Posted on: 11/03/2019
Finding calm in the busy-nessIt has been an amazingly busy two weeks at the Deanery. The most important and exciting activity has been the next round of teacher recruitment. I am delighted to say that some of our new Year 7 students may actually have been involved in interviewing and recruiting their first teachers! Our teaching staff interviews have been taking place in local primary schools, and I am so grateful to the Headteachers, teachers and students of those schools for hosting us. First, we were at Tadpole Farm CE primary academy, one of our DBAT primary schools, where we interviewed teachers of RE. Then we interviewed teachers of Modern Foreign Languages at Oliver Tomkins CE primary school and finally last Friday we interviewed for a mathematics teacher at Shaw Ridge primary school. One of the really nice aspects of the last two days of interviews was the opportunity to use some space at Great Western Academy for our afternoon activities with the candidates – this gave us a wonderful opportunity to see a brand new school that is actually open, built by the same construction company, and get some idea of what it will be like to work at the Deanery in the first few years. Suffice to say we had 4 classrooms to ourselves, in a corridor that is not used at all yet, and on the first day of interviewing there, we did not actually see anyone else in the building, apart from the wonderful welcome we received at reception! We have been so impressed with all the staff that we have interviewed, and of course it goes without saying that the choices we have made have been really tough. I am really confident that those who have been selected will complement each other very well and will form a fantastic team. I am passionate about recruiting teaching staff who are outstanding teachers with deep, expert subject knowledge and as soon as we are able, we will let you know a bit more about those who we have appointed.
The Deanery building is moving on fast and this week I am getting on with the important task of choosing furniture and perhaps more importantly making sure all the signs in the building point the right way. We have designed smart ‘way-finding’ signs to point out where each department in the school is, which way the toilets are, where the lecture theatre is and so on. It is a pretty complicated task, as most of the design has to be done from the architects’ drawings, so tomorrow I am going to walk round the building again, just so I can be sure that we get things in the right place. I already know that I am going to have to choose my footwear carefully when the school is open. I must admit, I do not think I will be wearing my lovely heels at work quite so often. I know it has become fashionably acceptable on the London Underground to slip a pair of trainers on with your smart business suit, I may have to resort to the same when walking round the school! Some of the corridors are VERY long and it is a VERY big school. Just to reassure Year 6 who are coming up in September though, do not worry, we will make sure no-one gets lost in those first few weeks and we will help everybody find their way round.
You will perhaps have seen the tweets this weekend about the fantastic new footbridge being delivered yesterday. It is really great to see how the community is starting to take shape now, with the new gastro-pub being so popular it is really hard to book a table there! The houses will soon start to go up and I am sure before we know it Wichelstowe will be one of the most popular places to live in Swindon.
And finally, a word about how important it is to find moments of calm in all this busy-ness. I hope you enjoyed some pancakes last Tuesday and last Wednesday we marked the start of Lent, a period of refection and preparation for Easter. As Christians we often get asked about giving something up for Lent, indeed some people like to do this, and I have been known in the past to give up crisps for Lent (which incidentally for me is really challenging). But this year I have decided to be more ‘strategic’ with my Lenten promises. I am trying out a new method of working which I hope will enable teachers at the Deanery to keep a better work-life balance. And I am making sure that I spend less time on my phone and more time reading my book (I have actually deleted all my games from my phone and have made sure I always have my book with me in my handbag so in those spare 10 minutes I often have before a meeting I can read instead of playing Crossy Road!). We have a real duty to look after ourselves, because as Christians we believe we are created by God and have a real part to play in the world if we live life in all its fullness. We cannot do this if we are overwhelmed by work and too busy to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. So, I hope you will share this Lenten journey with me, spending less screen time, sharing precious time with friends and family and finding more time to be out walking in the fresh air and beautiful countryside all around us (and of course for me is being out with my gorgeous 3 dogs).Read More
Posted on: 25/02/2019
Exciting times aheadI hope you had a fantastic half term holiday, enjoying relaxation, family time and refreshment. I travelled to Finland to celebrate my 50th birthday and admit it was one of the most memorable times I have had abroad. I was so excited to be able to fulfil a lifetime ambition of mine, to drive a dog sled of huskies and to see the Aurora Borealis. I must admit it was a bit of a shock to the system to come back to Gatwick and find the temperature was a sunny 18 degrees centigrade, having left the Arctic Circle in minus 29 degrees of cold! Whilst I really enjoy and treasure my holidays and time away with my family, I must admit I am very excited to be back and get on with some of the most crucial parts of opening the Deanery.
We are entering one of the most exciting phases of the development of the school. In less than a week’s time, the first students to sign up to the Deanery will be notified of their place. This is a hugely significant time for the young people and their families, and I hope that in seven year’s time they will look back on their secondary education with fondness, exhilaration and pride. I am also entering the next phase of recruitment, beginning at the end of this week. It is really important for me to recruit staff who share our vision of an exceptional values-based education with the core values of hope, family and excellence at the centre. We will soon choose our catering company and I have also made quite a bit of progress choosing furniture.
Just before half-term we were able to welcome lots of visitors to the site to look round at the facilities we will have on offer once we open. I was so pleased that we had a really wide range of activities represented, from martial arts to dance, team games to individual sports; singing groups, drama groups, theatre groups and even interest from a chess club. The building boasts some of the best facilities in the region – I am still shocked every time I walk into the theatre at its sheer enormity and the astro-turf just looks even more stunning every time I see it! But of course, fantastic facilities are all well and good, what will really make this school exceptional and distinctive is the people who use it and how they are changed by it. I showed some of the construction company round with the people looking at the facilities and afterwards one of the team said to me, “what you said today really made me feel humble. We are building a fantastic building which will really contribute to and affect people’s lives for a long time, won’t it?” She said that it is very easy for them to become wrapped up in their jobs, making sure the project is delivered on time with the best building materials, ensuring the health and safety on site is adhered to, the drains are in the right place etc. but sometimes they forget how important that facility is they are actually providing. This building will set young people and their families up for life, giving them skills and competencies for jobs that may not even exist yet; building relationships and friendships that will last a lifetime; helping to secure firm foundations of knowledge, wisdom, hope, dignity and respect as well as equipping people to live well together and enjoy life in all its fullness.
I really hope you are as excited as I am about the prospect of making a real change in people’s lives, and amidst all the sad news in our country and local community recently, I hope that you, like me, can see the hope shining out of Wichlestowe as we build a better future for us all.
And finally, a word to the students who will be joining me in September - let me know your thoughts on gaining a place at the Deanery via Twitter – I’ll be praying for you and your families this week and cannot wait to welcome you into your new school in September 2019. Keep an eye on the website for details of our open-door events from July onwards and also our transition days.Read More
Posted on: 11/02/2019
I don’t want to spoil one of my favourite assemblies, but I do want to explain a little about what is happening with the Deanery at the moment, and therefore I have to talk about choices.I am being asked to choose so many things.The first thing I was asked to do as Principal was to help the Governors choose our school logo.We went for the logo that represents the story of our school – growing out of the ground, new life bursting forth.It contains the colours purple, silver and grey: purple is a royal colour and is worn by Bishops and will form the main theme of our school uniform and school colours.It was actually by pure chance that our building was purple for such a long time, that colour was the ‘weather board’ that goes into the walls to help protect us inside from wind and rain.I did ask BAM construction if they could use purple bricks as the colour had become so popular, but sadly they were unable to help with this request, seems like that is only an estate agent (others are available as well)!You will know that I have already chosen our school uniform and I am delighted that so many students, parents and colleagues have said how much they like it.We chose the uniform so it looks really smart, is distinctive and reflects our aspirations.The company who produces the uniform has values that are in line with ours, not least in terms of their efforts to protect the environment.You have perhaps already heard that each jacket in our uniform is made of 31 recycled plastic bottles, and do not worry, they don’t ‘crinkle’ as one parent asked me recently!
I have also chosen carpet colours, paint, lockers, door types, locks and keys, electric sockets, where the signs will go to show people round and even what type of font we want to use on all our signs and letterheads!These are just a few of the choices I am having the make and that is before I even begin to tell you about the furniture catalogues I have sitting on my desk....
All these exciting and interesting bits are actually only a tiny bit of my job at the moment.Far more important choices are being made about staffing, which subjects to teach, methods of teaching and policies and procedures for the school.I am enjoying the building choices, but I am finding that I am taking so much more time and care over the other educational choices, as I know they will affect the futures of our students, families, staff and their families for years to come.I am trying my best, working with as many people as I can who have experience in lots of different areas, in order to try and get things right from the start.However, I do know that some things, no matter how well thought through, will need changing pretty much as soon as we open! Thomas Hoerr (2005) said, “strong leaders are artists because they recognize there is no one formula, no particular policy, no set of procedures, that will always work with everyone or, even, with any one person all the time.”We will need to work together to make the Deanery a fantastic place, full of vibrancy, learning, laughter and love.We will make mistakes and we will never be afraid to make mistakes, because we know that mistakes make your brain grow.We will be open, listen to each other and learn together from any mistakes we make.
To finish I will tell you a little bit about my assembly on choices.Sometimes what appears to be the best choice is actually the least good.I often wonder where the student is now from my days at John Cabot Academy who participated in my choices assembly there and ended up covered in flour (he made the less good choice!).A simple illustration using a very famous brand of chocolate helped the students at East Wichel Primary school recently understand what I was talking about.Everyday we face choices about how we act and how we react.Something as simple as choosing to smile instead of choosing to frown can make a big difference to the outcome of a situation.I’m about to choose our catering company this week, so wish me well, because this partner is going to be really important to us.One thing is already clear to me – we will choose to sit together, to eat together and to talk to each other over lunch, as this is one of the places where we will build our Deanery family.
Posted on: 4/02/2019
Brexit and roundersTeacher wellbeing. This is a well-written and much-spoken about topic at the moment. Before I talk about that, I have one thing to get off my chest: the thing that I am most delighted about regarding Brexit. Rounders is often the poor relative in sporting circles yet was one of the most popular games I taught as a PE teacher. Getting students to lunchtime team training was often challenging, but not with rounders. In fact, I would be leading training for the girls’ team at St Joseph’s lower school on Queen’s Drive back in the early 1990’s, and lots of other students would be begging to join in – and I have to say it was usually the boys! They loved their cricket, but rounders is much quicker and potentially more exciting!! There is not really a strong tradition for adult rounders in this country, maybe at summer bar-b-ques and family get togethers on the beach, but Rounders England is working hard to raise the profile of the game and get more people involved. *see their website here
As I have been writing job adverts, person specifications and job descriptions for the staff we are going to appoint to the Deanery, two things have been very much in the forefront of my mind. How can we recruit and keep the very best teachers at the Deanery? And how can we develop our very distinctive focus on high standards for all and positive relationships? Part of what makes us distinctive in the Diocese of Bristol Academies Trust is that we focus on family and building strong and positive relationships. Last week I attended a meeting of Headteachers, Directors of DBAT and Clergy to look at what it means to be distinctive for teachers in our multi-academy trust, specifically in terms of their wellbeing. We want our staff to have ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) as well as our students and their families. It is really important to us that our teachers are the highest quality professionals and that they work to the best of their ability, to get the very best out of the students in their care, and they do this whilst remaining happy and healthy.
I have worked in many different schools and have witnessed teachers experiencing immense pressures and performing well below their best as a result. Late night emails, over-burdensome marking loads, poorly led performance management, over-complicated assessment systems; I have witnessed first-hand the effects that these things can have on families and students and therefore will not allow this to happen at the Deanery. It is not an easy fix and I do appreciate that all jobs are challenging, and everyone is busy. However, I do stress to all staff that I work with, that, above all, we have a personal professional responsibility to keep ourselves healthy. You do have to be ‘well’ emotionally and physically to be a teacher. It is a tough job, physically demanding and often emotionally draining. So what are we going to do at the Deanery to ensure staff are well and can be at their best to teach the exceptional quality of curriculum? All staff will be joining in with the many sports teams we will be running, in fact, it is written into staff job descriptions. This is really important, as not only will it enable students to experience lots of team games, it is also the place that strong bonds and good relationships can be developed. Those people who played in school teams themselves will often remember their PE teacher fondly (unless they were a bit too much like Mr Sugden in Kes). There will also be an opportunity for staff to play together (watch this space for the staff rounders team – we will be looking for opponents!) and to train together in the gym. Bonding through physical struggle and endeavour is really important, both in physical activities but also in active learning. There will be lots of high-quality learning taking place in the academy and lots of it will be active. We will encourage staff to steer away from purely didactic lessons and encourage them to engage the students actively in their learning. And we will take time to teach people how to make and develop strong and safe boundaries. This is illustrated best by rugby players – tackling hard during the game and then the moment whistle goes turning and shaking hands, patting each other on the back and becoming the best of friends. People often talk about ‘working hard together and playing hard together’, this will be our philosophy as we develop character and resilience in our students.
And so, as we struggle as a country to make sense of our future, I am delighted that my favourite fielding position in rounders has become such a part of our every day language. And I do hope that you will forgive me for my flippancy as I have tried to begin to unpack what will make our school distinctive in terms of wellbeing.
Posted on: 28/01/2019
The kindness of strangersI know there seems to be a bit of a theme running through my titles, but I must tell you about these two events that happened last week. I spent Wednesday to Friday in London, and on the way to my visit to BETT (formerly known as the British Educational Training and Technology show) I was asked by a lady on the Underground whether she was on the right platform for the station she needed. Rather than just give her directions, I told her to come with us as she looked a bit overwhelmed by how busy that trains were: I thought it was best that she had some company! She was very grateful and proceeded to tell lots of our fellow passengers how kind we had been to her. After about 40 quite stressful minutes, on some very busy trains, we got her safely to her destination and she turned as she got off the train and said that our kindness would be returned to us. I thought nothing of it until later, on the Docklands Light Railway, when I realised that I only had one glove. Just before I got off the train, I asked the gentleman sitting next to me if he would kindly look and check that he wasn't sitting on my glove. Sadly not,so I left the train feeling despondent, having lost one of my favourite gloves. As I was climbing the stairs to leave the platform, I heard a call, "madam, I found your glove". I had dropped the glove further down the carriage, the gentleman had searched for it, found it and ran after me to return it. “How kind,” I thought, and then I remembered what the lady had said earlier. Travelling on the Underground in London is often referred to as not very pleasant, so I was pleased to learn that kindness does still exist among strangers. However, that was not the end of it. As I trudged back to my hotel at the end of that very long day, again I found myself climbing the stairs coming out of the Underground station, only to hear someone shouting behind me, “madam, you might need this!” I turned, and saw a different gentleman running up behind me with my bank card in his hand. He had seen me drop it out of my pocket and ran after me to return it. I don’t think these random acts of kindness were unrelated. I think there is a genuine desire among people, especially at the moment, to be kind to each other. We see so much sad news and times when people have done the wrong thing, it was so nice to be on the receiving end of not one, but two random acts of kindness and also to be able to help someone who was genuinely grateful.
Wednesday was a very busy day, spent with the suppliers of our computers, as we visited just about every stall in the ExCel exhibition centre. We chose the interactive panels that will be our ‘working walls’ in classrooms, chose the desktop and laptop computers for both the students and the staff and I stayed late into the evening and tried out just about every type of educational software available (and even managed to meet the Bumble Bee transformer!). Thursday and Friday were a bit more formal, as I attended a conference run by the New Schools Network and the Department for Education. This was an excellent opportunity to learn from, network and talk with other Principals who are either at exactly the same stage as we are at the Deanery, or who have opened a new school very recently.
So, as I spent Thursday and Friday reflecting with the New Schools Network on how to be really successful in our final preparations and during our opening year, I was reminded of our core values at the Deanery. We are a school run by Christians for all people. We will welcome people to our school who have no faith, some faith and a strong faith. I want all people who come to us to feel something different. The welcome they receive, the way they are spoken to, the experience they have from the minute they set foot on our campus – everyone will notice that they are somewhere that welcomes them. We cherish the notion of family and will explicitly teach among other things respect, justice, service and truthfulness. We will help our students feel proud to be Deanery students and the way they treat each other, members of our staff community and visitors will be of huge importance. As an individual, I believe each and every one of us can make a difference to our society: be polite, hold a door open, help someone with a heavy bag, say “good morning”. These all sound a bit obvious, but often get missed in the busy-ness of a day. My experiences on the Underground reminded me that there are good people in the world, willing to be kind to strangers and in our own small way at the Deanery we will nourish this in the way we all work with each other.Read More
Posted on: 21/01/2019
Strangers on a trainJust before Christmas I had the privilege of accidentally sitting next to potentially one of the most interesting people I have met courtesy of the Paddington to Temple Meads line! Melanie was one of the people who conducted the archaeological survey on the Deanery site before building could commence. She provided me with some fascinating facts, some of which I will share below and also inspired me to make new links with other local schools (more about that later).
The Deanery is built on what used to be farmland, between the Old Canal to the east and a small tributary of the River Ray. The ‘soil’ is clay (very heavy clay as I found out when I walked the boundary of the field!) and a mixture of silt, sand and gravel (which is a good sign for our school allotments). There are lots of significant archaeological and historical sites surrounding the Deanery, including a bowl barrow near Rushy Platt Farm, the site of a watermill at West Leaze and the remains of a small deserted medieval settlement not far away. I cannot wait for our History teacher be appointed, they will be so excited! The Wiltshire and Berkshire canal lies just to the east of the school site and many local residents will have seen the extensive work done on the restoration of the part nearest the school – this is partly where we have taken the inspiration for the name of our adjoining primary school from (Kingfisher). Incidentally the canal was built in 1804 probably stopped being used commercially in 1906 before being infilled in 1962.
Previous investigations in Swindon have found evidence of Romano-British, medieval and post-medieval activity in this area, so we were delighted to discover that our school has been built in an area where people would have lived, worked and passed on knowledge since possibly as early as the Mesolithic Age (9600 – 4000 BC)! Discoveries on the actual site of our school lie mostly under the sports pitches and included a large pit containing the remains of animal bones and various other ditches, pits, postholes and tree-throw holes of significance. The datable pieces of pottery that were found include pieces from the Middle/Late Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Romano-British and medieval period. It is possible that there were roundhouses or other circular structures on the site and these have been identified following discoveries and mapping of lots of post holes. It has given me the idea that we might actually build a replica round house on our playing field in order to really bring history alive for our students and to honour those who inhabited our site before us. The pottery found in the excavations gave the archaeologists the best clues for dating the site and they found some pottery which could be 4000 years old: they found one piece which could be part of an Early Bronze Age Collared Um, a kind of pot you can see in one of our pictures.
In summary, it seems that the clearest phase of activity on the school site was in the Late Bronze Age when there appears to have been part of a settlement here with one, possibly two, roundhouses evident. There were also farming activities here, with definite field boundaries evident. One really interesting find that is being studied further is a ‘cushion’ stone, which is being sent for X-ray fluorescence analysis to determine if any metal is present in it and if so, it could have been used in primitive metal-working. It is likely in the future that some of the finds from the school site will be exhibited in the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, of course we will be visiting there to see that! It is so exciting to be part of this project and to have the opportunity to both honour our ancestors and to educate future scientists, archaeologists, vets, Doctors, nurses, teachers etc. in our wonderful state of the art modern building. And of course, it makes me pause and consider, what will the archaeologists of the future find when they dig up the Deanery in the year 6020 perhaps?!
Note: I am really grateful to Melanie for providing me with the report and to Wessex Archaeology for their detailed work on our school site, see more of them here: https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/about
Posted on: 14/01/2019
What does a Principal with no students do?I started my countdown to opening with over 900 days to go! And now there are only 213 left... Let me explain. I was appointed as the Principal Designate for the Deanery in December 2016. To begin with I worked on the Deanery project about a day a week, as I was still working as a consultant in Bristol, supporting schools with maths and leadership help. Last January (2018), I began working on a much more regular basis for the Deanery and come September 2018 I was full time. It is usual for a Principal to be in place for a brand-new school for a year before opening, so they can get all the things in place that are needed to open a school. I have had a bit longer to prepare for our opening, so I really hope I do not forget anything! I have the most wonderful group of people supporting me to get ready, so I think I should be ok.
There are so many things to think about when you open a brand-new school. In this preparation phase we have tried to include young people and local people as often as possible when we have been making decisions about the school. First the Governors and I chose the logo and next came the uniform. I am really lucky to have been invited to work in St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school in Bristol for a day a week, so have been able to talk to their students about all the decisions we have taken so far. In fact, it is volunteers from their student council who are modelling the Deanery’s uniform on our website. Apart from working in Bristol (usually on a Wednesday), I seem to have spent most of the rest of my time either on the building site or working out of various coffee shops in Swindon. If I am not meeting the wonderful construction company (BAM construction – more about them later), then I can be found either writing policies or meeting prospective students and parents while drinking ‘skinny flat white’ coffee and trying to avoid eating too many croissants! ‘Office work’ for me includes answering hundreds of emails asking questions about the school, either from prospective parents or staff who are really excited about possibly working at the school. Policies are very important too, so I have worked really closely with the Governors to make sure we have all the right policies in place ready for opening. I must admit though, I am trying not to spend too much time in my office this year as I think it is much more important to be out building relationships with people who we can work with in the future.
Meetings with the team from BAM construction are usually particularly important. I have had to chose colours for everything, including the toilet doors (very important); I have chosen science desks, plug sockets, carpet colours, reception desk styles and locker designs. You would be surprised how long every single decision takes, as there is so much to think about and consider. Luckily, we have had huge support from BAM construction, who are building the Deanery. Richard, the project manager and Cat, the design manager have done a fantastic job, helping me make all the critical decisions, and Jack has been the favourite tour guide with local primary school groups! We have also had amazing help from the architects that have designed the school, and I cannot wait to show you the finishing touches they have planned.
So, what are we doing now? We are working really hard with the Department for Education to get the final things in place ready for opening. Of course, we are making sure we have all the right policies and procedures in place; Sue, our construction consultant is helping with all the purchasing of equipment and furniture and is helping me choose our caterers (a very important job); Colin, our education consultant, is working hard to make sure lots of community groups come and use the wonderful facilities we have and is also helping me with staff recruitment. I am focusing on staff recruitment and also visiting lots more primary schools to talk to staff and students there, as we are already planning recruitment of new students for our second year of opening, 2020!
So, in answer to the question that lots of people have asked me, “what does a Principal with no students do?”, I hope I have given you some idea. I must admit though, whilst this stage is very exciting and a huge privilege (to have the chance to choose and plan everything in detail), this Principal would much rather be a ‘Principal with students’ and so I am particularly excited to see that the countdown now seems to be racing down at an ever accelerating rate!