“Being Brilliant Every Single Day” – or Solving Wickedness for Generation Covid.

Across the span of 20 years experienced so far this century, 2021 is already not on my favourite’s list. It has a chance to rise up the rank order, to be fair, but of the years experienced to date it’s in the bottom 1. Nevertheless, I and so many others know we must set out to be brilliant every single day. Here’s why:

Dr Alan Watkins’ TEDxPortsmouth talk back in 2012 (and there’s also a Part 2 that completes the story) highlights that everything we do, think, feel or emote is underpinned by our physiology, essentially all that biology happening inside ourselves all the time. He’s not the first neuroscientist to explain that if we want to think clearly and be our very best every time, then we must have worked out how to have settled ourselves down to live in the flow, despite the roller-coaster that living a life causes us to endure.

The core premise that neuroscience has taught us is that we have to get our physiology under control if we are going to steady our emotions, bring our feelings and thoughts under control, enabling us to focus our behaviours on doing the right things right – bingo. A lot can get in the way of that core premise of getting our physiology under control. Diet is a major factor, as are exercise and those more general well being issues of being warm, secure and safe. Hit the panic button and all hell can break loose. For example, if you are prone to worrying and feeling anxious, that causes your body to release the hormone cortisol – a good thing in times of fight because it releases sugars and repair materials into your bloodstream which enables you to fight harder and repair damaged tissue. The downside is that it closes down some of your other functions, the ability to think creatively and flexibly for example.

Here’s Dr Watkins writing about the problem of Cortisol on our lives at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic last March: “The main thing I want to draw attention to is to point out that if you are worrying or feeling anxious about the possibility of catching the virus that worry will increase the risk that you do catch it. Worrying and feeling anxious increases your cortisol levels (the body’s main stress hormone) and cortisol impairs your immune system, making you more susceptible. So in addition to washing your hands often and being sensible about human contact the biggest thing you can do to protect yourself is to not panic. Stay as positive as possible, this pandemic will pass.

What relation does this have on Wickedness per se I hear you say? Whilst my Christian religion introduced me to the concept as a child, it’s only as an adult that I have truly appreciated the concern about and the difficulty of Wicked problems. Let me explain more fully. Let’s start with a definition:

wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

Now, education is beset by wicked problems, and never more so than now, when almost all the usual boundaries that frame the difficulties have been removed as the vast majority of the variables, that’s children and teachers are not in school! More generally, our wicked issues are colliding with other wickedness, including the coronavirus and the 4 horseman of the Education apocalypse* galloping towards our children (according to Robert Halfon, Chair of Parliament’s education committee). Most in education take exception to Mr Halfon’s colourful panicking in public earlier this week; after all, as a politician he’s helped create the chaos in the first place. To be serious though, those conflicting external factors of poverty, lost learning, poor mental health and safeguarding hazards are causing unparalleled challenges in our midst, with eating disorders for example rising by 400%.

Charlie Mackesy has it right in this recent drawing of his:

Your plan for each day and your life further ahead is to ensure you have a stable physiological platform, and adopt the general premise that your rules and sensors are good to go. In education this means each day has to have an introduction, an oiling of the wheels, warm-up time or whatever – not just 2 minutes because life genuinely is not like that. If a class are going to enjoy being in a bubble of well-being, they need time every day to explore and built the relationships therein. The curriculum needs to built around the principle of curiosity, as Simon Sinek would always approved of ‘starting with the Why?’, and of course those alongside can readily test each other on their progress by checking ‘Did you find out why?’ at the close.

What you do each day needs breaks to refresh concentration and also to reform the bubble. Whether it be child or adult, the purpose of coming to work is not just for the work itself, but for the communion that is associated with developing relationships, friendships, common goals and resolving threats. I am staggered when institutions, be they schools or workplaces ‘compress the day’ to make it more efficient. Companionship and team learning need more time not less together. In education terms I am amazed too that physical activity at secondary level as a requirement has been reduced to perhaps no more than an hour a week. Frankly, the adolescent or adult needs to raise their pulse substantially for an hour a day, if for no other reason to be able to do so in a controlled and steady way, to remain familiar with their body’s ebb and flow. And the days need to be filled with the thinking and doing in every dimension, artistic, creative and thoughtful too.

Today’s Times (12 Feb 2021) runs a story on Generation Covid, considering carefully whether GCSEs are still fit for purpose, and more generally whether the school day and year need reconsidering too. I’m not a fan of much of the current spate of lazy journalism, this article once again pandering to quote a school that used to educate the Cambridge’s children pre-pandemic suggesting they are now ready to start a new secondary school without GCSEs. That Royal connection does not give validity to such pipe dreams, what does of course is the ‘lived’ experience of inclusive senior schools like mine where 100+ children a year seek to matriculate for further & higher education and into careers where for the time being at least, having skills & qualifications matters. Why we succeed of course is because the young people with us have the additional time in-school (usually) to enjoy their childhood and test their adolescent dreams. Who wouldn’t want to be practicing to death their ‘Dance show’ routines, or prepare for the ‘big match’, or just check-out how to hangout on Saturday? Those little squirts of adrenaline are all part of the the excitement of being alive, and certainly missing in the current locked-in lives of teens.

As Dr Watkins highlights in his talk, if we can keep all the positive and joyful elements of life in sight and on our wavelength, then we can have the fun and joy of raising and lowering our pulse, ‘gotta-be-done-but-in-a-good-way’. At the same time, let’s plan to reduce the release of cortisol and its harmful side effects to the bearable minimum by avoiding approaches recommended by the doom-mongers and misery peddlers. We’ll find our body weight so much easier to control too, because we have lowered the number of occasions our body has considered we’ve been in a fight, used energy and need nourishment. Of course we have not, but our physiology is not to know!

When my own children were growing up, during the eighties and nineties ‘wicked’ morphed from being something to fear to an expression of ‘wonderful’, ‘great’, ‘cool’, ‘splendid’ etc. Sadly, the business community didn’t see their Wicked problems get any easier, because of course the unseen parameters didn’t get any more visible, nor did the conflict get any simpler. And therein lies the rub, because ‘complexity’ lies at the heart of the human condition, and we seek to reduce and remove it at our peril. Ask a physicist what causes gravity, a biologist about love or a mathematician about time and they’ll confirm we don’t really know. Ask those same questions of an craftsman, poet or musician and they’ll provide you with more answers than you ever dreamed possible.

To that end, my solution to the solving of wickedness has to be “being brilliant every day”, keeping alive every potential. In educational terms this means we are seeking to produce Albert Einstein or Leonard Bernstein, Garbo or Thunberg, from our midst, though it must be said, we don’t actually know which one will be which!

*The four horsemen of the apocalypse are four biblical figures who appear in the Book of Revelation. They are revealed by the unsealing of the first four of the seven seals. Each of the horsemen represents a different facet of the apocalypse: conquestwarfamine, and death.

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Baby Steps and Dance Moves – Education in the 2020s

Throughout the developed world, the common factor of the shutting down of in-school provision by a coronavirus has put the whole rainbow range of provision under the closest scrutiny. Every country has had to adapt, adjust, not just tweak but change whole scale their ways of working and there have been some significant validated outcomes now on what works best. Even the best of schools and colleges are incredibly inefficient places, so it has come as no surprise to find some school activities work better on-line rather than in person. I’ll ignore simplistic lists; of course every one with technology can get to school by the click of a mouse key, and parent/pupil/teacher conversations just need ZOOM to enable, and the costs of school lunches have been reduced at a stroke. I’ll do my best to summarise those I consider of key importance below.

Children and teachers need to have human contact and the opportunity to build relationships. Some of those interactions are driven really well at junior level by the sheer fun that children and adults can have together. Just checking out how that can happen when in-school activities are forbidden emphasises the value that MUST be placed on ensuring schools and homes can connect with reliable technology. Do read my earlier blogs on the value of cloud-based learning and Chrome’s Tools & Books with this regard.

But once the connections have been made, there needs to be substance about the point of coming together in real time. So ZOOM per se is insufficient, particularly because the medium has become familiar for almost all activities, for witnessing as well as participation. Here’s where the skill, knowledge and understanding of the users comes to the fore, and where additional technology tools come in to play. Almost all the research that has ever been conducted in to learning confirms that it needs to immersive and involve more than 20 minutes concentration at once. So therein lies the rub; how are teachers who are not in the same space as their learners going to do more than just keep them entertained. In a ‘virtual’ space where frankly we have never had to work with learners before, can what we do be more than just ‘hit/miss’ or lucky guess?

Teaching and learning have always involved asynchronous activities, those carried on in the student’s own time, rather than in concert with all the others. Core to all learning is reading of course, and it’s no surprise I hope that this teacher reminds all that the route to the widest vocabulary we need is via reading. So what we plan remotely needs to carry that ‘goldilocks’ mix of inspiration together whilst ‘perspiring’ apart. Flipped learning predates the pandemic, and it’s certainly the case that if students can cover the ground that needs to be exposed first, such as read the chapter, watch the demonstration/lecture, listen to the audiotape prior to coming together to analyse and collaborate together.

Past masters of remote learning are the teachers who work with remote communities who can’t come together at the best of times. In the English language most notably that’s the Alice Springs School of the Air, which joins the education of 120 or so children across the ‘woop woop’, local slang for ‘in the middle of nowhere’, covering the middles of Australia, about the same size as France. It is in a teacher’s DNA to try to make something out of nothing, because all the best lessons arise that way. So in this new ‘woop woop’ in which we find ourselves gives us those opportunities too, conjuring up in the imagination opportunities we had scarcely dreamed of before. Last week for example, I encouraged 64 boys aged 11 to 14 to sign up for remote Food Tech, creating possibly a new accomplishment for the Buiness Book of Records, the largest remote cooking of a Macaroni Cheese.

All over the world, teachers and students have been learning together the new tools and translating old manners in new ways. Who speaks and when, cameras on or off, mikes on when asked, collaborative tools that work across screens, be they smileys, hand shakes, jamboards or tiling work areas as needs must. Every week new tools join the ecosystem, and notwithstanding the need to abide by GDPR requirements (not easy now we are post Brexit), we can further develop relationship building through being more creative and increasing collaboration. Currently our senior school is creating Album covers, and my core SLT agreed to make their stand at Waterloo with me to warm up the competition.

We need to be deadly serious about the use of humour and creative skills at all times, more so now because human well-being requires these ingredients to be present, particularly among the young. Households weary of each other anyway, but the adolescent brain has to develop through its willingness to confront and challenge, to grow up and know its own mind. Through our own personal journeys through our teens and twenties, boredom was inevitable; these days perhaps the mind can be more readily occupied by engaging with influencers and social media on-line, but those ‘baby steps’ in to learning new skills and taking opportunities alone are essential elements to be made available. ‘Baby steps’ is a great phrase, because these are made together often without one knowing the other is there. Teachers and parents must empower those small strides to occur, though monitor and observe nevertheless.

‘Baby steps’ also best describes the small 1% incremental gains we can make each day to improve the skills we have. I consciously now try not to bite off more than I can chew at a time, but I remain incredibly ambitious for the things I can create over time. By way of example I show you my new office creation, ‘slapped on screen’ today whilst writing this blog, and in-between all the other challenges of running a school, meetings, bulletin making etc. You’ll note I have 2 images available…

One for publishing in documents like this, the other for showing as my background on-line, because the image is usually reversed so you as a teleconferencer are not discomforted by your mirror image not matching your actions.

But whatever your ‘Baby steps’ are to be in this bold new world of enabling and empowering education to be the best it can be, let’s remember too what your usual steps and strides are. those of a really competent professional on the stage of learning, confident in your dance steps whatever the pace and rhythm of the day requires. I’m a great believer that schools are there to develop skills for 7, 11, 16, 18 and for 60+ too, we build people for life beyond qualifications. As one prospective parent made very clear earlier this week, “I don’t want to place my child in a school where the culture gives her exam passes coupled with anxiety, depression and no confidence at all”.

That’s where the dance moves come into their own. Few can have missed the phenomenon that is ‘Strictly Come Dancing’, in which so many with little knowledge learn, step by painful step, how to move from a parody on the dance floor to a sophisticated team moving in complete harmony. Whilst I admire coaching a lot, the fine tuning of an individual, I love more the role that teachers have to choreograph their class’ moves, and of course even more in my current role, as School Principal, to ‘pull’ my many ‘instrumental groups’ together into the ‘symphony orchestra’ that school life can be. My dance steps are all about leading our school community, children & adults both, learners and coaches, on a journey through this pandemic, confident that we have those little details in place that permit successful learning to happen, and assured that our method & direction of travel is fun and fruitful. Whilst there may be a false dawn appearing on the near horizon (schools to open on 8 March), whether on virtual screen or in real life, we will continue to work in ambitious harmony, that’s for sure!

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“Ideas are not always responsible for the people that have them” – Katharine Whitehorn

Richard Wells, former Chief Constable of South Yorkshire wrote to the Times this week, in order to pay tribute to this less well known quote of the recently deceased journalist, author and broadcaster, Katharine Whitehorn. He explains how over a career of professional policing, understanding that solutions for dispute resolution might arise from the most unlikely quarters, and that’s a view with which I wholeheartedly concur.

I find that teaching brings me into contact with the most remarkable and often previously unheard of conflicts, both in the classroom and in the wider world. Trying to ‘fix’ an adolescent woe is a most unwise activity. Remembering another old dictum, ‘2 ears, one mouth’, I have found it is always better to listen first, ‘hear the noise’, distinguish whether there is reason therein, and if so, pursue said reason to what may indeed be the most logical and straightforward solution. In the “he said’ she said” last chance saloon, you can be very certain that your version of ‘reason’ won’t come out on top. But listening perhaps to the protagonists and their friends is often much more likely to result in a longer term peaceful resolution for the combatants. The tragedy for teachers is of course that so many petty squabbles occur in a day that they don’t actually have the time to address them all, moreover quite frequently their brusqueness with  the process fans the flames!

Since the coronavirus struck schools last March, it does very much seem that for the nation at large, their children’s education has been in freefall. Mumsnet has declared most of its members’ ‘home-schools’ as now being in special measures, and there is more than a grain of truth in the idea that wine is being drunk in tea mugs on-screen to hide the bringing forth of ‘opening time’. And in almost every newspaper and magazine article on this I read, it turns out that children in private schools are managing to continue their education at almost pre-pandemic levels, which causes an even brighter spotlight to be focused on those in the state sector falling further behind. Whilst I am proud of my school’s remarkable efforts in this arena, I also recognise with great respect the work of other schools managing in their unique ways, and it seems perhaps that approximately 25% of the nation’s schools are coping well, a far greater ratio than just the 7% independently educated. 

What Whitehorn’s quote obliquely refers to is well illustrated within Education.  Throughout my lifetime, the state education agencies and wider aparatchics have had a natural prejudice against our sector, and almost any good work we do is framed in providing yet more advantage to the already advantaged. England’s state education financiers have chosen to include the development of elite musicianship, dance and ballet in specialist institutions, and those include schools I know well such as the Purcell and the Royal Ballet. This is a tiny volume of funding, and the Treasury’s only other additional high-needs funding block goes to those with special needs. Currently the government itself is called into question,with 2/3rds of Johnson’s cabinet the products of the private sector, and a similar volume products of the best universities – in short our sector knows how to develop talent, but that success is shaped by the accusation that it arises purely from privilege, and nothing to do with the skills and time we deploy in our schools for this purpose. 

The trouble is, that every good idea our sector has in terms of bringing others from less fortunate backgrounds up to speed inevitably creates a further imbalance for those we have not been able to reach and thus apparently are left behind. I am utterly fed-up with the hand-ringing by well meaning commentators on equality in the UK, who consistently blame us for our success yet don’t follow the evidence we surface to explain why what we do works. In Elitist Britain 2019, the HM Gov reports that  43% of men and 35% of women playing international cricket for England went to private school. It’s easy to work out why, because our sector attaches such value to the development of athletic skills, and cricket is one of our national sports. 

When I graduated from Google Teacher Academy in 2012, to keep my Certified Innovator accreditation, I had to sign up (and every year recommit) to provide advice and support generically in my field of expertise (education) to assist in community projects rolling out the benefits of digital education to an ever-wider audience. Right from the outset, I (and everyone else rolling out from similar activities stimulated by Microsoft, Apple or Adobe) have always been clear when supporting communities about the need to create a digital ecosystem that supports individuals within it. So as in the development of cricket as a sport, for IT you have to show how to create and develop the infrastructure of nets, wickets, grounds and opportunities for the individuals and communities therein to thrive. Cricket requires ground staff, coaches, expertise in multiple disciplines across a wide arc of time and opportunity, and above all a belief for those all involved in its importance and relevance. 

Truly, until March last year’s #lockdown, the vast majority of schools I had been invited to support as a Google Workspace ambassador simply didn’t understand the priorities they needed to attach to the development of an digital ecosystem to ensure that it could thrive in their school. We are not talking about money here, because that is a finite resource. We are talking about the days, months, years of cut-and-mow to ensure that the digital nets, wickets, outfields etc would work when needed. Personally I have had to learn how to code, rebuild chromebooks, connect projectors, test Apps and phones, understand wifi and make why-not decisions. It is no surprise to me at all that our state schools don’t have the architecture in place to support children at school and at home, because it has never been a government priority, and even now, government and its agencies show it does not have a clue.

By way of example, I chose Chromebooks for Claires Court because they are devices you can manage completely from afar, they have no requirements for software to be loaded by hand and they work on their battery alone for 8 hours or more and have a 6+ year lifespan. Their entire operating system is protected by Google from viruses and Google sorts out the problems remotely if its software utilities don’t work. Government continues to insist they provide laptops, the latest 25000 turning out to be infected with Russian Malware, and all running under windows 10, which requires local software installation, subscription services to Microsoft, weaker battery life, shorter life span, and with nothing like the professional support available at a local level to rectify. 8 years down the road, and I despair that almost a million laptops will have been shipped out to schools without a belief by those involved that the provided solution would work. Frankly a new Geo 11inch laptop is about the same cost as a new cricket bat (circa £200); I would not choose to secure the future of English cricket by shipping a cricket bat to all those needing one, so why the government is doing more than handing out laptops beats me. 

In Education, as in Cricket, you have to get the grass roots right. If you want to reach children and provide them with education, you have to secure them in school, and provide them with access at home. It was never enough just to leave children to their own devices at home, and most houses will have those. Fundamentally schools need to be open for much longer, and be that place for sport, art, drama, music, wrap around care too. Schools are essential centres in their community, and not just for learning, but for welfare and care too. All of our early chromebooks (from 2012/3) could take a sim card given them 4G access to the web, through which they could reach the school’s Hub. This Google site has not changed in appearance for 8 years, because we want it accessible from even the humblest of devices. It’s our portal onto the 2021 educational landscape that our virtual school plays out, and requires the lowest bandwidth we can require. Yet as the calendar and other apps show, it’s completely current and content-rich. 

Great ideas are out there in the wide world arising from every and any place, whether humble or privileged. And we witnessed such on Wednesday, when Amanda Gorman, aged 21, spoke her poem at President Biden’s inauguration. 

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one. And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colours, characters, and conditions of man. And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped. That even as we tired, we tried that will forever be tied together victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.”

What great ideas, what genuine empathy, what real hope there is for all of us, when such a young voice calls us all in to greater ideas than currently we dare to hold?

At the closing of another busy week in school, I’ll continue with that public good of promoting and prioritising good ideas within our wider community. I do hope they’ll be received in the manner they are given, generously and with integrity. Time will tell; in the meantime I do assure all that education and cricket will continue to thrive at Claires Court – #CCPride!

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Managing assessment and feedback during a pandemic – failing safe is a great plan.

As our Lent Term 2021 gets firmly underway, our remote learning provision at Claires Court seems to have eased through the gears without too many difficulties. As #clairescourt settles into the groove of the weekly cut&mow, here’s the elements in the wider landscape we are having to contend with.

1. Lateral Flow testing is up and running, both for checking students on their return (in due course) and for on-going monitoring of teaching and support staff. What’s the problem:
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/medicines-and-healthcare-products-regulatory-agency are the people licencing the use of both vaccines and coronavirus testing kist in the country.
As you’ll recall, the government are sending to all schools LTFs both for initial screening and on-going screening for staff and daily testing for pupils who might have been compromised by contact with the virus. It’s a key component in their strategy, to keep students at school most of the time. Well, what’s emerged over the past 48 hours is the MHRA refuses the use of LTFs for daily usage in schools, taking the view that such tests give spurious and ill-deserved confidence. Now this is particualrly interesting to independent schools because the DfE have confirmed (in response to a Commons Written Question) that they are not able to extend funding to independent schools and colleges with fee-paying individuals to ensure that children educated in the private sector have access to mass covid-19 testing, for this specific purpose. We have our own secure supply of LFTs available now, but it is interesting to consider what happens when DfE says ‘swipe&test’ and MHRA says ‘don’t bother’!

2. Summer Public Examinations. Having made it quite clear that there were to be no public exams for A levels and GCSEs, the Secretary of State for Education has been backpedalling massively, not least because he recognises that independent schools make use of international exam bodies (not in his care) who intend to continue with such exams if conditions permit. Gavin Williamson now finds himself between a rock and many hard places, so has decided (as he did last year) to suggest actually that Ofqual are going to run a consultation to see what’s best for the country, that consultation was published today, and a commentary from SchoolsWeek can be found here – https://schoolsweek.co.uk/ofqual-publishes-2021-summer-exams-consultation/#:~:text=The%20exams%20regulator%20Ofqual%20has,2021%20amid%20partial%20school%20closures. In short, as I have already made clear internally, our own exam students have no excuse not to take the exams, as they have neither lost teaching time nor missed work. Whatever they are facing is being trimmed back, to be announced in March. In the meantime, keep working, studying, learning and revising – that’s how we gather the combination of knowledge and skills needed anyway.

3.The title of this blog suggests that information and feedback is always valuable. Friday mornings for headteachers and school secretaries and Friday afternoons for Marketing are spent getting our weekly bulletins ready to roll out at the close of day. One of the leading communicators in the UK education space, Ross Morrison McGill (@teachertoolkit) wrote his blog this week entitled “https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2021/01/12/why-nobody-reads-your-school-newsletter/”. He suggest the blog is a 3 minute read, but it’s certainly more than that, and its key points are that we (the school) should be tracking you (the reader) with very great care, to spot actually whether you are opening up our communications at all, and by analysing the data, adjust our communications strategy accordingly.
There’s more than a whiff of ‘Big Brother’ in his suggestions, and I am most uncomfortable with the general ideas that parents would expect their readership to be tracked.

For the time being at least, we will get on with doing the best things we can, communicating effectively in advance as well as just in time, so that the breadth of our readership’s habits are accommodated with integrity and compassion. I know how busy parents are, but knowing that there is always a default bulletin there in your intray permits you to know we have ‘failed safe’ for you.

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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.


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A late Advent message…”follow the science!”

This posted headline in advance of my completion of 6 days of Covid-19. Track& Trace remains alive, the question remaining” is growth exponential?

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Education: Where the big picture hits the little things.

When we learned that one of our nursery children had contracted coronavirus, we knew that, for some, their Christmas was to be delayed this year. Nowhere within Claires Court is the story and celebration of Our Lord’s birthday more keenly observed than in Beehive, Busybees and Honeycomb, and the disappointment could not have been more palpably felt than by the children, parents and nursery leaders when Public Health England confirmed last week that our Nursery was required to close early for the Christmas break.

Our divisions have produced much Christmas cheer it must be said, and I share with you our new Year 7 girls’ Christmas song to open this year-ending bulletin up with their thoughtful ‘Grown Up Christmas List’. It is the very careful detailing of each girl’s singing that proves it’s the little things that make the big picture perfect.

It’s those little things, at the end of a year like no other, that we now realise make our school remarkable but only come about through sheer hard work and determination. As Principals we ask our curriculum leaders to provide for stimulating and ambitious plans for your children’s learning, and they do! But even we had no idea that they would have to be able to deliver those plans remotely, at the drop of a ‘virus’ infection, so to speak. Yet together we have, and we’ve been able to learn and adapt quickly when we’ve had to go virtual again, whether as individuals or in school sections as the occasion or Public Health England demanded!

Our core aim throughout this term has been to keep our children and staff safe. We’ve washed our hands to ‘#Happybirthdayx2’ on countless occasions, wiped and double wiped every surface in the gaps between activities, opened the doors and windows wider, and where possible moved the whole lot outside as well, to stay healthy in the fresh air. Our school nurses have been amazing, beyond praise every day for their concern and consideration of others, and report that ‘pandemic notwithstanding’ we have the healthiest school ever. Open windows, social distancing and clean hands clearly have much to commend themselves as safe ways of working, and as term ends, Senior Girls nurse Johanna Axtell leaves us for a lead nurse position at TASIS England. We also say farewell to Mrs Veni Sekar, our 1:1 Maths Teacher at Senior Girls and to Nikki Robinson, our Marketing Officer – we wish them all well in their new roles elsewhere in 2021.

Looking back over the term, in September our school community welcomed 162 new boys and girls, each adding their own individual personality and enthusiasms to the #weareclairescourt mix. In October our staff community welcomed Mrs Hollie Joslyn’s new baby son, Dougie. During the term we also saluted two members of staff on completion of 25 years’ employment at Claires Court: Louise Thomas, Deputy Head Academic at Senior Girls, and Lorraine Downing, Cook at Junior Boys. Both of those wonderful colleagues know how to ‘serve it up’, albeit in different ways, and long may they continue ‘nourishing’ both mind and body.

Next term sees further arrivals in the academic faculty, and at Junior Boys Jessica Wilding joins as Reception Teacher (Maternity Cover) for Chantal Hankin, Kate Fossett as B2 Class Teacher and Adrienne Watters as B4 Class Teacher/B5 Maths. At Senior Boys, we welcome Helen Gowers to the English department (B7/8) and Jamie Odell to our teacher training programme after his sterling term of volunteering with us.

A pandemic might have buffeted us hugely through the term but it has not deflected us from our objective to win the planning appeal for our new campus at the Junior Boys Ridgeway site. Over the eight days of hearing, buoyed by hundreds of messages of support from our parents and community, our team laid out clear and compelling arguments in favour of the development of the land we own at Cannon Lane where our vision is to create a single, purpose-built modern campus bringing together all our pupils and staff. In this we are supported by recent court judgements that require schools to give greater significance to the social development of their community, arising from the provisions of the Equality Act 2010. We expect to learn the Inspector’s decision early in the New Year and will keep you posted.

If 2020 has proven anything to us at Claires Court, it is that we seem always well placed to make the best of things, whatever the climate. If I may slightly misquote Rudyard Kipling “If you can meet success and failure and treat them both as impostors, then you are well balanced, my child.” By way of example, we continued to give the festive season proper ‘airtime’, and we kicked off with a tremendous set of creative entries celebrating 12 days of Christmas, which brought a smile to our faces. To this day, Kipling is famous for his many stories, including Jungle Book and his poem ‘If’. He wrote the very first radio broadcast for King George V across the British Empire, and I feel sure he would have approved of our social media posts too – click here to see the entries.

This bulletin started with Year 7 girls, so let’s close with Year 7 boys showing us what ‘A day in the life of a Senior Boy’ looks like; a great example of how the fun of youth comes smiling through…

Have a great Christmas wherever you find yourselves and here’s to a hope-filled and successful new year in 2021.

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Making a difference…

THE MAIN ITEM FOLLOWS THIS SHORT CALL TO ACTION: If there is one thing I would wish supportive readers of my blog to do, it is to write an email of support for our campus planning application appeal to  tim.salter@planninginspectorate.gov.uk by end of Tuesday 17 November 2020, and please include the relevant planning references in your subject line (or at the top of your email): 

APP/TO355/W/20/3249117 – Claires Court School
APP/T0355/W/20/3249119 – Sports Pitches and Pavilion

Detail here on what to mention…https://www.clairescourt.com/news/?pid=3&nid=14&storyid=3729

In almost every way, the last few weeks have reset my sights and affirmed anew the values I hold dear. Regular readers will have noted that my Blogging and Tweeting have taken a rest, largely not because I don’t feel I have something to say, but because my audience has indeed narrowed and become much more focussed on those areas of my life on which I can in my view make a difference.

In any normal year this century, by now I would have run many major events in and outside of school, visited dozens of institutions and contributed to dialogue on at least 5 different national/international committees and councils. Just this term, my ‘track&road’ miles would have averaged over 200 a week and I would in that process have used at least 2 return train tickets, drunk on-the-go Costas every other day and stayed over at 2 academic conferences in the last 4 weeks. School would have celebrated its 60th birthday in grand style, Speech Day assisted in the reopening of the new public leisure centre in Maidenhead, and our PTA Fireworks captured 1500 or so of our community to celebrate the new decade. I will have enjoyed very much the fruits of the hop & vine. Many hands would have been shaken and almost as many backs slapped and hugs embraced

This is no normal Academic year. Since September, my footprints move between SL68EG and SL68TE, with the once a week visit to SL63QE and SL66AW showing (if you look very closely) I seem not to have entered those premises past the front gate, and when they do, barely inside. My median average mileage on weekdays is Zero. No trains or stations visited. I have been home for breakfast, lunch & supper every day. My ration of coffee sits at 1 a day, usually before 9am, and alcohol largely reduced to Adnam’s low alcohol Ghost Ship. I have shaken no hands, nudged perhaps only the occasional golfer’s elbow and embraced solely the air. My screen hours & wifi miles have of course soared. I seem to have participated in just as many ‘events’, ‘evenings’, conferences and such like digitally, and I look forward to presenting at an international Berlin conference in December. But because these take no time to get to or return from, such contributions have clearly diminished in apparent importance because I have been able to be ever present in my school everyday in person. And it’s about that lived, daily experience I write below.

Apart from my 20 minute sandwich break round the corner with Mrs W circa 12.15, I have been at school every day for 11 hours. I’ve a practical, physical change every hour as the school ‘breaks’ for the outside between lessons; at lunch now I join B10&11 as their take-away monitor, carrying out hot lunch in boxes for those choosing this indulgence. The boys’ experience of ‘food’ queuing has reduced to about 1 minute, and they seem to really enjoy their new rights of a proper break from their work, also with play & friendship clearly the winners. I have become hugely conscious of the individual personal stories developing through the week, be they around the good news of the arrival of a #lockdown pet, or the loss of an aged relative, the damage to family businesses or the recovered time at home that hard working fee payers have also witnessed. As one of my Year 8 boys made clear to a prospective teacher at interview yesterday, the adults working with 13 year old boys need to be mindful of the mental health challenges that are arising in their generation, and be respectful of the need to work positively to build their relationship with their classes at school, should they join us.

Whilst this may not be ‘life as we know it, Jim*’, and I resent every day the presence of Covid-19 in our community, we are all very clearly ‘alive, alert, on our mettle and on guard’. There are many unseen but known enemies, starting with the virus; hate and unkindness are as toxic, and just as invisible. As we train ourselves to wash our hands, cover our face and manage our space to distance the virus, we also need to remind ourselves to use our eyes, visible emotions and language to be open to support others and maintain positive relationships. Actions that appear more passive, such as listening & watching, have become even more my tools of choice; experience quickly causes my hackles to rise if body language I see indicates ‘no good’ is at hand. Just being present, in any of the 5 yard bubbles quickly causes other souls to merge for a chat, a question, a ‘thought for the day’. Wednesday across the school community caused us all to pause for more than a moment, and assisted in making very much more real what families on Armistice Day, 1920 must have felt, mourning for lost loved ones and a time gone by, whilst recovering in the middle of a world pandemic. ‘Wear Red to Remember’ was the way we overcame the lack of availability of poppies, as my headline photo for my blog of that week showed.

The Boys of Year 7 assemble Wednesday 11 November at the end of first break.

I have remained an avid reader of the education & political landscape, both home and abroad, and like so many others increasingly come to understand the criticisms of that previous generation 100 years ago, coming to terms with, and holding to account those who had been in leadership during the Great War. ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ was a phrase used to describe the British Army’s incompetence in the Crimean War, but quickly surfaced again as our nation counted the cost and scale of human devastation in their midst. Of course the individuals in that Army of 1918 made sure it was Britain and its allies that won the war; I quote from Dr Gary Sheffield’s article of this title “Haig’s army played the leading role in defeating the German forces in the crucial battles of 1918. In terms of the numbers of German divisions engaged, the numbers of prisoners and guns captured, the importance of the stakes and the toughness of the enemy, the 1918 ‘Hundred Days’ campaign rates as the greatest series of victories in British history.

In the same way, we cannot dismiss that incompetence has featured institutionally and politically in the initial days and weeks of our country’s response to the arrival of the current coronavirus pandemic. Clearly collecting symptomatic patients in hospital wards ensured ‘super-spreader’ events happened throughout the country, and even more tragic, the onward transfer of the elderly into care homes wrought the appalling death rates we saw in April to June on the care sector. Cronyism has been almost as bad as Centralism, with the unwillingness to trust established Public Health England and local authority commissioning and purchasing causing whole failures in supply chains. The ‘Test & Trace’ managers choice of anonymous, unskilled call centre operatives has made this phrase an oxymoron for what is actually going on.

I recognise fully though that the medics, the care services more widely, the scientists and statisticians have rapidly learned and adapted their practice for the betterment of the society they serve; as with the troops in Flanders, we’ll overcome this pandemic because of them leading from the fore. Politically too, the grass roots have done their stuff to push back and change the face of government, be that overtly as in the US elections, or tacitly on the departure seen yesterday in Lee Cain’s resignation as the Prime Minister’s director of communications, just as it seemed he was to be promoted to be Boris’ Chief of Staff. Coupled with Dominic Cummings, the two have promoted a culture of intolerance and animosity to all that has not served the country well. Both Number 10 and the White House have managed to disrupt some of the most carefully balanced services in such a way that experience and expertise have been lost from government at a time when that’s what we as a society need most. Sensible hands are needed on the tiller, knowing how to navigate through the most serious of storms, and knowing what equipment to trust to secure the safety of those fellow travellers (us, that is, Joe Public).

My story here at school sits alongside that of my colleagues, 5 fellow headteachers, leading and managing in a matrix of command and control, power decentralised to those who know what locally works, with one communication voice to our community keeping people regularly briefed and chasing the demon out when it threatens to arrive. I have written before that Tony Blair got it completely wrong when he wrote about ‘Education, Education, Education’. Forgetting that Education sits in a triangular partnership with Welfare and Social care has caused our country one of the greatest harms. In my school at least, we have not modelled the Results above Process; Teachers do what they do best, by creating an environment in which children can learn. Pastoral systems need to be as robust as Exams, and welfare services need to be integrated with the wider public services for which our community pays its taxes. Marcus Rashford is only a footballer, but he experienced hunger throughout his childhood and he has shone a great light on the tragedy unfolding across our communities; it takes too long for food resources to reach children if we don’t use the centre in which they can be so easily found – their schools!

Government may be learning: that initial slogan of “Stay at home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” worked perfectly, and it did what needed to be done. Government itself seems to have done none of those things, because it did not stay focussed on the job of keeping ‘Home, NHS and Lives’ safe. Hell bent on pursuing its own political agenda, it failed to create the coalition of all of the parties and our 4 countries that we needed back last March, to ensure politics took a back seat to the mobilisation needed to ensure those from all points of our national compass were able to act as one to ride out the pandemic. The historians will have their day for sure, and decide whether or not Sturgeon continued to play a blinder to Johnson’s buffoon. She has stayed at home, mobilised her country, played to the crowds as Merkel has done in Germany by being steady, competent and visible, and…really ‘Making a difference…’

*sad Star Trek reference https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/5238/in-star-trek-tos-does-someone-say-textually-its-life-but-not-as-we-know-it

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On a weekly basis, I receive an Education update newsletter from Gordon Collins, of Careers & Education Services.

Gordon highlights the work of Anthony Stephen Fauci, the american physician and immunologist who has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, currently responsible for advising President Trump. Dr Fauci has this to say about Viruses, which in my view is really worth a read. My own University studies were at the University of Leicester, where one of my 2 majors was Biological Sciences, in which I specialised in Ecology and Microbiology. For all of my life I have held a deep respect for viruses, having seen Poliovirus victims during my childhood years. My deputy at Senior Boys, Ronell Selzer also shares my biological interests, she and I are as equally concerned now that Covid-19 virus continues to deserve our full respect. As a whole school, executive headteacher, Justin Spanswick causes us all to take stock every day to ensure we are ‘on this’! I’ll leave the rest to Dr Fauci:

Chickenpox is a virus. Lots of people have had it, and probably don’t think about it much once the initial illness has passed. But it stays in your body and lives there forever, and maybe when you’re older, you have debilitatingly painful outbreaks of shingles. You don’t just get over this virus in a few weeks, never to have another health effect. We know this because it’s been around for years, and has been studied medically for years.

Herpes is also a virus. And once someone has it, it stays in your body and lives there forever, and anytime they get a little run down or stressed-out they’re going to have an outbreak. Maybe every time you have a big event coming up (school pictures, job interview, big date) you’re going to get a cold sore. For the rest of your life. You don’t just get over it in a few weeks. We know this because it’s been around for years, and been studied medically for years.

HIV is a virus. It attacks the immune system and makes the carrier far more vulnerable to other illnesses. It has a list of symptoms and negative health impacts that goes on and on. It was decades before viable treatments were developed that allowed people to live with a reasonable quality of life. Once you have it, it lives in your body forever and there is no cure. Over time, that takes a toll on the body, putting people living with HIV at greater risk for health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, diabetes, bone disease, liver disease, cognitive disorders, and some types of cancer. We know this because it has been around for years, and had been studied medically for years.

With COVID-19, we have a novel virus that spreads rapidly and easily. The full spectrum of symptoms and health effects is only just beginning to be catalogued, much less understood.

So far the symptoms may include:
· Fever
· Fatigue
· Coughing
· Pneumonia
· Chills/Trembling
· Acute respiratory distress
· Lung damage (potentially permanent)
· Loss of taste (a neurological symptom)
· Sore throat
· Headaches
· Difficulty breathing
· Mental confusion
· Diarrhea
· Nausea or vomiting
· Loss of appetite
· Strokes have also been reported in some people who have COVID-19 (even in the relatively young)
· Swollen eyes
· Blood clots
· Seizures
· Liver damage
· Kidney damage
· Rash
· COVID toes (weird, right?)

People testing positive for COVID-19 have been documented to be sick even after 60 days. Many people are sick for weeks, get better, and then experience a rapid and sudden flare up and get sick all over again. Children with MIS-C may have a fever and various symptoms, including abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eyes, or feeling extra tired. While rare, it has caused deaths. This disease has not been around for years. It has basically been 6 months. No one knows yet the long-term health effects, or how it may present itself years down the road for people who have been exposed. We literally *do not know* what we do not know.

For those in our society who suggest that people being cautious are cowards, for people who refuse to take even the simplest of precautions to protect themselves and those around them, I want to ask, without hyperbole and in all sincerity:

How dare you?

How dare you risk the lives of others so cavalierly. How dare you decide for others that they should welcome exposure as “getting it over with”, when literally no one knows who will be the lucky “mild symptoms” case, and who may fall ill and die. Because while we know that some people are more susceptible to suffering a more serious case, we also know that 20 and 30-year-olds have died, marathon runners and fitness nuts have died, children and infants have died.

How dare you behave as though you know more than medical experts, when those same experts acknowledge that there is so much we don’t yet know, but with what we DO know, are smart enough to be scared of how easily this is spread, and recommend baseline precautions such as:
· Frequent hand-washing
· Physical distancing
· Reduced social/public contact or interaction
· Mask wearing
· Covering your cough or sneeze
· Avoiding touching your face
· Sanitizing frequently touched surfaces

The more things we can all do to mitigate our risk of exposure, the better off we all are. Not only does it flatten the curve and allow health care providers to maintain levels of service that aren’t immediately and catastrophically overwhelmed; it also reduces unnecessary suffering and deaths, and buys time for the scientific community to study the virus in order to come to a more full understanding of the breadth of its impacts in both the short and long term. I reject the notion that it’s “just a virus” and we’ll all get it eventually. What a careless, lazy, heartless stance.”

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Thank you Colleagues!!!

Just a quick note to thank all of my hardworking colleagues at Claires Court for the incredible week or so of heavy lifting all have engaged in across the 3 sites and additional sports/outdoor education venues. Nothing is normal about our new way of working, and from the most senior employee downwards, we all have to unlearn the routines embedded in our ‘professional’ muscle memory for the physical way we work in class. New rooms, new spaces, secure bubbles and the rest have to be learned anew, with every action and reaction taking twice as long, as we check again that we keep our colleagues, students and children safe. For their part, on almost all faces returning to school, nerves and joy – for a very few, unfettered joy, as if the caged animal has been released from the chains that were binding its ‘childhood’ freedoms. You can see here the Wilding brothers’ briefing to staff – it’s been an incredibly impressive 5 months and more – #WEARECLAIRESCOURT.

Please read below the Wilding brothers’ start of year newsletter to staff, providing further detail on their amazing engagement with all that we do.

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