Update from Principal James O’Connell | 15 June 2020

Dear Parents/Carers,

We are looking forward to welcoming back Year 10 and 12 students this week.  We are beginning with one-to-one meetings over the week before starting small group teaching from the week commencing Monday 22 June.  Full details have been sent to Year 10 and 12 students and their parents separately.

We have also sent out a brief video which shows students some of the new procedures and measures in place to keep everyone as safe as possible as we gradually start to get more people back in.  You may all be interested in these measures and the video is on our website and can be viewed here (look out for the cameo appearance from Roly, our head caretaker, who has been a key figure in producing our extensive risk assessment and has done a fantastic job with his team in preparing and adapting our site!).  I’m glad to say that this film doesn’t have me competing with the wind (unlike my last assembly) but I think my chances of a second career in TV presenting are limited.  I don’t yet love film-making but one of the silver linings of this situation is that it’s giving us all opportunities to develop new skills and make better use of technology in particular.  We are working hard on this and, as previously promised, you will shortly be receiving an update on our online offer and commitment to providing more live or recorded lessons and Q&A windows for all students every week.  This will give them an opportunity to see a teacher, query anything they don’t understand and ask other questions.  We’re meeting online in staff groups a lot more these days and will be carrying out further online training sessions to keep improving in this regard.

I hope that things are well in your households and that some of the easing of the lockdown is helping you.  However, I think for many the situation has felt pretty tough in the last couple of weeks.  The change of weather seems to have affected us all and some of the recent national news has been deeply frustrating.  We (leaders in school and education) have been given extensive and multiple documents over the last few months to guide and advise us.  These come out daily from the Department for Education with further documents from Devon Local Authority.  The guidance does change and is not always straightforward but we have been guided recently by the principle of establishing ‘bubbles’ or pods as we’re calling them as far as possible in order to avoid students being taught in lots of groups and therefore mixing with lots of different people; the much-discussed rule of maintaining 2 metres between people in classrooms is recommended ‘where possible’ and we can have up to 15 in a classroom.  However, our classrooms have a capacity of between 8-11 students when we apply the 2 metre principle, and hence why we have pods or groups of this size in Years 10 and 12.  We have been told that we cannot bring in any other year groups other than Years 10 or 12 at the moment.  This includes Year 6 pupils from primary schools with whom we would really like to do some transition work.  However, I hope that this will change and, if we can, we will bring in other year groups starting off with the same plan of one-to-one ‘learning review day’ meetings with each student.  We want to give all students some sense of getting back to school and some sort of educational normality before the summer holidays if we can!

There have been some headlines about ‘summer holiday catch-up sessions’.  There has been no further information or details on this but I hope that there will be some clarification over the coming week.  We are of course looking ahead to September and have a draft timetable for next year, but we also have to develop some contingency plans for running the timetable differently in September if the distancing rules and principle of bubbles remain in place.  I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate at the moment but we have some different scenarios in mind and I will let you know of our plans when we can make them.  A further question and concern that is rising to the fore for Year 10 and 12 students in particular, parents and our staff, is what will happen with exams next year.  With the amount of time students have had out of school, there is a growing realisation that we cannot ‘catch-up’ on everything and there will have to be some adaptations or quite radical changes to the examination system next year at least.  Again, it’s probably not helpful to speculate further, but please be assured that we are part of the national debate on this and are thinking carefully about the challenges and adapting our curriculum and plans accordingly.

I’m aware that all of this can read quite bleakly but, in summary, there are reasons to be positive and optimistic:

  • The numbers of people in Devon with the coronavirus continues to be very small and in our local area it seems that there are very few cases currently.
  • In addition, our school feeds a relatively small geographical area and, in contrast to most secondary schools, we have very low numbers who come into school using public transport (less than 15%); this is a significant advantage as it substantially reduces the risk of the virus being brought into our school.
  • As already said, we as teachers are having to adapt to new technologies and ways of working and these forced changes are improving us as educators.
  • We are learning a huge amount about home learning and our provision of homework and independent work for students in the future is going to improve significantly.
  • Some students are taking control and demonstrating independence and powers of self-direction and self-motivation that are quite frankly astonishing, and most are developing greatly in this regard.
  • Students have a significant opportunity to spend time on activities, topics or skills of their own choosing; for some, this could be a gateway to developing passions for life and even a career opener.
  • We largely have more autonomy and control over our time than ever, which is a form of freedom.
  • There is real potential through the current situation for schools to develop our curriculum and what exams and assessment looks like; this could significantly improve education and your children’s experiences, and we are seeking to capitalise on this.

I’ve heard from some heads who have had quite a tough time and felt quite criticised by their communities.  I don’t pretend to think that we are getting everything right, but you could not have been more supportive as a collective body – thank you.

Finally, I’ve been touched by the interest in our illegal resident ‘Mickey’ mouse.  The honest truth is that Mickey has failed to make an appearance for two weeks now and I actually think that the continual presence of three people in the house every day has driven her/him away.  Particularly the presence of two large and loud adolescents shouting (far too frequently) at a PS4 is enough to drive more than just Mickey out of the house (perhaps that’s why my running and cycling distances have been improving)!

Best wishes,

James O’Connell