Green Shoots

The first daffodil at Churchill this week

On duty this week, I saw the first daffodil of the spring flowering next to Mrs Bradley’s office in the Hanover House garden, normally tended so carefully by HRMS. At the moment, the members of HRMS tutor group are mostly learning remotely, staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives. Only a few students are in school, accessing remote learning in Frontline. Following the weekend’s snow, the daffodil was a reminder that spring always follows closely behind the bleak midwinter.

It has become too tempting recently to focus on the bleak and dark, and not on the fresh and green. Throughout this week, I have made myself look out for the positivity, and focus on the signs of recovery – which was why Mrs Wilson walked past me, crouched in the wet grass, getting up close and personal to a daffodil with my iPhone (yes, I know, phone out in school – I’ll give myself the C1!)

Here are the green shoots I noticed this week:

  • 50 students achieved their Headteacher’s Commendations this week, for reaching 125 Conduct Points
  • Our first two Year 9 students achieved Trustees’ Commendations, reaching 175 Conduct Points
  • We have a record number of applications for Churchill Sixth Form, including over 60 students from outside our Academy (also a record)
  • Our students from all years are engaged with their remote learning, producing fantastic results despite the difficult circumstances
  • All of the over 400 lateral flow tests carried out at the Academy so far have returned negative results
  • Local communities have donated food, toiletries and essentials to help families in need
  • Bristol airport, having closed their duty free, donated stock to the Churchill staff to keep us all going
  • Both my parents had appointments for their first vaccinations this week – two of the nearly eight million doses issued in the UK so far
  • The Prime Minister has given a timeline for schools re-opening
  • The rebuilding of the Lancaster House block is progressing well and is due to be ready before we welcome more students back to school
  • Contractors are on site repairing and replacing the fence around the Academy’s perimeter – and this will also be complete before we fully re-open
  • The Academy Hall has a brand-new, shining floor
  • When I walked out to my car to come to work on Monday morning, although the sun hadn’t risen, it was light. And, driving home, darkness had yet to fall.

There is darkness all around us in the world at the moment. Things are challenging for everyone. But, if you look, there is always light – if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Testing, testing, 1,2,3…

Over the course of this week, we have run the first round of our lateral flow tests for coronavirus in school. It has been really successful, and I am pleased to report – at time of writing – that of the 212 tests carried out, all have been negative.

Our testing centre, ready for its first visitors

The testing programme for schools was originally announced just before the end of term 2, but the full guidance wasn’t released until New Year’s Eve, which led to a somewhat fraught Christmas break. As you will all know, the first week back wasn’t exactly smooth sailing either, with a national lockdown announced at 8pm on the first Monday! But once we had navigated that particular storm, we were able to get our heads around setting up testing for the students and staff working in school.

The Department for Education originally announced three strands to the testing programme for schools:

  1. Mass testing of students in school – students to take two tests, 3-5 days apart
  2. Weekly testing of staff working in school – this has now been increased to twice weekly
  3. Daily testing of those identified as close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19

Since that initial announcement, the Department for Education has “paused” the third strand, in line with medical advice. Close contacts will now be advised to self-isolate, as has been the case in schools since September.

The first two strands, however, are going ahead as planned. The aim is to minimise the risk of transmission: by testing people in school, any identified asymptomatic cases can be isolated. This will prevent them from unwittingly spreading the virus. It also gives greater reassurance to those of us continuing to work and learn in school.

Consent remains absolutely essential in our administration of the testing programme. We will only carry out tests where we have explicit, written consent. We do not require a test of anyone, and we will always respect the wishes of those that choose not to undertake a test. Also, if students are uncomfortable or upset, we will do what we can to support them – but they do not have to go ahead with the test, and can say “no” at any time without any consequence. As it happens, everyone has been fine with it – but these principles are very important to us at the Academy.

The training and support materials from NHS Test and Trace are excellent. Everything arrived on time, as announced, with clear instructions. There was online training which helped spell out how to get everything set up, and how to run each of the roles in the testing centre. I have always loved the NHS – and this programme has only increased my respect for the work of our health service.

We set our testing centre up in the Academy Hall, with its newly-replaced floor shining and pristine, giving the whole place a lift! Academy staff volunteered to take on the various roles within the system. Everyone has been trained and registered with NHS Test and Trace.

Our testing centre labels: Testing Station and Taylor Swift have the same initials, so each Testing Station was named after a different Taylor Swift album. I only wish I’d put them in the right order, but they were laminated before I could correct it!

The tests work using a swab of the back of the throat and the nose. This is not a very pleasant experience, but all the students and staff who have participated have shown the Academy value of determination and just got on with it! The testing team have put on a good soundtrack of background music too, which means that people aren’t so self-conscious when swabbing the backs of their throats.

Email received from testing centre staff about our students in Frontline

Once the swab has been taken, the testing centre staff prepare a sample using extraction fluid, which is then dropped into a lateral flow test cartridge. It’s called “lateral flow” because the liquid in the sample “flows” sideways along the strip, revealing the result after it reaches the far end.

A lateral flow test in action

Each test is timed, as you have to read the result between 20 and 30 minutes after the test has been started for it to be valid. One red line on “C” (for “Control”) means the test has worked. A red line on “T” (for “Test”) means that the test is positive for coronavirus.

A positive test result on a lateral flow test doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. This must be confirmed by a PCR test, which is processed in a lab. Anyone testing positive must self-isolate until the confirmation is received, just in case.

Equally, a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have the virus. You can still catch it; you can still spread it. Therefore, in school, we have continued to reinforce the importance of hands, face, space – even though everyone has so far tested negative.

It is strange to see my colleagues kitted out in full PPE, and the Academy Hall transformed into something resembling a field hospital. But these are strange times, and we will continue to do all we can to keep our staff and students safe.

Looking up whilst locking down

There is no such thing as failure: only success, and learning.

I came across this saying from a colleague Headteacher many years ago, and it has always stuck with me. When things are going badly, it’s easy to be downhearted; it’s tempting to give up. In those moments, when things are bleak, it’s all the more important to think about the positives: what am I learning from this situation? This is at the core of a growth mindset approach, and as the author of Becoming a growth mindset school, it is important that I practice what I preach – at this moment more than any other.

I did not write a post on the Headteacher’s Blog last week. I don’t mind admitting I was feeling pretty negative. In the education world, I had spent much of the Christmas holidays trying to work out how to turn my school into a coronavirus testing centre, having been told that this was required almost on the last day of term. The full guidance on testing in secondary schools was released, with the Department for Education’s usual sensitivity, just before 6pm on New Year’s Eve. We returned to school on Monday 4th January with the Secretary of State having “absolutely” given a cast-iron guarantee that exams were going ahead, and the Prime Minister encouraging all parents to send their children in. At 8pm, we were told all schools would close until half term and exams were not going ahead. The spiralling confusion of often contradictory last minute announcements, with missing, confusing or late-arriving guidance, has meant that this past month has been the most challenging of my entire teaching career – and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.

Beyond education, the headlines were scary: spiralling cases, a climbing death rate, a winter lockdown, and angry mobs storming the seat of the world’s most powerful democracy intending to overturn the legitimate outcome of an election. It was tempting to think that everything was falling apart.

But, amidst the darkness, there is always light.

At Churchill, I am surrounded by fantastic colleagues. The leadership team were all on Zoom within minutes of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday night, undoing all the planning from that morning and preparing solutions and arrangements for the next day, the next week, and the term beyond. We were able to distil clarity from the confusion: I was able to email all staff with a summary of those plans by just after 9pm, and publish an update to the website and to the Academy’s social media accounts by 9:30pm.

The wider staff have been incredible. Plans were shifted and adapted quickly. At the centre of all our decisions were the students: what would be best for them? How could we make sure that our education, care and guidance could continue as smoothly as possible, despite the disruption? In particular, our focus was on our exam-year students, who now faced uncertainty and doubt. How could we reassure them, and ensure that they stayed focused on the task in hand? Seeing this commitment and dedication to our vision and purpose, even in the face of anxiety about the risks of the situation, was truly inspiring.

We have also never known a term like it in terms of parental support. One family sent me a box of tea and biscuits to keep me going, which I opened at the end of a very long Wednesday – it was just the tonic I needed! Every day, we receive emails of thanks and encouragement. These make a huge difference to our morale; it’s always nice to feel appreciated! The pièce de résistance, I have to say, came in the wake of the Secretary of State’s declaration that parents should report their children’s schools to Ofsted if they weren’t happy with the remote learning provision. Several of our parents were amongst the thousands across the country who wrote into the schools inspectorate, not to criticise, but to praise the Academy for all we had done for their children. One of them advised inspectors to take a look at Gavin Williamson’s performance instead: this went down very well with the staff in school!

In the wider world, the roll-out of vaccines promises an eventual end to the pandemic. Democracy has prevailed across the Atlantic. And even though 2020 was, by all accounts, a bad year, it did give us two Taylor Swift albums: amidst the darkness, there is always light.

And, at the heart of all we do at Churchill, we have our fantastic young people. The students in Frontline have adapted well to a new type of schooling. Attendance at remote learning has been exceptional, and teachers have been so impressed by the commitment and engagement of our students. Even though we only see the majority of our students at the moment in little rectangles on a screen, they are the beacons of hope that will see us all through.