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Posted on: 21/04/2020

I have been here before

This 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 flat

We 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. Miss Culling 20th March 2020 Read More

155 days to go....

Posted on: 01/04/2019

I cannot quite believe that I am writing this with only 155 days to go until we open to students.  I started my countdown to the school opening from well over 900!  Things are getting a bit busier now.  The most exciting news is that I have very nearly finished teacher recruitment for the first year.  The main teaching posts are full now and I can tell you that I am VERY excited about the teachers who are going to be joining us, as they are a very talented group of staff.  We did our last big interview days last Monday at East Wichel primary school, which was in itself an amazing day.  We were welcomed to the school by the new Headteacher, Mrs Phillips and the candidates actually taught some students in Year 6 who will be the first students at the Deanery.  We are very excited about the prospect of working closely with East Wichel primary and building links with all primary schools in the town.  This is one of my biggest priorities, as our interviews have given all our new teachers the opportunity to see just how talented Year 6 students are: the expectations we will have of students coming to the Deanery are already being set high.

I finalised the names of the last remaining rooms with the construction company last week and there is a definite Latin theme in some of the room names – I am really hoping to offer Latin as an extended day club, and I have just the teacher in mind to be teaching it.  We have begun to put some more detail into planning the extended day provision, as we need to book some of the exciting activities in early.  The activities are going to be a blend of academic, learning support, arts, creative and sport.  One of the most important parts of being successful at school, for teachers and students, is to build positive relationships and it is often at after school clubs that this really happens.  The adults who read this blog will probably be able to remember their best teacher really easily and it is likely that this is the teacher with whom they had the best relationship – people often say things like, “Mr Jones really got me” or “I would do anything for Miss Smith, as she believed in me”.  I always wanted to be a P.E. teacher, I grew up knowing this from an early age.  My Dad was a teacher (at Lackham College of Agriculture) and my sister is still a teacher (in a successful school in Bath) and of course I can easily recall some of my fantastic teachers who inspired me to want to be the best I could be.  Mr Shaw, my first primary school Headteacher was an inspiration to all my family; Mr Williams, my fantastic Geography teacher, actually taught me for 7 years at secondary school (I got a grade A at ‘A’ level Geography, that’s how much I liked his lessons!); and Dr Margaret Whitehead at Bedford College of Higher Education, who absolutely inspired me to further study, to name but a few.  All of those people went the ‘extra mile’ for me, wanted the very best for me and helped me to achieve my goals: it is this quality that we believe we have seen in the teachers we have appointed to the Deanery.

Our next round of recruitment is just about to begin – we already have an advertisement out for our Business and Commercial Manager, and we will soon advertise for other support staff, including Facilities Manager, Personal Assistant to the Principal and our Teaching Assistants.  I think it is crucial that all the staff we appoint share our vision and are also prepared to share their talents in the extended day activities – you never know, we may find some real hidden talents in the support staff, some aspiring singers, dancers or even musicians!

During the school holidays I am meeting the furniture providers to finish choosing the exact tables, chairs and other pieces of furniture for important areas such as the Agora and the Library.  We are choosing colours and fabrics that fit in with our colour scheme, look really smart and are hard wearing.  Remember also that one of the reasons we have chosen to work with this furniture company is that they share our feelings about doing all we can to protect the environment.  Sadly, everything we buy now comes wrapped in lots of packaging, usually plastic but not always:  one of the things I asked about in the interview where we chose our suppliers, was how responsibly the packaging is disposed of, and I gained assurances that everything that could possibly be being done to ensure safe and least harmful waste disposal would be. 

Last week I showed the team from the new Pattern Church around the school – we are going to be working very closely with them.  Have you seen their amazing plans for the Pattern Store at the Designer Outlet?  And do keep an eye out on the activities they are leading over Easter – this is a fantastic group of people and we have been dreaming of the things we can do together to grow faith in young people in the town.  I am also very excited to being able to show Bishop Viv, the Bishop of Bristol around the school for the first time during the Easter holidays.  Our link with our Diocese is very strong: we will be very much part of a fantastic network of people, organisations and churches who will be supporting the school, each and every one of the children who come to the school and their families.     

And so I’m off on another primary school visit now – talking to Year 5, who are already considering which school to choose for September 2020! Perhaps I should start a countdown for them as well….?