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.

Ten books I have read in 2020

I have always found an escape in books, and this year more than any other I have needed that outlet, to be taken away into another world and to lose myself in fiction. Here are ten books I have enjoyed in 2020 – some suitable for students, some for adults. I hope you find it useful!

The Binding by Bridget Collins

Suitable for: Year 11+

This is a beautiful book, laced with magic, where mystical “binders” can remove people’s troublesome memories and imprison them within the pages of hand-made books. But what happens if someone opens the covers to read them?

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Suitable for: Year 9+

I’ve really like Laura Purcell’s distinctive brand of spooky Gothic horror. It reminds me of Wilkie Collins or perhaps Daphne du Maurier. This story sees a young nurse, haunted by her past, caring for a mute and paralysed old woman in a mysterious old house, surrounded by bone china. Gradually, the house and the woman’s chilling past is revealed…

Afternoons with the blinds drawn by Brett Anderson

Suitable for: Year 11+

Back in the early 1990s, I was a massive fan of Brett Anderson’s band, Suede. I loved his first book, describing his early life and the origins of the band. This second book races through the band’s ascent to fame, and subsequent disintegration under the pressures of media scrutiny, addiction and egos. Anderson writes so elegantly, that even the squalid parts of his story acquire a seedy glamour. It captures that period of my youth perfectly.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

Suitable for: Sixth Form+

This novel tells the story of the last Empress of China, and is based on a true historical story. I knew nothing about it before starting – the book was my Secret Santa present last Christmas! – but I found myself captivated by the secretive, ritualistic world of the Chinese Emperor’s court and the power struggles within.

Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman

Suitable for Year 9+

I love the “Noughts and Crosses” series, and this latest instalment was recommended to me by my son. It didn’t disappoint, bringing the saga right up to date with plenty of pointed commentary on political corruption and intrigue. If you’re expecting a resolution, thought, you’ll be disappointed – it ends on a terrific cliffhanger!

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Suitable for: Year 7+

This was a great read during lockdown! It tells the story of Faith, who discovers her father’s dark secret: a mysterious tree that grows in darkness. The fruits of the tree reveal truths – but the tree only grows when fed on lies. But, as Faith discovers, lies themselves can quickly get out of control…

Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton

Suitable for: Year 10+

This book tells the story of a school under attack by terrorist gunmen, in real time. It was absolutely terrifying, ratcheting up the tension with twists and turns a-plenty. As a Headteacher myself, it was like living out my worst nightmares – but in the safety of a book!

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Suitable for: adults

When Miss Dunne heard I was reading this book, she offered to counsel me when I got to the end. She was right: I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as emotionally draining, harrowing and affecting as this epic story, following the lives of four friends who meet in college in America to their lives in New York and beyond. Dealing with trauma, abuse, and self-harm, this is by no means an easy read – but its characters will stay with me forever.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Suitable for: Year 9+

This book is part-autobiography, part-manifesto. James Rebanks uses his life story, growing up on a fell farm in the Lake District, to describe how farming has changed over the past forty to fifty years. He describes the damage done to the landscape and the ecosystem by intensive, chemical farming, and how he has adapted his own farm now, as an adult, to work in harmony with nature rather than against it. A powerful, important book.

Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens

Confession: I haven’t finished this one yet! But I am enjoying the lyrical, atmospheric descriptions of the Carolina marshlands where the heroine, Kya Clark, grows up in isolation. At once terrified of other people, and at the same time yearning for company, this tension drives the story forward. I can’t wait to see how it ends…

If you’ve enjoyed any books in 2020, I’d love to hear about them. I’m always on the lookout for recommendations!

Staying safe online

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that more and more of us are spending more and more of our time online. The internet is a blessing in times like these, enabling us to connect, interact, stay in touch and find the help we need, all without leaving our homes. For schools like ours, the ability to harness technology to deliver education when students are not able to be in school has transformed the education landscape.

Although the internet is incredibly useful, there are also risks. We work hard with our students at Churchill to help them understand how to stay safe online, but it is always worth reminding our students – and ourselves – of the basics.

The basics of staying safe online

Google’s Be Internet Awesome curriculum provides a good outline of the fundamentals of safer internet use for students:

  • Share with care – communicate responsibly
    • Encourage thoughtful sharing by treating online communication like face-to-face communication; if it isn’t right to say, it isn’t right to post.
    • Create guidelines about what kind of communication is (and isn’t) appropriate.
    • Keep personal details about family and friends private.
  • Don’t fall for fake
    • Be aware that people and situations online aren’t always as they seem.
    • Discerning between what’s real and what’s fake is a vital lesson in online safety
  • Secure your secrets
    • Create a strong password – you can R3pl@ce le++ers wit# sYmb0ls & n^mb3rs 1ike Thi$
    • Don’t use the same password on multiple sites
    • Don’t share anything online that you wouldn’t want your grandma, your teacher or your future employer to see
  • Be Kind
    • The Internet is a powerful amplifier that can be used to spread positivity or negativity. Set an example: be kind and spread positivity
    • Stop the spread of harmful or untrue messages by not passing them on to others
    • Block unkind or inappropriate behaviour online
    • Provide support if you see bullying online
  • When in doubt, talk it out
    • If you come across something questionable online, talk to a trusted adult
    • If you know that one of your friends needs help, encourage them to talk to a trusted adult – or ask an adult for help yourself
THINK before you speak (or post online)

Checklist for families

We all want to support our children with their use of the internet, but more often than not they know more about the online world than we do! The following checklist is a helpful way of ensuring that you are doing all you can to support them with being safe online.

  1. I have talked to my child about the sites they use. Show an interest and take note of their favourite sites. Research them, find out how to set the safety features and learn how to report any issues directly to the site.
  2. I have checked that my child has set their profile settings to private. Social networking sites, such as snapchat, are used by children to share information, photos and just about everything they do! They need to think about the information they post as it could be copied and pasted anywhere, without their permission.
  3. I have talked to my child about their online friends. We know that people lie online about who they are and may create fake identities. It is very important children understand this. Whether they are visiting a social network or a gaming site, the safety messages are the same. Ensure that your child never gives out personal information and is only “friends” with people they know and trust in the real world.
  4. I have set appropriate parental controls on my child’s computer, mobile and games console. Filters on computers and mobiles can prevent your child from viewing inappropriate and possibly illegal content. You can activate and change levels depending on your child’s age and abilities. You can also set time restrictions for using the internet or games. Many parents and carers take phones/devices away at a certain time – say 9pm. This has been shown to aid mental well-being too.

Encourage your child to tell you if they are worried about something online – Sometimes children get into situations online where they don’t feel comfortable or see something they don’t want to see. By opening up the communication channels and talking to your child about the internet, their favourite sites and the risks they may encounter, they are more likely to turn to you if they are concerned about something.

Sources of help

If you want to know more please visit: https://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents.

Internet Matters has a useful summary of the age limits for different social media services here. Please note that WhatsApp is not designed for use by children under 16.

If you are concerned that an adult has made inappropriate contact with your child you can report this directly to CEOP or the Police.  You can also find help if you think your child is being bullied, or if you’ve come across something on the internet which you think may be illegal.  Visit the Safety Centre at www.ceop.police.uk/safety-centre .  If in doubt, please contact us at the Academy.

You can also see my previous post: Top 5 Safer Internet Day Tips.

Leader of the free world

President-elect Joe Biden in a portrait from 2013

Like many others around the world, I have been gripped by the US elections over recent weeks. The long, drawn-out vote count added to the drama, as it was not clear for several days who would emerge the winner. When the tally reached its critical point in Pennsylvania, and the media declared Joe Biden the winner, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of relief and celebration coming in from the news crews around the world.

As a Headteacher and a public servant, it is my duty and my role to ensure that I do not promote a particular political point of view. For this reason, this blog is not about the policies or political persuasions of the Republican or Democratic parties or their candidates. Rather, I am interested in the models of leadership that the candidates provided, and the implications for our young people.

Leading in public life

When I became Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, I had to return a signed copy of the Seven Principles of Public Life to the Department for Education. These principles, also known as the Nolan Principles, apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder in our country. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, and as such we are expected to uphold the Nolan Principles. They are:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

As a Headteacher, I try to not only uphold but also actively to model those principles in my daily work. It is also part of my responsibility to ensure that all staff who work for the Academy uphold the principles too.

The impact of Donald Trump

Donald Trump playing golf (source)

The Nolan Principles are part of UK government guidance, and they do not apply in the United States. Some might say it’s just as well. Over the past four years, the elected President of the United States has not provided a role model of leadership that I would want anyone to look up to. He has lied, misinformed, bullied and bludgeoned his way around the world stage, seemingly looking out more for his own self-interest than the interests of others. His statements and actions – or lack of them – have legitimised racism and misogyny, unravelling decades of progress towards equality in a few short years. His refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis – the single biggest issue facing our planet at the moment – has lost time that we do not have in the fight against pollution and the journey towards decarbonisation. And his preference to create his own “alternative facts,” even in the outcome of the election, has undermined our ability as a society to trust those in authority.

In Donald Trump, I do not see a selfless leader: I see self-interest. I do not see a leader who acts with integrity. His interpretation of the world around him is entirely subjective, laden with discrimination and bias and often ignoring the factual evidence. He seems to act without accountability or openness, refusing to submit himself to scrutiny. He lies. He does not exhibit any of the principles of public life in his own behaviour. In doing so, he undermines the concept of leadership and damages the idea of public service.

I was moved by political commentator Van Jones, who was brought to tears in his reflections on what Trump’s defeat meant for him as a parent and an American. “Character matters…telling the truth matters…being a good person matters.”

What about Joe Biden?

I am not naïve enough to think that Joe Biden – or any politician – is without self-interest. He has been a politician for a long time, becoming a Senator in 1973 – the year before I was born. But throughout his long political career he has always embodied the idea of public service. He talks about the idea of integrity and equality instilled in him by his grandfather:

“He wanted me to understand two big things: first, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honour. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sort of romantic notion of what politics should be- and can be. If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people’s lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game. Nearly forty years after I first got involved, I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe- as I know my grandpop did- that my chosen profession is a noble calling.”

Joe Biden, from “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”

He has also been visited by personal tragedy. In 1972, a car accident killed his wife and 13-month-old daughter. He found himself, aged 30, a single dad to his sons Hunter and Beau, both of whom were injured in the accident. Then, in 2015, Beau Biden – himself on track for a promising political career – died of brain cancer at the age of 46. In the wake of the election, commentator Piers Morgan wrote movingly about the impact of these tragedies on the now-President-elect. Piers Morgan is not somebody I am used to agreeing with, but on this occasion his reflections on the impact of grief on Joe Biden brought tears to my eyes.

In the article, Morgan recalls Joe Biden ringing him up at home to thank him for a piece he had written in tribute to Beau Biden following his funeral in 2015. Morgan recalls Joe Biden’s words:

“It’s so important to remember that however bad things may seem, a lot of people are going through a lot worse than you and the way they get through it is other people reaching out to them to give them solace, and in finding a purpose…What I learned when my wife and daughter died was that when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. My purpose then was to be there for my sons and to use my position as a Senator to do as much good as I possibly could, especially for those who need it most. I feel that so strongly again. My purpose now is to think, ‘What would my Beau want me to be doing?’

From Piers Morgan’s MailOnline column, 7th November 2020

The answer, eventually, was to run for President again. This time – after unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008, he has won. Whether he will be a good President, a successful President, remains to be seen. But, like Van Jones, I am more hopeful with Biden as President than I was with Trump: more hopeful that we will see decency, honesty, integrity, accountability and leadership in the White House.

Kamala Harris

Vice-President elect Kamala Harris (source)

My final reflection on this historic election is the success of Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is set to be inaugurated as the first female Vice-President in US History, and the first woman of colour elected to the office. Her victory speech paid tribute to her mother, and the generations of women before her who had blazed a trail for her election. And she offered a vision of hope:

Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.

Kamala Harris, from her victory speech (source)

What Harris’s speech captures is that a leader has enormous power, as a role model, to shape the future. For the past four years I have not been able to look to the United States for a model of leadership that I would want my children, or my students, to aspire towards. With the election of Biden and Harris, I am more hopeful that the principles of public life will apply, not just at Churchill, but to our political leaders as well.

The Power of Poetry

I love poetry. I’ve always thought of it as distilled language: as though ideas have been boiled down and condensed so that only the concentrated essence remains. Because of this, every word in a poem feels somehow as if it’s carrying extra weight, extra resonance, extra value. When reading a poem, my senses are heightened and alerted: it’s a thrilling, exciting feeling.

I first experienced this sensation in an English Literature classroom in the autumn of 1991 (or possibly the spring of 1992) when I first encountered the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I’d always loved books and reading, but when I read Plath it was like I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Lady Lazarus and the hairs standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. My teacher lent me his copy of her collection Ariel, and I haven’t looked back since.

My collection of Sylvia Plath books, 29 years after first reading her work

My experience of “waking up” to poetry sounds exactly like the experience of our current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. On Desert Island Discs earlier this year, he described vividly his first encounter with the work of Ted Hughes:

“It suddenly struck me, in a very electrifying moment, that the world was a really interesting place. It could be packaged up in these little bundles of language, which, at the end of the day, are only black marks against a white page. But if you put them in the right order, you can make extraordinary things happen in somebody else’s head across thousands of miles, across thousands of years, and in complete silence. And the shock of that realisation and the primitive magic of it has never really left me. I still feel that when I’m looking at a poem: that I’m staring at some kind of circuit board of language, which makes a contactless contact with something in my head. I think I knew at that very moment, that poetry was going to be my thing.”

Simon Armitage on Desert Island Discs, broadcast 15th May 2020.

Over the years, I have taught poetry to hundreds and hundreds of students. I haven’t always succeeded in igniting the same passion in every single one of them! But I hope I have helped some to find the power of poetry, and to enjoy it for themselves – away from having to study it for GCSE.

This last week, I have been blown away to see exactly this happen at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. At the end of January 2020, Ms Cody from our English Department gave an assembly to all main school students on the theme of “Literature that changed the world.” At least one student was inspired to pick up the books Ms Cody described, to see what all the fuss was about. That student was Imogen Beaumont, who has gone from winning our House Poetry Competition in 2019 to becoming a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2020.

Some of my collection of Foyle Young Poets anthologies from over the years

I have followed the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for over 20 years. Since 1998, the Award has been finding, celebrating and supporting the very best young poets from around the world. It is firmly established as the leading competition for young poets aged between 11 and 17 years old. This year, a staggering 15,966 poems were entered. Young writers from a record-breaking 118 countries entered the competition from as far afield as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Mozambique, North Korea and the Seychelles, and every corner of the UK. From these poems, this year’s judges Keith Jarrett and Maura Dooley selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets. After Mr Lockett put the entry invitation into our newsletter on 3rd July, Imogen entered. Her poem, The sound of Shakespeare’s women, was chosen as one of the top 15. When you read it, you can see why:

The sound of Shakepeare’s Women

If Juliet was silenced

amongst a patriarchal nightmare and

Lavinia was two limbs down

with no tongue to tell their tale and

Ophelia was driven to madness

with no sense left to speak and

Cordelia was shunned by her father,

her pointless words falling on deaf ears and

Desdemona’s desperate truth

was shouted down by whispered lies,

Then Will’s trying to tell us something.

By Imogen Beaumont

Imogen’s poem is a powerful, skilful piece of writing. She told me she reads a lot of Shakespeare – and you can tell! The poem draws in repeated examples of female characters in Shakepeare’s plays who are variously silenced, ignored, or left voiceless.

Juliet pleads with her father in Romeo and Juliet to listen to her when he plans her marriage to a man she does not love. He ignores her pleas, and she is forced to take desperate measures. Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t reveal who attacked her. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet, who said he loved her, ignores her and hurls abuse at her when she tries to help him. Cordelia tells her father, King Lear, the truth when he asks her to: as a result, she is disinherited and cast out from the family. Othello is tricked into believing his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. She tells him again and again that it isn’t true, but he believes the lies and smothers her with a pillow.

Imi’s poem illustrated by award-winning artist and author Chris Riddell

In each case, the inability of the male characters to hear what the women are trying to tell them leads to tragedy. What Imogen does so skilfully is distil those stories down to their concentrated core, and connect them with one final line to our modern day experience. The #MeToo movement and the linked #BelieveHer hashtag show that, today, women’s voices are still too often ignored, silenced, or discounted. It would seem the lesson that Shakespeare was trying to teach over 400 years ago has still not been learned.

Imogen’s powerful voice has found just the right words, in just the right order, to connect ideas across hundreds of years and deliver that electric shock of meaning that only poetry can deliver. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m really proud that our English teachers have had some small part in unlocking her talent: we can’t wait to see what she’ll write next, or where the next young poet will spring from. Could it be you?

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.

What’s happening inside the Stuart House block?

As students returned this September, they have had their French and Spanish lessons in some very unusual locations across the Academy, including Art rooms and Science labs. Why? Well, because the languages classrooms don’t currently have any walls…

Inside the Languages Well area, last week

We have become accustomed to new, modern facilities at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. The Alan Turing Building for Business, Computing and Social Sciences, the Athene Donald Building for Science and Technology, refurbished classrooms in English and Maths, and our new reception and administration area have transformed the learning environment. But over to the side of the Academy site, the Stuart House block remained untouched.

This aerial shot from 1970 shows the Stuart House block in the foreground

The building was added when Churchill converted to a comprehensive school in the late 1960s. Since that time, its flat roof has been replaced and the internal structure has slowly been developed – but, compared to the bright and modern facilities elsewhere, the classrooms were looking tired. They were too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter. The walls were thin and not particularly soundproof – not helpful when trying to teach languages! – and the electrics needed work. The building itself was sound, but the interior was in dire need of attention.

As a result we put together a bid for funding from the government’s Condition Improvement Fund. The plan was to leave the shell of the building intact, but to hollow it out inside and rebuild brand new, modern classrooms inside the existing structure. We submitted the bid late last year, expecting to hear back in April 2020. But then, coronavirus struck, and the decisions were delayed and then delayed again. But then, finally, at the end of June we got the news – we had got the funding!

The work will progress in phases, so that we are able to manage the project within our existing facilities. We have started with the languages end as phase one. When that is completed, we will move on to the middle of the building, before finally completing the Humanities end next year.

The Languages Department clear-out, summer 2020

Over the summer the Languages team cleared out their department. It was a de-clutter to end all de-clutters! And once everything was clear, the demolition teams could move in.

The classroom walls came down in less than a week, leaving the empty shell behind. We are now ready for the construction teams to move in, and create the new rooms our students and staff deserve. The LPod has also gone, and will not return: in its place will be two new, separate classrooms for the Humanities department. All the rooms will be built to the latest specification, with special attention paid to sound proofing, climate control and energy efficiency.

The work has also coincided with the launch of Lancaster House, and we are therefore dividing the block into two halves. The languages end, currently being developed, will be reinstated as Lancaster House area with tutor rooms and a social area. Meanwhile the Humanities end, in phase three of the project, will be home to Stuart House – again with brand new tutor rooms and a social area.

The transformation of our learning environment continues. And so, whilst the languages teachers and Lancaster House tutors are currently displaced, they know that it’s only temporary. It’s exciting to see French being taught in an Art room – but it will be more exciting still when it returns home to brand new, state-of-the-art facilities in the coming months. Magnifique!

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!

Building for the future

The future of technology

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

The extension to the Athene Donald Building nearing completion

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

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

Goodbye to the past

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Taking stock

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

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