Yes we can

This has been quite the week for schools. We have had the re-opening announcement: all students to return. Seventy pages of guidance, from lateral flow tests to face coverings to ventilation to hygiene to “bubbles” to cleaning and beyond…with the health and wellbeing of our staff and students depending on its implementation.

Then we have had the decisions on how GCSE, AS and A level, vocational and technical qualification grades will be determined in summer 2021. 113 pages of guidance to digest and synthesise carefully, with the future prospects of our examination candidates depending on its implementation.

Is it easy?

No.

Can we do it?

Yes we can.

When our students are faced with something difficult, they can sometimes feel overwhelmed, and want to give up. It’s our job, as teachers, to pick them up and encourage them, to give them confidence, to reassure them that it can be done – and that it’s worth it. As I contemplate my to-do list, I am thinking about our students. I can’t wait to see them. So whatever needs to be done, will be done – because they are worth it.

If the NHS can vaccinate 18 million people in two months, I’m sure we can carry out 1600 lateral flow tests in five days.

If a team of scientists can drop a 1000kg wheeled robot onto the surface of Mars in a perfect touchdown, I’m sure we can design a robust system that ensures our students get the grades they deserve at the end of this challenging year.

Because, when we put our minds to it, we can accomplish anything.

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.

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.

Open during lockdown

I am writing this post on 5th November 2020, the first day of the new national restrictions imposed by the government to control the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS, and save lives. This is the second wave, so we’ve been here before: except, this time, schools are staying open.

Year 7 in a group of 6 under the canopy

I will never forget March 2020, and the first lockdown. COVID-19 was new to all of us then. In the week ahead of closure of schools, student attendance dropped away. Significant numbers of staff were unable to come in, and we had to close – first to Year 12, and then to all students.

This time, some things are the same – but some are very different. The anxiety is still there, of course: but student attendance this week has been 95.7%. We are used to the routines of wiping down desks, hand sanitising, face coverings, and year group bubbles. And, as everything else closes down and society begins another month of “stay at home,” school carries on.

We are pleased that schools are staying open. We firmly believe that our students are better off in school: no matter how good remote learning is, there is no substitute for being in a classroom with an expert teacher. We know that it is there that our students will get the best educational experience, and make the best progress.

We also believe that the “normality” and structure of the school day is good for mental health and wellbeing. Of course, it’s not quite as “normal” as any of us would like: our extra curricular programme is severely limited; the cross-year-group work that is a hallmark of the Churchill experience has had to be suspended; we cannot hold in-person assemblies or run our programme of trips and visits; and the big events, concerts, presentations and performances that we look forward to are all on hold. But even so, the routines of a five-lesson day, seeing friends and continuing to learn in person is stable, reliable, and welcome.

The bottom field in autumn

This lunchtime, it was a crisp and clear autumn day. As I did my normal circuit of the Academy on duty, I saw Year 10 tearing round the 3G after a football, and throwing and catching, kicking up the autumn leaves, and booting a rugby ball into the bright blue sky above the top field. Year 8 were enjoying the wide open space of the bottom field. Year 9 were on the tennis courts, in small groups, excitedly discussing the sex and relationships education sessions they had had that morning. Year 7 were under the canopy, and up on the grassed area behind the library, their chatter filling the air as they prepared to deliver the speeches they’d been working on in the morning. And Year 11 were being Sixth Formers for the day, making the most of having the run of the Sixth Form Centre and trying out courses as they consider their post-16 options. It felt…well, it felt like a normal day at school.

The top field in autumn

Against the backdrop of strangeness and uncertainty, the familiarity was welcome. We have implemented multiple measures to minimise risk – but nothing we do can eliminate that risk entirely. Despite the uncertainties, despite the challenges, we are so glad the flag is still flying, and our Academy is still full of staff and students learning and working together. That’s how we like it: we will do everything we can to keep it that way.

Open Evening 2020

Open Evening is always one of the high points of the Academy calendar. Our students and our staff love to show off all the opportunities that Churchill has to offer. In normal times, we would have a small army of keen volunteer students showing prospective parents and curious Year 5 and 6 children around. Subject specialists would be on hand to demonstrate and talk about their part of the curriculum; our extra-curricular activities would be out in force; all our specialists would be on hand to answer parents’ questions; children would be collecting stickers from every station on the tour in pursuit of a “future student badge.”

In 2020, this sadly isn’t possible. We have had to adjust to the fact that, in the new pandemic world, we cannot have visitors in. Our priority has to be the safety and health of the staff and students on site, and we are doing all we can to limit the risks. And yet the continued success of the Academy over the coming years depends on our future students, and the smooth transition from primary to secondary we have worked so hard to establish.

For this reason, we have moved our open evening online for 2020. In doing so, we have tried as far as possible to replicate the “on site” experience of a real open evening – but from the comfort and safety of your own home. We have a dedicated page on the Academy website. Here is what you will find there.

Student Tour

Year 8 student guides Ted and Kacey take you on a video tour of the Academy site – with the help of a very cool drone!

Headteacher and student presentations

I look forward to my open evening presentation every year. Not only do I love talking about Churchill, what we do, and why we are here, but I love being joined on stage by our fantastic students.

Every year I am introduced by our senior students, and I leave the last word to our youngest. Every year they write their own speeches, and talk about their experiences in their own words. This year, we have done exactly the same – but on video, rather than in person. I am joined by Ella, President of the Sixth Form Council; Emma, in Year 11; and Erin and Jacob from Year 7. For me, it was especially gratifying to hear from Emma, because back in 2016 she was one of the Year 7 speakers at my first Open Evening as Headteacher. I don’t mind telling you that hearing about her experiences after five years with us brought a tear to my eye!

Question and Answer Sessions

Open Evening is usually the time when parents and children can ask all the questions they want, to reassure themselves about any aspect of secondary school that they might be uncertain about. It is absolutely right that the same opportunity is available this year. Here’s how:

  • Email us your question to openevening@churchill-academy.org: no question too big, no question too small. If you leave us a contact number, we are happy to call you back to discuss things with you: we know it’s usually much better to talk to a human being than to get a written reply! Whatever works for you, we’ll do our best to help.
  • Register for one of our Q&A Webinars: these sessions will feature a short presentation, followed by the opportunity to get your questions answered by me and a panel of our current students. We are running four panels:
    • Tuesday 6th October, 12-12.30pm
    • Wednesday 7th October, 7-7.30pm
    • Monday 12th October, 4-4.30pm
    • Thursday 22nd October, 7-7.30pm
  • You can register for these via the Academy website

Prospectus and Information Booklet

Families tell us that they find the paper documentation we hand out on open evening really useful. They provide the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, and they are a useful reference point to come back to as a reminder of the things that were seen and heard on the night. We have put both documents online for you to download, read on screen, or print out at home:

Treasure Hunt

On our “in person” open evening, we issue a sticker-collecting booklet to any Year 5 or 6 children who come along. The children can collect a sticker from each department they visit, and if they fill their book they can collect a prize from the Sixth Form Centre. It’s one of our favourite parts of the evening!

In order to replicate this, we’ve created a virtual treasure hunt quiz for our prospective future students to fill in. You can find it on the website, or here.

Next year?

We have done our best to provide as full an experience as possible on our virtual open evening. As it happens, on the day scheduled for our open evening this year, it was hammering down with rain – so maybe it was just as well it was virtual! We hope that, by next year, things will be back to normality enough to open up the Academy to visitors again. In the meantime, we hope you like what you see – and we hope that prospective parents and their children choose Churchill.

Putting the plan into action

It’s nearly the end of the first full week with students back at Churchill. It has been simply brilliant to see the Academy full of students again! It has been great to finally put all that careful, meticulous planning into action.

Churchill Academy & Sixth Form now has over 1600 students on the registers. They have been amazing. They have been calm, attentive, and they have worked with us as we have all adapted to the new systems and arrangements. The have shown all the kindness, curiosity and determination we would expect of them – and more. The smiles and laughter I have seen and heard are enough to melt the hardest of hearts!

Year 7 under the new canopy on their first day back

Of course, these are challenging times. This week, we had to respond to a positive test for COVID-19 within our Academy community. It’s the last thing that any of us wanted to happen, but the fact is this virus could infect any one of us at any time. And we had prepared for just this eventuality. Over the summer, I had been on an excellent training and briefing session with the South West Health Protection Team. I had distributed this training to all the senior leaders in school. We had a clear process and protocol to follow. So, when the test was confirmed, we put the plan into action.

We received first-rate support from the Health Protection Team, from North Somerset’s Director of Public Health and his team, and from Public Health England. They worked in partnership with us to establish the contacts of the case, and to implement a plan for those contacts to self-isolate. Whilst it was certainly a difficult situation, it was made easier by this partnership.

Our students, and their families, have been simply fantastic. There is a real recognition that these are uncharted waters, and that we are doing our very best to navigate them. Of course, we are still adapting. Any plan, no matter how meticulous, will need review when it meets the reality of 1600 young people. We are continuing that process daily.

One thing that we have all noticed is how tired we are! The rhythms of remote learning, followed by the long summer break, are very different from the physical reality of a five-lesson day in the classroom. We need our students – and our staff! – to look after themselves. Good sleep routines, hydration, nutrition…and clean hands. Always.

Thank you to everyone in the Academy community for the support you have shown during this first full week. We really appreciate it.

Raising the flag

Raising the new flag: Wednesday 2nd September 2020

On Friday March 20th, after the last students had gone home, I lowered the Academy flag. It was one of the most poignant moments in my career. At the time, I wrote:

I walked the school for one last time: every block, deserted, empty, silent. It brought home to me that the school isn’t the buildings, the classrooms, the whiteboards and the playing fields. It’s the people. The students and their teachers, the support staff, cleaners, site team and technicians. They are the school.

from Closing for Coronavirus, 29th March 2020

I have been in school often in the five-and-a-half months since that day. Even with Frontline provision in place, and with Exam Support operating from June, the majority of the school remained vacant and empty.

This week, it has come alive again.

First, the staff: positive, excited, and ready. We had planned for so long, so carefully, that we couldn’t wait to get started. Every department was opened up again, classrooms prepared, precautions in place.

Then, the students: our wonderful Year 7s, keen and eager to get started. Our Sixth Formers, Year 12 and 13, bringing all the buzz and energy of their ambition back to the Academy. And today, our Year 11 – prepared by their experience in Exam Support, taking the new arrangements in their stride. Tomorrow – the rest of the school returns.

Walking the corridors of the Academy today to see classrooms filled with young people brought a lump to my throat. I have been so caught up in hand sanitiser dispensers, face covering policies, catering provision and transport organisation that I had not prepared myself adequately for the joy of real human interactions with our students.

“How are you, sir?” asked one Year 13 student today.

I had to take a deep breath before responding.

“I’m fine. So glad to see you all. So glad to be back.”

At break time on Wednesday, I raised our new, five-house Academy flag to the top of the flagpole. As I was leaving school this afternoon, the wind caught it and it flew out, full and strong – as if it was coming to life.

What’s happened with the A-level results?

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

How were the grades calculated?

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

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

Why were teacher recommendations so high?

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

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

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

So how did the algorithm work?

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

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

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

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

What about small groups?

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

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

From Ofqual’s Interim Report Executive Summary here.

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

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

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

What about appeals?

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

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

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

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

So what can be done?

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

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

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

Who is to blame?

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

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

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

Laura McInerney, writing in the Guardian here.

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