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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

Dignity and respect

Posted on: 19/10/2019

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!