Richard Hawthorne is the new Head at John O’Gaunt School in Hungerford having taken up the position on 1 June 2020. Here he gives some thoughts on his first month in post.
My interview for the Headteacher post at John O’Gaunt was on the 2nd of March. I drove home through a gorgeous town and rolling countryside on a sunny day to receive the news that I had been successful.
As I’ve told anyone who’ll listen, it was a dream job for me, in a school that I felt an instant connection with. I’d been part of the leadership team in a similar sized community school in Sonning which has similar strengths and challenges so felt I was bringing some relevant experience with me. At John O’Gaunt there was much to celebrate: the school had received its first Ofsted rating of ‘Good’ only eight months before and results and admission numbers were rising steadily. Excalibur Academies Trust is as supportive as you could wish for and the Governors, some of them parents, had a good reputation and seemed to only want the best for the school and its students. The staff appeared open-minded, dedicated and caring. The school had been more than ably led by Mrs Walker and her team who seemed to offer an assured approach that led to a buoyant staff body. Above all, the students I met had a real spark about them. The school genuinely had a family feel to it and every indication pointed to a local area that felt like a true community. There was so obviously a bright future ahead of JOG.
Just 18 days later, of course, the announcement came that we were going into lockdown, which included the closure of all schools to all but the students of critical workers. I began my role on the first of June, just a few days after the government announced that secondary schools could finally begin to welcome a limited number of students. What followed was a first week like no other.
Day one saw me not looking over a school improvement plan but working through a 40-page risk assessment. Instead of the cheerful staff briefings I’d pictured, I had remote meetings with my leadership team to talk logistics around sanitising gel and social distancing. The only face-to-face staff briefing I’ve held was an hour-long health and safety briefing where I felt more like the presenter of a 1950s public service announcement than a Head of School – “It’s lovely to meet you, now let’s talk about the hand-washing notices.” Rather than rousing whole-school assemblies, I’ve only been able to pop my head into a bubble of 15 students at a time to talk to them about how public health is (rightly) more important than education at the moment and how we all need to embrace the new normal of the learning process – though If I say the words “remote learning remains the main mode of education” much more I think I might scream. The only parents I’ve met have been from two metres away whilst they drop a child off, rather than sat around a coffee table with them sharing their views about the future direction of the school.
You would be forgiven for thinking then that my sunny disposition would have worn off, but the truth is it hasn’t.
There are several reasons for this. Firstly, as I was telling Year 10s just the other day, Covid-19 is a great leveller. Our experiences of it are going to be different – and for some that experience will involve not just frustration or adversity but real tragedy – but it is something we’ve all been through, and at the same time. In some ways, it has made the first few weeks of headship simpler (though not easier) as there’s no possible doubt what the top priority is. The role of the school leaders is to plan to have students on site according the new regulations; the role of staff is to adhere to it whilst still supporting and educating children; the role of our students is to try and find a way to learn in a completely different way and resist the seemingly boundless urge that teenagers have to never be more than a few centimetres apart.
The second reason is that in moments of crisis we find out the true nature of people. At JOG, what I have discovered is kindness, energy, resilience and leadership. I’ve quickly discovered that staff have been working above and beyond. Not only in their pursuit to educate our students through online work, live lessons, narrated PowerPoints, video lectures, live chat sessions, Microsoft Forms quizzes, and the 100+ photocopied booklets we’re sending home every two weeks; but in school too; at first for the students of critical workers and, more recently, the Year 10 bubbles that come in Tuesday to Friday. Alongside this, staff are still emailing with new ideas for competitions, staff training, teaching ideas, ways to celebrate successes, lobbying for new software we can get to enhance learning, and sharing links to great online resources for students. They still plan, carry out administrative tasks to support learning, maintain and clean the site, cook for staff and students, pay the invoices, answer the emails, attend meetings (remotely), coordinate activities and drive minibuses. This is also happening whilst they have been making PPE, distributing lunch packs or making dozens of phone calls home to offer support, cajole and encourage our young people to keep going. The staff also have anxieties about the pandemic, lives to balance, health concerns, children to look after or partners who work too – yet not once have I heard a complaint.
The students have also been amazing. Some of the work I have seen coming in has been truly remarkable and, as a trip to the school website would quickly confirm, in every subject and year group there are success stories. From students running half marathons in their gardens or completing fitness tasks on mountain bikes, to students 3D-designing houses, planes and even a new solar system from scratch. I’ve seen the most incredible cakes (one had five layers), mini-books of poems, Covid-19 diaries, stop-motion videos, projects on abstract photography, video reviews, 100-word stories, prop-making for Mary Poppins stage shows, upcycling of hamster cages, light experiments, horror theme tunes written from scratch and insightful essays about global warming. They have attended live lessons with aplomb and sounded more like university students than secondary ones to my ears, so mature were their responses. In school, they have adapted to very strange classroom routines and days that have had to be more flexible than we would accept in normal times. They have coped with new friendship circles, working in school but remotely from others and having to eat every day two metres apart in a canteen that resembles an exam hall more than it does a restaurant.
Parent support has been heart-warmingly great, too. They have learned to use new technologies, tutored multiple subjects, participated in family exercise, filmed videos, read drafts again and again, donated time, effort, resources and support unwaveringly whilst also continuing to work, look after households and cope with unprecedented circumstances and anxieties.
The local community, of which I have been able to see too little of, has chipped in already. The Town Council and Penny Postspread the word about reopening, local councillors have been into school (safely distanced of course) and the local MP has even met me. Our parents’ association have provided resources and time, local businesses have taken the time to listen and understand when I’ve discussed with them our safety measures and expectations of students. Every person I have spoken to has been cheerful and offered to help.
In short, we’re all in this together (and to a much greater extent than when the phrase was first mentioned in the 2010 election campaign).
If I sound like I’m on my soap box, then that’s because I am. Which brings me to my final reason not to be downcast. How can I be? All the good things that I spoke of above are still there and, having experienced the school and its community in the most challenging of times, there is so much more to be optimistic about. Whatever COVID-19 has done, it has not dimmed the brightness of the future here at John O’Gaunt School. As the great leveller it is and, whilst I would not wish it on any of us, it may have even made it just a little brighter. Time will tell.