Into the New Lent Term 2021 – Baby steps…

My very short Late Advent headline indicated “Follow the Science”, as I entered 6 days of track&trace for our community after the end of term.

Our school community data is not large enough to represent a wider community, and as such is only useful as a depiction of the wider picture, one small detail of many. Actually we kept the feedback coming over the Christmas break, and this self-reporting status showed just how carefully our community were managing their interactions with others. Our school population is approx 1000 children and 350 staff. In number terms, we were recording less than 1 a day, 11 over the 21 day period, weekly thus representing 271 cases per 100,000.

More concerning is that our wider geographical area is reporting a case load 3 to  4 times higher, indicative of an R number near 1.5, so we can see that great care is needed to assist the community in bringing down the infection rate well below 1. Our local NHS Hospital Trust at Frimley Heath announced this yesterday:

“Coronavirus infections have increased significantly across London and the south-east of England and this has resulted in more people from our community needing hospital care. We have been enacting our contingency plans to increase capacity so that we can continue to give all patients the care they urgently need. That includes, unfortunately, having to postpone most non-urgent operations and appointments. We will contact you if your appointment is affected and we will let you know as soon as it has been rescheduled. If your condition worsens while you are waiting, please contact your GP or your hospital service.”

For some of our families, they are currently marooned away from home under travel restrictions and embargoes, be that just individuals or perhaps the whole family group. It’s difficult to reach out to everyone, but here’s hoping my extended comms team @clairescourt are continuing to work wonders to keep the airwaves open and families informed.

Just before Christmas I wrote to all of our secondary families to remind them to look after the major tool that keeps our teachers and students connected, the individual workhorse of our school day, the HP Chromebook. Their competitor, Acer, has worked heroically to step up supply here in the UK, and I’ve kept a very close eye on the reseller market to mop up the occasional ‘still-in-date’ chromebook appearing on Ebay and similar. The world chromebook shortage hit the front pages of the New York Times last December, and as new models come back into stock, they are entering the much higher-priced quality market than the workhorse models schools use.

And also, just before Christmas, we heard from the National Planning Inspectorate that our appeal on our new campus planning application was dismissed.  The reasons for refusal were clear, that whilst there was great weight in favour of the school’s proposal to relocate onto one campus, significant weight in terms of our economic contribution to RBWM, and moderate weight for the other benefits retained or established, including those enabling the relocation of Maidenhead Hockey Club into a single venue, these were not sufficient to counter the purposes of Green Belt, those being to contain development, maintain openness and prevent harm to the character and appearance of the area.

The hearing was conducted by planning inspector, Joanna Gilbert, and the published report can be found here:  She wrote this summary in our favour:

Drawing together the various issues which form part of the need to alter the school, I recognise the very real concerns of the school in securing its long-term future against a picture of seeking to provide equality of education for boys and girls; address the inefficiencies of split sites and the existing condition and layout of the C[ollege] A[venue] and R[ay ]M[ill ]Road ]E[ast] sites; the challenges faced in finding alternative sites; the provision of other schools in the Green Belt; and the effect of not allowing Appeal A on the provision of school places. In terms of the need to alter the school within Appeal A, I afford this matter great weight.

Economic and employment opportunities: The main parties recognise that the school is a significant local employer. Indeed, according to the local Chamber of Commerce, the school is the tenth largest employer within the borough. It directly employs 345 staff and has a further 50 peripatetic tutors. Many of the school’s staff live within the borough. The Council and the appellant are in agreement that this factor attracts significant weight in respect of Appeal A and moderate weight for Appeal B. I see no reason to disagree with this weighting.

Her summary conclusion weighed the elements for and against:

Great weight is attached to the identified need for the proposal within Appeal A. Significant weight is attached to economic and employment opportunities offered through Appeal A, while such benefits are moderate in respect of Appeal B. Attracting moderate weight are the biodiversity enhancements for Appeals A and B, the nursery provision for Appeal A, and the sports facilities and provision for MHC in Appeal B. I attach limited weight to teacher training and other training for Appeals A and B, and wraparound and holiday care for Appeal A.

Case law confirms that a number of factors, none of them “very special” when considered in isolation, may when combined together amount to very special circumstances. Notwithstanding the considerable importance of the other considerations set out, for very special circumstances to exist, the other considerations would need to clearly outweigh the harms identified above. In this case, I find that those other considerations, including the best interests of the children, are not sufficient to clearly outweigh the harms.

So what are my early hopes for 2021 and beyond.

  1. Baby steps are needed at this time, to ensure the school I lead maintains poise and progress in these difficult times. This we will achieve.
  2. Now is not the time to be ‘political’ in our intent nor ‘frantic’ in our activity. We have very clear and conscious actions to promote the best outcomes for every individual and cohort of pupils  in the school, whilst keeping our staff and wider community safe from infection and worse. We step forward with certainty and cover the academic, pastoral and social welfare fully and professionally
  3. It’s now clear that the academic outcomes for older boys and girls at GCSE and A level are going to be determined by the quality of provision they have received over the past year, primarily led by the quality of the academic staff leading their education, supported by the benchmarked evidence against national standards we hold on every child.
  4. As in 2020, we will be able to demonstrate that our curriculum is coherent, well published and documented. Our timetable, whether in school or remote is very clearly capable of being delivered in a successful and timely manner for our students.
  5. The school’s 25 year plus commitment to the statistical national benchmarking conducted on pupil entry and during their progress through the school continues to demonstrate the very high value we add to individual pupil ability scores over time.
  6. That ‘growth’ curve showing the pupils’ improvement over time leads us to predict once again that at GCSE our current cohort will gain almost all GCSEs at grade 4 and above and A level/BTEC at C/Merit and above.
  7. Moving on to the challenges of developing our school campus proposals, I’ll return to the Inspector’s report: “The main parties agree that the school performs extremely well and is the equivalent of an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ school within the independent school sector. Indeed, many representations supported the proposed developments, …spoke passionately at the Inquiry about the school’s positive approach to education and its beneficial effects on its pupils.The delivery of this high quality education provision takes place within a range of buildings of different ages across three sites. This is recognised by the main parties as being sub-optimal for the school. Issues relating to the need to alter the school include inequalities in social and educational provision for boys and girls; inefficiencies of split sites; condition and layout of existing buildings; the sequential assessment of alternative sites; the provision of other schools in the Green Belt; and the effect of not allowing Appeal A (the school) on the provision of school places. Furthermore, the Court of Appeal considered that the schools affected (by the Gender separation in Education judgement)  should be given time to put their houses in order in the light of the judgment’s conclusion.
  8. We have planned future meetings with both RBWM and other informed advisors on how best to meet the remaining objections to our proposals for a new campus, certain in the knowledge that Road traffic, Highways more generally and matters of Biodiversity and Ecology are no longer hindering factors.
  9. And finally our focus must remain very balanced, to show concern for all of those ‘hygiene’ factors that help our school.

So here we are at the end of the first week of our New Year, 2021.

The science is telling us that schools and almost all interactive community activities need to be curtailed to ensure we can slow down viral transmission, whilst at the same time roll-out the vaccination programme at an ever increasing pace. So whilst ‘schools-in!’, we are largely virtual though working the full day for all. From what I can see and hear, all 1200 or so in our academic community are all back up and running, MEETs with teachers are the new order of the day. The school nurses have successfully swept 99 of us through our Lateral Flow tests without a positive, and we will be ready soon to manage the 100 tests a day we need to ensure our school safe for all. These of course are but Baby Steps, but is is by conquering such distances safely every day that great journeys to amazing destinations can be achieved.


About jameswilding

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