What’s happening inside the Stuart House block?

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

Inside the Languages Well area, last week

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

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

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

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

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

The Languages Department clear-out, summer 2020

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

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

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

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

What’s happened with the A-level results?

This year’s A-level results have been the most controversial ever, by a long way. But what exactly has happened? And what can we do about it?

How were the grades calculated?

When the Secretary of State announced on 18th March that schools would close, he also announced that exams were cancelled, but that “we will work with the sector and Ofqual [the exams regulator] to ensure that children get the qualifications that they need.” Detailed guidance followed.

Teachers were asked to provide a “centre assessed grade.” In the Ofqual guidance it says: “we asked schools and colleges to use their professional experience to make a fair and objective judgement of the grade they believed a student would have achieved had they sat their exams this year.” These grades were then moderated by the exam boards, using an algorithm designed by Ofqual, to ensure that grades in 2020 were similar (or “comparable”) to previous years.

Why were teacher recommendations so high?

Some parts of the media have accused teachers of assessing too generously, or trying to unfairly boost their own schools’ results. All of this is wrong. Firstly, no data on schools’ overall results is being collected or published this year. There are no performance tables – a welcome move, which has allowed teachers to focus on what really matters: the students and their results.

But, if teachers’ recommended grades had been accepted without moderation, nationally results would have risen: there would have been a 13% rise in A-levels awarded grade A*-B, which is an “implausibly high” increase. Why has this happened?

Put simply, teachers were asked to assess what they believed students to be capable of. Real exams assess how students actually perform on the day. If a teacher believed a student was capable of achieving an A in the summer, then they assessed that student at an A. If that student had sat the real exam, they may have achieved that A. But, if there was a particularly tricky question, or they managed their time badly, or they had a mental blank in the exam, they might not have done. They might have ended up with a B. So the teacher recommended grades were always going to be higher – that was baked into the system, and it is why some form of moderation was needed.

So how did the algorithm work?

The standardisation and moderation process is explained in Ofqual’s interim technical report, published on A-level results day. The report is 319 pages long, which gives you some idea of how complex the process is. It is called the Direct Centre Performance model (DCP). In Ofqual’s own words, it “works by predicting the distribution of grades for each individual school or college. That prediction is based on the historical performance of the school or college in that subject taking into account any changes in the prior attainment of candidates entering this year compared to previous years.”

What does this mean? If we take A-level Maths as an example, the exam board would look at what distribution of grades students from Churchill Academy & Sixth Form had achieved in A-level Maths over recent years. It adjusts that distribution based on the prior attainment (GCSE and other results) of the students taking A-level Maths at Churchill in 2020, and then makes a prediction of what grades it expects to see from Churchill based on that information. The algorithm then adjusts the teacher recommended grades from Churchill to fit the “expected” or predicted distribution of grades.

This is where one of the major problems has arisen. Whilst the algorithm is actually very sensible at a whole cohort level, it forgets that individual candidates are human beings and don’t necessarily fit the statistical prediction. They can surprise us – and, as a teacher, I know that they do, every single day. The algorithm doesn’t account for which students are really revising hard, which students have really pushed themselves, which students have suddenly found a new passion and understanding for a subject…it cannot possibly do this. So, instead, it irons out the students into the distribution that the algorithm suggests, almost completely ignoring the teacher recommended grades. The consequences are explained really well by Alex Weatherall in this thread on Twitter.

It also means that schools which have historically performed well at A-level are at an advantage over those which have not. So students that were recommended A* can end up with a C. And, even more cruelly, students that were recommended to pass an A-level can end up with a U grade – failing an exam they hadn’t even sat. Unfairness and injustice is baked into the system.

What about small groups?

An additional unfairness in the system is that statistical models can’t be applied fairly to small groups. In Ofqual’s own words:

“Where schools and colleges had a relatively small cohort for a subject – fewer than 15 students when looking across the current entry and the historical data – the standardisation model put more weight on the CAGs…there is no statistical model that can reliably predict grades for particularly small groups of students. We have therefore used the most reliable evidence available, which is the CAGs.”

From Ofqual’s Interim Report Executive Summary here.

If you happen to have taken a popular A-level which more than 15 students took at your school, you will have been subject to the algorithm. If your A-level choices were less popular, and fewer than 15 students took that subject at your school, greater emphasis was placed on the teacher recommended grades. Still more unfairness and injustice.

A particular example here is Maths (which a lot of people take) and Further Maths (which many fewer people take). This has resulted in many students nationally getting A-level Maths grades adjusted down, whilst their Further Maths grades go through as recommended, creating nonsensical combinations like a C grade for Maths and an A* for Further Maths.

A further inequality here is that in smaller sixth forms, you are more likely to have smaller cohorts of under fifteen taking subjects. Whereas in larger sixth forms – and especially in large sixth form colleges – cohorts are always larger than 15. Therefore the smaller the sixth form, the fewer adjustments have been made to the grades. So it isn’t even necessarily about which subjects you have chosen, but which school or college you happened to be studying them at.

What about appeals?

If you are unhappy with your grade, you have the option of mounting an appeal. This can be done if:

  1. There is an administrative error and the wrong grade has been put into the system. [We haven’t found a single example of this at Churchill].
  2. If your mock exam result shows that you are capable of achieving a higher grade than your final result.

At the moment, that’s it – there are no other grounds for challenging your result, unless you feel you were discriminated against. Mock exams are not the same from subject to subject, much less from school to school – they don’t always assess the full A-level content, they are much more about finding out what candidates need to focus their revision on in the run-up to the real exams than providing a solid grade. We expect mock results to be lower than final results – of course. In some cases, this route will help – but by no means in all.

The only other option open is to sit the full A-level exam in a special Autumn exam series. But who, honestly, could get a higher grade in October or November, without having been in a classroom since March? This is the longest of long shots.

So what can be done?

Currently, the government is saying nothing will change – but surely this can’t stand. The injustices are too great. I think the options are as follows:

  1. Look again at the algorithm and improve the level of “tolerance” around the grade boundaries so that it prioritises the teacher recommendation when a student is being downgraded, especially if they are being downgraded by more than one grade, or moved down from a passing grade to a U.
  2. Just scrap the whole thing and go back to the teacher recommended grades, like Scotland did. Although this would solve the human cost of all the disappointments, it would devalue the 2020 grades compared to previous and following years. An A grade from 2020 would simply not be worth the same as an A grade from another year. As Ofqual said themselves, the teacher recommendations on their own are “implausibly high” for all the reasons outlined above. It would solve the immediate problem – but create another one for the future.
  3. Open up an additional appeals route for candidates who feel an injustice has been done, but whose mocks don’t help them. Again, a tempting route, but what evidence could be used to support such an appeal? In the end, it comes back to the teacher recommendation, and this route very quickly ends up the same as option 2.

My feeling is that Ofqual need to go back and look again at the algorithm, and account for the human cost of squeezing individual candidates into a statistical model that does not account for their unpredictability, their uniqueness, and their actual performance to date. They might have time to do this ahead of GCSE results next week. But, for some A-level candidates, it is already too late – their university places have gone on the basis of results from exams they didn’t even sit.

Who is to blame?

Fundamentally, this is a government decision. As Laura McInerney said in her column for the Guardian today:

“Ultimately, young people have been caught in a farce presided over by an education secretary who let an obviously problematic results day go ahead with no clear plan and no appeals process. How did that happen? Civil servants busy on Brexit? On holiday? Did the exams watchdog not have the bottle to flag problems? I can’t fathom it.

But none of these questions help the Lilys, Matts, or Aatiyahs, or any one of thousands of young people, to understand how a baffling set of grades tanked their future and they weren’t given a clear way to challenge it.”

Laura McInerney, writing in the Guardian here.

I feel deeply aggrieved for those individuals whose futures have been decided not by their own work ethic, revision, effort and learning, but by an algorithm. We will continue to make the case that what has happened is wrong, unfair, and unjust – and hope that the government listens.

Celebrating Success: The House Cup 2019-20

This has been a year like no other! Despite all the challenges, there has been much to celebrate. In this, our final week, we have devoted ourselves to celebrating success – and awarding the House Cup!

House Cup: Attendance

We have only counted attendance up to March this year…for obvious reasons!

Congratulations to the overall winners: STUART HOUSE!

House Cup: Events

There have been a number of inter-house competitions this year. Not as many as we would have liked to have held, but we managed to squeeze some in!

House Cup: Attitude to Learning

For this competition, we take the average attitude to learning for every student in each house in each year group. All “Highly Motivated” grades scores 100%, and all “Disengaged” would score 0% (nobody actually scored this at Churchill!)

Many congratulations to the overall Attitude to Learning winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Conduct Points

For this competition we total up the net reward points for each house, and subtract any concern points issued. We also do an average score per student because there aren’t quite the same number of students in each house – but this year, that doesn’t change the overall standings!

Congratulations to the Conduct Points winners: TUDOR HOUSE!

House Cup: House Matches

We haven’t been able to hold all our House Matches this year, but we did have an inter-house virtual House Match Quiz during lockdown!

Congratulations to the overall House Matches winners: WINDSOR HOUSE!

House Cup: Virtual Sports Day

Sports Day is one of the highlights of the Academy Calendar. We didn’t let lockdown put us off, and Team PE ran a week-long virtual sports day this year instead! There were 1.3k hits on the website, with 880 entries from 600 unique users over the course of the week…with a nail-biting finale which went right to the wire!

House Cup: The Final Result

One of the privileges of being Headteacher is that I have no House allegiances at all. This means that I am the only one who has access to the top secret massive House Competition spreadsheet, where all of the points from all the competitions are fed into a secret formula to keep running totals and calculate the winner. And this year, the winner is…

WINDSOR HOUSE!

Congratulations to Windsor, who ran out clear winners. Fortunately, Mr Cross was in school this week, so I was able to hand over the Sports Day Trophy and the House Cup, adorned with Windsor blue ribbons, for a quick photo. What a great way to mark his final year in charge of Windsor!

Congratulations to Windsor House!

Next year, with five houses in the running and (we hope) the Academy open all year, all bets are off and it’s anyone’s game! Remember, every day you turn up to school, every reward point you earn, every grade you get on your report, every competition you take part in…they all contribute to your house total. Everybody counts. Well done to all of you for all your efforts this year!

Building for the future

The future of technology

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

The extension to the Athene Donald Building nearing completion

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

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

Goodbye to the past

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

Taking stock

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

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

Black Lives Matter

Over the past week I have seen the Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across the United States and Europe. I have taken the opportunity to listen to, and learn from, the experiences and views of black and ethnic minority voices from both sides of the Atlantic.

This week, my blog is not about my voice. At this moment, the world does not need to hear from another white male in a position of authority, another beneficiary of unseen privilege. This week, I will use my blog to amplify voices that have helped my understanding, by giving me a window into an experience that is not my own.

Dave: Black (Live at the BRITs 2020)

#BlackLivesMatter: Kennedy Cook

No! You Cannot Touch My Hair

British Nigerian Bristolian Mena Fombo describes her experience of the objectification of black women, and her drive to challenge it through her #DONTTOUCH “No, You Cannot Touch My Hair” campaign

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo’s novel won the 2019 Booker Prize. I have just finished reading this story of the lives of 12 characters – most of them black, most of them women – and their intertwined experiences over the course of several decades. It is sensational.

All Lives Matter?

What next?

  1. As Headteacher of the Academy, I am using this blog to speak up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  2. We will continue to strengthen our curriculum to ensure that all perspectives and voices are represented and valued, and continue to support calls to decolonise the national curriculum.
  3. We will continue to actively teach anti-racism at the Academy, ensuring that we are a school which actively works to reduce inequalities and make a positive difference to our society.

VE Day

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Prime Minister Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall on the day he broadcast to the nation that the war against Germany had been won, 8 May 1945 (source)

In May 1945, fighting in the Second World War had continued for nearly six years. However, following the D-Day landings in June of 1944, the Allied armies from Britain, France, Canada and the United States were advancing on Berlin from the West, whilst Soviet forces were attacking from the East. Nazi Germany, surrounded, agreed to a complete surrender on 7th May 1945. Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast a speech to the nation to say that hostilities would cease at one minute after midnight on the 8th May 1945. That day would be a public holiday known as Victory in Europe Day, or VE day.

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Crowds in Piccadilly on 8th May 1945 (source)

On VE Day itself, huge crowds gathered in the streets to celebrate. The Prime Minister and the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Such was the enthusiasm of the crowd that the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony that day to celebrate with the people. After dinner, the 19-year-old Princess Elizabeth – now our Queen – and her 14-year-old sister Princess Margaret left the palace and celebrated with the people, singing and dancing in the streets. Dressed in her Auxiliary Transport Service uniform, the future Queen avoided much notice. “I pulled my uniform cap well down over my eyes,” Elizabeth recalled in 1985. “I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, and all of us were swept along by tides of happiness and relief.”

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Ground crew on a RAF Bomber Command station return the ‘V for Victory’ sign to a neighbouring searchlight crew. Silhouetted is the nose of a Lancaster bomber. (source)

Despite the celebrations, the war was not over. Fighting continued in the Asia-Pacific region until the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender on 15th August 1945 – VJ Day. By the end of the war, 18,000,000 service personnel and 45,000,000 civilians had been killed. Families had been devastated. Cities across the world were in ruins. Rationing– the control of how much food and essential commodities people could buy – continued until 1954.

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Two small girls with their flags in the ruins of Battersea, London, 1945 (source)

This year, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day, we find ourselves again involved in a collective struggle. I don’t feel comfortable with some of the comparisons between the coronavirus outbreak and World War Two. Our contribution to this effort is not to leave our homes and go off to fight, but rather – for most of us – it’s to stay at home and limit the spread of the disease, to ease the pressure for those on the front line. The virus is not going to surrender: victory will be slow and gradual. But what is clear is that, if we are to win in the battle against COVID-19, it has to be a collective effort. Success in this struggle relies on all of us working together, supporting each other, ensuring that our actions protect those more vulnerable than ourselves. We must all play our part.

So, when I stand for the two minutes’ silence on Friday morning, I will be thinking of all those heroes who lost their lives to defend our freedom and our way of life, not only in the war of 1939-1945, but on the front line of the struggle against COVID-19. I am – we are – forever in their debt.

More about VE Day 75

A fifth house for Churchill

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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

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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.

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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.

 

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My thoughts on The Rise of Skywalker

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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.