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Posted on: 19/10/2019

Dignity and respect

I cannot believe it is nearly a month since I last wrote this. How time is flying by. So what have we been up to since I last wrote? Well, we held our first Open Evening for next year’s prospective students in the actual building where children will be going to school. Last year I held Open Evening’s in various (slightly drafty) church halls and churches, not so this year. Thursday 26th September saw over one thousand people come and visit the Deanery and I am proud to say they saw it at its best. We were delighted to be able to have the support of 30 of our current Year 7 students to act as welcomers and show off some of the wonderful activities we have been doing in lessons. Our staff put on some wonderful demonstration lessons and showed off Talbot wing where Year 7 are based. Our community facilities were in full use, with netball, Leadership Martial Arts and Hockey being played, as well as football on the field. It is safe to say we were exhausted at the end of the evening, but delighted with how much interest there was in our fantastic school. Since then we have had Open Morning tours every Friday, either for people who could not make the Open Evening or for those who wanted to see our school in action, with lessons taking place. We estimate that at least another 450 people have visited on the Fridays, how wonderful it is that people are taking the time to make a really considered choice with regards to their secondary school choices. I am so grateful to Miss Evans, my PA, who has run these tours with the Principal’s students. The morning after Open Evening we had some student visitors from Costa Rica come and join us for a day at the Deanery. Some of our students got to talk to them in their home language of Spanish, and then we treated them to one of the wonderful Deanery lunches. After lunch we played sports with them – basketball, cricket, table tennis and football. The following week saw an unexpected turn of events. I took a phone call at about 8.15pm from one of my DBAT colleagues informing me that a group of caravans had arrived in the car park. I had only left school about half an hour previously, as we had been at our first Science evening lecture. We had two fantastic scientists come from the University of Bristol and talk about ‘Gases in the Air’ to students from some of our local primary schools during the school day and then they repeated the same lecture in the evening for parents and other children. I was a bit taken aback at the telephone call, but after some discussions with our security and site team and the local police I was reassured that all was calm. The next morning I arrived early at school to check that the site was safe for our students to come to school as normal. That is one of the fantastic benefits of our facilities, that we actually have a very secure safeguarding line and can have members of the public on site whilst the students are safely in school, behind securely mag(netic)-locked doors. I was delighted that we were able to show hospitality to our visitors – they were invited to use our community toilet (especially helpful for two of the ladies who were pregnant) and also when I visited the caravans to talk to the visitors, they asked if they could have some bin bags so they could tidy up after themselves when they left. My experience of our visitors was a positive one – I was able to speak directly to our students and say that we respect the way our visitors choose to live their lives and that our Alive values call us to live well together and be selfless human beings. I was very proud of how our community - staff, students and families – reacted to our unexpected guests and am proud that we demonstrated dignity and respect to them before they left 2 days later. ‘Dignity and Respect’ was the theme of the conference I attended a few days later in London with the Anglican Association of Secondary School Head teachers. We were staying at a beautiful sanctuary in London, at The Royal Foundation of St Katherine in Limehouse. It is both an amazing place to stay and rest (without televisions in the rooms I hasten to add) and also a good place to go if you just wish for a good wholesome meal in a yurt! Situated right next to the heart of the bank business district, it really is the most remarkable oasis of calm. We had lectures from Bishop James Jones, who was the independent panel chair for the Hillsborough Disaster; Nigel Genders, the Chief Education Officer of the Church or England; Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, a former Bishop in New Zealand, now Bishop of Ripon, who after her lecture led us in a beautiful communion service. A really proud moment was when the school choir from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple school in Bristol joined us to lead our worship on the first day – their Head teacher, Mrs Gilpin, is Chair of the Committee, so she had invited her students to lead our worship and I have to say she cried tears of pride pretty much throughout! We also had a fantastic lecture from Dr Robert Loe from Relational schools, who reminded us how important positive relationships are in schools and from Dr Paula Gooder, who gave the most amazing lecture on bible stories relating to dignity and respect and then she took us to her place of work for a short tour (!) and choral evensong. St Paul’s cathedral nonetheless! I was really excited to go back there as I had visited there in July 2018 for the consecration of our Bishop of Bristol, Bishop Viv. And to have the opportunity to sit in the choir stalls, right next to the choir as they sang, was just uplifting. My time spent following Evensong was a little strange. I had planned to Skype into school, so I could attend the Local Board (Governors) meeting – just one of the advantages of having high tech ICT kit in such a modern school! What I hadn’t accounted for though was how long it would take to get back from St Paul’s after Evensong, so I realised I was going to have to Skype in, not from the comfort of my room back at St Katherine’s, but from somewhere on the way home! I chose a bench outside St Paul’s, used my mobile phone as a hotspot and dialled in on my laptop! I thought I would be fine, sat snuggled in a corner with my coat, my scarf and my headphones on. What I hadn’t accounted for was the slightly strange looks I got from passers-by at 7.30pm and the sudden drop in temperature once it got dark (pretty much straight away!!). After a few long items and some good discussions on the agenda, my wonderful Local Board members told me to pack up and get the Tube back home…..I didn’t need telling twice! Suffice to say, I had to walk right past a very well-known Sushi bar on the way back to the station, so I may just have popped in there for a warm-up supper! Being able to be out of school at the conference was not only very uplifting personally for me, but also taught me a very important lesson. I spoke to a lot of Head teachers last year who said that I probably wouldn’t want to be out of school for any conferences or meetings at all in this first year. This puzzled me. Part of my responsibility as a Principal is to attend meetings and conferences – there are going to be times when I have to go and represent the Deanery or continue my own professional learning and development. This was one of those times, and I am very proud to say that I did not hesitate in accepting the invitation to attend the conference, knowing very well that the Leadership team and staff I have appointed back at school would cope very well without me being there. The students did me proud and I was so moved when one student came up to me on Monday morning and said, “welcome back Miss Culling”! The students really have been fantastic this term – they have adapted to life at the Deanery exceptionally well. We have already established some excellent norms – family dining at lunch is a pleasure, and the students now have a rota to lead grace before we eat. We were moved by the donations received from students and their families for our wonderful harvest celebration assembly, and we were delighted to welcome some of our friends from Uganda to come and speak during the assembly. Our Student Council have had their first meeting of the term, our prefects have been busy at work already and our student librarians have now taken up their posts and have begun to make a difference already. Have you seen the wonderful professional pictures of our library on Twitter? Our Principal students have been busy and have excelled at leading tours on Open Mornings. Our catering company have really excelled themselves, our Cornerstone coffee shop has already become a lovely community hub and I have to admit I have put on a few pounds this term as the food and coffee is so good! Don’t forget to visit the Cornerstone during half term, with Gruffalo activities for the children. And finally a word about the school dogs, who have become very popular already. Izzy has just about completed her induction. She is very popular with students asking if they can walk her a break times and lunchtimes – she’ll never say no to a walk (unless it is raining!). She completes her morning inspection of the corridors, checking that no crumbs have been left, and she has even managed to behave well enough to be present in a couple of lessons. However, today she injured her foot while out taking some well-earned weekend exercise. Hopefully it will heal quickly and she’ll be able to come into school before we break up for the holiday. Elsa hasn’t done quite as well as I thought she would – she is taking a bit longer to get used to being in school and I fear this is because she is used to being with Fuzzy all day. Sadly Fuzzy is a bit too old to come to school, so we will just need to take our time to get Elsa used to being at the Deanery. Despite this, the impact of having the dogs in school has been remarkable, with both staff and students benefitting hugely from their presence. Sorry this has been a bit longer than normal, but there is so much to say! And sorry I have been blogging slightly less frequently than before, but I am sure you understand!Read More
Posted on: 9/09/2019

What a wonderful week

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.Read More

The dog has just started snoring....

Posted on: 24/09/2019

It seems hardly a week since we started, but we are actually now in week 4!  So much has happened in such a short time.  We have had much positive feedback from students, families and community users, it is fantastic to see how our school has already had such a positive impact on the those who attend school here and use our fantastic facilities.

Springing from our culture and ethos, we have established norms and routines for all aspects of our life at school.  This was especially pleasing to be able to demonstrate yesterday to Tom Bennett, who is the Department of Education behaviour tsar.  Tom was in the Deanery leading the final day of a four-day course for Swindon school leaders looking at how to run an effective school.  Tom and the 24 delegates on the course joined us for lunch in the Agora and were hugely impressed with the calm and inclusive nature of family dining, with one member of staff commenting that the atmosphere was “wholesome” (and that wasn’t just the food!). 

Last Friday (20th September) saw our first parent and student tours during the school day.  Two students accompanied me on the tours and actually it became evident very early on the tours that I was actually surplus to requirements.  The parents were very much more interested (of course) in what the students had to say about the school and actually the students did a better job in most cases of explaining our systems and processes and the accompanying rationale!  Well done Freddie and Sasha.

This Thursday (26th September) sees our first Open Evening of this academic year.  We are busy making plans for the evening, as we want to show off our school in its best possible way, but also to give a true picture of what life at the academy is like.  We have been inundated – with students wanting to stay behind to help in various ways, and I think the offer of free pizza for their tea for them has been well received!  It is fabulous to see how many students are already very proud of their school and want to encourage others to come here next year. 

Enrichment activities have been going really well, with students taking part in a wide variety of activities.  We are still looking for volunteers to run activities later in the year, so if you are interested, please contact Mrs Kear-Luckman via reception.

Students have been busy writing letters of application for various posts of responsibility – the first posts to be announced will be prefects, student council members and eco-monitors.  I am going to have a very hard job, with my team of staff, to decide who takes up these positions of responsibility.  One of the first letters of application I read started, “Dear Miss Culling, I would like to be on the school council because I can help the school be greater than it already is”.  Whilst I am so pleased to hear a student already describe their school as “great”, to have such confidence in a young person is fantastic: ambition, drive and passion for making the school even better is just fantastic!  We will announce the successful candidates in assembly and publish their names on the website shortly afterwards.

We had an introduction assembly to our Harvest celebration yesterday, where Mr Duffy from the Swindon Food Collective came and spoke to us about how vital the volunteer run food bank is in Swindon.  We will be collecting non-perishable goods to support the food bank in the run up to harvest, so please bring any donations to reception – students will be given details about ways they can contribute and details of our service will be released soon.

Our school dogs have been busy already, having both completed their first induction days, they will continue to be introduced very slowly to the children.  I am overwhelmed by the positive support I have received regarding the dogs and to see the joy on children’s faces as they meet Izzy and Elsa reinforces the rationale for having school dogs.  Research has demonstrated the psychological and physical benefits of therapy dogs and I am delighted to be able to say that two students who suffer from anxiety (one completely dog-unrelated) have already benefitted hugely from the calming effect of two very waggy tails!  In addition to the benefits for children, I am also aware that staff are benefitting from the presence of the dogs as well – there is something very soothing about stroking a dog and it is noticeable that my office gets many more visits on those days that ‘the girls’ are in!  I would just like to point out that Izzy is curled up asleep while I write this and has just begun to snore, so maybe I have written enough for now!  I hope this blog continues to be of interest and is providing an interesting insight into life at the academy.