The London fireworks to mark the start of 2022 were truly spectacular, but broadcast without the usual crowds lining the banks of the Thames. It felt to me like a very appropriate way to kick off this year: a determined attempt to put on the very best show possible, despite the challenging circumstances.
We have seen this throughout the pandemic, as the discussion of lateral flow tests, hospitalisation and death rates, and the relative transmissibility of variants has become morbidly routine. Over the first weekend of the holidays, I was queuing in a makeshift marquee at Bath Racecourse to receive my booster jab from a military medic in camouflage fatigues, drafted in as part of the battle against Omicron. A small artificial tree in the corner was an attempt at festive cheer, but I admit it felt like something out of science fiction. I was more encouraged by the incredible organisation mustered at such short notice, and the wonderful volunteers giving up their time to protect the nation. I was also delighted to finally get an “I’ve had my Covid Vaccination” sticker, having not been offered one at my first or second dose!
As the new year began, I was braced for the expected announcements about schools for the term ahead. A year ago, we were being told that schools would be open before a U-turn on the evening of 4th January closed them all. The vaccination programme means that this year, we are able to keep schools open. We are grateful for this: we know how to do remote learning really well, but there is no substitute for being in a classroom, with your teachers and your peers. Of course it isn’t convenient to turn our gym into a testing centre or to stagger the start of term; it isn’t comfortable to wear a face covering all lesson; it’s a pain to have to swab your nostrils twice a week and then report the result to the NHS and to the Academy Google Form; nobody likes having an injection. But these are the things that mean we’re in classrooms, together, this January, rather than locked down in our homes.
I’m not a big one for new year’s resolutions, but as the clock ticked over to midnight on December 31st, I gave thanks for all the efforts everyone has made to get us here. We certainly have tough times ahead, but we’re in better shape, now, than we were a year ago. Despite the challenges, we can still put on a good show. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22.
Education hit the headlines over the half term break, when the government announced its education recovery plan. The announcement included an additional £1.4bn to be invested in education over the next three years. This is, by any stretch, a large amount of money – but it did not go down well. By the evening of the day of the big announcement, the government’s own Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins – the man appointed by the Prime Minister to oversee the education sector’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic – had resigned. His letter to Boris Johnson spelled out the reasons why he could not continue:
“I do not believe it will be possible to deliver a successful recovery without significantly greater support than the Government has, to date, indicated it intends to provide. I am concerned that the apparent savings offered by an incremental approach to recovery represent a false economy, as learning losses that are not addressed quickly are likely to compound.”
So why was the announcement of £1.4bn of extra funding for education so poorly received and so controversial? The main reason is that it was well-known that the plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins were actually costed at ten times as much as the Treasury actually released. Reports suggest his plan would have cost £15bn. The Secretary of State for Education is reported to have asked the Treasury for £14bn. And the Treasury actually released a tenth of that, with funding ring-fenced to support tutoring and teacher development rather than many of the more ambitious (and expensive) proposals put forward.
So why was everyone so upset?
The government – and especially the Prime Minister – had been talking for weeks about prioritising education, talking about “levelling up” and suggesting it had a real ambition to do something radical. There had been much discussion in the media about extending the school day by half an hour, not just so that children could access tutoring in English and Maths, but also to provide opportunities for enrichment as laid out in Sir Kevan Collins’ letter:
“I believe our approach to recovery should also offer children opportunities to re-engage with sport, music, and the rich range of activities that define a great education. I proposed extending school time as a way to provide this breadth, as well as to ensure that additional academic support does not cause existing enrichment activities to be squeezed out.”
Sir Kevan Collins, from his resignation letter
Extending the school day is a complex, difficult thing to do. There would be a myriad of issues to work out and a mountain of obstacles to overcome. But it showed real ambition, a real sense of purpose, and it offered a genuine solution to the problem. With more time, we could do more – more performing arts, more sport, more outdoor education, more creativity, and more of the basics – without squeezing the stuff we already do.
At what cost?
Why would this plan cost so much? Well, an additional half an hour a day doesn’t sound like much – but there are over 24,000 schools in England. Additional time in each of those schools means additional staff would be needed in every single one. They would need to be heated, lit, powered and maintained for longer. Additional resources would be required for all those enrichment activities…in every school. The cost soon mounts up.
What Sir Kevan Collins showed the government was that a world class education system isn’t cheap. Other countries have realised this. In the Netherlands, the government has announced additional funding to support post-pandemic education recovery at around £2500 per child. In the USA, additional funding is running at £1600 per head. The graphic above shows that the UK government’s investment sits at just £50 per head, and even adding in previous education funding announcements only brings it up to £310 per head (as shown in the Financial Times.) As Geoff Barton said on Sky News: “what is it about those children in the Netherlands or the USA that makes them worth more?”
We know that the pandemic has cost the country countless billions already, not just in healthcare costs but lost earnings, furlough, collapsed businesses and welfare. There is no “magic money tree” and it is clear that the government cannot just make £15bn appear to invest in education on a whim. Money spent on education cannot be spent elsewhere – and there are many other worthy and important areas for the government to spending money on.
However, subsequent analysis showed that the education recovery funding set aside for England in the 2021-22 academic year amounts to £984 million – whereas the government spent £840 million on the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme in a single month in August 2020. I am certainly in favour of supporting the hospitality industry, which has been crippled by the pandemic – our restaurants and pubs need and deserve our help. But can it possibly be right that an entire year’s worth of funding to support our national education recovery is only slightly more than a month’s worth of funding to support hospitality?
Unfortunately, investing in education is not politically effective. It doesn’t fit neatly into the election cycle. When you spend money on education, you don’t see the benefits for decades – usually long after the careers of most politicians have concluded. But not investing in education – as Sir Kevan pointed out – is a false economy. Investing in education is an investment in reducing social problems, increasing employability and earning potential, and improving social mobility for the future.
Of course, we will still do everything we can at Churchill to provide a world class education with what we have. We know that the work we do here will continue to have an impact, not just in the short term to resolve immediate issues, but in the long term as we continue to do all we can to inspire and enable young people to make a positive difference to themselves, to others, and to the society they will participate in. But, when I think about what we could be providing with additional funding…it feels like an opportunity missed.
On Tuesday of this week, I watched the BRIT Awards 2021. I love the BRITs – there are always some amazing performances, and something unexpected or off-script always happens! But this year, it was really special just to see a crowd of people, without face masks, enjoying live music in a venue. It felt like a step back to pre-COVID normality.
“There might be times when you put your whole heart and soul into something and it is met with cynicism or scepticism. You cannot let that crush you: have to let it fuel you. Because we live in a world where anyone has the right to say anything that they want about you at any time. But just please remember that you have the right to prove them wrong.”
Taylor Swift at the BRIT awards, May 2021
The previous night, I was tuned into the government’s coronavirus briefing. This was also, for once, a positive experience. The data on the virus indicates that the reopening of schools on March 8th has not triggered a surge in cases. The vaccine rollout continues to go well. We need to keep an eye on new variants of COVID-19, some of which may be of concern – but at the moment, things are going in the right direction. And, as a result, we can continue with the gradual “unlocking” of the lockdown.
For schools, this means the end of face coverings for students in classrooms and social spaces. Our students have been unfazed by the government guidance from March 8th, and have worn their face coverings properly to protect staff and one another. Exemptions have been issued where necessary. They have got on with the job in hand.
From Monday 17th May, face coverings will only be required on home to school transport, or on public transport to and from school (unless exempt). Students will not be required to wear face coverings in school. However, if students wish to continue to wear one, they will be permitted to do so.
Even though we recognised the public health imperative for mandatory face coverings in schools, there is no denying that it has been harder to teach and learn in a classroom full of covered faces. Education relies so much on relationships, which are based on good communication. So much communication is carried by facial expressions which are obscured by a face covering – not to mention the difficulty of making yourself heard through the cloth. Many staff have said how much they are looking forward to seeing their students’ smiles again – and I agree.
However, as we saw last summer, this virus can surge. There are already concerns about variants on the rise in parts of England. If the public health situation worsens again, and face coverings have to return, we know that we can manage it well. But we also know that education is so much better when you can see the full face of the person you are talking to.
So, from Monday, school will feel a little bit more like normal. We will be able to visit one another’s homes. Live music, cinema, and theatre are returning. Sport will have a live audience. We have worked so hard for one another over this past year. This “unlocking” feels like a release. We’ve earned it.
I am writing this post on 18th March 2021. Exactly one year ago, the Secretary of State stood up in front of Parliament and announced that “after schools shut their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice.” I wrote about the events of that week, and the time immediately around it, in my post Closing for Coronavirus.
I remember well the febrile, fearful atmosphere of the country a year ago, as an unfamiliar threat advanced across the globe. I remember supermarket shelves emptied of toilet roll, pasta and flour; roads suddenly deserted; skies filled with birdsong instead of airliners.
The Academy has remained open to the children of critical workers and other eligible children throughout, including holiday periods at the height of the pandemic. But, in the 39 official school weeks that have passed, we have been delivering education remotely for 23, and fully open for 16. Through that time we have worked hard to keep our Academy community together and connected, adapting to new technology and new ways of working.
One thing this past year has taught me is how adaptable and resilient we are. We have adapted to circumstances that were unimaginable a year ago, when I had never used Zoom. I didn’t know about social distancing. I didn’t know the importance of a spike protein. I had never worn a face covering.
Now, a year on, I know about using systems of controls to manage infections; I know about the importance of ventilation; I know the difference between a lateral flow device and a polyamerase chain reaction test. I can navigate Google Classroom smoothly and I have a mug which I can hold up to the webcam so I don’t have to keep saying “you’re on mute…”
This year has also reinforced the importance and the value of education in our society. Expert scientists have delivered the vaccine in record time; highly trained doctors, nurses and carers have helped those most in need. Musicians, actors, dancers and performers have made new connections online. Journalists have kept us informed, seeking the truth and fighting back waves of misinformation and speculation. Never has learning and education been more important.
And this year has also reminded us that schools are more than just places of learning: they are communities which bring people together. Over the past year we have found ways to keep that community going when we cannot physically be in the same space, but there is no substitute for the real human connections that I see every day in the classrooms, studios, playgrounds, social areas and playing fields of the Academy.
Even in the midst of the global crisis, I can see real progress at Churchill. We have launched our fifth house, Lancaster, and pushed on with redeveloping the Academy site. Our student councils have started up and our student leadership programme is beginning to take root. We have redeveloped our curriculum, responding not just to the technological challenges but to issues of representation, pace and challenge, and links to careers and employment. And we have advanced our sustainability agenda, with increased planting around the site and a focus on the environmental impact of the Academy.
Despite the return of students to schools, the vaccine rollout, and the roadmap out of lockdown, we are not out of this crisis yet. When I sit down on 18th March 2022 to look back again, I wonder what new adaptations and changes we will have made? And I wonder what the world will be like two years on from that House of Commons announcement…
No matter what, I know that the staff and students at Churchill will be going strong. We have been tested this year – not just with lateral flow devices – and we have prevailed. As a society, we will be picking up the pieces from this past year for a long time to come. As an Academy, we are ready to do our bit to build back better out of this crisis, to emerge stronger, and to flourish in the future.
This has been quite the week for schools. We have had the re-opening announcement: all students to return. Seventy pages of guidance, from lateral flow tests to face coverings to ventilation to hygiene to “bubbles” to cleaning and beyond…with the health and wellbeing of our staff and students depending on its implementation.
Then we have had the decisions on how GCSE, AS and A level, vocational and technical qualification grades will be determined in summer 2021. 113 pages of guidance to digest and synthesise carefully, with the future prospects of our examination candidates depending on its implementation.
Is it easy?
Can we do it?
Yes we can.
When our students are faced with something difficult, they can sometimes feel overwhelmed, and want to give up. It’s our job, as teachers, to pick them up and encourage them, to give them confidence, to reassure them that it can be done – and that it’s worth it. As I contemplate my to-do list, I am thinking about our students. I can’t wait to see them. So whatever needs to be done, will be done – because they are worth it.
If the NHS can vaccinate 18 million people in two months, I’m sure we can carry out 1600 lateral flow tests in five days.
If a team of scientists can drop a 1000kg wheeled robot onto the surface of Mars in a perfect touchdown, I’m sure we can design a robust system that ensures our students get the grades they deserve at the end of this challenging year.
Because, when we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.
Working in a school at the moment is unlike anything we have ever known. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any team work as hard as the Churchill staff since January: it has been awe-inspiring. Teachers have had to re-plan existing curriculum to deliver remotely, finding technological solutions to replace in-class interactions. Providing feedback has become labour-intensive: what would, in normal times, be a quick conversation with a student or working through a pile of exercise books or tests, now requires teachers to open each document individually, adding comments, marks and areas for improvement. Tutors are also phoning or emailing to check on progress, welfare and wellbeing – and this is on top of Frontline provision for children eligible to be in school.
Teachers and support staff are also on the front line as schools address a rise in domestic abuse and child protection issues, and try to support families medically or financially affected by the pandemic. Our staff have mobilised a lateral flow testing operation and implemented a raft of covid-safe procedures, all while keeping the financial, administrative and resource functions of the Academy operating remotely. And managing the ongoing building projects!
The pandemic has tested all of us, in all walks of life, in all lines of work: I am hugely proud of the way our staff have stepped up to the plate and, to extend my baseball metaphor, smashed it out of the park.
To our staff: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To our families
We really appreciate how hard this year has been for families of students at the Academy. You have had to balance your own jobs and lives with the added challenge of your children being at home, needing the wi-fi and the laptop and lunch and snacks and motivation and encouragement and exercise and help with which year Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech and what’s the atomic number of carbon?
All this whilst you are trying to parent your young people through an international crisis which is causing all of us anxiety and uncertainty about our health, our economy, our friends, and our wider families. We can’t go on holiday, we can’t go out, and we can’t socialise except through a screen. It has been tough – and it will be tough for a while yet. So, for all you have done to support and help our students through this time, whilst holding it together yourselves – give yourselves a pat on the back, and treat yourselves to glass of something good. You deserve it.
To our families: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To our students
As I have said before, and will doubtless say again and again, it is our young people who are the beacon of light in this dark period of our history. From the chorus of “thank you”s at the end of each remote lesson, to the fantastic work that they are producing, to the kindness they are showing to others in helping them with technical problems, resources and understanding the work…our students have done themselves proud during this lockdown. They have been there, turning up for the Zooms and Google Meets, engaging in the chat, introducing us to their pets and earning an absolute mountain of house points (over 140,000 at last count). It has been tough being separated from friends and classmates, tough to maintain motivation in the face of uncertainty, but they have stayed strong and kept going throughout it all.
To our students: thank you. You have done an amazing job.
To all of you: enjoy your half term. You have earned it.
This lockdown, through the winter months, is a challenge for all of us. We continue to be impressed by the determination of our students to maintain their educational standards and their spirits through this difficult time – but it’s hard! Here are some ways that families can help. They won’t all work for all families and all children – but I hope you will find something of use.
Show an interest
It may seem obvious, but ask your children what they’ve been learning about. If it’s something you don’t know, ask them to explain it to you. Even if it’s something you do know, ask them to explain it to you! Get them to show you how their Google Classrooms work, how they “hand in” work electronically, and how they can communicate with their teachers. Ask them how they’re finding remote learning – and listen to the answers.
Ask them what they found difficult, and celebrate it: if students find all the work easy, it probably means they can already do it, or they already know it. This can be useful to reinforce prior learning. But when students find it difficult, when they struggle – that’s when real learning happens, because they’re engaging with something new, something they don’t already know or know how to do. This is when they have to dig in and persevere – and that’s when your encouragement is more important than ever.
As we detailed in our remote learning guidance: “We are trying to encourage our students to be proactive and independent in resolving any difficulties with online learning. Please encourage them to contact teachers and tutors directly to solve problems themselves – we do not expect parents and family members to be doing this for students (although we are grateful for your support!).”
This approach is designed to help our students feel ownership of their learning, and to give them agency in solving problems.
Give them a sense of purpose
Motivation is challenging for all of us – in or out of lockdown – but it can be especially difficult in the current circumstances. When struggling with motivation, it can be helpful to identify why working hard during this period of time will pay off in the longer term by keeping them on track for their goals – whether that be a massive haul of conduct points, keeping up with their peers, or as a step on a journey towards Sixth Form or a career.
It also helps to focus on the value of learning for its own sake – as a means to improving themselves, improving their prospects, and helping them to make their contribution to the world around them. Work is more rewarding when it has a purpose.
Show them you’re proud of them
We all like praise – especially from people we respect and admire. A “well done” or “I’m proud of you” from a parent to a child makes a world of difference to motivation and self-esteem – even if they don’t show it on the surface!
We know that praise works best when it’s focused on what people have actually done to achieve something, rather than on their innate abilities of qualities. This is why “I’m really proud of you for the way you’ve focused on that task, even though I know it’s not your favourite subject,” is much more effective than “you’re so clever!” Being specific about exactly what someone has done to deserve praise gives it value, and makes it more likely that we will repeat that activity to get the same results. Look for opportunities to show how proud you are of them, for the small things as well as their work over time.
Tell them to stop
We are setting five hours of remote learning per day for main school students. We do not expect them to be working beyond the five timetabled hours of lessons they have on a school day. Once the hour is up – we expect them to stop. Our mantra is:
Do as much as you can, with your best effort, in the time you have available. Do not spend any longer than the time allocated on your timetable. You will never be in trouble if your teachers can see you have tried your best with remote learning – even if you haven’t finished everything.
If your child is working during breaks or lunchtimes, or after the end of the timetabled school day, to finish off work: they do not have to do this. It’s not good for them. They need to stop – and you have my permission to tell them to.
Encourage exercise and activity
Teenagers spend long enough looking at screens in normal times – and this has been amplified through the remote learning environment we now find ourselves in. The technology we have at our disposal is wonderful, of course – but you can have too much of it! We are “mixing it up” as much as possible with non-screen-based activities and opportunities to be active. Please encourage physical activity – especially in breaks from learning and after the end of the school day. There’s a reason why the NHS recommends physical activity as one of the best ways to boost well-being…
Build good sleep habits
Many people have reported difficulty sleeping during the pandemic. This is perhaps no surprise, given the heightened level of anxiety in society at large. There are things we can to to help build those good sleep habits: exercise during the day will certainly help.
It’s also important to have a regular, consistent bedtime, with a structured bedtime routine. Switching off screens well before bedtime is also shown to help with sleep, as the glow from the displays stops the body producing melatonin, the chemical which sends us to the land of nod. Most sleep experts recommend charging your phone downstairs, rather than having it by your bedside. I took this advice eighteen months ago, when I bought myself an alarm clock so I didn’t have to have my phone by my bed to charge (I’d been using the phone alarm to wake me up). It has made the world of difference.
We are facing a world full of problems at the moment – some of them small, some of them massive. It’s no good pretending that things aren’t difficult when they self-evidently are. But fixating on the problems themselves, and their impact on us and our lives, won’t change anything.
Instead, try to focus on what we can control. We can’t make coronavirus stop, or speed up the vaccine roll-out – these things are beyond our control. But we can make sure we really focus on that Maths explanation that the teacher has recorded for us, to minimise the disruption to our learning. We can’t see have our friends round to our house – but we can call them up, see them on screens, and laugh with them. We can’t pretend that everything is going to be okay – but we can make as much okay as we can.
Our Academy values of kindness, curiosity and determination were carefully chosen to build balanced, well-rounded individuals. Kindness is a strength of the heart; curiosity is a strength of the mind; determination is a strength of the will. They form three sides of a strong triangle which supports our students to make a positive difference to themselves and to the world – and the people – around them.
Look for opportunities to praise your children when you see them demonstrating the Academy’s values – and tell us about them! Tutors, teachers, Heads of Houses – even Headteachers! – love to hear about how our students have been making a difference, especially when we don’t see them every day. They can also be modest, not wanting to blow their own trumpets – so please feel free to blow it on their behalf!
Thank you to all our Academy families for all you are doing to help learning continue through lockdown – we really appreciate it, and I know our students do too.
On duty this week, I saw the first daffodil of the spring flowering next to Mrs Bradley’s office in the Hanover House garden, normally tended so carefully by HRMS. At the moment, the members of HRMS tutor group are mostly learning remotely, staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives. Only a few students are in school, accessing remote learning in Frontline. Following the weekend’s snow, the daffodil was a reminder that spring always follows closely behind the bleak midwinter.
It has become too tempting recently to focus on the bleak and dark, and not on the fresh and green. Throughout this week, I have made myself look out for the positivity, and focus on the signs of recovery – which was why Mrs Wilson walked past me, crouched in the wet grass, getting up close and personal to a daffodil with my iPhone (yes, I know, phone out in school – I’ll give myself the C1!)
Here are the green shoots I noticed this week:
50 students achieved their Headteacher’s Commendations this week, for reaching 125 Conduct Points
Our first two Year 9 students achieved Trustees’ Commendations, reaching 175 Conduct Points
We have a record number of applications for Churchill Sixth Form, including over 60 students from outside our Academy (also a record)
Our students from all years are engaged with their remote learning, producing fantastic results despite the difficult circumstances
All of the over 400 lateral flow tests carried out at the Academy so far have returned negative results
Local communities have donated food, toiletries and essentials to help families in need
Bristol airport, having closed their duty free, donated stock to the Churchill staff to keep us all going
Both my parents had appointments for their first vaccinations this week – two of the nearly eight million doses issued in the UK so far
The Prime Minister has given a timeline for schools re-opening
The rebuilding of the Lancaster House block is progressing well and is due to be ready before we welcome more students back to school
Contractors are on site repairing and replacing the fence around the Academy’s perimeter – and this will also be complete before we fully re-open
The Academy Hall has a brand-new, shining floor
When I walked out to my car to come to work on Monday morning, although the sun hadn’t risen, it was light. And, driving home, darkness had yet to fall.
There is darkness all around us in the world at the moment. Things are challenging for everyone. But, if you look, there is always light – if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.