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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 fugit

It 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

One life, live it....

Posted on: 24/06/2019

In preparing for the final run-in to opening, I cannot get out of my head the purpose of why we are opening the Deanery.  Our strapline is educating so children can enjoy ‘life in all its fullness’.  I have been thinking a lot about what life in all its fullness means.  It is easy to see, as you walk round the Deanery, how children with a wide range of skills and strengths will flourish at the academy.  The physical space is flooded with light and spectacular panoramic views (mostly of countryside) and high ceilings make the classrooms seem even bigger than they actually are.  The external natural environment has been maintained so that the outside parts of the school still retain many different natural habitats and as I arrived to work last Friday I was greeted by a low swooping fly-past from a swan, no doubt heading to the canal.  The facilities are incredible as has been widely publicised and now that the furniture is going in, it is easy to see how we will be able to cater for students of all abilities and interests – the science labs are looking fantastic, with commanding views (probably the best in the school) and lots of very technical equipment.  The facilities for the arts are spectacular – I was showing 2 visitors around on Friday who said that the hairs on their arms were standing up the second they walked in, but the theatre made them both emotional!  I still get that feeling and I am pretty used to walking in there.  And of course the sports facilities are fantastic – myself and one of the Governors (also an ex-P.E. teacher) took an imaginary P.E. lesson in the sportshall last Friday and it felt incredible!  Both of us can’t wait to get our trainers on and get started!!

But of course, as I have mentioned before, that the building is only a very tiny part of the story.  What is far more important are the people in the building.  I think by the end of today we will have secured all the staff who will be working with us as we open.  Last week we interviewed more people in the space of a week than I think I have ever done before!  We made some key appointments as well, and for any of you who saw my advertisement, you will know that we were looking for Superman or Wonder Woman – we found her!!  We also recruited a Family Support Worker who has extensive experience and expertise in supporting students and their families.  We have nearly sorted our classroom support roles and are just finalising details of the Facilities and Estates Team.  This is the most exciting time, as we can see the staff finally coming together and I can begin to work on building a really strong team ethos.  I have said at most of the interviews we have conducted that whilst the building is incredible and we will be working in the most amazing physical environment, the most important part is of course the people inside the building. 

The beating heart of the Deanery will be based on our aspiration to help people flourish and this is central to everything we are doing.  Strong relationships, safe boundaries and empowered learning are the three key ingredients, we believe, in helping people flourish.  So in amongst time spent interviewing last week, Mr Scutt and I also thought lots about our curriculum and met with our specialist curriculum advisors – they are supporting us with making the Deanery learning experience incredible, coherent, fit for purpose and robust enough that it will prepare students for life in jobs that may not have been created yet.  We spent time last week building the school timetable and trying to find the best balance of lessons for students so that they can prosper while they are learning: I have found over the many years of my teaching career that sometimes it is the balance of lessons in a day that can help a student learn (or in some case not learn).  Getting the balance right from the start is something we are working really hard on.  The other thing we are committed to doing is helping students build strong relationships and so as we begin to meet all our primary school partners in our transition meetings, we are keen to learn about where strong friendships already exist and who works well with who.  It is important to recognise that whilst we will be really careful to try to make the correct balance in tutor groups and teaching groups, occasionally things may go wrong.  As children grow up they learn how to build friendships and working relationships, but sometimes this means they have to learn how to cope in situations where things may not go as we would always wish them to.  Friendships sometimes change, sometimes young people make mistakes and have arguments and sometimes working relationships do not work as well as we would hope.  And it is at these times that often the pressures of modern day living lead people to say and do things that they would not normally do and may live to regret later.  This is why we will spend a lot of time talking with students and teaching them about how to build and keep strong relationships.  One key thing is to teach students how to find a way back when things do go wrong.  I often find when you ‘un-pick’ a friendship fall-out issue it is a relatively minor incident that has snowballed and become a large issue: we will teach students how to prevent this from happening.  And we will support students in learning how to use modern forms of communication for their benefit and not their harm.  You will know by now that I enjoy posting on Twitter, I wouldn’t say that I am a huge social media fan, but I do understand the benefit and interest of using such apps.  However, I am very clear about boundaries with my accounts and I think this is where young people especially need help and support.  So we have very clear social media policies at the Deanery and we are very clear about mobile phone use at school as well. I recognise that some parents/carers may wish their students to carry a mobile phone with them for the journey to and from school, and this is fine, but once at school mobile devices are to be put away and not used.  I will explain this very clearly to students and parents/carers at our information evening in July, and I would really welcome the support of parents/carers with this as well.  There is never an occasion when a student would need their mobile device to communicate with family during the school day – if there is an emergency then this is something that the adults in school should be helping the young person with, so we will help and support where it is appropriate. 

I started this week’s blog with a well-known advertising slogan (other cars are available!) and it is something that I have been thinking a lot about lately (especially since I turned 50 earlier this year!).  I keep coming back to it in my head as I walk round the Deanery, putting the final plans in place for opening and working out where lessons will take place and how learning will be enhanced by our fantastic staff and incredible facilities.  Many people have said to me, “I wish I could be 11 again and go to school here”!  I do know what they mean, but I also believe we should all live life with no regrets, and to do this we have to embrace all the opportunities we have and throw ourselves in to each challenge that presents itself to us.  We are going to give students at the Deanery the most amazing opportunities and sometimes students may be challenged by them, all we ask is that they have a go and try their best.  Living life in all its fullness means being the best person you can be and if we do not try new things and experience new challenges, we do not give ourselves the opportunity to be the person we could be.  I know some students are getting really excited now about the induction days and starting in September – this is excellent news.  But I also know that some are anxious or apprehensive and this is natural as well.  New beginnings and new people and strange places to go can all be a little bit daunting for some.  Just to reassure those students and their families, try not to worry, we have done this lots of times before, we know how to look after you and we know that very soon you will look back on your transition with genuine pride and a sense of achievement.  And before you know it, class of 2019, our “pioneers”, will be welcoming class of 2020, our second intake, who as you will have seen from the website, we are already making plans to welcome in with an open evening at the end of July.