4 December 2020

Dear Parents and Carers,

When we were planning for a return to school in September there were two interlinked priorities that we discussed. Firstly, that we would try to make things as normal as possible for our students; secondly that anything that we had to cancel, stop doing or significantly modify would return fully as soon as it became possible to do so.  Obvious things such as extra-curricular activities, the school’s rich and varied musical life, societies and the wide range of sporting activities that our students enjoy and learn from. The word ‘normal’ has been used far too frequently since March, but the routines and structure associated with the daily routines of school life are very important and provide certainty. On the second point, it is excellent to see the gradual increase in extra-curricular activities that we can offer and is also worth noting that our PE Department, for example, worked very creatively in November to maintain activities for students outside of the school day. All schools are unique and we don’t want to lose things that are hugely important to our ethos; students don’t just develop in the classroom, there is much more to school life and we need to guard against losing those things are harder to quantify.

We crossed into December this week and the clearest indication of that was the sight of the school Christmas tree, lights twinkling as I came into school on Monday morning. It is important to think of others at this time of year and it has been wonderful to see the tree surrounded by gifts and contributions for the charities that our House System is supporting this year, Family Action and Feeding Families, NE. This is something that Miss Forbes has organised for a number of years now and it is interesting to note quite how much our students have provided; equal to, if not more, than in previous years. Many members of our school community are struggling and the NE has been hit very hard by the pandemic, but they are still thinking of others. Some of the food that students have contributed will be also be shared with local foodbanks.

We have also looked at ways to support children at Christmas who have experienced difficulties at home and have promoted the White Ribbon appeal, which is intended to offer support for women who have experienced domestic violence. The school has also acknowledged and shared information with our 6th form students as part of World Aids Awareness Day. Our own difficulties shouldn’t blind us to the circumstances of others.

You can read more about the Christmas Appeal here.

Our support staff have worked incredibly hard since September, but have still summoned the energy to maintain some of our Christmas rituals. We will have a full Christmas lunch on Thursday 10th December, a socially distanced Santa Run to raise money for St. Cuthbert’s on Tuesday 15th December for Year 7 and 8 students, and many form classes have Secret Santa plans. We have taken delivery of this year’s school Christmas card, designed by Anna Bastey in Year 12, which we will share with parents and carers as part of next Friday’s update. Since 1982, this term has traditionally finished with a carol service at the Cathedral. Unfortunately, that won’t be possible this year. However, the Music Department have worked closely with the Cathedral, recording a short carol service that will be shared with all students via virtual assemblies in the last week of term. The Cathedral have been very supportive, allowing us to perform in a socially distanced space and Mr Scott, our longest serving member of staff, and a number of students have recorded readings. It isn’t the carol service as we know it, but a great deal of effort has been made. We have made musical performances from school concerts past available via Twitter, and the full ‘service’ will be available to all members of our school community in the final week of term. It will be a very different Christmas in school, but it is important that students get to experience the rituals that make this an enjoyable and reflective time of year.

Our Year 11 students have just completed a full series of mock examinations, a huge undertaking for them and our support staff who have made sure that the available time and space have been used effectively. We have had to use spaces both large and small to make things work, but Year 11 have been an absolute credit; mature, well prepared, with high levels of attendance. Mrs McFadden, Deputy Head, has written to all Year 11 parents to outline how the exams initiate a sequence of support and meetings from January onwards. Year 13 are slightly ahead in that process and we are very excited to be hosting our first virtual parents’ evening, via SchoolCloud’s platform on Monday 7th December. We already have 90% of parents and carers signed up, which is excellent. We will offer feedback on the system for other parents in January and intend to host other evenings in spring using the same technology. A link to Mrs McFadden’s letter can be found here:

Post-exam letter for parents.

In recent weeks, I have written about the need for clarity regarding next year’s exam season. After 13 weeks of the academic year, it has finally arrived and, in principle, seems very sensible. We are keen that students get to complete examinations and many of the alternatives that have been discussed and suggested are flawed. More importantly, teachers, students and their families have simply needed a sense of what they are working towards. No system is perfect, therefore time was always needed for schools to plan and adapt. Whilst we welcome the outline information that has been shared, it is important to note that the actual detail won’t be provided until late January 2021. In teaching terms, we will have an additional 6 weeks at GCSE and A Level before knowing the actual nuance of what students will and will not be asked to do between May and July when they sit in their exams. We are currently working on additional information for parents of Year 11, 12 and 13 students to help them make sense of the current position, but the Department for Education’s most detailed current guidance can be found here:

DfE Summer Exam Guidance

As I write this, it is murky and raining very heavily. We have been very fortunate so far to have avoided bad weather. Whilst on yard duty today it was apparent that a large number of students are choosing not to wear coats. As we move into winter it will get wetter and colder and it is very important that students wear layers and have waterproof coats wherever possible. Students have been very sensible in terms of uniform in recent weeks and wearing a coat makes sense too. Please do everything that you can to make sure that they are dressed for the weather in the coming weeks.

On Wednesday I received a copy of the book ‘1066 and All That’ in the post from a former Durham Johnston student. He explained that he had attended when the school was ‘situated by the river,’ on South Street, between 1943 and 1948. He wrote to thank his teachers from that period for his education and the benefits that followed as a consequence. He also shared a report card with some excellent grades, indicating, in his words, ‘the ability of my teachers’, thanking our current teachers for carrying on that traditions. He was a student at Durham Johnston during a difficult period for Britain, but a good education allowed him to progress as the country recovered and got back to normal in the late 1940s and 1950s. I don’t need to overstate the underlying message (and no one needs another World War Two analogy). His act of support and kindness was much appreciated. Thank you, Mr N. I. Adie, Old Johnstonian and former resident of Nevilledale Terrace.

Mr O’Sullivan