24 April 2020

Dear Parents and Carers,

I hope that you and your families are in good health. There are a number of important updates that I would like to share, but firstly I would like to thank you for your ongoing support and the trust that you have placed in the school. We have tried to maintain a very measured approach, thinking carefully about each new development and trying to only take actions that are sustainable. You have trusted us to make the best possible decisions for all 1660 of our students and that is greatly appreciated. There are many things that we could have done differently or better, but that is not through lack of thought or effort.

 

When we will re-open for all students?

There is significant national speculation about when schools will ‘re-open.’ We have never actually closed, but quite clearly the focus of our daily work has been very different. The Education Secretary has been asked to clarify whether or not schools will be open in July and August, or if GCSE and A Level exams will take place later in July 2021. Questions have also been asked about how social distancing will be implemented in schools, how schools are supporting disadvantaged students and how school closures are affecting the mental health of children. There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but they are problems that we are currently considering and trying to address. This is difficult because we genuinely have no information other than that which is in the public domain. The main purpose of any school is to educate young people in a safe environment and I hope that we will be able to do that again soon. A number of possible dates have been suggested in the media, but none have been shared officially with schools. As a maintained Local Authority school we will act in accordance with the instruction given by the Department for Education. We have always offered a high level of support for our disadvantaged students and for those struggling with their mental health; that won’t change, but the issues that students encounter will be different and we will need to adapt and find new ways to help them. In terms of social distancing, that simply isn’t possible in a school with 1660 students. We are a large, oversubscribed secondary school, not a small rural primary. We will plan and make any sensible adjustments that are possible, but I would be lying if I were to say that it was straightforward and easily manageable.

 

Prioritising Year 11 and 13

Whilst all of our different year groups are important, the Department for Education are, rightly, most concerned about students who are about to make the transition to University, A Level study or secondary school. I wrote to Year 11 and Year 13 students on Monday 20th April and our Subject Leaders and teachers are now working hard to meet Ofqual’s 29th May deadline for grading and ranking. Those letters can be found here:

Letter to Year 13

Letter to Year 11

Moving on to Year 10 and Year 12

The Department for Education are yet to offer any specific guidance regarding years 10 and 12, but it is clear that they too will be affected by school closures. As of writing, they have missed three weeks of school and Ofqual are considering a variety of options to help them. They may reduce course content or modify exams; they might move exams to a later point in the 2020-21 calendar. As soon as we have any updates we will share them, but I would like to provide some context regarding both year groups at Durham Johnston. Year 12 would usually have study leave in this half-term in preparation for internal and external examinations. They would have used the Easter holidays and the first week of this term for revision, to complete Year 12 content and to consolidate their work.
We are adding materials to the website that relate to Y13 transition, enrichment activities and preparation for university applications. We will ask Y12 students to complete a survey online next week to identify what additional support is needed; Mrs Lennon will continue to provide regular weekly updates and we will increase our subject specific communication with individual classes too. A similar approach will be taken with Year 10 students and we are carefully planning their calendar for next year to make sure that we plan their time to give them the best opportunity to succeed. Our main focus, however, when Years 10 and 12 return, will be their well-being and making sure that they reintegrate successfully.

 

Home Learning Resources

We have added a large number of additional, high quality subject resources to the website and are regularly providing updates regarding new materials on Twitter. We have also updated our parental guidance, mental health support materials and guidance on transition. There are House System challenges and similar materials from the PE department encouraging physical activity. Year Leaders have written to their year groups today to keep in touch and form tutors will write to their forms next week too. Their letters can be accessed below:

Letters from Heads of Year 

I would also draw your attention to the website of Oak National Academy. They have been given financial support from the Department for Education to bring together a series of taught lessons that students in years 7-10 can access. The videos can be used in conjunction with our home learning resources. The lessons have been vetted for safeguarding purposes and are an excellent resource. In addition, the BBC have increased their programming significantly, which should also offer a range of resources for students and parents to access.

 

The difficulties of working at home

There is a Goldilocks element to how much work students should be doing at home; some will do too little, others will put themselves under too much pressure and do too much. Our advice is clearly outlined on the home learning section of the website, but I also wanted to share some thoughts. Structure is important and students should maintain a daily routine. However, that does not necessarily mean 5 hours of study each day. Lessons at Durham Johnston are mainly interactive. Students complete practical tasks, are involved in discussion, feed back to their teacher and each other, read, think, review, write and solve problems. Studying at home can never replicate that classroom experience and the best model to aim for is one in which they work for shorter bursts, as when revising , and then make notes or discuss their work with people at home.
I’m aware that students are producing work that isn’t being marked and our intention was for students to test themselves regularly and to complete research tasks. We are aware that feedback is important and are currently discussing how to make that equitable and manageable. To address this immediately, we have introduced more testing into our home learning resources, allowing students to check their progress more regularly and our Subject Leaders are prioritising that approach in our resources for this half-term.
It is important that students are busy and engaged, but I would also suggest that their time will be well spent if they read for pleasure, support their families and get regular exercise. Above all else, please reassure them that our main concern is that they are healthy, and that their well-being will be our priority when they return. Our current national predicament means that they will be very anxious and we have no intention of applying inappropriate pressure when they return. Please explain that they will not fall behind or be told off if they have not completed all of the work set; we will make sure that they are well supported and prepared for their next steps when school returns.

 

Free School Meals, IT Support, World Challenge and the Children of Key Workers

Our main priority this week has been making sure that families with an entitlement to free school meals are supported. There is a National Voucher System in place, but, unfortunately, it has been cumbersome and ineffective to date. Therefore, we have chosen to support families independently and vouchers were delivered on Monday for an additional 4 week period. Many families are experiencing worrying financial difficulties and we would encourage you to contact the school if your circumstances have recently changed.
The Education Secretary has also, rightly, offered support for families who do not have computers, printers or internet access at home, with priority given to those with social workers, and in year groups that will complete exams in 2021. We are not in a position to do so independently, but will let you know as soon we process the additional guidance that was shared with schools this afternoon. In accordance with that advice, the Local Authority will order any relevant devices and schools will distribute items to families who are entitled. We have offered weekly support for families that need paper copies of home learning resources and will continue to do so too, as our intention is always to make sure that students do not fall behind because of their personal circumstances.
We continue to be open for the children of key workers, only being closed over the Easter weekend, and I would like to thank all those who are working in key industries. We have produced a significant amount of PPE for local care homes and hospitals and will continue to do so in coming weeks. We are proud to support the NHS.  
Finally, we have been informed by World Challenge that expeditions planned for July and August 2020 have been cancelled and that there is guidance regarding refunds
on their website at this link. We have contacted them with regularity on behalf of our students and it good that resolution is nearer. 

We will continue to think carefully about how best to support our students and to do so in a way that has long-term value, as opposed to short-term expedience. Your ongoing trust and support has made a difficult period more manageable and I would like to thank you again.

Mr O’Sullivan