What happens on an inset day? September 2022

The day after our Open Evening, staff were back in school for an inset day. Inset is a contraction of “in service training,” and all state schools have five inset days as part of their calendar to provide professional development to their staff. At Churchill, we like to make the very most of ours!

This year, our programme of professional development is focused on our Academy Development Plan, which has three priorities:

  • Challenge
  • The role of the tutor
  • Assessment

Our inset day drew in elements of all three priorities.

Challenge: every teacher a teacher of SEND

The morning was spent reflecting on our provision for students with special educational needs and disabilities. Our aim was to work hard to plan high quality, inclusive teaching to meet the needs of individuals and help them to overcome barriers to learning to support every student to be the very best they can be. We were supported in this work by Natalie Packer, a nationally renowned expert in the field.

Natalie took us through the five recommendations of the Education Endowment Fund’s Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools report. These recommendations, supported by robust evidence, provide the “best bets” for successful inclusive provision for all students.

Natalie also outlined the latest information regarding special educational needs and disabilities, including the Education Inspection Framework from Ofsted and recommendations about a high-quality, inclusive curriculum. Staff – and especially leaders – were then invited to reflect on our current practice, celebrate the many strengths, and identify areas of focus where we can develop through this year.

Lighthouse Schools Partnership

Following our SEND focused sessions, staff had a presentation from the Lighthouse Schools Partnership. The LSP is the multi-academy trust that we have committed to join, and the process of due diligence ahead of this is already well underway. School leaders have been working alongside colleagues from the partnership for many months, but this was the first opportunity for all staff to hear directly from the chief executive, chief operating officer and a deputy headteacher from a current Lighthouse Schools Partnership school. Our guests from the trust laid out their vision, their priorities, and how Churchill Academy & Sixth Form would both benefit from being part of the partnership, and strengthen it. There was then an opportunity to ask questions, and for further discussions. Work is continuing behind the scenes to ensure our transition into the trust goes as smoothly as possible.

The role of the tutor

The afternoon session began our exploration of the role of the tutor, which is our second key priority this year. Mrs James began the session by outlining the role of tutors with our Year 10 students as they start their GCSE courses. Over the coming weeks, tutors will be overseeing the target setting process with their Year 10s, ensuring that our students are fully engaged in being aspirational about their aims and objectives over the coming two years – and discussing the strategies they will need to employ to make those aspirations a reality.

We then turned our attention to six steps to being a brilliant form tutor, before the five houses (and the sixth form) got together to reflect on the skills and qualities that a brilliant form tutor needed. The house and sixth form teams also thought about the programme of activities running through our morning tutor sessions, beginning to plan to ensure we make the most of our vertical tutor groups and all the possibilities they have for growth and development.

This inset day was the starting point for this work, and we will return to it in January to develop it further.

There wasn’t time for us to watch it on the day itself, but the “role of the tutor” session was inspired by the Rita Pierson, whose famous TED talk “every kid needs a champion” provides the impetus for all of us who work in education to remember why we do it, and who we’re doing it for.

Although there were no students on site today, the thinking, reflecting and planning was really hard work. We’re confident that our students will feel the benefit over the coming weeks, months, and years as we continue to tweak, develop and improve our Academy.

Sustaining Sustainability

This week Mrs Franklin (the Academy’s Sustainability and Marketing Manager) joined me to present to a national conference of School Business Leaders. We were asked to present our work on reducing the Academy’s carbon footprint towards our goal of net-zero by 2030, and we also took the opportunity to look more broadly at our sustainability priority.

Many of the things we spoke about in our presentation are captured in the blog post I wrote around the #COP26 summit in Glasgow last November – Going Green: Churchill and #COP26. We emphasised how important it is to us that sustainability is one of the five priorities in the Academy’s five-year strategic plan, and that sustainability is driven by our students – as we owe it to them to protect the planet they will grow up on. In fact, I will be judging the students’ Seeking Sustainability competition entries next week!

Solar PV array on the roof of the Athene Donald Building

Mrs Franklin was able to update the conference delegates on the impact of some of our carbon reduction work:

  • Reviewing our controls and boiler optimisation so that boilers are only on when they are absolutely needed has saved 22,000 kWh of energy
  • The replacement of our lighting with LED units has saved 150,000 kWh on electricity
  • The solar panels (or photovoltaic cells as they’re more properly called) which cover much of our roof space across the site can deliver up to 40% of the Academy’s electricity needs in peak summer weather
  • The introduction of point-of-use hot water heaters mean that our boilers can be completely switched off for long periods of time in warm weather, saving 300,000 kWh in gas

Finally, Mrs Franklin was able to present an updated carbon emissions chart which shows we have reduced our carbon footprint by 70% since 2015 – a further 20% reduction since the 2020 figures.

This presentation wasn’t all celebration however. As a school, we have picked almost all of the “low hanging fruit” in our battle to reduce our carbon footprint. The next stage of our journey to net zero involves the bigger challenge: reducing or removing our dependence on natural gas completely. As we look at heating and cooling solutions across the Academy’s estate, to replace our ageing gas boilers, we really want to find low-carbon solutions. Our Trustees last week commissioned work to explore how best to achieve this.

What we already know is that we will need additional funding to enable this work. We also know that the Department for Education is facing an estimated £11.4 billion bill just to bring the school building estate up to standard across the UK – and that’s before they begin to think about decarbonising that estate. And so, whilst we are grateful for the existence of the DfE’s Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems – we feel that it doesn’t go far enough. If we are serious about net zero, we need to tackle the big ticket items which contribute to our carbon footprint: gas-fired heating systems, and emissions from transport. Whilst we can make progress on these issues ourselves, we’re going to need help if we’re going to solve them for good – and that means investment to back up the sentiments.

We know our students are ambitious for a greener future – and we owe it to them to deliver it.

Vertical Tutoring

We temporarily abandoned our vertical tutor groups on Wednesday 4th November 2020. The decision to move to horizontal (year group) tutoring was made in the midst of the “bubble” system where close contacts of positive coronavirus cases were sent home for precautionary self-isolation, to minimise the risk of transmission and the disruption caused by close contact self-isolation. At the time, in my letter to families, I said “ We place a great deal of value on our vertical tutoring system, and students will return to vertical tutor groups once the public health situation allows.” We are now well beyond those restrictions and we are looking forward to returning to the vertical tutoring system which is the foundation of our house-based pastoral care system. 

Vertical tutoring means that a small number of students from each year group belong to the same tutor group. There are many advantages to this system:

  • Tutor to student ratio: vertical tutor groups only have an average of five students from each year group. This means that tutors can spend more time with individuals, offering pastoral support and guidance. It also makes it easier for tutors to monitor academic progress, because when a progress report is published the tutor only has five students to work with, rather than up to thirty students in a year group system. 
  • Role modelling and student leadership: vertical tutoring breaks down the barriers between year groups, so that students from different year groups can work together. This enables students in the older year groups to act as role models, peer mentors and sources of advice and guidance to younger students. It also means that students in younger year groups can more clearly understand the future of the educational journey, by seeing first hand the decisions, challenges and expectations of students in older years. This can raise aspiration and leads to a “future-focused” approach.
  • Dynamic composition: in a vertical system, each tutor group’s Year 11 cohort will move on to their next steps and be replaced in September by a new intake of Year 7 students. This means that the tutor group’s composition is dynamic over the years, ensuring that the groups remain “fresh” and there are always new students to work with. 
  • Skills and character: working with students from different year groups every day requires our students to develop and practise important skills of teamwork, speaking and listening, problem solving, creativity, and leadership beyond the context of students the same age as them, which they do in five lessons every day. This is an important aspect of challenge which helps students to develop positively. 
  • Behaviour: research – and our own experience – has shown that properly implemented vertical tutoring systems improve students’ prosocial behaviour across the school. Vertical tutoring can also “depolarise” behaviour, bringing out the best in all students. It reduces the amount of in-year rivalry and “cliques”: students are more likely to be friendly and kind towards each other and make friends with different year students. Older students often behave in a more grown up way as if they naturally feel a duty to model good behaviour.
  • Belonging and house identity: the house is the “home” for students at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, and the vertical tutor group acts as the “family” for students. We expect students from across each house to work together as part of the house team to develop the identity and ethos of the house, in support of the Academy’s aims and values. This is greatly enhanced by vertical tutoring. This will be supported by the formation of House Councils in next year’s student leadership programme, replacing the year group councils which have been in place through the pandemic. 

A letter will be coming home shortly providing details of the tutor group change, and students will have assemblies next week explaining how and why we are going back to normal. Then, on the first day back in term 6, we will be back in our vertical tutor groups. There will be an extended tutor time so that the members of the new tutor group can get to know one another, and expectations and approaches can be re-established. In this initial period, groups will be smaller, including students only from Years 7-10, as Year 11 will be on study leave. The groups will be ready to welcome the Year 6 students (who will be joining the tutor group as Year 7s in September) when they arrive for their induction day on 28th June.

Many generations of Churchill students have benefitted from this system over the years, and many other schools – both locally and further afield – have now adopted it. Any change is always accompanied by some uncertainty, and it is natural that students have become comfortable in their year group tutor groups. These were always temporary – although the twists and turns of the pandemic have forced us to hang on to them for longer than we anticipated we would have to! We know from long experience that vertical tutoring works best for getting students to work together positively, and we look forward to getting back to what we know works best for our students to help them make that positive difference to themselves and one another. 

Exams: the final furlong

Term 5 is a pressurised term – this year especially. It’s just five weeks from Easter to the May half term, with formal GCSE and A-level exams starting on May 16th. The exams suddenly go from seeming a long way off, to being…well, next week!

The final furlong of exam preparation is about finishing touches. Courses have been finished, despite the pandemic disruption. Students have the knowledge and skills they need now to tackle the exams ahead of them. This final few days is all about honing exam technique to a sharp point: what exactly do the examiners want to see in an answer to this particular type of question? How can you manipulate what you know to squeeze as many marks as possible out of each part of the paper? How should you manage your time to ensure you leave enough to cover everything fully?

Despite two years without exams, teachers are well versed in the mystic art of exam technique. Exam preparation classes across the Academy are full of last-minute reminders about what to include, where, and how. In a exam situation, this is almost as important as the knowledge itself!

You can put yourself at an advantage by preparing well. Revision is essential, of course – you can find revision tips in the Revision category on this blog. But just as important is a good night’s sleep, and a healthy meal before an exam. An all-night revision session honestly won’t help as much as you wish it would – the brain works best when well rested and fuelled. Get to bed, sleep well, and have a good breakfast.

Once you’re in the exam itself, there are some general tips that I always swear by:

  • Be sure to answer all the questions – turn every page. Including the back page…yes, every year someone comes out ashen-faced when they realise there were eight questions, not seven.
  • Jot down your key ideas – don’t be afraid to do some rough work, or write down some key notes as soon as the invigilator says “you may begin.” Getting key ideas down will ensure that you remember them!
  • Write something for every question – if you’re not sure, make your best educated guess at the question. If you’ve written something, you’re in with a shout of some marks. If you write nothing – you’re definitely going to score zero.
  • Keep an eye on the time – you know how many questions are on the paper. You know how long you’ve got. Make sure you leave enough time to answer them all.
  • Check – use every minute of the exam. Check for silly mistakes. Check that you’ve written what you think you’ve written. Check for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Give yourself time to add in that extra bit that you forgot the first time through. It could make all the difference.

Exams bring stress and pressure with them – that’s an inevitable part of the process. Managing that pressure is an essential part of succeeding. Being well-prepared is the best way to ensure that the pressure works in your favour, rather than against you.

I hope these last minute tips have been helpful. Above all, I wish all our exam candidates the very best of luck. You deserve it.

Working with ASCL Council

Since 2019 I have been one of four school leaders representing the south west region on ASCL Council. This has been – and continues to be – a privilege and an honour. In this week’s blog I hope to give you an insight into what it means to work as part of ASCL, especially through the upheaval of the pandemic.

What is ASCL?

ASCL is the Association of School and College Leaders. It is a trade union and a professional association, representing more than 21,500 leaders of primary, secondary and post-16 education from across the UK. ASCL members are responsible for the education of more than four million children and young people and children.

As an organisation, ASCL speaks on behalf of its members, but acts on behalf of children and young people. This has been most clearly seen in the role of ASCL’s General Secretary, Geoff Barton, who is often seen and heard on the news putting the view of schools when an education story hits the headlines.

ASCL’s General Secretary, Geoff Barton

As well as being a trade union which provides advice and support, ASCL works on behalf of it members to shape national education policy- and this is where ASCL Council comes in.

What is ASCL Council?

Council is the policy making body of ASCL. It is made up of elected members, representing all the regions of the UK and all sectors of education, from early years and primary through to further education. The Council meets three times during the academic year to debate ‘hot’ topics, and agree the position that ASCL should take on behalf of it members. These positions are then used to lobby government to try and promote policies that are in the interests of schools and colleges, and point out practical difficulties in policy proposals coming out of government.

The main committees are:

  • Conditions and Employment which includes pay, conditions, recruitment, retention, workload, employer engagement, pensions
  • Funding 
  • Inclusion and Equalities which covers inclusion, equalities, closing the gap for pupils and staff, and performance of groups
  • Leadership and Governance which includes leader and teacher development, governance, inspections, and accountability
  • Curriculum and Assessment which covers curriculum, teaching and learning, assessment, and qualifications – this is the committee that I am a part of.

The work of the elected members of Council is supported by policy specialists. These are people who work specifically for ASCL, to take the views and positions of Council to government ministers and officials, Ofsted, Ofqual, exam boards and anyone else involved in education decision making, to try and influence those decisions for the good of the system.

I stood for election for Council in 2019. My aim was to make sure that the perspective of rural school was represented in policy discussions, which are often made in big cities and don’t always take account of schools in the countryside! I also wanted to play my part in representing my colleagues in the south west at a national level.

What have we done?

Since I have been part of Council, we have discussed such matters as:

  • The role of multi-academy trusts in the future education system
  • What role – if any – artificial intelligence could or should play in assessment and exams
  • The replacements for exams during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021
  • The Department for Education’s guidance on reading
  • The curriculum under the new Ofsted framework
  • How students could and should apply for university places
  • The role of BTECs and T-levels in the post-16 curriculum
  • The balance between central government control and school autonomy through the pandemic and beyond
  • How to ensure that education gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to achieve as well as their non-disadvantaged peers
  • The funding and provision for students with special educational needs and disabilities
  • The fairness of exam grading, where each year a third of students do not achieve a “pass” grade in English and Maths due to the way the system works

And so much more!

I have also been privileged this year to join the ASCL Executive Committee as the organisation’s Assistant Honorary Treasurer. This has given me a seat around the ASCL “top table” and provided me with an even greater insight into the engagement between the education sector and the politicians and officials responsible for the system.

Central to the work of the past few years has been the development and publication of ASCL’s Blueprint for a fairer education system. This key document sets out how we, as school and college leaders, would like to see the education system develop over the coming years

What have I got out of it?

I have had the opportunity to meet the previous Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and his successor, Nadhim Zahawi, to discuss policy positions and provide feedback from the “front line” of education. I have also met with Baroness Barran MBE, the Minister for the School System, and Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education. Often these are “Chatham House Rules” meetings so the discussions can be free and open. What has struck me about all these meetings is how willing the politicians are to listen. Although they don’t always agree with the position we are putting forward, I do see the impact of hearing things from people actually doing the job, day in, day out. So, whilst not all government education policies are received with rapturous applause by the profession or the general public, some of them are considerably better than they would have been due to ASCL’s intervention!

It has been fascinating to be involved in these high-level discussions about policy at a national system level. Thinking about the implications for all schools, not just my own, has made me think about how the education system works as a whole – and how that filters down to the staff, students and families of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. Being part of this conversation also means that I am well-informed about policy decisions coming down the track, as well as the thinking, aims and intentions behind those decisions.

Council has also enabled me to make connections with school leaders across the country, including in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, to understand how different schools are responding to the pressures and challenges of leading and managing schools today. I have learned a great deal from their approaches – and shared some of Churchill’s excellent practice with them in return. It is a genuine collaboration, and it means that we are able to support one another towards greater success in the future.

Welcome to the new Stuart House block

The Green Room in Stuart House, March 2022

This week we have reopened the Stuart House block after a complete internal rebuild of the facility. The Stuart House tutors, and the Humanities teachers and their classes, have been spread across the school since September – but now they have a shiny new home!

The interior of Stuart, August 2021

Works began last summer, with the removal of all internal walls and disconnection of services, to give our contractors the “blank slate” to work from. It was quite something to see everything ripped out of the building and the cavernous space left behind! From there, the building contractors began putting the new walls, ceilings and floors back in.

Over the past few years, we have learned a lot about “what works” in classroom design, and this is a further opportunity to put that into practice. Sound-deadening panels in the wall construction, and acoustic “pillows” above the classroom roof tiles, mean that students can concentrate on their learning without being disturbed by sound from next door. Climate control units in each room will mean that they will be warm in winter, cool in summer, and the air will be filtered and exchanged constantly.

We have also improved classroom size and layout so students are able to be seated with a good view of the coloured “teaching wall” which is a standard feature of our classroom design. Where possible, we have also equipped all rooms with new classroom chairs, designed to aid good posture and focus, as well as desks. And, of course, motion-activated LED lighting is standard to keep energy usage down, in line with our sustainability priority.

The new Green Room social space has been designed with chunky “noughts and crosses” style seating, and indoor picnic benches for students to use at break and lunchtime. The Green Room is a dedicated Year 8 social space, and they can’t wait to get in and make use of it!

The project is the latest phase of our ongoing redevelopment of the learning environment, which has included:

And we’re not done yet. We have another bid in to replace the temporary buildings which currently house S18, S19 and S20 – we should hear back about that next month.

The “behind the scenes” effort to make this happen has been immense. All of these projects have been funded with help from the government’s Condition Improvement Fund, and the astute use of Academy resources. The Academy Trust Board has supported the Academy’s vision to transform the learning environment for the the staff and students of Churchill, and that transformation over recent years has been significant, with the investment of over £10 million in the Academy site since 2016. From the writing and preparation of bids, through managing the projects and working with contractors to ensure the works were completed safely, on time and to a high standard, countless hours of staff time have gone in to the project. The results are definitely worth it!

Thinking about Ukraine

Before we returned to school on Monday after the half term break, we planned and wrote the following statement:

Academy Statement on the war in Ukraine

We are all horrified by the suffering of innocent people in Ukraine. The invasion of Ukraine was ordered by Vladimir Putin, and is his responsibility – it is not the responsibility of the Russian people. The situation is incredibly serious; it is a time for compassion and togetherness in support of peace and our shared humanity. We expect all our students to listen, learn and do their best to understand what is happening in Ukraine, and to be sensitive to members of our Academy community who may be affected by events there. Above all things: be kind.

This statement was in our student Daily Notices on Monday morning and has remained in place throughout this week. We also provided all staff with video and text “explainers” so they could answer students’ questions about the conflict. Our intention is to support all students in our Academy community to understand the conflict and draw sensible, mature conclusions based on factual information. Staff at Churchill worked hard with our students to emphasise our shared humanity and the will for peace.

Our Academy includes students from all over the world. Some of our students have family members in Ukraine, trying to find safety; others have family members in neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Romania, or Poland, which are welcoming refugees. Several have families in Russia. All of our students need the support, understanding and kindness of the Academy community at this time, and beyond, as we all look on in horror at the suffering of innocent people in the face of violence and destruction.

We will continue to provide that support, and to work with our students to try to understand what is happening in Ukraine, and why, in the hope that the world that they live in as adults will be a world of peace.

Newsround links:

Talking about mental health

This week, 7th to 13th February, is Children’s Mental Health Week. The theme this year is “growing together,” as we are all encouraged to think about how we have grown and how we can help others to grow.

When I was at school, mental health was not discussed at all. As I have grown, it has moved out from the shadows and we now live in a society which is much more open and accepting to discussions about mental health and mental wellbeing. My own learning and understanding has also grown over this time, especially as the subject is so important for all educators to understand. Mental health, after all, has a direct impact on learning.

Natasha Devon (source)

One of the “lightbulb moments” for me in understanding mental health and wellbeing was when I listened to Natasha Devon, a well-known mental health campaigner, talking about the subject on the Are You Convinced? podcast. On the podcast, she invited listeners to think about mental health in three steps, by drawing the equivalent to our physical health.

Keeping healthy

In the first step, she talked about proactive or preventative steps that we take to keep ourselves physically healthy. This might include eating healthily, getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking taking regular exercise. What similar steps might we take to ensure that we keep ourselves mentally healthy?

Reflecting on this, I was able to think of a few things that would help me. For example, I might limit my intake of social media or cut out things that I know are likely to cause me stress. I might ensure I am talking to my friends and family, sharing any worries or concerns – and making sure that I am a listening ear for them too. Getting plenty of rest, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and taking regular exercise are just as good for mental health as they are for physical health. And I monitor my physical health regularly, so I know when I need to exercise more, or get more sleep – the same is true of keeping myself mentally healthy.

Everyday health issues

Natasha Devon went on to say that we all experience everyday issues with our physical health. We all get cuts and scrapes, colds and headaches, bangs and bruises in our everyday life. We are able to manage them ourselves, and we wouldn’t seek a doctor’s advice unless it was chronic, serious or stopped us from doing our everyday activities for more than a couple of days. But we might seek advice from the NHS website, or a pharmacist. We might put a plaster on, or take a paracetamol, until we had recovered.

Devon says that the same is true of our mental health. Worries, fears, everyday stresses and anxieties, feeling sad or unhappy – these happen to all of us. It isn’t pleasant, and it might knock us back, and we might sometimes need a little help to be able to cope. The mental health “plaster” or “paracetamol” might be talking it through with friends or family, perhaps speaking to your tutor, teacher or a trusted adult, or turning to online resources or apps for help. There are a range of these available:

Serious Health Issues

Finally, Natasha Devon argued, some of us experience serious physical health issues. These are relatively rare, but serious. With our physical health, she talked about chronic conditions, serious illnesses, infections, broken bones – the sorts of things that have a significant impact on our daily lives for a long period of time, that we may be hospitalised for, and that we need professional help to deal with. In some cases, these problems can be “fixed” and we will get better and back to normal. In other cases, they can be treated, but we will need to learn to live with them as part of our lives, and cope with the impact that they have on our daily activities.

The same is true of mental health. Some of us, at some point, will suffer with mental health issues that are chronic and completely debilitating. In these situations we may be hospitalised, or we may be unable to carry on our daily activities. In these cases, we cannot recover without professional help. We would not try and fix a broken leg ourselves: the same is true when we are “broken” mentally.

The role of the school

I found Natasha Devon’s characterisation of mental health, as equivalent to physical health, really helpful. We all have mental health, just as we have physical health. It can fluctuate on a daily basis; on some days we feel better than others. Aches and pains and ups and downs are part of normal life. We don’t ignore them; we respond and take actions to help ourselves feel better. If things get really serious, we seek professional help from a doctor.

Just like with physical health, the school has a key role in keeping our students healthy. We educate our students about their physical health through our curriculum – the importance of a good diet and exercise, how to look after ourselves – and we do the same with mental health. When students experience a bump or a scrape or a bruise – mental or physical – we can help to a certain extent, and signpost information to assist, but usually if it’s serious we will suggest referring to a doctor. Our school is not a hospital; our expertise is education, not medicine. We wouldn’t try to set a broken limb in a science lab: the chances of us getting it wrong and making it worse are quite high. So we rely on experts in the health services to take over.

What we can do is listen to the experts. We have plans in place to support students with serious, chronic or significant physical and mental health needs, so those students are able to access education alongside their peers. We can help them when things are difficult, and we can work together to find ways to overcome challenges.

And, above all, we can make it clear to our students that they need to look after their mental health just as much as they look after their physical health. They need to talk to their families, their friends, Academy staff and, if necessary, professional experts to make sure they are able to keep learning successfully.

I’m pleased we’re talking openly about mental health nowadays. I think it’s better for everyone.

Happy New Year: I’m feeling ’22

The London fireworks to mark the start of 2022 were truly spectacular, but broadcast without the usual crowds lining the banks of the Thames. It felt to me like a very appropriate way to kick off this year: a determined attempt to put on the very best show possible, despite the challenging circumstances.

We have seen this throughout the pandemic, as the discussion of lateral flow tests, hospitalisation and death rates, and the relative transmissibility of variants has become morbidly routine. Over the first weekend of the holidays, I was queuing in a makeshift marquee at Bath Racecourse to receive my booster jab from a military medic in camouflage fatigues, drafted in as part of the battle against Omicron. A small artificial tree in the corner was an attempt at festive cheer, but I admit it felt like something out of science fiction. I was more encouraged by the incredible organisation mustered at such short notice, and the wonderful volunteers giving up their time to protect the nation. I was also delighted to finally get an “I’ve had my Covid Vaccination” sticker, having not been offered one at my first or second dose!

As the new year began, I was braced for the expected announcements about schools for the term ahead. A year ago, we were being told that schools would be open before a U-turn on the evening of 4th January closed them all. The vaccination programme means that this year, we are able to keep schools open. We are grateful for this: we know how to do remote learning really well, but there is no substitute for being in a classroom, with your teachers and your peers. Of course it isn’t convenient to turn our gym into a testing centre or to stagger the start of term; it isn’t comfortable to wear a face covering all lesson; it’s a pain to have to swab your nostrils twice a week and then report the result to the NHS and to the Academy Google Form; nobody likes having an injection. But these are the things that mean we’re in classrooms, together, this January, rather than locked down in our homes.

I’m not a big one for new year’s resolutions, but as the clock ticked over to midnight on December 31st, I gave thanks for all the efforts everyone has made to get us here. We certainly have tough times ahead, but we’re in better shape, now, than we were a year ago. Despite the challenges, we can still put on a good show. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ’22.

2021: the year in review

January

2021 started in what can only be described as chaos. As I wrote in my first post of the year, Looking up whilst locking down:

“We returned to school on Monday 4th January with the Secretary of State having “absolutely” given a cast-iron guarantee that exams were going ahead, and the Prime Minister encouraging all parents to send their children in. At 8pm, we were told all schools would close until half term and exams were not going ahead. The spiralling confusion of often contradictory last minute announcements, with missing, confusing or late-arriving guidance, has meant that this past month has been the most challenging of my entire teaching career – and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

In that first post, I took comfort in the Academy community – my colleagues, our wonderful students and their supportive families. We all pulled together through the chaotic, scary winter months with determination and hope.

Later in January, we administered our first lateral flow tests. They are so much part of life now that it’s strange to think of them as unusual – although I do look back with fondness on our testing stations which I insisted were named after Taylor Swift albums…

Nine Testing Stations, nine Taylor Swift albums…it was meant to be (although I wish I’d put them in the right order)

February and March

As the lockdown continued, this blog offered guidance on how to help your child in lockdown, and offered thanks to staff, students and families. Towards the end of the month we were able to start planning for the return to school, which was scheduled for March 8th. Thanks to incredible efforts behind the scenes, we were ready to welcome our students back – 1600 lateral flow tests later! Students returned to the newly opened Lancaster House area, and separate year group bubbles.

I ended the month with a run down of the names behind the Year 9 Learning Groups for 2020-21: Brunel, Stephenson, Fragapane, Park, Blackwell, Kenney, Dirac, Brohn and More – all famous Bristolians.

April and May

Something like normal service was resumed as the spring turned into summer. There were posts on Easter, and a focus on the Academy’s core value of kindness in my “welcome back” assembly after the holiday. I had a fantastic response to my post in May about Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend an all-white school in Louisiana, at the age of six.

Before we knew it, we were saying farewell to the Year 13 and Year 11 classes of 2021 in the “last day” celebrations. These groups of students had come through unprecedented uncertainty and still finished with a smile!

June

Source

In the summer I was gripped by football fever as England ploughed through the delayed Euro 2020 competition all the way to the final! Although it didn’t end in glory (this time) I felt so proud of the team and what they represented about our country – as well as the promise they showed for the future.

July

As the academic year drew to a close, I used the Headteacher’s Blog to set out our Academy Priorities for 2021-22. These have formed the backbone of our developments since September. And, despite the COVID restrictions, we were able to have an amazing Activities Week, culminating in a fantastic Sports Day.

It was the best way to end the school year, after all the challenges which had been thrown at us!

September and October

Before we knew it, we were back – another round of COVID testing was quickly and efficiently conducted, and we were back in lessons and relishing the challenge. It was particularly great to catch up with some of our new Year 7 students early in the term – my hour with Charlotte, Issy, Maddie and James, as they gave me lots to think about, and lots to be proud of.

COVID hadn’t gone away, of course, and we were soon back in masks and wrestling with rising case numbers in students and staff. At least this year we have been able to give some clarity to our examination years about what is happening in advance – a task I attempted in my post “what’s happening with exams in 2022?”

November and December

November saw the #COP26 summit in Glasgow, which was the perfect opportunity to lay out our sustainability strategy: the progress we had made so far, and the steps we still need to take if we are to realise our ambition of being a zero carbon school by 2030. In short: we’re doing well, but there is still a lot to do!

Our Christmas Concert was a fabulous return to the Playhouse in Weston-super-Mare, with the joy of music-making finally unleashed from its pandemic shackles. The telling of the Christmas story in student-composed songs by the Junior Choir is always a prompt for the first mince pies of the season for me!

And now Christmas itself is just around the corner. The country is under stricter restrictions again with the Omicron variant spreading rapidly – in some ways it feels like history repeating itself. But what this year has shown us is that – even in the midst of crisis – when staff, students and families work together, schools can accomplish amazing things. Bring on 2022!