15 January 2021

Dear Parents and Carers,

If asked to name the greatest or most gifted tennis champions in history, you’d probably be quite far down the list before you hit upon Arthur Ashe. He won 3 Grand Slams and was obviously hugely talented, but isn’t the first name in the pantheon when it comes to talent. He was noted for his pragmatism and one of his famous quotes has been shared a lot in schools this week. When speaking of how people can succeed in life, or approach a problem, he commented: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” I think that we have all been in that position since 4th January and we have been trying to maximise what we have (or can access, requisition or borrow) and to do all that we can to support our students and the wider school community. Whilst things are changing quickly, there are also some consistent areas of our work that it is important to share.   

Remote Learning – It has been excellent to see how teachers and students are developing new and effective ways of working remotely. Participation remains very high and we are continuing to share good ideas. Our remote learning guidance statement will be added to the school website next week and Ofsted have offered a helpful overview of what is working well in remote education which you can read here. What has become apparent over the past two weeks is that not all key stages should follow a prescriptive model of online teaching. A variety of different teaching and learning strategies are sensible and that approaches might need to differ from subject to subject. This would seem logical and one of our long standing maxims is that ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ in relation to how schools should support students at different points in their education. The approach that we have put into place is clearly working well for the majority of students and we will continue to refine, adapt and develop our online learning as we become more experienced. The support and kind feedback that you have offered has been a real tonic for staff too. In terms of feedback, it is understandable that some parents have chosen to contact teachers via Teams, as they will be aware that staff are working closely with students via that system. Could I please remind parents and carers that we have long established systems for parental communication that continue to work very effectively; if you call or email, we will respond. Teams represents a shared teaching space and it would be inappropriate to walk into the classroom and ask a teacher a question in front of the class. Please consider Teams in that way too and access the systems that are well established if you have a query or concern.

Parents’ Evenings – It was good to meet with so many parents on Monday evening. It is clear that virtual parents’ evenings are very popular and the feedback, again, has been very positive. We are currently considering how the system needs to be developed for younger age groups. For example, KS3 students study a much wider range of subjects before choosing their options and would need many more appointments. With that in mind, we will share our plans next week for the upcoming Year 9 parents’ evening, which is scheduled to take place on Monday 1st February 2021. We will also share information about Year 9 reports and the virtual open evening.

Exam Update – There have been some sensible initial suggestions regarding examinations for Year 11 and 13 students, but that is all they are at present, suggestions. As has been noted this week, the devil will be in the detail. Ofqual are due to begin a consultation period for schools, students and their families next week. They will then recommend a system, the ‘Plan B’ that we have been requesting, and offer a framework and timeline for training, assessments and grading. Therefore, we will make sure that all of our students and their families are made aware when a final plan is outlined. At this stage we are still very uncertain and can’t offer anything other than an opinion, therefore we will wait, process any plans that are shared and avoid speculation until we have clarity. The letter that Gavin Williamson has written to Ofqual can be found at this link.

FSM – From March 2020 onwards we have provided direct support for all those within our school community who are entitled to FSM. We have provided vouchers and will continue to do so. Whilst you will have your own view on the approach taken by some companies or large academy chains to FSM this week, we know our students and their families well and understand how important it is support people, as opposed to identifying ways to cut corners or maximise profit. We will contact families next week with additional information on our voucher provision.

Laptops & Devices – We continue to work hard for our students and are very grateful to the individuals and companies that have offered support, with members of our school community buying laptops for students and sourcing different ways to repurpose and use televisions, PlayStations and other gaming consoles. Thank you for the help that you are offering. We have also been assured that the laptops that we ordered from the DfE will arrive soon.

Lateral Flow Testing – We have expressed our misgivings regarding Lateral Flow Testing consistently since the instruction to establish test centres was sprung upon schools on 17th December 2020, the penultimate day of the Autumn Term. We have been very cautious in our approach and have asked a number of questions, both of the DfE and in terms of our status as a maintained, Local Authority school. Our reason for seeking answers and additional assurances before acting have been based upon a simple premise, outlined in my update on 3rd January 2021: it would be remiss of the school to dedicate time and resources before being given access to appropriate research. We cannot seek parental consent for testing until we have confidence in the system, as our priority, above all else, is to safeguard and safely educate our students. We fully understand and agree with the DfE’s ambition that students should return to school safely, but we have always doubted that the testing regime identified is the system by which that goal will be achieved. We still hope to receive compelling evidence, but were also genuinely startled to discover that The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had not granted formal approval before the DfE issued their guidance and instruction to proceed. We will offer an additional update on Lateral Flow Testing next week, but will wait to see what response the Department for Education offers in terms of MHRA’s refusal to approve the tests.

Arthur Ashe achieved great success based upon approaching things pragmatically. Stating that people and organisations should start where they are, use what they have and do what you can, might not generate excitement. However, in a period of hyperbole, speculation and over-promising, it represents basic good sense if we are to provide what people need and to communicate those things effectively.

Thank you for your ongoing support, and best wishes to your families.

Mr O’Sullivan