Diary of a Head Teacher: Richard Hawthorne of John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford – April/May 2022 update

Monthly diary of Richard Hawthorne, Head at John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford who shares the joys and challenges of life at the helm of a secondary school in West Berkshire (from June 2020 to the present day).

April/May 2022

This has been a month where time seems to have flown by. Perhaps this is because the previous one was so challenging that time then seemed to slow. On the other hand, it might be because we’re fast approaching the summer exam season: teachers don’t seem to lose the sense of anxiety that comes with this time of year, despite the fact that it isn’t us who will be sitting them.

Whatever the reason, it has certainly been a quieter, if no less busy month. For me personally, I’ll admit that Easter could not have come soon enough. Like my staff, I needed a break. I don’t think I’ve known a half term like the last one, even having experienced running a school throughout a pandemic.

However, things are certainly calmer. Covid cases have all but disappeared, at least for the moment, which is of course a huge relief. I think we’ll always need to keep at least one eye on this in schools, but perhaps we are finally at a stage where we can start to move on from it as a day-to-day obsession.

This is certainly what Year 11s have been trying their best to do and I’m already immensely proud of them. Exams will be upon us by the middle of May, and a great deal of work is going on both in and out of lessons to best prepare our students. Over the Easter break, it was great to see so many of them attend revision sessions, held both face-to-face and on Teams.

I’ve said before that there are things to take away from lockdown learning. Remotely conducted revision sessions is one example of this. Like students, I want staff to be able to rest during holidays but, on this occasion, Teams enabled several staff to combine a break with offering revision support. One member of staff even dialled in to run a session from abroad. In whatever form they took, the revision sessions saw students who are engaging, working hard and doing their best. As I said to the students in a session I ran, if they’re doing those things then they’re already half way to achieving their best. I hope the system sees them rewarded for their efforts.

The Easter period also gave me an opportunity to represent the school at the Songs of Praise service at St. Lawrence’s church. Reverend Mike Saunders works closely with John O’Gaunt on a regular basis and I was pleased to be invited and then deliver a reading. I have to admit feeling more nervous than I thought I would, however, especially given that St Lawrence’s is like so many modern churches and streams many services live over YouTube. At least it impressed my own children who accompanied me. It did also lead to a few jokes at my expense from two boys who spend (far too much) time watching social media influencers.

Having returned to school well-rested, the holidays are already a distant memory and we’ve picked up where we left off last term. Following longer holidays, I always feel like it’s a good time to reset and remind students of expectations to help set the time for the forthcoming weeks in school. At JOG, part of doing so has led us to gather students together at “muster” points before they start their tutor registration period in the morning.

Whilst it has felt a little bit of an old-fashioned approach, seeing all the students gathered together has been a novelty we haven’t enjoyed since I started at JOG. It’s certainly been lovely to witness and has got me thinking about how, as we’re now allowed to do so, we can try and find ways to do it more often, through whole-school assemblies and the like. Like so many schools, finding a suitable indoor space large enough seems to be the main issue, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for good weather in the coming weeks.

Another gathering I attended recently, was the Hocktide lunch as part of the Tutti Day celebrations. I was honoured to be invited as a guest of Town Constable Peter Joseph. It was brilliant to see the tangible sense of community that the events around Hocktide bring and hear about the work that Town and Manor does, so obviously for the benefit of so many in the area. As an historian myself, I also got a great deal of personal enjoyment from seeing some of the long-standing traditions in action. Sadly, I had to leave before the end and before I was “shod” as a “colt.” However, Peter warned me that this may be something I’ll get to experience in future (if I’m invited back). “Once a colt, always a colt,” he said, “until you have been shod.”

I’ve been re-assured that the experience (which involves being ceremonially pursued around the Corn Exchange and then ceremonially held down while a horseshoe is ceremonially hammered into the sole of your shoe) is painless and that real nails are not used. If my experience, when it happens, proves otherwise, I’ll let you know…

Finally, I couldn’t leave the entry this month without mentioning our fundraising fayre, which took place on the last Friday of term. This was part of a range of charitable events that were interrupted by the Covid outbreak of last term. This saw every tutor group organise a stall or fun activity to raise money for the Red Cross to help relief efforts for refugees of the Ukraine conflict. I would admit to feeling a little uneasy at the prospect of the whole school being off-timetable at the same time, and on a non-uniform day, during period five of the last day of a strange term. I needn’t have been worried – it was a brilliant event and students were superb. In total, staff and students raised over £800. What better way to have gone into the holidays?

March/April 2022

I am not usually a superstitious person. However, in my entry last month I mentioned feeling fortunate to have avoided school closures (one windy day aside) in my time at John O’Gaunt so far, especially given the pandemic. I also talked about feeling somewhat liberated and highlighted the power of getting back to normal and holding face-to-face events in school. Little did I know how quickly my words would come back to bite me.

As I write, we have just endured days of disruption and closures to year groups following significant staff shortages due to Covid. While cases among students were fortunately relatively few and no one reported being seriously unwell, the impact on the school was substantial. At one point, almost half of the teaching staff were isolating at home. Over a period of nine consecutive days, we didn’t go 24 hours without someone new testing positive. The (now changed) guidance required that two consecutive negative LFD tests after day five could allow them to return to work if well enough. However, hardly of the staff passed this test and so had to isolate for the full 10 days. You can also empathise with my dismay when I caught a cold in the middle of all of this and the apprehension of testing every single day. The time waiting to see if that little line appeared, seemed to get longer each time I took another test.

I realised quickly that JOG was not alone. I have heard stories of many schools which have been going through the same thing. Perhaps this accounts for the difficulties we found in securing the services of agency supply teachers. In any case, in the end we had no choice but to move all but Year 11 students back to remote learning for a few days as we couldn’t offer safe and effective provision in school.

As I’m sure you will appreciate, the last thing I wanted to do was any sort of closure. As a parent myself, I understood clearly the implication on families as well as knowing that, no matter how hard we tried to set high quality work and offer as much live online teaching as we could, our students would face yet more disruption to their education. I have to say that the students responded really well and the parent body was very understanding: some even wrote to us in support of what we were doing. However, for me personally it was possibly the most stressful couple of weeks as a Headteacher so far; and there have already been quite enough of those over the past couple of years.

With all of that happening, I don’t know how to feel about the full easing of restrictions, both nationally and in schools. On the one hand, reading recent news headlines about record case numbers, I wonder whether schools should keep them in place. Does our experience prove that the restrictions were helping to reduce transmission or was this this just coincidental? Conversely, I hold to my comments from last month about the benefits of returning to normal and the potential impact on wellbeing of not doing so. As a Headteacher, it’s my job to follow the guidance I’m given and I will of course do so. That said, I will continue to urge the DfE to listen carefully to schools and trusts. It is them, and their students and their families, that experience the real impact on the ground.

One benefit the easing of restrictions will be felt by our Year 11s regarding how exams will run this summer, starting around the middle of May. It appears they will run as normal this year. However, I have some concerns about how they have been set up and the variation in arrangements between different subjects and exam boards. The reduction in content in some subjects is next to nothing. Despite not having had to endure lockdowns this academic year, many students nationally will have had individual disruption through self-isolation or partial closures. Even though our Year 11s were in school the last few weeks, too many of their lessons were with cover teachers supervising set work.

On the other hand, the certainty means that for our students it is a case of, as in normal years, controlling the controllable and getting the work done. Looking at the attendance at revision sessions and extra time that some of them are putting in, this is what seems to be happening and I am very proud of them. If their work ethic and recent mock-exam results are anything to go by, they have every chance of success.

I’m equally proud of all the other things we’ve managed to do, despite of the circumstances. These include many extra-curricular activities and clubs, sports fixtures, fundraising events like our lunchtime tombola and trips to Wembley and a forthcoming one to The Globe for Year 10 students to see Macbeth as part of their GCSE course. Our Student Leadership Group continues to work with senior leaders and staff on a number of exciting projects and we’ve even managed a couple of parent tours.

Sadly, other things, such as a non-uniform day and our prize-giving evening, had to be postponed but we will revisit these when we can. Although we had to hold our Year 9 Options Evening virtually, it was well attended. Perhaps the ease with which our students switched to online lessons and our parents to this remote event is testament to a more digitally literate post-pandemic world.

On the other hand, myself, our Business Manager Samantha Tilling-Wells and Patrick Chambers of Hungerford Town FC were able to attend the Town Meeting to promote fundraising for our joint venture with HTC to provide a community 3G (all-weather) pitch on the school site. This is a truly exciting project that sits perfectly with what JOG is all about – being a true part of our community. I’m delighted to be part of providing such a high-class facility in the area, which will hopefully be completed sometime next year. We do need to fundraise, though: so whilst I’m here I hope you will forgive the shameless plug to visit The Good Exchange website and search for the project reference 19464.

With exciting projects like this one, a strong picture in the numbers of rising Year 6 pupils who will join us in September and continual dedication and resilience of a superb community, there are still so many positives. I say that quietly, though, and with my fingers crossed and touching wood that there won’t be further Covid setbacks with we’ll have to deal with. Not, of course, that I’m superstitious…

February/March 2022

Last month, I mentioned in passing the impact of so-called ‘windy days’ on schools. Little did I know just how aposite that choice of words would be. The impact of last month’s storms on John O’Gaunt was, as it was for many schools, closure on the last day of term. For me personally, it was the first time as a Headteacher I’ve had to take the decision to do this. Given the events we’ve been living through since I started at JOG, this is actually a (pleasant) surprise.

There seems to have been a daily stream of stories about Covid-related closures or partial closures of schools. It is therefore both fortunate and ironic that my first closure of JOG (outside of lockdowns) should have come so close to the announcement of the end of Covid restrictions. I really felt the weight of the decision. I believe it was the right one, so I have some sympathy for those in Whitehall who had to make the call to close schools nationally.

With the welcome ending of Covid restrictions, we all hope that closures will, for this reason at least, not be necessary in future. In reality, the guidance issued to schools means that, operationally at least, little has actually changed for us. We are continuing with measures that help to prevent transmission of the virus, such as regular hand-sanitising, cleaning and ventilation of spaces as well as monitoring positive cases.

What is different, however, is how the schools feels. It’s hard to put into words exactly, but “liberation”certainly comes close. We’re now able to gear up for the forthcoming months under the firmer assumption that exams will go ahead as planned in the summer. Knowing this now, as well as the changes announced on 7 February, is a very important step because it allows us to prepare Year 11 students earlier and ensure that we have robust plans in place to give them all the support that we can.

For JOG, in addition to the preparation in lessons, this will include a whole raft of things such as timetabled revision sessions after school and during the day as well as exam practice and a forthcoming ‘How to prepare for exams’ morning for students in school. We also took a different approach to our Year 11 Parents’ Evening, offering very targeted advice. I feel it was even more powerful to be able to hold the event face-to-face in school. Whilst the changes announced to exams were helpful to know, I admit I was somewhat disappointed that they didn’t go further (some specifications have not been changed at all). I also hope that the promises concerning “considerate” marking will be stuck to. I have said this many times but will repeat it – even when schools have been fully open, as we have been, there have been so many disruptions to individuals and groups of young people’s learning: it is still too soon to say that we have had time to make up this lost ground or recover from the pandemic.

What I will also be watching very closely therefore, is the impact of the changes on the welfare of students. This has, as I’ve also mentioned in previous posts, been affected by Covid. Seeing how tired both the students and the staff were at the end of the last half term was a timely reminder of that. For many reasons, of course – but mostly because of the impact on wellbeing – I will be keeping my fingers crossed that this is truly the end of Covid restrictions in schools.

Having said that, sometimes it already seems like nothing ever happened at all. The buzz I’ve experienced in classrooms, around the work of our students leaders, during sports fixtures or Duke of Edinburgh excursions (with one of highest ever cohorts), in PSA film nights or World Book Day (to name just a few) has certainly reinforced this. The improvements we’re seeing in the quality of work from our students, in their progress and even in the many improved grades from the recent Year 11 mock exams also highlights the determination of so many of our students to do well and move on from the pandemic. It also highlights the dedication of our school community: and especially the staff, who have been living through the same events themselves but continue to work tirelessly and show patience and kindness in abundance.

Given the dreadful and heart-wrenching turn of events in Ukraine, I think that we are going to need every drop of kindness in the coming days. The crisis is something that our students are discussing and, indeed, have some anxiety about. Whilst we can take steps to support students and to allow discussion and questions about it in school, we can only imagine what people, including young people, are going through in Ukraine. Given the empathy and charity JOG students are showing already, I think they know this already. I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that our thoughts are firmly with anyone affected by the crisis.

January/February 2022

As I am sure you’ll appreciate, the role of Headteacher has many jobs within it. Some days, I find myself being everything from a classroom teacher to a health and safety expert or from a mentor to a report writer. One job I found myself doing recently, and which might surprise you, was sitting at a desk of an evening, cutting up dozens of staff names into strips of paper.

The purpose of this seemingly unproductive task was to create a raffle draw for staff to celebrate their hard work. Whilst a nice thing to do of course, and I dare say not the only thing we do to try and look after staff, it did occur to me that even the grandest gestures could not go far enough to adequately thank the people I work with for all that they do. I’m not the only one who wears many hats each and every day. Just ask the librarian, minibus driver or PA-turned-Covid-tester at the start of term!

The end of last term was not just about celebration staff, of course. We were able to hold our end of term assemblies and recognise the many achievements of lots of students and send them off to the Christmas break with smiles and festive cheer. As we waved the last bus off, I’ll confess to feeling as much relief that we’d gone a whole term without closure as I did pride for JOG.

Since we’ve returned, there has been a strange feeling in the air. At first, I thought it was just me: teachers are known for sometimes sensing things – just ask any teacher about students and windy days. However, having spoken to colleagues and friends over the past few weeks, I know I’m not alone on this one.

It’s hard to put into words exactly, but I described it to a colleague recently as somewhere between anticipation and expectation. There seems to have been an air of expectation around and it has made for an edgy atmosphere. I think many people anticipated that there would be another lockdown or school closures. Fortunately there weren’t. At John O’Gaunt, I think we were also expecting more Covid cases. Fortunately there haven’t been many of those (so far). The feeling that something might happen has just hung in the air though and in the end, I think it’s more like “insecurity”.

It wasn’t helped by the numerous, if arguably necessary, changes to guidance that happened in a short space of time. I don’t profess to have any better answers, but I did find myself at one point in the ridiculous position of signing an updated Covid risk assessment in the morning, only for it to be out-of-date by that same afternoon. The pandemic is of course full of uncertainty for everyone: but perhaps those of us in a profession that is necessarily characterised by structure, timetables and bells to say when something starts and stops feel more insecure than most when this order is disrupted.

In saying all of this, please don’t get me wrong: I am extremely glad that JOG is open and running. It seems hard to imagine just how far away we are from January 2021. Of course, that lockdown lasted until March for schools. The impact it had on our students and their families is still being felt today. I think that, whatever turmoil we face in the coming weeks, it can only be better, in educational terms, than closure. There really is no substitute for face-to-face education and care.

Since the start of term, we’ve been busy too. Staff began the year with a training day dedicated to improving teaching and learning, the fruits of which will work alongside a number of important projects which have concentrated on assessment, homework and literacy. All these are aimed at improving the quality of education our students receive. It’s another reflection of the difference between last spring and this one – at last I am able to write about what is, of course, our core business. You’d have been forgiven in recent months for thinking that all we ever do is Covid-related. Thankfully the truth is far from that.

We’ve had in-school reviews from Excalibur Academies Trust and conducted a range of self-evaluation exercises to guide and develop what we’re doing. The signs are that this is all having a positive impact and JOG really is building on the ‘Good’ rating received from Ofsted in 2019, despite the challenges the school community continues to face.

Part of our self-evaluation this month involved further work with our Student Leadership Group, which provide such inciteful feedback for school leaders. In addition to their contributions about challenge and some of our systems, they’ve also managed to decide our school charities for the year, begin plans for the Queen’s Jubilee and start thinking about the focus groups they’ll create to represent key issues for students.

Ahead of us, we have the latest set of Year 11 mock exams, which may still play a part in a Teacher Assessed Grade system this summer. Despite the great news that we’ve moved away from Plan B nationally, the reports we hear from schools across the country show that there has still been an awful lot of disruption for some communities. It’s hard to imagine that this won’t have impacted on Year 11 students. Even though at JOG it is relatively minimal in comparison, the impact of the uncertainty and the early pressure around mocks has certainly affected the mood of some of our students. I refer you back to my earlier comments about the strange feeling in the air. On 7 February, the government is set to give further clarification about exam topics and arrangements, I hope by then that ministers have heard what school leaders have been saying and at least provide total clarity for our students.

For lower year groups, we have been able to move forward on providing some tutoring through the much-heralded National Tutoring Programme. This work sees us able to provide targeted support for some learners as part of the so-called recovery and catch-up initiatives announced by the DfE.

All in all, it’s clear that things are increasingly returning to normal, despite the strange feeling I described earlier. There is certainly security in the learning taking place and students respond well to that. As one said to me a week or so ago “I like coming to school because I know what I’m supposed to do and where I’m supposed to be.” Perhaps that strange feeling is just me after all…

December 2021/January 2022

As happened this time last year (see below), Richard found that the combination of Christmas and Covid has prevented his doing his diary for this month. As all will be aware, high infection rates are leading to worrying levels of staff absences in all workplaces which are particularly difficult to manage in schools. There are also new government guidelines – a phrase which he has needed to use several times in this column – including the need for pupils to wear masks in classes. All this is on top of the normal stresses and strains of sorting up a school at the start of a new term.

We wish him and his colleagues well in dealing with all this and look forward to learning how this has all gone in his update at the end of January.

November/December 2021

Life is strange at times. I wrote last month about the sharp rise in Covid cases that had impacted on the school and how busy it has been this term. Whilst the pace and volume of work hasn’t abated, Covid cases (so far) have and this has meant that in some ways, it has been a quiet month.

I’m not certain whether it was because the problem with the lab had created a false spike or because the half term holiday helped to create a fire break, but cases dropped significantly when we returned at the start of the month. They have stayed at a low rate since then. This has left us in the paradoxical situation of living under tougher DfE guidance, because of the new Omicron variant, whilst seeing positive cases reduce from over 50 to almost zero. It was also strange to have to write to parents, following the news about tougher restrictions nationally, to say that because we were already following tougher local restrictions, it didn’t actually have any operational impact on the school at all – we are already wearing masks, sanitising, cleaning and ventilating anyway.

Of course, one significant change the Omicron variant (already my new least favourite words, by the way) will bring is the return of close contacts having to self-isolate for 10 days. The disruption that this approach caused to young people’s education earlier in the year was significant and I don’t relish the thought of sending healthy children home to miss face-to-face education. Of course I understand the reasons why and we will follow whatever guidance we’re given and leave public-health decisions to the experts. However, I sincerely hope that the measures that are in place mean that the Omicron threat is less severe than currently forecast. Our children have missed far too much education already. As usual, it seems we’ll have to watch the news carefully every day and keep our fingers crossed.

The DfE also announced earlier this month that schools will need to test students after they return from the Christmas break. I wasn’t surprised by this and I was glad that we had more time than last year to plan for it. However, I do admit to some fatigue at having to spend yet more time planning for something with limited resources that is not really the main business of schools. I’m not saying that I have a better approach to it but it is frustrating.

Having said that, Covid did not prevent us from being able to run a safe and successful trip for a group of students to see England play Albania at Wembley earlier this month. I’ve spoken here before about the importance of enrichment opportunities so I was relieved that, with some extra risk-assessment and close watching of the situation locally and nationally, we could go ahead with it. Given the superb result and history-making nature of the match, I think the extra effort and late return was as worth it for the staff who attended as it was for the students.

Our Year 11s were kept busy this month sitting their latest mock examinations. Having decided to run these as close to the ‘real’ experience as we could, including using our Sports Hall as a venue, I did eyeroll somewhat when this happened to coincide with a sudden cold snap in the weather. Warming a big space like that takes a while and, whilst we did our best, it was thanks to the resilience of our learners as much as anything else that made sure we got through some rather chilly papers.

The mock results assembly that followed a couple of weeks afterwards allowed us to focus attention on the warmer days to come, as we used these as an opportunity to reflect, feed back and start to plan for the summer exam series that will run from May. Whilst the results from mocks are often more mixed than actual results, it was good to see that, for many of our learners, the work they and their teachers have been doing to close some of the Covid gaps has begun to bear fruit. Kudos to their teachers too, not only for turning around a huge volume of marking but also for the work they’ve been doing so far to catch up for lost learning time.

Our mocks may also have been rather timely. This month has also seen the announcement that should conditions require it the exam series in summer 2022 may need to switch to another Teacher Assessed Grades approach as last year. That’s another Covid-related thing I would not look forward to but having these robust results to draw on has at least given us a bit of a start.

This month saw the launch of our new Student Leadership Team. Similar to a traditional school council, this group has been selected to provide feedback about the issues affecting our students. Our ambition is that these provide real leadership for their peers and staff too. If the meetings I had the privilege of popping into in the last few weeks are anything to go by, they will not disappoint. Their work with the Vice-Principal and Assistant Vice-Principal to create a pledge about the most effective practices we can consistently do to improve their learning was fabulous. Their feedback was mature and inciteful and demonstrated everything about JOG students that I admire so much. We can’t wait to see them grow and develop as a group/ I know that they’ll be holding us to account as well.

Seeing the group in action helped reinforce a timely message for me. When I find myself worrying about the uncertainty that currently surrounds us all, my antidote will be to reflect on some of the inspiring and thoughtful things that I’ve recently heard from our students – and not just from those in the Leadership team – as well as the optimism they always seem to show. In these strange times, that sounds decidedly sensible to me. Drawing on other people’s positivity doesn’t offer full protection but it certainly helps reduce the severity of the symptoms…

October/November 2021

I spoke in my last entry about how busy it was and forecast more of the same in the month to come. I was not wrong. Moreover, it has also been a somewhat strange month. There has been much to celebrate, of course, but it has also seen the return of having to play the Covid game. I do not like this game at all.

Like many schools locally and nationally, as the term has moved on, we had started to see a gradual increase in the number of positive cases in school. Although not unexpected, this was despite the measures we were taking in line with guidance. Earlier in the term, we noticed a strange trend whereby we were seeing several positive lateral flow device (LFD) tests come back positive, but the subsequent ‘confirmatory PCR’ returned as negative.

I remember reading an obscure article somewhere early in the term about there being an investigation into the something similar in the South West. However, it was only when I talked with another local Headteacher that it became apparent that we were not the only school in the area that was seeing this pattern. Subsequently, the announcement came that there was a problem with a lab that affected a number of testing sites, including Newbury Showground. In the few days that followed we saw a doubling and then a trebling of confirmed cases among students. We are not alone in seeing a spike in cases and West Berkshire Council has since made several recommendations to schools about additional measures to help prevent transmission. Hence, we ended the half term once again wearing face coverings and bringing in some other small measures on their advice.

Given that DfE guidance for schools has not changed at all, and that the national picture seems to be one of accepting higher case numbers and carrying on, I have to say that it feels somewhat strange to be in a situation where it feels like we’re going backwards as the rest of the world carries on as if nothing is different. As if we needed one, it is certainly another reminder that Covid is here to stay. All of this of course, means more disruption to children’s’ education, as the impact of self-isolation, staff absences and the knock-on effects of more uncertainty hits home. I will be carefully watching what happens locally and nationally in forthcoming weeks.

Fortunately, Covid had less of an impact on some other great things that have kept us busy in the last month. The first that I’d mention is the recruitment of our Student Leadership Group in school. I cannot tell you how impressed we have been by the students who have been selected to be part of the team. This will see students lead on real projects in school as well as be a voice for the student body. As if by confirmation of this, the speech that two of our Year 11 students wrote and then delivered on our Open Evening was simply incredible. The words were their own: if anyone needed any confirmation that JOG is a student-centred school, then they certainly did that and more.

Fortunately, the spike in Covid cases happened after our scheduled Open Evening and Open Morning and therefore did not impact on our ability to hold these face-to-face. Even though I’m in my second year as Head at JOG, it was my first opportunity to get in front of prospective parents and students live. To be able to showcase the school kept us extremely busy but was also a complete pleasure. What was even better was hearing the overwhelmingly positive feedback (we do ask for this formally too!) about the student helpers and tour guides. I say in our prospectus that our students have a real spark about them. Time sand again, these events only serve to underline that. Everyone was completely shattered by the end of that week but it was definitely worth it, and I hope our many visitors felt so too.

During the Open Evening, it was also heart-warming to be able to talk so positively about the JOG community and especially the work of our Parents’ Association (PSA). As I toured some parents round the following day, I think they must have got the impression that the PSA was some sort of funding body, so frequent was my mention of what they had paid for in school. Having sat at their AGM earlier this month and also seen first-hand the huge impact that the dedication of a very small number of people has on the school, I only hope that other parents will decide to give up just a little of their time and energy to help and support them; it certainly tangibly benefits JOG students.

I also saw the work of other community volunteers exemplified this month too, in the form of the Governors that attended the Excalibur Academies Trust Annual Governors Conference earlier in the month. Participating in the discussions about the good work going on in schools and the future landscape of school governors, it struck me that I barely mention our own governors here. Perhaps this is because, like the members of our PSA, they are a rather unassuming group who go about their business of supporting and challenging the school and the Trust quietly and without fanfare. They’ll probably hate that I even say it here, but I would like to formally say how grateful I am for all that they do and that they represent the students and the local community incredibly well.

We were also able to hold a face-to-face ‘Welcome to GCSE’ evening for Year 10 students and their parents, outlining the key information they’ll need to know for the next two (and very important) years of their studies. Whilst we always try and stay positive, it was hard that we were unable to answer parents’ questions about what the exams will look like for this year group with any certainty. I do hope that the DfE/Ofqual will provide certainty as early as possible on these issues, especially if Covid continues to cause disruption in schools. We are certainly working hard to ensure that students are supported to close any knowledge or skills gaps caused by the pandemic and support them pastorally too.

As if to exemplify that point further, the final event I’d mention was as much about enrichment as it was curriculum. At the start of the month, I had the pleasure of accompanying a group of Year 11 history students (some from my own class – yes, I do teach sometimes!) to a tour of the Whitechapel area of London as part of their study of ‘crime and punishment through time’. Not only was this our first trip in more than a year, but it highlighted the importance of providing opportunities beyond the classroom. The reaction of some of the students in just being in a city was memorable and hugely uplifting by itself.

Alongside all of this, we’ve had the usual mix of in-school events too: meetings, staff training, Governor visits, parents’ evenings (still held virtually for JOG at present), revision sessions, fundraising activities, clubs, visiting speakers, assemblies, in-school mentoring, peripatetic music lessons, catch-up sessions, after-school fixtures and so on. I don’t know who coined the phrase ‘small but mighty’, but you’ll sometimes hear JOG staff referring to it and occasionally it gets tweeted as a hashtag. When I take time to step back and think about all we offer, I can see why it gets used proudly at JOG.

September/October 2021

September is always a busy month in schools. Just a few days is all it normally takes to render the summer holidays an all-too-distant memory. I’m not sure why, but this September has seemed even busier than usual. Perhaps it’s due to the easing of restrictions, or a feeling that we must hit the ground running faster than ever. Alternatively, perhaps we’ve just forgotten what it’s really like at the start of a (more) normal school year.

Either way, this is not to complain. Every teacher that I know would far rather a busy September that allows us to get on than one disrupted with lockdowns or often ever-changing Covid restrictions. At the risk of jinxing it, so far for JOG the former has been possible. Just as well, for a  lot has happened in a short space of time.

Firstly, our new Year 7 intake has settled into life at secondary school. I’ve previously stated that JOG students have a real spark about them and this is no less true of our latest intake. They really are a super cohort and it has been a total pleasure getting to know them. We enjoy the extra buzz that they bring to the school. A Headteacher will, of course, always say good things about all year groups: but perhaps what is extraordinary about this Year 7 is the tangible kindness they show for each other. This was exemplified when, whilst standing out on duty one lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, I overheard two students arranging to help another Year 7 to find his lessons. “I can’t collect you after Period 3 because it will make me late, but I’ll collect you after Period 4 and she’ll collect you after Period 3.” To say it pulled at the heartstrings would be an understatement. It was also great to meet so many of their parents at the ‘meet the tutor’ evening we ran. This was our first face-to-face event since this time last year.

That brings me to the inevitable mention of Covid. So far, our control measures have worked well, albeit that they are the recommended lighter-touch ones recommended by the DfE. Like many schools locally and nationally, we have seen a small rise in the number of cases but it’s difficult to know for certain how well the measures are working and whether cases are due to community or school transmission. At JOG, whilst we’re no longer required to track and trace close contacts (thank goodness) we do track Covid every day to ensure we’re as informed as possible. We also report numbers to the local authority. On which note, I have to pay credit to the West Berkshire team who provide all schools with information, advice and help constantly.

I greeted the news that our new Secretary of State for Education was previously in charge of vaccines with a wry smile. This was one episode in an eventful week. On Monday 13 September we learned that schools would be used as vaccination centres for 12 to 15-year-olds (but without any clarity as to who would organise this). This proved to the former Secretary of State’s final intervention as Wednesday brought the above-mentioned reshuffle. Finally ,the guidance arrived. We were relieved to learn that schools will simply provide a space and will help to communicate with families and that NHS teams will do everything else (including dealing with consent). As I said during an interview on BBC Berkshire the following week, these decisions are for families and clinicians, not for schools. My wife and I have discussed the matter with our own 12-year-old on numerous occasions recently so I can empathise with other families going through the same. For our part, JOG will follow the guidance we are given and remain apolitical, as we must.

However, I don’t think it’s controversial of me to say that, whatever the reasons, I am very glad that we can enjoy more freedoms than before. For example, we were finally able to hold our Year 11 Leavers’ Prom earlier in the month for the Class of 2021. It was great to see so many staff also attend, watch the fireworks, catch up with the students and hear how well they’re doing, as well as giving them a good send-off in what has seemingly become a rite of passage in recent years. Such are the joys of being part of a community school and I was delighted to be able to go (even though my colleagues might tell you that I seemed more worried about risk assessments than anything else…)

Speaking of community, September was another month where this JOG’s role in this was in evidence in several ways. Firstly, there was the start of work on our quiet garden. This is funded entirely through donations from the local community, through our indefatigable PSA and the Greenham Common Trust and by Hungerford Town Council. The quiet garden is located in an overgrown and previously unloved area of the school between our canteen, the Leisure Centre and the Youth Centre. It is being transformed into a colourful, but peaceful area where one can take some time away from the clamour, perhaps to receive some support or counselling or just practice good mindfulness. The intention is that, when finished, we’ll also be able to open it up to our community partners.

Receiving the grant for the garden is what led me to attend the Hungerford Town Council Grant Awards ceremony this month. As reported in Penny Post, this event recognised the dedication and hard work of so many local people who support local charities and community groups. It was striking to see just how much goes on in and around Hungerford that is driven by the work of people willing to give time and energy for the benefit of others. It was, of course, an honour to be invited, but the real credit for JOG should go to Jon Shatford and Debi Arden-Hunt who were there representing our brilliant PSA.

Some of the people who attended the HTC Grant Awards also gave up their time to attend our first JOG Freshers’ Fayre. This event was aimed at showcasing the numerous extra-curricular opportunities we offer and in-school activities available included silversmithing, model making, maths club, dodgeball, choir, band, the Book and Biscuit club, the Eco Club, a writers’ club and the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. I am also glad to say that many students also signed up for roles in the upcoming production of High School Musical, not only because they’ll gain so much from doing it, but also because it signifies that we’ll finally be able to welcome audiences into school.

It was also great to welcome external representatives too, offering opportunities including PSA Juniors, part-funded by the PSA’s work and the generosity of local businesses and the planned Hungerford Youth Council. This includes the chance to work with Hungerford Town Council, the Youth and Community Centre, Town and Manor, and St Lawrence’s Church, engaging young people and giving them a voice.

Being able to welcome visitors to school brings me to the final thing at the forefront of my mind at present – our Open Evening on the 14 October. Having joined the school as Headteacher on 1 June 2020, it seems incredible and peculiar to say that I’m excited (even a little nervous) to be able to welcome prospective parents nearly 18 months later. Assuming Covid stays away, we’ll be able to offer a full live and on-site event and an Open Morning the following day to see us in action. Whilst preparing for these events does add to our workload, I don’t think that it’s just me who is getting increasingly excited to be able to finally showcase the school. If the number of students and governors who have come forward with offers to help is anything to go by, then I’m definitely not alone.

All of this has is taking place alongside the usual things we do at JOG. Not least of those is, of course, ensuring that we continue to offer a high-quality education. September has seen us working harder than ever to assess where our students are, in all year groups, so that we can plan great lessons and offer the support students need to do their very best. This includes planning for Covid catch-up and small group tutoring as well as trying to offer the pastoral support needed too. Having seen an increase in students struggling emotionally as well as academically in recent months, we’ll no doubt need to keep working hard to get the balance right between the two. With that in mind, I recently read the seemingly opposing views of Amanda Spielman (OFSTED Chief Inspector) and Dame Rachel De Souza (Children’s Commissioner). It will be interesting to see which side of the narrative dominates the political agenda in the coming months.

Whatever the case and looking ahead, it certainly doesn’t seem like the workload is set to reduce anytime soon or that we’ll be able to do anything other than put our heads down and continue to do our jobs. Lucky for me then, that I’m surrounded by such a great team and such a superb community.

August/September 2021

Having returned to school in the last few days, the inevitable question of “How was your summer?” came up. I don’t think I have ever known a year where so many responses seemed to focus on how great it was even though people didn’t seem to think they did very much.

Another common theme was how much longer it took to wash away the academic year than it normally does. I know that we get long holidays as teachers, but the intensity of the work during term time often leads to feeling totally wiped out in the first few days of a break. This year I share my colleagues’ sentiment that it took a good few additional days to recover from the exhaustion. It will be interesting to see whether our students felt the same.

For my part, the summer period was a mixture of planning and waiting. Planning to open a school almost back to “normal”; waiting to see if we’d have to reverse those plans or if the guidance changed. I am happy to report that, a few days in it has not. As a direct update from something I wrote about last month, I’m happy to report that the guidance on face coverings did not change. We are therefore following the DfE guidance that they are “no longer advised”, although students or staff can of course wear them if they so wish. I honestly thought I had settled my anxiety on that, until I popped into the supermarket the other day and everyone was wearing them there. I’ll follow the guidance still, of course, but it has served as a timely reminder that Covid is still around and may continue to cause us some more sleepless nights.

One thing we were able to do was gather our staff together as a whole group for our training days. It’s hard to put in words how much of a difference it made and how much that human contact means to us. It might be especially acute in professions focussed on people, but I am sure we have all felt that warmth that can only come from being physically with other people. There are places where virtual communication works well but I am increasingly convinced that it’s not the best way for schools to teach or communicate.

It was also a huge relief that I did not have to spend much of the first day trawling through public-health guidance. Not that we don’t take it seriously – as I said last month, we’ve kept a number of the elements around hygiene and prevention measures – but it did mean that the majority of our training could focus on the important business of student learning. This is something that for me is a bit of a novelty, even after nearly 15 months in post.

The summer period also saw the exam results day in the middle of August. Because they were based on TAGs, of course we already knew the grades. This meant that there wasn’t the usual feeling of trepidation for us, although for our students I doubt it felt any different to what previous cohorts would have experienced. Certainly seeing the students on the results day itself, there was the seemingly customary air of nervous excitement and mixture of smiles and a few tears: more of the former than the latter, I’m pleased to say. Seeing the students once again filled me a great pride and hope. There were lots of individual and collective good-news stories but what struck me most was that, despite all they’ve been through, our students certainly possess the “keep calm and carry on” mindset. Their ability to take it all in their stride is an attitude we will have to adopt in the coming weeks and months as we all wait to see what happens next.

For JOG, what is truly heartening is that for now we can focus on teaching, learning and great pastoral care in an environment that seems normal and feels warmly familiar. We’ll hold onto that for as long as we can.

July/August 2021

It is said that in the teaching profession that we are always learning. Certainly, I have learned many things over the past year or so as a new Headteacher and I thought it might be interesting to highlight just a few of them in this month’s entry.

The first lesson I have come to have great respect for is to expect the unexpected. This was never more true than on the evening of the very last night that schools were responsible for track and trace, John O’Gaunt had what was only its third incident of the entire school year. I and my two colleagues who telephoned nearly 40 families that night did not relish the prospect of asking people to self-isolate so close to the school holidays. We were, however, heartened by the numerous supportive and sympathetic comments we received from these families, despite the disruption our phone call meant for them. As one parent put it to me “you’re only following the guidance you’ve been given.” They had perhaps prepared for themselves for the unexpected (though perhaps it was not totally unexpected) better than we had.

The understanding we were being shown highlights a second lesson I’ve learned: when it comes to any sort of government guidance (especially COVID related), what school leaders desire the most is clarity.

I must admit that some clarity was provided. The end of the school year coincided with the announcement that nearly all Covid restrictions in schools will be lifted at the start of the new academic year in September. This came as the welcome news that we’d all been hoping for. Apart from a few minor things – and some wholly sensible hygiene and prevention measures that we’ll keep in place – school life will be able to return to most of the pre-Covid norms. This includes the end of the bubble system, the ability to be flexible in our approaches to education and even to hold gatherings and mixed events. I’ve stated the importance of these sorts of things to school life many times, so there is a very real feeling of excitement about next year at JOG.

However, one area where there was a lack of clarity in the guidance concerned face coverings. The guidance for schools simply states that they are “no longer advised”, but this was before a slight change of emphasis nationally. You will know by now that there was a confusion of messages from central government and a mixed reaction among the public: some places and people continue to insist on them while others take a more relaxed approach. For schools, this is a real dilemma. There will be people within our community who hold very firm beliefs that they should be worn in school, whilst others feel the reverse is more appropriate. There are those that will say that being made to wear face coverings is a civil liberties issue; others hold firm to the view that it’s a public health one. You can see the problem, I’m sure. As school leaders, I think that it is our job to be as apolitical as possible; and this issue has, to some extent, become political. I would far prefer the guidance to be firm and clear about what schools should do, which removes any controversy from the decision.

As it is, unless there are any changes to guidance during the summer (and there were a number last year), our approach can only be to follow this and state that, whilst they aren’t officially advised, students and visitors can still wear them if they wish. If I’m honest, that feels like a bit of a cop-out…

One area where there was clarity however, albeit coming somewhat late in the day, was around Teacher Assessed Grades (or TAGs), which have replaced the GCSE examinations for this year. As I’ve stated here previously, the workload this created for teachers was unlike anything I’ve seen before. However, for the Year 11 students who will receive their results in the summer this was, given the circumstances, the fairest approach possible. JOG gave them every opportunity to demonstrate their capability. Having passed our external quality assurance from examination boards without query, I am proud of the way that JOG staff digested and followed the guidance and supported students throughout the process. I hope that students collecting their results on 12 August feel the same. No system is perfect, of course, but this seems the best that situation permits. Most importantly, I hope that the results they get enable them to access their next step, whatever that may be. We’ll certainly have plenty of advice and help available on the day to guide them should they need it.

A final lesson worth highlighting comes from a piece of advice I was once given as a Deputy Headteacher. A colleague (already a Headteacher at the time) told me “always to remember to look up from your desk”. That sounds like a strange thing to say. It certainly did at the time for me. However, having now been in the job for over a year, I am beginning to understand what she meant. With all the many tasks that pull on your time as a school leader, it is easy to get stuck with your nose in guidance – of which there’s been a lot recently – paperwork and administrative tasks and forget to see your school. I was therefore extremely grateful for two things that drew me away from my desk over the past couple of weeks. The first was hosting some tours for parents of rising Year 7 students, some of whom had never actually set foot in the school. The second was our annual Sports Day, which we able to hold (Covid-adjusted of course) during the final full week of term.

As I walked around visiting various lessons, watching our students continuing to work hard and make such a great impression, and as I stood and watched nearly every students compete in at least one event, fighting hard to win but cheering on friends and rivals, I was reminded of that remark. I was also reminded of why we become teachers in the first place. Regardless of whatever is happening in the world, young people always seem to find a way through it. Yes, they are rightly sheltered from some of the burdens of adult life. They still approach everything with youthful enthusiasm and energy (even though this natural inclinations have been curtailed these last 18 months). Perhaps the biggest lesson from the past year, then, is that we have as much to learn from our young people as we do from anything else. As a Headteacher this seems a positive note on which to end my reports on what has, by any standards, been a very strange year.

I’ll be taking a break from this diary – though not from my duties – for a month – I’ll be back at the end of September to let you know how the first few weeks of the new term have gone. Have a great summer.

June/July 2021

Over the last month I’ve had the privilege of visiting some of our feeder primary schools which has been an extremely enlightening experience. During these visits, I was struck by two things in particular. Firstly, the positive and vibrant atmosphere in every school I went to. Somehow in spite of the pandemic, my primary colleagues are still finding ways to engage and enthuse young people who are, in turn producing some amazing work that would challenge that of some of the older students in my own school. Speaking to the pupils, it is clear that this is no fluke and is down to the second thing that jumped out for me; namely the incredible care and dedication that staff are putting in and how well they know the children.

Part of the aim of these visits has been to try to see how we can connect with our primary partners more and I went in with an agenda of finding out what JOG may be able to offer them. From my visits, however, it is abundantly clear that, while there is plenty JOG can do, this will be a two-way process. There is much that we can learn from each other. I have to say that, from what I saw in our feeder primaries, the children in our area are in extremely good hands.

The visits have been going on in the background of our own planning for the transition of our rising Year 7 students, which culminated in having them in school. Of course, Covid guidance (now firmly established as my least favourite phrase) meant that we had to host the students in separate bubbles for a very short time, with Hungerford Primary walking their pupils to us and other feeder schools situated further out allowing us to collect them in our minibuses. The day culminated in a well-attended virtual parents event. Whilst I truly thought the whole day was positive, it served as the latest reminder of just how much our young people have been through and how disruptive the last 18 months has been for them.

No better is this demonstrated for our current students than by the fact that we’ve had to postpone the Year 11 Prom to the Autumn. I am hoping that this does not follow the same unfortunate pattern of the previous year, where that initial postponement led to a cancellation in the end.

That said, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel with talk of restrictions easing and perhaps even the end of the ‘bubble’ system. As you would imagine, school leaders keep a very close eye on these stories and am also aware that there has been so much controversy about guidance and transmission of the virus in schools. I work in a trust that has always followed the guidance and left political decisions to politicians and ethical ones to medical professionals and, more importantly, to parents and carers. I only hope that we are given the notice we need to prepare adequately to open the school safely, effectively and free of controversy in the new academic year.

Moreover, it’s certainly not all bad news in school. Welcoming the rising Year 7 students certainly seemed to add some lovely buzz to the place but of course there have also been plenty of other reasons to be optimistic in the past month too. For example, we’ll be able to hold a Covid-safe but still competitive Sports Day in the coming weeks (weather permitting) and we’re also holding a Visual Arts Week with workshops, quizzes, competitions, rocket car racing and even a staff ‘Bake-off’ event as part of the enriching activities on offer. In a small school, where we manage to offer a raft of enrichment and extra-curricular activities – this year as well as pre-Covid – I am always in awe of the indefatigable staff at JOG who do so much with limited resources. As you may have gathered, I am still very proud to work with them.

This month has also seen us welcome some newly qualified teachers who, despite having their own learning greatly disrupted, have already shown themselves to be strong and effective professionals and a great addition to the school. We also welcomed ten undergraduate teaching interns into school for a few days (bringing an LFD test with them!) and, given the headlines and turbulence the profession has endured, seeing potential future teachers of such strong calibre fills one with great hope for the coming years. Being able to participate in these initiatives is another benefit of being in a Trust with a Teaching School.

Another highlight was hearing that our bid for funding to create a quiet garden in the school had been successful through the Greenham Trust. Once again, I find myself indebted to the work of our PSA and particularly Jon Shatford, for his work and generosity on so many initiatives, including this one. In a year where many fundraising events have had to be cancelled and Covid has prevented our Parents’ Association from even meeting face-to-face, their dedication to carry on regardless is truly heart-warming. I only hope that other parents or members of the school community can give up a little time in the coming year to help as the work of our PSA really does touch every student

As I look back and reflect on having been in post at John O’Gaunt for a year now, through strange, disruptive and often frustrating times, I still firmly believe that JOG remains in a great place, despite the difficulties. The news from this month has only added to that feeling.

May/June 2021

I’m approaching the first anniversary of leading John O’Gaunt and I continue to learn so much every day. (There have also been two occasions over the past month when the delivery of cake has proved to be a much-needed intervention. I have almost perfected the skill of heating this with one hand while scrolling through the latest online government advice with the other. A year ago, I didn’t foresee this would be a key headship skill.)

And what a month it has been. First and foremost, we said goodbye to our cohort of Year 11 students. In previous years, it has always been obvious whether a year group is ready to leave or not but this time around I’ll admit to finding it hard to know. There were the usual tears and smiles during the photographs, shirt-signing and leavers assembly, as well as the poignant moments as friends said goodbye. However, given the turbulent and stuttering time this cohort have endured, there was more of a feeling this year that leaving was just another next step in a series of next steps they’ve got used to taking. Whether this is a good thing, because it’s a sign of resilience, or something to be more worried about, because the reality of the moment hasn’t yet dawned on them, is not yet obvious and I suppose that only time will tell. What is clear however, is that we are extremely proud of every single one of them and that we send them on their way with our very best wishes.

Like my staff, they have endured the toughest end to a year 11 in my lifetime. I wrote about the challenges of Teacher Assessed Grading (TAGs) last time around. Suffice to say that things have not been any easier since then. Whilst our choice as a school to hold shorter, more regular assessments suited our learners well, it had two important consequences. (Spoiler alert: both involve the word “exhaustion”.)

The first was that students did not have the usual sigh of relief that follows the end of an exam season. Rather than a period of intense preparation for a short series of one-off tests, instead they endured an intense period of assessments with short preparation in-between. I’m not suggesting that this is worse or better, just that it’s different. One effect has been a higher level of exhaustion than I’ve seen before.

The second consequence has been the impact on teachers. The marking load placed on them by the TAG system is, to say the least, immense. We are all doing all that we can to give every student their best opportunity in under the TAG system but it has come at a huge cost. I have never seen colleagues so exhausted before and I am so proud to work alongside so many of our professions’ best at JOG.

Needless to say then, wellbeing has continued to be a high priority issue for us – not just for staff or Year 11 students but for the whole school community. We’ve been lucky to enjoy another half term where Covid cases have not forced any bubble closures. I emphasise the “lucky” considering the figures I’ve seen for other schools, even relatively local to JOG. However, there is still that same sense of uncertainty and insecurity that is being felt nationally and, whilst I can offer no direct evidence linking the two, it is abundantly clear that mental health is being impacted more than usual at the moment. We try really hard to support our students and their families and so I was really pleased to see our Welfare Team appear in Newbury Weekly News grabbing a little limelight. Their amazing work often goes on unseen, but is of huge value in the background.

On the theme of wellbeing, over the last month we successfully secured funding for a quiet garden within the school grounds. This is a small area we are going to develop to enable some of our students to use as an area for respite and quiet contemplation when they need it. As I often have cause to say, I am extremely grateful to the work of the PSA and Jon Shatford, who do so much for JOG and whose positive contributions impact so many more in our community than many might suspect. This latest intervention by them has come at just the right time.

Speaking of interventions, I should probably explain my reference to the cakes from above. With the issue of wellbeing in mind, there were two occasions where I took delivery of a cupcake to my office over the last month; one from a staff member and one from a Year 7 student. The pure kindness that lay behind both gestures is more powerful than I can say and both happened to come at just the right moments on a couple of very challenging days for me. As I said, I continue to learn key lessons and the power of kindness – and of cupcakes – should never be underestimated, especially in our current climate.

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 is part of.

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 2 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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