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.

2020: the year in review

January and February

Little did we know, twelve months ago, what a seismic shift the year ahead would bring. 2020 began as it ends on the Headteacher’s blog, with a bit of “taking stock”. I wrote “into the twenties” on the fourth anniversary of me starting as Headteacher at Churchill. Despite the year we’ve all had, we have continued to progress: we now have 1617 students at the Academy, including 287 in the Sixth Form, and we have seen still more investment in our site and buildings this year with the work to redevelop Lancaster and Stuart House still ongoing. In February, we celebrated the award of “Transforming” status for our work on the Climate for Learning at Churchill.

Our vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – informed the development of the Academy’s five-year strategic plan over the course of January and February. This vital document is the template for Churchill’s continued progress through to 2025, and will inform the work we do throughout this period. The fact that it stood up to what was to come is testament to the careful thinking and developmental work of the Trustees involved.

February ended in triumph, with an astonishing production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The production, music and performance were simply breath-taking.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb 2020,

March

I am so glad our students got the opportunity to be on stage in front of a live audience, given what followed so shortly afterwards. We barely had time to announce the introduction of a fifth house for Churchill, before the onrushing tide of the pandemic overwhelmed everything.

My post Closing for Coronavirus runs through the events of March in detail. Looking back at it now, it seems like a distant dream. I gave an assembly – a physical, in-person assembly – to all students, a year group at a time, on Monday 16th March, running through what we knew at the time and giving the instructions on how to wash hands properly. In the assembly, I said we were “staying open.” On Wednesday 18th, closures were announced. On Friday 20th March, I lowered the Academy flag.

Of course, schools never really closed. We were always open – from Friday 20th March onwards – to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We stayed open, through Easter and on Bank Holidays, to support the national effort. We kept education going for our students in their homes. And we waited.

April and May: lockdown

I remember those late spring and early summer months, living in lockdown, as a bizarre contradiction. On the one hand, I was constantly gripped by fear: fear of this unknown virus, fear of other people carrying it, fear of everything apparently collapsing around us. But, on the other hand, there was a strange tranquillity: no traffic on the roads, no aeroplanes in the sky, and the surge of nature around us as life went on regardless.

The “clap for carers” brought our local community together, out on the street to share in our admiration for the incredible work of the NHS and key workers. VE Day came and went, and from their homes our musicians put together gospel and chamber choir arrangements, and other performances, collected on the Performing Arts Podcast.

Lockdown Youthful Spirit: Lovely Day

June and July: wider re-opening

As the summer moved on, we welcomed back Year 10 and Year 12 students – our current Year 11 and Year 13s – to Exam Support. Socially distanced, in classes of no more than 15, we saw the first signs that things could – eventually – return to normal. Our students and our staff were fantastic, adapting to this strange new world with DIY haircuts and exceptionally clean hands.

Meanwhile, Frontline (our key worker and vulnerable student provision) continued to expand and develop, making sure that education continued for the students and families who needed it most.

And, behind it all, the extension to the Athene Donald Building was finished and – even through the disruption – the House Cup was awarded (to Windsor!).

August

The summer break was strange this year. We had ended July preparing for the full re-opening of schools in September, a simply staggering effort to adjust our normal process onto a covid-secure footing in line with the ever-shifting government guidance. And then, as the summer wore on, the catastrophe of the exam results season hit. I wrote in detail at the time about what had gone wrong with the A-level results. Before the GCSE results were published, the controversial moderation algorithm had been abandoned and students were awarded their Centre Assessed Grades instead. I have never known a more chaotic and uncertain time in all my over twenty years’ experience in education – I still shudder when I think about it.

But we barely had time to take breath from that, before…we were back.

September and October

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

The Academy opened its doors in September to all our students again. Things were – and still are – different, with the language of “year group bubbles” and “hands-face-space” becoming quickly familiar. We had our first confirmed case on September 8th, and the impact of the pandemic has continued to be felt across North Somerset ever since. Despite the challenges, our students and staff continue to amaze me with their resilience and energy, as they show all the kindness, curiosity and determination we expect of them – through face coverings, hand sanitiser and disinfectant, through open windows and classroom doors, through year group separations and self-isolations…the Churchill spirit keeps shining through.

We were heartened by the results of our parent survey in October, which were a ringing endorsement of our work so far. And the term ended on a high note as Imogen Beaumont (Year 11) was named as one of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year.

November and December

As the days shortened, the second national lockdown was announced. This time, however, schools stayed open. We were so grateful to have our students with us, and to keep face-to-face education going this time. Many of the aspects of managing a school in a pandemic, which would have been unthinkable merely months ago, have become familiar routines. Our use of technology has been transformed, with Google Classroom now embedded across the Academy and our ability to blend in-class and at-home teaching and learning developing all the time.

And so, as we approach Christmas, we are in a different world. The crowds cheering on the Sixth Form Fancy Dress Parade, the massed Junior Choir at the Christmas Concert, Christmas Dinner in the Academy Hall…these familiar staples from Christmas 2019 are just not possible in our new pandemic normal. But we will not be deterred! It may be different, but it’s still going to happen – and there will be one final post on this blog before the end of term to celebrate Christmas at Churchill 2020.

This has been a year the like of which none of us have ever seen. Let us hope that, over the coming twelve months, we see the retreat of the pandemic and the return of the freedom to do all those things that help make us the school we are: our extra-curricular programme, working across year groups, and the big, showpiece Academy events which give our students their chance to shine. I wish everyone in our Academy community a safe and merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.

When the pandemic hits

Nationally and locally, the impact of the pandemic has really ramped up since half term. From September, we have seen isolated cases, in both staff and students, resulting in self-isolations for contained “bubbles” of students across the first term. Since we have been back, the situation has felt very different.

Latest case figures for North Somerset from the BBC tracker (source)

Cases in November in Years 8, 9 and 10 have meant over 600 students from Churchill self-isolating at home as potential contacts. This picture is reflected in the national school attendance figures release this week:

  • Attendance in state-funded schools steadily increased from 87% in early September, to a period of stability of between 89 to 90% from 1 October to 15 October.  After half-term attendance was at 89% on 5 November but decreased to 86% on 12 November.
  • On 12 November, attendance in state-funded secondary schools is 83%, down from 87%. The drop in attendance is mainly due to the increased number of pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus. (source)

Everyone has been disrupted. Two of my three children have been sent home from their school this month to self-isolate due to positive cases in their year group bubbles. I really do understand it from both sides, as a parent and a Headteacher. I understand the frustrations. I understand the inconvenience. I understand the upset. I understand the anxiety.

None of us want to be in this position: we all wish it was different. But wishing won’t change the reality of education in the middle of a pandemic.

What happens when a case is notified?

In school, notification of a positive case launches a very clear but complex process:

  1. Contact the family: make sure we have all the correct information about dates, symptoms, test results, transport arrangements, attendance, and any social contacts.
  2. Run the contact tracing: we have a report in our Management Information System that pulls out all the students that are “contacts” with a named individual. We cross-refer this report with the student timetable and, if necessary, seating plans to identify students that need to self isolate. We also identify any staff contacts of the confirmed case to check social distancing, ventilation in the rooms, and any other issues.
  3. Seek advice: having run through the written guidance, I always check with the Health Protection Team that my interpretation is correct. They have been brilliant – always available with a prompt response and clear, helpful advice, including confirmation of dates and self-isolation durations.
  4. Prepare letters for the confirmed case, the identified contacts, and the wider Academy
  5. Contact parents and families of identified contacts: all other operations stop in the Academy office as every available colleague takes to the phones. If the notification comes out of hours, all available senior leaders work through the contacts from home.
  6. Organise collection: staff supervising the students use walkie-talkies to communicate with reception when individuals are ready to be collected
  7. Formal notifications: it’s my responsibility to notify the South West Health Protection Team, Department for Education, the local authority, school transport (if applicable), the Trust Board and the wider staff. These notifications never include personal details of the case – only that we have a confirmed case, the year group, the date of the test, and the number of contacts required to self-isolate.
  8. Follow up: often students who have not come up on our contact tracing self-identify that they have spent time with a confirmed case at lunch or break time. We check the circumstances of these contacts, and provide advice accordingly. At other times, the Health Protection Team want a follow-up discussion to check responses and offer support. There are sometimes further details to clarify, or further contacts to identify.
  9. Implement remote or blended learning: staff need to re-plan their teaching to accommodate full or part-classes learning remotely at home. Webcams, visualisers and other tools are used to provide live or recorded video content; Google Classrooms need to be updated with lesson content or learning tasks. We need to check staff absences or isolations, and ensure that any cover work is adapted to work remotely.
  10. Welfare checks: tutors begin the process of “touching base” with self-isolating students, addressing any issues with remote learning, health or wellbeing. These checks take place by phone or email, at least once a week during self-isolation.

This is our new reality. At any time, with one positive test, the whole process kicks into action. The ramifications spread far beyond the Academy, to all those families who have to drop everything to come and collect their children, reorganising schedules and arrangements at a moment’s notice.

It has to be this way. If we are going to protect the vulnerable, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and slow the spread of this virus, we have to take immediate action to isolate any potential contacts of a confirmed case. But the disruption is massive – and it’s not just happening at Churchill. Every single secondary school in our area has isolated large groups of students this term. And the South West – although cases are rising – is not the worst-hit region. In Hull last week, one in four children was at home self-isolating.

What can we do?

There has been much talk about implementing rota systems in schools, so that year groups only attend for two weeks at a time with two weeks off. This was proposed by the government back in August, and at Churchill we have a contingency plan for this eventuality if it is called for. But I can’t see that this will fix things: if a positive case is confirmed in a year group bubble that is on the rota to be in school, they will have to go home to self-isolate anyway. What then?

Year 7 under the canopy this week

To my mind, schools should stay open. For this to be sustainable, we have to protect ourselves as much as we can. We must rigorously stick to the covid-safe protocols in school, and the protective measures and restrictions in wider society. And, when a positive case is confirmed, we have to isolate the case and any possible contacts to prevent further spread. Until a vaccine is in wider circulation, this is our new reality.

Open during lockdown

I am writing this post on 5th November 2020, the first day of the new national restrictions imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS, and save lives. This is the second wave, so we’ve been here before: except, this time, schools are staying open.

Year 7 in a group of 6 under the canopy

I will never forget March 2020, and the first lockdown. COVID-19 was new to all of us then. In the week ahead of closure of schools, student attendance dropped away. Significant numbers of staff were unable to come in, and we had to close – first to Year 12, and then to all students.

This time, some things are the same – but some are very different. The anxiety is still there, of course: but student attendance this week has been 95.7%. We are used to the routines of wiping down desks, hand sanitising, face coverings, and year group bubbles. And, as everything else closes down and society begins another month of “stay at home,” school carries on.

We are pleased that schools are staying open. We firmly believe that our students are better off in school: no matter how good remote learning is, there is no substitute for being in a classroom with an expert teacher. We know that it is there that our students will get the best educational experience, and make the best progress.

We also believe that the “normality” and structure of the school day is good for mental health and wellbeing. Of course, it’s not quite as “normal” as any of us would like: our extra curricular programme is severely limited; the cross-year-group work that is a hallmark of the Churchill experience has had to be suspended; we cannot hold in-person assemblies or run our programme of trips and visits; and the big events, concerts, presentations and performances that we look forward to are all on hold. But even so, the routines of a five-lesson day, seeing friends and continuing to learn in person is stable, reliable, and welcome.

The bottom field in autumn

This lunchtime, it was a crisp and clear autumn day. As I did my normal circuit of the Academy on duty, I saw Year 10 tearing round the 3G after a football, and throwing and catching, kicking up the autumn leaves, and booting a rugby ball into the bright blue sky above the top field. Year 8 were enjoying the wide open space of the bottom field. Year 9 were on the tennis courts, in small groups, excitedly discussing the sex and relationships education sessions they had had that morning. Year 7 were under the canopy, and up on the grassed area behind the library, their chatter filling the air as they prepared to deliver the speeches they’d been working on in the morning. And Year 11 were being Sixth Formers for the day, making the most of having the run of the Sixth Form Centre and trying out courses as they consider their post-16 options. It felt…well, it felt like a normal day at school.

The top field in autumn

Against the backdrop of strangeness and uncertainty, the familiarity was welcome. We have implemented multiple measures to minimise risk – but nothing we do can eliminate that risk entirely. Despite the uncertainties, despite the challenges, we are so glad the flag is still flying, and our Academy is still full of staff and students learning and working together. That’s how we like it: we will do everything we can to keep it that way.

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.

Putting the plan into action

It’s nearly the end of the first full week with students back at Churchill. It has been simply brilliant to see the Academy full of students again! It has been great to finally put all that careful, meticulous planning into action.

Churchill Academy & Sixth Form now has over 1600 students on the registers. They have been amazing. They have been calm, attentive, and they have worked with us as we have all adapted to the new systems and arrangements. The have shown all the kindness, curiosity and determination we would expect of them – and more. The smiles and laughter I have seen and heard are enough to melt the hardest of hearts!

Year 7 under the new canopy on their first day back

Of course, these are challenging times. This week, we had to respond to a positive test for COVID-19 within our Academy community. It’s the last thing that any of us wanted to happen, but the fact is this virus could infect any one of us at any time. And we had prepared for just this eventuality. Over the summer, I had been on an excellent training and briefing session with the South West Health Protection Team. I had distributed this training to all the senior leaders in school. We had a clear process and protocol to follow. So, when the test was confirmed, we put the plan into action.

We received first-rate support from the Health Protection Team, from North Somerset’s Director of Public Health and his team, and from Public Health England. They worked in partnership with us to establish the contacts of the case, and to implement a plan for those contacts to self-isolate. Whilst it was certainly a difficult situation, it was made easier by this partnership.

Our students, and their families, have been simply fantastic. There is a real recognition that these are uncharted waters, and that we are doing our very best to navigate them. Of course, we are still adapting. Any plan, no matter how meticulous, will need review when it meets the reality of 1600 young people. We are continuing that process daily.

One thing that we have all noticed is how tired we are! The rhythms of remote learning, followed by the long summer break, are very different from the physical reality of a five-lesson day in the classroom. We need our students – and our staff! – to look after themselves. Good sleep routines, hydration, nutrition…and clean hands. Always.

Thank you to everyone in the Academy community for the support you have shown during this first full week. We really appreciate it.

Raising the flag

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

On Friday March 20th, after the last students had gone home, I lowered the Academy flag. It was one of the most poignant moments in my career. At the time, I wrote:

I walked the school for one last time: every block, deserted, empty, silent. It brought home to me that the school isn’t the buildings, the classrooms, the whiteboards and the playing fields. It’s the people. The students and their teachers, the support staff, cleaners, site team and technicians. They are the school.

from Closing for Coronavirus, 29th March 2020

I have been in school often in the five-and-a-half months since that day. Even with Frontline provision in place, and with Exam Support operating from June, the majority of the school remained vacant and empty.

This week, it has come alive again.

First, the staff: positive, excited, and ready. We had planned for so long, so carefully, that we couldn’t wait to get started. Every department was opened up again, classrooms prepared, precautions in place.

Then, the students: our wonderful Year 7s, keen and eager to get started. Our Sixth Formers, Year 12 and 13, bringing all the buzz and energy of their ambition back to the Academy. And today, our Year 11 – prepared by their experience in Exam Support, taking the new arrangements in their stride. Tomorrow – the rest of the school returns.

Walking the corridors of the Academy today to see classrooms filled with young people brought a lump to my throat. I have been so caught up in hand sanitiser dispensers, face covering policies, catering provision and transport organisation that I had not prepared myself adequately for the joy of real human interactions with our students.

“How are you, sir?” asked one Year 13 student today.

I had to take a deep breath before responding.

“I’m fine. So glad to see you all. So glad to be back.”

At break time on Wednesday, I raised our new, five-house Academy flag to the top of the flagpole. As I was leaving school this afternoon, the wind caught it and it flew out, full and strong – as if it was coming to life.

What’s happened with the A-level results?

This year’s A-level results have been the most controversial ever, by a long way. But what exactly has happened? And what can we do about it?

How were the grades calculated?

When the Secretary of State announced on 18th March that schools would close, he also announced that exams were cancelled, but that “we will work with the sector and Ofqual [the exams regulator] to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.” Detailed guidance followed.

Teachers were asked to provide a “centre assessed grade.” In the Ofqual guidance it says: “we asked schools and colleges to use their professional experience to make a fair and objective judgement of the grade they believed a student would have achieved had they sat their exams this year.” These grades were then moderated by the exam boards, using an algorithm designed by Ofqual, to ensure that grades in 2020 were similar (or “comparable”) to previous years.

Why were teacher recommendations so high?

Some parts of the media have accused teachers of assessing too generously, or trying to unfairly boost their own schools’ results. All of this is wrong. Firstly, no data on schools’ overall results is being collected or published this year. There are no performance tables – a welcome move, which has allowed teachers to focus on what really matters: the students and their results.

But, if teachers’ recommended grades had been accepted without moderation, nationally results would have risen: there would have been a 13% rise in A-levels awarded grade A*-B, which is an “implausibly high” increase. Why has this happened?

Put simply, teachers were asked to assess what they believed students to be capable of. Real exams assess how students actually perform on the day. If a teacher believed a student was capable of achieving an A in the summer, then they assessed that student at an A. If that student had sat the real exam, they may have achieved that A. But, if there was a particularly tricky question, or they managed their time badly, or they had a mental blank in the exam, they might not have done. They might have ended up with a B. So the teacher recommended grades were always going to be higher – that was baked into the system, and it is why some form of moderation was needed.

So how did the algorithm work?

The standardisation and moderation process is explained in Ofqual’s interim technical report, published on A-level results day. The report is 319 pages long, which gives you some idea of how complex the process is. It is called the Direct Centre Performance model (DCP). In Ofqual’s own words, it “works by predicting the distribution of grades for each individual school or college. That prediction is based on the historical performance of the school or college in that subject taking into account any changes in the prior attainment of candidates entering this year compared to previous years.”

What does this mean? If we take A-level Maths as an example, the exam board would look at what distribution of grades students from Churchill Academy & Sixth Form had achieved in A-level Maths over recent years. It adjusts that distribution based on the prior attainment (GCSE and other results) of the students taking A-level Maths at Churchill in 2020, and then makes a prediction of what grades it expects to see from Churchill based on that information. The algorithm then adjusts the teacher recommended grades from Churchill to fit the “expected” or predicted distribution of grades.

This is where one of the major problems has arisen. Whilst the algorithm is actually very sensible at a whole cohort level, it forgets that individual candidates are human beings and don’t necessarily fit the statistical prediction. They can surprise us – and, as a teacher, I know that they do, every single day. The algorithm doesn’t account for which students are really revising hard, which students have really pushed themselves, which students have suddenly found a new passion and understanding for a subject…it cannot possibly do this. So, instead, it irons out the students into the distribution that the algorithm suggests, almost completely ignoring the teacher recommended grades. The consequences are explained really well by Alex Weatherall in this thread on Twitter.

It also means that schools which have historically performed well at A-level are at an advantage over those which have not. So students that were recommended A* can end up with a C. And, even more cruelly, students that were recommended to pass an A-level can end up with a U grade – failing an exam they hadn’t even sat. Unfairness and injustice is baked into the system.

What about small groups?

An additional unfairness in the system is that statistical models can’t be applied fairly to small groups. In Ofqual’s own words:

“Where schools and colleges had a relatively small cohort for a subject – fewer than 15 students when looking across the current entry and the historical data – the standardisation model put more weight on the CAGs…there is no statistical model that can reliably predict grades for particularly small groups of students. We have therefore used the most reliable evidence available, which is the CAGs.”

From Ofqual’s Interim Report Executive Summary here.

If you happen to have taken a popular A-level which more than 15 students took at your school, you will have been subject to the algorithm. If your A-level choices were less popular, and fewer than 15 students took that subject at your school, greater emphasis was placed on the teacher recommended grades. Still more unfairness and injustice.

A particular example here is Maths (which a lot of people take) and Further Maths (which many fewer people take). This has resulted in many students nationally getting A-level Maths grades adjusted down, whilst their Further Maths grades go through as recommended, creating nonsensical combinations like a C grade for Maths and an A* for Further Maths.

A further inequality here is that in smaller sixth forms, you are more likely to have smaller cohorts of under fifteen taking subjects. Whereas in larger sixth forms – and especially in large sixth form colleges – cohorts are always larger than 15. Therefore the smaller the sixth form, the fewer adjustments have been made to the grades. So it isn’t even necessarily about which subjects you have chosen, but which school or college you happened to be studying them at.

What about appeals?

If you are unhappy with your grade, you have the option of mounting an appeal. This can be done if:

  1. There is an administrative error and the wrong grade has been put into the system. [We haven’t found a single example of this at Churchill].
  2. If your mock exam result shows that you are capable of achieving a higher grade than your final result.

At the moment, that’s it – there are no other grounds for challenging your result, unless you feel you were discriminated against. Mock exams are not the same from subject to subject, much less from school to school – they don’t always assess the full A-level content, they are much more about finding out what candidates need to focus their revision on in the run-up to the real exams than providing a solid grade. We expect mock results to be lower than final results – of course. In some cases, this route will help – but by no means in all.

The only other option open is to sit the full A-level exam in a special Autumn exam series. But who, honestly, could get a higher grade in October or November, without having been in a classroom since March? This is the longest of long shots.

So what can be done?

Currently, the government is saying nothing will change – but surely this can’t stand. The injustices are too great. I think the options are as follows:

  1. Look again at the algorithm and improve the level of “tolerance” around the grade boundaries so that it prioritises the teacher recommendation when a student is being downgraded, especially if they are being downgraded by more than one grade, or moved down from a passing grade to a U.
  2. Just scrap the whole thing and go back to the teacher recommended grades, like Scotland did. Although this would solve the human cost of all the disappointments, it would devalue the 2020 grades compared to previous and following years. An A grade from 2020 would simply not be worth the same as an A grade from another year. As Ofqual said themselves, the teacher recommendations on their own are “implausibly high” for all the reasons outlined above. It would solve the immediate problem – but create another one for the future.
  3. Open up an additional appeals route for candidates who feel an injustice has been done, but whose mocks don’t help them. Again, a tempting route, but what evidence could be used to support such an appeal? In the end, it comes back to the teacher recommendation, and this route very quickly ends up the same as option 2.

My feeling is that Ofqual need to go back and look again at the algorithm, and account for the human cost of squeezing individual candidates into a statistical model that does not account for their unpredictability, their uniqueness, and their actual performance to date. They might have time to do this ahead of GCSE results next week. But, for some A-level candidates, it is already too late – their university places have gone on the basis of results from exams they didn’t even sit.

Who is to blame?

Fundamentally, this is a government decision. As Laura McInerney said in her column for the Guardian today:

“Ultimately, young people have been caught in a farce presided over by an education secretary who let an obviously problematic results day go ahead with no clear plan and no appeals process. How did that happen? Civil servants busy on Brexit? On holiday? Did the exams watchdog not have the bottle to flag problems? I can’t fathom it.

But none of these questions help the Lilys, Matts, or Aatiyahs, or any one of thousands of young people, to understand how a baffling set of grades tanked their future and they weren’t given a clear way to challenge it.”

Laura McInerney, writing in the Guardian here.

I feel deeply aggrieved for those individuals whose futures have been decided not by their own work ethic, revision, effort and learning, but by an algorithm. We will continue to make the case that what has happened is wrong, unfair, and unjust – and hope that the government listens.

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.