The Power of Poetry

I love poetry. I’ve always thought of it as distilled language: as though ideas have been boiled down and condensed so that only the concentrated essence remains. Because of this, every word in a poem feels somehow as if it’s carrying extra weight, extra resonance, extra value. When reading a poem, my senses are heightened and alerted: it’s a thrilling, exciting feeling.

I first experienced this sensation in an English Literature classroom in the autumn of 1991 (or possibly the spring of 1992) when I first encountered the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I’d always loved books and reading, but when I read Plath it was like I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Lady Lazarus and the hairs standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. My teacher lent me his copy of her collection Ariel, and I haven’t looked back since.

My collection of Sylvia Plath books, 29 years after first reading her work

My experience of “waking up” to poetry sounds exactly like the experience of our current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. On Desert Island Discs earlier this year, he described vividly his first encounter with the work of Ted Hughes:

“It suddenly struck me, in a very electrifying moment, that the world was a really interesting place. It could be packaged up in these little bundles of language, which, at the end of the day, are only black marks against a white page. But if you put them in the right order, you can make extraordinary things happen in somebody else’s head across thousands of miles, across thousands of years, and in complete silence. And the shock of that realisation and the primitive magic of it has never really left me. I still feel that when I’m looking at a poem: that I’m staring at some kind of circuit board of language, which makes a contactless contact with something in my head. I think I knew at that very moment, that poetry was going to be my thing.”

Simon Armitage on Desert Island Discs, broadcast 15th May 2020.

Over the years, I have taught poetry to hundreds and hundreds of students. I haven’t always succeeded in igniting the same passion in every single one of them! But I hope I have helped some to find the power of poetry, and to enjoy it for themselves – away from having to study it for GCSE.

This last week, I have been blown away to see exactly this happen at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. At the end of January 2020, Ms Cody from our English Department gave an assembly to all main school students on the theme of “Literature that changed the world.” At least one student was inspired to pick up the books Ms Cody described, to see what all the fuss was about. That student was Imogen Beaumont, who has gone from winning our House Poetry Competition in 2019 to becoming a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2020.

Some of my collection of Foyle Young Poets anthologies from over the years

I have followed the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for over 20 years. Since 1998, the Award has been finding, celebrating and supporting the very best young poets from around the world. It is firmly established as the leading competition for young poets aged between 11 and 17 years old. This year, a staggering 15,966 poems were entered. Young writers from a record-breaking 118 countries entered the competition from as far afield as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Mozambique, North Korea and the Seychelles, and every corner of the UK. From these poems, this year’s judges Keith Jarrett and Maura Dooley selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets. After Mr Lockett put the entry invitation into our newsletter on 3rd July, Imogen entered. Her poem, The sound of Shakespeare’s women, was chosen as one of the top 15. When you read it, you can see why:

The sound of Shakepeare’s Women

If Juliet was silenced

amongst a patriarchal nightmare and

Lavinia was two limbs down

with no tongue to tell their tale and

Ophelia was driven to madness

with no sense left to speak and

Cordelia was shunned by her father,

her pointless words falling on deaf ears and

Desdemona’s desperate truth

was shouted down by whispered lies,

Then Will’s trying to tell us something.

By Imogen Beaumont

Imogen’s poem is a powerful, skilful piece of writing. She told me she reads a lot of Shakespeare – and you can tell! The poem draws in repeated examples of female characters in Shakepeare’s plays who are variously silenced, ignored, or left voiceless.

Juliet pleads with her father in Romeo and Juliet to listen to her when he plans her marriage to a man she does not love. He ignores her pleas, and she is forced to take desperate measures. Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t reveal who attacked her. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet, who said he loved her, ignores her and hurls abuse at her when she tries to help him. Cordelia tells her father, King Lear, the truth when he asks her to: as a result, she is disinherited and cast out from the family. Othello is tricked into believing his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. She tells him again and again that it isn’t true, but he believes the lies and smothers her with a pillow.

Imi’s poem illustrated by award-winning artist and author Chris Riddell

In each case, the inability of the male characters to hear what the women are trying to tell them leads to tragedy. What Imogen does so skilfully is distil those stories down to their concentrated core, and connect them with one final line to our modern day experience. The #MeToo movement and the linked #BelieveHer hashtag show that, today, women’s voices are still too often ignored, silenced, or discounted. It would seem the lesson that Shakespeare was trying to teach over 400 years ago has still not been learned.

Imogen’s powerful voice has found just the right words, in just the right order, to connect ideas across hundreds of years and deliver that electric shock of meaning that only poetry can deliver. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m really proud that our English teachers have had some small part in unlocking her talent: we can’t wait to see what she’ll write next, or where the next young poet will spring from. Could it be you?

Parent Survey 2020: the results

Our Parent Feedback Survey was open from 2nd to 12th October 2020. The aim was to get feedback from families about the September Re-opening, and feelings about the Academy’s handling of the return to school in these challenging times. We also took the opportunity to ask some of our standard Parent Survey questions to compare parent attitudes since the last Parent Survey in June 2019. We were very grateful to receive 291 responses to the survey – and here are the results!

Coming back in September

We asked two questions in this section: firstly, how confident were you about sending your child in to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form at the start of September; and then, how confident you you feel about this now, after a month back at school?

The scale for these questions was from 1 (completely confident) to 5 (not at all confident). The picture was reassuring in September and confidence in our covid-safe protocols has increased over the course of the first month, despite (or potentially because of) two confirmed cases. This is a very encouraging endorsement of the Academy’s approach.

We think you and your teachers have done really well in managing a difficult and ever changing situation.

Parent Survey 2020

Communications

We asked: “how useful have you found the following methods of communication with the Academy since September?”

This is another encouraging set of responses. The newsletter is very popular and successful! Communications from me have also been positively reviewed – including this blog! Similarly our video curriculum presentations have been warmly received, although not all year groups had yet seen these at the time of the survey. It appears that communications from and with the Academy are working well.

Happiness

A 93.8% positive rating for this question is very encouraging, especially considering the mental health impacts of the pandemic more broadly. The last time we asked this question the response was 92% positive, so more families are telling us their children are happy at Churchill than the last time we asked.

Safety

The proportions here are very similar to the previous question. The slight shift in responses could be down to covid-related issues causing students to feel less safe. A 92% positive response is still very encouraging, with a small group to work on as we continue to build confidence.

I think communication and leadership have been great and as always the atmosphere and commitment of the staff is outstanding.

Parent Survey 2020

Care

This question received a 90.3% positive response, with an increase in the “don’t know” category compared to the previous questions. This is therefore similarly encouraging. The increase in “don’t know” may be accounted for by families new to the school without sufficient experience yet. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) it received an 89% positive response, so again we can see positive progress in this area.

Teaching

There were more “don’t know” responses to this question – we assume this is from lack of experience so early in the term. No respondents strongly disagreed, with only 12 respondents (4.2%) expressing any dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching at the Academy. The last time we asked this question 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed, so it is encouraging to see this proportion declining.

Homework

It was perhaps a little early in the year to get a representative response to this question, especially as we had instructed staff to start with light homework and increase the challenge gradually, particularly with Year 7 students. This would explain the larger “don’t know” response – although the picture is still encouraging.

“I think you are doing a fantastic job in difficult circumstances and I am just glad my children attend a school like Churchill. It is important for my son especially to be in school and have structure to his day and interaction with his teachers. He is much happier in this environment (even if he won’t admit it!)”

Parent Survey 2020

Behaviour

The total proportion of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with this statement was 10.4%, with a 6.2% “don’t know” response. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed, with 6% “don’t know” responses. It is encouraging to see the proportion disagreeing with this statement declining. Whilst the picture is again encouraging, it shows that we should not be complacent about behaviour as there are still 30 families in our community who need to be convinced.

Bullying

The “don’t know” response to this question is very encouraging – nearly half of our families have no experience of the Academy’s response to bullying. We assume this means that neither they nor their peers have been affected by it. The proportion dissatisfied with the Academy’s response to this vital issue has more than halved since June 2019 – 7.6% compared to 16%. These are still more encouraging signs about the positive progress of our work. We know that bullying can happen – it’s how we deal with it that counts.

Leadership

This is a very large “strongly agree” response from families, which is an endorsement of the leadership offered across the Academy though the pandemic and into the reopening phase. The overall positive response was 93.8%. This is a significant positive swing from the responses in 2019, when 35% responded “strongly agree” and 48% “agree”.

“These are strange and challenging times; however my son’s education will be the best it can be…We appreciate the dedication of the staff, the kindness and care. There is a huge sense of your staff not having jobs but vocations.”

Parent Survey 2020

Responsiveness

The larger “don’t know” response suggests that a fifth of families have not had to raise any issues with the Academy. Where respondents were able to offer a view, 90.5% were satisfied with the Academy’s response. 

Values

This is the first time we have asked this question in a parent feedback survey. We will ask it again later in the year as we seek to understand the impact of our values-led culture across the Academy community. The relatively large “don’t know” response indicates that it is perhaps still early for many parents new to the Academy to respond to a question like this – but very few (3.7%) respondents disagreed which is very encouraging. 

Would you recommend Churchill?

This is the “gold standard” question for our offer at Churchill. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) the response was 93% positive – it is very encouraging to see the positive progress as our reputation continues to grow.

In Summary

The responses across each of the key questions were very positive. We have seen increases since June 2019 in the headline measures of “would you recommend Churchill to another family” and across the other key areas, demonstrating that families are even more satisfied with Churchill now than they were then.

There were more “don’t know” responses to this survey than the traditional summer poll, reflecting the relative novelty of secondary school to some families whose children have just joined us. This skews some of the data in relation to the summer 2019 responses, but when figures are adjusted to remove “don’t know” answers the trends are still positive.

In relation to covid-19, responses were very encouraging. Families have great faith in the Academy’s response to the pandemic, and that confidence has increased over the first month back. Within the text comments, it is evident that our comprehensive intake reflects a range of views on this issue. We must always be mindful that we serve a community in which this diversity of opinion exists, and the impact that it may have on the students in our classrooms.

Within the plentiful text comments there are many individual issues to pick up and address, but the overall feeling is one of satisfaction, gratitude and pride.

“As the parent of a new student to the Academy, I cannot speak highly enough of the staff and the leadership team. Communication and interactions are exemplary. My daughter settled in straight away and was made very welcome by staff and students alike. I believe that the behaviour of the latter is very much a successful testament to the culture which staff and leadership clearly work hard to develop and maintain. Thank you!”

Parent Survey 2020

The survey feels like a vindication of our work over lockdown and in the reopening phase, and an instruction to “keep doing what you’re doing” – because it is clearly working.

Assembly: Anti-racism

The Black Lives Matter movement changed the fabric of Bristol itself in the removal of the statue of Edward Colston (source)

This week I produced a video assembly for students on the theme of anti-racism. Over the course of lockdown, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement has caused all of us – myself included – to examine this issue afresh. There is no doubt that racism is a deep and systemic problem in our country and our society. Centuries of discrimination, based on lies, have left us with an enormous legacy of injustice to overturn. It’s a big, difficult problem – there are no easy answers. But I am hopeful and determined that we can be part of the solution, and must start right here in the Academy. Because we know that racism is out there in our country, and in our community – and that is why we need to fight it here in our Academy.

In my assembly, I started by explaining to all students exactly where we stand on this issue, and what is and is not acceptable here at Churchill. What follows here is the script I used for my assembly.

Everyone is welcome

Firstly, everybody is welcome here at Churchill. No matter the colour of our skin, the language we speak at home, where our families come from, our religious beliefs, our cultural background, or where we have lived before: we are all members of this community, students and staff together, and we are all welcome here. Nobody – and I mean nobody – has the right to make anyone feel upset, discriminated against or excluded from this community for any reason. If you make somebody feel upset because of the colour of their skin, the language they speak at home, where their families come from, their religious beliefs, their cultural background, or where they have lived before – that is racist behaviour, pure and simple, and it has no place in our Academy. It simply must not happen.

No excuses

I need to make their completely clear to every single student in the Academy – there are no excuses for racist behaviour in our school.

  • “I didn’t know that word was racist” – doesn’t matter. Don’t use the words if you don’t know what they mean.
  • “But they’re my friend – it was just a bit of banter” – doesn’t matter. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour, whether between the best of friends of the worst of enemies. It has no place here.
  • “I didn’t mean to upset anyone.” – doesn’t matter. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour. It has no place here.
  • “I just wasn’t thinking.” – that’s not good enough. Engage your brain before you engage your mouth. You must take responsibility for your actions.
  • “I was only joking.” – doesn’t matter. The systematic oppression of entire groups is not something you can joke about. Racist behaviour is racist behaviour. It has no place here.
  • “I’m really sorry, I’ll apologise.” – good, I’m glad – that’s the right thing to do. It will help, but it won’t undo what you’ve done and you will still face a serious consequence.

I need to be completely clear – there is never any excuse for racist behaviour in our community. It will not be tolerated.

Be the change you want to see in the world

(Source)

As a community, we must all work together to solve this problem. It is you, the young people in the school, who will go on to build a more inclusive, more tolerant, society. But it is not enough for us all to just not be racist- we must all be actively anti-racist. If your friend is saying or doing something that makes you uncomfortable, if they are expressing opinions which are not okay – call them out on it. Tell them “that’s not okay…you can’t say that.” Tell a member of staff what you have seen or heard – you are not grassing up your friend, you are helping to build a better, more inclusive, more welcoming school. Our first Academy value is kindness. We have to live that value if we are going to solve this problem. And it starts with you – each and every one of you. I know I can rely on you all to do the right thing. So let’s start today.

You can view the assembly below

Open Evening 2020

Open Evening is always one of the high points of the Academy calendar. Our students and our staff love to show off all the opportunities that Churchill has to offer. In normal times, we would have a small army of keen volunteer students showing prospective parents and curious Year 5 and 6 children around. Subject specialists would be on hand to demonstrate and talk about their part of the curriculum; our extra-curricular activities would be out in force; all our specialists would be on hand to answer parents’ questions; children would be collecting stickers from every station on the tour in pursuit of a “future student badge.”

In 2020, this sadly isn’t possible. We have had to adjust to the fact that, in the new pandemic world, we cannot have visitors in. Our priority has to be the safety and health of the staff and students on site, and we are doing all we can to limit the risks. And yet the continued success of the Academy over the coming years depends on our future students, and the smooth transition from primary to secondary we have worked so hard to establish.

For this reason, we have moved our open evening online for 2020. In doing so, we have tried as far as possible to replicate the “on site” experience of a real open evening – but from the comfort and safety of your own home. We have a dedicated page on the Academy website. Here is what you will find there.

Student Tour

Year 8 student guides Ted and Kacey take you on a video tour of the Academy site – with the help of a very cool drone!

Headteacher and student presentations

I look forward to my open evening presentation every year. Not only do I love talking about Churchill, what we do, and why we are here, but I love being joined on stage by our fantastic students.

Every year I am introduced by our senior students, and I leave the last word to our youngest. Every year they write their own speeches, and talk about their experiences in their own words. This year, we have done exactly the same – but on video, rather than in person. I am joined by Ella, President of the Sixth Form Council; Emma, in Year 11; and Erin and Jacob from Year 7. For me, it was especially gratifying to hear from Emma, because back in 2016 she was one of the Year 7 speakers at my first Open Evening as Headteacher. I don’t mind telling you that hearing about her experiences after five years with us brought a tear to my eye!

Question and Answer Sessions

Open Evening is usually the time when parents and children can ask all the questions they want, to reassure themselves about any aspect of secondary school that they might be uncertain about. It is absolutely right that the same opportunity is available this year. Here’s how:

  • Email us your question to openevening@churchill-academy.org: no question too big, no question too small. If you leave us a contact number, we are happy to call you back to discuss things with you: we know it’s usually much better to talk to a human being than to get a written reply! Whatever works for you, we’ll do our best to help.
  • Register for one of our Q&A Webinars: these sessions will feature a short presentation, followed by the opportunity to get your questions answered by me and a panel of our current students. We are running four panels:
    • Tuesday 6th October, 12-12.30pm
    • Wednesday 7th October, 7-7.30pm
    • Monday 12th October, 4-4.30pm
    • Thursday 22nd October, 7-7.30pm
  • You can register for these via the Academy website

Prospectus and Information Booklet

Families tell us that they find the paper documentation we hand out on open evening really useful. They provide the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, and they are a useful reference point to come back to as a reminder of the things that were seen and heard on the night. We have put both documents online for you to download, read on screen, or print out at home:

Treasure Hunt

On our “in person” open evening, we issue a sticker-collecting booklet to any Year 5 or 6 children who come along. The children can collect a sticker from each department they visit, and if they fill their book they can collect a prize from the Sixth Form Centre. It’s one of our favourite parts of the evening!

In order to replicate this, we’ve created a virtual treasure hunt quiz for our prospective future students to fill in. You can find it on the website, or here.

Next year?

We have done our best to provide as full an experience as possible on our virtual open evening. As it happens, on the day scheduled for our open evening this year, it was hammering down with rain – so maybe it was just as well it was virtual! We hope that, by next year, things will be back to normality enough to open up the Academy to visitors again. In the meantime, we hope you like what you see – and we hope that prospective parents and their children choose Churchill.