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.

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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. 

 

 

 

Closing for coronavirus

 

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The coronavirus crisis moved so quickly, there was barely time to take stock. We were, of course, aware of the virus spreading across the world. We were aware that this would reach us, at some point. But we carried on. School felt quiet, an oasis of calm normality away from the screaming news headlines and the parade of opinions on social media.

We prepared, of course. At Churchill we had a comprehensive Critical Incident Plan in case of disaster. We always talked about it as the plan we would use if a jumbo jet crashed on the school field. As it happened, the disaster was not a massive bolt from above, but a microscopic, invisible invader, creeping unseen between us. But the plan worked just the same.

On Monday 9th March, senior staff developed the first closure plans. The computer network team drew up a set of procedures to enable remote learning to take place at an unprecedented scale. We implemented enhanced cleaning processes while we were still open. The administration teams began to plan to make sure that all the usual functions of the school could continue from afar: phone forwarding, video conferencing, “grab bags” of key paperwork. By Thursday 12th March, all staff were briefed about what would happen if we were to close. And on Thursday 12th March, it was still an “if.”

By Sunday night, it was clear that things were moving very quickly indeed. On Monday, I met with all staff and gave an assembly to every student in school, a year group at a time. There was a risk, of course, gathering them all together in the hall like this. My judgment was that having them in an assembly did not bring them into any closer contact than in their classrooms, or at break or lunchtime, and that they needed to hear the same clear and consistent message.

On Tuesday, 327 students were absent. I declared a critical incident and implemented the carefully prepared plan. Year 12 lessons were suspended from Wednesday, as we began to run short of staff to keep the school fully open. We put in place plans to open our Student Services provision to care for the children of key workers, and to distribute Free School Meals in the event of closure.

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My scribbled notes from the Secretary of State’s ministerial statement on Wednesday 18th March

When the Secretary of State made his statement to Parliament on the evening of Wednesday 18th March, I knew that he was going to announce school closures. But it was clear that this was no temporary measure: “until further notice” was an indication that this was going to be a lengthy closure. The cancellation of all exams was confirmation that this was serious. I stood in my kitchen, watching BBC Parliament on my iPad, and I wept. I cried for all the students who had worked so hard for exams which would not take place; I cried for the staff who care so much about the children, and the school; and I cried for the community that would be so difficult to maintain remotely.

Difficult, but not impossible.

And so I pulled myself together, and I got on with it. Year 11 and Year 13 were my first priority: these students had had the rug pulled from under them and were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, facing their last days at school. We had to give them the “last day” that they deserved. We had to get Student Services up and running. We had to organise free school meals. We had to prepare remote learning for the rest of the school and get everything locked down…in two days.

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Looking back now, after a week of closure and five days of lockdown, that last week of school seems almost like a dream. Year 13 and Year 11 got their last days. We got Student Services up and running, we organised free school meals and remote learning and check-in phone calls and a hundred and one other things. Throughout it all, the students and staff were amazing. They supported one another with selflessness and positivity, even the most trying of times. Their kindness and determination shone through.

After Year 11 had gone on Friday, I gathered the things that I would need. 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.

So now I am Headteacher of a different sort of Academy: one with teachers and students spread across the region, isolated in their homes. But in that isolation we are all connected by a sense of belonging that has been strengthened, not damaged, by the challenges of the coronavirus closure.

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Lowering the Academy flag on Friday 20th March 2020

I have been overwhelmed by the support of our Academy community – parents, families, friends, staff, students, governors and beyond – during this crisis. I want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done, and continue to do, to support the vision and values of the Academy. There is a long way to go, and much for us still to do. But I know that we can get there, together – and I look forward to the day when I raise the Academy flag again.