Posted on: 21/04/2020
I have been here beforeThis time last year we were busy making final preparations for opening. I remember sitting on my sofa, with my laptop on the floor in front of me, writing postcards to the new students about to join us. I have just done exactly the same exercise for our new students! I must admit, I had imagined that I would not have to hand write all the addresses again – I thought I would have a PA who would be able to print address labels for me! Social distancing and working from home has prevented that from happening, although there is something very satisfying about addressing 210 postcards by hand! At least you don’t have to lick the stamps these days. I am a bit sad that we had the postcards printed well before any of this pandemic had started, so the last part of the postcard says that we hope you enjoy the last few terms at primary school. I do hope our Year 6 students get a chance to go back to school and say their goodbyes properly. Closure is very important. Whilst we are very excited about welcoming the class of 2020 to the Deanery, we feel strongly that there needs to be a really good ending to our students’ time at primary school.
And so here we are again. Planning not an opening this time, but a re-opening! We are desperate to get our students (class of 2019) back into school, but of course we have to wait until we are told that it is safe to do so. Mr Scutt and I spoke yesterday about how strange it is, he has been working with me for a year now, having started his new post straight after Easter 2019. We spent some time working together in various coffee shops and the rest of the time we spent working from our respective homes. We really did not imagine we would be doing that again this year!!!
So much has happened since we became “clo-pen”, our phrase for being “clo-sed” but “o-pen” for vulnerable children and children of key workers. We have tried to carry on with some things as normal. For example, we still think it is really important to celebrate the birthdays of our students (and staff) and so have continued to send them cards to make these happy but different times. I was moved last week to receive this wonderful message from one of our students in response to her receiving her birthday card: “Dear Miss Culling, I have just got your lovely card. Thanks for thinking of me even if school is closed. Both my mum and I got very moved. The card almost had me in tears! I miss school very much but am working very hard on the homework. I really wish we could come back in for the last term at least...fingers crossed. Xxx much love Abigail”.
We have continued to have our weekly whole year group assembly, via Zoom, and it is wonderful to see the delight on the face of the children as they see us and each other. Our tutor worship is posted on the website weekly and forms a resource now that families can use with each other, I am very proud of this and hope it is helpful to people. And of course we, like many other schools, are setting work for our students to complete at home. We are not being as prescriptive as some, as we also believe it is really important for children to be spending valuable time with their families, and whilst our teachers have set plenty of tasks for students to get stuck into we are encouraging them to take regular breaks away from their screens, and make time for having fun and connecting with friends and family. We feel strongly that students should go outside if at all possible for their one hour of daily exercise, following government guidelines, and make the most of the wonderful weather to play, run, walk, cycle, search for insects, make mud pies, climb trees, complete scavenger hunts, pick up fallen leaves, smell blossom, listen to the birds singing and soak up some healthy fresh air and sunshine.
Lots of things are new. I have overcome my fear of video conferencing and now find I can hop from one platform to the next with ease, even remembering (most of) my passwords! I never thought I would hear myself say this, but email communication has been vital. Those people who know me well know that I much prefer ‘face-mail’ and in fact when we opened last September I specifically asked the staff not to send emails to each other if they were in school; I even threatened to ignore some emails if I thought the person sending the email could have come and spoken to me! Of course now we find ourselves being drawn into whole conversations on email, text, chat and even live on documents. Who would have thought?!
I have learnt about etiquette on video conferencing as well, often finding I am having to bite my tongue as I now know that I am rather prone to interrupting…. Who would have known?! And I have occasionally turned up to a formal meeting in either pyjamas or even shorts….tactical placement of the camera and blurred backgrounds have become my thing!
I am sure there have been many changes in everyone’s households. One significant change to mine has been the loss of Fuzzy, our oldest school dog. Fuzzy was happy until the day before she died, actually she was last seen chasing a chicken around the garden late into her last evening! She awoke next morning and had to visit the vets for the last time. I had always made it clear at school that Fuzzy was a very old lady and probably would not be with us for much longer. I explained this on many occasions to the students and staff. However, not only did Fuzzy have the most amazing last 6 months of her life, becoming part of the Deanery family, it also gave us a small way in to talking about loss and bereavement with our students. I was overwhelmed with the kindness of students and their families who messaged me to send their condolences. Fuzzy was put to sleep on the last day of school and I did not have the heart to tell anyone until the following week. I even was sent a picture of Fuzzy that one of the students had drawn, how kind. We have had to deal with the sad news that one of our members of staff has had a bereavement since we closed. Mrs Cornish lost her husband after a very short and aggressive bout of cancer. Again I have been overwhelmed by the kindness of our families and friends of the school, sending messages of condolence to Margaret and her family. I am incredibly proud to say that, as a Lay Minister in the Church of England, I was asked if I would perform the funeral for Chris. This was such a privilege for me and a moment I will not forget for a long time. As a minister I have both performed and been involved in many funerals, but this one will stand out for many reasons. Not least the fact that there were only 7 mourners. I am so pleased to be able to report that despite this, the funeral felt just as it should have – a very dignified moment for us to focus our attention on Chris, celebrate his very full life and say goodbye to his earthly body. I am struck by the horror of the situation we are living through. I, like many others no doubt, look for the statistics every day and hope desperately to see the number of deaths going down. But taking Chris’s funeral made me stop and think. Each and every one of those statistics are people, not just in our country but worldwide, and each and every one has a family and friends who are now mourning their death. The effects of this pandemic are being much talked about, economic, social, political. I am considering all of these, thinking often about how to re-open the school and like many others desperately hoping we can get back as soon as possible. But I am also very aware that we need to keep in mind so much more. The effects of all these deaths take their toll on people. Not least the families and friends of the victims, but also the undertakers, ministers, crematorium staff to name but a few more who are working so much harder than normal.
And so in that respect, I have actually never been here before and know that hopefully we probably will not see another pandemic like this in my lifetime. I have spoken to the staff this week and said that we really do need to mark this moment in time for our students – they are living through history being made and will talk to their children and grandchildren about this. I do hope that if you are reading this you are in good health and that you will remain in good health, keep safe and until we do meet again, keep in your minds (and prayers if you do) our school, our families and the many thousands of people who are affected by Covid-19.Read More
Posted on: 20/03/2020
I feel really flatWe have just closed. The last student has gone home. Staff are just finishing off work before packing up for the weekend. It is really quiet in the building, as if no-one else is here. The road outside my office is quiter than normal. The school dogs appear to know, they seem sad. And even the building site opposite is empty. I just did not think it would be like this. Today was the last time we will see these students for some time, we know that. There is just so much uncertainty. When will we be able to get back to normality? When can we bring our community back together? When can we begin to mend the brokenness that now exists.
There is just so much unknown right now.
I admit, I am exhausted - the emotional energy expended over the past few weeks has been enormous. Trying to keep everyone positive and focused, trying to reassure everyone that things will be ok, trying to plan for the unknowable. And I have huge admiration for my colleagues with full schools, this is how I feel with just one year group, I can only imagine how hard it has been for colleagues with full cohorts, and those with exam aged year groups.
However, I was reminded again today of how much strength is to be gained from our faith, our students and our staff. The students sang better than ever today, "Here I am Lord", they meant it when they sang it. The staff excelled once again, dropping everything, rallying round, changing plans at the last minute, making new plans, caring, noticing.
And we ended as we began, with a service. We thought about and talked about what our faith means. We prayed, for each other, our world and our futures. And we sang, lifting our praises to God and lifting our spirits.
I might have mentioned, this is my first job as a Principal, and I absolutely never imagined I would be leading a group of colleagues, students and their families through a pandemic. But as I have said, it might be hard, I might be exahusted, but it remains to be a privilege beyond even what I had imagined.
We have coined a new phrase - we are now "clo-pen". So whilst we closed the school today, we re-open differently on Monday, to look after those children of the essential key workers who need to stay at work to fight the Corona virus, to look after us and to ensure essential services continue. We are proud to be playing our part, to be looking after children of nurses, NHS workers, TAs, HLTAs, railway workers etc. This will be a new challenge for us, and one that we relish. Playing our part. Helping in any way we can. We are also going to spend the weekend working out creative ways to keep in touch with each other, because already we recognise that the students are extremely anxious about not seeing us and each other for an unknown amount of time.
I have just looked back at where I started blogging....14th January 2019. My first news blog was entitled "what does a Principal with no students do?" - I had no idea when I wrote that back then, that here I am a year and half later and of course again, I have no students! That is not strictly true, I currently have 150 wonderful students in our first cohort and another 210 signed up and ready to join us in September. So we have decided that for the next period of time we are going to do all we can to keep in touch with all of our students - current and new - and rest assured, we will be working hard in the background, planning the most amazing work for you, making sure we know how well you are doing when you are working at home and preparing to get you back into school just as soon as we can. Whilst you are not with us, take care. Take care of yourselves, of each other, your friends and familes. Eat well. Sleep well and get plenty of fresh air. And please, follow the advice of the Government closely, try to avoid too much social media.
And definitely remember, that we are with you, we were here for you, we are still here for you and we will be here for you when you can come back.
20th March 2020
Posted on: 13/03/2020
So much to do, so little time!It has been such an incredibly busy time. I remember a parent asking me in September if I would continue to write my blog and I said "of course!" *kicks oneself realising it has been a long time since I last wrote*
Last week a student came to me and asked me my date of birth....I'm not shy, so told him and he came bouncing back to tell me that I have been asleep for more hours in my lifetime than he has been alive! It is always exciting working with students in this age group. Today I was covering a lesson and we were considering how different life is for 11 year olds today than it was when I was 11. Mobile phones were a thing of the future...you should have seen the look on the students' faces when I told them about our lack of computers at my school (and we were one of the better equipped ones) and their puzzlement when I tried to explain that I didn't know what the internet was, I owned a camera that was not on my phone (I didn't have one of those until my 30s!), and I used to take pictures and send the film away to have the pictures processed and did not get them back sometimes for up to 2 weeks!
The point of the discussion was to look at future jobs and employment possibilities. It is hard to imagine that some of the jobs people my age are doing now had not been invented when we were at school. The technology to do this was a mile off. Schools were so different then. And now, here we are, some 40 years later and we as a staff body are trying to prepare our students for uncertain futures. Not withstanding the terrible events unfolding around us with relation to the Coronavirus pandemic, many of the technologies that will be part of every day life in our students have not been thought about yet. Their jobs will be in industries that may not exist yet. But somehow we are trying to prepare them for their futures in the best way we can.
I have learnt in the past 6 months that the key to running the school successfully has been based around the strong relationships we are building. Those students and families who have really engaged with us, been open and prepared to grow with us, have no doubt been the most successful. We have already seen some amazing flourishing, some incredible moments and witnessed huge amounts of progress in students' character development, maturity and learning.
In any large collection of children and people, sometimes relationships do not always go as well as we would hope. We have had some occassions where this has happened, but we have used our skill and dedication to help teach our students how to find their way back with dignity and respect.
We have only just got half way through our first year and we are already well into our planning for next year. Our recruitment work was a resounding success, and we were heavily over subscribed for students about to join us in September 2020. I am so proud of this. We will be sending admission information out to families at the end of March/beginning of April and look forward to welcoming all our new students here in September.
We are alreayd well under way with recruitment of our new staff for next year. We have already recruited some very talented teachers, bursting with enthusiasm and ideas to bring to us and look forward to meeting lots more new people as we seek to fill all our staff vacancies before the end of May.
Our Lettings continue to be a huge success and I am about to attend a wonderful performance in our theatre by the Judith Hockaday school of dance and drama. Who could imagine this time last year as the building was still unfinished. There were no children here, flourishing and growing into young adults, no fixtures, no hockey, no dance, no fencing, no Leadership Martial Arts! Now we have events on most weekends, lettings every day/evening and soon there will be 360 students in the school.
The world is facing an unprecendented challenge in this modern age. We continue to pray for a swift end to the spread of the virus. If you can, join us in this prayer:
Keep us, good Lord, under the shadow of your mercy in this time of uncertainty and distress. Sustain and support the anxious and fearful, and lift up all who are brought low; that we may rejoice in your comfort knowing that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
I pray that the school will continue to flourish, the new families who are looking forward to joining us are as excited as we are, and we will continue to grow together from strength to strength.
Posted on: 31/01/2020
1 year ago today....Last January I sat in a conference in London listening to advice from the New Schools Network, Principals and the Department for Education aimed at supporting Principal Designates in their final preparations before opening. And here I am one year later, having been invited back, to speak about my experiences! What a privilege. I hope I can begin to get across today what an amazing 365 days it has been, and how fantastic a school instantly becomes when the students and staff arrive. I am going to be talking this morning about some of the final preparations we did and all the policies we wrote and the furniture we purchased, but I’ll be honest that this is not really what the Deanery is about. I had the privilege this week of interviewing our next Head Girl and Head Boy. We decided in September that we would rotate the duties and responsibilities for the Principal students, especially in the first year, as it is a huge task and we did not want to over burden any one student. I was delighted with the founding Principals students, their confidence, eloquence and ability to translate our vision and values into actions and behaviours. Our next two Principal students will, no doubt, be as special but also I sense they will take the roles in different directions and bring new dimensions to the roles.
Term continues to fly by. We are already well into writing the assessments for our second assessment week. We are re-launching our lettings booking system soon. We are doing a full review of the facilities and seeking lots more new and exciting clubs and activities to come and use the Deanery facilities. We have done our first thorough review of progress data. We are already planning and writing schemes of work for next year. We are beginning to buy all the new resources for next year. We have just launched the Accelerated Reader scheme. We are planning trips and visits for this and next year. And of course we are recruiting staff for next year already. Perhaps some of the delegates here today might imagine that this time next year the pace of a Principal’s work would slow down once the school opened, I must remember to get that message across, that it absolutely does not! Despite having all my wonderful colleagues working with me on planning and writing and teaching and leading, our days still seem to be as busy as ever, if not busier! My poor PA keeps saying that “it just about feels like we are getting on top of our to do list” and that is the point at which I grin quietly to myself and give her another 20 jobs to add to the list! I really had no idea that my career would take me in this direction back in 1987 when I set out on my training to be a PE teacher. I have had some wonderful opportunities in my career and continue to be overjoyed at the transformation we are making in our students’ lives. As I sat and listened this week to the hopes and aspirations of our students for their careers, I quietly prayed for them. For success. For resilience. For opportunities. For creativity. And for good people to guide them on their way. And of course, it dawns on me that 1 year ago, neither myself or the current Year 7 students at the deanery knew each other. That seems almost impossible! And there is another group of Swindon families and students out there waiting to hear if they have a place with us for next September. I hope and pray for them as well, that they have made the right choice and are as excited about their prospects as we are.
I wonder what exciting tales I will have to tell by next January?!Read More
Posted on: 10/01/2020
Can you keep a secret?It’s the end of the first week of our new term and I would like to let you all into a small secret. Please don’t tell anyone though. I have an image to protect! I have to be strong. Sometimes I have to hide my emotions even though inside I really could do with letting them show. This week I had to use all my Ninja skills to prevent anyone from seeing my eyes well up - not just once, but on three separate occasions. Yesterday we had the Ugandan Youth Choir join us, they performed some of their songs, spoke to us about their faith, taught us some Swahili, got us up singing and dancing and sang with our choir. And that was what got me. The combined choirs singing ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’. This is one of my favourite worship songs and has always been an inspiration to me. Luckily I sat on the side of the students in the theatre and was able to examine the configuration of the lighting rigs in great depth at the key moment - surprising how looking up helps when you are blinking away tears. The other two moments this week were brought about by comments from students. Both boys. And both mature beyond their years. I am so proud of how far the students have come already this year, I was even corrected by a student the other day when I jokingly reminded them how young they are and their instant retort was, “don’t forget Madam, you said in assembly that we are fast becoming young adults!”
We had such a great end of term before Christmas, it is hard to look back and talk about all the wonderful events that took place as there are so many. The advent service at the start of December was enchanting, where our students led the beginning of the first ever Wichelstowe Christmas festivities. we were able to come together and celebrate with local business and families. Our decorations on the footbridge between Hall and Woodhouse and Waitrose certainly proved popular and our living Christmas trees (kindly donated by Waitrose) seem to be doing ok so far! The end of term saw the most wonderful Chrsitingle service in the theatre, with all the students making their own Christingle. We ended by lighting our candles and, surrounded by friends and families, sang ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ to send us all out to enjoy the festivities filled with hope in our hearts.
We had our first monitoring visit from the Department for Education just before the end of term and I reflected at the end of the day on how I had felt in the build up. Before the visit I had tried to capture just a small part of what it is like to be at the Deanery in the documentation I had to submit. When proof reading it I thought it all seemed a bit too good to be true. It puzzled me. Would the visitor be able to see past the policies and procedures and really understand us? I needn’t have worried, right from the welcome he received at reception to the very end of the day after enrichment, he was able to see and understand the Deanery. The students spoke with confidence and articulacy beyond their years. Parents spoke honestly and reflexively about how we are doing. And as usual all the Deanery staff were their own amazing selves. We received feedback from the Department for Education just before we broke up for the Christmas holiday, and I am proud to say that they have reported that our inspector felt that we are doing very well, have got off to a really good start and look forward to seeing us grow and flourish in the future.
The first week of our new term in 2020 has seen lots of excitement already. Enrichment has taken on new activities, with our first Forest school beginning on the field. Recruitment planning is well underway - both for students next academic year and for the new staff that will be joining us. Suffice to say this is going to be a very busy term ahead. Lettings have begun again with new activities coming on board all the time - I am so proud of how well the Anchor partners have been doing and look forward to being able to open up our fitness suite sometime later this year.
And one last observation from me, today I have been in London at a conference for the Anglican Association of Secondary School Headteachers. It was great to be back in London at about the same time as last year when I had one of the pre-opening meetings with the Department for Education. I sat in the conference today and looked out of the window to Sanctuary Buildings opposite (the DfE headquarters) and thought that I could almost see myself sat there just about a year ago. Today gave me a chance to reflect on how far we have come in one year. This time last year I was still in hard hat and builder’s boots when I walked round the school. I had not chosen any of the computer equipment and had not even thought about ordering furniture yet! The school was purple still on the outside and parts of the floor was still not even down. Fast forward one year and we have a fully functioning school, with vibrant young people who are already flourishing. And I have to admit, there I go again..... I may have had to swallow hard and blink rapidly when I realised just how proud I am, of the people I work with and the students I have the privilege of calling my pioneers.Read More
Posted on: 8/11/2019
Tempus fugitIt is a real privilege to be able to write to you at the start of our second half term. As a staff body we are all bursting with pride at how well the students have settled in. In our first term review meeting before our half term holiday staff commented on how well behaved our students are, how smart they look in their uniform – they really do wear it with pride - and especially how well the new student leadership positions have been received.
As you may be aware, we had a visit on the last day of term from Lord Agnew, who is the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System, which means Lord Agnew works in Government for the Department of Education and has overall responsibility for Free Schools (of which we are one). Lord Agnew and his team were hugely impressed when they visited, loved meeting our fantastic pioneer students and commented on our “flying start and such strong leadership”.
It was great to see so many people supporting the Cornerstone over half term - the Gruffalo events certainly seemed like a real draw (pardon the pun, but some of the colouring competition pictures were beautifully done!). Thank you to those people who came and made this event such a success.
Thankfully everyone enjoyed a happy and healthy half term holiday and came back to school bursting with enthusiasm and energy! We have had a busy first week, with five days worth of activities to cram into four school days for students. Monday saw our first ever opportunity to gather all the school staff together from the Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust in our newest academy. Over 400 staff came together to share an amazing and inspiring day, with a wonderful key note address from Andy Wolfe, Deputy Chief Education Officer for the Church of England Education Office. We then broke off into workshops which ranged from playground games to theology, career planning to mental health first aid.
When the students returned they began their first assessment week at the Deanery, and I am proud to say they have approached this week with tremendous spirit, dedication and enthusiasm. In assembly we heard from our local Road Safety Team and I was proud to see that just about everyone arrived at school the very next day wearing lots of high visibility clothing and accessories. On Thursday and Friday our attention turned to Remembrance, and students were involved in making artefacts during tutor time, ready for our acts of Remembrance on Sunday and Monday. For the first time ever our school will lay a wreath during the Church parade on Sunday in Wroughton, to remember and honour those who gave their lives in service of their country, and on Monday we welcome the British Legion to lead us in our act of remembrance at the 11th hour.
I am so proud of the range of activities that we are already engaged with: you may have seen the school featured on BBC Points West last week, with the fencing club featured and the excellent work that is being done to develop this minority sport. Next week sees squash lessons beginning as part of our PE curriculum, a planning meeting for one of our really big conferences coming up and also our Christmas festivities are already being planned, so watch this space for more information on how and when you can come and celebrate with us.
We are well under way with our plans already for next academic year and we will soon begin advertising for our next round of staff recruitment. The students will begin to choose their House names for the remaining four Houses and they will help us decide which classrooms we will move into for next academic year. It seems amazing to me, having had such a long 'run in', to now realising that whilst we may have only just started, we need to plan our second year of opening virtually straight away! And when speaking with Year 7 students on their return to school assembly, I mentioned the fact that they had already completed 1 out of the 28 half terms that they have at secondary school - only 27 to go! How time flies!Read More
Posted on: 19/10/2019
Dignity and respectI cannot believe it is nearly a month since I last wrote this. How time is flying by.
So what have we been up to since I last wrote? Well, we held our first Open Evening for next year’s prospective students in the actual building where children will be going to school. Last year I held Open Evening’s in various (slightly drafty) church halls and churches, not so this year. Thursday 26th September saw over one thousand people come and visit the Deanery and I am proud to say they saw it at its best. We were delighted to be able to have the support of 30 of our current Year 7 students to act as welcomers and show off some of the wonderful activities we have been doing in lessons. Our staff put on some wonderful demonstration lessons and showed off Talbot wing where Year 7 are based. Our community facilities were in full use, with netball, Leadership Martial Arts and Hockey being played, as well as football on the field. It is safe to say we were exhausted at the end of the evening, but delighted with how much interest there was in our fantastic school. Since then we have had Open Morning tours every Friday, either for people who could not make the Open Evening or for those who wanted to see our school in action, with lessons taking place. We estimate that at least another 450 people have visited on the Fridays, how wonderful it is that people are taking the time to make a really considered choice with regards to their secondary school choices. I am so grateful to Miss Evans, my PA, who has run these tours with the Principal’s students.
The morning after Open Evening we had some student visitors from Costa Rica come and join us for a day at the Deanery. Some of our students got to talk to them in their home language of Spanish, and then we treated them to one of the wonderful Deanery lunches. After lunch we played sports with them – basketball, cricket, table tennis and football.
The following week saw an unexpected turn of events. I took a phone call at about 8.15pm from one of my DBAT colleagues informing me that a group of caravans had arrived in the car park. I had only left school about half an hour previously, as we had been at our first Science evening lecture. We had two fantastic scientists come from the University of Bristol and talk about ‘Gases in the Air’ to students from some of our local primary schools during the school day and then they repeated the same lecture in the evening for parents and other children. I was a bit taken aback at the telephone call, but after some discussions with our security and site team and the local police I was reassured that all was calm. The next morning I arrived early at school to check that the site was safe for our students to come to school as normal. That is one of the fantastic benefits of our facilities, that we actually have a very secure safeguarding line and can have members of the public on site whilst the students are safely in school, behind securely mag(netic)-locked doors. I was delighted that we were able to show hospitality to our visitors – they were invited to use our community toilet (especially helpful for two of the ladies who were pregnant) and also when I visited the caravans to talk to the visitors, they asked if they could have some bin bags so they could tidy up after themselves when they left. My experience of our visitors was a positive one – I was able to speak directly to our students and say that we respect the way our visitors choose to live their lives and that our Alive values call us to live well together and be selfless human beings. I was very proud of how our community - staff, students and families – reacted to our unexpected guests and am proud that we demonstrated dignity and respect to them before they left 2 days later.
‘Dignity and Respect’ was the theme of the conference I attended a few days later in London with the Anglican Association of Secondary School Head teachers. We were staying at a beautiful sanctuary in London, at The Royal Foundation of St Katherine in Limehouse. It is both an amazing place to stay and rest (without televisions in the rooms I hasten to add) and also a good place to go if you just wish for a good wholesome meal in a yurt! Situated right next to the heart of the bank business district, it really is the most remarkable oasis of calm. We had lectures from Bishop James Jones, who was the independent panel chair for the Hillsborough Disaster; Nigel Genders, the Chief Education Officer of the Church or England; Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, a former Bishop in New Zealand, now Bishop of Ripon, who after her lecture led us in a beautiful communion service. A really proud moment was when the school choir from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school in Bristol joined us to lead our worship on the first day – their Head teacher, Mrs Gilpin, is Chair of the Committee, so she had invited her students to lead our worship and I have to say she cried tears of pride pretty much throughout! We also had a fantastic lecture from Dr Robert Loe from Relational schools, who reminded us how important positive relationships are in schools and from Dr Paula Gooder, who gave the most amazing lecture on bible stories relating to dignity and respect and then she took us to her place of work for a short tour (!) and choral evensong. St Paul’s cathedral nonetheless! I was really excited to go back there as I had visited there in July 2018 for the consecration of our Bishop of Bristol, Bishop Viv. And to have the opportunity to sit in the choir stalls, right next to the choir as they sang, was just uplifting.
My time spent following Evensong was a little strange. I had planned to Skype into school, so I could attend the Local Board (Governors) meeting – just one of the advantages of having high tech ICT kit in such a modern school! What I hadn’t accounted for though was how long it would take to get back from St Paul’s after Evensong, so I realised I was going to have to Skype in, not from the comfort of my room back at St Katherine’s, but from somewhere on the way home! I chose a bench outside St Paul’s, used my mobile phone as a hotspot and dialled in on my laptop! I thought I would be fine, sat snuggled in a corner with my coat, my scarf and my headphones on. What I hadn’t accounted for was the slightly strange looks I got from passers-by at 7.30pm and the sudden drop in temperature once it got dark (pretty much straight away!!). After a few long items and some good discussions on the agenda, my wonderful Local Board members told me to pack up and get the Tube back home…..I didn’t need telling twice! Suffice to say, I had to walk right past a very well-known Sushi bar on the way back to the station, so I may just have popped in there for a warm-up supper!
Being able to be out of school at the conference was not only very uplifting personally for me, but also taught me a very important lesson. I spoke to a lot of Head teachers last year who said that I probably wouldn’t want to be out of school for any conferences or meetings at all in this first year. This puzzled me. Part of my responsibility as a Principal is to attend meetings and conferences – there are going to be times when I have to go and represent the Deanery or continue my own professional learning and development. This was one of those times, and I am very proud to say that I did not hesitate in accepting the invitation to attend the conference, knowing very well that the Leadership team and staff I have appointed back at school would cope very well without me being there. The students did me proud and I was so moved when one student came up to me on Monday morning and said, “welcome back Miss Culling”!
The students really have been fantastic this term – they have adapted to life at the Deanery exceptionally well. We have already established some excellent norms – family dining at lunch is a pleasure, and the students now have a rota to lead grace before we eat. We were moved by the donations received from students and their families for our wonderful harvest celebration assembly, and we were delighted to welcome some of our friends from Uganda to come and speak during the assembly. Our Student Council have had their first meeting of the term, our prefects have been busy at work already and our student librarians have now taken up their posts and have begun to make a difference already. Have you seen the wonderful professional pictures of our library on Twitter? Our Principal students have been busy and have excelled at leading tours on Open Mornings. Our catering company have really excelled themselves, our Cornerstone coffee shop has already become a lovely community hub and I have to admit I have put on a few pounds this term as the food and coffee is so good! Don’t forget to visit the Cornerstone during half term, with Gruffalo activities for the children.
And finally a word about the school dogs, who have become very popular already. Izzy has just about completed her induction. She is very popular with students asking if they can walk her a break times and lunchtimes – she’ll never say no to a walk (unless it is raining!). She completes her morning inspection of the corridors, checking that no crumbs have been left, and she has even managed to behave well enough to be present in a couple of lessons. However, today she injured her foot while out taking some well-earned weekend exercise. Hopefully it will heal quickly and she’ll be able to come into school before we break up for the holiday. Elsa hasn’t done quite as well as I thought she would – she is taking a bit longer to get used to being in school and I fear this is because she is used to being with Fuzzy all day. Sadly Fuzzy is a bit too old to come to school, so we will just need to take our time to get Elsa used to being at the Deanery. Despite this, the impact of having the dogs in school has been remarkable, with both staff and students benefitting hugely from their presence.
Sorry this has been a bit longer than normal, but there is so much to say! And sorry I have been blogging slightly less frequently than before, but I am sure you understand!Read More
Posted on: 24/09/2019
The dog has just started snoring....It seems hardly a week since we started, but we are actually now in week 4! So much has happened in such a short time. We have had much positive feedback from students, families and community users, it is fantastic to see how our school has already had such a positive impact on the those who attend school here and use our fantastic facilities.
Springing from our culture and ethos, we have established norms and routines for all aspects of our life at school. This was especially pleasing to be able to demonstrate yesterday to Tom Bennett, who is the Department of Education behaviour tsar. Tom was in the Deanery leading the final day of a four-day course for Swindon school leaders looking at how to run an effective school. Tom and the 24 delegates on the course joined us for lunch in the Agora and were hugely impressed with the calm and inclusive nature of family dining, with one member of staff commenting that the atmosphere was “wholesome” (and that wasn’t just the food!).
Last Friday (20th September) saw our first parent and student tours during the school day. Two students accompanied me on the tours and actually it became evident very early on the tours that I was actually surplus to requirements. The parents were very much more interested (of course) in what the students had to say about the school and actually the students did a better job in most cases of explaining our systems and processes and the accompanying rationale! Well done Freddie and Sasha.
This Thursday (26th September) sees our first Open Evening of this academic year. We are busy making plans for the evening, as we want to show off our school in its best possible way, but also to give a true picture of what life at the academy is like. We have been inundated – with students wanting to stay behind to help in various ways, and I think the offer of free pizza for their tea for them has been well received! It is fabulous to see how many students are already very proud of their school and want to encourage others to come here next year.
Enrichment activities have been going really well, with students taking part in a wide variety of activities. We are still looking for volunteers to run activities later in the year, so if you are interested, please contact Mrs Kear-Luckman via reception.
Students have been busy writing letters of application for various posts of responsibility – the first posts to be announced will be prefects, student council members and eco-monitors. I am going to have a very hard job, with my team of staff, to decide who takes up these positions of responsibility. One of the first letters of application I read started, “Dear Miss Culling, I would like to be on the school council because I can help the school be greater than it already is”. Whilst I am so pleased to hear a student already describe their school as “great”, to have such confidence in a young person is fantastic: ambition, drive and passion for making the school even better is just fantastic! We will announce the successful candidates in assembly and publish their names on the website shortly afterwards.
We had an introduction assembly to our Harvest celebration yesterday, where Mr Duffy from the Swindon Food Collective came and spoke to us about how vital the volunteer run food bank is in Swindon. We will be collecting non-perishable goods to support the food bank in the run up to harvest, so please bring any donations to reception – students will be given details about ways they can contribute and details of our service will be released soon.
Our school dogs have been busy already, having both completed their first induction days, they will continue to be introduced very slowly to the children. I am overwhelmed by the positive support I have received regarding the dogs and to see the joy on children’s faces as they meet Izzy and Elsa reinforces the rationale for having school dogs. Research has demonstrated the psychological and physical benefits of therapy dogs and I am delighted to be able to say that two students who suffer from anxiety (one completely dog-unrelated) have already benefitted hugely from the calming effect of two very waggy tails! In addition to the benefits for children, I am also aware that staff are benefitting from the presence of the dogs as well – there is something very soothing about stroking a dog and it is noticeable that my office gets many more visits on those days that ‘the girls’ are in! I would just like to point out that Izzy is curled up asleep while I write this and has just begun to snore, so maybe I have written enough for now! I hope this blog continues to be of interest and is providing an interesting insight into life at the academy.Read More
Posted on: 9/09/2019
What a wonderful weekWe have had a fantastic week! Our week began on Monday with two days of staff training. The most important feature of those days for me was allowing staff time to get to know each other and develop strong relationships. We began the two days with a service in our chapel and ended the two days with a welcome drink with our local board members in the Hall and Woodhouse pub opposite school. In between we did a lot of familiarisation training and professional development activities.
On Wednesday, from the minute the first student arrived, I had to struggle to keep myself together. Seeing our school uniform finally being worn by our pioneering students was a very proud moment for me. It had been a long time coming! Families, staff and governors gathered outside Hall and Woodhouse for a networking opportunity and a welcome cup of tea, before being escorted over to school. One of the members of our local board said he would arrange a few flag wavers to come and welcome the children onto the plaza, I had not quite expected the ‘few’ turn into so ‘many’! The plaza was full of friends of the school, including Bishop Lee of Swindon and our contractors, our friends from BAM construction. After gathering at Hall and Woodhouse, we waited to allow the minibus to arrive and then I walked in front of the students and welcomed them into their school for the first time. What a memorable way to start secondary school and I am especially delighted that Swindon Advertiser were able to be there to mark the occasion, so families can have an official record of the event as well as I am sure many photographs of their own.
I was overwhelmed by all the good wishes that we received just before and on the day of our opening. I received a card from my first ever employer, the Headteacher from Oakfield school, and many other cards from local schools and Headteachers, and even a text at 3 a.m. from a colleague who I used to work with! She was forgiven for texting at such an unearthly hour as she now lives in Australia – such is the amount of support for our school, we truly have had good wishes from all round the world! I even received a beautiful plant and card from one of our founding families, this was such a kind and thoughtful action, it now takes pride of place in my office. And a special treat for me today was to receive a cake that a student had made for me over the weekend and actually iced my name on top (see my Twitter feed). How thoughtful and I will enjoy that with my cup of tea at break time.
Our first activity in school was assembly, where we were able to introduce members of staff from our school and our multi academy trust and also begin to get a feel for how wonderful the building is. It was really moving to see so many eager faces sitting in the theatre, and to imagine the potential sitting in front of me. We had our first proper assembly, which included a reading from the bible and some prayers and then we sang – our first hymn was chosen so most people would know it (“One more step”) and we even had our Chief Executive and our Diocesan Director of Education accompany us on the guitar and piano respectively! Bishop Lee gave us an inspirational talk at the end of assembly, then led the final blessing. After assembly students went off into their tutor groups and began getting to know each other and their tutors, with various activities planned to give them a chance to mingle and meet new people.
Break time on the first day became a well-established pattern for last week – with lovely food on offer from our fantastic caterers Sodexo. They kindly agreed to give all food last week to students and staff for free, and I am afraid I took great advantage of that, so I am back on my WW app this week! One of the loveliest and distinctive features of last week for me was our lunchtimes – we have family dining in the Agora, which means at the end of morning lessons, students come to the Agora, find a table with their friends, sit down first and then we all say grace together. After that, students collect their cutlery and lay the table for each other and are invited up to collect their lunch a table at a time. This makes for a wonderful atmosphere and is a really great representation of how we are able to grow our culture from the outset. Our students had this process explained to them on the first day and now it is our established practice.
Activities included getting to know you, grill your teacher and building a spaghetti tower. All the students entered into the activities with a huge amount of enthusiasm, and it was wonderful to see that despite a few tears first thing in the morning, everyone left the first day with huge smiles, having made new friends and feeling a lot more settled. One really unusual thing that happened for us, was a large collection of parents who gathered in reception at the end of the day, and students who would not leave the Agora until they could see their parents. This took me a bit by surprise, but of course it is exactly what the parents and students are familiar with from primary school, it was just completely unexpected for a secondary school!! After a bit of encouragement and the odd phrase such as, “this is big school now, you can just go,” by the second day families and students had soon got the hang of just leaving!
Enrichment began on the first day, with Mr Scutt leading a ‘marble roller coaster’ activity on Wednesday and Mrs Kear-Luckman leading a ‘capture the flag’ activity on Thursday. Students were given the opportunity to opt for their term 1 enrichment activities on Thursday and they begin in earnest this evening. It is fantastic to think that our students are benefitting already from the Anchor partners who use the Deanery as their home venue now, with top class coaching available to students as part of their enrichment activities.
Parents will be aware that we had faced some challenges with our ICT installation, which was completely unexpected and made me very sad. The company we had been working with had gone into administration and so the project for deployment of software and getting the ICT systems fully operational at the start of term took a bit of a pause. I am delighted to say that we had tremendous support from the Department for Education and our partners in South Gloucestershire (Integra) so that we were able to get as many of the systems fully functional before teaching began last week. And the best news of all is that it seems at the moment that our ICT providers may be able to continue functioning as before. Please do hold them in your prayers if you are able. To get Parent Pay fully functioning was our biggest challenge and I am delighted to say, we think it is! My biggest priority is getting myself an account, as the food served to the children in the Deanery Kitchen (the name for our actual servery) is so lovely – long gone are the days when I will have to get organised the night before and make myself lunch, then the next day realise I have forgotten and rush into a petrol station on the way to work to buy emergency sandwiches!
Once we got to Friday at 2.15 p.m. we were all exhausted, but a little bit elated as well. It was amazing to think that we had finally done it. Students from all over Swindon had come together and made a fantastic start to what is going to be the most amazing journey. Staff had launched straight into teaching high quality lessons, and looked as if they were completely at home in their new classrooms. For me some of the highlights included seeing students hold the door open for each other, saying “good morning” to each other and to members of staff as they come in, seeing students beaming as they leave school and actually skipping on the plaza – now as a secondary school teacher, you do not see that happen very often!
One final thought – although it was the weekend, of course we were not closed. We had some fabulous activities here at the weekend, including a hockey festival celebrating 100 years of Swindon hockey club, a commissioning service for our local Revd. Ali Boulton from our Methodist friends and our first celebration event in the theatre with cabaret style seating and catering provided. I popped down on Saturday and left feeling very proud, that not only had we made a very successful opening of the school, but we had also already achieved our commitment to being a truly accessible and well used community space. What a privilege to be able to host such diverse activities and be supported by such truly professional and dedicated staff.
And as I finish writing this blog, I am so pleased to say that I have just attended our first Morning prayer event in our chapel, where Revd. Phill from Wroughton and Wichlestowe Parish church came and led a few members of our community in morning prayer for the school. I am delighted to say this is a weekly event – if you are interested in attending, please contact my PA Vickey Evans.Read More