Diary of a Head Teacher: Richard Hawthorne of John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford – April/May 2021 update

Richard Hawthorne is the Head at John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford having taken up the position on 1 June 2020. In July we asked him to share his thoughts on his first month in post. Why stop there? we thought. So, August excepted, this will be updated every month: Richard, the floor is yours…

April/May 2021

It may seem like a strange thing to do, but leading John O’Gaunt over the last month or so is something I can only liken to the unpredictable weather patterns we’ve been experiencing of late.  The comparison struck me whilst playing a round of golf a few Saturdays ago during which I had the, to me, unique experience of warm sunshine with clear blue skies and snow, all at the same time.  It seems that the weather gets going in one direction and then abruptly decides it isn’t quite done with the previous pattern yet and so you’re left feeling unsure as to exactly what season it is.

Personally, this describes the days and weeks since the February half term holiday perfectly, if not the whole school year so far; we’ve just not been able to settle into any sort of rhythm.  This is not to complain: but if you can recall that feeling during the first week upon returning to school after the long summer holidays, every day seems a bit like that at the moment.  Since February, we’ve had half a half term of remote education; then returned for a few weeks; then had a few Covid interruptions; just got going again  and then Easter arrived. A break of more than a week in the school year usually leads to a stuttered restart: this year there have been several.

Once again, I have to say that I have huge admiration for how our school community is coping with all of this, especially the students; and in particular Year 11 who are also navigating their way through the strangest “exams season” you could imagine.

Teacher Assessed Grades, or TAGs, are the replacement for the formal GCSE examinations this year. If you followed ofthe reporting that dealt with the system put in place last year, I can assure you that every step has been taken by the DfE to ensure that, if nothing else, you won’t see the same news headlines about chaos and algorithms that you did last year.  As time has passed since the initial announcements in February however, it does seem like the good intentions have translated into a system that sometimes leaves me wondering whether we should have just stuck to the GCSEs as normal.

The reality of TAG for schools then is lengthy and sometimes contradictory guidance to wade through. For our Year 11 students, it feels like they have had less lead-in time than their predecessors to what are, essentially, exam-style assessments, even though ours are being done in the classroom and not an exam hall. Whilst it may not sound like it, I do support the TAG system. We have been able to create an approach that will achieve what the government intends and will be able to accurately and fairly assess our students based on their current performance. We have also been able to adapt our assessment approaches to suit JOG students as best we can and we are doing our very best to guide and support students through the process. Most importantly, our students should have the opportunities they deserve to access their next steps, whatever these may be, so there is much good to focus on too; we just need to keep reassuring our students of these points at the moment.

As we turn to the future for the rest of our students, the forecast here remains unclear too. We’re in the process of planning for the transition of our rising Year 7 students. Despite the increasingly positive headlines we have not taken any chances and are putting together a plan that allows for both virtual and face-to-face programmes.  Current government guidance should enable us to see the students before the summer holidays. I cannot convey to you, should this happen, how relieved we will all be. Part of DfE’s plans for rising Year 7 includes funding for summer schools to enable pupils to catch up on missed work and have important enrichment opportunities. Whilst I fully support these aims, one has to wonder about two important questions; firstly, with funding only given for the pupils who end up attending, how schools can plan for a programme without taking on a financial risk they can ill-afford; secondly, what we then do with students in our current Years 7 to 10 who are surely as equally deserving of such opportunities. For our part, having formally expressed our interest in running a summer school with the DfE, we are in the process of trying to resolve the first question before even beginning to tackle the second.

The issue of catch-up is a difficult one in itself and I have often found myself asking questions about it in recent weeks. For example, what exactly are students catching up on and, more importantly, what for?  No one has yet defined this and, whilst the terminology continues to be used, one can only wonder at what pressures this may be creating in young minds.  This is not to say that we’re not planning for intervention and support for our students – we are.  However, I do believe that until decisions are made about what national exams and assessment will look like in the next five years (not just in the short term), it is hard to know the best way forward.

I think that school leaders and government will need to work closely and carefully map out the future. I only hope that the focus from all sides is on what is needed rather than simply trying to rehash things to fit the current system because it’s all that we know. Square pegs into round holes springs to mind. Of course, situations like the pandemic can also present many new opportunities too and I hope and believe that Covid could allow the chance to review and re-evaluate a number of things in our education system like never before. It may even lead to better outcomes for our young people in the future.

As ever, you can see that it has been an interesting time of late and that as my tenure as a headteacher extends, it is increasingly apparent that Covid will remain the number one issue far beyond the pandemic itself.  To labour on the weather analogy once more, I think there are always going to be bright spots and sunny days.  I just wish that I had access to a reliable long-term forecast…

March/April 2021

Earlier this month, BBC Radio Berkshire invited me to be interviewed and talk about taking on headship during a pandemic, having followed my entries on this blog. Sarah Walker interviewed me with her usual skilful questioning and put me at ease (I was very nervous!). However, one of her questions took me a little by surprise: Sarah asked me if I saw sending students home due to Covid as a failure.

The surprise was not because it was a bad question or because I haven’t thought about it but because it’s not something people usually recognise.

At the time of this interview, I had spent much time the previous couple of weeks dealing with a small number of positive cases within our staff and student community and the inevitable fallout identifying potential close contacts that follows positive tests. I know that there has been a lot of media attention nationally about the cost and shortcomings of the track and trace system: but I can say from personal experience that they are very thorough. Our positive cases came through the Lateral Flow Device (LFD) testing I wrote about last month and, despite the misgivings I openly shared with you last time, in many ways I am glad that the testing system worked.

Coming back to Sarah’s question: strange as it may sound to some and despite the fact that LFD testing is supposed to identify asymptomatic cases, it did feel like we were letting people down when the results came through. One member of staff who tested positive even apologised! I certainly don’t blame anyone: yet, when I subsequently tested positive myself, I understood that catching a virus you have no control over, or sending people home to self-isolate as a close contact, seems somehow a failure. For the record, it isn’t, but it does feel that way: as Sarah skilfully recognised.

What I have found frustrating is the lack of clarity in some of the guidance we have to work to. Even when I called Public Health England or the Department for Education as part of the track and trace work we’re required to do, there were a number of contradictions we had to work through which added to the time and burden of the whole thing. This is not to criticise the representatives I spoke to, who seemed dedicated and had an empathetic attitude: but I did get the sense that some of the information was from a new script that they recognised was in places less than clear.  As those that have followed my previous posts will know, this is not the first time we’ve had to untangle government guidance and we’re still awaiting further clarification on things like face coverings in classrooms, despite the fact that the Easter holidays are upon us at the time of writing this. John O’Gaunt is a school that works really hard to communicate effectively and clearly with our community. I will admit that I find it exasperating when something gets in the way of that which is outside our control.

Despite these setbacks we managed to get ourselves ready for the start of term on 8 March and the testing routines that were demanded. We put out the call for volunteers in the local community to help with this and, once again, were overwhelmed with the response. A huge thank you to all those who scrubbed up and donned the PPE. See this separate post for more.

This month has also seen us begin to plan for ‘Teacher Assessed Grading’ (or TAG), which is replacing GCSEs for Year 11 students this year. Announced back in February, the guidance has only just all come through and runs to hundreds of pages. Finding a way to ensure fair and robust approaches is proving challenging. It seems that every school I speak to has a slightly different take on the guidance and how they’ll put it into practice. This is where being part of Excalibur Academies Trust proves invaluable as it means we have a wide group of colleagues to network with.

It is also a time where you see the true value of the people you work with and I am really proud of the staff at JOG. We feel a great weight of responsibility to provide our students with every opportunity to show their best, without compromising the integrity of GCSE grades. This is certainly reflected in the professionalism my colleagues are showing as they navigate through a very tricky time for school communities.

If you spoke to the students who returned to us in the second week of March however, they would probably paint a far more optimistic picture – even those in Year 11. For the most part, our students seem to have a resilience that is on a different level from ours. They have returned to school almost as if there hadn’t been a lockdown. The first week did see some excitability, as friends were able to physically see acquaintances for the first time in months. With hairdressers not open and uniform in short supply or difficult to get hold of, I think we’re all looking forward to 12 April. On the whole though, and despite the Covid interruptions described above, by the time we broke up for Easter you wouldn’t have really been able to tell that this was one of the strangest terms in history.

We can take a little credit from the ‘business as usual’ approach the school took to remote education, and the meticulous planning that went into reopening, but the rest is wholeheartedly down to a group of young people and their families who value the school and support our students so well. I ended last month’s entry saying that it would be “an interesting few weeks” and it was. However, once again our students and being part of a strong community has inspired me to keep smiling and stay optimistic.

February/March 2021

I ended my previous entry with a decidedly cheerful sign-off and the recent announcement about an exit from lockdown has only served to improve that frame of mind.  On the other hand, that announcement also means I’m exhausted already.

Make no mistake – like everyone else I’m really excited at the prospect of coming out of the current restrictions.  More than anything else, I know that my staff are looking forward to having students back in school where they should be. However, as I listened to the announcement two weeks ago, I’m not sure I fully appreciated at the time just how much effort would be needed to reopen the school.

As I write, we stand on the eve of the first wave of the mass, in-school lateral flow tests. These will be the first of three we have to conduct on each child before Easter. We had already set up an outbuilding (we used to call it “The Pod” but is now affectionally known as The Pod Hospital” as a mass-test site. This is not something I ever thought I’d have need to be proud of as a school leader. Today we added a further six testing bays in our Sports Hall to cope with the footfall that will enable us to get every child tested in one day next week.

The work that has gone into organising this has been incredible, not least because the issuing of some revised guidance late in the day led to us having to change our plans entirely with a week to go. Achieving this feat has yet again relied on people going above and beyond. This has been not only from within my staff, who have shown such dedication and resilience that I don’t think I can ever repay it, but once again from the local community, from which we’ve drawn an army of volunteers who are coming to assist us, paid only with tea and biscuits (and our gratitude). To echo the words of a parent I spoke to when I told her about this today; “go Hungerford!”

I’m nervous about the testing if I’m honest with you.  Not because we may get positive results – this is entirely the point of asymptomatic testing – but because this is a first for everyone and there isn’t a blueprint for doing it. As we all know, teachers also hate getting anything wrong.  It’s also not that I’m against testing: it’s just so far removed from what you would ever expect to have to do as an education professional.

On the other hand, the way we’ve chosen to run our testing regime will mean that we get students back to school as quickly as possible. I’m extremely proud of what my colleagues have achieved during lockdown and the remote provision that we’ve been able to deliver – indeed, there’s so much to be proud of.  For instance, the vast majority of our lessons were live through Teams, something that became increasingly useful to students after we distributed more than eighty laptops funded through our PSA, Excalibur Trust, Hungerford Town Council and The Good Exchange/Greenham Trust. Feedback from “lesson observations” (we joined live sessions for these), from students, from parents, from samples of work and through our student trackers have shown that most of our students have engaged brilliantly, worked hard and – dare I say – enjoyed many aspects of remote learning. We’ve also worked hard to look after wellbeing, making regular calls to many families. Following feedback from student and parent surveys, we held a ‘JOG Wellbeing Day’ in February, allowing students some time away from screens and to try and contact every single family on our roll.

None of this can replace the education and care we can provide for children in school. Nor should it – but there are lots of things we’ll take away from lockdown to use in future. For example, offering remote opportunities for meetings and even parents’ evenings has helped busy families attend these without the usual hassles of fitting these around hectic lifestyles. Some of the assessment and feedback we’ve done has used online applications that we think can still be relevant regardless of where we’re running lessons from. Even the way we set homework may change whereby we narrate PowerPoints with instructions and deeper explanations, rather than just issuing written tasks. There are certainly lessons we can learn and part of the job for JOG will be to draw on these in the months and years ahead.

Before that, of course, we need to plough through the tests, guidance, risk assessments, routines changes, new rules and the not-insignificant job of reorienting our students, once again, back into school life. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks…

January/February 2021

If you happen to have read my previous posts on here, you’ll know that I took up my position as Head on 1 June 2020. Now would therefore seem like a good time to reflect and ponder on the first six or so months at John O’Gaunt.

Of course, like all of us, my life has been dominated by Covid-19. I joined the school during the first lockdown and I write now in the midst of the latest one. I really do hope that by ‘latest’ I actually mean ‘last.’  In my very first Penny Post blog, I stated that I had sunny disposition despite everything that was going on, that I thought that Covid revealed our true nature as people and that I felt that Covid might be a leveller in some ways. Do I stand by those statements?  Let me set some context before I answer that.

I joined a school with hardly any students physically attending and set about reading page upon page of public-health guidance and creating risk assessments and new school routines to cope with bubbles (no longer fun), social distancing and track-and-trace measures. Instead of preparing for and attending an exam-results day full of anticipation and nervous excitement, I spent the first half of summer nervously pondering “mutant algorithms” and wondering how an earth we could ever make up for (or even explain) the debacle that was Centre Assessed Grading to a generation of children (who didn’t even get to go to their Prom). The second half, including the socially-distanced results day, was for me, spent self-isolating until the final weekend of the holiday; which in turn was spent reading another 15 documents and adapting our reopening plans at the eleventh hour – this was after a last-minute change of mind on some pretty important details from the DfE, which reached my inbox at 9pm on the Friday night.

My opening Inset Day speeches and first-day assemblies were more Edwin Chadwick than they were Winston Churchill. We spent nearly as much time discussing health and safety as we did teaching and learning and I will admit to having felt a great sense of trepidation, and some anxiety. I began to wonder if those who had offered me sympathy for taking up my first headship in a pandemic, might have had a point.

However, in the term that followed, I saw our staff and students return and frankly, bowl me over with their resilience, dedication and can-do approach. Whilst it is true that Covid-fatigue definitely set in for everyone, especially as the nights drew in and the Tier system began to bite, I will never forget the feeling of joy and satisfaction I felt stood outside at lunchtime soaking up the sights and sounds of young people enjoying the simple pleasures of company, conversation and camaraderie. Nor will I lose the sense of pride I felt walking into classrooms and seeing staff adopt the ‘keep clam and carry on’ demeanour that meant students could feel like school was normal, despite travelling to and from lessons in face masks and sanitising their hands and desks every time they entered a classroom. Moreover, even though every day for 16 weeks I carried around a knotted stomach, we were fortunate enough to not have to close the school or send any bubble home. At JOG, our students genuinely received a quality, full-time education in the autumn.

Since 5 January, they have continued in that vein and with just over 12 hours’ notice, have begun to deliver a full timetable of live lessons that I am proud to say one parent called ‘seamless’. We’ve had dozens of similar comments of praise and encouragement. Whilst it is certainly challenging at the moment, what more could I ask in the situation?

Perhaps some of that fortune was also helped by how well prepared we were as a school. We made informed decisions about our routines and approaches and, as a senior leadership team, held many candid discussions to make sure that we always carefully balanced public health, mental health and quality of education. My senior colleagues deserve a huge amount of credit for doing so with a relative stranger in the driving seat and for never losing sight that JOG is a ‘students first’ institution. Their true nature and that of my staff was certainly revealed as decent and good to say the least.

I have stated numerous times over the last six months, that one of the big draws of working in a school like JOG is the community spirit, which I described as ‘palpable’ last summer. That has proven to be an understatement. Not only have our community pulled together, shown by the many messages of support for the school, parental patience with enforced changes and adaptations to school life, students showing the aforementioned resilience and so many offers of help from the local area that it’s hard to keep up with it all.

We’ve had the full support from our Parent’s Association (PSA), providing equipment and funding whilst still trying to raise more funds and promote the school in the pandemic. We’ve come together with others on Remembrance Day, where I saw first-hand that a virus cannot defeat determination to be respectful and to remember our fallen. We’ve worked with the local church and food bank to promote and run outward-reaching community events and fundraising. Within 24 hours of the announcement of school-based ‘Lateral Flow’ testing, a local volunteer lead had found more than 15 volunteers willing to assist us in their own time.

Perhaps the most heart-warming thing for me personally, though, has been around the mobilisation of support for helping JOG families to access adequate IT equipment; something you will no doubt have seen is an issue also hitting the national news. More than 80 of our families faced this issue and with the cost of laptops averaging around £350, so-called ‘digital disadvantage’ would only widen gaps for some in our community. I raised the issue at a meeting with Hungerford Town Council in November, who took on the situation and made it a true cause; and it really took off overnight.

Penny Post, the Newbury Weekly News and the Advisor published articles raising the issue on our behalf. Green Machine had contacted me with offers to donate 10 PCs to help. We even had donations and offers of actual devices from parents, local businesses and some of the Town Councillors. In no time at all HTC had found funds of £3,000 to donate to our PSA through the Good Exchange, which meant that with Greenham Trust match-funded this, so doubling the amount. This was followed by significant investment from the school’s Academy Trust, Excalibur, and the final arrival of 35 laptops from the DfE. That may sound simples but getting this done took a lot of time and effort, not only from members of HTC and Excalibur Trust but also of our school IT and support staff and the PSA, especially Jon Shatford and Deborah Arden-Hunt. As a result, we have now been able to provide every single one of those families with a laptop to enable them access to the excellent remote education my staff are providing in this current lockdown. I cannot tell you how powerful that is. I cannot adequately convey how grateful we are either. It is simply a sign of what a truly incredible community John O’Gaunt sits within.

Clearly, wonderful though it is to write about this, it does provide a somewhat stark context around my comments about how Covid can be leveller. For our most disadvantaged this is not necessarily the case and I worry often about the widening gap for some of our children after the pandemic; something the government is clearly worried about too, given the PM’s commitment to provide even more catch-up funding and support in the future. That said, I do stand by this in part, given how our students simply got on with life. This has certainly been experience for them, as it has been for us all, and one that I hope and believe we have made as palatable for them as possible.

So, to return to my original question, has my sunny disposition and optimism been dented by all this? Not a bit of it. As I said in my first ever post, how could I be downcast? I continue to experience incredible support and real community spirit that being the Head of John O’Gaunt brings. Despite Covid, and despite all the challenges and hardships this has brought, the brightness of the future at JOG remains undimmed. Bring on the next six months!

December 2020/January 2021

Sadly, the combination of the Christmas break and the task of understanding and implementing the ever-changing government regulations concerning the re-opening of schools have prevented Richard from adding to his diary this month.

The next instalment will follow as soon as he has had time to draw breath and will cover how teaching and learning has been working during the January lockdown. It will also provide an update on the much-needed provision of laptops and other necessary devices to assist with the demands of remote teaching. 

November/December 2020

I have previously talked a great deal about Covid-19 and the associated changes and adaptations to school life.  Those things continue to dominate school life as they do everywhere else.  November though, was a month that reminded me that there are other things that are important too.

Firstly, I was given the honour of representing the school on Remembrance Sunday to lay our wreath at the Hungerford War Memorial.  I could complain here that Covid had scuppered the ability of the school send students or and that social distancing meant that far fewer people turned out on the day overall. However, in all honesty the event lost none of its poignancy and really did bring home the message that there are so many things to be thankful for. I can only pay full tribute to everyone involved in organising the occasion and give thanks on behalf of the JOG community. We did of course, continue to mark the occasion in school and I can honestly say that you could sense a humble mood during that week (and rightly so); if nothing else perhaps Covid will give young people a new-found respect for those who fought and the hardships our country has faced in the past.

I also wrote last month about the changes to guidance for schools and shared my sense of fatigue with these. Since then we’ve been through a second national lockdown, with all the associated changes, and then exited that into the new tiered system. In school, apart from one or two small adaptations to the way that staff work and further reducing external visitors for the month, we have just been getting on with things as best we can. School life has largely carried on and we were even able to hold mock exams for Year 11 students who, along with the rest of our students, have continued to show great resilience.

That said, there are signs that the work to recover from the impact of Covid, both academically and pastorally, has only just begun. It will need to continue for some time yet. As we discussed at a recent virtual staff meeting, our young people are going through the same things as we all 0once did at this age. I’m sure we all recall the angst of our teen years: but without a pandemic added in.

As I write, the government is set to make important announcements about GCSEs in 2021, a subject I mentioned last month. The early indications are that this will at least bring us and our students the certainty we desperately need. It seems that a more flexible approach to exams and allowances for disruption to both preparation and the exams themselves has been considered.  It’s clear that school leaders were consulted this time around. I believe that this will always be the best way to approach these things.  Thinking about exams and seeing the reactions of Year 11 in their mock results assembly served as a reminder that for our students, life must go on, regardless of the virus.  Easier to say than do, of course.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to join a Hungerford Town Council Meeting this term, alongside my Chair of Governors, and make a short presentation about JOG.  Whilst the meeting was virtual it was great to be able to engage with them and I was really struck by the dedication to and genuine care for the school. One of things we discussed at the meeting was the significant minority of JOG families that struggle to access good IT provision and the instant and determined response from HTC to help us try and tackle this was heartening, as was the offer of help from Green Machine Computers in Ramsbury.  Once again, I was reminded of the great benefits of being a community school and that, despite all that is going on, good people can still find time and energy to help others.

Finally, as myself and three of our brilliant students were filming a short message on behalf of JOG for the HTC Virtual Christmas Light event, I was reminded again that there are things to look forward to. A virtual ‘Merry Christmas’ to our community may not be a substitute for the power of human contact or replace events like the Christmas Lunch we usually put on for some of our elderly neighbours, but as we tell our students regularly – this is not forever.  If nothing else, November reminded me to say that to myself as well…

October/November 2020

Unsurprisingly, Covid-19 remained the dominant theme in school this October. We made it through the first eight weeks without having a confirmed case in our school community. This has been something to celebrate but, despite how proud I am of the staff and students for adapting so well to our Covid measures, I think this is more luck than anything else. Looking at the national picture, I can only imagine that it is simply a matter of time before we do have a case to deal with. In the meantime, we’re continuing to work to adapted routines within our bubbles. I’ll admit that it has not been the easiest of half terms: by the end of the last week, I think it’s fair to say that all of us were feeling fatigued.

October saw a raft of new national measures in response to the pandemic which means that there were the inevitable changes for schools. We’re awaiting further details, particularly concerning the changes to the GCSE timetables, which have been put back by three weeks next summer. Looking at the current situation, one does begin to wonder if they’ll even be a viable option at all if things don’t improve.

We’ve also had further guidance on transport, cleaning, responses to suspected cases and so on from a range of agencies to deal with. If I’m honest, some days it feels like information overload and having proudly stated recently that “it’s hard to over-communicate”, I’ve found myself having to be careful about what we say to our community as we’re supposed to be helping and not hindering the national effort.

Having said all of that, October was also a month with other things to celebrate. For example, our attendance has been consistently above the national average and, as I’ve stated before, our students seem to just be happy to be a routine and among their peers, despite the challenges we’re all facing. As part of our planning for the range of possible scenarios, we’ve continued to build our remote-learning provision. This included using funds donated by our Parents’ Association to contribute to the purchase of classroom visualisers for all our teachers. (If you remember overhead projectors, they’re the digital version of those contraptions that double as webcams should we need to switch to delivering some lessons online.)

I was also able to meet with several people from the local community to talk about how John O’Gaunt can continue to work alongside them for the good of the local area. I am humbled and inspired by the charity and generosity in the area and it’s heart-warming to know that JOG will continue to be a part of that. There would be too many examples of the initiatives we’ve already been part of that I could list here but suffice to say that our desire to be a true community school has been shown not just to be my own wishful thinking – I am aware of a genuine desire that this is what people in Hungerford want as well. This community spirit is, of course, even more important in the current climate and is something that I have already noticed exits in the town to a very high degree.

October is the also month when parents of year-six pupils need to decide which secondary school they will apply to. Ordinarily, we would have held an evening and several morning events where parents and children could tour the school and speak to staff and students. We’re always proud to show visitors around. We’re officially a ‘Good’ school with results in line with national averages over the past few years, so we felt more excited than ever about the prospect of Open Evening.

However, once again Covid-19 had other ideas so we were forced to learn a new set of skills as we took to the online world to build a virtual Open Evening instead. We uploaded a wealth of information, a virtual tour and a range of resources to try and connect with parents and pupils.

I do not envy any parent who is unsure of which school to choose during the pandemic. Not being able to showcase the school was extremely frustrating for us so I am sure it was for prospective parents and pupils. Having said that, our preparations did lead to something else rather special (warning, shameless plug to follow) in the form of our new promotional video, filmed earlier this month with the help of local production company MWS Media. We’re very proud of it. The aim was to capture the essence of the school and we really do think this video does that. Most importantly, the video is led by some of our students, who rightly describe themselves in the video as “awesome”. Head over to the JOG website to have a look.

The video also states that we’re a school with big ambition. With Covid here to stay and likely to disrupt our lives for a while yet, I think that ambition is something that we need to have more than ever, especially for our young people. Whatever challenges are thrown at us next, I can promise you that we’ll continue to strive for the very best for the JOG community.

September/October 2020

I wrote in a recent letter to parents that I had forgotten how incredible it is to hear the sounds of young people enjoying school again. For those of us who work in schools, these sounds are almost addictive. They signify everything that is most joyous about the job and accompany the buzz that goes with this amazing profession. I don’t think any of us realised how deafening the silence of lockdown really was.

The boost these sounds have provided could not have come at a better time and they help to carry the staff every day. I have never known a busier or more challenging start to a school year in my 20 years in teaching. Admittedly, this may be partly down to the new role for me personally, but my colleagues have all said similar things, too. Balancing the usual recalibrating of a school alongside the challenges of creating a Covid-safe environment and beginning the vital work of recovery with our students following lockdown has, to say the least, been demanding.

‘What I did in my Summer Holidays’ is an essay that many of us may have been made to write in our first week back at school each autumn term. Here would be the structure for mine:

  • The start of the summer holidays was spent reviewing guidance, much of was out of date just a few weeks later.
  • The middle of the holidays was dominated by some truly inspiring GCSE outcomes from the Y11’s who left us and provided the sense of satisfaction and joy that was much needed at the time. (Personally, it was unfortunately also dominated by a period of self-isolation – 14 days can seem a very long time.)
  • The summer holidays ended with further revised guidance to learn and digest and then try and interpret to the best of our abilities in order to keep the school running once the students returned.

The guidance is in many cases just that: numerous decisions need to be made by each school according to its circumstances. There have been many questions to consider: to wear masks or not to wear masks (we’ve plumped for wearing them); what type of sanitiser is best; how often to clean desks; whether we can hold assemblies; where can students go when it rains so we don’t mix bubbles (which used to be fun when I was a child); how do you communicate key messages to a staff you cannot meet face-to-face. These are just a few of them  When I embarked on the 40-plus-page risk assessment we needed to complete, I ended up opening no less than 14 different guidance documents, each with further pages of information I had to try to understand. If you’ve been frustrated by some of contradiction noted by the press about Covid, I’d suggest you stay away from these as they’ll make your blood boil.

Irksome, time-consuming and occasionally frustrating these may be but we are not treating this lightly. We do not wish to and cannot afford to. Covid is a reality we’re all getting used to. To that end, we’ve ploughed on with making contingency plans for various scenarios of lockdown or isolation and created online platforms and packs of work to provide the best education we can if we get a confirmed case at JOG.  We’ve learned new ways to start and finish lessons, trained our students in new routines and implemented various measures to ensure we keep students as socially distanced and as safe as possible. Additionally, we’ve inducted more than a dozen new staff, quality-assured our teaching and changed many of the systems that were in place before.

This is, of course, all overlaid on the normal business of running a school, challenging enough at any time. Covid precautions are paramount but there are a host of unconnected with this that are important to maintain too. To pick just one example, the whole school is also beginning to learn just what a stickler I can be for correct uniforms.

Meetings are mostly via Teams and I think my staff have never received so many emails; I really am feeling the distance between us if I’m honest with you.  So much of how we operate is different and there seem to be added complications at every turn.  Not a day goes by when the DfE doesn’t send you updated information and guidance on something. This is likely to continue for some time.

Not that you would know it if you came in and only focussed on the students. They have been remarkable and their resilience inspirational. By just a couple of days into term they had seemingly adapted and when you walk around the school it feels like schools usually do.  You see engaged and focussed students being led by great teachers who seem glad to just be back where they belong. You experience those lightbulb moments when something just clicks for a child and can watch their energy at break times as they move around (in their bubble) excitedly finding new ways to play games and socialise. Above all, as I said at the start, there’s the glorious hubbub of a school in full flow. We may be some way from a vaccine for Covid: but as an antidote, this is certainly a start.

July 2020

I said in June that my sunny disposition about John O’Gaunt hadn’t wavered. That remains completely true. Throughout the last month, the school community has continued to provide so much inspiration every day that, even though it was strange waving off the last group of Year 10 and children of key workers – or to see staff signing off virtually to the rest of our students – there is still much we can look back on proudly and look forward to in the future.  However, July has also been a month about making decisions.

For example, on 2 July, we received the much anticipated guidance from the DfE about the full reopening schools in September. What followed was another mammoth effort from the staff to risk assess, plan for and make the required changes so we could welcome back every student. Deciding how to run the school in a way that allows for a full and rich education whilst keeping children socially distanced is, to say the least, not an easy task.  To achieve this, we’ve had to make decisions about things like operating the school day, one-way systems, staggering breaks and lunches, sanitisation regimes, how to teach practical subjects like PE and Drama safely and even how we’ll run Music lessons or events with no singing.  The DfE advised that schools need to make best-fit decisions based on their local context.  For me, this has been about ensuring I can put my head on my pillow at night in good conscience that we have made the best possible choices for JOG.  It has meant one or two sleepless nights but, by the time we wrote to parents, I was confident we had made the right decisions for our students.

We’ve also had to decide how to best serve those students leaving us and those starting in September. I can’t express enough how disappointing it is that Year 11 students have been denied the usual end to their formal secondary education. We did decide to go ahead with some form of on-site results day in August and are looking at a reserve-dated Prom. I hope this goes some way to abating the disappointment for Year 11 students.

Equally, we had to decide how we’d handle Year 7 transition. The hope was always that we’d be able to organise something face-to-face in July as normal but in the end, doing so safely (whilst continuing to offer provision for key worker children, Year 10s, hold support meetings with some Year 7 to 9 students and offer increasingly technical remote learning, including some live lessons) proved impossible. We have therefore decided to do something in September instead and to use our website to offer support in the meantime.  I can (just about) still remember my own first day at secondary school so I know that feeling of nervous excitement well. I also know that online support can never replace the personal touch that we’ll be able to offer in September. As a Year 6 parent myself, I’m only too aware that this will also be true for many of our parents and carers.

If it will come as any consolation to anyone in our community, we also decided to hold our staff celebration and leavers event virtually as well, given that otherwise we’d be gathering more than 30 people. I must confess that saying goodbye to dedicated staff and thanking people via Microsoft Teams wasn’t quite what I had had in mind.

Someone once said that leadership is as much about judgement as it is experience. Based on the decisions we’ve had to take in July, never has this been truer…

June 2020

My interview for the Headteacher post at John O’Gaunt was on the 2nd of March. I drove home through a gorgeous town and rolling countryside on a sunny day to receive the news that I had been successful.

As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, it was a dream job for me, in a school that I felt an instant connection with. I’d been part of the leadership team in a similar sized community school in Sonning which has similar strengths and challenges so felt I was bringing some relevant experience with me. At John O’Gaunt there was much to celebrate: the school had received its first Ofsted rating of ‘Good’ only eight months before and results and admission numbers were rising steadily. Excalibur Academies Trust is as supportive as you could wish for and the Governors, some of them parents, had a good reputation and seemed to only want the best for the school and its students. The staff appeared open-minded, dedicated and caring. The school had been more than ably led by Mrs Walker and her team who seemed to offer an assured approach that led to a buoyant staff body. Above all, the students I met had a real spark about them. The school genuinely had a family feel to it and every indication pointed to a local area that felt like a true community. There was so obviously a bright future ahead of JOG.

Just 18 days later, of course, the announcement came that we were going into lockdown, which included the closure of all schools to all but the students of critical workers. I began my role on the first of June, just a few days after the government announced that secondary schools could finally begin to welcome a limited number of students. What followed was a first week like no other.

Day one saw me not looking over a school improvement plan but working through a 40-page risk assessment. Instead of the cheerful staff briefings I’d pictured, I had remote meetings with my leadership team to talk logistics around sanitising gel and social distancing. The only face-to-face staff briefing I’ve held was an hour-long health and safety briefing where I felt more like the presenter of a 1950s public service announcement than a Head of School – “It’s lovely to meet you, now let’s talk about the hand-washing notices.” Rather than rousing whole-school assemblies, I’ve only been able to pop my head into a bubble of 15 students at a time to talk to them about how public health is (rightly) more important than education at the moment and how we all need to embrace the new normal of the learning process – though If I say the words “remote learning remains the main mode of education” much more I think I might scream. The only parents I’ve met have been from two metres away whilst they drop a child off, rather than sat around a coffee table with them sharing their views about the future direction of the school.

You would be forgiven for thinking then that my sunny disposition would have worn off, but the truth is it hasn’t.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as I was telling Year 10s just the other day, Covid-19 is a great leveller. Our experiences of it are going to be different – and for some that experience will involve not just frustration or adversity but real tragedy – but it is something we’ve all been through, and at the same time. In some ways, it has made the first few weeks of headship simpler (though not easier) as there’s no possible doubt what the top priority is. The role of the school leaders is to plan to have students on site according the new regulations; the role of staff is to adhere to it whilst still supporting and educating children; the role of our students is to try and find a way to learn in a completely different way and resist the seemingly boundless urge that teenagers have to never be more than a few centimetres apart.

The second reason is that in moments of crisis we find out the true nature of people. At JOG, what I have discovered is kindness, energy, resilience and leadership. I’ve quickly discovered that staff have been working above and beyond. Not only in their pursuit to educate our students through online work, live lessons, narrated PowerPoints, video lectures, live chat sessions, Microsoft Forms quizzes, and the 100+ photocopied booklets we’re sending home every two weeks; but in school too; at first for the students of critical workers and, more recently, the Year 10 bubbles that come in Tuesday to Friday. Alongside this, staff are still emailing with new ideas for competitions, staff training, teaching ideas, ways to celebrate successes, lobbying for new software we can get to enhance learning, and sharing links to great online resources for students. They still plan, carry out administrative tasks to support learning, maintain and clean the site, cook for staff and students, pay the invoices, answer the emails, attend meetings (remotely), coordinate activities and drive minibuses. This is also happening whilst they have been making PPE, distributing lunch packs or making dozens of phone calls home to offer support, cajole and encourage our young people to keep going. The staff also have anxieties about the pandemic, lives to balance, health concerns, children to look after or partners who work too – yet not once have I heard a complaint.

The students have also been amazing. Some of the work I have seen coming in has been truly remarkable and, as a trip to the school website would quickly confirm, in every subject and year group there are success stories. From students running half marathons in their gardens or completing fitness tasks on mountain bikes, to students 3D-designing houses, planes and even a new solar system from scratch. I’ve seen the most incredible cakes (one had five layers), mini-books of poems, Covid-19 diaries, stop-motion videos, projects on abstract photography, video reviews, 100-word stories, prop-making for Mary Poppins stage shows, upcycling of hamster cages, light experiments, horror theme tunes written from scratch and insightful essays about global warming. They have attended live lessons with aplomb and sounded more like university students than secondary ones to my ears, so mature were their responses. In school, they have adapted to very strange classroom routines and days that have had to be more flexible than we would accept in normal times. They have coped with new friendship circles, working in school but remotely from others and having to eat every day two metres apart in a canteen that resembles an exam hall more than it does a restaurant.

Parent support has been heart-warmingly great, too. They have learned to use new technologies, tutored multiple subjects, participated in family exercise, filmed videos, read drafts again and again, donated time, effort, resources and support unwaveringly whilst also continuing to work, look after households and cope with unprecedented circumstances and anxieties.

The local community, of which I have been able to see too little of, has chipped in already. The Town Council and Penny Postspread the word about reopening, local councillors have been into school (safely distanced of course) and the local MP has even met me. Our parents’ association have provided resources and time, local businesses have taken the time to listen and understand when I’ve discussed with them our safety measures and expectations of students.  Every person I have spoken to has been cheerful and offered to help.

In short, we’re all in this together (and to a much greater extent than when the phrase was first mentioned in the 2010 election campaign).

If I sound like I’m on my soap box, then that’s because I am. Which brings me to my final reason not to be downcast. How can I be? All the good things that I spoke of above are still there and, having experienced the school and its community in the most challenging of times, there is so much more to be optimistic about. Whatever COVID-19 has done, it has not dimmed the brightness of the future here at John O’Gaunt School. As the great leveller it is and, whilst I would not wish it on any of us, it may have even made it just a little brighter. Time will tell.

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale