Last week we were visited by architects just to get their bearings before submitting plans for a new teaching block which we hope will be available to us for September 2020. Whilst we acknowledge the school does need to grow – over 200 will join us in September in year 7 replacing a year 11 group of 170 – it is our determination that our vision, ethos and “village school” culture will remain unchanged.
With the increase in numbers and a desire to improve our offer to pupils – something the School Council has repeatedly asked – we shall have new catering facilities for September. On a week when Nadhim Zahawi MP Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, wrote to schools urging them to provide a positive lunchtime experience, I can report that in September payment will be cashless and there will be a wider range of quality food at affordable prices. There will be considerable investment in equipment over the summer (some of the present kit looks like it is out of the 70s!) to support efficiency and expansion - and there will be the installation of an external pod in the courtyard and a coffee shop in the Sixth Form to provide additional service points. The eating areas in the hall, in the Sixth Form and outside seating will also be vastly improved. There will be a focus on reducing plastic, waste management/recycling and healthy eating. We are eagerly awaiting these developments. We shall provide more information for parents before the end of term, including how to set up cashless payments.
In other news, last week we held our final Parent Forum & Information Evening of the year. The theme was drugs awareness with PC Tim Emery delivering a short presentation about County Lines. This is a topical issue frequently referred to in the national press. Whilst the growth in drugs use is associated with large urban areas in reality its devastating effects extend to rural communities like ours. PC Tim Emery defined County Lines, summarised local police activity, discussed the similarities between Child Criminal Exploitation (CCE) and Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and provided advice for parents on how to deal with the issue in the home and about how the school can work with parents to protect young people. Information and guidance from the evening will be posted on the website under the Parent Forum tab.
Finally, although we gather feedback from parents during the year, if you have not provided your final verdict via Parent Voice for this year, please do so by following this link: Parent Voice. We do value your views!
Both our year 11 and 13 students are now fully in exam mode. We have sent them off with final year group assemblies and celebrations. We shall see them all next at their Proms and for year 11 their Sixth Form induction. We wish them all the best. Staff are here to help, support and advise students and parents during this time.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to update parents on the work of Willink as a Teaching School. We are just over half-way through a three year designated period as a Department of Education Teaching School. We are not sure of the future of Teaching Schools – it is in the laps of government ministers. Many of you will know Aysha Stone as our outstanding, long-standing maths specialist and tutor. In her spare time (ha, ha!) she leads our Teaching School. The Teaching School partnership originally included Hurst, Little Heath, Prospect and Theale Green school – but it has grown wider. In keeping with our motto “village school, global outlook” we do look to develop wider networks, learn from others and be a net contributor to the wider educational system leadership.
There are three aspects to the work of a Teaching School.
Firstly, initial teacher training. If you are thinking of teaching or working with children in schools contact Aysha. We co-ordinate the recruitment of people new to teaching across the partnership – working with the University of Reading with students following the PGCE and those that wish to enter teaching through Schools Direct and apprenticeships.
Secondly, professional development. A good example here is the Aspiring Senior Leaders programme. A dozen colleagues from partnership schools, plus St Bart’s in Newbury and The Wren in Reading are participating in this course which involves work shadowing in other schools in the partnership.
The third aspect is school to school support. This is where expertise in the partnership is deployed to where a particular need is required. A good example is support provided by the Willink maths department to Theale Green to teach maths classes, help structure the curriculum and provide support and advice for a new Head of Department. All schools have areas that can benefit from support.
As for students at Willink, the benefits of being a Teaching School are indirect. At a time of crisis in teacher recruitment, we are better placed than most schools. Our staff are also exposed to development opportunities that enable us to reflect upon and develop our own teaching and leadership. Schools only improve if they continually seek to develop strong practices so being a Teaching School supports Willink’s aim to steadily and sustainably improve.
I do hope you have had an enjoyable extended weekend.
Although students have already sat their art practical and language oral exams the first written GCSE papers start next week. As a parent with boys in years 10 and 12 it is a bit lighter this year, but I do know how fraught the exam period can be. In part preparation for the new GCSEs which are largely assessed through examinations rather than controlled assessments we have introduced exam weeks in years 7 to 9. Through these exam weeks students will become familiar with exams and begin to learn how best to revise. But these are internal exams and we don’t want students (or parents!) to become anxious about them.
With regard to Year 11, our Learning Support Centre team, under Mrs Browning, and Mrs Schofield, Head of Learning, are available for students to see and parents to contact if there are personal issues to be discussed in the run up to and during exams. If you missed our recent Parent Information Evening on “Supporting your child through exam stress” led by Educational Psychologist, Kate Pike her presentation can be found on the school’s website – under the “Parent Forum and Information Evenings”. It makes a good read.
Still with exams, we recently received congratulatory letters from the DfE about the school’s performance in last year’s GCSEs. How slow the wheels turn! The letters can be viewed here.
Some of you may have read there was an article in the Newbury Weekly News on 4th April – just before the Easter break - regarding school funding. Please see the link to read the school’s response to this article and to correct some inaccuracies. In essence the article was about the shortages in school funding and focused on the Willink’s deficit. However, as the source of the report was West Berks Schools Forum, it did not refer to the funding shortages in academies.
Welcome to my last blog of the Spring Term. I do hope in this extraordinary period of political uncertainty and national anxiety, that you do find some time to “chill” over the Easter break. Chilling is important – even for students in years taking external exams. Yes, they need to begin their final revision, but they need to chill too. Chilling is good for us (students, staff, parents and politicians!) when you are overheated, it is crucial when you are over-wrought and it is necessary when you have been over-committed. Holidays give us a good time to be who we are instead of living all the time in the world of what we do and what we achieve – time to chill and reflect. Many retreat into books, painting (artistic or domestic), some deploy under-utilised DIY skills for good or ill. It is different: at its best it is refreshing, it is renewing, it is re-energising. Whatever else it is, it is necessary. As staff we aim to ensure our students in exam years are in the right psychological shape to perform well. This means helping them to know that whatever happens they are valued as people - life is more than outcomes. Willink teachers not only teach the content of what students know, but teach them how to handle the challenges of the test: how to handle panic, how to control irrational fear, how to recall what they know, how to have the stamina to see it through. It is always good to ask each day ‘what did you do yesterday and tell me tomorrow about what you plan today’ – this makes a difference.
As is always the case at the end of term we have some staff changes. Ms Fuller is leaving our Computing Department, Mr Rodriguez is leaving MFL and Mrs Axson is leaving our Finance Office. We wish them all the very best for the future.
Finally, a further reminder about school uniform and jewellery. If you are about to purchase new shoes for your son/daughter – please remember they need to be plain black polishable school shoes. If your son/daughter is about to have a piercing, then please remember just one small stud ear-ring conventionally worn in each ear lobe is allowed. If your son/daughter arrives after half term with alternative piercings they will be asked to remove it and if this is not possible, they will not partake in social time at break or lunch. With regard to hair-cuts, we have a “one head, one hair-cut” rule with no exaggerated steps, lop-sided styles etc; if you are unsure please check the uniform policy.
May I wish you a happy Easter break. We shall see our students back at Willink on Wednesday 24th April.
Last Friday young people across England joined climate change protests. A small delegation from Willink joined the protest march in London. Meanwhile a contingent of our Sixth Form were at the Oxford Union engaged in the European Youth Parliament competition. On Saturday a group of year 8 and 9 were at Reading Magistrates Court competing in the Berkshire “mock trials” competition. So, the question then is how far should our students be engaged in the political and justice systems? At Willink the development of political literacy seeps through the curriculum: for example, citizenship is taught directly through PSRE, environmental issues in geography and science and then there is the enactment of the trial of King Charles1, and a study of the suffragette movement in history. It is not just a body of knowledge or understanding, our students learn the deep-thinking skills of dealing with bias – or “fake news”. We would, of course, not be true to our school motto “village school, global outlook”, particularly at a time when the global outlook is rather bleak, if students did not learn to critically think through information, discuss, debate, participate and, yes maybe, protest within the law. As parents we will no doubt remember the anti-apartheid protests or the pressure to ban CFCs and call off the destruction of the ozone layer. Building a better future through active participation and working together be it on Europe or climate change may be our young people’s calling.
Changing the subject entirely, this week we hold our year 7 parent consultation. In a change to previous editions we have split the year group – TUVW on Tuesday and XYZ on Thursday. This is in recognition of the larger year 7 cohort but also a response to parents who in some year groups last year were unable to make appointments. Although we have considered online booking for parents, the feedback we have received on our current system (some describe it like “speed-dating”) is very positive. If you are a parent of a year 7 pupil please let us know what you think, particularly if you have been unable to make appointments.
It was concerning this week to hear via the BBC news report that modern foreign language (MFL) learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling the most. The BBC analysis shows drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the number of secondary schools dropping at least one language from their GCSE options. Although only 4% of schools are Grammar schools, they account for 8% of state school GCSE entries. Part of the explanation is the drop in the numbers training to become MFL teachers - the pool of talented recruits is smaller at a time when pupil numbers are increasing. I firmly believe if the teaching is inspirational, all students whatever their ability can achieve well in languages. The other reason is that languages are now seen as a high-risk choice by schools, parents and pupils, as many believe it is harder to get a high grade in exams. It is true that MFL exams are harder with the new specs and that pupils on average in state schools achieve one grade less in GCSE languages than they do in their other GCSEs – at Willink we are no different. Incidentally, independent schools have an advantage when it comes to exams in that they can enter students for the relatively easier iGCSE. The more challenging MFL exams affects A level too. However, schools are promised a more level playing field with regard to exam results by 2020 when the outcome of an Ofqual report will result in a re-alignment in grades.
While German and French - the languages of two of the UK's closest trading partners - have really dropped away at GCSE level across England, there has been a noticeable surge in some others, such as Spanish and Mandarin. We shall be adding Mandarin formally to our suite of languages in September.
Business organisations have expressed concern at the lack of language skills in the UK just at a time when they will be in even greater demand post BREXIT. Matthew Fell, Chief UK Policy Director for business group the CBI, said last week: "Employer demand for French, German and Spanish skills have significantly increased over the last few years. The decline in language learning in schools must be reversed, or the UK will be less competitive globally and young people less prepared for the modern world. As well as speaking a foreign language, increasing young people's cultural awareness and their ability to work with people from around the world is just as important." This is a pertinent statement - made just as our trip to Barcelona leaves – a trip that underscores our commitment to bolstering language learning. We also know learning a foreign language strengthens our students’ credentials for future careers, to become more competitive when applying for apprenticeships or university places.
So, should The Willink join many other schools and reduce the importance of languages? Every year we review our curriculum to consider if it still is right for our students and meets the criteria we set out in our policy (see website). Our conclusion? We think the vast majority of our students should experience languages and take at least one to GCSE level within a broad and balanced curriculum.
What to do with smartphones was a lead story this week. Nick Gibb the minister for school standards in England said that schools should ban their pupils from bringing in smartphones. Meanwhile the UK’s chief medical officers said parents should ban smartphones from the dinner table and bedtimes. At Willink we have said for many years now that whilst we accept that students have phones with them (and many parent want this), they are not (with the exception of the Sixth Form) to be used around the school site during the school day. We do remove devices if they are used without permission during school time. That said there are excellent revision apps we use - ask your Y10 or Y11 children about the PiXL apps ……… but not over dinner time! We recommend the ClassCharts app too! If you are concerned about your child’s use of social media please refer to our information letter first issued last January .
In other news we, of course, held our “Snow Day” last Friday. We had a couple of enquiries about why the snow led to the school closure. Snow does, of course, cause a health and safety risk on site – but assuming snow falls overnight and there is no further snow forecast we can clear the site, perhaps delaying the start of the school day. However, the biggest issue is staffing. We have staff coming in from as far away as Hungerford, Slough, Didcot and Winchester. If we cannot secure sufficient levels of staffing then we cannot open. In addition there is the issue of welfare of staff driving such distances in adverse weather conditions. The decision to close is never taken without due deliberation. On this occasion, given the later blockages to the M3, A34, gridlock in Basingstoke, and treacherous local roads, we believe the decision to close was the right one.
Finally, have you noticed how smart Y11s are? This week we held our Mock Results Day and Sixth Form Interviews. Over 70 interviews were completed in two days with a further day and interviews for external candidates to come. Students were asked to wear appropriate attire for an interview. The Sixth Form team who conducted the interviews reported students’ prepared, positive and punctual!
Two items of news stood out to me last week. The first was The Queen’s message referring to and encouraging simple recipes such as “speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture”. The second was the very worrying report that five per cent of UK adults do not believe the Holocaust took place and one in 12 believe its scale has been exaggerated. At Willink we do take seriously our role in educating about the past and projecting values of respect, tolerance and equality. Last week we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day with Year 9 participating in a streamed national presentation on the Holocaust. We also, building our international credentials, hosted all week a group of students from the Admiral Farragut Academy, Tianjin, China. Students and staff together learnt about each other’s customs, language and cuisine. Our present plan is to visit China again at Easter 2020.
In all the Brexit news you may have missed last week’s publication of school performance tables. You can access this information direct from the Department of Education website or via our website – please look up DfE Performance Tables (you can look up any school from this link). Of course, this information tells you only part of the picture of a school. The annual parent survey carried out during Learning Review Day, with a sample of 625 parental responses tells us a great deal (see attached document). Pupils’ enjoyment of school, school-home communication and quality of co-curricular activities have improved, whilst parents’ understanding of our assessment and reporting has dropped a little to the mid 90% satisfaction. Overall satisfaction levels are in the high 90% and we thank you for the trust and support you have in us. The school’s promotion of a healthy lifestyle remains greatest concern – something we are working on through our re-focused tutor programme.