The monthly diary from 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). Richard, the floor is yours…
When I became Head at John O’Gaunt, my leadership team and I set out a simple vision for the school: to be excellent in everything that we do. To achieve this lofty aim, we need to be constantly reflecting on what we do well and where we can develop or improve. Having effective lines of communication with our parent community is a vital part of this.
The start of this month saw us hold our first ‘Parent Forum’ meeting of the year. These events are an opportunity for us to talk directly to a group of parents about some of the important work going on in school as well as providing opportunities to hear their thoughts and views.
I’ve run similar meetings like this in schools that I’ve previously worked in. Whilst there is always a degree of nerves around them, they’re extremely important. The meeting was attended by only a small number of parents on this occasion, but the dialogue we were able to have will form such an important part of the work we do moving forward.
The meeting got me thinking about the role that parental engagement plays in making a school successful.
It seems an obvious assumption that parents play a pivotal role in the success of their children at school, but this can also be underpinned by a fair bit of well-researched evidence too. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a charity which specialises in educational research, says that the right sort of parental engagement can add up to four months additional progress per year for a student. Their evidence comes from more than seventy studies dating back as far as 1964 and is therefore pretty robust.
Numerous studies that have gathered parent voices show that the vast majority of parents want to be more involved in their child’s schooling. There have also been studies commissioned by the government, such as the one from the National College for School Leadership in 2011, about how school leaders can best engage with their parent communities.
Positive engagement between schools and parents is shown to have positive impact on a number of areas, ranging from improved attendance and better behaviour to more enthusiasm about learning and greater self-esteem. It is hardly surprising that when these things are better, that it leads to improvement in progress and outcomes for young people.
The evidence also points out that the interaction between home and school needs to be of the right type. The research rightly focusses on areas such as good communication, schools helping equip parents with the right tools to support their child – with say reading or homework – and finding ways to involve parents more in their learning activities generally.
However, for schools the challenge is not only finding ways to do this but doing so in a climate of increased challenges in relationships with some parents. Whilst most interactions with parents are positive, a recent Schools Week article highlighted that verbal abuse is on the rise and that what it described as “bad behaviour” by parents has risen by more than a quarter since 2020. Sadly, JOG has not been immune to this and we too have seen an increase in verbal abuse from a small number of parents.
Whilst I defend the right of any parent to query what we are doing and raise concerns if necessary, I am concerned by the way my staff are sometimes treated, with social media playing an increasing part. For our part at JOG, we’re trying really hard to both reach out to our parent community and find ways to involve them with the life of the school. This is why events like Parent Forum are so important and why I’m so grateful to those parents who came along and were so invested and open-minded about JOG. We have another meeting early in the spring and I’ll keep you posted as to how this one goes.
Away from our Parent Forum, it was a busy month elsewhere. Among the highlights, two of our students, Jacob and Alice, participated in Remembrance Sunday accompanied by Mrs Barnett, one of our excellent teaching assistants. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this year, but I would probably have been surplus to requirements anyway and they did a brilliant job representing the school and laying our wreath on this important day.
In school, we held our two-minute silence on the Friday before this and at the end of a week of Remembrance assemblies run by our Head of Humanities Mrs Adams. Once again, the students showed great interest in and respect for the poignant and important messages that form part of these events.
Year 11 students had a busy time and made us really proud during the nine-day stint of their mock examinations. These were, once again, run in such a way as to simulate the experience that they will have to go through when it comes to next summer, but also ease them into the pace and pressure of it. On the whole, we were really pleased by how much they bought into the mock season and how seriously they took it all. Hopefully this will be reflected in their results, which they will receive during a special assembly early in December.
Regardless of their mock results, we tell them that these are the first steps in taking their real exams and it is almost as important to reflect on what they learned from the experience as much as the grades they get this time around.
We were finally able to play our first competitive match on the new 3G pitch. This might be a good luck charm for JOG as it saw our U15 girls return a 13-0 win in their match as part of the Small Schools Cup. We’ve also seen participation at lunch and after-school clubs rise and, once the necessary legal paperwork is signed, we look forward to welcoming various teams from Hungerford Town FC and further afield to take advantage of this brilliant facility.
For staff, it was another busy month of training and developmental work. I’m always moved by the dedication and resilience of the staff at JOG who, as I’ve said before, wear many more hats than they might in a larger school where the workload can be spread across more people.
Sometimes, and particularly in the middle of the long autumn term, it can feel relentless. In the past month there have been several evaluation activities for them to prepare for, similar to the ones I mentioned last month: this is alongside some intensive after-school training and in addition to the weekly sessions we usually hold. Yet my staff have risen to the challenge of these things with the same enthusiasm as they did back at the start of September, when their energy levels are naturally higher.
Nor am I the the only one noticing the impact: in the words of one parent who wrote to me after a recent parents’ evening “you as a head teacher are swamped with talent there and you should feel so lucky – and last night made us realise just how they are making our daughter fire on all cylinders.”
Whilst I don’t expect all parental engagement to include such high praise, I have to say that it makes the world of difference to the morale of staff.
In my entry last month, I talked about a calm and purposeful start to the school year. Given how busy it has been this past month – there were a number of events during the day and at least one evening event every week to fill our time – I can only admire the staff and students at John O’Gaunt for maintaining this.
The first of these events was Year 11 Parents’ Evening, which I’m glad to say was really well attended. We have the first Year 11 consultation evening early in the school year because it’s important to set the rest of the year up well: although, as a teacher of a Year 11 class myself, it always feels strange to be talking about summer revision in October. That said, Year 11 students are due to take their first mock exams next week so it is also a timely discussion.
Our oldest year-group of students have, on the whole, switched on at the start of the year. This is much needed given that everything suggests their exams will be tougher still than last year’s. I’ve made it clear it numerous times here that I don’t support that approach but all we can do is work with our students and their families to offer the best provision and support we can. To see so many parents attend was therefore pleasing. They’re such a vital part of the picture of whether a child will succeed or not in school.
The week following this saw us run our annual Open Evening with two Open Mornings in follow-up. Preparing for an Open Evening is somewhat stressful: but when I learned that more than a quarter of our students had volunteered to help out as subject ambassadors or tour guides on the night, my anxiety disappeared.
Special gratitude must go to Oscar and Farai in Year 11 who agreed to write and deliver a speech giving their perspective on JOG. We do a similar thing each year but I am always so impressed by the students who agree to put themselves out there in what is a nerve-wracking situation for me, let alone them. As usual, I didn’t write or vet their speeches in advance, such is the trust I can have in our students They did the school and themselves really proud.
The Open Evening and the Open Mornings were again both very busy and the feedback shows there are many reasons to feel positive about how JOG is, rightly, perceived as the school of choice for so many parents. There’s no chance of our resting on our laurels, however – much of what has contributed to our development and improvement in recent years is our willingness to reflect and make changes in the pursuit of excellence.
The same day of the Open Evening, a group of staff took our Year 11 cohort to the Newbury Destination Expo at Newbury College. This forms an important part of our overall careers offer and I’m grateful that our students had the opportunity to attend. That JOG has staff who are willing to take a trip out the same day as Open Evening shows how dedicated they truly are.
The careers’ theme for students in Year 10 and 11 continued the following week when we held our own Post-16 Careers event. This evening is an opportunity to meet representatives from a number of local Sixth Forms and Colleges and explore what courses they offer. Hopefully it wasn’t just the fact that our Parent School Association provided complimentary refreshments that drew people in: certainly it was one of the best attended evenings of this type that the school has had since my time in post.
Listening to the sensible questions so many students were asking is another sign that our students are taking their future seriously. One provider told me that “JOG’s students are unique and among the hardest working we have. There’s no sense of entitlement to them and they’re a credit to the school.” It’s always nice to have lovely feedback, particularly as I knew how true it was…
That same week saw the first of a series of Careers Assemblies that will be run throughout the year. This one was led by our Science Faculty and showcased the many Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (or STEM) careers that open to students later in life. The assemblies also talked about how the skills you learn in science can also be used in other careers. Aimed at all year groups, students will see representatives from each of our six faculties deliver on the same theme in the coming months. These were planned in direct response to student feedback.
Amongst the numerous events across the term, we also had two days of external quality assurance. These are where expert consultants work alongside my senior team to evaluate the effectiveness of our provision and care. They are more supportive than formal inspections but no less rigorous and form an important part of our work to develop and improve the school. As ever, they identified many strengths and some areas for us to work on. Days like these also always include an element of student voice. We have another two similar days planned before Christmas and I am hopeful they’ll be an opportunity to showcase the progress we’re making as well as providing valuable feedback. I’ll keep you posted.
It seems that over the past year or so, no term can go by without the PE team leading a trip to a major sporting event. This time it was another trip to Wembley to cheer on the England men’s footballers against Australia. I think that JOG attendance to these types of event must be a lucky charm as whoever they go and see seem to always win when they’re there! The final week of term also saw us take out two Year 11 Geography classes for their required GCSE field trip. Alongside a number of fixtures, it was another busy month of trips.
At the start of the new term we had the good news from West Berkshire Council that the transport issues for Kintbury, Inkpen and Great Shefford residents have been resolved and a long-term solution found. I won’t labour the point about transport again (this month at any rate) but for a school that is semi-rural and therefore has parents who rely heavily on local-authority provided transport, this news came as a huge relief. As I said last month, I do have a lot of sympathy with the difficulties in finding a provider that WBC’s transport team faced. The fact that we’re already planning our summer 2024 Reward Trips now, so we can be certain of booking coaches, is a sign of the difficulties in securing a sufficient supply of transport at present.
By the time you read this, I hope we’ll have completed a site handover of the new 3G pitch – which is looking incredible. There is some legal red tape to get through before we can actually use the pitch itself, but I’m sure this won’t delay us too long.
Last but by no means least, I wanted to mention four of our students, Harry, Alice, Arwen and Cameron. Between them, they achieved three silvers and a gold medal at the recent Senior Maths Challenge event. This puts them in the top 13% and top 7% of the country respectively, an incredible achievement. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to present them with their certificates, which I did during a reward breakfast on the final day of term. We held this for our Maths Challenge students as well as all the students who helped with Open Evening.
Given everything I’ve mentioned above, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I was somewhat fatigued by the time it came to the last Friday: but seeing the students at this event was enough to energise me once again.
Calm and purposeful. These are the two words that I’ve used most to describe the atmosphere across the school since we returned from the summer break. Not that it wasn’t before, but something in the air just feels like something is a little different this September. Indeed, walking around the school, during lessons and at break and lunchtimes, there is a sense of business-as-usual that has been missing in recent years. It may be because things feel like they’ve settled back to the more usual rhythm in schools now that the pandemic is in the distance. Whatever it is, it is most welcome.
I should pause here to say that we have already seen a small number of Covid cases in school as a new strain takes hold. Whilst I am not at this stage concerned by these reports, I’m also never going to be complacent either. I sometimes think back to March 2020 and the unimaginable situation we all found ourselves in, seemingly out of nowhere. As a school leader, I don’t think I’ll ever say that it couldn’t happen again.
The term started with news that our 3G pitch project is on track to finish as scheduled towards the end of October. It has been exciting to watch it gradually take shape and I have been able begin to imagine the many great opportunities it will offer for the school and the local community. For a school that has recently celebrated being open for 60 years, having a facility that is state-of-the-art and so modern really does feel like a blessing.
Whilst the work is going on we’ve had to reduce the outside space that students can use during break and lunchtimes. With more than 110 Year 7 students joining us in September, our largest intake for many years, the school has certainly felt a little more congested. Given that we’re now up to more than 460 students on roll in total, it makes the sense of calm purposefulness even more impressive. This is of course, a good problem to have (and there aren’t many like that as a Headteacher) and I genuinely believe that our larger size has added to the positive start to the term.
Unfortunately, the term also began with news of some transport issues for some families who access the West Berkshire-run buses in Kintbury, Inkpen and Great Shefford. With a coach company apparently pulling out of their contract at short notice, it created a headache for West Berkshire’s transport team that I have sympathy for, although some more timely communication might have helped. There is a solution now in place for the foreseeable future, but a longer-term solution is still being worked on.
I know that the team at West Berkshire is working hard to resolve it, but this issue sits alongside an overall transport policy that I don’t think is fit for purpose for residents across our catchment, and which I have raised numerous times with council leaders – to no avail. For our part, we have put on additional supervision at the start and end of the day to accommodate the fact that some students now have to arrive earlier and leave later. Beyond this, the school has no say in the dedicated school transport that West Berkshire runs, so it has been frustrating to not be able to do more.
The beginning of the school year is often punctuated with several important events to help set up for the year ahead. Among these, we’ve had our ‘Welcome to GCSE’ evening for parents and carers of Year 10 students and our ‘Meet the Tutor’ evening for parents and carers of Year 7s. Whilst it was good to see a good number of families attend these events, we have not yet returned to the numbers attending that we used to see prior to the pandemic. Therefore, we are spending time in school trying to think about how we can improve what we do and how we communicate with our school community.
Getting parent buy-in is such a vital part of what we do and we’ll be working hard to ensure that we’re reaching out as much as we can and getting even more families to come into school in the future. The events themselves seemed to go well and there was plenty of positive feedback on the nights, which I hope was shared across all those who attended. Part of the angst that goes with headship is the constant soul-searching that you’re doing the right things.
The term has been busy for other reasons too and there have already been a number of important things going on in school. Year 7 students completed their Cognitive Ability Tests which, combined with their SATS data from Primary School, help us build a clear picture of their areas of strength and need, as well as help to predict their potential ‘flight path’ to GCSEs. We’re also in the midst of recruiting for our 2023/24 Student Leadership Group. I’ve spoken about this important organisation here in previous entries; similar to a traditional student council, this represents the student body on important school and student matters, as well as leading on certain projects. Their work has had such a positive impact in recent years so I look forward to seeing who is on the group this year and hearing their thoughts and ideas in the coming weeks.
One piece of work that our student leaders played a pivotal part in was devising our new school values. Whilst there are so many skills and attributes that schools help children to develop, choosing the few that most represent the character of a school can be hard to do. However, alongside one of our Governors and a few members of staff, our student leaders helped us devise three brilliant core values. The ones we chose were ‘Ambition’, ‘Care’ and ‘Courage’. I think these perfectly define what JOG is about. Perhaps it is these things I’m sensing most as I walk around the school…
Richard is taking a well-earned seasonal break from his column but will be back again in early October 2023.
July is the month of farewells in schools.
Some are temporary, like saying goodbye to students and staff who’ll be returning after the summer break. Others are more permanent, such as bidding farewell to Year 11 students and staff who’re moving on.
Sending students off into the wider world always brings trepidation, no matter how well prepared you think they are, but is a natural part of the relationship. With members of staff, whatever their reason for moving on, the feelings are more complex. You send them off with a heavy heart but also with your best wishes.
This is harder to do when long-standing members of staff depart. This July, we said goodbye to two whom I want to mention here in particular: my deputy Mrs Walker; and Mrs Arden-Hunt, who are both leaving the profession entirely.
Mrs Walker has been at the school for 16 years and Mrs Arden-Hunt for the entire 22 years she’s been a qualified teacher. No longer having their expertise, knowledge and dedication will be a huge a loss not just to the school and to me, but to education as a whole.
On behalf of our profession, I would like to acknowledge and pay tribute to their service here. While I am apprehensive about how to fill the gap they will leave at JOG, I do wish them all the very best too, albeit with a tear in each eye.
Prior to the end of term send-offs, it was an extremely packed month. It seems that the last half term gets busier every year. This one was no exception.
Students in Years 8, 9 and 10 experienced the world of work in various ways by work-shadowing with friends, relatives or local businesses. Year 10 students spent two days prior to this on a careers and work-related learning project, where they met with over 25 local businesses and employers to improve their CV, build a better understanding of employer expectations and gain interview skills, as well as interviewing business professionals from a wide range of sectors. This culminated in their having a twenty-minute one-to-one interview at which fifteen business volunteers talked to them about their skills and reviewed their CVs.
Students who did not go on work shadowing were expected to be in school and work on an enterprise project. They created a company that sold stationary, designed the products to be sold and marketed them to the public. It was a competitive time and the groups worked extremely hard. As one of the judges, I had the privilege of seeing every project, which included displays and marketing material, financial plans, design ideas and in one case even a TV advert. The work the students produced was simply amazing.
Year 7 were not left out, and participated in an enterprise challenge called ‘Get Shirty’. They created, marketed and sold a team designed T-shirt on the theme of mental health. They learnt how products were marketed and sold, how to make them appeal to the public and how the packaging also sells the product. We had a brilliant set of T-shirts, which will be on display later in the year.
While all of this was happening, the school hosted over 250 Year 4 and 5 pupils from seven different local primary schools for the latest ‘Primary Project’. This focussed on developing key life skills such as, leadership, teamwork and problem solving. During the day, they accessed a range of activities and subjects hosted by JOG staff and which gave the pupils a flavour of a secondary-school environment.
Some of our own Year 7 students were deployed among the groups as helpers. I have to say that they acquitted themselves brilliantly, developing their own life skills in the process.
Usually schools need to be places of routine and structure: but I do admit that I enjoy the days where we are able to move away from the traditional activities and put on events like this – you really do see a different side to the students and pupils involved.
About a week later, it was the turn of our rising Year 6 students to spend a day at JOG. The 112 that are joining us (based on current numbers) is a recent record for the school and a sign of the growing popularity of JOG. This does however, create logistical and planning issues as became very apparent when they arrived. However, the lovely and excited buzz that accompanied our new cohort was also a sign of the very positive things they add to our community.
They spent the day getting to know the school, experience some of the learning they’ll be participating in and getting to know some of the staff and their fellow students. In the evening we welcomed parents/carers and I took the fact that there were very few questions for us at the end of our presentation as a sign that we’re providing both students and parents with the right information.
On both the Primary Project and Transition events, we were fortunate to be assisted by the latest cohort of university interns. I’ve spoken about these before and it was great to welcome another ten first/second year undergraduates who are considering a career in teaching. This is a scheme we run in partnership with our sister school St John’s Marlborough. At JOG they are given the full experience and were even responsible for planning and delivering sessions for both the events in addition to observing lessons and attending presentations.
I know that this initiative has been successful in the past. We welcomed an intern from last year’s cohort to complete her second placement as part of her teacher training this year. We try to ensure that the interns have opportunities to learn about the profession, experience lots of interaction with students and feel a little bit of the pressure that comes with the job.
We also welcomed the staff who have already chosen the profession, and John O’Gaunt, at our new staff induction day. Although this happens behind the scenes, it’s as important for the school as events like Y6 transition day.
I’ve mentioned this previously: but ask any school leader at present and recruitment and retention of staff is the number-one issue on our minds. A national shortage of trained teachers, fewer graduates choosing to train and higher than usual numbers of staff retiring or leaving the profession has left schools in a very difficult position, especially in niche subjects like languages or computing. Doing all we can to create a welcoming and supportive environment for staff to work in and, in the case of new staff, that they are well inducted is absolutely vital.
For new JOG staff, this has meant a bespoke package for each individual and an ongoing programme of support and development. We’ve recruited some great staff. The least we can do is to look after them.
Not all new staff start their contract in a new academic year. Where we can, we’ll ask them to start before the summer break to help them get to grips with their new role and how things work at JOG. I also think the final term is a good time to join a school because it’s traditionally when we run events like those mentioned above. One of the most important is the Sports Day.
Last year, the weather threatened to ruin it last year because it was too hot: this year it was wet and windy conditions that caused problems so we had to use our reserve day,. The main thing is that we did manage to hold it. It was well worth the anxiety and effort put in by the PE team. The result was a competitive but enjoyable day for all involved – and with some brilliant performances too.
Moving the event did mean that students were possibly a little more tired than usual the following day, when we were able to run our Rewards Activity Day. This included excursions to Go Ape and Thorpe Park as well as a choice of in-school events such as stop-go animation, sports activities and pottery. Whilst things like this take a lot of organising for staff, it’s always great to see students enjoy the fruits of their effort, good conduct and attendance.
That’s not all. We also need to add in numerous other events such as a Year 7 RS trip touring the churches of Hungerford, various PE fixtures, a trip to Hampshire to see the T20 cricket, some Year 8 students competing (and placing very highly too) in the national ‘Maths Olympiad’ and others participating as judges for the Hampshire Book Awards. We also had the latest edition of our online student newspaper, the JOG Gazette, coming off the press, a diversity celebration week including assemblies held by students and the fundraising events which raised a remarkable total of over £2,100. We also saw the new 3G pitch installation work begin and had a wonderful evening by students in our first ‘Music and Drama Showcase’ for a number of years.
All these events and achievements underlined what makes JOG such a great place to work. It is, in my opinion, why a number of staff have stayed so long. I think it’s also why, when the farewells were being said in July, that those leaving found it such a wrench to go.
Whilst it has been an incredibly busy month, even by JOG standards, I have chosen this month to do a short reflective piece and save lots of updates for next month’s entry. This is because the first of June marked the third anniversary of my starting in my role as Headteacher of John O’Gaunt School.
In some ways, that time has flown by: in other, it seems like a lifetime ago. It’s hard to imagine that since I started Britain has had three Prime Ministers, two lockdowns, a victory in the Euros (against Germany, no less) a Eurovision Song Contest held in the UK and a new king.
Of course, there have been many things that have happened at JOG too: so many in fact that I’m hugely grateful to Brian and Penny for allowing me to continue writing this diary so I can look back a remember them all (scroll down to see the previous entries). That said, some things haven’t really changed at all. The job remains rich, varied,and never dull. Someone recently asked me what I had learned since I started headship. The full answer to that would be a very long one indeed and is perhaps for another time. After thinking about this for a bit, three things stood out.
Firstly, as clichéd as it sounds you certainly cannot please everyone all of the time. All you can do is take decisions based on your best endeavours and what you believed at the time was the right thing to do.
Secondly, leadership is as much as anything else a test of patience. Developing and improving a school is a complex business that takes time. In some ways, I feel like I’m only now beginning to really know it, so I have had to develop the patience and endurance to take it one step at a time.
Finally, I think that schools are only now starting to see the impact of the pandemic. I think this is less about content catch-up (still important, of course) than about its impact on the development of young minds and their resilience. We are seeing real changes in the way students behave, cope and interact with the adult world. I think education will have to continue to reflect and learn how to react – and be proactive – in response to this for many years to come.
One thing that has not changed in the last three years though, is the sense of community that comes with being a member of staff at John O’Gaunt. This has always been very important for me. Having worked in a number of schools in my career, I can honestly say that the JOG community stands out. This feeling ranges from the family feeling you get from working at the school to the connection you feel with the local area. Looking back, I realise now that the school does so much for and with the community. Even though this is often indirect, the two are inseparable in many ways. Being part of that, even just a small one, is genuinely a privilege.
This cannot have been more evident that when I stood, just last Friday, in the middle of the school’s main hall and observed the people who had turned up to our sixtieth anniversary event. Seeing former students, teaching staff, support staff, parents, carers and headteachers together in one place, stretching from the very first cohort that went through the school in 1963 to leavers in 2019, was both delightful and humbling. Watching them enjoy the exhibition and refreshments that my staff had put together for the occasion was amazing and I was so proud to be able to be a part of it.
Moreover, as I stood there and watched or spoke with some of the visitors, I realised that the reason that JOG has prevailed for so long goes far beyond buildings and facilities, beyond policies and procedures, curriculum or pedagogies, beyond Ofsted or governments: it is all down the to the people who have been part of it. As the novelist Markus Zusak wrote “It’s not the place, I think. It’s the people.”
I had a speech prepared for the evening of the sixtieth anniversary, which in the event I did not have the chance to deliver. At the end, I had planned to simply say “Long may John O’Gaunt endure.” On reflection, however, this seems superfluous – for with this school and with this community, I don’t have any fears that anything else will be the case.
In the month of May a strange thing seems to happen to time in schools, especially for those like our Year 11 students who are approaching exams. Part of you feels time has flown by – the exam season is upon you and you want it to slow down to allow for more preparation, more revision and not having to face the inevitable angst that comes with examinations. On the other hand, the days are longer and the sun warmer so another part of you longs for time to speed up and bring the summer holidays.
By the time their last day came, I’ve no doubt that our Year 11s were ready to go on their study leave. For some it couldn’t come soon enough. For staff, however, there is always a feeling of trepidation as you watch those you’ve nurtured and cared for take their first steps into the wide world. You also feel a sense of responsibility for their exam results. Even though you’ve had significant input into their preparation, you have the awful feeling of not being in control of what happens next. Perhaps other jobs have similar moments but I can’t think of one quite like this. I wish all our Year 11 students my very best for their exams.
Year 10 students got their first taste of just how quickly time will seem to pass this month when they took their first mock exams. Although these were held under the same strict exam conditions of GCSE, with the same marking criteria their exam boards will use in a year’s time, we opted to shorten the papers and allow them to be completed in classrooms rather than the more forbidding environment of an exam hall. I’m sure this was welcomed by the students, but it will still have given them a small and necessary taste of what is to come. They don’t feel it yet but – trust me – the time between now and their exams will fly by…
For students in lower year groups, the past month has of course also been packed with hard work and some class assessments. There has also been time for them to show their competitive streak by participating in inter-house sports matches. These form part of a series of events that culminates in Term 6 with Sports Day, one of the most important events of the year for any school and for which planning is already well underway. We’re in the process of revamping and improving our House system at JOG and if there was ever any doubt of the importance of this piece of work, one only needs to see any of these matches or events – make no mistake, for our students, their House winning really does matter!
Term 6 will also see us put on a second Sports Day. While intended to be more light-hearted, this will no doubt be just as fiercely competed. It will be part of our sixtieth anniversary celebrations. The intention is to run a 1963-themed Sports Day similar to one we ran last year to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, which proved very popular. We’ll also be finding a few other ways to mark this important milestone for both the school and the community.
Whilst taking an important moment to look back over time, Term 6 will also provide an opportunity to look forward to as we finally (hopefully) break ground and start the installation of the new 3G pitch in place of ageing all-terrain one we currently have. If you’ve followed this diary previously, you’ll be aware that this is a project that has been in play since Spring 2022 and has involved a huge amount of work and fundraising. We’re partnering with Hungerford Town Football Club and have been provided with funding from them and well as a huge amount (over £500,000) from the Football Foundation, our trust Excalibur, West Berkshire Council and matched funding from Greenham Trust.
For the town and the school, it’s a hugely exciting resource to have and one I hope will further help embed the school at the heart of this community. The plan is to finish the installation by October. Looking forward to this event is an example of where I wish time would pass more quickly…
I ended my entry last month saying I need a rest over the Easter holidays. I’m glad to say I was able to spend some time recuperating: and, as importantly, spending some valuable time with my family. However, perhaps our recent decision to buy a puppy wasn’t exactly the best way to ensure a quiet couple of weeks.
The new dog wasn’t the only thing that kept me busy over Easter. Between meetings about the next phase of our 3G pitch bid with West Berkshire Council representatives, I found some valuable time to catch up on numerous admin tasks. These seem to get pushed down the list during the bustle of term time.
Moreover, like other schools, in the run-up to the Year 11 exams, JOG runs holiday revision sessions. While, of course, this means more work for me personally, it was nice to be able to run one myself and focus on students as just a History teacher for a short time. Given how tired staff have been, one can only admire the students who turned up or who revised at home during Easter for their resilience and energy, especially at such a young age.
The other thing that keeps school leaders occupied, even during the holidays, is recruitment. This is the busiest time of year for schools in terms of staffing. With important posts needing to be filled at JOG, I and a few colleagues spent a good amount of time on this over Easter.
At the moment, the issue of staffing is by far the thing that most keeps me awake at night. At a time when the school is expanding, I’ll admit to feeling the pressure to ensure we’re fully staffed in September. It’s going to be challenging. There simply aren’t the number, and sometimes quality, of applicants out there that there used to be. Every school I know is struggling in one way or another. Since we returned from the Easter break, a lot of our time has been spent on interviews. This has resulted in some truly brilliant appointments for JOG, which will help to keep the energy and optimism high as we fill the last of the vacancies ahead of September.
Given the relatively short time in school since my last entry, we’ve still managed to pack in an awful lot of other things. This is despite the fact that, due to industrial action and bank holidays, we’ve only had one full five-day week so far this half term.
The term began with the news that our Spring Fayre had raised a record £857 for good causes. Alongside revision sessions taking place before, during and after school for Year 11 students, we’ve also been leading Year 10 students through their first mock examinations. In addition, years 7 to 9 have had a day of workshops called WizeUp run by Newbury Building Society, which helped them see how they’d deal with real-life scenarios to do with managing and planning their finances. Some of our younger students were also involved in the latest round of supporting the local community by providing company and table service once again at a special Coronation Lunch we put on as part of the All Aboard project.
Perhaps the highlight of the term so far was our annual prizegiving evening, which saw us present GCSE certificates to our Year 11 students from last academic year, alongside some special awards for some of them and also students from all our other year groups. It’s always lovely to be able to celebrate the achievement, effort and endeavour of our young people. Just for this reason, it’s probably my favourite event of the year.
The other great thing about prizegiving is that we have a guest speaker. Our choice for this year was the ‘Berkshire Farm Girl’ Eleanor Gilbert. If you’ve not heard of her, do take some time to look her up. She’s a breath of fresh air and even at just 21, she spoke with the wisdom and grace of someone far beyond her years: perhaps unsurprising given that she’s won numerous awards for her work as well as raising more than £1,000 for Thames Valley Air Ambulance through her Ellie’s Welly fundraising scheme.
Like Eleanor, the whole evening was a breath of fresh air and certainly something I’ll be drawing on as inspiration as we head into the coming weeks. Come the May half term break, I think I’m going to need a rest again: if the puppy will let me, of course…
I’m going to be honest with you, this has been the busiest term I can remember and I’m exhausted. It has also a difficult term in many ways too, for a number of reasons.
With that in mind, I want to start by paying tribute to Ruth Perry, the Headteacher of Caversham Primary School who took her own life following an Ofsted inspection. I never met Ruth but it is clear that she was a dedicated and caring professional, deeply invested in her pupils and the community she served. More importantly, she was a wife and mother. Her loss to the profession is tragic: to her family, it is incalculable.
Much has been said in the press since the news of her death broke, especially about Ofsted. I can only say that I understand the strength of feeling from my colleagues about the pressures we find ourselves under. I have not heard one school leader speak out against the notion of inspection itself: nor would they, or I, want inspectors, many of whom are serving school leaders themselves, to be personally vilified. However, given that many of the suggested changes to inspections have been spoken about for many years now, I hope Ruth’s death provides a catalyst for these to happen. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to her family, friends and the wider community she was a part of.
The changes being discussed in relation to Ofsted currently form part of a wider picture of pressures for schools I’ve spoken before about recruitment challenges. Workload and pay are a part of that picture. Whatever your feelings about public sector pay and disputes, there’s no doubt that my colleagues and I are feeling the pinch as a result of the increased cost of living as much as anyone else. Certainly I can feel the impact of these pressures on them, as well as on wider community.
Staff and students are also still grappling with the impact of the pandemic, both in academic and wellbeing terms. As our Year 11s approach their exams this summer, I have grown increasingly troubled by the notion that no adjustments are being made to their exams. We are of course, doing all we can to support and prepare them…
- Our revision and intervention sessions have been in play since the start of the academic year, with two rounds of mock exams and programmes of preparation and detailed feedback around them.
- Over Easter and May half term, staff will be coming in to run extra revision sessions then and we are a school that keeps students in school, rather than on study leave, until almost the end of May.
- We’ve held in-school revision conferences, a ‘How to revise’ carousel morning and also used rewards such as Prom Points (earned towards being able to attend the Prom).
- We’ve run reward events such as ordering pizza in, to try and keep students motivated.
All in all, I think that students at JOG are well served. However, I hope that if the need arises, those in charge will make sensible decisions around grade boundaries that ensure this Year 11 cohort doesn’t become a lost year group.
In March we were also impacted by further disruption from industrial action and an unfortunate need to close on another day too. Unions and the government continued their dispute over pay and conditions, which does not appear to have been resolved at the time of writing. At JOG, this meant the need to restrict attendance in school to one or two year groups and vulnerable children, whilst other students were set work to complete at home. This brought back the worst memories of the pandemic: though given the rules around staff cover and setting work for staff who exercised their right to strike, it was actually logistically far harder to organise.
Further disruption in the form of a closure came to JOG came in the middle of the strike days and during the same week we had snow. Whilst we managed to stay open on the ‘snow day’, I then had to take the decision to close the school two days later due to, of all things, a faulty fire alarm.
Speaking of snow, in the midst of this, we have also been running our GCSE Options process, whereby Year 9 students are choosing the subjects that they will continue studying in their final two years at JOG. I mention snow as last year, our face-to-face information evening had to be cancelled due to heavy snow. This meant that this one was actually the first one I’d experienced face-to-face in school since becoming Head in June 2020. Speaking to so many parents and students on the evening, I was reminded that, despite the many benefits of technology and ability to hold meetings or events virtually, nothing can replace the feel and advantages of seeing people in the flesh, especially at a time when such important decisions are being made.
One of the main priorities for me now will be ensuring we can write a suitably flexible timetable, given that the school has once again grown this year. We will now be a four-form entry in Year 7, which has a knock-on effect to how we timetable in other year groups. This is ,of course, excellent news for the school and proof of the hard work and dedication of the staff that work at JOG that has led to our deserved positive reputation in the area. However, given the challenges of recruitment I mentioned last month – and the fact that this is the busiest time of the year for recruitment in schools generally – I’ll admit to feeling nervous about the coming weeks as we build towards next academic year.
Of course, those feelings are always eased when I am able to immerse myself in the daily life of the school, especially when working with students. In-between fundraising events, motivational talks from the army and some pretty amazing tag rugby and marketing workshops, I have been able to work with lower year groups a few times this term, either through covering a small number of lessons or working alongside our Student Leadership Group. Seeing them at work always helps to reinforce the message that the pressure and anxiety is all aimed at something so very important.
Therefore, whilst I’ll admit to very much needing the Easter break after such a disrupted, sometimes emotional and always busy term, I’ll also go into the coming term with a renewed sense of purpose. I just need a quick rest first…
Time is a funny thing. The challenges of shorter half terms I mentioned last month certainly proved to come true. I entered the half term holiday feeling like we’d achieved so much but the list of ‘To Dos’ had grown and not shrunk. Strangely, however, my feeling about the week off, echoed by several colleagues, was that the holiday itself had gone more slowly than usual. For me, this was in spite of spending a day in school and a couple of days working as well. Perhaps I was just grateful for any rest…
Whatever the reason, we’d certainly utilized every second that we could before we broke up, and indeed since. One of the most important pieces of work that I’ve been devoting some time to, is working with our Student Leadership Group to revisit the school values. Whilst they appear to be just pithy sayings, defining what we’re about is a vital piece of work . I have to say, it is a joy to be working with the students. We used to define ours as ‘Inspire, Believe, Support, Achieve’, which are admirable and still relevant in so many ways. However, when you spoke with students they didn’t really connect with them, so we decided to take another look.
Whenever I have the privilege of working with students on these sorts of things, I am always impressed with how creative and free-thinking they can be and the first session, attended by a Governor too, was enlightening. The idea is that the Student Leadership Group will lead a consultation process, which will also be presented to staff (by students) and will end in our redefined school values. The reason this is something that has to be led by students is clear and I look forward to updating you on it in future posts.
Something else that was a really good use of time, but no less time-consuming for staff, was our approach to the Year 11 Parents’ Evening. As the second consultation evening of the year for these students, we adopted an approach we trialled last academic year whereby – instead of just a generic report – we produced ‘Target Cards’ for each student, in every one of their subjects.
The idea behind these is to provide precise feedback on the one or two main priorities for each student in each subject. By the end of the evening, parents and their children left with a clear and concise picture of the key areas of focus in the lead-up to their summer exams. They’re also helpful for those parents who cannot make the evening itself.
For those of us not old enough to remember written reports and the ‘National Record of Achievement’ era, this may all sound very strange: but with the modern approach being data-driven reports and more regular communication tending to be online, written comments about children like this are nowadays far from the norm in schools. The cards take a long time to produce because they contain individualised commentary for every child, but both staff and parents have lauded their usefulness. With the latest round of Year 11 Mock Exams looming when the evening happened, we’re eager to see the impact this investment of time has had.
For Year 9 students, it’s an important time for them and their families, as we recently launched our options process. This is where students choose the subjects that they will continue to study in Year 10 and 11 as they work towards their final examinations. It’s an exciting period for these students but also one where the weight of the choices ahead of them can be overwhelming. Long ago though that was, I still remember choosing my own options and so understand how some of our students must be feeling. We’ll be providing them and their families with plenty of information and support in the coming weeks.
Another pull on my own time in recent weeks has been the second day of industrial action. With further days planned later in March it doesn’t look like it will be easing anytime soon. Planning for these is complex and time-consuming with the reality being hours spent over a weekend studying the different possible scenarios and how we could keep students in school, or at least learning remotely. Unlike decisions I took during Covid, industrial action days present more complex issues around covering classes for striking colleagues and what work can and cannot be set by others. This time, we felt we had to restrict attendance on site to all but Year 11 and our most vulnerable students, whilst setting work for other year groups to complete online once again. With a two-day strike coming up in a couple of weeks, we’ve already started to plan, although the logistical challenges don’t simply disappear just because you’re ahead of the curve!
Recruitment is another very time-consuming issue dominating at the moment. Like many schools, there are posts we have struggled to fill with even agency supply staff hard to source. John O’Gaunt is a lovely school to work at with friendly, dedicated and professional staff and run by Excalibur Academies, a supportive and caring trust. The students and our community are second-to-none and there are plenty of opportunities for professional development and ways to further your career. We have of course worked with our Trust HR team to look at how we advertise, what we offer, employed agencies to source quality staff and we’re in an officially ‘Good’ school with a growing roll and reputation.
I don’t say this to advertise the school but to highlight why you end up scratching your head when adverts go out and you aren’t able to even get a field of potential interviewees. Given that, as highlighted in a recent Schools Week article, recruitment targets for trainee teachers were missed by 41% for secondary teaching last year, on top of missing the target by over a fifth the previous year. As another Schools Week article points out, with vacancies up by two thirds since the pandemic, it is hardly surprising that schools are struggling to find decent applicants.
However, these statistics are of cold comfort when you are responsible for ensuring you get the very best teachers in front of deserving students. It isn’t just the time spent on the actual process of recruitment itself but also the energy spent worrying about it that can bite. There are no quick fixes to any of it. I am sure it will improve in time, but the impact on students may take longer to recover from than the pandemic if something doesn’t change soon.
If you have read any of my previous entries, then you will know by now that I like to be optimistic. Therefore, my final update this month will focus on the time I was able to spend, once again, as a bingo caller. This time, it was at the request of our students as part of a lunchtime fundraiser. As I sat on the stage, calling out the numbers (and realising this was not going to be the next career move for me) I managed to take a moment to appreciate that, of many brilliant things that I spend my time doing, nothing is more important than the time spent with students – even when calling bingo numbers…
This is my first entry since the Christmas break and I have to say that the festive season feels a long way away now. Whilst the obvious reason for this is that it is – we’re a month down the road, after all – that impression is compounded by the fact that this term is a short one. Half term will be upon us on 11 February after five and a half weeks. To put that in context, the first term was in two chunks of about seven and a half weeks each.
At the start of the term, I said to staff that short terms are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they’re great because we get a break sooner (believe me when I say that with the intensity of school life, you really feel the extra week or so of longer terms) but you also feel like there’s not enough time to get everything done.
This feeling is never truer than for our Year 11s, who are fast approaching their second set of mock examinations and indeed the summer exams. We’ve certainly seen the anxiety levels raised a little over the last few weeks. Finding the balance of supporting them and maintaining the delicate sense of urgency that’s needed to keep them on track is a constant source of concern for staff, too. I truly sympathise with the students going through that feeling of constant uneasiness as the exams approach, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes at double speed. Working in a school, or even as a parent, you end up having a little of that feeling yourself: but at least that helps us empathise with them. After all, as I said to them in my assembly earlier this term, one thing that we have in common with them is that we were all teenagers once too, hard though it may be for them to accept this idea.
Of course, school life is just about exams and looking back to the lead up to Christmas, there were lots of events that accentuate the many other things that schools offer. For example, Year 11 enjoyed fundraising for their OAP Christmas Party. This included our Annual Christmas Fair, organised and run by Year 11 students (with a little help from several staff). Among the stalls was a penalty shootout (which was a winner with the students and some staff too), freshly baked popcorn, and “fish for a coke” amongst lots of other side stalls.
The Christmas Party itself was a great success and 76 senior citizens from the local community enjoyed a full Christmas dinner and all the trimmings, served by a group of Year 11 students. They were ably entertained by two rounds of Bingo and the singing of carols with both staff and students. They ended with a grand raffle raised over £1,000 for this event, which is simply incredible.
Students in Years 7 to 9 experienced the Annual JOG Carol Assembly where Reverend Saunders told us a story about Jesus’ birth. This was interspersed with bible readings about the Nativity, and two beautiful musical items from a Year 8 student and the JOG Chamber Choir. Although it was many years ago now, I still remember the fear of getting up in front of my peers at an assembly; so I have a great deal of respect for students brave enough to do this at JOG.
The following day, several students read, sang and played at the Carol Service at St. Lawrence’s church, alongside Reverend Saunders and some amazing pupils from Hungerford Primary School. I don’t know about anyone else, but it certainly put me in the Christmas spirit…
The break itself seemed short. However, for the students it was two days longer than for staff as we decided to hold two staff training at the start of term. I have to say that, over the course of these two days, I was reminded of the quality and professionalism of my colleagues. There was no “easing in” to the term in sight and we spent two intensive days learning from a range of internal and external speakers about how to better challenge, manage and cater for our students. One of the “Big Three” things that we say JOG is all about, is that we are all learners”: this was certainly the case over these two days. I am already seeing the impact of the training in school, both among staff and the students so it was worthwhile extending the student holidays a little.
In the weeks since Christmas, we certainly haven’t wasted any time. As all good schools should, have undertaken a range of self-evaluation exercises to ensure we’re constantly able to improve. For JOG, this has meant participating in two reviews led by Excalibur Academies Trust covering Special Educational Needs and Safeguarding as well as running training on “adaptive teaching strategies” and working to develop and improvement our assessment and feedback practice.
The weeks since we returned have also been dominated by the talk of industrial action. For JOG, this did lead to a decision to ask students to learn at home for a day, whilst staff who were not on strike worked in school. Union representatives and my staff who are members were very good in communicating with the senior team and we certainly didn’t witness any of the deliberate disruption that so many newspapers reported. The decision to close was based on assessing if we could be certain that we could safely manage students on site with the staff we had on hand. Whilst I feel it was the right choice given the circumstances, I have not missed having to make decisions like this, which were all too common during the pandemic.
With further days of industrial action in the pipeline, it is likely we’ll be making similar decision again. However, if Covid taught us anything, it was how to “keep calm and carry on” whatever disruptions are thrown our way. This was certainly the feeling I got from the students, for whom it was seemingly just another time when they had to learn remotely. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us adults in that…
December 2022/January 2023
Due to “a mountain of work in preparation for the new term” Richard is taking a break from his column but will be back again in early February 2023.
November is one of those funny months in schools. I don’t know if it’s because the clocks go back at the end of October or because the weather changes: but I always have an extra eye on how staff and students are feeling at this time of year. Fortunately, it also happens to usually be one of the busiest months of the year with enough to keep us all busy and any potential November blues at bay. This year has been no exception.
For Year 11 students, this is the time when we hold their first mock examinations of the year as part of the build-up to the real thing in the summer. At JOG, these are run in a way that tries to support students in two ways.
Firstly, to get them used to the feeling of preparing and completing a series of exams over a short space of time. We also run a timetable of revision sessions and in-class interventions prior to the exams. There’s also a mock results assembly afterwards when they receive all their mock grades at once in an envelope, just like they will in August. This means that they also experience the jeopardy that goes with exams. We are not being unkind; rather using our awareness of the anxiety that goes with examinations to help them practise managing this as well as their revision. Experience has shown that this can be as important as revision when it comes to students’ overall success. This process helps simulate getting ready for real thing – sort of like getting them match fit (sorry, there had to be at least one World Cup inspired reference this month).
The second part of our approach at JOG is to use the mock exams as a true learning experience to help our students to not only hone their knowledge, but also their exam technique. Significant time is spent after students receive their results to explore strengths and areas for development that go beyond gaps in knowledge and nagging about revising more.
This feedback turns assessment from being a simple testing regime to something that can genuinely impact on student learning. Yes, it does mean a heightened level of stress all round, and a lot of planning and marking for teachers too – hence another reason why I keep a closer eye on things during this period. Hopefully, the reward day that follows the mocks, where Year 11s are allowed in non-uniform and can opt into a breakfast treat too, cheered them up a little. For the students I spoke to, their McDonald’s breakfast went down well and I believe a few staff members may have stuck their own order in that day too…
With the first reports to parents for all other year groups due at the same time as mock results, it isn’t just Year 11s who are being assessed in November. Indeed, whilst we don’t run formal tests for Years 7 to 10 in the autumn, they have been completing assessments in lessons regularly throughout the term. Perhaps the looming deadline of when we input the data that generates the reports adds a little wider pressure, too.
However, it’s not all about testing and grades. We’ve had a lot of other things going on too. For example, we were able to run another trip through the PE team for students to attend a national sporting event. This time it was taking a group to see England’s Rugby Union team take on Japan at Twickenham. Given that every time he’s taken a trip to any sporting event England have won, as an England supporter I am encouraging our Head of PE Mr McKevitt to run more of these trips …
Another lovely highlight was the group of students from Year 7 and 8 who worked with Mrs Chester and Mr McShane to produce a “JOG Vlog” which was shown as part of the North Wessex Downs Area Of Natural Beauty fiftieth anniversary celebrations. You can watch the video here.
The indefatigable Mrs Chester told me “Well, the film went down a storm – packed audience of a wide variety of local people, professors, community and business leaders, councillors and an MP. It was a real honour to present student voices and be on the panel where I could also sing the praises of our brilliant school and community!” Hearing young people speak with so much passion about growing up in such a wonderful area really does warm the heart on cold November days.
November has also seen us continue work with our Student Leadership Group, which has been focussing on charities and fundraising initiatives. Part of their work is to consult their peers and co-operate to choose the local, national and global charities we’ll be fundraising as a school for this year. I think that their choices of the Dog’s Trust, Cancer Research and Save The Children respectively frames perfectly the sorts of things on the minds of our young community.
Beyond “deepest, darkest” November, there’s much going on in our world at present, so it was also good to see a range of causes reflected in their choices and I’m looking forward to hearing the plans for fundraising moving forwards.
One poignant event in November is, of course, Remembrance Sunday. I was enormously proud that JOG was once again invited to be a part of the events in Hungerford. Whilst unfortunately I could not attend myself this year, Mrs Arden-Hunt accompanied by Lexie and Robbie from Year 11 did the school proud, laying a wreath on behalf of JOG along with so many others. Of course, the people and events being commemorated is rightly a time of pause and reflection: there is also something wonderful about the way communities come together at this time of year to share in this too.
This links perfectly to the final thing I wanted to mention this month; our meeting with the parents and carers of the students who have joined the school from Ukraine, which happened at the start of the month. We have six such families in the school now and we wanted to reach out to them just to see how they are doing and answer any queries they might have about JOG, schooling in general and how their children are getting on.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to have moved thousands of miles at such short notice, leaving behind homes, possessions, friends and family, as well as having to endure the constant anxiety of waiting to see how events unfold. Therefore, we thought that this was the least we could do now they’ve had time settle in. From my point of view it was a very useful meeting and we able to offer support and advice where we could.
I think what struck me the most, however, was just how positive these families are. Whilst of course, I think we should have the greatest of empathy for any of the people affected by the illegal war in Ukraine, I would not want to leave you with the impression that they are to be pitied – far from it. If anything should stave off November blues, it’s the inspiring resilience these parents and their children demonstrate every day.
There is an English saying (or perhaps curse) that goes “may you live in interesting times.” Given that since my last diary entry we’ve had another new Prime Minister, and indeed government, it certainly seems that way. Apparently, the saying has its origins in an old Chinese expression: “better to be a dog in times of tranquillity than a human in times of chaos.” I’m not sure I like either of those options, to be honest…
One result of the current interesting times is that we now have our sixth – no, that’s not a typo –Secretary of State for Education since September 2021. Whilst a new SoS doesn’t usually have an immediate impact on the day-to-day life of a school, this revolving door doesn’t exactly create a feeling of security and stability either. Let’s hope the new incumbent, Gillian Keegan, brings the start of a prolonged period of stability.
Someone who is leaving education, and whom I felt it right to mention here, is Ian Pearson, the outgoing Director of Education at West Berkshire Council. I haven’t known Ian for very long but ever since I started my post he has been able to provide both the school and myself with a wealth of wisdom and support. Relationships between schools and local authorities can have their challenges but JOG has been well-served by Ian and his team so I’d like to place my appreciation on record here.
Returning to my original point, whilst speaking to a colleague recently we were struck by the fact that some of our students have lived through more turbulence since March 2020 than many of us have done in our entire lives. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the interesting times we find ourselves in are having an impact on many of our students. One can only imagine how the world must look through the eyes of teenagers, who crave certainty and security so much.
We have definitely witnessed a shift in our young people since the pandemic. It’s also clear that we’ll be feeling the impact of Covid, and the other recent and current upheavals us all, for some time. A school’s job is to try to meet these challenges head-on and provide as much nurture and support as possible. I will admit to this feeling increasingly harder to do so – education professionals crave tranquillity as much as the next person.
Having said that, there are many moments where being in a school provides you with a reminder of the many positives that are out there too. Just today, I met some of our visitors enjoying a lunch and board games in the company of some Year 7 students as part of the latest trip to JOG arranged through the ‘All Aboard’ community group. I commented to several visitors how it was great to see young people playing actual board games, rather than something rendered for a mobile device. It was also a moment of great pride to watch our students give their time and energy to such a lovely cause.
Many other JOG students also gave up their time during our most recent Open Evening, acting as tour guides and hosts for prospective parents. Two of students also delivered a speech that they’d written, which I have to say filled me with pride. We welcomed a record number of families through our doors and, as I said in my address, the role of students is vital to Open Evenings. The best way to find out about the school is to ask the students – they are always honest! I can only assume that, like our two speakers, the rest of our students must be saying positive things as the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, JOG continues to grow in both reputation and student numbers. Of course, my very hard-working staff have a little to do with that too…
One of the ways that schools help guide students through unsettled times is by providing a forward-facing ethos with talks about and focuses on their futures. During the last month, we were fortunate to be able to draw on our community to help run our ‘Real World Careers Day’, with leaders from a wide range of professions generously giving up their time as part of a range of different activities to inspire students and give them a valuable insight into the world of employment, careers opportunities, and expectations. It was a simply brilliant day and the students got so much out of it.
With so much uncertainty around them, an important message we try to reinforce to our students is to control the controllable. Choosing to work hard, focusing on developing their skills and knowledge and aiming high in their grades is something they can do – no matter how interesting are the times going on around them.
I can honestly say that I did not expect to start this entry with another tale of Covid. Whilst we haven’t been complacent about it, the pandemic seemed to be firmly in the rear-view mirror of school life. I haven’t missed it at all; the more so given my recent personal experience – but I anticipate…
Anyone who happened to be listening to BBC Radio Berkshire on the morning of the GCSE results day will know that Covid decided to intervene. Having been invited the previous day to speak during the breakfast programme, I had thought it would be a good opportunity to publicly celebrate the many success stories of our Year 11 students, before being able to see them myself as they collected their results in school.
This was after all, the year group that had undertaken the entire two years of their GCSE studies under Covid restrictions, lockdowns and disruption. This was the year group where so many had exceeded expectations and where we were seeing increased numbers achieving the highest grades. We were of course, always full of ambition for them, but given what they faced, whatever they achieved there was something to recognise and applaud. I am so proud of them, their parents and the staff who supported them to achieve.
What I hadn’t counted on, was catching Covid myself (again). This meant that I couldn’t be in school to see the students and celebrate with them and attending staff. It also meant that when I was asked to describe the scene at the school by the presenter, all I could answer with was “Well, I’m isolating so I don’t actually know…” Fortunately for me, my second Covid experience was milder than the first and I recovered quickly; in the end the inconvenience was worse than how ill I felt. More importantly the students were not affected and other staff were able to be with them to support, guide and celebrate.
Results day seems a long time ago now and the start of the new term appears to have passed at a very rapid pace. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I know my colleagues at JOG feel the same, as do those I’ve spoken to in a number of other schools. Perhaps it’s because this is the first year we’ve come back without testing or restrictions to break up the first few weeks. For whatever reason, it has just felt far busier and jam-packed.
Not that it has been a bad start – far from it. Our new Year 7 cohort have slotted in brilliantly to life at JOG and have added some wonderful buzz to the atmosphere. It’s always one of my favourite things to get to know the new characters who have joined us. What I’ve noticed most – once they’re over the initial disorientation – are lots of smiles and enthusiasm. Long may they both continue.
This Year 7 intake have arrived to a school with a much larger population than any of the other year groups did when they joined JOG. With our numbers increasing in all year groups – great news, of course – I am mindful of ensuring that we don’t lose the community feel that makes us unique and serves us so well. These are good challenges to have and why being a Headteacher can be so invigorating: but it does also remind me of the weight of responsibility the job brings too. I’m not sure we have or will be able to solve everything. However, I know that with the team around me and the great support we enjoy in our wider community our students will continue to be well-served.
The rest of our year groups are also settling well in to the usual routines of school, although there have been a few things in the background that have added to the usual challenges. The first is that we have welcomed a number of new staff. It is always good for a school when you bring in fresh eyes and, whilst I am also extremely pleased with all the appointment we made, there is always a period where everyone is getting used to things too, as well as getting to know each other as well.
One unwelcome challenge is the financial pressure. For all schools, increases in supplies and services (not to mention energy costs) can be extremely difficult to navigate. It’s not as if there are easy ways for schools to mitigate rising costs or generate extra cash. Funding is lagged and granted annually so anything that happens in the middle of a financial year has to be absorbed. I therefore am fortunate to be part of Excalibur Trust, from where a lot of help an advice is available (though no magic money tree).
Even more important of course, is the impact financial pressures have on our families. I am acutely aware that everyone is feeling the pinch at the moment and that financial anxiety can have a knock-on impact on young people. With a dedicated and skilful team of welfare and pastoral staff at JOG, I think we’re well-placed to offer lots of support and care, as we have done in the past.
Another event to keep us busy were the rearranged ‘Reward Trips’, which had originally been due to take place towards end of the summer term but were postponed due to the heatwave. It was absolutely brilliant that we were able to run them, but it did also cause some acute operational challenges too, with some students in school and others out on more than half a dozen different trips. Ensuring that we could offer the trips and also meaningful activities in school,- – including a team-building careers activity for Year 7s who were all in school and subject-based lessons for the other year groups – meant that every member of school staff was mobilised in some way. Therefore, it wasn’t just the students who were very tired when the last bus arrived back in school…
These trips happened towards the end of the same week that the nation paused for Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Whilst it was only right and proper to be able to support the additional bank holiday as well as then offer the positive experiences of the trip day after such an intense and emotional period, young people are sensitive to changes to previous certainties, perhaps even more so than they were before the pandemic. This is perhaps another reason why we’re feeling the pace and challenge of the term so much. That said, the poignancy that went with the passing of Her Majesty is also a reminder of what really matters too. Moreover, it was simply lovely to witness the affection and empathy that many of our students demonstrated as we celebrated Her life. Even a quick scan of some of the messages students wrote in the book of condolence our Community Lead Mrs Arden-Hunt organised (and which we’ll pass onto the Palace), serves as another reminder that there are brighter times ahead.
I am sat writing this piece in the most beautiful of settings whilst on holiday with my family. I do not resent doing a bit of work, especially not with the view I’m lucky enough to currently have. However, it is perhaps an insight into the world of education, where the oft-repeated view of short working days and long holidays couldn’t be further from the truth and even vacations are not always sacrosanct. Having worked in every school holiday this year and having a good few days’ work ahead of me this summer, I can certainly testify to that.
On the journey here, I had time to reflect on the last month of the year. It was lucky that it was a long drive as there was much to ponder in another extremely busy month.
The school year ended with another challenge to overcome, this time in the guise of the heatwave. Government guidance was clear and schools were to risk assess and only close as a last resort: not that you’d know this from social media, which contained a great deal of unhelpful and untrue information. Mind you, one of things advised by government guidance to help you keep your house cool was to switch off your central heating…
JOG did stay open, albeit with several measures to help students and staff cope with the heat. This included allowing students to wear their PE kits, moving classes downstairs or providing air conditioning where possible and providing extra breaks and time to refill water bottles. All told, the students coped brilliantly and there was a lovely, if a little lethargic, atmosphere around the school on the two days where the temperatures were hottest.
That lethargy certainly hadn’t existed during the Sports Day the previous week. I am always impressed by the talent of some of our students. These events are often a time where students who you wouldn’t ever think of as sporty or competitive come to the fore and this year was no exception. The mood was, as you would imagine, highly competitive but also friendly and good-natured. Perhaps the latter was buoyed by the free ice lollies provided by our brilliant PSA in the afternoon.
Sports Day rounded off another busy few weeks for the school. Not least of these was our Visual Arts Week. It was simply amazing. There were numerous events, including bubble printing workshops, cupcake making and a fiercely competitive staff bake-off competition. Some of the events were devised and run by our group of undergraduate interns, who were participating in a four-week government sponsored scheme across JOG and St. John’s Marlborough to experience employment in education. They were simply brilliant and as well as helping with Visual Arts Week, they even designed one of the activities themselves and gave assemblies and talks about further education too. Their feedback to the school was extremely positive and I certainly spotted some potential future teachers among them. I hope that the positive experience they had at JOG will carry a few of them into teaching in future. With recruitment across the sector tougher than ever, we’ll certainly need to attract strong and dedicated professionals for the future.
Whilst one consequence of the hot weather was the need to postpone some planned reward trips (originally due to go out on what turned out to be the hottest day on record), we were able to run a few trips earlier in the month. These included a geography field trip, a history trip to the Imperial War Museum and a trip to Benchmark Furniture for some Year 10 students as part of the Visual Arts Week. I do admit that I was a little nervous that these were going out at a time when media reports were once again talking of growing numbers of Covid cases: few phrases, with all the implications of lockdowns and restrictions, are better calculated to upset a head teacher. However, hearing the enthusiastic talk from students who returned from these trips also reminded me of the importance of running them. Let’s hope therefore, that nothing prevents the rearranged reward trips from happening in September.
July was also the month where we learned that the school had been awarded a coveted Green Flag Award from Eco Schools England for environmental and community efforts driven by our student Eco Club. This extraordinary achievement is all the better because, whilst Mrs Chester facilitates the club, the work completed to earn the award was entirely driven by the students. I was really impressed: so was Eco Schools England, which praised the “mature and professional approach of the students and the responsibilities they each take from minute taking, to following up agreed actions, accountability, monitoring and evaluation.” They were also praised for creating their own Eco Code and for taking the work beyond the school gates and into the local community. There is, of course, more the school should and will do on this important issue but it is certainly a great starting point, and another example of what JOG students are capable of.
This is also a point that was underlined by the response to a Foodbank drive we held towards the end of term, the result of which was our filling 15 crates with goods for West Berkshire Foodbank. This will help a number of families in need over the summer holidays. At a time when everyone’s budgets are squeezed, to know that our students and their families respond with such generosity and sense of community fills me with pride.
That generous nature was also demonstrated by many students towards school staff. I witnessed many staff receiving thanks, cards and even a few gifts (the latter is less common is secondary schools) from students wanting to show their gratitude. Perhaps the most poignant gesture came from one of our Year 7 students, who approached me towards the end of the term to ask how many staff the school had in total as she and her mum wanted to bake cookies for every member of staff over a weekend. Having received the correct information, this is exactly what they did. The student then spent her break and lunch times handing them out to very grateful staff. I can also say from personal experience that they were the best ginger cookies I’ve ever tasted.
Reflecting on all of this certainly made that drive pass a little more quickly. As I turn my attention to the forthcoming GCSE results and the start of next academic year, it makes a little work in the holidays more than worthwhile. Another week of this lovely view before returning to the usual mountain of emails. August soon fades away: and then, as Steven Gerrard said, we go again. I wouldn’t have it any other way…
When I was a child, I remember summer terms as a relaxed time of the year where the whole school seemed to wind down ahead of the long holiday. When I started teaching I felt much the same way. Perhaps it’s just the way I am remembering it, but this is certainly not the case for JOG this year. Instead, we’ve ended up with a packed calendar of events and enrichment activities that makes it hard to know where to begin.
Working backwards, last week saw us hold our second Year 11 Prom of the academic year at the Donnington Grove Country Club. The first, back in September, was of course the postponed one from the previous Year 11 cohort. This latest one, held for the first time since I’ve been a Headteacher at the usual time of year, was for the current cohort who finished their exams last week. There was a lovely atmosphere during the evening, which ended with a brilliant firework display and saw many of our staff show the younger generation how it’s done on the dancefloor: fortunately for all concerned, that didn’t include me!
Proms have become a somewhat ‘rite of passage’ nowadays and our latest leavers certainly made the most of it. They looked fantastic and behaved impeccably. I hope that the event will help them to shake off some of the anxiety of their GCSEs and the unprecedented times they’ve endured since they began studying for them at the start of Year 10. To put that into context, in their two years of GCSE study they did not have a full year without disruption., either from lockdowns or closure or where at least a few of them were isolating as a close contact or unwell. We’re hopeful, of course, that their efforts will be rewarded and reflected in their individual grades when results come out, but I would like to put on record that we are hugely proud of them regardless and wish every single one of them our very best wishes for whatever comes next for them.
Before I joined the evening of the Prom, I had the pleasure of sharing a quick drink with the HADCAF team as they gathered prior to the opening of the summer festival. JOG has long had an association with the arts in Hungerford and I’m proud to be able to do what I can to continue this. It was nice to meet a few of the busy people who have worked so hard to organise the thirtieth summer festival. We also had the opportunity to see some of our students’ ‘community’ themed artwork displayed on boards that The Arts Society of Hungerford provided for the school, as well as the bunting that students had designed and staff had produced. I wish them all the best for the festival and I hope that many people in the area get to experience the events which add so much to the community.
Last week was also when we welcomed our rising Year 7 students for their Transition Day at JOG. This was another event that was happening at the usual time of year for the first time since I began my headship in June 2020. It didn’t disappoint. With increasing numbers choosing JOG, we welcomed more than 90 children to experience a day in the life of a JOG student, meet some teachers and their new tutor group colleagues ahead of their formal start in September. We then met many families later in the evening to convey some important messages and let them know just how ambitious we are for their children. If the pupils I was able to speak to are anything to go by, JOG is going to be welcoming a fantastic cohort of children who will add so much to the #JOGfamily in future.
Speaking of the future, I was able to meet with the Town and Manor to discuss ways that we can work together for the benefit of the school and of course, local residents. It was a really fruitful meeting at the Town Hall, where we discussed a range of ideas including history projects, environmental issues, possible cross-phase work and the potential for a Town-and-Manor-sponsored award for our annual prizegiving celebrations. I have always said that I want JOG to be a true hub of its community, so discussions like these are always exciting and remind me of the generosity and charitable nature of the area the school is in. Watch this space for more information as our plans evolve.
Our current Year 7 students have had a busy few weeks, too. Firstly, over 50 of them participated in a Religious Studies trip visiting local churches in Hungerford. If the feedback I’ve seen is anything to go by, not only did they do themselves proud by their conduct, but they also asked some fantastic philosophical questions too,. One host dewcribed their visit as the highlight of his day.
Secondly, Year 7s were central to supporting two days of our revived ‘Primary Project’. This is another event that was interrupted by the pandemic. This year, over two days we welcomed over250 Year 4 and Year 5 pupils from several local primary schools to experience a cross-curricular day at JOG with the theme of ‘code breaking’. Teachers planned specific sessions for each group and were ably assisted by Year 7 students. I say ably assisted: in fact one teacher told me that the students were so helpful that she felt almost surplus to requirements. Well done Year 7!
These two days were able to go ahead because all but a handful of our Year 8, 9 and 10 students were out of school participating in their ‘work shadowing’ experience. I think these two days are invaluable for students in gaining enriching experiences in the workplace and finding out a little more about the skills, attributes and qualifications they’ll need. For those who couldn’t arrange something this year, we created an in-school ‘The Apprentice’ style enterprise project based on bringing a new chocolate bar to the market. The results were very impressive (although we didn’t quite have enough time for them to make their chocolate bars). I would have really enjoyed judging those. Whilst of course, work shadowing and the enterprise project takes a lot of organising in school, I am extremely grateful to parents and local businesses for sorting placements and accommodating JOG children.
In the middle of all of this enrichment, we’ve also continued to work hard to support our students formally too. As Year 11s prepared for each of the many exams they were sitting, we continued to support them with classroom and revision sessions until they finished their last exam at the end of the month. We’ve also been running targeted sessions for Year 10s after their mock exams and using our assessment of Years 7 to 9 to adjust plans and best support students in those classes too. Senior staff have spent time recruiting new staff and planning for the forthcoming year. The latter has involved working very closely with our governors to revisit and revise something we call ‘The JOG Three’, which is our vision and statement of intent to make JOG a truly great school.
With the diary for the next few weeks just as packed as the previous few, when I next write I don’t think that I’ll be able to say that things got any easier. However, whilst I’m sure this will mean that we’ll all need a well-earned rest over the summer, it will also mean that JOG students have been fortunate enough to have continued to receive a simply amazing diet of experiences, driven by a supportive community and an extremely dedicated staff. I for one think that’s worth getting tired for.
Last month saw the end of a five-week term, which teachers will tell you always seem to be the longest ones of any school year. Even after more than 20 years in the profession, they certainly still catch me out.
This may be because they always seem to fall at the time of year when exams are approaching and schools kick into a pace that builds towards them. This year is no exception and, as a response to Covid, the government decided to change the examinations window to space them out more. In my opinion, this is a good move and has been put in place alongside a range of other measures. These include providing advance information in some exams, reducing content and shortening exam papers to provide support after the pandemic. With many students taking more than 25 exam papers in the summer series, it is a stressful and challenging time for our young people, so anything that alleviates the pressure is no bad thing.
What it doesn’t do, however, is change the intensity of the build-up to exams for students or school staff. One also has to wonder why no-one in government has stepped back to have a long hard look at how the examination system works as a whole since the pandemic and use lessons from Covid to possibly make the system better and fairer. I also worry that, with examinations next year apparently going “back to normal”, the impact of the pandemic on lower year groups like our current Year 10 hasn’t been properly considered. This is something I will certainly be keeping a very close eye on in the coming months.
Regardless of the politics, it was great to send current Year 11s off on study leave just before half term and with something closer to normality this year (last year was the year of teacher-assessed grades, so there were no exams as such). The last day certainly had the usual air of poignancy about it, with a few tears and lots of smiles and laughter too. The latter was certainly in evidence at the obligatory procession of old photos of students during their final assembly.
As I waved the students off site I was filled with an enormous sense of pride. Not only in the students but also in JOG and the education profession as a whole. With Covid hopefully disappearing in the rear-view mirror, it’s important to remember what school communities have endured and achieved throughout the last two years. Hopefully the celebrations in the summer will outweigh any less desirable memories. Having observed how hard staff and students have worked even over the last month, they certainly deserve great news on results day. I wish our leavers all my best wishes and good luck whatever happens from now on.
Year 11s were not the only year group that prepared for assessments in the last term either. Year 10s prepared for and sat their first formal mock examinations last month and Year 7s have their formal assessment week coming up very shortly. As you would expect, we’re constantly assessing our students in all year groups, both formally and informally, so you can see how time can very quickly seem squeezed during a short term.
May also saw us finally able to hold our annual Prize Giving evening. This is where we hand out GCSE certificates to the previous Year 11s and also special awards to students from across the year groups. Despite having joined the school in 2020, this was actually my first JOG Prize Giving. If this was anything to go by, I look forward to many more in the future. It was simply wonderful to gather so many of our community together in celebration and recognition. We had speeches and performances from students that brought smiles and a few tears (of pride and joy) and a guest speaker in Toni Kent who was funny, poignant, honest and inspiring, even being brave enough to perform a rap to close her speech. Please stop me if you’ve heard this description before, but the event represented everything about JOG that makes us say that we’re a place of big-school ambition but small-school care.
The celebrations didn’t stop there. The start of the month saw us conduct some quality assurance by collecting a large sample of student books and folders to examine their work and evaluate the quality of education we’re providing them. In good schools, a range of quality assurance exercises like take place on a regular basis throughout the school year. This one enabled us to spend a significant amount of time together as a staff body to really delve into our strengths and areas for development. It also enabled us to celebrate and give feedback to the students whose books we viewed, and offer them advice on how they can achieve even more.
I was struck by the progress we’ve made as a school in the past year (since the last ‘book scrutiny’) with clear signs that students are being challenged and working hard, enabled by some very strong practice from across the school. This is not to say we think we’re perfect and we will never be complacent – but given the extra challenges JOG has faced, it was heartening to see and celebrate our evident strengths and have a clear steer for future developments too.
As we drew towards the half term break, we also embarked on a number of other celebratory events, with celebration assemblies, reward parties and even ‘hot chocolate with the head’ events taking place to show our appreciation of our students and share good news.
Like many schools across the country we also celebrated the Queen’s Jubilee. As well as participating in events in Hungerford itself, in school we used the final Friday of the term to hold a whole-school picnic and, following an idea from our Student Leadership Group, also hold a fun “traditional” Sports Day. More serious track and field events were replaced with events like egg-and-spoon and sack races. The atmosphere matched the good weather that we fortunate to enjoy and with the PSA providing ice lollies for everyone.
I was reminded once again why I am so privileged to work in such a brilliant community school like John O’Gaunt. Mind you, when the teachers versus students tug-o-war started, I was also reminded of how competitive that community can be…
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?
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…
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.
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.
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…
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.