11 December 2020

Dear Parents & Carers,


I would guess that Margaret Keenan and May Parsons never expected to make the front page of nearly every national newspaper, or, for that matter, to be the lead item on both the BBC and ITV news. However, as the first recipient of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Matron administering the injection, it is perfectly right that they became of national interest. That is also true when their individual stories are considered. Both tell a positive story of immigration to Britain, and to the West Midlands in particular. Margaret Keenan being the type of no-nonsense Irish matriarch that I recognise from my childhood; at the heart of a large family, keeping things together for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 90 is a fine age to reach and still be active. The Irish Independent summed the story up in the following way:


The joy of (this story) serves to remind us how interlinked all our lives are on these two islands. Margaret Keenan's experience of a life lived over 60 years in the English city of Coventry typifies the stories of literally millions of Irish people over the decades. These people personify the arguments in favour of friendship, co-operation, and goodwill between all who share these two interlinked islands.

Matron May Parsons is of a different generation and came to Britain from the Philippines as a child. She has worked in the NHS for 24 years to support and care for others in what seemed from her interview, a low key, no fuss manner. We are very fortunate that people from such diverse backgrounds contribute to our society and dedicate their lives to helping others. Being the second person to do something often means that you are written out of history, so I feel compelled to note that the second recipient of the vaccine was William Shakespeare, 78, from just outside Stratford-Upon-Avon. 


That positive story also highlights that whilst progress is being made, great care is still needed. This week’s message can be condensed into one simple statement; please speak with your child about the importance of being sensible in the final week of term and avoiding complacency. We are one week away from the Christmas holiday and that will be adversely affected if we have to ask anyone to self-isolate because of a confirmed case in school. As you know, we have worked very hard to create a safe environment and to manage risk, but all members of our school community need to take extra care in the final week of term and to be cautious now so that they can, hopefully, enjoy Christmas with their families. In a broader societal sense, it is clear that the virus will continue to spread. It is also clear the Government is committed to keeping English schools fully open. Therefore, we all have a personal responsibility to limit risk and not to just expect others to be careful. We have written to a large number of you this week about the positive contribution that your child has made to school life. Please encourage them to continue following our systems next week and to make the right decisions.


In terms of the sensible precautions that you can take, please remember to give your child a spare face covering in case of loss or damage, insist that they wear a face covering when travelling by school bus and in all communal spaces. We have regularly shared the Local Authority’s flowchart on Covid symptoms via these updates and I would ask you to review and discuss the symptoms with your child again this weekend. If your child has any of the commonly identified symptoms, please do not send them into school as it puts other members of our school community at risk. The Local Authority flowchart on symptoms can be found here:


Can my child go to school today?


You will be aware that the Department for Education has asked schools to continue with track and trace procedures up until 23rd or 24th December. If your child receives a positive test result between Saturday 19th and Tuesday 22nd December, please contact the school via the normal email address: school@durhamjohnston.org.uk. We will monitor the school account between 9.00 and 10.30 a.m. each morning and will contact families if it is necessary for any student to self-isolate. Responsibility for track and trace was picked up by schools in September when it became apparent that there was a need for greater speed and accuracy. Schools have managed this process very efficiently from September onwards and our system has worked very effectively to date. Quite obviously, no member of staff wants to inform a student’s family that they need to self-isolate at Christmas, but that is the reality of the situation. Members of the school’s Leadership Team will be available to address any concerns during the week beginning 21st December, but all Durham secondary schools have asked the Local Authority for additional help and support during the first week of the holiday period and we will share any relevant information with you as it becomes available.


This will the first year since 1982 that our term doesn’t end at Durham Cathedral. Our Carol Service is an important part of the school’s cultural life and it will be strange not to experience that end of term ritual. However, we have a virtual service that offers traditional carols, readings and a Christmas message from Canon Michael Everitt. As shared with you at the start of term, we will finish school on Friday 18th December at 12.30 p.m. with that virtual service. All students will be able to get a hot meal on the day and school buses will be ready to take students home as normal. The school will then be deep cleaned so that we are ready for start of the spring term.


I will share our plans for the spring term as part of a final update next week. It will be a busy time, with parents’ evenings, Year 9 choosing options, Year 12 examinations and extra support for Years 11 and 13. Therefore, my central message of avoiding complacency applies to the wider holiday too, particularly for students in Years 11 to 13. Next year is an important one and it would be wise to avoid unnecessary risks over the Christmas period so that their learning isn’t affected in January. Apologies if that appears ‘Grinch-like.’


On that subject, we received the Christmas equivalent of ill-fitting socks or slippers from the DfE last week. We had been promised in April full reimbursement for Covid costs and the Education Secretary stated that point clearly in an address to Parliament. Anyone visiting the school will immediately notice that the building has been significantly modified since June and that the associated cost has been high. In June, we were asked to bid for reimbursement, and dutifully did. Last week we received notification that our bid had been successful; for costs in excess of £70,000, we have been given back just over £4000. I will let you draw your own conclusions as to how fair that is. Whilst schools up and down the country are digesting that information by replicating the Cratchit family response to bad news in ‘A Christmas Carol’, rumours that Baroness Dido Harding has been seen buying a much larger turkey than in previous years might be purely anecdotal.


I have been reading a number of articles by Jonathan Sacks this week, the former Chief Rabbi who died on 7th November, and one article about our current pandemic seemed particularly pertinent. He suggested the following: ‘Rarely has it been clearer what we lose by focusing upon the ‘I’ and gain by caring about the ‘we’. When this is all over, society will emerge with a stronger sense of ‘we.’ I hope that he is right. One simple measure of that would be that we all do everything that we can until the end of term to support each other, think about the impact of our actions on others and make sensible decisions.  I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and hope that you enjoy Anna Bastey’s wonderful school Christmas card, shown below.


Thank you for your ongoing support


Mr O’Sullivan