A day in Frontline

Frontline provision in action; markers on the floor aid social distancing

Our Frontline provision in Student Services opened on Friday 20th March, just two days after the closure of all schools was announced by the Secretary of State. As Year 11 had their last day event, our library was open to support the children of workers who were critical in the national effort to fight coronavirus, and to support students in specific vulnerable groups who would benefit from time in school. It has remained open ever since: through the school holidays, and on Bank Holidays.

PE Activity in the early days of Frontline

Initially Frontline was staffed by volunteers from the Academy staff who put their names forward to work in school. All through the national lockdown, these staff came in to work with our students, carrying letters confirming that they were entitled to be out of their homes as part of the national effort. Students were supervised to continue with the same remote learning as their classmates, but under the guidance of Academy staff.

Students at work in Frontline

Over time, Frontline has grown and evolved. We have been able to accommodate more students, and the provision has been more specialist. Initially, there was no uniform; now, aligned with Exam Support, students are back in their polo shirts and hoodies. Whilst students are still supervised to complete their remote learning, there are also creative and PE activities, as well as one-to-one support for those students who need it. There have also been art and crafts, cooking, and even gardening!

From the beginning of term 6, Frontline has been completely separate from Exam Support. Frontline has a separate staff team, and a separate part of the site divided by a temporary barrier fence. We have been rigorous in ensuring that there is no cross-over between the two provisions, keeping each in its own protective “bubble.”

I would like to pay tribute to those teachers, administrators, and assistants, who came in during the height of the pandemic to support our young people, and who continue to show the selflessness and integrity which is the hallmark of Churchill Academy & Sixth Form staff. Those staff have been so impressed with the Frontline students. Even in today’s meltingly hot temperatures, they have been excellent: resilient and determined to succeed no matter how unusual the circumstances.

We are all conscious that this most unusual type of school will not – we hope – be needed again. But in this particular crisis, at this unique point in history, Frontline has done a fantastic job.

A day in Exam Support

Our sign welcoming Year 10 and 12 back to the Academy

It’s been a momentous week, as Year 10 and 12 students returned to the Academy from Monday 15th June for the first time since March. It has been a delight to walk the corridors of the Athene Donald building this week, to see the classrooms once more full of students and teachers learning and working together.

However, this is not “normal school.” We are permitted at most a quarter of Year 10 and Year 12 in at a time. Students must observe two metre social distancing at all times. It feels strange at first to keep those distances, especially when walking. Markings on the floor help to remind everyone, and it soon becomes more natural.

Maths lesson in Exam Support

The classrooms are all laid out with one student per desk, positioned two metres apart. Students remain in their place at all times unless given permission by the teacher. Some students said they actually preferred having a desk all to themselves – no distractions, and lots of space to spread out!

A level Economics in Exam Support

Year 10 and 12 are kept separate. Year 12 are using the new entrance into the Athene Donald extension, before going up on to the first floor. Work is still going on in the extension to fit out the classrooms and complete the finishing touches. We expect handover towards the end of June – I will give you a guided tour in a future Headteacher’s Blog. It’s looking great!

Hand-washing before coming in to class

Year 10 are based on the ground floor. Students must wash their hands before entering the classroom in the morning and after break. Hand sanitiser is used when students leave for break after their first session. The foot-operated portable hand-washing stations we have bought have really helped to ease the transitions and ensure that students don’t have to stay in the socially-distanced queue for too long before getting back in to class.

Socially distanced break time

Break time has been a vitally important part of the day. Many of our students haven’t physically seen each other since the Academy closed. The ability to re-start those friendships in person, and find out “how was your lockdown?” has been invaluable. There has also been a lot of comparing of lockdown haircuts! The social side of being in a school community is essential, and even though ball games are not permitted and everyone has to sit two metres apart, it’s been heartening to see smiles on students’ faces as they catch up with one another.

Week 1 Video Assembly

Students have a half hour introduction, with a video assembly from me and some well-being activities, before moving on to their subject specialist content. They have two hour long lessons, plus a half-hour lesson either side of a staggered break time. Many of our students in week one remarked on how tiring it was to do three hours of lessons in a classroom after all that home learning – wait until we get back to a full five-hour day in the Autumn term! We hope…

The students and staff have been fantastic. Everyone has stuck to the systems and ensured that we can all stay safe. It’s been a great team effort, and the first step on the road towards a full re-opening – whenever we are permitted to achieve that safely.

Next week, we will take a look inside the other school operating on our site at the moment: our Frontline provision, based in the library and Student Services.

Within the constraints

This has, without doubt, been a testing time for all of us. We have all had to live and work within constraints that, as the new year dawned just over six months ago, would have been unimaginable. Schools are certainly no exception.

Some of the constraints placed on the wider re-opening of secondary schools are:

  • Class sizes of no more than 15
  • No more than a quarter of students in the eligible year groups on site at a time
  • Reduce mixing, so that students stay in the same groups throughout the day in school
  • Split day rotas are not allowed – you cannot have different students in school in the morning and the afternoon
  • Maintaining social distancing
  • Enhanced hygiene and cleaning processes

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of a Headteacher’s time during coronavirus closure is spent reading page after page of detailed guidance from the Department for Education. Much of the remainder is spent unpicking and re-doing plans and risk assessments when that guidance changes or is updated, or a new piece of guidance comes out. And it is vital that we do, because the safety of our students and staff depends on it.

Socially distanced classroom in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

These constraints have implications for the wider re-opening of schools. Let’s take the class size of 15 to start with. If this remains a requirement in September, we will require twice as many rooms and staff to accommodate our students as is normally the case – or, we will only be able to have half as many in school at a time.

It is this issue which caused problems for the government this week. The UK government’s COVID-19 Recovery Strategy, Our Plan to Rebuild, said that “the Government’s ambition is for all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month if feasible.” But the government’s own class-size limit of 15, published alongside the recovery strategy, applies to primary schools too. Either the limit had to change, or the ambition could not be realised. This week, the Secretary of State for Education announced that the latter was the case – it is not safe to increase class size limits yet.

Portable hand-washing station in the Athene Donald Building, ready for Exam Support

What’s next?

This week, the Secretary of State for Education made a statement to the House of Commons where he said:

We will be working to bring all children back to school in September. I know that students who are due to take exams in 2021 will have experienced considerable disruption to their education this year, and we are committed to doing all we can to minimise the effects of this. Exams will take place next year, and we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards on our approach to these. While these are the first steps, they are the best way to ensure that all children can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education: Statement on the wider opening of education settings, 9th June 2020

The English teacher in me always reads such statements critically and with an analytical eye. Gavin Williamson’s statement has been carefully constructed to provide plenty of room for manoeuvre: “we will be working to bring all children back to school in September” does not mean that it will necessarily happen, or that all children will be able to return to school in September on the same days or all at the same time. “Exams will take place next year” does not mean that exams will necessarily look the same next year as they have done previously. The truth is, we do not know what schools will look like in September, and we don’t know what exams will look like next year. Yet.

We have also had the announcement, from the Prime Minister again, of a “massive catch-up operation” for schoolchildren over the summer. This came as a surprise to those of us who work in education; we have been told categorically by the Department for Education that teachers will not be expected to open schools over the summer. So who will deliver this “massive catch-up operation”? And where will they deliver it? Will children come? And will it make a difference? We are promised more details next week. I await with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

Social distancing markers on the floor of the Athene Donald Building

Who’s to blame?

It has been frustrating to see certain parts of the media blaming teachers, or teacher unions, for the fact the schools are still closed. I have had full, frank and regular discussions with the teacher unions at Churchill. They have, of course, been keen to look after the interests of their members and ensure that it is safe for staff to return to work in schools. That is what a union is there to do. But those conversations have been constructive and helpful. They are supportive of the safe wider re-opening of schools. Because of those conversations, our teachers are happier and more confident to return to work during a pandemic than they would have been without them.

As for teachers, I am one and I work with some of the very best. We care deeply about our students – all of them. We want what is best for them. We are desperate to see them again. We want the Academy’s corridors to echo with children’s voices, we want to see them enjoying their learning and social time again. But, above all else, we want them to be safe. And that is why we cannot open more widely than a quarter of Year 10 and Year 12 at at time – yet. Because the government tells us that it is not yet safe to do so.

“It is because the rate of infection is not yet quite low enough, and because we are not able to change our social distancing advice including smaller class sizes in schools, that we are not proceeding with our ambition to bring back all primary pupils at least for some weeks before the summer holidays.”

The Prime Minister, Statement at the coronavirus press conference: 10 June 2020

Our position at Churchill is that we will always aim to open as widely as possible, to as many students as we can, within the guidelines laid out by the government. We will continue with that ambition. But we will not – cannot – risk the safety of our students and staff.

We are all operating within the constraints laid out for us during this crisis – and we will continue to do so, for as long as this crisis lasts.

Connecting

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Living in lockdown for the past month, we have been searching out things to do. With my youngest son, we raided our childhood games shelves and brought out a few old favourites. I’m sorry to say he defeated me at Snakes & Ladders, although I managed a narrow victory in Ludo! We also dug out Boggle and our second-hand Connect 4 game. This was a big hit and all three of my children ended up involved in a competitive tournament, trying to outsmart each other to join up lines of four yellow or red tokens in the drop-in grid (pro-tip: sneaky reverse diagonals were the most effective strategy!)

As I watched the game, I thought about the connections they were making, trying to join up the dots into groups – and connecting with one another at the same time. I remembered watching Churchill students battling with one another over the same grids (we have a couple of Connect 4 sets in the new Hive social area for Year 7). I remembered playing with my brother as a child – I bet there’s a Connect 4 set back in the family home somewhere! And I wondered how we would have coped with lockdown if it had happened when I was at school in the late 1980s. We had four television channels and a video recorder. There was one landline phone in the house. Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the world wide web until 1990.

What I am finding most difficult in lockdown is the separation from people. I am lucky to have my family around me, and I cherish that real human contact. But out in the world, as I wrote last week, we keep two metres away from other people. We can’t see our friends, we can’t hug our relatives. That human contact is so important to us – we need it.

World map connected, social network, globalization business, social media, networking concept.

And yet, in this connected world, we are lucky. This week alone I have Zoomed, FaceTimed, and WhatsApp video called for work and with my family. Parents and students have shared photos, videos and documents showing their work and activities whilst the Academy has closed. At a touch of a button, I can instantly send messages and letters to all the students at the Academy, or all the parents, and they can receive them as good as instantly. With this blog, I can type on my laptop, press publish, and my words are instantly visible to anyone, anywhere, who cares to look. It’s easy to take this connected world for granted, but we are so fortunate to live in a time where this technology enables us to be together virtually, when we can’t be together actually.

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Yet, as I watched my children playing Connect 4, there was a different kind of connection happening. Something real, something tangible, something that you don’t get through a laptop, phone or tablet screen. After a long day of Zoom meetings on Tuesday, my eldest two children and I went for a walk in the rain. We discovered a patch of woodland near our house which we didn’t even know was there. A stream flowed through the trees, and the rain pattered on a rich carpet of flowering wild garlic and bluebells. We could hear every raindrop, the birdsong in the trees, the rush of the water. The children were already planning hide and seek spots, the best tree to rig a rope swing from, and where we could picnic when the sun came back.

“Grandad would love this,” they said. “We must show him when we’re allowed to see him again.”

I’m grateful that the internet allows us to connect, but I will be even more grateful when we can see each other again – for real.

Living in lockdown

As I write this blog, on St George’s Day 2020, we have missed fourteen days of “normal” school due to the coronavirus closure. Fourteen days. It seems like much longer. “Normal” school already seems like a distant memory, and this new life has taken over. 

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Our front window, this morning

Simple things, like going to the supermarket, have become significant events. I used to pop out and do the weekly shop without thinking about it. Now, I am held two metres apart outside the store, waiting in a queue for a disinfected trolley. Once inside, I am directed round the aisles in a one-way system, instinctively waiting behind the black-and-yellow tape for the person in front to take their milk before moving forward. They are wearing a face mask and blue latex gloves, and this is “normal.”

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Social distancing in the supermarket: the new “normal”

The store is eerily quiet, and then I realise – everyone is shopping alone. The child seats in the trolleys are folded flat. Nobody has brought their children with them. I never thought I would miss the sounds of somebody else’s toddler having a tantrum – but I do. I turn into the baking aisle: no flour still. No eggs. No rice. And this is “normal.” 

As I wait my turn for a checkout, behind another black and yellow line, I look at my fellow shoppers. I can’t help the thought crossing my mind: have you got it? Will I catch it? When I get home, I wash my hands. The first verse of Shake It Off is 20 seconds long; I sing it to myself as I soap.

Before COVID-19, I would leave school after a full and exhausting day. I’d listen to a podcast (or Taylor Swift) and unwind, coming home to spend time with my family. Some weeks, I would hardly see them due to late meetings and early starts. Now, I see them all the time – but the separation between work and home has disappeared. My school work – video conference meetings, emails, phone calls, lesson planning, problem solving, decision making – takes place in and around my family life. I find it hard to switch off, constantly stepping from parenting to working.

Like many families, we are juggling working from home with supervising our own children’s home learning, supporting them and keeping them motivated. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing being locked down in home-schooling when your Dad’s an actual Headteacher…you’d have to ask my children that!

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The BBC News film crew, preparing to film in the ICU

These are difficult times. I watch the news once a day, but try not to look beyond that. The heroics of the NHS staff inspire me, but the blurred-out ventilated patients they are tending to are terrifying. I struggle to sleep: I worry about our students, our staff, my family, myself. What will the future be like? How will schools return safely? How can we get back to the old “normal?” When will it be possible? Will it ever be possible? And, because there are no answers to these questions, they go round and round and round.

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The tree in our back garden, this week

And yet, in these dark times, there is light. Our students are accomplishing wonderful things in their home learning and in their communities. Our staff are developing a whole new range of skills in remote education, and continuing to reach out and support our students even when we can’t be together. I am loving spending all this time with my family, playing, creating, reading, eating and laughing together. The sun has been shining in a sky without airliner vapour trails; traffic noise has almost disappeared. Every Thursday evening we venture out to our front gate and applaud. To our left and right, up and down the street, families are doing the same. Someone sends a firework up into the evening sky. Blossom is filling the trees.

In the end, it will all be okay. We have adjusted to this new “normal;” we can adjust again. And, if we work together, maybe, eventually, we can establish a new “new normal” that is even better than the old. 

 

 

 

Closing for coronavirus

 

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The coronavirus crisis moved so quickly, there was barely time to take stock. We were, of course, aware of the virus spreading across the world. We were aware that this would reach us, at some point. But we carried on. School felt quiet, an oasis of calm normality away from the screaming news headlines and the parade of opinions on social media.

We prepared, of course. At Churchill we had a comprehensive Critical Incident Plan in case of disaster. We always talked about it as the plan we would use if a jumbo jet crashed on the school field. As it happened, the disaster was not a massive bolt from above, but a microscopic, invisible invader, creeping unseen between us. But the plan worked just the same.

On Monday 9th March, senior staff developed the first closure plans. The computer network team drew up a set of procedures to enable remote learning to take place at an unprecedented scale. We implemented enhanced cleaning processes while we were still open. The administration teams began to plan to make sure that all the usual functions of the school could continue from afar: phone forwarding, video conferencing, “grab bags” of key paperwork. By Thursday 12th March, all staff were briefed about what would happen if we were to close. And on Thursday 12th March, it was still an “if.”

By Sunday night, it was clear that things were moving very quickly indeed. On Monday, I met with all staff and gave an assembly to every student in school, a year group at a time. There was a risk, of course, gathering them all together in the hall like this. My judgment was that having them in an assembly did not bring them into any closer contact than in their classrooms, or at break or lunchtime, and that they needed to hear the same clear and consistent message.

On Tuesday, 327 students were absent. I declared a critical incident and implemented the carefully prepared plan. Year 12 lessons were suspended from Wednesday, as we began to run short of staff to keep the school fully open. We put in place plans to open our Student Services provision to care for the children of key workers, and to distribute Free School Meals in the event of closure.

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My scribbled notes from the Secretary of State’s ministerial statement on Wednesday 18th March

When the Secretary of State made his statement to Parliament on the evening of Wednesday 18th March, I knew that he was going to announce school closures. But it was clear that this was no temporary measure: “until further notice” was an indication that this was going to be a lengthy closure. The cancellation of all exams was confirmation that this was serious. I stood in my kitchen, watching BBC Parliament on my iPad, and I wept. I cried for all the students who had worked so hard for exams which would not take place; I cried for the staff who care so much about the children, and the school; and I cried for the community that would be so difficult to maintain remotely.

Difficult, but not impossible.

And so I pulled myself together, and I got on with it. Year 11 and Year 13 were my first priority: these students had had the rug pulled from under them and were suddenly, quite unexpectedly, facing their last days at school. We had to give them the “last day” that they deserved. We had to get Student Services up and running. We had to organise free school meals. We had to prepare remote learning for the rest of the school and get everything locked down…in two days.

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Looking back now, after a week of closure and five days of lockdown, that last week of school seems almost like a dream. Year 13 and Year 11 got their last days. We got Student Services up and running, we organised free school meals and remote learning and check-in phone calls and a hundred and one other things. Throughout it all, the students and staff were amazing. They supported one another with selflessness and positivity, even the most trying of times. Their kindness and determination shone through.

After Year 11 had gone on Friday, I gathered the things that I would need. 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.

So now I am Headteacher of a different sort of Academy: one with teachers and students spread across the region, isolated in their homes. But in that isolation we are all connected by a sense of belonging that has been strengthened, not damaged, by the challenges of the coronavirus closure.

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Lowering the Academy flag on Friday 20th March 2020

I have been overwhelmed by the support of our Academy community – parents, families, friends, staff, students, governors and beyond – during this crisis. I want to thank each and every one of you for all you have done, and continue to do, to support the vision and values of the Academy. There is a long way to go, and much for us still to do. But I know that we can get there, together – and I look forward to the day when I raise the Academy flag again.