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Posted on: 21/08/2020

Getting ready for re-opening

It has been a long time since I wrote here. This is primarily because there was so much to do and so much to read to prepare and plan for both the end of our first year and now the re-opening in September. When reflecting over the summer on my first year as Principal with students at the academy, I am reminded of how proud I felt as we looked back on all the things we crammed into the shortened time we had with our students actually physically in the building. I can only imagine the impact that the pandemic has had on their lives, changing their futures and all our daily lives. However, I am mindful and thankful that the Deanery has remained relatively unscathed both during the pandemic andin the most recent problems associated with public examinations. I hope that by the time our Class of 2019 get to the end of Year 11, we may, as an education system have sorted out a fair, reliable and just system. We have been very busy over the summer, preparing for our reopening. I realise that we have assimilated phrases and words into our daily vocabularly that meant either different things before or certainly were not used as often: lockdown (we have a policy for that, but it cetainly wasn't as planned!), isolation (we don't do that as a general rule, but we all did that), shielding (as a PE teacher that means something completely different to me), social distancing (I just thought that was me being a bit introspective and wanting time to study!), PPE (to me this previously stood for Pre-Public Exams)and Zoom (that was my favourite ice-lolly as a child). Now I find our procurement is very different - normally we are spending hours pouring over stationery catalogues and choosing new exercise books, this year we've been sourcing hand sanitiser, tape measures and for the floor, one way signs, face shields and clear perspex to make screens. And I kick myself that after only one year we now need to buy more and new bins for classrooms, all with lids. It has been a strange time to be a novice Principal, but then everyone has been a novice this year, no-one has ever really had to do any of this before, so I guess I was suddenly not new at it, just travelling the same path as all other leaders of schools. One thing is for sure, we always take particular care over our newly qualified teachers, especially in September when all things are new to them - this year we are all effectively newly qualified - having to go back to school to completely new ways of working and being. We will all have to learn to teach in a slightly nuanced way, perfect our craft in new ways, I suspect use non-verbal communication much more, use many more reassuring smiles and to a large extent lose proximity from our behaviour management toolkit. I, like many others, cannot wait to get back. I know it is going to be hard work and different, but challenge accepted. Who knows what will happen in the next 12 months, this time last year I wrote about one moment in time, obviously not knwoing what was ahead. We continue to pray for healing in our world, for a safe and swift return to school and 'normal' and that we can continue to build our exceptional school so that all our students and their families can live life in all its fullness. Read More
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

1 year ago today....

Posted on: 31/01/2020

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?!