Books I have read in 2022

This has been a bumper year for books! I have really enjoyed exploring new works by familiar authors, as well as some by writers new to me. Here’s my rundown of some of the titles I’ve found particularly exciting in 2022 – have you read any of them? Let me know if you do, and what you think of them – there’s very little I like more than talking about books!

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

This was a simply wonderful book! Bonnie Garmus’s novel tells the story of brilliant chemist Elizabeth Zott, battling against sexism and social prejudice in 1960s America. Along the way, she accidentally becomes a hugely popular – if reluctant – TV chef with her show Supper at Six, as well as a rower and a mother. The novel also features the most amazing canine character I’ve ever read about.

The novel deals with themes of grief, identity, and a search for truth, all in an arch, wry style which keeps a vein of light in amongst the darkness. The odds are stacked against her – but Elizabeth Zott never gives up.

Gone by Michael Grant

I love a good young adult dystopia, and Michael Grant’s Gone series had me gripped this summer. Set in the fictional town of Perdido Beach, California, the story begins when, without warning, the town is suddenly surrounded by an impenetrable dome which seals it off from the outside world. Inside the dome, every person over the age of 15 has vanished – “gone.”

What follows is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, as the young people attempt to survive without adult supervision. But there’s a sci-fi twist, as several of the young people begin to develop strange superpowers – the ability to cancel gravity, to create visions, to heal, to teleport and to shoot light from their hands. Are the powers and the dome connected? And what lurks at the bottom of the abandoned mine?

Michael Grant doesn’t pull any punches in the pages that follow. His unflinching style takes in mental health issues, violence, religion and sex; and although it’s a young adult series, there are some horrific moments of brutality and gore. If you can manage those moments, it’s a thought-provoking, page-turning read. I enjoyed it – and devoured the other five books in the series (Hunger, Lies, Plague, Fear and Light) as hungrily as a flesh-eating caterpillar.

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara’s previous novel, A Little Life, is one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read. I was really excited to read her follow-up, To Paradise – and although I wasn’t sure what to expect, it certainly wasn’t this! The novel tells three separate stories, all set in and around the same building in Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, New York. The stories – set in fictionalised and imagined versions of America in 1893, 1993 and 2093 – all feature characters with the same names, weaving themes of love, loyalty and family through the ages.

It’s a novel of breath-taking ambition and scope. The characters didn’t quite land as memorably as those from A Little Life, and I found the fact that they were all called the same names a bit confusing. Having said that, the story was compelling and bold, and the sheer imagination of the invented pasts and future was staggering.

Fire and Blood by George RR Martin

I am a big Game of Thrones fan – both the books and the TV series (except the last season – the less said about that the better). I was very excited about the new House of the Dragon TV series this autumn, and stole this book from my eldest son to try and catch up on the history of Westeros from the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror, through the Dance of the Dragons and beyond.

The story is told through the voice of an imaginary maester of the Citadel, attempting to piece together the history from sources of various reliability and bias. This is almost as much fun as the story itself, with its dragonlords and warrior queens, scheming, intrigue and corruption. The narrative voice gives an extra layer of realism to Martin’s fantasy world, and you still find yourself rooting for the various horrible (and occasionally not-so-horrible) characters who live there.

I found myself reading along with the events of House of the Dragon, and enjoyed both the book and series equally fantastic.

Pine by Francine Toon

I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I didn’t know the writer (I later discovered this is her debut novel) but my daughter had read an extract and I was intrigued. I was rewarded with a spooky ghost story, coupled with a murder mystery, set in the freezing, snowy wilds of the Scottish highlands.

The story is told through the eyes of Lauren, a young girl trying to manage the trials of growing up. She lives with her father, Niall, who has turned to drink in the absence of Lauren’s mother, who disappeared a decade earlier.

Mysterious figures appear and vanish, doors lock and unlock, and stones arrange themselves into patterns. When a local teenager goes missing, the mysteries and secrets in this small rural community assume a frightening urgency.

I found this story haunting and compelling in equal measure. I’ll look out for what Toon writes next!

The Promise by Damon Galgut

I always like to see what the Booker Prize judges see in the novels on their shortlist – and especially those they choose to win each year. Damon Galgut’s The Promise was a gem of a read. The novel spans four decades as the Swart family gather for four successive funerals at their farmstead in Pretoria, South Africa. Ma Swart, the mother of the white family, makes a promise to the black woman who has served her family on her deathbed – that she will own the house and land she has lived in. As the years roll by, and South Africa changes in the background, death takes further members of the family and the promise goes unfulfilled.

The younger memories of the family, Anton and Amor, reject the old, racially segregated South Africa their white family stands for, breaking with the past with a determination to right the wrongs of their predecessors.

What struck me most about this novel was the free-flowing prose style, which flows and follows the thoughts of the characters in twisting flights of fancy and imagination. The plot frequently hangs suspended and unresolved as the characters’ thoughts take us on pages-long detours – but, in the end, it is Amor’s story that stayed with me.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet was one of my favourite reads of 2021, so I was really looking forward to her next novel when I unwrapped it on my birthday this September. This novel, set in Renaissance Italy, is shaped around the lady described by the callous and powerful Duke in the Robert Browning poem “My Last Duchess.” O’Farrell wonders who this Duchess might have been, how did she end up being the Duke’s “last” Duchess, and who painted this portrait that now hangs, behind a curtain, in his gallery?

The result is a compelling character – Lucrezia – herself a gifted artist, whose impassioned and ferocious inner life is rendered all the more powerful by the fact that she has to hide it to survive, before and after her marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. She is an unreliable narrator, so you are always left wondering whether her perception of events and characters around her is accurate or not, as she is never in possession of the full picture.

I found O’Farrell’s style in this novel even more spectacular than her previous work, with the passages early in the book describing Lucrezia’s wedding some of the most stunning I have read this year. The narrative is controlled with a subtlety and deftness of touch of a true genius, the imagery is rich and layered, and I could feel the heat of the seventeenth century Italian sun beating up at me off the pages. Brilliant.

72 Weeks: going back to New College, Oxford

Over the October half term break, I was delighted to be invited back to New College at Oxford University. I studied English Language and Literature at New College between 1993 and 1996, before going on to train as an English and Media Studies teacher at Nottingham University in 1996-7.

The Chapel of New College, Oxford

New College is, ironically, one of the oldest colleges at Oxford University. Founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham, it was “new” at the time and the name has stuck!

I was invited back to record a podcast called 72 Weeks – so called because that is the average length of time it takes to study for an Oxford University degree (three terms of eight weeks over three years). The podcast brings together two people with a connection through New College, or Oxford more widely, to discuss their experiences and how it has shaped them, in the hope of “demystifying” the Oxford experience and encouraging more people, from more diverse backgrounds, to apply.

With ex-Churchill student Sarah in the gardens of New College, Oxford, October 2022

It was my great honour to record the podcast with Sarah, who successfully gained a place to read Chemistry at New College from the Sixth Form at Churchill in the summer of 2022. Just three weeks into her Oxford experience, Sarah was already thriving and getting her teeth into some serious Chemistry, as well as playing in the College Orchestra and working to start up a New College Ultimate Frisbee Team! It was lovely to hear Sarah reflecting on her first few weeks at university, as well as her time at Churchill and how that had prepared her for the experience.

Sarah (and classmates!) visiting New College in October 2019

Exactly three years earlier (almost to the day!) Sarah was part of a group of twenty three high-attaining Year 11 students that I had taken to New College to help them begin the process of thinking about university applications. We had no way of knowing, at the time, that it would be one of the last school visits we did before the pandemic hit, and that these students would not be able to sit their GCSEs the following summer. But Sarah spoke, in the podcast, about how the experience of spending the day at New College helped her to think: “why couldn’t I study here?” and to visualise herself as part of the community. The visit was one small part in helping her along the way of aiming high and putting her application in. Exceeding her offer of A*A*A? That was down to excellent teaching, a love of her subject, and buckets of hard work from Sarah herself!

One of my great driving passions throughout my career, and especially as a Headteacher, is to encourage students to aim high. The elite universities are not, and should not be, the exclusive domain of the independently educated – but the only way the balance of representation is going to shift is if more state-educated students apply. I’m delighted to say that the trends are positive, and I will do all I can to ensure that this continues.

You can listen to the conversation Sarah and I had with Daniel Powell, Outreach and Marketing Officer at New College, at the link below – or search for “72 Weeks” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favourite podcast platform. I hope you enjoy listening as much as we enjoyed recording it!

The School Sixth Form

I attended an 11-18 school, where the Sixth Form was a natural extension of the main school. At the end of Year 11, it was a smooth transition for me to straight on to the Sixth Form: I knew the teachers, I knew the school, and my friends were all staying on. It made sense!

When I moved into Year 12, however, I was struck by how different the experience felt. The relationship with the teachers shifted significantly: there was still a clear professional respect, but somehow it felt more personalised and connected. The only teacher from my school days that I am still in touch with (thirty years later!) is my A-level English teacher.

I also found a new niche in the Sixth Form as a student leader, working with groups of younger students both in English but also in Drama, where I ended up in charge of the technical theatre team to design and operate lighting for school productions. Whilst I had already been interested in teaching, this experience of working with younger children to help them achieve and deliver a project together really firmed up my career plans.

This is why, in my teaching career, I have always taught in 11-18 schools which have a Sixth Form attached to them. There is something about the presence of the Year 12 and 13 students in the school community that creates a tangible sense of destination and aspiration for our younger students: the Sixth Formers are positive role models. And, for the Sixth Formers themselves, there is that sense of the familiar but also the distinctly different that provides a natural extension of their 11-16 education, on the same site and with the same staff, but seen through a new lens.

There is also the added incentive of A-level teaching, which I have always found fulfilling. The depth, breadth and challenge of the additional subject knowledge required to teach at advance level brings additional subject expertise to the faculty. I have always found that this strengthens the teaching in the main school, as teachers know and teach the next steps beyond GCSE, enabling further stretch and challenge.

We are really proud of our Sixth Form at Churchill. As with the main school, we put achievement at the heart of our provision – but we recognise that an education is about more than just the exam results. That is why the wider offer which being part of a school can provide – leadership and enrichment opportunities, involvement with the community, and the extended curriculum – is so important to us, and such a strong feature of our Sixth Form. The video below really captures how our Sixth Form students feel about this:

2023 Sixth Form Video

We are a Level 3 Sixth Form, offering A-level or equivalent qualifications. The minimum entry requirement to get into Churchill Sixth Form is at least three GCSEs at grade 5 and above and at least two GCSEs at grade 4 and above. Many of the courses also have subject-specific entry criteria. We strongly believe that the vast majority of our main school students can reach the threshold to access this provision, but we also recognise that there are other destinations locally which provide strong alternatives. We provide detailed careers and application advice for students interested in progressing to colleges or other providers for vocational, technical and other post-16 offers: our primary interest is ensuring that students get to the right destination for them. However, if students meet the entry criteria and want to study A-levels or the other Level 3 qualifications we offer, we believe that there is no better place to do it than at our Sixth Form.

This week, our current Year 11 students have had a taster experience on our “Be A Sixth Former For A Day” programme, ahead of our Sixth Form Open Evening next week. We would urge all Year 11 students – whether they currently attend Churchill Academy & Sixth Form or not – to come and find our what our Sixth Form has to offer. We look forward to seeing you!

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.

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