How to help your child through lockdown

This lockdown, through the winter months, is a challenge for all of us. We continue to be impressed by the determination of our students to maintain their educational standards and their spirits through this difficult time – but it’s hard! Here are some ways that families can help. They won’t all work for all families and all children – but I hope you will find something of use.

Show an interest

It may seem obvious, but ask your children what they’ve been learning about. If it’s something you don’t know, ask them to explain it to you. Even if it’s something you do know, ask them to explain it to you! Get them to show you how their Google Classrooms work, how they “hand in” work electronically, and how they can communicate with their teachers. Ask them how they’re finding remote learning – and listen to the answers.

Celebrate struggle

Ask them what they found difficult, and celebrate it: if students find all the work easy, it probably means they can already do it, or they already know it. This can be useful to reinforce prior learning. But when students find it difficult, when they struggle – that’s when real learning happens, because they’re engaging with something new, something they don’t already know or know how to do. This is when they have to dig in and persevere – and that’s when your encouragement is more important than ever.

Encourage independence

As we detailed in our remote learning guidance: “We are trying to encourage our students to be proactive and independent in resolving any difficulties with online learning. Please encourage them to contact teachers and tutors directly to solve problems themselves – we do not expect parents and family members to be doing this for students (although we are grateful for your support!).” 

This approach is designed to help our students feel ownership of their learning, and to give them agency in solving problems.

Give them a sense of purpose

Motivation is challenging for all of us – in or out of lockdown – but it can be especially difficult in the current circumstances. When struggling with motivation, it can be helpful to identify why working hard during this period of time will pay off in the longer term by keeping them on track for their goals – whether that be a massive haul of conduct points, keeping up with their peers, or as a step on a journey towards Sixth Form or a career.

It also helps to focus on the value of learning for its own sake – as a means to improving themselves, improving their prospects, and helping them to make their contribution to the world around them. Work is more rewarding when it has a purpose.

Show them you’re proud of them

We all like praise – especially from people we respect and admire. A “well done” or “I’m proud of you” from a parent to a child makes a world of difference to motivation and self-esteem – even if they don’t show it on the surface!

We know that praise works best when it’s focused on what people have actually done to achieve something, rather than on their innate abilities of qualities. This is why “I’m really proud of you for the way you’ve focused on that task, even though I know it’s not your favourite subject,” is much more effective than “you’re so clever!” Being specific about exactly what someone has done to deserve praise gives it value, and makes it more likely that we will repeat that activity to get the same results. Look for opportunities to show how proud you are of them, for the small things as well as their work over time.

Tell them to stop

We are setting five hours of remote learning per day for main school students. We do not expect them to be working beyond the five timetabled hours of lessons they have on a school day. Once the hour is up – we expect them to stop. Our mantra is:

Do as much as you can, with your best effort, in the time you have available. Do not spend any longer than the time allocated on your timetable. You will never be in trouble if your teachers can see you have tried your best with remote learning – even if you haven’t finished everything.

If your child is working during breaks or lunchtimes, or after the end of the timetabled school day, to finish off work: they do not have to do this. It’s not good for them. They need to stop – and you have my permission to tell them to.

Encourage exercise and activity

Teenagers spend long enough looking at screens in normal times – and this has been amplified through the remote learning environment we now find ourselves in. The technology we have at our disposal is wonderful, of course – but you can have too much of it! We are “mixing it up” as much as possible with non-screen-based activities and opportunities to be active. Please encourage physical activity – especially in breaks from learning and after the end of the school day. There’s a reason why the NHS recommends physical activity as one of the best ways to boost well-being…

Build good sleep habits

Many people have reported difficulty sleeping during the pandemic. This is perhaps no surprise, given the heightened level of anxiety in society at large. There are things we can to to help build those good sleep habits: exercise during the day will certainly help.

My no-frills alarm clock, which enabled me to banish my phone, has saved me from bedtime and night-time scrolling and improved my sleep no end.

It’s also important to have a regular, consistent bedtime, with a structured bedtime routine. Switching off screens well before bedtime is also shown to help with sleep, as the glow from the displays stops the body producing melatonin, the chemical which sends us to the land of nod. Most sleep experts recommend charging your phone downstairs, rather than having it by your bedside. I took this advice eighteen months ago, when I bought myself an alarm clock so I didn’t have to have my phone by my bed to charge (I’d been using the phone alarm to wake me up). It has made the world of difference.

Be solution-focused

We are facing a world full of problems at the moment – some of them small, some of them massive. It’s no good pretending that things aren’t difficult when they self-evidently are. But fixating on the problems themselves, and their impact on us and our lives, won’t change anything.

Instead, try to focus on what we can control. We can’t make coronavirus stop, or speed up the vaccine roll-out – these things are beyond our control. But we can make sure we really focus on that Maths explanation that the teacher has recorded for us, to minimise the disruption to our learning. We can’t see have our friends round to our house – but we can call them up, see them on screens, and laugh with them. We can’t pretend that everything is going to be okay – but we can make as much okay as we can.

Be values-led

Our Academy values of kindness, curiosity and determination were carefully chosen to build balanced, well-rounded individuals. Kindness is a strength of the heart; curiosity is a strength of the mind; determination is a strength of the will. They form three sides of a strong triangle which supports our students to make a positive difference to themselves and to the world – and the people – around them.

Look for opportunities to praise your children when you see them demonstrating the Academy’s values – and tell us about them! Tutors, teachers, Heads of Houses – even Headteachers! – love to hear about how our students have been making a difference, especially when we don’t see them every day. They can also be modest, not wanting to blow their own trumpets – so please feel free to blow it on their behalf!

Thank you to all our Academy families for all you are doing to help learning continue through lockdown – we really appreciate it, and I know our students do too.

Green Shoots

The first daffodil at Churchill this week

On duty this week, I saw the first daffodil of the spring flowering next to Mrs Bradley’s office in the Hanover House garden, normally tended so carefully by HRMS. At the moment, the members of HRMS tutor group are mostly learning remotely, staying at home to protect the NHS and save lives. Only a few students are in school, accessing remote learning in Frontline. Following the weekend’s snow, the daffodil was a reminder that spring always follows closely behind the bleak midwinter.

It has become too tempting recently to focus on the bleak and dark, and not on the fresh and green. Throughout this week, I have made myself look out for the positivity, and focus on the signs of recovery – which was why Mrs Wilson walked past me, crouched in the wet grass, getting up close and personal to a daffodil with my iPhone (yes, I know, phone out in school – I’ll give myself the C1!)

Here are the green shoots I noticed this week:

  • 50 students achieved their Headteacher’s Commendations this week, for reaching 125 Conduct Points
  • Our first two Year 9 students achieved Trustees’ Commendations, reaching 175 Conduct Points
  • We have a record number of applications for Churchill Sixth Form, including over 60 students from outside our Academy (also a record)
  • Our students from all years are engaged with their remote learning, producing fantastic results despite the difficult circumstances
  • All of the over 400 lateral flow tests carried out at the Academy so far have returned negative results
  • Local communities have donated food, toiletries and essentials to help families in need
  • Bristol airport, having closed their duty free, donated stock to the Churchill staff to keep us all going
  • Both my parents had appointments for their first vaccinations this week – two of the nearly eight million doses issued in the UK so far
  • The Prime Minister has given a timeline for schools re-opening
  • The rebuilding of the Lancaster House block is progressing well and is due to be ready before we welcome more students back to school
  • Contractors are on site repairing and replacing the fence around the Academy’s perimeter – and this will also be complete before we fully re-open
  • The Academy Hall has a brand-new, shining floor
  • When I walked out to my car to come to work on Monday morning, although the sun hadn’t risen, it was light. And, driving home, darkness had yet to fall.

There is darkness all around us in the world at the moment. Things are challenging for everyone. But, if you look, there is always light – if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Testing, testing, 1,2,3…

Over the course of this week, we have run the first round of our lateral flow tests for coronavirus in school. It has been really successful, and I am pleased to report – at time of writing – that of the 212 tests carried out, all have been negative.

Our testing centre, ready for its first visitors

The testing programme for schools was originally announced just before the end of term 2, but the full guidance wasn’t released until New Year’s Eve, which led to a somewhat fraught Christmas break. As you will all know, the first week back wasn’t exactly smooth sailing either, with a national lockdown announced at 8pm on the first Monday! But once we had navigated that particular storm, we were able to get our heads around setting up testing for the students and staff working in school.

The Department for Education originally announced three strands to the testing programme for schools:

  1. Mass testing of students in school – students to take two tests, 3-5 days apart
  2. Weekly testing of staff working in school – this has now been increased to twice weekly
  3. Daily testing of those identified as close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19

Since that initial announcement, the Department for Education has “paused” the third strand, in line with medical advice. Close contacts will now be advised to self-isolate, as has been the case in schools since September.

The first two strands, however, are going ahead as planned. The aim is to minimise the risk of transmission: by testing people in school, any identified asymptomatic cases can be isolated. This will prevent them from unwittingly spreading the virus. It also gives greater reassurance to those of us continuing to work and learn in school.

Consent remains absolutely essential in our administration of the testing programme. We will only carry out tests where we have explicit, written consent. We do not require a test of anyone, and we will always respect the wishes of those that choose not to undertake a test. Also, if students are uncomfortable or upset, we will do what we can to support them – but they do not have to go ahead with the test, and can say “no” at any time without any consequence. As it happens, everyone has been fine with it – but these principles are very important to us at the Academy.

The training and support materials from NHS Test and Trace are excellent. Everything arrived on time, as announced, with clear instructions. There was online training which helped spell out how to get everything set up, and how to run each of the roles in the testing centre. I have always loved the NHS – and this programme has only increased my respect for the work of our health service.

We set our testing centre up in the Academy Hall, with its newly-replaced floor shining and pristine, giving the whole place a lift! Academy staff volunteered to take on the various roles within the system. Everyone has been trained and registered with NHS Test and Trace.

Our testing centre labels: Testing Station and Taylor Swift have the same initials, so each Testing Station was named after a different Taylor Swift album. I only wish I’d put them in the right order, but they were laminated before I could correct it!

The tests work using a swab of the back of the throat and the nose. This is not a very pleasant experience, but all the students and staff who have participated have shown the Academy value of determination and just got on with it! The testing team have put on a good soundtrack of background music too, which means that people aren’t so self-conscious when swabbing the backs of their throats.

Email received from testing centre staff about our students in Frontline

Once the swab has been taken, the testing centre staff prepare a sample using extraction fluid, which is then dropped into a lateral flow test cartridge. It’s called “lateral flow” because the liquid in the sample “flows” sideways along the strip, revealing the result after it reaches the far end.

A lateral flow test in action

Each test is timed, as you have to read the result between 20 and 30 minutes after the test has been started for it to be valid. One red line on “C” (for “Control”) means the test has worked. A red line on “T” (for “Test”) means that the test is positive for coronavirus.

A positive test result on a lateral flow test doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. This must be confirmed by a PCR test, which is processed in a lab. Anyone testing positive must self-isolate until the confirmation is received, just in case.

Equally, a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have the virus. You can still catch it; you can still spread it. Therefore, in school, we have continued to reinforce the importance of hands, face, space – even though everyone has so far tested negative.

It is strange to see my colleagues kitted out in full PPE, and the Academy Hall transformed into something resembling a field hospital. But these are strange times, and we will continue to do all we can to keep our staff and students safe.

Looking up whilst locking down

There is no such thing as failure: only success, and learning.

I came across this saying from a colleague Headteacher many years ago, and it has always stuck with me. When things are going badly, it’s easy to be downhearted; it’s tempting to give up. In those moments, when things are bleak, it’s all the more important to think about the positives: what am I learning from this situation? This is at the core of a growth mindset approach, and as the author of Becoming a growth mindset school, it is important that I practice what I preach – at this moment more than any other.

I did not write a post on the Headteacher’s Blog last week. I don’t mind admitting I was feeling pretty negative. In the education world, I had spent much of the Christmas holidays trying to work out how to turn my school into a coronavirus testing centre, having been told that this was required almost on the last day of term. The full guidance on testing in secondary schools was released, with the Department for Education’s usual sensitivity, just before 6pm on New Year’s Eve. We returned to school on Monday 4th January with the Secretary of State having “absolutely” given a cast-iron guarantee that exams were going ahead, and the Prime Minister encouraging all parents to send their children in. At 8pm, we were told all schools would close until half term and exams were not going ahead. The spiralling confusion of often contradictory last minute announcements, with missing, confusing or late-arriving guidance, has meant that this past month has been the most challenging of my entire teaching career – and I’ve been doing this for 23 years.

Beyond education, the headlines were scary: spiralling cases, a climbing death rate, a winter lockdown, and angry mobs storming the seat of the world’s most powerful democracy intending to overturn the legitimate outcome of an election. It was tempting to think that everything was falling apart.

But, amidst the darkness, there is always light.

At Churchill, I am surrounded by fantastic colleagues. The leadership team were all on Zoom within minutes of the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday night, undoing all the planning from that morning and preparing solutions and arrangements for the next day, the next week, and the term beyond. We were able to distil clarity from the confusion: I was able to email all staff with a summary of those plans by just after 9pm, and publish an update to the website and to the Academy’s social media accounts by 9:30pm.

The wider staff have been incredible. Plans were shifted and adapted quickly. At the centre of all our decisions were the students: what would be best for them? How could we make sure that our education, care and guidance could continue as smoothly as possible, despite the disruption? In particular, our focus was on our exam-year students, who now faced uncertainty and doubt. How could we reassure them, and ensure that they stayed focused on the task in hand? Seeing this commitment and dedication to our vision and purpose, even in the face of anxiety about the risks of the situation, was truly inspiring.

We have also never known a term like it in terms of parental support. One family sent me a box of tea and biscuits to keep me going, which I opened at the end of a very long Wednesday – it was just the tonic I needed! Every day, we receive emails of thanks and encouragement. These make a huge difference to our morale; it’s always nice to feel appreciated! The pièce de résistance, I have to say, came in the wake of the Secretary of State’s declaration that parents should report their children’s schools to Ofsted if they weren’t happy with the remote learning provision. Several of our parents were amongst the thousands across the country who wrote into the schools inspectorate, not to criticise, but to praise the Academy for all we had done for their children. One of them advised inspectors to take a look at Gavin Williamson’s performance instead: this went down very well with the staff in school!

In the wider world, the roll-out of vaccines promises an eventual end to the pandemic. Democracy has prevailed across the Atlantic. And even though 2020 was, by all accounts, a bad year, it did give us two Taylor Swift albums: amidst the darkness, there is always light.

And, at the heart of all we do at Churchill, we have our fantastic young people. The students in Frontline have adapted well to a new type of schooling. Attendance at remote learning has been exceptional, and teachers have been so impressed by the commitment and engagement of our students. Even though we only see the majority of our students at the moment in little rectangles on a screen, they are the beacons of hope that will see us all through.

Christmas at Churchill: 2020

We won’t let a few little things like a global pandemic, last minute government policy announcements, gale force winds and torrential rain dampen our festive spirits! Christmas at Churchill was a little different this year, but still spectacular…

Sixth Form Fancy Dress

The Revue was a online spectacular this year, with a live-streamed TV studio and interactive fun! All in the traditional Sixth Form Christmas Fancy Dress, which this year was even more inventive than ever.

Sports Awards 2020

Our annual Sports Awards spectacular couldn’t happen in person at a luxury hotel this year, so Team PE transported it to a Christmas celebration instead!

Headteacher’s Quiz

The annual Headteacher’s Quiz is always a hotly-fought contest and this year was no exception! Tutor groups competed in our online Google Quiz to see which tutor group and which House would be crowned the Quiz Champions 2020. When the results were all tallied up, the overall winners were:

  • Top Scoring Tutor Group: 10LJAH – well done Lancaster House and Mr Hayne!
  • Winning House (highest average score): STUART HOUSE! Many congratulations to everyone in Stuart.

You can have a go at the Headteacher’s Quiz yourself here. Merry Christmas!

2020: the year in review

January and February

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.

February ended in triumph, with an astonishing production of Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The production, music and performance were simply breath-taking.

Sweeney Todd 27th Feb 2020,

March

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.

Lockdown Youthful Spirit: Lovely Day

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.

And, behind it all, the extension to the Athene Donald Building was finished and – even through the disruption – the House Cup was awarded (to Windsor!).

August

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

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

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.

Ten books I have read in 2020

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!

Staying safe online

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
  • Be Kind
    • 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
THINK before you speak (or post online)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Sources of help

If you want to know more please visit: https://www.thinkuknow.co.uk/parents.

Internet Matters has a useful summary of the age limits for different social media services here. Please note that WhatsApp is not designed for use by children under 16.

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.

You can also see my previous post: Top 5 Safer Internet Day Tips.

Getting to grips with Google Classroom

Since the start of this academic year, we have moved all our homework and online learning on to Google Classroom. This is a hugely powerful platform for teachers and for students.

For students

Mr Hart helpfully prepared this “student guide to Google Classroom” earlier in the year to help our students get to grips with the system:

As well as Google Classroom, all students have access to a Google Drive with the full suite of apps: Docs for word processing, Sheets for spreadsheets, Slides for presentations, and a wealth of other apps integrated into the Google Suite.

Google Classroom also has a superb app, available for both iOS and Android for smartphones and tablet devices. This means that students don’t need to have a laptop (although Classroom works well on those too!) Work can be accessed online, completed on paper, and a photograph uploaded if necessary, all from a single device like a mobile phone.

For teachers

Google Classroom is fantastic for teachers. It enables teachers to set work, mark it online, and return it, all within the online Classroom. Alternatively, work can be set for completion and physically handing in. Behind the scenes, Google Classroom also enables teacher to keep track of marks, and communicate with students about their work.

Teachers can create assignments and add in all the necessary resources for students to work on. This can include a Google Meet if students are self-isolating. Students receive a notification when there is a new assignment and are able to “hand in” the assignment in on Classroom. Classroom sends a notification out to students once the homework is graded, so students can review grades and feedback.

Teachers can also share learning resources, reading materials, videos, links, and handouts. This allows students to refer to them at any time, or collaborate with their classmates on learning. Resources and assignments are saved in date order in the Classroom Stream, so students can always go back to revise what’s been covered.

Teachers can also send announcements to the whole class, which students receive via email. They also see these announcements when they log in to Classroom, through a web browser or Classroom’s mobile app, available on iOS and Android.

Students can message teachers directly with questions and/or comments on assignments and announcements in the classroom stream. Students can also collaborate with each other for team assignments by working on shared projects in Docs, Sheets, and Slides at the same time as each other.

For parents and families

Parents and families cannot log in to Google Classroom. Instead, you can opt in to get an email summary of your child’s work in Classroom, which includes information about upcoming assignments, missing work, class activities and projects.

We have found the best way to use the Guardian Summaries is to go through them with your children. It can be especially helpful if your child has the Classroom app with them on their phone, tablet or other device, so you can see what’s happening.

Ask them about the work they’ve completed: what did they find interesting about it? Ask them to explain some of it to you: if you understand their explanation, that’s a good indication that they’ve learned it well!

Discuss work with deadlines coming up with them too. Have they got a clear plan for the week ahead? When are they going to complete each piece of homework? Encourage them to ask questions if they aren’t sure, using the Classroom Stream, email or messaging aspect of the Classroom. This builds their independence and encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning. At the same time, make sure their messages and emails to staff have the appropriate tone: “Dear Mr / Mrs / Miss…” is a good way to start, and a “thank you” is always welcome!

For work that is flagged as “missing” or “overdue” in your Guardian Summary, it’s worth checking that your children have clicked the “hand in” button for all their tasks. It’s easy to forget to click the “hand in” button on Google Classroom when students are handing in work on paper in the classroom! If work has not been completed, encourage your children to catch up, and to discuss any missing work with their teachers. We understand that, in these difficult times, sometimes deadline extensions are necessary – but we do expect all work to be completed.

As ever with any new system, we are learning all the time. All staff have had additional training this term, and we are all exploring the many features that Google Classroom has to offer. We’re sure we’re only just getting started!

When the pandemic hits

Nationally and locally, the impact of the pandemic has really ramped up since half term. From September, we have seen isolated cases, in both staff and students, resulting in self-isolations for contained “bubbles” of students across the first term. Since we have been back, the situation has felt very different.

Latest case figures for North Somerset from the BBC tracker (source)

Cases in November in Years 8, 9 and 10 have meant over 600 students from Churchill self-isolating at home as potential contacts. This picture is reflected in the national school attendance figures release this week:

  • Attendance in state-funded schools steadily increased from 87% in early September, to a period of stability of between 89 to 90% from 1 October to 15 October.  After half-term attendance was at 89% on 5 November but decreased to 86% on 12 November.
  • On 12 November, attendance in state-funded secondary schools is 83%, down from 87%. The drop in attendance is mainly due to the increased number of pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a case of coronavirus. (source)

Everyone has been disrupted. Two of my three children have been sent home from their school this month to self-isolate due to positive cases in their year group bubbles. I really do understand it from both sides, as a parent and a Headteacher. I understand the frustrations. I understand the inconvenience. I understand the upset. I understand the anxiety.

None of us want to be in this position: we all wish it was different. But wishing won’t change the reality of education in the middle of a pandemic.

What happens when a case is notified?

In school, notification of a positive case launches a very clear but complex process:

  1. Contact the family: make sure we have all the correct information about dates, symptoms, test results, transport arrangements, attendance, and any social contacts.
  2. Run the contact tracing: we have a report in our Management Information System that pulls out all the students that are “contacts” with a named individual. We cross-refer this report with the student timetable and, if necessary, seating plans to identify students that need to self isolate. We also identify any staff contacts of the confirmed case to check social distancing, ventilation in the rooms, and any other issues.
  3. Seek advice: having run through the written guidance, I always check with the Health Protection Team that my interpretation is correct. They have been brilliant – always available with a prompt response and clear, helpful advice, including confirmation of dates and self-isolation durations.
  4. Prepare letters for the confirmed case, the identified contacts, and the wider Academy
  5. Contact parents and families of identified contacts: all other operations stop in the Academy office as every available colleague takes to the phones. If the notification comes out of hours, all available senior leaders work through the contacts from home.
  6. Organise collection: staff supervising the students use walkie-talkies to communicate with reception when individuals are ready to be collected
  7. Formal notifications: it’s my responsibility to notify the South West Health Protection Team, Department for Education, the local authority, school transport (if applicable), the Trust Board and the wider staff. These notifications never include personal details of the case – only that we have a confirmed case, the year group, the date of the test, and the number of contacts required to self-isolate.
  8. Follow up: often students who have not come up on our contact tracing self-identify that they have spent time with a confirmed case at lunch or break time. We check the circumstances of these contacts, and provide advice accordingly. At other times, the Health Protection Team want a follow-up discussion to check responses and offer support. There are sometimes further details to clarify, or further contacts to identify.
  9. Implement remote or blended learning: staff need to re-plan their teaching to accommodate full or part-classes learning remotely at home. Webcams, visualisers and other tools are used to provide live or recorded video content; Google Classrooms need to be updated with lesson content or learning tasks. We need to check staff absences or isolations, and ensure that any cover work is adapted to work remotely.
  10. Welfare checks: tutors begin the process of “touching base” with self-isolating students, addressing any issues with remote learning, health or wellbeing. These checks take place by phone or email, at least once a week during self-isolation.

This is our new reality. At any time, with one positive test, the whole process kicks into action. The ramifications spread far beyond the Academy, to all those families who have to drop everything to come and collect their children, reorganising schedules and arrangements at a moment’s notice.

It has to be this way. If we are going to protect the vulnerable, relieve the pressure on the NHS, and slow the spread of this virus, we have to take immediate action to isolate any potential contacts of a confirmed case. But the disruption is massive – and it’s not just happening at Churchill. Every single secondary school in our area has isolated large groups of students this term. And the South West – although cases are rising – is not the worst-hit region. In Hull last week, one in four children was at home self-isolating.

What can we do?

There has been much talk about implementing rota systems in schools, so that year groups only attend for two weeks at a time with two weeks off. This was proposed by the government back in August, and at Churchill we have a contingency plan for this eventuality if it is called for. But I can’t see that this will fix things: if a positive case is confirmed in a year group bubble that is on the rota to be in school, they will have to go home to self-isolate anyway. What then?

Year 7 under the canopy this week

To my mind, schools should stay open. For this to be sustainable, we have to protect ourselves as much as we can. We must rigorously stick to the covid-safe protocols in school, and the protective measures and restrictions in wider society. And, when a positive case is confirmed, we have to isolate the case and any possible contacts to prevent further spread. Until a vaccine is in wider circulation, this is our new reality.