A fifth house for Churchill

IMG_1520

The original logo of Churchill County Secondary School, as presented to the first Head Boy in 1957

Churchill has had four houses since its foundation in 1956. The very first school badge features the symbols of Windsor, Hanover, Stuart and Tudor on four quarters of a shield. The house structure works well splitting the Academy into smaller units, to make a big school feel smaller. Vertical tutoring is one of the unique features of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, with students from Years 7-11 in the same tutor groups. This provides continuity of pastoral care and guidance, and encourages peer support across year groups.

When the school was first started, however, it only had 402 students on roll: around 100 students per house. Our school overall now has nearly 1600 students, with over 1300 in Years 7-11. Over the past four years, more than 150 additional students have joined our popular Academy. This means that the size of the houses has grown, with over 330 students currently in each one. We recognise that our students need and deserve a lower staff-to-student ratio, so that they can get the time and attention they all deserve. We are therefore introducing a fifth house to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form from September 2020.

Introducing Lancaster House

CASF_Logo_Main

Our new Academy logo, to be rolled out in September 2020

The introduction of a fifth house will reduce the size of each house to a maximum of 270 students. At the same time, we will be adding four additional tutor groups to the house system. This will reduce the size of all main school tutor groups to 23 or fewer, and ensure that all students benefit from their tutor’s care and guidance whilst looking after our staff and making their jobs more manageable.

CASF_Stamp_MainKeeping with the tradition of naming our houses after the houses of the British royal family, the new house will be called Lancaster House, after the royal house of Henry IV, Henry V and Henry VI. The new house will have the colour purple, which will be incorporated into our new pentagonal logo from September. 

There is a lot of work for us to do between now and September, when Lancaster House will officially begin. We will be re-organising students and staff across the Academy into the new five-house structure. You can read my letter about the practical arrangements on the Academy website.

Although there will inevitably be some disruption as the changeover takes place, we are confident that the benefits will be well worth it. Every student will benefit from a lower student-to-tutor and student-to-Head-of-House ratio. We are also going to ensure that students in our Sixth Form retain their house identity, so that they can provide additional support to the main school houses and retain that sense of belonging to something bigger that the house structure provides.

This is an exciting time for all of us at Churchill, as we add to our existing structure to make sure that all our students have the best possible experience at school. We look forward to welcoming our Lancaster House students in September 2020!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What a show! Audiences last week were treated to spectacular performances of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s not every school that could manage a production this complex, this musically and theatrically challenging, this dark…but Churchill’s students didn’t just manage it, they pulled it off in style. Sondheim’s complex score was performed note-perfectly by the pit orchestra. On stage, the singers delivered the overlapping, rapid-fire songs with such confidence and gusto that the audience were carried along with the story, the characters and the experience of grimy, backstreet Victorian London, brought to life by the wonderful sets, costumes and production design.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,

But, my goodness it was dark! Sweeney Todd is exiled for a crime he didn’t commit so an evil judge could get his hands on Todd’s daughter. The judge has Todd’s daughter committed to a lunatic asylum rather than allow her to see another man. Todd, returning, sets up a barber shop with the sole intention of using it as a trap to murder his enemies. Pie-shop-owner Mrs Lovett, allowing Todd to think his wife has died, uses the bodies of Todd’s victims as the filling for her gruesome produce, selling them to enthusiastic and unsuspecting customers. It sounds horrendous, but the show trod that delicate line between horror and humour perfectly, so that the audience were entertained throughout, even as the body-count mounted.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,

The performances were professional-standard, from the lead actors to each member of the chorus. The show was double-cast, meaning that each audience got to see different combinations of actors in the lead roles. When I saw it, on the Friday night, Brett Kelly was a brilliant Sweeney. On stage for almost the entire duration of the show, his performance maintained intensity and drive from the first moment to the last. He was matched by Kornelia Harasimiuk’s Mrs Lovett, whose knockabout comedy was a horrific mask for her selfish plotting. The young lovers, Johanna (Evie Tallon) and Anthony (Bobby Rawlins) were both compelling. I must make special mention of Will Truckle’s gloriously over-the-top Pirelli, whose Italian accent was trumped by his excellent Irish; and Jessica Bailey as The Beggar Woman was a compelling presence on stage, causing gasps of realisation from the audience as her true identity was revealed.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,

The supporting cast were also note-perfect. The villainous Judge Turpin (Bede Burston) and his sidekick The Beadle (Charlie Tyler) were so evil, they made the audience sympathise with the murderer-and-cannibal duo of Todd and Lovett! But the image that will stay with me is that of the young Tobias, a role shared between eight young actors across the performances. In a world of twisted morality and selfishness, Tobias’s final scene was chilling indeed.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb  2020,What came across to me was the tremendous team effort that goes to make a production. Sound, lighting, costume, props, stage management, choreography, musicians, staff, students, parents, families…everyone contributed to the success of the show. I know how hard everyone has worked, and the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it. Well – it was worth it. Hearty congratulations to everyone involved – it was a spectacular show.

Holocaust Memorial Day

The Holocaust (The Shoah in Hebrew) was the attempt by the Nazis and their collaborators to murder all the Jews in Europe. The Nazi Party persecuted Jews throughout their time in power, victimising them and whipping up hatred based on their anti-semitic beliefs. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Nazis forced Jews to live in confined areas called “ghettos,” in squalid and unsanitary conditions.

stroop_report_-_warsaw_ghetto_uprising_06b

Jews being held at gunpoint by Nazi SS troops in a Warsaw ghetto in 1943

Jews were subject to further persecution, removal of rights, forced labour and violence as the Nazis swept across Europe and Russia. In 1941, emboldened by their progress, the Nazis began a programme of systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. Death squads called Einsatzgruppen swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, killing Jews by firing squad. By the end of 1941 the first extermination camp, Chelmno in Poland, had been established. These camps, including Auschwitz, Treblinka, and others,  enabled the Nazis to commit mass murder throughout the rest of the Second World War.

selection_on_the_ramp_at_auschwitz_ii-birkenau2c_1944_28auschwitz_album29_3a

Jews on the selection ramp at Auschwitz II, c. May 1944. Women and children are lined up on one side, men on the other, waiting for the SS to determine who was fit for work. About 20 percent at Auschwitz were selected for work and the rest gassed

By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had been murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps.

 

Auschwitz 01

Churchill students visiting Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust during Activities Week 2019

I find the idea of the Holocaust unbearable. The fact that human beings – actual people – could be so inhuman in the treatment of others, is shocking. I will never forget my own visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp memorial site. I went when I was in Year 12, on a German exchange, with my German host family. The father of the family openly wept as we walked through the memorial, confronted by horrific images of the atrocities committed there, by Germans, just a generation before. I remember thinking at the time that the lessons learned from the horrors of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In recognition of this event, Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday used the theme of “Stand Together.” In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society – urging ‘Aryan’ Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The Holocaust was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing together with those people targeted and singled out as “others.” We can – and we must – do better.

Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of hostility in our society, because the horrors of the Holocaust can never be allowed to happen again.

 

stand-together-4-2222-2

 

My thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

star-wars-the-rise-of-skywalker-header_1st_image

I had a good chat with Year 11 during lunchtime last week where we discussed our thoughts on the latest – and last – film in the Star Wars story. These films have been around my whole life. The first one came out when I was three years old. I can remember going up to London to watch The Return of the Jedi in Leicester Square in 1983 for my younger brother’s birthday treat. The multiplex there had the full surround sound experience which had not yet reached our local cinema, and the experience of hearing the speeder bikes zooming past from behind me in my seat blew my mind! Anyone who has been into my office will know that my collection of Star Wars Lego has pride of place on a special shelf. So it was with some anticipation that I went with my family to watch Episode IX over the Christmas break. And I have some thoughts about it. This might seem an odd topic for a Headteacher’s Blog, but bear with me – it is relevant!

Before we go any further, this blog will be FULL OF SPOILERS. I am writing it assuming you have seen The Rise of Skywalker and you know what happens and what is revealed – or that you don’t care. If you haven’t seen it and you’ve avoided spoilers so far, come back and read this when you’ve seen the film.

Last chance…spoilers below…

Right, let’s begin.

Firstly, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. I thought the action scenes were amazing, and I liked the adventure. The lightsabre duel in the wreckage of the Death Star in the same location as Luke and Vader’s duel in Return of the Jedi was brilliant. Flying Stormtroopers? Loved it. Leia’s death? Perfectly judged. There were a few plot holes, for sure, but the whole thing rattled along like a good old sci-fi adventure film should. But I did feel let down by one thing (and here’s the major spoiler, last chance to bail out of this blog now!): the revelation that Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine.

Here’s why I have a bad feeling about this.

I understand that The Last Jedi wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It managed to do that incredible thing of doing something completely unexpected within a franchise where everyone thought they knew the rules. Back in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back did exactly the same thing. That completely iconic, legendary moment in Cloud City where Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker: “I am your father.” It’s been imitated, parodied, copied and quoted so often since that it’s sometimes difficult to remember what a complete rug-pulling surprise that revelation was at the time. It was so significant that George Lucas eventually devoted three prequel films to showing how young Anakin Skywalker came to be the evil, masked Sith Lord who had also fathered the Jedi twins, Luke and Leia.

star wars father

“No! I am your father.” The moment that changed everything.

This was the moment that defined the films for many people. It has entered folklore. And when the new, Force-sensitive character of Rey was introduced in The Force Awakens, with mysterious unidentified parents who had disappeared, it was natural that many assumed that she was descended from some Jedi parentage too. It made sense. It played into the established mythology of Star Wars. How brave, then, how brilliant, how unexpected was the revelation in The Last Jedi that she wasn’t, actually, related to anyone special at all.

In the climactic scene in the ruins of Snoke’s throne room, Kylo Ren asks Rey “do you want to know the truth about your parents? Or have you always known?” In a brilliant performance from both Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, Rey replies: “they were nobody.” Kylo Ren confirms: “they were filthy junk traders. Sold you off for drinking money…you have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You’re nothing.”

Every time I watch this scene I get the same shiver as when Darth Vader reveals he’s Luke’s father. It’s such an amazing twist: you don’t have to be related to anyone special to be a powerful Jedi. Because, by the end of the film, despite coming from nothing, Rey is single-handedly rescuing the resistance from the stronghold on Crait by lifting an entire rockfall with the Force. She’s nobody – but she’s incredible.

rey lifting rocks

“The Force is not a power you have. It’s not about lifting rocks.” But then again…

Of course, this is how the Jedi are supposed to be. Anakin Skywalker broke the Jedi code by marrying Padme and fathering children. Jedi weren’t supposed to marry. Therefore Luke and Leia were the exceptions in inheriting their abilities from a parent – every other Jedi was just “discovered”, like Rey, with Force abilities coming “from nothing.” The director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, underlines this point in the very final scene of the film.

In this scene, a group of children on Canto Bight have been re-enacting Luke Skywalker’s last stand in the Battle of Crait. They are literally no-one: no parents, working as slaves in the stables of the oppressive casino-city. In the final scene, one boy steps out of the stable to sweep the floor. In a brilliant moment, he uses the Force to move the broom from its resting place into his hand. He is no-one, but he can use the Force – just like Rey. As the camera sets him against the starry sky, the broom becomes a lightsabre and this unknown, not-special, not-Skywalker child becomes the symbol of hope, the future of the resistance and the Jedi. It’s the perfect ending and the perfect message: you don’t have to be anyone special to be a hero.

Given how much I loved this aspect of The Last Jedi, I was pretty frustrated when Kylo Ren – yes, the same Kylo Ren who told Rey her parents were filthy junk traders – does a complete one-eighty in The Rise of Skywalker and tells her that actually, her parents (presumably just one of them?) were the children of Emperor Palpatine and he’s known this all along and, presumably, was just kidding in the previous film. Emperor Palpatine, who was never seen in the company of a woman, who trusted nobody, who lived a secret double life as a Sith Lord…who did he have this child with? And when? And why has it never been mentioned or even hinted at across eight other films?

darkrey

“Dark side Rey”: we all have a dark side. We don’t need to be related to a cackling source of pure evil to wrestle with the good and bad inside us.

It’s as though it was impossible for Rey to have such powerful Force abilities unless she was descended from someone “important.” But, as I’ve previously argued, I don’t think Yoda’s parents were anyone special, nor Obi-Wan Kenobi’s. Nor Qui-Gon Jinn’s, or Mace Windu’s, or anyone really except Luke, Leia, and Leia’s son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. It’s as though all the work done by The Last Jedi to establish that strength is who you are, not where you’re from, is just ripped up and discarded in favour of “you can only be powerful if you’re descended from a powerful family.”

So, whilst I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I was a lot happier with the message of the Star Wars universe from The Last Jedi: you don’t have to be anyone special to be special. It doesn’t matter who your parents, or your grandparents, are. It doesn’t matter if you’re born a princess or a junk trader, a stable boy or a farmer: what’s inside you makes you special. Finding that thing that makes you special, nurturing it, training it, and being honest with yourself about your strengths and your weaknesses – these are the things that will lead you to be the most powerful version of you that you can be.

This is the philosophy that guides me as a teacher, and as a school leader: every single one of us is special. It doesn’t matter what your family background is, where you come from, or your previous history. We all have the capacity to do incredible things, and to change the world around us. We just need to believe in ourselves, and have the right teacher to guide us.

May the Force be with you. Always.

Into the twenties: happy new year!

2020 fireworks

As the clock ticked over to midnight on New Year’s Eve, we bid goodbye to the 2010s (the teens?) and welcomed in the 2020s. It feels like the future has arrived! Over the past decade I’ve worked in three schools, moved house twice, had a book published, appeared on TV, and – of course – been appointed as Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form.

Mrs McKay reminded me that Monday marked the fourth anniversary of my first day at Churchill in January 2016! Since then our school has seen some big changes:

  • The number of students at Churchill has risen from 1430 to 1581. We have an additional 151 students on our site compared to four years ago
  • The Sixth Form has grown from 256 to 276
  • Level 3 Value Added scores for Sixth Form outcomes have risen from +0.02 in 2016 to +0.17 in 2019
  • The proportion of students gaining a strong pass (grade 5+) in English and Maths GCSE has risen from 52.3% in 2017 to 54.8% in 2019
  • We marked our 60th Anniversary in 2017
  • The Academy has a new vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – and we have introduced our values of kindness, curiosity and determination.
  • The Athene Donald Building, the Alan Turing Building, new main reception and admin, new staff and sixth form car park, “The Tower,” the Broadwalk, and refurbished classrooms in English and Maths have transformed the site and the learning environment.

Taking stock of all that, I feel very proud of what we have achieved together in four years. We are now developing our planning for the next five years, looking ahead to the next phase of the Academy’s progress and development. The future looks bright!

Happy New Year to everyone in the Churchill Academy & Sixth Form community.

Election Day

Ballot box 'is key to democracy'

Here we go again!

This week the nation goes to the polls once again to vote for our local representatives in parliament. It has been a tense, confusing and frustrating period since the last election, with Brexit dominating the political scene and frequent turmoil in the House of Commons.

Schools and teachers have a responsibility to remain politically neutral – especially during an election season. This is right and proper. We serve a diverse community which includes the full spectrum of political views. Our role is to educate children and young people so that they can make informed choices about their vote when they are old enough to exercise that right. We aim to give our students the critical skills to be able to see through “fake news” and false claims made on any side of the argument, to get to the facts and the verifiable sources which provide reliable, objective information. In the current world of rapidly evolving social media stories, this can be a challenging task – but it is a vital one if our democracy is going to survive and flourish in the future.

Further than that, we must then educate our young people so they know what to do with the facts, once they have disentangled them from the noise of opinion online. What are the implications of the parties’ policies for their lives? What are the implications for their futures? What sort of society do they want to live in? What values do they hold, and who do they want to represent those values in parliament?

School funding

School Funding

Education funding was a major issue in the last election

One issue that it is my duty to highlight – as you might expect! – is education policy. I hope that parents and members of the Academy community take education into account when casting their votes on Thursday. In the last election, which was only in May 2017, school funding was a significant issue – as I highlighted in my blog post at the time. All of the major parties have included pledges to raise school funding in their manifestos this time, which is certainly welcome – but, as I indicated above, the facts behind the claims are always worth exploring. Websites such as the School Cuts site show what the implications of the different parties’ manifestos would be for the funding of individual schools across the country, including Churchill. Above all, I hope that whichever government is elected works with the education profession, trusting schools and school leaders to make the right evidence-informed decisions in the interests of all children and young people.

Casting your vote

ballot-vote

I have voted in every election since I was old enough to do so. I take the responsibility of casting my vote very seriously – I always read the manifestos (especially the education sections!) and research my local candidates. I want to make the most informed decision possible, and I vote not only in my interest but in the interest of all the students and teachers I am responsible for at Churchill. We are very lucky to live in a democracy where we have a free choice to make for our local representatives. I will be watching with interest on Thursday and into Friday as the results roll in, to try and see what the future holds…until the next election!

Green Churchill

Schools are in the business of making the future. Our job as educators is to give young people the best possible knowledge, skills, confidence and character to go out and make the world better. And one of the biggest problems that needs to be solved if that better future is going to be a reality is the problem of climate change.

It isn’t like this problem has crept up on us. I remember using Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth to teach students about climate change (and documentary film-making) back in 2006 – before many of our current students were even born. Yet, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that we are causing climate change, the crisis has deepened since then. As a species, we are not doing enough to fix it.

Here at Churchill, we are determined to do what we can to put that right. We have made a start – but we also have a long way to go.

A Greener Site

This week the Churchill Green Team, working with volunteers from Extinction Rebellion, have been hard at work across the Academy planting 105 saplings donated by the Woodland Trust. Over the summer the new broadwalk path down the centre of the Academy site was planted up to develop a sustainable habitat. The Sixth Form have worked hard on developing green spaces around the Sixth Form centre. This vital work is just one part of what we have been doing to help make – and keep – Churchill Academy & Sixth Form “green.”

Solar Panels

As part of the site redevelopment, all of our new buildings (and many of the existing ones) have their roofs covered in solar panels. These panels have vastly increased our reliance on renewable energy. The energy generated from our own solar panels has accounted for between 22-35% of our electricity consumption over the last three months. We were also delighted to see that for several (small) periods over the summer, when the sun was at its most powerful and the energy usage was at its lowest, the site was running entirely self-sufficiently for energy.

Energy Efficiency

Internal works two years ago replaced all the Academy’s traditional light bulbs with energy-efficient LED lighting. These lights uses a fraction of the energy, last longer, and are better to see by. A win-win-win! The Sixth Form have also twice run a “no-power-hour” to see if they can switch off everything possible to get to zero power in the Sixth Form Centre!

Green Team Initiatives

The Green Team have also been busy. This student-led team pioneered reusable “green” coffee cups for Sixth Formers and staff to use at the Sixth Form coffee bar. They have also designed green spaces, including the newly-planted broadwalk down the middle of the school. There are plans to open up vegetable and herb gardens so each house can grown their own produce for use in Food Science and Nutrition, and to install a greenhouse!

Recycling and recyclables

All of our waste is currently processed for recycling, but we plan to make sorting waste more high-profile for our staff and students. We have moved to recycled materials for our take-away cutlery and packaging, and we are committed to reducing the amount of plastic in our catering and our school as a whole. Our caterers, Aspens, also use locally sourced ingredients to reduce food miles and our carbon footprint. The new benches we have ordered and installed at the front of the school and in the Sixth Form area are made from recycled plastic bottles, rather than wood.

Political pressure

greta_thunberg_4

Climate activist Greta Thunberg has been an inspiration to many people around the world for her determined, straight-talking challenge to those in power to take immediate action on the climate crisis. My position on the “school strikes” movement is that education is vital to solving the climate crisis. Those who deny climate change have not been educated well enough to recognise the facts that science can demonstrate. Only through education can we therefore solve the climate crisis. Therefore, rather than going on strike, I have urged Churchill students to use their education, knowledge and skills to help save the planet for future generations.

As a result of just such a conversation, Ellie, Saffron, Ruby and Eve from Year 11 met with John Penrose MP when he came into school recently, to discuss the climate crisis and what could be done about it. Their passionate and eloquent speech certainly impressed our current Member of Parliament, although he was quick to point out the complexity of the global climate problem. There are no easy answers – but we have to do something, and each of us can play our part. The quality of our students’ arguments and ideas gave me hope that we can – and will – save the planet. And they made me think about what we can do at Churchill.

A carbon-neutral school?

One question I have been asking myself recently is “what would it take to become a carbon-neutral school?” Schools are energy-hungry places: we have lots of buildings, lots of people, lots of technology which all use power. We use a lot of paper every day – it’s our stock in trade. Many of our children travel to school on diesel-engined buses. We have a significant carbon footprint. How could we reduce and offset that footprint to minimise our impact? I don’t know all the answers yet. But over the course of this year, as we think about the future of our school intertwined with the future of our children, our society and our planet, I am determined to find some.

If you have any suggestions, or connections or ideas which may help us, please let us know in the comments below!

Students’ Voices

In our prospectus videos this year, we have deliberately focused on students’ voices.

Our main school video features seven of our students talking about their own experiences…before I pop up at the end!

In our Sixth Form prospectus video, eight of our Sixth Form students speak about the choices they have made and what they feel about Churchill Sixth Form. The music was composed and produced by the Sixth Form; they are responsible for the content.

These videos were reinforced on our Open Evenings. At both the Year 7 Open Evening in September, and the Sixth Form Open Evening this week, our students spoke to the visitors who were interested in finding out more about Churchill. They were our tour guides, our subject experts, our demonstrators and presenters. The Gospel Choir sang. And all of this is deliberate, because I know our students are proud of Churchill, that they are going to advocate for their school, and that they are our finest ambassadors. We hope our videos capture that; I know that visitors to the school who meet our students always comment on it.

Two new clubs have started this year, and student voice is at the forefront of both of them. This week Ruby and Kim from the Amnesty International Club prepared and shared a resource for tutors to help explain what Amnesty is all about, and to highlight a particular case of injustice that had moved them. Meanwhile, the Medusa Feminism Club has prepared a brand new display to highlight the importance of gender equality in school and society as a whole.

Throughout this week, students have been voting to nominate the Academy’s chosen charity for the year. All the charity suggestions were made by students, who researched and prepared cases for charities which meant something to them, including the MS Society, Phab Kids, Young Carers, Young Minds, Cancer Research UK and Mind.

I have personally been working closely with student representatives this year to help with our self-evaluation. This is the process where we assess what we are doing well, and what we could do better – the voice of students in this is essential, and working closely with a panel of students gives a really clear and honest “student’s eye” view of life at Churchill.

Every day, students’ voices make Churchill the school that it is. And, as I listened to the first rehearsal of the Junior Choir this week ahead of the Christmas Concerts, I was certain that there is no finer advertisement for what we do than the voices of the students themselves.

New College, Oxford

IMG_2456

New College Oxford’s 1993 intake. Can you find the 19-year-old me?

I will never forget the day I got the letter telling me that I’d got an offer from Oxford University. It was the last day of the Christmas term in 1992, when I was in Year 13. I remember because it was also the last night of our senior school play that year, a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – so I celebrated the last night of the show and the offer of a place to study English Language and Literature at New College, Oxford, on the same night.

new_college_quad

New College Old Quad (source)

New College was new when it was founded, in 1379. The name has stuck, even though it is now one of the oldest colleges in Oxford! I was struck by the beauty of the place when I went to look round with my Mum in the summer of 1992. It remains one of my favourite places to visit – a little oasis of tranquility in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

I studied at Oxford between 1993 and 1996. They were three wonderful years spent studying the subject that I loved – and still love! The system at Oxford suited me down to the ground. The University itself is divided up into 35 different colleges. The colleges provide students’ accommodation, food, teaching and pastoral care. This enables the tutors to know the students really well. New College is one of the biggest colleges – when I went, there were twelve students taking English in my year – but there were three English tutors, so we were very well looked after!

We were taught mainly in tutorials, where two students would sit with a tutor for an hour each week. One of us would read our essay out loud, and the tutor and the other student would then pick it apart, looking for the strengths and weaknesses in what we had written and asking us to defend our arguments. This taught me to prepare well, think on my feet, and know when to admit when I have got something wrong! Doing this three times a week, every week, also taught me a huge amount about organising myself to make sure that everything got done. When there’s only two of you in the tutorial, with a world-leading expert in your subject, there’s nowhere to hide!

Going back to New College

This week, I took twenty three Year 11 students back to New College for a visit. They spent the day learning about university in general and Oxford in particular. They spent time with second-year undergraduates, asking lots of questions to try and find out what studying at Oxford is really like. They also had a tour of nearby St Catherine’s College, which has a much more modern feel than the ancient buildings of New College. Finally, they got to grips with ideas for A-level choices which would inform future university plans, and took on board just how stiff the competition is for places at the UK’s top universities. For example, only 9% of applicants for Medicine at Oxford are successful in gaining one of the 151 places. But, as the tutor at New College said, why shouldn’t you be one of the 9%? You can only get in if you apply in the first place!

I have been really encouraged by the work Oxford and Cambridge are doing to ensure that students from state schools are properly represented in their universities. Part of the battle is making sure that students from schools like Churchill Academy & Sixth Form see top universities as viable, realistic options for their further study. I will certainly do all I can to encourage our students to aim high, believe in themselves, and to have the confidence to put themselves forward – whatever they are aiming for.

Training teachers in Qatar

IMG_2388

A view across Doha, Qatar from the 32nd floor

On Saturday of last week I flew out to Doha, the capital city of Qatar, to work with a group of teachers and school leaders from British International Schools in the Middle East. They had heard about our work at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form and they wanted to find out more, to see whether aspects of our practice could be applied in their schools.

Where is Qatar?

Capture

The location of Qatar; Doha is marked by the red pin

Qatar is a small state poking out into the Persian Gulf, bordering on Saudi Arabia. I went to the capital city, Doha, which sits on the Eastern coast of the country. Qatar was a British protectorate until it became independent in 1971, which is why there are still a lot of British schools there. Doha has recently hosted the World Athletics Championship and preparations are well underway for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. There is a lot of development going on – I saw three massive skyscrapers under construction and air conditioned football stadiums being built in the middle of the desert. Quite something!

What’s it like?

IMG_2353

Two skyscrapers under construction (centre) against the Doha skyline

It’s hot! The temperature was around 35° C during the day, dropping to 30° at night time. Despite the Persian Gulf nearby, the surrounding country is dusty desert. Everywhere has air conditioning, which meant that indoors felt quite chilly by comparison and I had to put a jumper on!

IMG_2407

Doha from the air

The city centre (West Bay) has a spectacular skyline of towers and skyscrapers. Many of them are government buildings, but there are also towers for Qatar Petroleum, the Qatar Olympic Committee, banks and hotels. It’s amazing! The surrounding city spreads out into the desert.

Qatar is an Islamic country and there are many mosques around the city. The call to prayer is amplified by loudspeakers from the mosques, which makes a wonderful noise echoing from building to building! Due to their religious beliefs, alcohol is not available in restaurants or hotels. All the people I met whilst I was there were very welcoming and hospitable. It seemed to me like a country which was very open to international visitors.

What are the schools like in Doha?

IMG_2401

Outside the Qatar International School

I was working at the Qatar International School, a British International School in Doha. It’s an all-through school, with a building for Early Years, Primary and Secondary sections. In their secondary school they study iGCSEs, the international version of the GCSEs we study, and A-levels which are the same as ours. The staff and students are a mixture of British ex-pats, Qatari nationals, and other nationalities who want a British education. This meant that the classrooms were an interesting multicultural blend of all different nationalities. Everyone got along really well!

All the schools were surrounded by high, solid perimeter walls, electric gates and security guards. There were locked pedestrian gates too – one of the schools even had security turnstiles for the students to get in and out. This seemed to be the norm across Qatar – all the buildings I went into had x-ray machines to scan your bags, too. 

School starts at 7am, and finishes at 1pm. The other difference is that the working week starts on a Sunday and runs until Thursday, so the weekend in Qatar is Friday and Saturday. I struggled with that a bit! There are two breaks during the day, but students go home for their lunch at the end of the day – they do not have lunch at school. There are seven lessons in the day, of differing lengths. Moving between buildings means going from air-conditioned-cool to blazing-hot and back to cool again – you have to brace yourself! But apart from that, there were lots of similarities to British schools – their classrooms looked just like a regular British school classroom would.

What were we working on?

IMG_2398

I was out in Doha to work with British International School teachers and school leaders on mindsets and metacognition. These are things that we have been working on at Churchill since I became Headteacher back in 2016. They were particularly interested in our work on attitudes to learning, feedback, and how we are working with teachers and students to unpack the thinking processes behind learning (metacognition). It was amazing to me that our work at Churchill has a reputation which stretches so far – but the colleagues I was working with out there were very impressed by what we were doing and wanted to find out more!

It made me very proud to be talking about our wonderful school in such a different place. Although Churchill has been soaking under torrential rain for weeks, whilst Doha has been in blazing sunshine for months, there was much to be found in common between us. “The way we do things here” at Churchill certainly found an enthusiastic audience in the Middle East!

I had a great time in a brand new environment for me. I’d never done anything quite like this before! But, when I was back on duty outside the food pod on an overcast lunchtime on Wednesday, I did catch myself thinking: “there’s no place like home.”