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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

I am not alone!!

Posted on: 02/05/2019

I hope you had an enjoyable Easter holiday and managed to restrain from eating too much chocolate!  Those who are practising Christians will know that Easter is always a busy time for church goers, and especially for those who lead services.  I am a volunteer in the Anglican (Church of England) team of churches where I grew up (Corsham, Lacock, Neston and Gastard) and I find that while I may not take services on Easter Sunday, I am always on the rota for the following Sunday – I think this is because the clergy people are usually so exhausted after all the main services and events of the previous weekend!  As I prepared for my sermon last Sunday, I thought it was about time I wrote in my blog a little bit about this, as my faith is a large part of who I am and why I do what I do.  The exact title of my volunteer role is ‘Licensed Lay Minister’, this means that I lead worship in church.  Lay ministers take on many roles in the Church of England, leading services, youth groups and teaching Sunday school to name but a few – I have been a Youth Leader in the past, but try to leave that to other people now so I’m not tempted to slip too much into ‘teacher’ role!  Lay ministers can take a wide range of services, but cannot normally lead the sacramental parts of worship such as holy communion, weddings and baptisms.  I have had the privilege of leading quite a few funerals in the past and can honestly say that it is a real source of pride to me to be asked to do this – to lead the final service of a person, usually known to me, and to bless and comfort their friends and families at what is their most broken time.  I trained as a lay minister over 20 years ago and actually did my final placement at Wroughton which is now the parish church of Wroughton and Wichelstowe.  I really do believe that all of the things I had experienced and achieved in my professional life bought me to be the Principal of the Deanery and of course my training and experience in worship leading no doubt helped me in securing the role.  It is really exciting for me to be able to put my professional expertise to such good use and to be working alongside friends from the parish where my official ministry all began; it is just fantastic!

It has been a busy couple of weeks at the school again – we didn’t actually stop over Easter as there is so much to be done at the moment.  The building is really taking shape now, we are only 3 weeks away from what is called ‘Practical Completion’ (PC), when the builders will finally put down their last paint brush and hammer and hand over the Deanery to us…. well almost.  PC will happen on the Friday (24th May) and then on Monday 27th May the very same company will pick up their hammers and spades again and begin work on Kingfisher Academy next door.  Many of you will probably have noticed that the hoardings have come down around the Deanery and the wood has been re-used to construct new hoardings a little further down the road, this is for the new Kingfisher site.  I am doubly delighted about this, as of course we are absolutely thrilled to be opening a DBAT primary school (with nursery) right next door (currently due to open in 2020), but it also means that actually our construction company will not be too far away for the whole of our first year!  I am sure everyone reading this will know that with any new buildings there may be a few initial ‘snags’ to sort out, don’t worry, we have already started writing a list but I have to say it is pretty short – the quality of finish in the building is fantastic.  So if there are any small things that we miss, I can literally open the front door of the Deanery and call across to the staff from BAM to come and help – pretty much exactly the same team are building Kingfisher Academy as the team who built the Deanery, so we will no doubt keep closely in touch!!  I am delighted about this, not just so that we can get them to sort out any minor problems, but I am thrilled that they are going to be able to see the building being open and used for what it is truly intended.  It is easy to see that the core team from BAM genuinely love their work and have a tremendous amount of pride in the Deanery and so I cannot wait for them to be able to come into assembly in the theatre and see it in action, to visit lessons and see the exceptional learning taking place and to join the students in sampling the wonderful food that is going to be prepared in the kitchens. 

And…. I have saved the best bit of news until last:  I am not alone anymore!  Mr Scutt, one of our Assistant Principals, started work with me last Tuesday.  He has already made a significant contribution to the project and I am absolutely sure that my first appointment to the teaching staff was a fabulous one.  It was a slightly strange start for Mr Scutt, as he is such a dedicated teacher that he didn’t want to leave his Year 11 class at his last school at this crucial time so close to the GCSE examinations, so on his first day of work at the Deanery he actually went back to his old school and taught there.  Then his first activity with us was to join me for a meeting in my ‘other’ office – the coffee shop at Waitrose!  I will really miss the staff from there, as they have made me so welcome and I actually do now have a regular order and my ‘own’ table where I usually sit!!  The manager, Simon, has been fantastically supportive of us and I can only echo what people say of the store there and its staff:  they are all fantastic.  No doubt I will still pop in when the Deanery opens!  On Wednesday of last week, I took Mr Scutt down to meet everyone at St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school (SMRT) in Bristol as they are our partner school.  We had a fantastic day there, meeting the Headteacher (Mrs Gilpin) and all her Senior Team and some students from the student council and worship committee.  It was really good for Mr Scutt to see the school in action and on a day when he was little more relaxed than the last time he was there!  We held the interviews for his post at SMRT back in November 2018, so it was nice to be able to take him back and learn more about where the educational vision for our school began.  Then on Saturday Mr Scutt and I got all the new teachers who are going to be working at the Deanery together for the first time and took them on a tour of the school.  To say they were excited is an understatement!  It was fantastic to see them all as one group and to see how they immediately got on – I think they all realised how exciting it is going to be to be the pioneering group of staff who take our first students into the Deanery school.  We got to know a few things about them and shared more dreams of how we are going to work together to make the school the most amazing educational experience for our children. 

This week Mr Scutt and I have been extremely busy interviewing for two of the most important support staff posts to be appointed to the school.  On Monday we appointed our Business and Commercial Manager – this is a crucial post as it will be the person who not only oversees all the financial activities of the school but also coordinates all the amazing commercial activities that are associated with our building.  And on Tuesday we began the process of appointing our Facilities and Premises Manager, a key role in working with the Business Manager in maintaining and developing those facilities.  We have such a complicated and specialist building that we are actually having a state of the art system for managing all the technical, mechanical and specialist equipment and of course this will be something that our Business and Facilities managers have to understand and oversee.  I can honestly say that the sound and lighting box in the theatre is looks more like the cockpit of a jumbo jet at the moment, there is no doubt in my mind that we need some real technical expertise and help there!  Gone are the days of school productions where I was in charge back stage and my technical support was to dim the lights and fade in and out the music on a (then) state of the art cassette player!  Yesterday Mr Scutt and I had the absolute pleasure of showing our new Archdeacon of Malmesbury, Rev. Christopher Bryan round our school.  We were accompanied by our Diocesan Director of Education, Liz Townend, who has visited before and was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the building! 

Once we had walked round the Deanery we visited two Church of England primary schools – one that is in our Multi Academy Trust and one that isn’t.  First we visited Tadpole Farm academy where we saw the most amazing project based learning and had a lovely lunch!  And then we went onto Oliver Tomkins school, which is of course named after one of the Bishops of Bristol and here we saw students busily learning their PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education).  It was fantastic to see two schools in action, both using very different styles of learning and to try and understand a bit more about the fantastic work of our church education partners in the primary sector.

And finally, one thing I have noticed on all of the site tours now, but have not mentioned it before, despite the fact that the site is so busy (and it always is), every time I have visited and gone into the chapel, even though we have not dedicated this space yet, there is the most amazing feeling of calm and serenity – you can really feel God’s presence there.  As a practising Christian I am so honoured to be the founding Principal of our first Church of England secondary school in Swindon.  I cannot wait to be part of worship there, seeing people of all faiths coming together, to praise and worship.  I am also really excited about the fact that we have deliberately set out to serve all people: we look forward to welcoming people of no faith, some faith and a strong faith, because of course this truly reflects what it is like in our local communities.  Learning to respect differences and be tolerant of each other is a key message that we will be promoting from the very beginning.  But most of all, I thank God every day for the opportunity given to me, to bring together my professional and faith journeys and to share the talents and blessings I have been given in the knowledge that we can transform lives by building hope: empowering learners who have safe boundaries and strong relationships with each other.