my first priority: these students had had the rug pulled from under them and were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, facing their last days at school. We had to give them the “last day” that they deserved. We had to get Student Services up and running. We had to organise free school meals. We had to prepare remote learning for the rest of the school and get everything locked down…in two days.
Looking back now, after a week of closure and five days of lockdown, that last week of school seems almost like a dream. Year 13 and Year 11 got their last days. We got Student Services up and running, we organised free school meals and remote learning and check-in phone calls and a hundred and one other things. Throughout it all, the students and staff were amazing. They supported one another with selflessness and positivity, even the most trying of times. Their kindness and determination shone through.
After Year 11 had gone on Friday, I gathered the things that I would need. 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.
So now I am Headteacher of a different sort of Academy: one with teachers and students spread across the region, isolated in their homes. But in that isolation we are all connected by a sense of belonging that has been strengthened, not damaged, by the challenges of the coronavirus closure.
I have been overwhelmed by the support of our Academy community – parents, families, friends, staff, students, governors and beyond – during this crisis. I want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done, and continue to do, to support the vision and values of the Academy. There is a long way to go, and much for us still to do. But I know that we can get there, together – and I look forward to the day when I raise the Academy flag again.