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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Over the past week I have seen the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across the United States and Europe. I have taken the opportunity to listen to, and learn from, the experiences and views of black and ethnic minority voices from both sides of the Atlantic.
This week, my blog is not about my voice. At this moment, the world does not need to hear from another white male in a position of authority, another beneficiary of unseen privilege. This week, I will use my blog to amplify voices that have helped my understanding, by giving me a window into an experience that is not my own.
Dave: Black (Live at the BRITs 2020)
#BlackLivesMatter: Kennedy Cook
No! You Cannot Touch My Hair
British Nigerian Bristolian Mena Fombo describes her experience of the objectification of black women, and her drive to challenge it through her #DONTTOUCH “No, You Cannot Touch My Hair” campaign
Girl, Woman, Other
Bernardine Evaristo’s novel won the 2019 Booker Prize. I have just finished reading this story of the lives of 12 characters – most of them black, most of them women – and their intertwined experiences over the course of several decades. It is sensational.
All Lives Matter?
As Headteacher of the Academy, I am using this blog to speak up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
We will continue to strengthen our curriculum to ensure that all perspectives and voices are represented and valued, and continue to support calls to decolonise the national curriculum.
We will continue to actively teach anti-racism at the Academy, ensuring that we are a school which actively works to reduce inequalities and make a positive difference to our society.