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May 2020 Blog

Three months into this crisis and lockdown is now beginning to ease and there can be times in the day where you could be fooled into thinking that the country is returning to normal. We can breathe again.  Then the jarring reality hits you as you go past a supermarket with long queues outside, or drive down a still empty high street with all shops and restaurants shut, or walk past someone you know and instead of greeting them with a hug you stand awkwardly 2 metres apart and politely enquire after their health.

This jarring reality hits me every day when I come to the College. The new COVID safe layout in the reception area. The eerily quiet corridors. Classrooms shut up and silent instead of bustling with children and the excited chatter that accompanies them everywhere they go. Many times in the past, I have joked that a school is at its best when the children have gone home. How wrong could I be? The silence of buildings designed for one purpose and one purpose only; the education of children is stifling in its intensity. The College is bereft, as are the staff who work there.

In my briefing to staff last week, I used two quotes that I think sum up the situation very well. The first was by Elizabeth Edwards, an American attorney, best-selling author and health care activist, who said:

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it's less good than the one you had before.

The second quote was by a digital designer from Brooklyn called Ryder Carroll:

No matter how bleak or menacing a situation may appear, it does not entirely own us. It can't take away our freedom to respond, our power to take action.

Within education, the situation is far from normal, and many of you will be feeling this keenly every day, as your children are at home with you instead of here at College with us. Looking forward, the return to normality appears far off as we face seismic challenges such as:

  1. Trying to engage children who struggle with learning either because of lack of motivation or because there are other barriers that make the accessing of learning independently a real struggle.
  2. Making sure we keep contact every week with all our students and supporting those who we know are really beginning to struggle with the lack of routine and structure to their lives that the College day provides.
  3. Planning for the wider reopening of the College for our Year 10 students, within the complex restrictions laid down by the Government.
  4. Creating a new curriculum model for the College next year, so that the Year 11 students have the best chance of success in their exams next summer.
  5. The transition process for our new Year 7s. We have 185 joining us and none of our usual transition activities can take place. How can we safely and successfully help them with their transfer to secondary education, so they start in September confident and ready to learn?
  6. To support the increased number of students coming into the College, we have 7 new teachers to induct this term and 8 Learning Support Assistants. It is very difficult to do a successful induction when there are no children around to teach and usual systems and protocols do not apply.
  7. How do we prepare for September, when we have no indication yet of what a September term start will look like? All we do have is a growing realisation that it will not be a normal one. I am expecting the government to give us directions as to what we can and cannot do in September around the time of the August bank holiday. It has been their pattern so far, to issue vitally important information for schools on bank holidays!!!

It is, without a doubt a sizeable list of unique challenges and it could be easy to be overwhelmed by it. However, as I said to the staff, so long as we know what the challenges are, we can rise to meet them… and I know as a College community that we have the creativity, passion and therefore resilience to do just this.

So, this is me adjusting to my new reality. I struggle with it still, but these are the challenges I must and will face and as a result, this is me owning the situation as we make creative new plans to ensure the College continues to thrive as a learning community… albeit in a different way to usual.

When I remind myself of what I said in my April blog and not only look at how far we have to go but look back to see how far we have already come, I can see that we have actually achieved a huge amount with regards to working through some of the challenges. For example:

  1.  We have done a three-year group option process for the first time in history! The only year group not doing options were Year 7. This massive process has been completed remotely and all year 8 students have still had their individual interview with a member of College staff as have many students in Year 9 and 10, where there have been concerns or issues around decisions made. As this process is now completed, we have been able to reconstruct our curriculum plan for next year specifically to support the Year 11s and the timetable creation is now well underway. This is no mean feat and my heartfelt thanks go to Mr Potts, Mrs Wilson and Mrs Duncan, who have worked tirelessly on this over recent weeks and with a passion and commitment to get it as right as can be for every student.
  2. Before half term, we did a parent survey on remote learning and over 200 parents responded which was excellent. We had some amazing feedback and constructive insights into what is working and what is not working so well. Using this information, Mr Collins, Mr Potts and I continue to work with the Heads of Subjects and individual teachers to ensure that the work we are setting and following up on is as appropriate with regards to challenge as it can be, and set in a consistent way, so the students do not get confused by instructions. We also took on board parent comments about the importance of positive praise. Just before half term, I signed over two hundred letters praising individual students, who had been highlighted by their teachers for their application to remote learning. We have also been able to introduce a rewards setting on ‘itslearning’, so the students can now earn commendations for work completed just as they could when they were in the classroom. These commendations will all be rolled over for next year.
  3. Working with a specifically created group of Governors, we have been able to create our wider reopening plan for Year 10 students starting on the 15th of June. All Year 10 parents will have received an e-mail about this on Friday 5th June.  Further individual communication will follow at the start of this next week with information about the bespoke timetable each student will have for 4 weeks, incorporating pastoral support, and face to face contact with their core teachers to supplement the remote learning in these subjects. It has been no easy job to set this up within all the restrictions, but both the Governors and I are now very happy that we have a plan that has the wellbeing of staff and students at its core. I must thank the Governing body here, who have just been such tremendous support throughout this crisis and whom I know will continue to be so over the coming difficult months.
  4. Our transition process is being creatively re-moulded week by week by Mr Collins, Mrs Hope and Mr Lemon. So far, we have had our conversations with all primary schools involved in the process, to gather vital information on each of the students starting with us next year. A transition booklet full of useful information has been sent out and this will be followed up with a PowerPoint with recorded messages from all the staff who will be supporting the students in their transfer to secondary education. We are also going to hold a couple of parent ZOOM question and answer sessions, so we can address directly any concerns that parents might have about the transition to secondary at this time. If we can, we will try to arrange face-to-face contact with groups of Year 6 students transferring from 1 primary school at a time, but at the moment under the current restrictions, this will be difficult to achieve with our vulnerable and key worker provision ongoing and the wider opening of the College to Year 10.
  5. We have also been able to start the Year 10 Head Boy and Head Girl election process. The number of Year 10 prefects who applied this year delighted me, bearing in mind they had to create and submit their letters remotely, without the usual guidance of Heads of House, Tutors or English teachers all of whom normally play a significant support role in the process. It was a very tough decision to shortlist both roles down to just three candidates for each, but between Mr Lemon, and myself we achieved it. Therefore, my congratulations go to Lola N, Amelia B and Kathryn W who will now enter the election process for Head Girl; and George S, Ben M and Tyler W who enter the election process for Head Boy.

Finally, I want to reflect briefly on the Year 11s, who are on my mind constantly. Mrs Wilson and Mrs Brown have now contacted every Year 11 to help them access transition courses that have now been established by most Further Education Colleges. We are currently in the process of uploading all the Centre Assessed Grades for every subject to the exam boards, following a very intense and rigorous process here at the College, where every grade and the evidence that sits behind it has been quality assured by Heads of Subject and SLT alike. We are also nearing completion on the Year 11 Leavers’ book, and my thanks to Mrs Poulter and Mr Parkinson, who have worked very hard to make sure that this process has kept going.

I want to finish with a couple of paragraphs that I wrote to the Year 11 in their Leavers’ book, because despite the challenges facing all of us, but most specifically this group of youngsters, I believe that the future can and will be a very exciting place for them:

This pandemic has woken us all up to significant issues within our own country as well as around the world. Most of you will now be aware of the seismic economic and social inequalities that surround us, as well as the flaws in logistics planning that can cripple elements of a nation’s response to a crisis. However, it will have also demonstrated to you the amazing ability and reserve of individuals and teams to respond to a crisis and initiate significant change within breathtaking periods of time. It has proven beyond doubt the power of human endeavour.

 This awakening has brought some other hard realisations to us, some of which I have listed below:

  1. The old ways of doing things just do not work.
  2. That it does not matter if you make lots of money if others around you are significantly disadvantaged, hungry, or sick.
  3. That a society or a democracy only works when individuals within it think not only of themselves but also of each other.
  4. That all those, who you have previously thought had the right answers to situations; probably don’t, in fact they might not even be asking the right questions to find the solution

Hard those these realisations are, they should fill you, as the next generation, with hope. These realisations highlight that the future is truly a blank canvas, upon which you can paint new horizons.  Most importantly, you are the first to do this, the first to make this transition from childhood to adulthood, straight onto this blank canvas.

So my message to you is this: make the most of every precious minute, every opportunity and paint! Redefine the world that we live in and find new and better ways of doing things. Never has it been so exciting, to be ‘The Next Generation!’