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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

What a wonderful week

Posted on: 09/09/2019

We 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.