Celebrating Success: The House Cup 2019-20

This has been a year like no other! Despite all the challenges, there has been much to celebrate. In this, our final week, we have devoted ourselves to celebrating success – and awarding the House Cup!

House Cup: Attendance

We have only counted attendance up to March this year…for obvious reasons!

Congratulations to the overall winners: STUART HOUSE!

House Cup: Events

There have been a number of inter-house competitions this year. Not as many as we would have liked to have held, but we managed to squeeze some in!

House Cup: Attitude to Learning

For this competition, we take the average attitude to learning for every student in each house in each year group. All “Highly Motivated” grades scores 100%, and all “Disengaged” would score 0% (nobody actually scored this at Churchill!)

Many congratulations to the overall Attitude to Learning winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Conduct Points

For this competition we total up the net reward points for each house, and subtract any concern points issued. We also do an average score per student because there aren’t quite the same number of students in each house – but this year, that doesn’t change the overall standings!

Congratulations to the Conduct Points winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: House Matches

We haven’t been able to hold all our House Matches this year, but we did have an inter-house virtual House Match Quiz during lockdown!

Congratulations to the overall House Matches winners: WINDSOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Virtual Sports Day

Sports Day is one of the highlights of the Academy Calendar. We didn’t let lockdown put us off, and Team PE ran a week-long virtual sports day this year instead! There were 1.3k hits on the website, with 880 entries from 600 unique users over the course of the week…with a nail-biting finale which went right to the wire!

House Cup: The Final Result

One of the privileges of being Headteacher is that I have no House allegiances at all. This means that I am the only one who has access to the top secret massive House Competition spreadsheet, where all of the points from all the competitions are fed into a secret formula to keep running totals and calculate the winner. And this year, the winner is…

WINDSOR HOUSE!

Congratulations to Windsor, who ran out clear winners. Fortunately, Mr Cross was in school this week, so I was able to hand over the Sports Day Trophy and the House Cup, adorned with Windsor blue ribbons, for a quick photo. What a great way to mark his final year in charge of Windsor!

Congratulations to Windsor House!

Next year, with five houses in the running and (we hope) the Academy open all year, all bets are off and it’s anyone’s game! Remember, every day you turn up to school, every reward point you earn, every grade you get on your report, every competition you take part in…they all contribute to your house total. Everybody counts. Well done to all of you for all your efforts this year!

Getting caught up

News story from the BBC, Wednesday 8th July 2020 (link)

I woke up on Wednesday morning to the news that “Headteachers in England say GCSEs and A-level will have to be slimmed down for next year’s exams, because of the teaching time lost in the lockdown.” I am not one of those Headteachers! Let me explain.

Fairness

If you cut something out of a GCSE or A-level exam, you instantly run into the issue of fairness. Students are at least half way through their courses, and schools up and down the country teach things in different orders according to their own curriculum planning. So, let’s say you choose to cut Romeo and Juliet out of the English Literature exam. School A has already taught Romeo and Juliet but those students won’t be able to use that in the exam – they really have lost time. School B hasn’t taught Romeo and Juliet yet, so they cut it out of their future plan and gain additional time. It’s instantly unfair.

What can you cut?

GCSE and A-level specifications aren’t put together on a whim. They represent things that students should know about in order to properly understand the subject they are studying. Having an A-level in Biology means that you have studied a full range of topics within that subject – it’s like a code for “I understand Biology to this level.” It’s not like any part of that A-level course is any more or less relevant than any other – there aren’t bits of A-level Biology that are just “nice to have” or optional extras. They are all fundamental to your broad and deep understanding of the subject.

And, while I’m on my soapbox, “what is on the exam” is not the be all and end all of what we teach in school. If we want students to be scientists, historians, geographers, mathematicians and so on, we teach them as much of those subjects as we can – including (gasp!) some stuff that won’t be on the test! Just because it’s interesting, and important, and because it’s there.

Comparability

One other problem with cutting back GCSE and A-level courses for 2021 is that you make the qualifications “worth less” than in other years. Students will have to know less in 2021 than other years to get the same grade. This hardly seems fair on the class or 2019 or the class of 2022! And I think it undervalues the work of the class of 2021 if they always know their A grade, or their grade 5, was “easier” to get than in other years. The class of 2020 has been assessed differently, of course – but they had all but completed their courses of study by March 2020. They had already put much of the work in. For employers, further education providers and so on, it’s essential that a GCSE or and A-level has an equivalent value from one year to the next.

Time lost in lockdown?

As I wrote in my recent letter to parents, I feel that this focus on “catch up” and “lost time” fails to do justice to the incredible efforts our students have been going to – supported by their families and by the Academy staff – to keep up with their learning. We can see that the vast majority of our students have been working hard, learning well, and making good progress through the closure period. They have kept up with the curriculum and are well prepared for a return to school in September. Of course, there will be some areas which will need extra focus – there is no substitute for that direct classroom interaction between teacher and student in school – and we will need to fill in some gaps and correct any misconceptions which have arisen. Some individual students have struggled to engage with the remote learning programme, often due to home circumstances, health or other issues. We will, of course, support all our students to address these issues.

However, the academic year 2020-21 will not be solely dedicated to “catching up” the material from 2019-20. We will do what we always do: assess our students carefully to find out exactly where they are with their learning, so that we can see exactly what their next steps need to be. Then, our teachers will guide them on those next steps so that they continue to make progress and flourish, academically and personally.

I don’t call that “catch-up.” I call it education.

Reasonable adjustments

The exams regulator, Ofqual, is currently consulting on a number of adjustments which would relieve the pressure on schools and students over the next academic year. These are mostly minor changes to assessment and course requirements at GCSE, although there are also some proposals there about the dates for the summer 2021 exam season. They are not proposing any reduction in A-level content. I agree with this approach. The students I have spoken to in Year 10 and Year 12 feel the same: they want their exams to be as close to “normal” as possible.

Having faith

This pandemic has confirmed what we have always known: that schools are about more than just exam results. They are about communities, and belonging to something bigger than yourself; they are about care and connection; for us they are about kindness, curiosity and determination. All this talk of cutting back exams, catch up, and “gaps” in learning seems reductive and counter-productive. My experience shows me that, when you put your faith in young people, they come through with flying colours. I can’t wait until our Academy is filled with our students again: I am sure they will surpass all our expectations.

Building for the future

The future of technology

Throughout the Academy’s closure – apart from a few weeks’ pause during the total lockdown – our building contractors have been carrying on with the building of the extension to the Athene Donald Building.

The extension to the Athene Donald Building nearing completion

The extension, when complete, will house two brand new Technology workshops. It’s been great to be back in school for Exam Support the past few weeks, seeing the new equipment being delivered: pillar drills, saws, and machines which I don’t even know the names of!

The rooms are really fantastic: airy and spacious, with the latest kit and great innovations like power supplies which retract into the ceiling so there’s no messy cabling to get in the way of the workshop. Our students (and staff!) are so lucky – they’re going to love it in these rooms!

Goodbye to the past

Because the Academy is closed, we have been able to demolish the old Technology classrooms ahead of schedule. These rooms were the last remnants of the original 1956 design buildings, after the demolition of Tudor in spring 2019. Unlike that three-storey block, this small single-storey building was flattened in a matter of days.

The footprint of the old Technology block – completely flattened in less than a week

What’s next?

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed many things, and the 2020 round of the government’s condition improvement funding has been no different. But, just as the existing projects were being concluded, on 29th June 2020, the outcomes were announced – and Churchill Academy & Sixth Form has been successful again! This time, we have been awarded funding for two separate but concurrent projects. Firstly, over £250,000 to completely secure the Academy’s perimeter, with modern access gates and fencing to keep our students, staff and site safe. And secondly – and this is the best bit – over £1.5 million to completely rebuild the interior of what is now the Stuart House block.

This will transform the tired, dilapidated classrooms that house our Humanities and Languages faculties and Stuart and Lancaster House. The bid also includes brand new toilet facilities, social spaces, offices and meeting rooms…basically tearing down every internal wall in the building and starting again from scratch. It’s an incredible opportunity!

The coronavirus delay means that our original plan to complete the first phase of the works before September is not achievable, so there will be some disruption as the works progress in phases through the block. However, if the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that Churchill staff and students can overcome any kind of disruption and thrive!

Taking stock

Looking back over the past four years, we have successfully secured funding for:

The total additional investment in our site now stands at over £8.5 million between 2016 and 2020 – an incredible achievement, which will benefit generations of students to come.

A day in Frontline

Frontline provision in action; markers on the floor aid social distancing

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.

PE Activity in the early days of Frontline

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.

Students at work in Frontline

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.

A day in Exam Support

Our sign welcoming Year 10 and 12 back to the Academy

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.

Maths lesson in Exam Support

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!

A level Economics in Exam Support

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!

Hand-washing before coming in to class

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.

Socially distanced break time

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.

Week 1 Video Assembly

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.

Within the constraints

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.

Socially distanced classroom in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

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.

Portable hand-washing station in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

What’s next?

This week, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the House of Commons where he said:

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.

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education: Statement on the wider opening of education settings, 9th June 2020

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.

Social distancing markers on the floor of the Athene Donald Building

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.”

The Prime Minister, Statement at the coronavirus press conference: 10 June 2020

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.

Gratitude

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This week has seen Thank A Teacher Day take place on Wednesday. I have been moved by the gratitude I have seen from our students, families and the wider Academy community. One group of students made a video message for staff; the gospel choir shared a video of a song recorded in lockdown. After I shared them in my daily bulletin for staff, my inbox was flooded (!) with colleagues moved to tears.

This is the difference gratitude can make. Because it’s been a tough time for teachers recently. Certain sections of the news media – and commentators on social media – have taken aim at the education profession over the past couple of weeks. This is demoralising – it has an impact. Because, let’s not forget what extraordinary things schools have done in this crisis.

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Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, announcing school closures on 18th March

The Secretary of State for Education announced on Wednesday 18th March that schools would close on Friday 20th. Churchill staff managed to organise a last day for Year 13 on the Thursday and Year 11 on the Friday, opened a new provision for vulnerable children and the children of key frontline workers which opened on the morning of Friday 20th, and mobilised an entire timetable of remote learning which went online on Monday 23rd and has been maintained ever since. The Academy has never closed: Frontline has remained open throughout half term and Easter, including bank holidays, fully staffed by colleagues coming in day after day to work with children who need them. We have organised the delivery of free school meals and food parcels. Every day, staff are setting, monitoring, marking, and helping with remote learning tasks for every lesson on the timetable. They are ringing families to check that students are okay. All this whilst balancing the needs of home-schooling their own children, managing their own health and wellbeing, and coping with the anxieties that we all feel in this time of unprecedented national and international crisis.

And now, we are planning together how to implement the government’s request for wider re-opening to selected year groups safely and meaningfully. There are pages and pages of guidance to read, digest, and implement – and even as I write, a week and a half after the announcement, there is still more guidance pouring out of the Department for Education, some of which means that we have to unpick the planning we’d already put in place to accommodate the new lines. Staff want to go back to school – we’re all desperate to see the students again! But we do not want our Academy to become an unintended vector for the coronavirus. We have to make sure that our students are as safe as it is possible to be in these difficult and dangerous times. And, as an employer, we have to ensure that the workplace is safe for our staff. We will not open for more students until we can be sure we have taken every possible precaution.

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The Academy’s reception: closed until further notice

So, it’s been a difficult time for everyone, and school staff are no exception to that. What Thank A Teacher Day taught me on Wednesday was the importance of gratitude – and the difference it can make.

Because I am so incredibly grateful.

I am grateful for the fact that I am in a job where I can make a real difference to other people in this time of crisis.

I am grateful for the incredible team around me: the leadership teams who have stepped up to solve insoluble problems, to mobilise teams, to share the load; the administration and support staff who have ensured that the wheels of the Academy have kept turning efficiently and effectively; the site team who have maintained our buildings and grounds, and adapted them for social distancing and new COVID-safe guidelines; the IT network team who have kept our servers running smoothly as they have supported the remote access of nearly 1,500 users simultaneously; the support staff who have cared for our most vulnerable students; and of course the teachers who have, countless times and in countless ways, made a positive difference to our students.

I am grateful to the Academy’s governing body, who have put their full weight behind the staff; monitoring, evaluating, and strengthening  the crisis management response we have mustered.

I am grateful to the parents and families in our community, whose support has been overwhelming. Emails come in almost every day – not just for Thank A Teacher Day – recognising the work that has been done. And, in turn, we recognise the investment of time and effort that parents and families have put in to supporting the remote learning process, whilst going through the turmoil of financial and personal hardship that this crisis has brought with it.

I am grateful, most of all, for our students. Their response to this situation has been humbling. They have been appreciative of the Academy’s support; they have done their best to keep on top of remote learning; they have supported one another in video chats and WhatsApp groups (or whatever platform it is that young people use nowadays…); they have helped out in their communities; they have taken on challenges and developed their skills and abilities. And they have coped with simply unimaginable situations with a resilience and determination which gives me the highest of hopes for our recovery, and a better future.

Times are hard for everyone at the moment. But, if you look, we have much to be grateful for. So thank you. Thank you all.

VE Day

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war against Germany had been won, 8 May 1945 (source)

In May 1945, fighting in the Second World War had continued for nearly six years. However, following the D-Day landings in June of 1944, the Allied armies from Britain, France, Canada and the United States were advancing on Berlin from the West, whilst Soviet forces were attacking from the East. Nazi Germany, surrounded, agreed to a complete surrender on 7th May 1945. Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast a speech to the nation to say that hostilities would cease at one minute after midnight on the 8th May 1945. That day would be a public holiday known as Victory in Europe Day, or VE day.

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Crowds in Piccadilly on 8th May 1945 (source)

On VE Day itself, huge crowds gathered in the streets to celebrate. The Prime Minister and the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Such was the enthusiasm of the crowd that the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony that day to celebrate with the people. After dinner, the 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth – now our Queen – and her 14-year-old sister Princess Margaret left the palace and celebrated with the people, singing and dancing in the streets. Dressed in her Auxiliary Transport Service uniform, the future Queen avoided much notice. “I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes,” Elizabeth recalled in 1985. “I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.”

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Ground crew on a RAF Bomber Command station return the ‘V for Victory’ sign to a neighbouring searchlight crew. Silhouetted is the nose of a Lancaster bomber. (source)

Despite the celebrations, the war was not over. Fighting continued in the Asia-Pacific region until the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender on 15th August 1945 – VJ Day. By the end of the war, 18,000,000 service personnel and 45,000,000 civilians had been killed. Families had been devastated. Cities across the world were in ruins. Rationing– the control of how much food and essential commodities people could buy – continued until 1954.

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Two small girls with their flags in the ruins of Battersea, London, 1945 (source)

This year, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves again involved in a collective struggle. I don’t feel comfortable with some of the comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and World War Two. Our contribution to this effort is not to leave our homes and go off to fight, but rather – for most of us – it’s to stay at home and limit the spread of the disease, to ease the pressure for those on the front line. The virus is not going to surrender: victory will be slow and gradual. But what is clear is that, if we are to win in the battle against COVID-19, it has to be a collective effort. Success in this struggle relies on all of us working together, supporting each other, ensuring that our actions protect those more vulnerable than ourselves. We must all play our part.

So, when I stand for the two minutes’ silence on Friday morning, I will be thinking of all those heroes who lost their lives to defend our freedom and our way of life, not only in the war of 1939-1945, but on the front line of the struggle against COVID-19. I am – we are – forever in their debt.

More about VE Day 75

Connecting

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Living in lockdown for the past month, we have been searching out things to do. With my youngest son, we raided our childhood games shelves and brought out a few old favourites. I’m sorry to say he defeated me at Snakes & Ladders, although I managed a narrow victory in Ludo! We also dug out Boggle and our second-hand Connect 4 game. This was a big hit and all three of my children ended up involved in a competitive tournament, trying to outsmart each other to join up lines of four yellow or red tokens in the drop-in grid (pro-tip: sneaky reverse diagonals were the most effective strategy!)

As I watched the game, I thought about the connections they were making, trying to join up the dots into groups – and connecting with one another at the same time. I remembered watching Churchill students battling with one another over the same grids (we have a couple of Connect 4 sets in the new Hive social area for Year 7). I remembered playing with my brother as a child – I bet there’s a Connect 4 set back in the family home somewhere! And I wondered how we would have coped with lockdown if it had happened when I was at school in the late 1980s. We had four television channels and a video recorder. There was one landline phone in the house. Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the world wide web until 1990.

What I am finding most difficult in lockdown is the separation from people. I am lucky to have my family around me, and I cherish that real human contact. But out in the world, as I wrote last week, we keep two metres away from other people. We can’t see our friends, we can’t hug our relatives. That human contact is so important to us – we need it.

World map connected, social network, globalization business, social media, networking concept.

And yet, in this connected world, we are lucky. This week alone I have Zoomed, FaceTimed, and WhatsApp video called for work and with my family. Parents and students have shared photos, videos and documents showing their work and activities whilst the Academy has closed. At a touch of a button, I can instantly send messages and letters to all the students at the Academy, or all the parents, and they can receive them as good as instantly. With this blog, I can type on my laptop, press publish, and my words are instantly visible to anyone, anywhere, who cares to look. It’s easy to take this connected world for granted, but we are so fortunate to live in a time where this technology enables us to be together virtually, when we can’t be together actually.

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Yet, as I watched my children playing Connect 4, there was a different kind of connection happening. Something real, something tangible, something that you don’t get through a laptop, phone or tablet screen. After a long day of Zoom meetings on Tuesday, my eldest two children and I went for a walk in the rain. We discovered a patch of woodland near our house which we didn’t even know was there. A stream flowed through the trees, and the rain pattered on a rich carpet of flowering wild garlic and bluebells. We could hear every raindrop, the birdsong in the trees, the rush of the water. The children were already planning hide and seek spots, the best tree to rig a rope swing from, and where we could picnic when the sun came back.

“Grandad would love this,” they said. “We must show him when we’re allowed to see him again.”

I’m grateful that the internet allows us to connect, but I will be even more grateful when we can see each other again – for real.

Living in lockdown

As I write this blog, on St George’s Day 2020, we have missed fourteen days of “normal” school due to the coronavirus closure. Fourteen days. It seems like much longer. “Normal” school already seems like a distant memory, and this new life has taken over. 

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Our front window, this morning

Simple things, like going to the supermarket, have become significant events. I used to pop out and do the weekly shop without thinking about it. Now, I am held two metres apart outside the store, waiting in a queue for a disinfected trolley. Once inside, I am directed round the aisles in a one-way system, instinctively waiting behind the black-and-yellow tape for the person in front to take their milk before moving forward. They are wearing a face mask and blue latex gloves, and this is “normal.”

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Social distancing in the supermarket: the new “normal”

The store is eerily quiet, and then I realise – everyone is shopping alone. The child seats in the trolleys are folded flat. Nobody has brought their children with them. I never thought I would miss the sounds of somebody else’s toddler having a tantrum – but I do. I turn into the baking aisle: no flour still. No eggs. No rice. And this is “normal.” 

As I wait my turn for a checkout, behind another black and yellow line, I look at my fellow shoppers. I can’t help the thought crossing my mind: have you got it? Will I catch it? When I get home, I wash my hands. The first verse of Shake It Off is 20 seconds long; I sing it to myself as I soap.

Before COVID-19, I would leave school after a full and exhausting day. I’d listen to a podcast (or Taylor Swift) and unwind, coming home to spend time with my family. Some weeks, I would hardly see them due to late meetings and early starts. Now, I see them all the time – but the separation between work and home has disappeared. My school work – video conference meetings, emails, phone calls, lesson planning, problem solving, decision making – takes place in and around my family life. I find it hard to switch off, constantly stepping from parenting to working.

Like many families, we are juggling working from home with supervising our own children’s home learning, supporting them and keeping them motivated. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing being locked down in home-schooling when your Dad’s an actual Headteacher…you’d have to ask my children that!

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The BBC News film crew, preparing to film in the ICU

These are difficult times. I watch the news once a day, but try not to look beyond that. The heroics of the NHS staff inspire me, but the blurred-out ventilated patients they are tending to are terrifying. I struggle to sleep: I worry about our students, our staff, my family, myself. What will the future be like? How will schools return safely? How can we get back to the old “normal?” When will it be possible? Will it ever be possible? And, because there are no answers to these questions, they go round and round and round.

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The tree in our back garden, this week

And yet, in these dark times, there is light. Our students are accomplishing wonderful things in their home learning and in their communities. Our staff are developing a whole new range of skills in remote education, and continuing to reach out and support our students even when we can’t be together. I am loving spending all this time with my family, playing, creating, reading, eating and laughing together. The sun has been shining in a sky without airliner vapour trails; traffic noise has almost disappeared. Every Thursday evening we venture out to our front gate and applaud. To our left and right, up and down the street, families are doing the same. Someone sends a firework up into the evening sky. Blossom is filling the trees.

In the end, it will all be okay. We have adjusted to this new “normal;” we can adjust again. And, if we work together, maybe, eventually, we can establish a new “new normal” that is even better than the old.