Back to school, Claires Court style…

Really quite a lot of people have told me just how pleased they are that their children are going back to school, partly of course because the children need to, but also because parental resources have by now been worn pretty thin.  I thought I would document what we have been doing at school this summer, particularly since A level results were published 3 weeks ago, to inform and clarify just how busy schools can be, even though apparently we have no children on site (it has been alleged – just ask Holiday Activities just how many attended each day – usually always over  100, sometimes 150!!!).

First things first. The Academic Principal takes 6 weeks of leave a year, plus bank holidays. As we are a 51 week of the year business, and every week has serious activity of one kind or another therein, I have long learned I can’t afford to be away from work and expect all things to go smoothly. Academic staff of course have closer to the number of weeks the children have on leave, but even they work for almost 3 more weeks than the children on site, because of the requirement we have to train, upskill, collaborate and frankly clear up the old stuff and renew so we can start the new year afresh.  This summer, my leave dates were Fri 28 July to Friday 11 August inclusive, with 2 other days elsewhere.  Hold on to that set of facts.

First and foremost, because of the sheer business of Claires Court, the school offices, Finance, HR, Maintenance and ground staff, Marketing and Registrar stay open throughout the Summer. Arrivals and departures slow it must be said, but we never have less than 80 staff on any one day or so at work during the summer break, and my colleagues have needs and plenty of questions that require  supporting if not answering.  Hats off to them all, our amazing all year round team that keep the business so buoyant.  Jenny and I find it no sweat at all to stay-cation, not because of the above, but finding the time to enjoy our garden, appreciate the food from my allotment is so very restful.  If this sounds like living the life of a semi-recluse, that’s correct. After 185 days of full-on work with children and adults, finding some me-time becomes  pressing for us both.

Because of the Staff work days in the Summer, we have 27 weekdays in which to complete the chosen investment in ‘fabric’ repair work. Senior Boys has undergone a complete front of building face-lift, involving some pretty serious ‘acros’ under the main first floor gable over the front door. In College avenue, a huge volume of refurbishment activity within has taken place; Miss Barlow has a new office on Junior corridor for example, and a new conference room developed from Mr Bevis’ old office, but lots more besides – despite the fact that over 400 children have spent their summer within the Holiday activities we have run alongside.  Holiday Activity staff, most notably Lynne Constantine and Anne Halpin, have developed a quite savage yet hollow laugh when colleagues ask them how their holiday’s been, because of course they haven’t had one.

The most remarkable build this year was reserved by Principals’ assistant turned project manager Claire Samber for Junior boys. 

 As building regulations change, so we must invest, and so we had planned the installation of a new fire escape come balcony for the Mezzanine on the Sports Hall, alongside a new brick replacement for the conservatory at the side of the Year 6 block. We lost 2 whole weeks to the hideous weather of later July, but today both were just about finished and almost available for use.  Many other parts of JB have had a refresh as well, and all in all, Mrs Samber deserves great praise and cheer for pulling off one of the most remarkable transformations the school has enjoyed.

On 2 Thursdays in August, this year 17 and 24, A level and GCSE students, often with parents, come into school to collect their exam results. How those results turn from big data in the cloud into individual candidate summaries for every one is a dark art of course, but includes our Data Manager (DM) logging on at 12 midnight Tuesday to the central JCQ data hub, smashing the stuff for between 2-3 hours, using specialist software that will have been updated at least twice over the previous 2 days, and probably needs a further update from the MIS provider on the Wednesday morning to sort out the final wrinkles.

Obviously, I ‘swan-in’ to work on the Wednesday morning without a care in the world, and review the respective candidate sheets – circa 150 for A level and 100+ for GCSE. Thousands of marks are combined into hundreds of grades, and after a cursory glance (hem hem) spot that the sheets make no sense to me at all. Lots of gaps, holes and otherwise lumpy bits; I point out to DM that there seems to be some mistake.  He politely suggests I might turn the sheet around, and look at the sheet with my glasses on. There is now too much data on the sheet, and what’s more, reporting examinations that ceased to exist 12 months ago. Genuine cursing and steam arises from behind the screen of the DM, and for A levels at least, a further hour of work is required ‘under the bonnet’ so to speak.

I kid you not about the alchemy required to turn data into paper info for candidates. Please bear in mind, we are now dealing with old courses and new courses 50+ in total, letters and numbers for some, little numbers and big numbers for others.  It gets worse. All the numbers and letters that mean something to the students come down on the Tuesday night, but the factually accurate stuff about individual marks for questions and papers are not visible to the teaching staff until the Thursday.  All the staff can’t know before Thursday, otherwise they might break confidence and tell the children what they got and break secrecy, yet all the subject leaders need to check though on both Wednesday and Thursday with a fine tooth comb, because stuff can and does go wrong. On both on days, wherever the Heads of Department are in the world, they log in on line to the specific exam boards for the subject concerned, check the results they can see, read the moderators’ report on their own marking where appropriate, read the Chief examiner’s report where there might be controversy, and throughout all this time keep their fingers crossed. And write to me to summarise what they can see and whether there are ‘issues’ of which to make me aware. As I live with the Head of History (we are married by the way), I have seen this year after year, and the load and demands on them just get more and more burdensome, because of course, the stakes seem to get higher and higher.

Thursday and Friday after both publication days are filled with cheers and tears alike. This year as in most years, the overall results are strong and for some, blooming amazing, for most candidates there is a feeling of the odd subject grade that got away, and for a few the odd is more like quite a few.  Andy Giles, Steph Rogers and Kim Hall in the Sixth Form are superb, and their results handout (17 August) started just before 8 am for the Y13 on whose results University places depend.  I am not very good at the mawkish hanging around, clapping hands and supporting jovially, because the sight of an old man looking excited rarely calms nerves in the young.

What seems to work for me and those students (and parents) that need a bit more help, is to be mobilised by the Head of Sixth Form when the problem arising looks one for the hard bucket. And though we get some rock hard ones, I am usually able to crack most of them I am given.  Now if that sounds grandiose, it’s not meant to; with candidates being able to trade up as well as down, Andy Giles does have some really quite curious issues to solve, and sometimes we just need more eyes on the ‘prize’ so to speak then his.

GCSE results day is much less of a terminal celebration, more of a taking stock and checking whether GCSE grades match A level subject choices, whether A levels are in the correct combination, and whether a switch to alternative BTEC courses might make more sense. Obviously some students  move on to other Sixth Forms, but we enjoy inward migration as well, providing a sense of renewal and refreshment for all. For the Sixth Form team, the work doesn’t end, and it’s quite noticeable just what a big burden they have – holiday has to be taken prior to A level results day, because it’s full on til today, everyday being a work day.

Those secondary staff lower down the responsibility ladder might escape much of the work, but most will still take an interest, turn up to see how their classes have performed, and celebrate/commiserate as appropriate. And of course of these, quite a few are beginning to prepare for the pre-season sports training to commence, Rugby and Sailing both being involved. For primary staff, as Richmal Crompton of Just William might write, they are permitted to be ‘gloriously idle’ throughout this period, because of course they have no results coming down their wires so to speak.

For primary school staff then, we reserve a very special kind of hell. Known as deep cleaning and renovation, every single scrap of their classroom has to be taken down, boxed up and put as far away as possible. This permits the cleaners (the same good people we employ in term time) to go around in a microscopic manner, wiping over with sterilising fluid so that all known germs known to man are killed. The builders and painters usually work counterintuitively to our programme, opening up classrooms sealed with ‘Deep cleaned’ signs and wreaking their own kind of havoc with white boards, fire sensors and such like. Our Domestic Bursar (DB) has his own very special kind of language to use on Discovery days such as these; he has developed a unique way of apologising to his troupe, recovering their torn-up clocking on cards, and as appropriate, even smiling at them.

Once DB declares that the school may now be considered open for teacher’, the primary staff then recommence the Herculean task of decorating their classrooms for Day 1 – that was today. Most staff at least scoped their challenge last week, many could return and start being creative, but pretty much all were still hard at the decorating lark well after 18:00 on Wednesday 6 September. That night, at 18:30, there were leadership, teaching and admin staff all still hard at the grind-stone. ID badges for students, bus passes and back at school letters, lockers and landings still being checked, cleared and made ready.

If you have continued reading this far, well done.  You are beginning to understand why the full-time office and admin teams look forward to start of the new school year – they are able to welcome the teachers back from their break, and cause them to share the load of answering calls, emails letters and such like, all with unique demands and suggestions.  After all, most of the parent queries in recent days are not about nuts and bolts, but academic and pastoral concerns to which only their teachers can make effective response.

This author reserves 3 very special privileges for his own attention.

I take a particular interest in inducting new staff, and 28 of the 30 starters were in for the 1 September for the day. This year’s newbies include experienced hands, teachers, nurses, programmers and support, converts from the City and paralympians switching careers. Teaching and working in schools changes most people for the better, a job/career in which every one can really make a difference, and I take great pleasure in facilitating that change.


Welcoming in the new Head Boy and Girl, Todd Muil and Camilla Slais and their team of School leaders, getting them set for their first big challenge, to prepare the picture show for Speech Day may take them out of their comfort zone, but putting the young in charge of such an operation really does mean we show respect for and value Pupil Voice. School councillor Todd Lindley has the unique pleasure of returning the favour showed to him by Lord James O’Shaughnessy, when he welcomed Todd to the House of Lords in February and congratulated him on winning the Whitbread prize.  James is an old boy of Claires Court, I had the pleasure of teaching him and pointing him in the direction of Wellington College for boarding senior school. James is presenting our prizes at Speech Day, and Todd gets to read out the Lord’s school report from way back when.

Researching and preparing the ‘Welcome back to work’ presentation to the Faculty on their return to school is my third great pleasure. Setting the tone for the incoming Academic year is essential, causing a regathering of common solidarity around the very essence of what makes our school such an outstanding institution for children, teachers and parents alike. This year, I chose to have the event filmed on Tuesday, in the Courtyard Theatre at Norden Farm, in part because it’s quite clear that attending this event for all of us is motivational, and thus in part, being able to share that set of messages to a wider audience seems a good thing.

And finally, and thanks for reading this far, where does the reward for getting ready for school come from. I started my day today with 250+ boys at CCJB, in part to lend moral support to a site that has been through the ‘Samber/Spanswick’ challenge this summer, and in part to see a lot of very ‘new’ boys start.  Looking at the gathering, from their backs so to speak, I know that those boys are incredibly fortunate that their parents have found the funds to bring them to us. When so many commentators of education worry about the growing immorality and perverse logic of school leaders, when the Professor who leads Education thinking at Cambridge talks about schools adopting strategies this year that simply ‘make her weep’, Claires Court remains a beacon of how to be responsible as a seat of learning, how to respect all individuals, whatever their ability, how to stay loyal to those same children, even when it seems everyone else is giving up, and above all how to ensure the children rise above it all, to become remarkable, secure and well balanced adults able to contribute effectively in a society that badly needs integrity to triumph.  And you read that here. And I stand by every word. As I did on Tuesday morning at Norden Farm in front of the faculty, and challenged them too, to live and breathe every bit of ‘them’, the Claires Court essentials.



About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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