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.

Lessons from the Olympics

Welcome back everyone to a new year at Churchill! I hope you all had a great summer. I certainly did, enjoying several trips away with the family and lots of rest and relaxation time. I even got a fair bit of reading done!

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Some of my summer reading! 

I also spent a lot of my summer glued to the coverage of the Rio Olympics, tracking Team GB’s incredible success and binge-watching track cycling, diving and gymnastics amongst many others! It was hugely inspiring, and in this week’s blog I want to share a few of my highlights which I think captured the values we hold to at Churchill.

Care

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Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand comes to Team USA’s Abbey D’Agostino’s aid in the 5,000 metres heats

Athletes train for years for the Olympics, and it can all be over in a heartbeat. In the women’s 5,000 metres heats, New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin stumbled and fell, taking out the athlete immediately behind her – Abbey D’Agostino from the USA. In the fall, D’Agostino tore her cruciate knee ligament, and in that instant, through no fault of her own, her Olympics was over. Hamblin was distraught at the injury caused to her fellow athlete and stopped to help her up and aid her, limping, around the remaining mile so that they both finished the race. Olympic organisers reinstated both runners to the final, but D’Agostino’s injury meant that she could not take part. However, their sportsmanship and care was recognised in the award of the Pierre de Coubertin medal to both athletes – an honour that has only been handed out 17 times in the history of the games. I found the story really moving: even in the heat of competition, and in the moment that all their hopes were evaporating, their first reaction was not anger or recrimination but care and support for another human being.

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Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino have been commended for their sportsmanship after they helped each other up to finish the race. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Inspire

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Ruby Harrold representing Team GB in Gymnastics

I wasn’t fortunate enough to be working at Churchill when Ruby Harrold was a student here, but I felt the rush of support for her from the community through our posts on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.  By the time the Artistic Gymnastics Team Final came round I was bouncing with excitement! To see an ex-Churchill student, who walked our grounds and sat in our classrooms, on the biggest sporting stage of all was a true inspiration. It shows that, with enough hard work and dedication, you can achieve anything.

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Ruby is now heading off to the NCAA in America to compete with Louisiana State – we wish her well!

Challenge

There were many amazing moments which showed athletes overcoming huge challenges. There was this moment from the track cycling:

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Laurine van Riessen (Netherlands) rides up the advertising hoardings to avoid a crash in the women’s keirin qualifying

There was the moment Mo Farah fell over in his qualifying race, then got up to win both his heat and double gold medals:

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Mo Farah: overcoming any challenge!

But for me, the story that encapsulated “challenge” the most was Nick Skelton.

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Nick Skelton: gold medallist at 58 years old

Nick Skelton broke his neck in 2000. He had a hip replacement in 2011. His horse, Big Star, tore his lower suspensory in 2014. Careful, meticulous rehabilitation for both horse and rider saw them come back to win showjumping gold in a tense six-way medal jump-off. The tears in his eyes as he stood on the podium told the story of the challenges he and Big Star had overcome to get there: nobody deserved it more.

Achieve

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Team GB medal tally: 27 gold, 23 silver, 17 bronze

I didn’t think anything could match London 2012, but in Rio Team GB won medal after medal after medal. It soon became clear that the team had got their careful preparations absolutely right: attention to detail, team unity, and investment of lottery funding was paying off. I got completely caught up in a spirit of national euphoria! And, after the games, I reflected on the lessons we could learn as an Academy from the incredible success of Team GB in Rio.

  1. Small changes can make a big difference

The so-called “marginal gains” philosophy has long underpinned British Cycling’s success, and seems to have spread! We should all look for the small changes we can make to help us improve and do better every day.

2. Working together maximises the chance of success

When Laura Trott won her Omnium gold medal, she thanked her nutritionist, her power data analyst, her coach, and the “people at home, the people that you don’t see.” There was a massive team behind her, helping her be the best that she could be. Each of our students should be a Laura Trott, with all the staff at school, family and friends supporting them to achieve their very best.

3. There is no success without effort

The hours, days, weeks, months and years of dedicated training that elite athletes put in to achieve their medals shows us what it takes to be successful on the biggest stage. We may not all be the best in the world at what we do, but we need to dedicate ourselves to hard work, perseverance and determination  if we are to achieve success on our own terms. And, at Churchill, we have plenty of examples of just that approach:

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We are celebrating the great achievements of our students in their A-level and GCSE exams this year – achievements that are only possible because of the hours, days, weeks, months and years of dedicated hard work and effort that the students have put in to deserve them. Well done to all of you!

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Jesse Owens won 4 gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – and it’s as true today as it was then!

I wish all of our Academy community every success this year!

 

 

Balls

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Year 11 letting their hair down

I hope you will forgive the title of this week’s blog. If you’ve found it in your heart to forgive that, then I hope you’ll also forgive this next sentence.

I’ve been to two fantastic balls in the past fortnight.

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Sun's out – we're ready! #bollywoodball

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Of course, I am talking about the Year 11 Ball here at the Academy, and the Year 13 Ball in Bristol the following week. These great events have got me thinking about the spirit of celebration and what I’ve learnt about Churchill over the past fortnight.

Firstly, I’ve heard some people bemoaning the “Americanisation” of our culture as proms have taken hold across the land. I’m not one of them: I love them! And, it has to be said, Churchill’s are something special. In particular, I love the fact that the Year 11 Ball is held here at the Academy, transformed this year into an Aladdin’s Cave of Bollywood-inspired delights. I love the fact that the whole community turns out to watch the arrivals, cheering and applauding as each new spectacular mode of transport rolls around the coach loop. And I love the fact that our Year 11 demonstrate all the creativity and originality that are the hallmarks of this school in their choices of vehicle, from sports cars to scooters, tractors to trailers, motorbikes, golf buggies, wheelbarrows, camper vans and Land Rovers… And I love the fact that the students waltz, tango, and salsa together under the expert direction of our dance teachers before unleashing their own moves on the dancefloor!

What I loved more than that last week, though, was the joy on their faces and the mood of the celebration. There was genuine happiness that the exams they’d worked so hard towards were finally over, and the summer was opening up invitingly ahead of them. But there was also real warmth and affection for the school and its teachers who had helped them along the way. There were hugs and thank yous, and I think in each of them a sense that, even though many of them would be returning to us in the Sixth Form, their time as a full year group was over and that, from September, a new chapter was beginning.

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Table prepared for the Sixth Form Ball

What, then, of the celebrations for the students two years older? Well, the glamour was still very much in evidence and, if anything, turned up a notch in our Year 13 Ball…and I can certainly vouch for the enthusiasm and energy with which they celebrated! These students too are stepping into a new chapter, beyond the Academy for good. I wished them well as they prepared for that next vital step. It also struck me how many teachers came to celebrate with them, showing the real affection and respect between the staff and students at the Academy. Or the fact that the teachers were in need of a good night out too!

So should schools – places of learning and education – really be expending time and energy in organising parties? Absolutely. They celebrate the warmth of the relationships between students and staff, they bring people together to mark these mileposts on our journey together, and they give us all the chance to relax and let our hair down after all that hard work. And the students deserve it!

The next steps: 2016 leavers

The last day of Term 5 is always an emotional one. It’s a day of goodbyes as leavers take their next steps. Year 11 step out of main school, and Year 13 step beyond school for good. Of course, it’s au revoir not goodbye, because students will be back in after the half term break for revision and exams, and most of Year 11 will be rejoining us in the Sixth Form anyway, but it still feels like an ending. This blog is for you: the leavers of 2016.

As a new Headteacher joining the Academy in January, I’ve only had a few months to get to know you. Oddly, it’s those in the “leavers'” years that I feel I know the best! I’ve been made to feel very welcome by you at the top of the school, and you’ve been happy to share your experiences with me. You have spent five or seven years at Churchill and have a really good perspective on the things that have made your time at the Academy successful, fulfilling and enjoyable – as well as the niggles and gripes that go into the “areas for development” category! Your approach to study, and your pride in your school, have made you excellent role models to the other students, and given me an idea about what it is possible to achieve at Churchill.

A few moments with the senior students of 2016

 

Being a secondary school teacher is a huge privilege. You come to us, aged 11, as children; you leave us, aged 18, as adults. We have the honour of shepherding you through the tricky terrain of the teen age as you wrestle with your changing bodies, burgeoning independence, and emotions felt more keenly and powerfully than at any other time in life. In partnership with your families we help you to understand the world around you fully and in depth. Your sense of justice and fairness, your passionately held principles, your refusal to accept that “it’s just the way things are” is inspiring. You challenge us as we challenge you, of course, but in all of you there’s the turning point when you realise that we’re all on the same side and that, actually, we can achieve much more working together than we do in opposition. Equally, your humour, warmth and wit as you realise that your teachers and parents are human too – fallible, flawed, and not always in possession of all the answers – keeps a smile on our faces every day.

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What message should you be leaving Churchill with? I think it’s the words of Albus Dumbledore that say it best: “it is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”We are all born with different abilities, different predispositions, different advantages and disadvantages in life. But these are not limiting factors. We are not bound by our circumstances.  We can choose to make the most of the situations we find ourselves in, choose to take chances and opportunities when we have them, choose to take on the difficult challenge or the easy option. It is these choices that define us all. I hope that Churchill has provided you with the knowledge and skills to make the best choices, so you can be what you truly are and deserve to be.

Good luck in all you do in the future to the Churchill Leavers of 2016!