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.

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