Keeping Calm, and Carrying On

From the Headmaster's Desk, March 16, 2020

Let me start by acknowledging that, given the current global pandemic of coronavirus or Covid-19, not everyone is comfortable with large gatherings like this [Headmaster’s Assembly, Monday 16 March, 08:45], which normally play a central part in school life. In light of this, I will keep things brief this morning. Still, I thought it important that I speak to the entire school community collectively, especially as this may be the last opportunity that I have to do so for some time.

Most of you are aware that we have now cancelled many co-curricular events and activities that were scheduled to take place during the remainder of this term. To be clear, this includes most sports fixtures against other schools, visits off-site to indoor spaces, and external events that bring parents or visitors indoors. We are also not permitting large gatherings on-site, and as I have mentioned, this will be the last assembly this term.

Of course, this is a great shame, as part of what makes Reading Blue Coat such a special place is all that goes on outside the classroom. It is also true that being close to people is a big part of what makes life a pleasure, and social distancing challenges this norm. However, we have considered carefully, following government advice and best practice in the sector, and I think that the decisions we have made, whilst they will be disappointing for many of you, are correct at this time. Thank you for your understanding and support.

The co-curricular life of the School is important, but in these difficult times, our core academic offering of teaching and learning naturally becomes the priority. I do expect that at some point in the weeks ahead, either before or after the Easter holidays, our school will be closed. Right now we have no plans to close until the government advises us to do so.

On Friday we ran training sessions for all teachers with Microsoft Teams, an excellent piece of software that links directly to our school database. A ‘team’ is already set up for every teaching set in Reading Blue Coat. This can become a good forum for pupils to continue to make academic progress with support from their teachers. I am asking all teachers this week to ensure that their Microsoft Teams is working for their sets – it is best to do a trial run now whilst school is still in session. I also encourage you to download the app on your phone, if you have one.

I am conscious some departments also use Google Classroom or other online platforms, and these may be helpful as well.

Last week we circulated a ‘Home Learning Policy’ to all staff, pupils and parents. It is very important that if school does close, then everyone adheres to this policy, provided that they are fit and well enough to do so. As the policy outlines, we will expect pupils and staff to follow the school timetable and be available for lessons, which will be conducted remotely. I hope that all of you have access to the internet whilst at home, via a computer, tablet or handheld device. If not, consider with your parents how this might be possible in the weeks ahead. It is possible that School could be closed for a long time, and, as much as possible, we want to ensure all of you continue to make academic progress.

Of course, a significant number of you are anxious about the status of this year’s public exams. The latest announcement from Ofqual, the exam regulator, was 10 days ago, when they said schools and pupils should continue to prepare as if exams are running this summer. This advice now seems rather dated and out of touch with the current situation.

School leaders have demanded more information from government and Ofqual in order offer more clarity to staff, parents and pupils. Last week Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, insisted that closing schools would have a negative impact on the education of children, and be of little or no public health benefit. Mr Williamson is meeting with school leaders today, and I expect that we will hear more about both public exams and school closures shortly.

I also want to acknowledge that the level of uncertainty right now is unsettling. It is a challenge for leaders as well, but at Reading Blue Coat we are assessing day-by-day what is best for the School, following closely the advice of government, and we will continue to update you all on a regular basis. As many of you know, my wife works at the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest charity, which specialises in medical research and is advising the government on how to manage this crisis. She is also keeping me updated on the latest insight, which is helpful. There is plenty of noise out there on platforms like Twitter, but we will continue to engage the more formal channels, and advise the Reading Blue Coat community accordingly.

Just to reassure you all: the vast majority of cases, around 80%, are mild, and young people are extremely low risk. I very much hope that you and your loved ones are well, and stay well. I am comforted by the fact that whilst the young people in this room will encounter some disruptions to their normal routines in the weeks ahead, they are unlikely to be seriously ill.

At moments like this, community is more important than ever. Reading Blue Coat has always been known for its wonderful sense of community, and we are all in this together – let’s continue to listen to each other, support each other, be kind, and calmly take one day at a time.

Have a good week, and enjoy the sunshine today.

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