Training teachers in Qatar

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A view across Doha, Qatar from the 32nd floor

On Saturday of last week I flew out to Doha, the capital city of Qatar, to work with a group of teachers and school leaders from British International Schools in the Middle East. They had heard about our work at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form and they wanted to find out more, to see whether aspects of our practice could be applied in their schools.

Where is Qatar?

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The location of Qatar; Doha is marked by the red pin

Qatar is a small state poking out into the Persian Gulf, bordering on Saudi Arabia. I went to the capital city, Doha, which sits on the Eastern coast of the country. Qatar was a British protectorate until it became independent in 1971, which is why there are still a lot of British schools there. Doha has recently hosted the World Athletics Championship and preparations are well underway for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. There is a lot of development going on – I saw three massive skyscrapers under construction and air conditioned football stadiums being built in the middle of the desert. Quite something!

What’s it like?

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Two skyscrapers under construction (centre) against the Doha skyline

It’s hot! The temperature was around 35° C during the day, dropping to 30° at night time. Despite the Persian Gulf nearby, the surrounding country is dusty desert. Everywhere has air conditioning, which meant that indoors felt quite chilly by comparison and I had to put a jumper on!

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Doha from the air

The city centre (West Bay) has a spectacular skyline of towers and skyscrapers. Many of them are government buildings, but there are also towers for Qatar Petroleum, the Qatar Olympic Committee, banks and hotels. It’s amazing! The surrounding city spreads out into the desert.

Qatar is an Islamic country and there are many mosques around the city. The call to prayer is amplified by loudspeakers from the mosques, which makes a wonderful noise echoing from building to building! Due to their religious beliefs, alcohol is not available in restaurants or hotels. All the people I met whilst I was there were very welcoming and hospitable. It seemed to me like a country which was very open to international visitors.

What are the schools like in Doha?

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Outside the Qatar International School

I was working at the Qatar International School, a British International School in Doha. It’s an all-through school, with a building for Early Years, Primary and Secondary sections. In their secondary school they study iGCSEs, the international version of the GCSEs we study, and A-levels which are the same as ours. The staff and students are a mixture of British ex-pats, Qatari nationals, and other nationalities who want a British education. This meant that the classrooms were an interesting multicultural blend of all different nationalities. Everyone got along really well!

All the schools were surrounded by high, solid perimeter walls, electric gates and security guards. There were locked pedestrian gates too – one of the schools even had security turnstiles for the students to get in and out. This seemed to be the norm across Qatar – all the buildings I went into had x-ray machines to scan your bags, too. 

School starts at 7am, and finishes at 1pm. The other difference is that the working week starts on a Sunday and runs until Thursday, so the weekend in Qatar is Friday and Saturday. I struggled with that a bit! There are two breaks during the day, but students go home for their lunch at the end of the day – they do not have lunch at school. There are seven lessons in the day, of differing lengths. Moving between buildings means going from air-conditioned-cool to blazing-hot and back to cool again – you have to brace yourself! But apart from that, there were lots of similarities to British schools – their classrooms looked just like a regular British school classroom would.

What were we working on?

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I was out in Doha to work with British International School teachers and school leaders on mindsets and metacognition. These are things that we have been working on at Churchill since I became Headteacher back in 2016. They were particularly interested in our work on attitudes to learning, feedback, and how we are working with teachers and students to unpack the thinking processes behind learning (metacognition). It was amazing to me that our work at Churchill has a reputation which stretches so far – but the colleagues I was working with out there were very impressed by what we were doing and wanted to find out more!

It made me very proud to be talking about our wonderful school in such a different place. Although Churchill has been soaking under torrential rain for weeks, whilst Doha has been in blazing sunshine for months, there was much to be found in common between us. “The way we do things here” at Churchill certainly found an enthusiastic audience in the Middle East!

I had a great time in a brand new environment for me. I’d never done anything quite like this before! But, when I was back on duty outside the food pod on an overcast lunchtime on Wednesday, I did catch myself thinking: “there’s no place like home.”

Practising penalties with Harry Kane

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Wembley Stadium, Saturday 7th September 2019

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to head down to Wembley Stadium for England’s European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria. It was my first time at Wembley watching football (although I did go last year to watch Taylor Swift) and I was very excited! Our seats were right at the top of the stadium, just left of the halfway line – we had a great view of the whole pitch.

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Harry Kane scoring a penalty against Bulgaria, 7th September 2019

The atmosphere was electric. There were over 80,000 people at the match and the noise was incredible! I even managed to capture a video of Harry Kane tucking away his second penalty to complete his hat-trick:

After the match, I was interested to read what Gareth Southgate had to say about Harry Kane’s penalties:

“We stood and watched him take penalties for about 20 minutes yesterday. When you watch the process he goes through, he gives himself every chance of succeeding by that deliberate practice…he’s an incredible example.
“When he gets his moment, he has an outstanding mindset and, technically, he’s a top finisher…but I go back to the fact that’s hours and hours of practice and if you talk to some of the other forwards in the squad, they would talk to you about how big an impression that has had on them.”

In my assemblies this week, I picked up on Southgate’s message: Harry Kane is a talented striker, but his accuracy from the spot is no accident. He prepared and practised so that, when his moment came, he was ready to deliver. It is this which sets such a good example to England’s younger players and, I hope to Churchill Academy & Sixth Form students. No matter what your ability is, careful and deliberate practice is the key to unlocking that ability and ensuring that you are ready to deliver when you get your moment – whether that be a Maths test, a dance performance, a race, your next English lesson, or an international football match. Preparation and practice mean everything.

Footnote

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My assembly message was rather undermined when Kane had a penalty saved by Nottingham Forest’s Aro Muric  in the 5-3 thriller against Kosovo on Tuesday night – but still, he’s a pretty good striker! I guess the goalkeeper had been preparing and practising too…

Lessons from the Champions League

What a week of football it’s been! Liverpool and Spurs both overturned seemingly overwhelming odds in the second legs of their semi-finals to set up an all-Premier League final.

There’s no doubt about it – Liverpool were immense on Tuesday night. Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the first leg to defeat Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate and book their place in the Champions League final is the stuff of legend. When Trent Alexander-Arnold took the corner for Divock Origi to score the fourth Liverpool goal, he caught a team of legends and international superstars napping and dumped them out of the competition.

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It’s not the first time it’s happened, either. Last year, Barcelona were through to the quarter-finals and carrying a 4-1 lead into the second leg against Roma. They were defeated 3-0 in that second leg, and it was Roma that went through to the semi-finals (where they were beaten by Liverpool!)

This fact did not escape the Barcelona players in the painful aftermath of their defeat this week. Luis Suarez, ex-Liverpool striker now playing for Barcelona, summed it up in a post-match interview:

“We have to do a lot of self-criticism because this is the second time that the same thing has happened to us. We cannot commit the same mistake two years in a row. There are many things we need to consider and think about.”

What struck me about Barcelona is that they went out of the Champions League because the players weren’t concentrating. Liverpool, on the other hand, were completely switched on, focused on the task in hand, and playing every single second as though their lives depended on it. For Liverpool on Tuesday, the idea of “giving up” wasn’t even a possibility. The incredible support at Anfield certainly gave them the belief and the boost they needed.

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Then, the following night, Tottenham Hotspur pulled off a second incredible comeback – this time overturning a 3-0 deficit in just 45 minutes of football, away from home against a really strong Ajax side. Just like with Liverpool, the first-choice striker was unable to play, but the team showed in their battling determination that they just refused to be beaten. Lucas Moura was quicker, more focused, more switched on than the Ajax team, and poached the final goal as the final seconds of stoppage time ticked away.

These were two magical nights of football, even for a neutral like me. As a Watford supporter, I hope that my team can capture some of Spurs and Liverpool’s “never give up” fighting spirit in the forthcoming FA Cup Final against Manchester City. And as a Headteacher, I hope that our students can capture some of the same spirit in their endeavours. I hope that our students see that lapses in concentration can cost you, and remember to stay focused all the time. I hope they see that, whilst we all make mistakes, we have to learn from them – and that there’s really no excuse for making the same mistake twice. I hope they see that with hard work, effort and determination, nothing is impossible; and that, with the support of those around you in the community, you’ll never walk alone.

 

Mistakes

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Your best teacher is your last mistake (Ralph Nader)

It’s horrible when we get something wrong. Nobody likes it! It can be horribly exposing, and it’s perfectly natural to feel upset, or embarrassed, or even ashamed. But, of course, we make mistakes all the time. They are a natural part of the learning process. So how can best use our mistakes to make progress?

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FAIL: first attempt in learning

The first thing is to accept that mistakes are inevitable. They will always happen. Nobody is perfect. Secondly, if you are doing something difficult – which, in school, we expect our students to do – the likelihood of getting it wrong is much higher. So the most important thing is not getting it right first time, but getting it right in the end.

This video from the Khan Academy shows how, as young children, we aren’t afraid to fall down, fail and try again – for example when learning to walk or ride a bike. But, as we grow, we become increasingly self-conscious and easily embarrassed. This shift can actually get in the way of our learning as we are less willing to take risks and try something new, worried that we might get it wrong, and forgetting that mistakes are a natural part of learning.

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Minnesota Vikings defender Jim Marshall in 1970

We can rest easy that none of us will ever make so drastic a mistake as Jim Marshall. In 1964, Marshall played American Football for the Minnesota Vikings against the San Fransisco 49ers. When one of the 49ers players fumbled the ball, it came loose, and Marshall was able to scoop it into his hands. He looked up, saw the goalposts ahead of him, and ran as fast as he could to the end zone to score what he thought was a touchdown. It was when the 49ers players started congratulating him that he realised he had run the wrong way down the pitch into his own end zone, scoring a safety and conceding two points to the opposition.

How do you recover from a mistake as catastrophic and public as that? Marshall did his best to forget about it, and crucially to learn from it. He went on to recover a total of 30 fumbles for the Vikings in his career, still an NFL record for the most recovered by any single player – and he never again ran the wrong way down the pitch. You can watch a video about Marshall’s experience here.

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At Churchill, to learn effectively, we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

Having a healthy attitude to mistakes, and having the confidence and determination to take risks in our learning and try new things, are all central to our success in learning. So long as we make sure we’re facing the right way before we set off.

 

Sports Awards 2018

Our annual Sports Award dinner is always a great event, but the 2018 incarnation was, by general agreement, the best yet! 320 students attended the event at Cadbury House Hotel, looking very smart indeed, to be greeted by the Mendip Snowsports Yeti and a host of staff and special guests.

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Guests of honour Tom Stabbins and Pat Lam with Director of PE Mr Hayne

The evening began with a speech from Churchill alumnus Tom Stabbins, who spoke movingly and powerfully about his experiences of school and where that has led him. Following a serious illness diagnosed in Year 8, Tom had part of his leg amputated. He spoke about how sport meant that this change – which could have been disabling – actually enabled him to take on more challenges, including becoming a prominent wheelchair basketball player. Tom is now a keen climber, and is trying out for the GB Paraclimbing squad. You can read more about Tom’s story here. His speech was incredibly inspiring, and many students took the opportunity to talk to him during the rest of the evening about how sport has the power to transform lives.

After a delicious meal, it was the turn of our second special guest, Bristol Bears Head Coach Pat Lam. The former Samoan international spoke about his childhood in New Zealand and the lessons he has learned over a lifetime in rugby – and teaching!

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Pat Lam addressing Sports Awards Evening 2018

Pat’s first lesson was about balance: that keeping school work and extra-curricular activities in balance is vital. Too much on one or the other is harmful. It was reassuring to hear this, as this was exactly the message I gave to Year 11 students and their families at the start of this academic year!

Secondly, Pat shared the four “Ps” that he has used to find success in his personal and professional life:

  • Purpose: having a goal and driving towards that goal is the key to everything else. Don’t let others put you off: if you have a goal, go for it!
  • People: meeting people, working with others, and treating them well is the second key to success. Pat spoke about how each of us has the power – and the responsibility – to intervene when others are not being treated well. His message here really chimed with our value of Kindness. 
  • Perseverance: Pat’s message in the third “P” tied in perfectly with our value of Determination – we all encounter difficulties and barriers, but our response to them is crucial. Every setback is an opportunity to learn and grow – this is a phrase straight out of the Academy’s learning values!
  • Performance: the fourth “P” is the end result – putting in the performance when it matters and doing the very best you can in any given situation.

The rugby star then went on to talk to students about the “Power Train” technique – how your thoughts, words, and actions can either undermine or improve your chances of achieving your dreams. If a team thinks like champions, they will talk like champions, and then they will act like champions – and this gives them a better chance of actually becoming champions. The same is true for every individual.

Pat had the entire room in the palm of his hand, even leading us all in a spontaneous dance routine to finish off!

Our guest of honour then joined me to help Team PE hand out this year’s awards. You can find a full list on the Academy website, but it was a special privilege as ever to hand over the Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year Award. This year’s deserving winners were Katie Mackay and Stan Irving.

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Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year 2018

Above all, though, the depth and breadth of sport and PE at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form was breathtaking. Awards were given for rugby, football, netball, hockey, rounders, cricket, golf, swimming, and athletics, whilst students were inducted into the Hall of Fame for gymnastics, equestrianism, and archery. Team PE also introduced new awards for kindness, curiosity and determination this year.

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Sports Awards 2018

Thanks must go to all the staff who attended and helped, especially Team PE; to our special guests; and above all to the fantastic students who make sport at Churchill such a success. Their participation, effort, and contribution makes it all worthwhile.

Bring on #SAE19!

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FAQ: who was in the Yeti costume?!

 

What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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My book: Becoming a growth mindset school

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The front cover

One of my core beliefs as a teacher and as a school leader is that the manner in which we approach learning – our attitude – is the most significant factor in our success. I have written about this subjectrepeatedly on this blog and it is the cornerstone of our approach to learning at Churchill.

At Churchill we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

In late 2016, I was approached by educational publishers Routledge to write a book about this approach to teaching and learning. What does the educational research say? How do you go about implementing an attitude-based approach to teaching and learning? And what have I learned from the process?

At first, I was a little daunted, but this is a subject that I love. I am passionate about the ways in which learning can transform young people’s lives, and about how small shifts in attitude and approach can yield big improvements in progress and achievement. I felt like I had something to say, and I hoped that what wrote I could make a difference to other teachers and school leaders and, through them, their students. So I agreed!

Nearly eighteen months and over 75,000 words later, the book is finally here. It’s called Becoming a growth mindset school  and it explores the theories which underpin a growth mindset ethos and lays out how to embed them into the culture of a school. It offers step-by-step guidance for school leaders to help build an approach to teaching and learning that will encourage children to embrace challenge, persist in the face of setbacks, and see effort as the path to mastery. It isn’t about quick fixes or miracle cures, but an evidence-based transformation of the way we think and talk about teaching, leading, and learning. It is a celebration of all we are trying to achieve here at Churchill Academy & Sixth Form through the skill and dedication of our expert staff, the support of our community of families, and the wonderful kindness, curiosity and determination of our fantastic students.

And we’re only just getting started!

Read an adapted extract from the book here.

Becoming a growth mindset school is available from Amazon, Routledge and Waterstones.

Failure

In 1919, a young man was fired from his job at a newspaper for “lacking imagination” and “having no original ideas.” The young man’s name was Walt Disney. He went on to win 22 Academy Awards.

In 1998 an 11 year old boy was cut from his football team because a growth hormone deficiency made him shorter than other kids his age. The boy’s name was Lionel Messi. He went on to be named FIFA’s World Player of the Year four times.

On 1st January 1962 a band auditioned for Decca Records in West Hampstead, London. Decca rejected the band, saying “guitar bands are on the way out” and the group had “no future in show business.” The band was The Beatles. They went on to have 15 number one albums, sell 21.9 million singles in the UK, and change the face of music forever.

In 1985, aged 30, a successful businessman was fired from the company he had founded. “I was out — and very publicly out,” he recalled. “What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.” He added, “I was a very public failure.” The man’s name was Steve Jobs. He went on to co-found Pixar Animation Studios, where he co-produced the first ever full-length computer animated film: Toy Story. He was lated re-hired by Apple, the company he had founded, and he went on to develop and launch the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Apple today is worth $900 billion. 

It would be easy to think about Walt Disney, Lionel Messi, The Beatles, or Steve Jobs and only to think of the successes. But those successes were only possible because of the unseen failures that preceded them.

Coping with failure

Failure is a big issue for all of us. None of us sets out on a task wanting to fail. It isn’t something desirable or positive. And, when it happens, it feels awful. But the hard fact is that some degree of failure is inevitable. We can’t be successful all the time and sometimes even the best laid plans come unravelled. For us at Churchill, our aim is to build understanding and acceptance that setbacks, mistakes and failures are part of the learning process, and to help our students react well when things don’t go the way we want them to.

We don’t seek failure out – that would be horrible! But equally we shouldn’t protect students from experiencing setbacks. The most important part of the process is showing them how to learn from the experience and improve as a result. When we are learning something new, it’s unreasonable to expect perfection first time – it’s going to take time and effort. We are constantly failing every day, but learning all the time, improving with each mistake, and getting closer and closer to our destination.

Question 1: Why did you fail?

Understanding the causes of failure help us to learn from it. Sometimes the answers to this question will be easy: I didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t prepare thoroughly enough. I didn’t fully understand what it was that I needed to do. In cases like this, the solutions will also be straightforward: work harder. Prepare. Go back and revise.

Sometimes, the answers will be less easy to find. Sometimes something completely unexpected will happen that makes it impossible to succeed. In these situations we we can also ask ourselves whether there was anything we could have done to forsee what went wrong, or whether there was anything we could have prepared for. If the answer is “no” then we can chalk those up to experience, but if the answer is “yes” then we can learn from it.

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Sometimes, you will know what went wrong, but you won’t know what to do about it. This is where teachers, mentors, tutors, family and friends really come into their own. Asking for help when you don’t know what to do next can feel like an admission of weakness, but it is actually a strength. Getting help from those who know more than you do, or who can do it better than you, will help you to get better too. And offering help to those that need it is part of our mission as an Academy – to “encourage others to succeed.”

Question 2: how do you feel?

Let’s not pretend that the feeling of failure is a pleasant one. It isn’t. It can be embarrassing, even humiliating to get something wrong in front of other people. It can be upsetting. If you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, hope and aspiration into a project, failure can be devastating.

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But failure is not fatal, and it is not permanent.

Acknowledging this simple truth is essential for us to learn and grow. It helps all of us to remind ourselves that the disappointment we feel when things go wrong is something that hurts now, but over time it will help us to be stronger and more resilient. It won’t hurt forever – and it could make us better.

Question 3: what have you learned?

Having experienced the horrible feeling of failure, we are faced with a choice. Part of us will certainly want to avoid that feeling in future by not trying – by avoiding the situation where we might fail again. If we do that, however, we risk the failure permanently affecting our confidence and limiting our ability to succeed in future.

Failure and learning

It takes courage and determination to pick ourselves back up and to have another go – but that is the only way to turn failure into learning. Work out where we went wrong, fix it, get help if we need it, and try again.

My failure

One failure that I will never forget comes from my time as the Head of an English Department. I was asked by a colleague to tell off a boy who had been disrespectful in her lesson. I checked the boy’s details on the computer, then went to find him at break time. When I saw him, I launched straight in to my best teacher telling-off, full of disappointment and indignation that this young man had dared to behave so poorly. After about two minutes, I paused for breath. “I think you might want my brother, sir,” said the young man – who had an identical twin.

Why did I fail? Because I didn’t check.

How did I feel? Very stupid.

What did I learn? Always – ALWAYS – check you’ve got the right person before you tell them off.

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We can’t get everything right all the time. But every time we get it wrong we learn more, and improve. Every failure, mistake, and setback is making us stronger, making us smarter. So be brave, keep going, and next time do it a little bit better.

What I believe about education

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Over the past couple of months we have been doing some deep thinking at the Academy about our purpose, our beliefs, and our values. There will be more to follow on this blog about the conclusion of that work, but this week I thought I would share with you some of what I have come to believe about education.

1. Learning

I believe that we should learn at all times, and at all costs.

2. Growth

I believe that we can all improve through effort, deliberate practice, the right attitude and an effective approach.

3. Attitude

I believe that we should build the best attitudes and behaviours for learning to enable achievement.

4. Wellbeing

I believe that achievement, progress and success bring well being and should not cost us our well being.

5. Opportunity

I believe that through taking part and making the most of the opportunities presented to you, you make the most of yourself.

And that’s it: five beliefs about education that we are using to shape the Academy’s values, vision and approach. Keep reading The Headteacher’s Blog to find out more about how we are implementing those beliefs across the school.

 

Grenfell Tower

On Wednesday of this week, took a train into London. I was leading a course called Becoming a growth mindset school for the Association of School and College Leaders, all about the work we are doing at Churchill to develop students’ attitudes to improve the effectiveness of learning. I was up at five to catch an early train, and caught up on some reading as we sped through the morning sunshine. As we entered the urban sprawl of the capital, I put my book down and glanced through the window.

That was when I saw it.

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Grenfell Tower, June 14th 2017

I’d seen on the news on my phone that the Grenfell Tower was ablaze, but I hadn’t realised how close to the tragedy my train would pass. A column of smoke stretched up high into the cloudless sky. A helicopter hovered overhead. The tower itself was a blackened shell. Hoses sprayed water over the smouldering walls. Through the train window it was curiously silent, like a TV on mute – but real. Horribly real.

The survivors – those who made it out of the nightmare – have lost everything. Their clothes, possessions, their money, their documents. They are replaceable, of course, but my thoughts drifted to family photographs, heirlooms, those special things you keep not because of their monetary value but because of what they mean to you. Those things are irreplaceable. But the survivors are the lucky ones. Some – how many we still don’t know – have lost their loved ones, and lost their lives.

The next day, on Thursday, I heard about Ines Alves, a 16-year-old student at Sacred Heart School in Hammersmith. She was revising for her Chemistry GCSE on the 13th floor of Grenfell Tower when her father noticed smoke rising from the fourth floor. She quickly dressed in jeans and a top, grabbed her phone and her revision notes, and ran. She and her family got out of the building safely. “I was trying to revise while we waited downstairs as we thought it was a small fire at first but it was impossible,” she told the Daily Mirror.

Still wearing the clothes she had worn when she fled the tower, Ines went to school in the morning to sit her exam. “Considering what had happened I think the exam went OK. I want to do A-level chemistry and I need an A in science so I was thinking of my future when I decided to sit the exam,” she said. And she wasn’t the only one.

After the exam, Ines went back to rejoin her family and distribute food and water around the community centres as part of the relief work. “I just wanted to do all I could to help,” she said.

Being so close on Wednesday to such a shocking event has deeply affected me. It’s easy to say “my thoughts are with all those affected by this tragedy,” but I haven’t stopped thinking about them. Stories like that of Ines Alves show that, in the midst of tragedy, there are people – especially young people – full of determination, courage, kindness and hope. Even amidst the horror, there is always hope.

UPDATE: August 2017

Ines Alves got an A in her Chemistry GCSE. Congratulations!