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Cirencester Deer Park School

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One Year On...

Reflection on an unprecedented year

This week, week commencing 22 March 2021, the anniversary of the first period of lockdown and school closure provided an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have learnt as school leaders over the past 12 months.

As an English teacher by background, I recall a resource we used to use with pupils in Key Stage 3, called ‘School Under Siege’. In lessons we would create a scenario, such as a pandemic, and encourage pupils to reflect on events and write in role as events unfolded. Never did I imagine that I would be leading a school during a global pandemic and that some of the ideas we explored hypothetically would become a reality.

On Wednesday 18 March 2020, in our weekly meeting, members of the school’s leadership team at Deer Park listened to the Prime Minister and, while the closure of schools was anticipated, we all felt winded by the announcement that all public examinations were cancelled and our thoughts immediately turned to how best we could reassure teachers, support our pupils, their wellbeing and progression.

As a leadership team we had thought about crisis management and we had shared our critical incident plans with our governing body. However, while in our risk matrix, a global pandemic did not feature highly and our strategy focused on more local catastrophes such as fire and flood. These have subsequently been reviewed.

During the pandemic as school leaders we have benefited from the support we have given each other and received from others in our learning community. At times, with speculation and changes to the guidance, it has felt like being at the helm of a ship in very high seas trying to anticipate which way the vessel will roll next.

We have endeavoured to stay true to our core purpose and retain our professional integrity. We worked closely with our Heads of Faculty to ensure our centre assessed grades in 2020 were as accurate as possible and we are doing so again in 2021.

We have not only been determined to maintain the rhythm and momentum of learning throughout, but we have also been committed to upholding the quality of our provision and staying connected with everyone. We are grateful for the support we have had from the wider school team and we continue to be impressed by the way in which our staff and pupils have risen to the challenges we have all faced.

In particular, we have learnt to:

  • Live with uncertainty and take each day as it comes. While we continue to plan ahead where we can, we have become more agile and nimble in responding to the guidance we receive and situations that arise. By taking on new responsibilities, we have developed our resilience and become even more resourceful.
  • Listen more carefully to what we hear from the government in their briefings and read in subsequent guidance, as well as to the feedback we receive from our pupils, parents and staff so that we can make informed decisions. We recognise we are in an unenviable position and while we appreciate we cannot please everyone, we always aim to act in their best interests. We are currently reflecting on the outcomes of a recent survey of staff and pupils in Year 9 regarding the learning we have taken from the last 12 months and what we would like to keep or bin going forward!
  • Evaluate risks, adopt new systems of control and manage change. This has been one of the most difficult things we have learnt, not least because we have had to compromise. We know aspects of our staggered school day and the movement of teachers to pupils in their home bases bring additional challenges, but these, alongside routines for good hand and respiratory hygiene, have helped us reduce contacts and minimise the risk of infection.
  • Focus on detail in our planning. This has been especially true in response to a confirmed case of COVID in the school. Fortunately, in our experience this has been a relatively rare occurrence, but because of our action plan, in which we have clearly set out our expectations and rehearsed who does what, we have been able to track and trace contacts quickly and make alternative provision for them through our remote learning plan. Attention to detail was also evident in our response to the testing regime from January 2021. Timely and effective training of our volunteers and testing team ensured the tests could be carried out safely with the minimum of disruption.
  • Act decisively and make difficult decisions. Whenever we have had to do so, whether it has been around exam grading, lockdown or periods of self-isolation, we have endeavoured to respond pragmatically and communicate clearly. Sadly, this is also exemplified in our decision to not organise our annual Enrichment Week in 2020-21 or any school trips until it is safe to do so. Similarly, we have not been able to host Expressive Arts or Sports events. These are all equally important to us as, when they happen, they enrich our pupils’ learning and experiences. We are all keen to reset our school calendar and to help us do this we have created our own ‘road map out of lockdown’ which mirrors that of the government. We are excited by the promise of renewed enrichment and we have begun to re-introduce extra-curricular activities.
  • Use technology differently to ensure teaching and learning and school events can continue to take place. We have all been on a steep learning curve, but owing to a little bit of foresight and a lot of ingenuity, we were quick to adapt our practice. Staff were trained in the use of MS Teams before the school closed in March 2020 and our first ‘live’ lessons were piloted with pupils in Year 11 immediately as we went into the first lockdown, before being rolled out to other year groups after Easter in 2020. Our remote learning plan has been kept under review and during the second period of school closure from January 2021 we expanded our provision and achieved a better balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning across all subjects. Furthermore, we have been undeterred; we have taken a creative approach and seamlessly moved our milestone events online. These have included our welcome and induction evenings for pupils joining us in Year 7 in September 2020, our Celebrations of Achievement in Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 and our Young Singer and  Young Musician competitions.
  • Apply a new vocabulary when we talk about the pandemic – Coronavirus, COVID-19 - and there are new acronyms such as LFDs and PCRs. Phrases like ‘social distancing’ have become embedded in our planning and others like ‘lockdown’ and ‘testing’ have taken on new meanings.
  • Value social interaction especially reciprocity. This is one of our 4Rs and sits alongside resilience, resourcefulness and reflection. However, it was probably the least mentioned, but now, as we have returned to face-to-face teaching, is imperative. As humans, we crave the company of others and this is essential for our wellbeing. We understand better now why so many pupils respond to the question ‘Why do you enjoy coming to school?’ simply with ‘I like being with my friends’.
  • Be positive and inspired by the efforts everyone has made within our learning community to be the best they can be in truly exceptional circumstances, and of those who have taken action to make a difference like Captain Sir Tom Moore: ‘Tomorrow will be a good day.’ As school leaders we have all found comfort in the work of Michael Fullan, education researcher, whose model for successful schools is predicated on optimism; he believes that alongside moral purpose, positive relationships and coherent plans, a combination of energy, enthusiasm and hope will ultimately result in ‘fewer bad things happening and more good things happening’!

I am looking forward to the next 12 months, which will undoubtedly bring fresh challenges. Cirencester Deer Park School is a resilient and robust organisation. I am privileged to work with such a strong and committed team of leaders, teachers and support staff.

Thank you for your contribution, however great or small, to helping and support us and our pupils through a year that has been like no other in my 18 years as a headteacher!

‘Thank you so much for all your work arranging the COVID tests and help in getting everyone back to school. I think Deer Park has been amazing this last year arranging all the home learning and adapting to all the changes needed. I feel my daughter has continued her learning as well as she would have done if she had been in school. She has brought home a History and Geography ‘humanities hero’ certificate and received Spanish and Design postcards recently. These extras Deer Park do really do make a difference! The smile on her face is wonderful to see.’ (Year 9 Parent)

Chiquita Henson