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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

Tempus fugit

Posted on: 08/11/2019

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!