This week I read the fascinating and terrifying story of Ruby Bridges. Ruby was born in 19 54 and grew up in Louisiana, USA, in the midst of the civil rights movement. When she was born, schools in Louisiana were segregated – black children and white children did not attend the same schools. This practice had been declared unconstitutional just before she was born, but it took six years for the first black child to attend an all-white school. Ruby was that child.
In early 1960, she passed the entrance test to attend William Frantz Elementary School – an all-white primary school. Ruby’s walk to school on her first day was big news. A crowd gathered, chanting and waving placards. One sign read: “All I want for Christmas is a clean white school.” One woman held up a miniature coffin with a black doll in it. Ruby was protected from the angry crowd by four Federal Marshals. She was six years old.
All the white parents pulled their children out of the school. All the teachers refused to teach whilst there was a black child enrolled at the school – except one. One teacher, Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and taught Ruby alone, in her own class, “as if she were teaching a whole class.” On Ruby’s second day at school, one white parent walked his five-year-old daughter through the angry mob, saying, “I simply want the privilege of taking my child to school.” Following his example, more parents brought their children to school over the following days, although Ruby continued to be taught by Barbara Henry in a class on her own. She would not be taught in the same class as white children until the following year. Throughout that time she was only able to eat food she had brought with her from home, due to threats to poison her school meals.
The American artist, Norman Rockwell, commemorated Ruby’s walk to school in his painting The Problem We All Live With. When he became President, Barack Obama hung the painting outside the Oval Office as a reminder that the courage of a six-year-old black girl and her white teacher paved the way for a black man to eventually become president.
Reading Ruby’s story this week reminded me of another inspirational young woman who stood up for her right to be educated: Malala Yousafzai. Malala grew up in an area of Pakistan where the Taliban had outlawed the education of girls, believing that only boys had the right to an education. Malala, like Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, refused to be intimidated and continued to attend school. On October 9th 2012, in retaliation for her activism, a Taliban gunman shot Malala in the head in an attempt to assassinate her.
Malala survived. She was flown to Birmingham where she recovered, eventually attending an English school in Edgbaston and going on to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford University. She graduated in 2020. Throughout that time, Malala has been a prominent activist campaigning for the right to an education – a right which she nearly died for.
In this country we take it for granted that every child is entitled to a good, free education at school. We don’t stop to question it. We take it for granted that all children are welcome in our schools, no matter their background, the colour of their skin, their religious beliefs, first language, or where their family comes from. This is accepted as normal. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that we are very lucky to live in a society where this happens – because it doesn’t happen everywhere. We must remember to continue to defend the importance of getting an education. And we shouldn’t take it for granted.
The date of Easter moves around in the calendar, according to the lunar cycle. This is because it takes place on the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, which is the name give to the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The vernal equinox (when the Sun is exactly above the equator, so that day and night on Earth are of equal length) takes place on March 20th each year, but because the lunar cycle is not synchronised to the calendar year, this means that the date of Easter moves around. It can occur anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th!
We now know Easter as the Christian festival to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but it has its roots in earlier pre-Christian festivals to celebrate the awakening of nature from its winter slumber – a natural resurrection of its own. The very name of the festival stems from the name of an English pagan goddess – Eostre – who was celebrated at beginning of spring. The only reference to this goddess comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede, a British monk who lived in the late seventh and early eighth century AD. He was so influential on developing Christian theology, that the name of the festival stuck to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and spread throughout the Christian world.
This year, more than any other, the theme of resurrection and rebirth seems wholly appropriate. As we emerge – gradually – from lockdown, it does feel like an awakening. The unusually warm weather has certainly helped, alongside the daffodils and emerging blossom on the trees.
The Academy, too, has come back to life since March 8th. Classrooms, playing fields and social areas are once again full of staff and students, making real human connections rather than the stilted digital substitutes we have had to use through remote learning. It feels like a resurrection and a rebirth – and we give thanks for the progress we have made.
I wish all of you in our Academy community a happy, safe and restful Easter. We will see you back at school on 19th April – we have a lot to look forward to!
Little did we know, twelve months ago, what a seismic shift the year ahead would bring. 2020 began as it ends on the Headteacher’s blog, with a bit of “taking stock”. I wrote “into the twenties” on the fourth anniversary of me starting as Headteacher at Churchill. Despite the year we’ve all had, we have continued to progress: we now have 1617 students at the Academy, including 287 in the Sixth Form, and we have seen still more investment in our site and buildings this year with the work to redevelop Lancaster and Stuart House still ongoing. In February, we celebrated the award of “Transforming” status for our work on the Climate for Learning at Churchill.
Our vision – to set no limits on what we can achieve – informed the development of the Academy’s five-year strategic plan over the course of January and February. This vital document is the template for Churchill’s continued progress through to 2025, and will inform the work we do throughout this period. The fact that it stood up to what was to come is testament to the careful thinking and developmental work of the Trustees involved.
I am so glad our students got the opportunity to be on stage in front of a live audience, given what followed so shortly afterwards. We barely had time to announce the introduction of a fifth house for Churchill, before the onrushing tide of the pandemic overwhelmed everything.
My post Closing for Coronavirus runs through the events of March in detail. Looking back at it now, it seems like a distant dream. I gave an assembly – a physical, in-person assembly – to all students, a year group at a time, on Monday 16th March, running through what we knew at the time and giving the instructions on how to wash hands properly. In the assembly, I said we were “staying open.” On Wednesday 18th, closures were announced. On Friday 20th March, I lowered the Academy flag.
Of course, schools never really closed. We were always open – from Friday 20th March onwards – to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. We stayed open, through Easter and on Bank Holidays, to support the national effort. We kept education going for our students in their homes. And we waited.
April and May: lockdown
I remember those late spring and early summer months, living in lockdown, as a bizarre contradiction. On the one hand, I was constantly gripped by fear: fear of this unknown virus, fear of other people carrying it, fear of everything apparently collapsing around us. But, on the other hand, there was a strange tranquillity: no traffic on the roads, no aeroplanes in the sky, and the surge of nature around us as life went on regardless.
The “clap for carers” brought our local community together, out on the street to share in our admiration for the incredible work of the NHS and key workers. VE Day came and went, and from their homes our musicians put together gospel and chamber choir arrangements, and other performances, collected on the Performing Arts Podcast.
June and July: wider re-opening
As the summer moved on, we welcomed back Year 10 and Year 12 students – our current Year 11 and Year 13s – to Exam Support. Socially distanced, in classes of no more than 15, we saw the first signs that things could – eventually – return to normal. Our students and our staff were fantastic, adapting to this strange new world with DIY haircuts and exceptionally clean hands.
Meanwhile, Frontline (our key worker and vulnerable student provision) continued to expand and develop, making sure that education continued for the students and families who needed it most.
The summer break was strange this year. We had ended July preparing for the full re-opening of schools in September, a simply staggering effort to adjust our normal process onto a covid-secure footing in line with the ever-shifting government guidance. And then, as the summer wore on, the catastrophe of the exam results season hit. I wrote in detail at the time about what had gone wrong with the A-level results. Before the GCSE results were published, the controversial moderation algorithm had been abandoned and students were awarded their Centre Assessed Grades instead. I have never known a more chaotic and uncertain time in all my over twenty years’ experience in education – I still shudder when I think about it.
But we barely had time to take breath from that, before…we were back.
September and October
The Academy opened its doors in September to all our students again. Things were – and still are – different, with the language of “year group bubbles” and “hands-face-space” becoming quickly familiar. We had our first confirmed case on September 8th, and the impact of the pandemic has continued to be felt across North Somerset ever since. Despite the challenges, our students and staff continue to amaze me with their resilience and energy, as they show all the kindness, curiosity and determination we expect of them – through face coverings, hand sanitiser and disinfectant, through open windows and classroom doors, through year group separations and self-isolations…the Churchill spirit keeps shining through.
We were heartened by the results of our parent survey in October, which were a ringing endorsement of our work so far. And the term ended on a high note as Imogen Beaumont (Year 11) was named as one of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year.
November and December
As the days shortened, the second national lockdown was announced. This time, however, schools stayed open. We were so grateful to have our students with us, and to keep face-to-face education going this time. Many of the aspects of managing a school in a pandemic, which would have been unthinkable merely months ago, have become familiar routines. Our use of technology has been transformed, with Google Classroom now embedded across the Academy and our ability to blend in-class and at-home teaching and learning developing all the time.
And so, as we approach Christmas, we are in a different world. The crowds cheering on the Sixth Form Fancy Dress Parade, the massed Junior Choir at the Christmas Concert, Christmas Dinner in the Academy Hall…these familiar staples from Christmas 2019 are just not possible in our new pandemic normal. But we will not be deterred! It may be different, but it’s still going to happen – and there will be one final post on this blog before the end of term to celebrate Christmas at Churchill 2020.
This has been a year the like of which none of us have ever seen. Let us hope that, over the coming twelve months, we see the retreat of the pandemic and the return of the freedom to do all those things that help make us the school we are: our extra-curricular programme, working across year groups, and the big, showpiece Academy events which give our students their chance to shine. I wish everyone in our Academy community a safe and merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.
I have always found an escape in books, and this year more than any other I have needed that outlet, to be taken away into another world and to lose myself in fiction. Here are ten books I have enjoyed in 2020 – some suitable for students, some for adults. I hope you find it useful!
The Binding by Bridget Collins
Suitable for: Year 11+
This is a beautiful book, laced with magic, where mystical “binders” can remove people’s troublesome memories and imprison them within the pages of hand-made books. But what happens if someone opens the covers to read them?
Bone China by Laura Purcell
Suitable for: Year 9+
I’ve really like Laura Purcell’s distinctive brand of spooky Gothic horror. It reminds me of Wilkie Collins or perhaps Daphne du Maurier. This story sees a young nurse, haunted by her past, caring for a mute and paralysed old woman in a mysterious old house, surrounded by bone china. Gradually, the house and the woman’s chilling past is revealed…
Afternoons with the blinds drawn by Brett Anderson
Suitable for: Year 11+
Back in the early 1990s, I was a massive fan of Brett Anderson’s band, Suede. I loved his first book, describing his early life and the origins of the band. This second book races through the band’s ascent to fame, and subsequent disintegration under the pressures of media scrutiny, addiction and egos. Anderson writes so elegantly, that even the squalid parts of his story acquire a seedy glamour. It captures that period of my youth perfectly.
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
Suitable for: Sixth Form+
This novel tells the story of the last Empress of China, and is based on a true historical story. I knew nothing about it before starting – the book was my Secret Santa present last Christmas! – but I found myself captivated by the secretive, ritualistic world of the Chinese Emperor’s court and the power struggles within.
Noble Conflict by Malorie Blackman
Suitable for Year 9+
I love the “Noughts and Crosses” series, and this latest instalment was recommended to me by my son. It didn’t disappoint, bringing the saga right up to date with plenty of pointed commentary on political corruption and intrigue. If you’re expecting a resolution, thought, you’ll be disappointed – it ends on a terrific cliffhanger!
The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Suitable for: Year 7+
This was a great read during lockdown! It tells the story of Faith, who discovers her father’s dark secret: a mysterious tree that grows in darkness. The fruits of the tree reveal truths – but the tree only grows when fed on lies. But, as Faith discovers, lies themselves can quickly get out of control…
Three Hours by Rosamund Lupton
Suitable for: Year 10+
This book tells the story of a school under attack by terrorist gunmen, in real time. It was absolutely terrifying, ratcheting up the tension with twists and turns a-plenty. As a Headteacher myself, it was like living out my worst nightmares – but in the safety of a book!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Suitable for: adults
When Miss Dunne heard I was reading this book, she offered to counsel me when I got to the end. She was right: I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite as emotionally draining, harrowing and affecting as this epic story, following the lives of four friends who meet in college in America to their lives in New York and beyond. Dealing with trauma, abuse, and self-harm, this is by no means an easy read – but its characters will stay with me forever.
English Pastoral by James Rebanks
Suitable for: Year 9+
This book is part-autobiography, part-manifesto. James Rebanks uses his life story, growing up on a fell farm in the Lake District, to describe how farming has changed over the past forty to fifty years. He describes the damage done to the landscape and the ecosystem by intensive, chemical farming, and how he has adapted his own farm now, as an adult, to work in harmony with nature rather than against it. A powerful, important book.
Where the crawdads sing by Delia Owens
Confession: I haven’t finished this one yet! But I am enjoying the lyrical, atmospheric descriptions of the Carolina marshlands where the heroine, Kya Clark, grows up in isolation. At once terrified of other people, and at the same time yearning for company, this tension drives the story forward. I can’t wait to see how it ends…
If you’ve enjoyed any books in 2020, I’d love to hear about them. I’m always on the lookout for recommendations!
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that more and more of us are spending more and more of our time online. The internet is a blessing in times like these, enabling us to connect, interact, stay in touch and find the help we need, all without leaving our homes. For schools like ours, the ability to harness technology to deliver education when students are not able to be in school has transformed the education landscape.
Although the internet is incredibly useful, there are also risks. We work hard with our students at Churchill to help them understand how to stay safe online, but it is always worth reminding our students – and ourselves – of the basics.
The basics of staying safe online
Google’s Be Internet Awesome curriculum provides a good outline of the fundamentals of safer internet use for students:
Share with care – communicate responsibly
Encourage thoughtful sharing by treating online communication like face-to-face communication; if it isn’t right to say, it isn’t right to post.
Create guidelines about what kind of communication is (and isn’t) appropriate.
Keep personal details about family and friends private.
Don’t fall for fake
Be aware that people and situations online aren’t always as they seem.
Discerning between what’s real and what’s fake is a vital lesson in online safety
Secure your secrets
Create a strong password – you can R3pl@ce le++ers wit# sYmb0ls & n^mb3rs 1ike Thi$
Don’t use the same password on multiple sites
Don’t share anything online that you wouldn’t want your grandma, your teacher or your future employer to see
The Internet is a powerful amplifier that can be used to spread positivity or negativity. Set an example: be kind and spread positivity
Stop the spread of harmful or untrue messages by not passing them on to others
Block unkind or inappropriate behaviour online
Provide support if you see bullying online
When in doubt, talk it out
If you come across something questionable online, talk to a trusted adult
If you know that one of your friends needs help, encourage them to talk to a trusted adult – or ask an adult for help yourself
Checklist for families
We all want to support our children with their use of the internet, but more often than not they know more about the online world than we do! The following checklist is a helpful way of ensuring that you are doing all you can to support them with being safe online.
I have talked to my child about the sites they use. Show an interest and take note of their favourite sites. Research them, find out how to set the safety features and learn how to report any issues directly to the site.
I have checked that my child has set their profile settings to private. Social networking sites, such as snapchat, are used by children to share information, photos and just about everything they do! They need to think about the information they post as it could be copied and pasted anywhere, without their permission.
I have talked to my child about their online friends. We know that people lie online about who they are and may create fake identities. It is very important children understand this. Whether they are visiting a social network or a gaming site, the safety messages are the same. Ensure that your child never gives out personal information and is only “friends” with people they know and trust in the real world.
I have set appropriate parental controls on my child’s computer, mobile and games console. Filters on computers and mobiles can prevent your child from viewing inappropriate and possibly illegal content. You can activate and change levels depending on your child’s age and abilities. You can also set time restrictions for using the internet or games. Many parents and carers take phones/devices away at a certain time – say 9pm. This has been shown to aid mental well-being too.
Encourage your child to tell you if they are worried about something online – Sometimes children get into situations online where they don’t feel comfortable or see something they don’t want to see. By opening up the communication channels and talking to your child about the internet, their favourite sites and the risks they may encounter, they are more likely to turn to you if they are concerned about something.
If you are concerned that an adult has made inappropriate contact with your child you can report this directly to CEOP or the Police. You can also find help if you think your child is being bullied, or if you’ve come across something on the internet which you think may be illegal. Visit the Safety Centre at www.ceop.police.uk/safety-centre . If in doubt, please contact us at the Academy.
Like many others around the world, I have been gripped by the US elections over recent weeks. The long, drawn-out vote count added to the drama, as it was not clear for several days who would emerge the winner. When the tally reached its critical point in Pennsylvania, and the media declared Joe Biden the winner, I was struck by the overwhelming feeling of relief and celebration coming in from the news crews around the world.
As a Headteacher and a public servant, it is my duty and my role to ensure that I do not promote a particular political point of view. For this reason, this blog is not about the policies or political persuasions of the Republican or Democratic parties or their candidates. Rather, I am interested in the models of leadership that the candidates provided, and the implications for our young people.
Leading in public life
When I became Headteacher of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, I had to return a signed copy of the Seven Principles of Public Life to the Department for Education. These principles, also known as the Nolan Principles, apply to anyone who works as a public office-holder in our country. All public office-holders are both servants of the public and stewards of public resources, and as such we are expected to uphold the Nolan Principles. They are:
As a Headteacher, I try to not only uphold but also actively to model those principles in my daily work. It is also part of my responsibility to ensure that all staff who work for the Academy uphold the principles too.
The impact of Donald Trump
The Nolan Principles are part of UK government guidance, and they do not apply in the United States. Some might say it’s just as well. Over the past four years, the elected President of the United States has not provided a role model of leadership that I would want anyone to look up to. He has lied, misinformed, bullied and bludgeoned his way around the world stage, seemingly looking out more for his own self-interest than the interests of others. His statements and actions – or lack of them – have legitimised racism and misogyny, unravelling decades of progress towards equality in a few short years. His refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis – the single biggest issue facing our planet at the moment – has lost time that we do not have in the fight against pollution and the journey towards decarbonisation. And his preference to create his own “alternative facts,” even in the outcome of the election, has undermined our ability as a society to trust those in authority.
In Donald Trump, I do not see a selfless leader: I see self-interest. I do not see a leader who acts with integrity. His interpretation of the world around him is entirely subjective, laden with discrimination and bias and often ignoring the factual evidence. He seems to act without accountability or openness, refusing to submit himself to scrutiny. He lies. He does not exhibit any of the principles of public life in his own behaviour. In doing so, he undermines the concept of leadership and damages the idea of public service.
What about Joe Biden?
I am not naïve enough to think that Joe Biden – or any politician – is without self-interest. He has been a politician for a long time, becoming a Senator in 1973 – the year before I was born. But throughout his long political career he has always embodied the idea of public service. He talks about the idea of integrity and equality instilled in him by his grandfather:
“He wanted me to understand two big things: first, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honour. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a sort of romantic notion of what politics should be- and can be. If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people’s lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game. Nearly forty years after I first got involved, I remain captivated by the possibilities of politics and public service. In fact, I believe- as I know my grandpop did- that my chosen profession is a noble calling.”
Joe Biden, from “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.”
He has also been visited by personal tragedy. In 1972, a car accident killed his wife and 13-month-old daughter. He found himself, aged 30, a single dad to his sons Hunter and Beau, both of whom were injured in the accident. Then, in 2015, Beau Biden – himself on track for a promising political career – died of brain cancer at the age of 46. In the wake of the election, commentator Piers Morgan wrote movingly about the impact of these tragedies on the now-President-elect. Piers Morgan is not somebody I am used to agreeing with, but on this occasion his reflections on the impact of grief on Joe Biden brought tears to my eyes.
In the article, Morgan recalls Joe Biden ringing him up at home to thank him for a piece he had written in tribute to Beau Biden following his funeral in 2015. Morgan recalls Joe Biden’s words:
“It’s so important to remember that however bad things may seem, a lot of people are going through a lot worse than you and the way they get through it is other people reaching out to them to give them solace, and in finding a purpose…What I learned when my wife and daughter died was that when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. My purpose then was to be there for my sons and to use my position as a Senator to do as much good as I possibly could, especially for those who need it most. I feel that so strongly again. My purpose now is to think, ‘What would my Beau want me to be doing?’
The answer, eventually, was to run for President again. This time – after unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008, he has won. Whether he will be a good President, a successful President, remains to be seen. But, like Van Jones, I am more hopeful with Biden as President than I was with Trump: more hopeful that we will see decency, honesty, integrity, accountability and leadership in the White House.
My final reflection on this historic election is the success of Biden’s Vice-Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, who is set to be inaugurated as the first female Vice-President in US History, and the first woman of colour elected to the office. Her victory speech paid tribute to her mother, and the generations of women before her who had blazed a trail for her election. And she offered a vision of hope:
Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision — to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders. And what a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice president. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before. And we will applaud you every step of the way.
What Harris’s speech captures is that a leader has enormous power, as a role model, to shape the future. For the past four years I have not been able to look to the United States for a model of leadership that I would want my children, or my students, to aspire towards. With the election of Biden and Harris, I am more hopeful that the principles of public life will apply, not just at Churchill, but to our political leaders as well.
I love poetry. I’ve always thought of it as distilled language: as though ideas have been boiled down and condensed so that only the concentrated essence remains. Because of this, every word in a poem feels somehow as if it’s carrying extra weight, extra resonance, extra value. When reading a poem, my senses are heightened and alerted: it’s a thrilling, exciting feeling.
I first experienced this sensation in an English Literature classroom in the autumn of 1991 (or possibly the spring of 1992) when I first encountered the poetry of Sylvia Plath. I’d always loved books and reading, but when I read Plath it was like I finally understood what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Lady Lazarus and the hairs standing up on my arms and the back of my neck. My teacher lent me his copy of her collection Ariel, and I haven’t looked back since.
My experience of “waking up” to poetry sounds exactly like the experience of our current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage. On Desert Island Discs earlier this year, he described vividly his first encounter with the work of Ted Hughes:
“It suddenly struck me, in a very electrifying moment, that the world was a really interesting place. It could be packaged up in these little bundles of language, which, at the end of the day, are only black marks against a white page. But if you put them in the right order, you can make extraordinary things happen in somebody else’s head across thousands of miles, across thousands of years, and in complete silence. And the shock of that realisation and the primitive magic of it has never really left me. I still feel that when I’m looking at a poem: that I’m staring at some kind of circuit board of language, which makes a contactless contact with something in my head. I think I knew at that very moment, that poetry was going to be my thing.”
Over the years, I have taught poetry to hundreds and hundreds of students. I haven’t always succeeded in igniting the same passion in every single one of them! But I hope I have helped some to find the power of poetry, and to enjoy it for themselves – away from having to study it for GCSE.
This last week, I have been blown away to see exactly this happen at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form. At the end of January 2020, Ms Cody from our English Department gave an assembly to all main school students on the theme of “Literature that changed the world.” At least one student was inspired to pick up the books Ms Cody described, to see what all the fuss was about. That student was Imogen Beaumont, who has gone from winning our House Poetry Competition in 2019 to becoming a Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2020.
I have followed the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award for over 20 years. Since 1998, the Award has been finding, celebrating and supporting the very best young poets from around the world. It is firmly established as the leading competition for young poets aged between 11 and 17 years old. This year, a staggering 15,966 poems were entered. Young writers from a record-breaking 118 countries entered the competition from as far afield as Afghanistan, Ecuador, Mozambique, North Korea and the Seychelles, and every corner of the UK. From these poems, this year’s judges Keith Jarrett and Maura Dooley selected 100 winners, made up of 15 top poets and 85 commended poets. After Mr Lockett put the entry invitation into our newsletter on 3rd July, Imogen entered. Her poem, The sound of Shakespeare’s women, was chosen as one of the top 15. When you read it, you can see why:
The sound of Shakepeare’s Women
If Juliet was silenced
amongst a patriarchal nightmare and
Lavinia was two limbs down
with no tongue to tell their tale and
Ophelia was driven to madness
with no sense left to speak and
Cordelia was shunned by her father,
her pointless words falling on deaf ears and
Desdemona’s desperate truth
was shouted down by whispered lies,
Then Will’s trying to tell us something.
By Imogen Beaumont
Imogen’s poem is a powerful, skilful piece of writing. She told me she reads a lot of Shakespeare – and you can tell! The poem draws in repeated examples of female characters in Shakepeare’s plays who are variously silenced, ignored, or left voiceless.
Juliet pleads with her father in Romeo and Juliet to listen to her when he plans her marriage to a man she does not love. He ignores her pleas, and she is forced to take desperate measures. Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is raped and has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t reveal who attacked her. Ophelia is driven mad when Hamlet, who said he loved her, ignores her and hurls abuse at her when she tries to help him. Cordelia tells her father, King Lear, the truth when he asks her to: as a result, she is disinherited and cast out from the family. Othello is tricked into believing his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful to him. She tells him again and again that it isn’t true, but he believes the lies and smothers her with a pillow.
In each case, the inability of the male characters to hear what the women are trying to tell them leads to tragedy. What Imogen does so skilfully is distil those stories down to their concentrated core, and connect them with one final line to our modern day experience. The #MeToo movement and the linked #BelieveHer hashtag show that, today, women’s voices are still too often ignored, silenced, or discounted. It would seem the lesson that Shakespeare was trying to teach over 400 years ago has still not been learned.
Imogen’s powerful voice has found just the right words, in just the right order, to connect ideas across hundreds of years and deliver that electric shock of meaning that only poetry can deliver. It’s a stunning piece of work. I’m really proud that our English teachers have had some small part in unlocking her talent: we can’t wait to see what she’ll write next, or where the next young poet will spring from. Could it be you?
Our Parent Feedback Survey was open from 2nd to 12th October 2020. The aim was to get feedback from families about the September Re-opening, and feelings about the Academy’s handling of the return to school in these challenging times. We also took the opportunity to ask some of our standard Parent Survey questions to compare parent attitudes since the last Parent Survey in June 2019. We were very grateful to receive 291 responses to the survey – and here are the results!
Coming back in September
We asked two questions in this section: firstly, how confident were you about sending your child in to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form at the start of September; and then, how confident you you feel about this now, after a month back at school?
The scale for these questions was from 1 (completely confident) to 5 (not at all confident). The picture was reassuring in September and confidence in our covid-safe protocols has increased over the course of the first month, despite (or potentially because of) two confirmed cases. This is a very encouraging endorsement of the Academy’s approach.
This is another encouraging set of responses. The newsletter is very popular and successful! Communications from me have also been positively reviewed – including this blog! Similarly our video curriculum presentations have been warmly received, although not all year groups had yet seen these at the time of the survey. It appears that communications from and with the Academy are working well.
A 93.8% positive rating for this question is very encouraging, especially considering the mental health impacts of the pandemic more broadly. The last time we asked this question the response was 92% positive, so more families are telling us their children are happy at Churchill than the last time we asked.
The proportions here are very similar to the previous question. The slight shift in responses could be down to covid-related issues causing students to feel less safe. A 92% positive response is still very encouraging, with a small group to work on as we continue to build confidence.
This question received a 90.3% positive response, with an increase in the “don’t know” category compared to the previous questions. This is therefore similarly encouraging. The increase in “don’t know” may be accounted for by families new to the school without sufficient experience yet. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) it received an 89% positive response, so again we can see positive progress in this area.
There were more “don’t know” responses to this question – we assume this is from lack of experience so early in the term. No respondents strongly disagreed, with only 12 respondents (4.2%) expressing any dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching at the Academy. The last time we asked this question 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed, so it is encouraging to see this proportion declining.
It was perhaps a little early in the year to get a representative response to this question, especially as we had instructed staff to start with light homework and increase the challenge gradually, particularly with Year 7 students. This would explain the larger “don’t know” response – although the picture is still encouraging.
The total proportion of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with this statement was 10.4%, with a 6.2% “don’t know” response. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed, with 6% “don’t know” responses. It is encouraging to see the proportion disagreeing with this statement declining. Whilst the picture is again encouraging, it shows that we should not be complacent about behaviour as there are still 30 families in our community who need to be convinced.
The “don’t know” response to this question is very encouraging – nearly half of our families have no experience of the Academy’s response to bullying. We assume this means that neither they nor their peers have been affected by it. The proportion dissatisfied with the Academy’s response to this vital issue has more than halved since June 2019 – 7.6% compared to 16%. These are still more encouraging signs about the positive progress of our work. We know that bullying can happen – it’s how we deal with it that counts.
This is a very large “strongly agree” response from families, which is an endorsement of the leadership offered across the Academy though the pandemic and into the reopening phase. The overall positive response was 93.8%. This is a significant positive swing from the responses in 2019, when 35% responded “strongly agree” and 48% “agree”.
The larger “don’t know” response suggests that a fifth of families have not had to raise any issues with the Academy. Where respondents were able to offer a view, 90.5% were satisfied with the Academy’s response.
This is the first time we have asked this question in a parent feedback survey. We will ask it again later in the year as we seek to understand the impact of our values-led culture across the Academy community. The relatively large “don’t know” response indicates that it is perhaps still early for many parents new to the Academy to respond to a question like this – but very few (3.7%) respondents disagreed which is very encouraging.
Would you recommend Churchill?
This is the “gold standard” question for our offer at Churchill. The last time we asked this question (in 2019) the response was 93% positive – it is very encouraging to see the positive progress as our reputation continues to grow.
The responses across each of the key questions were very positive. We have seen increases since June 2019 in the headline measures of “would you recommend Churchill to another family” and across the other key areas, demonstrating that families are even more satisfied with Churchill now than they were then.
There were more “don’t know” responses to this survey than the traditional summer poll, reflecting the relative novelty of secondary school to some families whose children have just joined us. This skews some of the data in relation to the summer 2019 responses, but when figures are adjusted to remove “don’t know” answers the trends are still positive.
In relation to covid-19, responses were very encouraging. Families have great faith in the Academy’s response to the pandemic, and that confidence has increased over the first month back. Within the text comments, it is evident that our comprehensive intake reflects a range of views on this issue. We must always be mindful that we serve a community in which this diversity of opinion exists, and the impact that it may have on the students in our classrooms.
Within the plentiful text comments there are many individual issues to pick up and address, but the overall feeling is one of satisfaction, gratitude and pride.
The survey feels like a vindication of our work over lockdown and in the reopening phase, and an instruction to “keep doing what you’re doing” – because it is clearly working.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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:
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].
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.