May I wish you a rather belated “Happy New Year”. We welcome Mrs Allen who has joined us as Teacher of Music taking over Mrs Lawrence’s role until Easter.
Attendance and Staffing
I am pleased to say that, in terms of attendance and staffing, the term has started rather more smoothly than we may have feared. Our ‘Medic Centre’ undertaking Covid testing worked like clockwork (incidentally identifying a couple of dozen positive cases), attendance at our “Rise & Shine” assemblies was really high and our remote provision was well received – and rather more advanced than a year ago! Attendance last week was 93% with Covid accounting for a daily average of 30 absences ……… plus 3 covid related teacher absences and 3 covid related support staff absences above the norm. Many schools have been affected far more; the impact is localised. However, attendance is a lot lower for our vulnerable learners and much work is being done to help improve attendance and get them back on track and into the rhythm and rituals of schooling. Hopefully, we can get through the next couple of weeks without further disruption. Thank you for checking your child undertakes the twice weekly test and that a face covering is part of their equipment ready for school. On Monday 24th, of course, we host the second round of Covid vaccinations.
Year 11 Virtual Parent Consultation
This week we hold our Year 11 virtual parent consultation – an important event, even in a normal year. This year it follows the mock exams. In a couple of weeks, the Department of Education will be issuing final guidance and adjustments on this summer’s exams. The expectation is that there will be a full set of public exams in the summer; to provide further experience for our students – and to provide evidence of attainment should there be student absence – a further set of year 11 and year 13 Pre-Public Exams (PPEs) will take place in March.
As mentioned in the last edition of WeLink, a “thank you” to parents and carers who were able to complete the annual survey of parents. We received just over 500 completed questionnaires, down on previous years. After a difficult year it was gratifying that over 95% of respondents felt positive about school expectations, quality of teaching, safeguarding, school leadership and supporting student independent learning; and over 90% felt positive in their child making at least good progress, pastoral support, home-school communication, and, overall happiness with their child’s experience in school. However, only 85% of parents felt their child enjoys school and a similar proportion only perceive behaviour to be at least good – both figures were lower than in the last survey. We suspect Covid has had a part to play in reduced enjoyment. However, the lower figures are noted and are something for us to address.
Finally, we received a few useful comments on our “Relationship, Health & Sex Education Policy” consultation. This policy together with our updated “Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Policy” will be finally approved by Governors on Monday (17th January) and will be available for viewing via the website later this week.
Mr P Fry, Head
Welcome to the festal edition of WeLink. Writing this piece on Monday, the situation we find ourselves in reminds me of the 1993 American fantasy comedy film “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell (a good family viewing over the holiday I may say), where one day is repeated over and over again. The run up to the Christmas break this year feels very much like last. We are managing a visit to the pantomime - an important cultural experience for young people – but our normal pre-Covid Christmas events such as the school production, the talent cabaret, the senior citizen concert, the Christmas Fair, the carol service, and our Celebration of Success were not to be, once again. That said, the stops have been pulled out in school and the term ends with a flurry of House matches, the annual House carol competition in MFL, club and societies’ Christmas events and a virtual Christmas Cabaret …… not to forget mock exams for year 11!
Return to School Testing
As you will be aware from my SchoolComms message last Friday, the Government has asked secondary schools to organise and staff Covid testing at the beginning of term. As before our volunteer Examination Invigilation Team (come medics) have agreed to take on the task and we greatly appreciate this. It is crucially important that students attend their allocated slots (see schedule in this edition of WeLink and via the Parent Digest), including Sixth Formers who have been double jabbed – so we can stop the Omicron variant making inroads at Willink in the new year. When they attend, we shall assume parental consent for testing. May I thank parents and carers for their support with this programme – and also for insisting your child undertakes twice weekly lateral flow tests - more packs will be issued to students this week. Following national guidance, if your child is identified as a close contact of a positive case, they are expected to be in school but to take a daily LFT for seven days. In school, that is, unless exhibiting one of the usual symptoms! And a further “thank you” for ensuring your child comes to school with a face covering and an understanding of why it is important to wear it in enclosed spaces or as the guidance demands. We have about 30 students who presently come to school without a face covering – so please support us where needed. Let's hope that Omicron doesn't cause a fresh wave of chaos and that a Plan B for education doesn't turn out to be a last-minute series of panic measures. Which is, of course, exactly what happened last Christmas. Look out for a SchoolComms message on or about 3rd January if that is the case! Back to Groundhog Day.
Learning Review Day
Learning Review Day was successful this year with 85% of tutor meetings taking place on the day with subsequent follow up for those parents unable to meet the time slot. Please do let your child’s Head of Learning know if this is not the case. Thank you for completing the annual parent survey and it is reassuring that 85% found the LRD conversation very useful and over 90% report that school-home communication is good. However, turnout was low with only just over 500 surveys completed, so we shall need to improve communication about this survey next time around. There will be more details on the findings in the next edition of WeLink.
As is normal there are some staff changes at the end of term. Mr Williams (Cover Supervisor) is leaving us after three years to return to the world of finance. Mrs Lawrence joined Willink in September 2007 as a newly qualified teacher and leaves us as Head of Music to take up the part-time position of Teacher of Music at Hurst Lodge School in Yateley. We wish them both all the very best for their future. We thank Mrs Lawrence specifically who won’t disappear completely as she will be joining us on a Friday each week to continue to teach her year 10 and year 11 classes up to Easter. Mrs Ross will be taking on the reins of leading music along with drama until Mrs Lawrence’s replacement joins us at Easter. Finally, please remember that school closes at 12.40pm on Friday. I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful Christmas and look forward to welcoming students back to school from Tuesday 4th January 2022.
Welcome to the second to last WeLink of a very busy term. Since the last edition we have welcomed our year 11s, together with a couple of dozen external students, to our Sixth Form Open Evening - an event pitched to looking towards their futures. This was followed this week by “Moving Forward Friday” when students, meet current sixth formers and get a dose of sixth form life. There were also sessions from Reading College and Basingstoke College of Technology to provide an alternative college perspective.
Learning Review Days
Meanwhile, students in all year groups have been reflecting on their learning and progress this term, in preparation for their Learning Review discussions with parents and tutors. Whilst most sixth formers are in exams and most year 11s in mock examination preparation during these two days, years 7-10 will be engaged in Independent Learning Projects – research projects to be completed at home during Learning Review Day. This has taken on the additional purpose of re-familiarising students with online learning strategies – useful for future learning and, of course, should there be another lockdown! Tutors are so looking forward to meeting parents face-to-face; building a close connection between tutor and parent is so important and is an opportunity not just to discuss academic progress but also personal development concerns. Staff are based in their classrooms so social distancing can be maximised With meetings no longer than 15 minutes and hand sanitizer at the ready, the event is Covid protocol compliant! We do ask that you do take a Lateral Flow Test prior to the meeting and wear a face covering around the school. We really do hope you take this opportunity for one-to-one dialogue. It is an opportunity for us to say “thank you” for your support since we last met and to convey thanks to staff for their commitment and resilience during these extraordinary times. Please also complete the Parent Survey so we can reflect upon the key messages this last year; this will be sent to you on Wednesday with the submission date next week - but please fill in early so as you don't forget.
Exams 2022 Contingency Arrangements
Of interest, specifically to parents and carers of our Y11 and Y13 students, is the government has recently published the contingency arrangements should examinations not take place in the summer of 2022 due to a resurgence of Covid. The full details can be found here:
In essence schools should prepare to compile the results of tests undertaken under exam board complaint conditions, this side of Christmas, in the spring and again after Easter. We shall distribute more information in due course. Mocks will cover only work previously taught and students should revise for mock exams as directed as they would in a normal year.
Lastly, following concern over the new Omicron variant, you will be aware from Monday's Schoolcomm that students are now expected, unless medically exempt, to wear a face covering in communal places. Schools were told on Friday that they are expected to undertake en masse student testing for Covid after the Christmas break. No doubt more details will be forthcoming and I shall be able to share the details prior to the Christmas break.
Mr P Fry, Head
Since the last edition of WeLink, Willink students have been engrossed in community work.
On Friday we held our first non-uniform or mufti day of the year. In previous years, students have brought gifts for the School PTA Christmas Fair and funds raised put towards a school project and designated charities. This year with no Christmas Fair, for the privilege of not wearing school uniform, students were asked to bring in goods for the West Berkshire Food Bank. The response from families has been overwhelming. Our conference room has been overflowing with cartons of milk and fruit juices, tins of all sorts, shampoos, chocolates etc. Today our Sixth Form have help load and transport. On behalf of the WBFB a huge thank you for your kind gifts.
We are also proud that scores of our students took part in local Remembrance services this Sunday. Members of our Armed Forces group took leading roles along with students who are members of the scouts and cadets outside of school.
With regard to our wider community, The Willink is looking forward this week to welcoming four refugee children from Afghanistan. A statement from the charity Refugee Education UK (2021) helps articulate why this is so important: “Education is protective; it is how these children will begin to rebuild their lives and look towards their futures.” Whilst education is priceless, wellbeing will be the immediate priority; refugees from Afghanistan will have undoubtedly experienced trauma and will have left friends and family behind. Schools can provide a sense of belonging and ensure young people can experience the routines of normal school life. We hope they have a happy and successful time with us.
Anti Bullying Week & Social Media
This seamlessly moves into care in the community – this week is Anti-Bullying Week with the theme for this year “One Kind Word”. Our Anti-Bullying Policy can be found on our website and our online 'Report and Restore' function allows students to report incidents should they wish to instead of reporting direct to staff. We really do need to know before we can deal.
Finally, we have become aware of a craze among young people for using the social media platform TikTok to post imagery and commentary about school staff which is defamatory, offensive and, in some cases, homophobic. I hasten to add we are not aware of such incidents at Willink but are carefully monitoring the situation. Of course, this is hardly the first time that social media has been a problem for schools. We know that excessive social media use is damaging the mental health and wellbeing of young people. We also know our students encounter cyber-bullying and upsetting material on social media – such as sexual content, self-harm or hate speech. An Online Harms Safety Bill is being considered by Parliament and due to report by 10 December - this should impose duties of care on providers of online content-sharing platforms and search services. However, we, the adults – and especially those big technology companies – still have to protect, inform and educate the young people in our society on how to conduct ourselves in an interconnected world.
We thank you for your support.
I do hope that you found some downtime last week and are recharged ready for the run up to Christmas! Last term finished well with a return to near normality with school trips back on and year 11s participating in a successful, if rather curtailed work experience programme – we are so grateful to employers for engaging at a time when Covid still puts restrictions on the workplace. However, Covid induced absence was a concern that we could also not shake off and disjointed learning or gaps in learning continue to be felt as a result.
Covid 19 Information
As you will be aware from the media, Covid-19 infection rates have significantly increased in school-aged children since the start of the academic year. Although the immediate health risks of Covid-19 infection to children and young people are low, the potential harm from missing or disrupted education is significant.
Following a review of current guidance, West Berkshire Council and the Berkshire West Health Protection Board are recommending a number of measures aimed at reducing the risk of Covid-19 transmission within schools. We are now advised to:
- Use face coverings in communal areas (unless exempt) for staff, children and visitors e.g. when moving about inside; when moving about on the school site. Face coverings should continue to be used on public and school transport.
- Encourage the use of face coverings for parents visiting the school site, particularly when indoors.
- That any child or member of staff who has a household member test positive for Covid-19 should be advised to take a daily lateral flow test for 7 days, in addition to taking a one-off PCR test. Anyone who is exempt from self-isolation (those aged under 18 or adults who are fully vaccinated) and who tests negative can continue to attend school during this period of daily lateral flow testing.
- That any child or member of staff who is identified as a close contact of a positive case via NHS Test and Trace should be advised to take a daily lateral flow test for 7 days, in addition to taking a one-off PCR test. Anyone who is exempt from self-isolation (those aged under 18 or adults who are fully vaccinated) and who tests negative can continue to attend school during this period of daily lateral flow testing.
We also encourage parents and carers to take regular twice weekly lateral flow tests. These can be ordered through gov.uk or collected from a local pharmacy. Vaccination remains an important part of helping to reduce the transmission from Covid-19 and we encourage everyone to attend for their vaccination (1st and 2nd dose) if not done so already. Booster doses are now also available for those who at most risk of Covid-19 and who had their 2nd dose at least 6 months ago. Hopefully, then we can keep the school running relatively normally with attendance back to where it should be.
These enhanced measures are anticipated to remain in place until the end of December, although these will be reviewed in 4-weeks with any decision to amend or remove the measures based on the following: the case rate per 100,000 for school aged children; rate of increase (or decrease) in case rates; vaccination rates in school-aged children; the emergence of any new variants of concern; any adverse outcomes for those with Covid-19, and any other viruses in circulation. As a result of these measures our parent consultation events will continue to be virtual. We dearly hope we can arrange our Sixth Form Open Evening to be face to face and will communicate with you shortly in this regards.
Relationships, Sex & Health Education Policy
In other news, we would like your feedback on our draft Relationships, Sex & Health Education Policy which can be found via this link. Schools are required to consult with parents over the approach and content of this curriculum area – which should be planned and sequenced and revisit key topics. The policy should establish a clear rationale for study, set firm expectations of what students need to know and understand by the end of year 11, ensure content is age-appropriate and support teachers in delivering new content. We are, of course, well placed as we have a team of specialists delivering our RSHE programme. Please send any comments to Mr Sizer who is reviewing the content of the policy by the end of November.
So we are off! Following considerable Covid preparatory work by Mr Debuire and his team, we have launched our first foreign trip since February 2020. The year10/11 trip to Spain left on Sunday. Tougher restrictions on travel caused by the pandemic and Brexit have not deterred our illustrious staff from such ventures. Last week we also held our geography trip for all GCSE students, and we had considerable numbers of students, more than pre-Covid, participating in sports clubs and fixtures. This is all very good news as we strive for normality.
That said, attendance last week was 5% lower than the equivalent week in 2019 (that is some 60 additional student absences) underlining the on-going impact the pandemic is having on learning. Public Health England have also informed schools of an increase likelihood of flu related absence as we move towards Christmas. Therefore, as we face an uncertain winter, a timely reminder that we are holding Flu and Covid vaccinations next Monday and parental consent needs to be provided this week. There is no planned catch-up for these vaccinations. Hopefully, this will maximise students' time in the classroom and negate the need to reintroduce additional measures such as increased testing, or face-coverings or the restrictions of bubbles. Another tool available to schools are Co2 monitors. The DfE have confirmed the roll-out to schools is underway and we should receive this term……
The Mental Health of Children & Young People
NHS Digital have just published the results of their recent survey exploring the mental health of children and young people, following an original survey in 2017 and covering the period February/March 2021, during the pandemic. A sample of 3,667 children and young people participated. Key findings included: rates of probable mental disorders have increased since 2017; in 6 to 16 year olds from one in nine (11.6%) to one in six (17.4%), and in 17 to 19 year olds from one in ten (10.1%) to one in six (17.4%). 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds had experienced deterioration in mental health since 2017 while 21.8% experienced improvement. The proportion of children and young people with possible eating problems has increased. Problems with sleep on three or more nights of the previous seven affected over a third (38.4%) of 11 to 16 year olds, and over half (57.1%) of 17 to 19 year olds. While 10.6% of 6 to 16 year olds missed more than 15 days of school during the 2020 Autumn term, children with a probable mental disorder were twice as likely to have missed this much school. On a national scale this is, of course, deeply worrying. If you, as a parent or carer, are experiencing greater challenges and growing concerns and your child’s education is suffering as a result we really do need to know so we can help and support.
GCSE & A Level Examinations 2022
This last fortnight we have held our introductory Parent Information Evenings. If you were unable to attend, the staged video versions are on the website. Following on from the advice about exams, we now have received more information from the DfE and Ofqual about examinations in 2022. This included adaptions, gradings and proposals for potential contingency arrangements. In outline, there will be optional topics and content in GCSE English literature, history and geography; a minimum number of practical activities will be required in A level biology, chemistry and physics. Students taking GCSE, AS and A level art and design will be assessed on their portfolio only. Exam boards will provide advanced information to schools about the focus of the content of exams for all GCSE, AS and A level subjects except GCSE English literature, history and geography in early February. Students will be given a formulae sheet for GCSE mathematics and a revised equation sheet for GCSE physics. In terms of grading 2022 will be a ‘transition year’ to reflect the fact that we are in a pandemic recovery period and students’ education has been disrupted. Ofqual will therefore aim for grades in 2022 to reflect a midway point between 2021 and 2019. This means that results overall next year will be higher than in 2019 but not as high as in 2020 and 2021. As for results days, they will return to their normal format, with AS and A levels being released on 18 August, and GCSEs on 25 August. And ……. reassuringly, we are promised a plan B! Once we have more details we shall share with you.
KS3 Milestone Assessments
So far, this term has been very different to September last year. We have welcomed visitors to our Open Evening and Open Morning and parents and carers to our information evenings for years 7, 10 and year 11. It has been wonderful meeting you all actually in person. We are delighted we can hold school tours whilst students are in session. Monday mornings are set aside for tours this term, but they can be arranged for any time by making an appointment. For September 2022 we believe about 40 places will be available to students, without siblings already at Willink, living outside our catchment.
The Big Ask
Also, on a positive note you may remember back in March this year the Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, launched a consultation with young people called ‘The Big Ask’. Willink students participated, along with half a million other 4-17 year olds. The results have been analysed and a report called ‘The Big Answer’ has just been published. At a time when we need a boost, the report certainly does just that. In summary, these are the headlines:
- Children were united in showing a new consciousness of the importance of health and wellbeing. The pandemic has affected their wellbeing and now they want good mental and physical health to be a priority in their lives
- They care deeply about family – families of all kinds. They care about being part of happy homes. Providing families with support is especially important as we recover from the pandemic, in particular for homes with vulnerable children
- Children care deeply about community. They want to get outside and play. To have enough to do in their neighbourhoods. They want to feel safe and protected in online spaces
- Children are pleased to be back in school. As we recover, they have asked for support to make a success of the opportunities returned to them. This is especially important for children who found learning harder in lockdown
- They described ambitious plans for the world of work, their futures and the world in which they inhabit. Many of them want to do civic-minded jobs which help other people - to be part of the recovery from the pandemic. They want to be treated fairly as they choose from a variety of pathways towards a fulfilling career
- The same ambitions were true of children in care. They described gratitude at the level of support they currently receive, but also clarified where they need more support.
It is, of course, not quite business as usual. Along with other schools locally and across the country we do have unnerving attendance patterns; bang on 90% for last week, a good 6% below “normal” levels. Monday this week was no better. We have noted that some absence is due to children waiting for PCR test results, rather than using LFTs in the first instance. Of course, the promised vaccination programme for 12-15 year olds is potentially the way that schools can stem the inexorable rise in Covid cases and reduce the disruption to face to face education this winter. On Monday parents and carers will have received Department of Health information on the vaccination programme. On the same day the school received hoax anti-vaccine letters under a fake NHS logo; we have not distributed this material. To reiterate, the school does not have a position on the vaccination programme and the merits of it for an individual. We are not health professionals. Like all school-based vaccination programmes, the vaccines will be administered by healthcare staff working closely with the school and following the usual approach to school-based immunisation. The NHS School-aged Immunisation Service will be the primary provider of the vaccination programme for healthy 12 to 15 year olds and will be legally responsible for the delivery of the vaccine. Consent will be sought by the SAIS provider from the parent or person with parental responsibility in the same way as for any other school vaccination programme. You will also be provided with a contact number for the SAIS team in case of any queries.
Welcome to the first edition of WeLink this academic year and a special welcome to parents, carers and students new to the school. WeLink is the schools fortnightly review of goings on at Willink and complements the weekly Parent Digest that is the one stop information shop on what is happening. Please do contact the school office if you are not in receipt of either.
I usually take the opportunity of writing my fortnightly blog for WeLink on my musings on the world of education. As it stands (and the last couple of years has proved things can change quickly) we have had a calm start to the term.
Annual Prize -Giving
Talking about calm and serene – our annual Prize-giving on Wednesday was anything but, as the rain started just as the speeches got underway. The event is lovely when outside, but we all scurried under cover. However, what we have learnt from the pandemic is to improvise, we were soon back on our feet and on our way, this time with welled up tears rather than swelled up wet feet! It was important not only to congratulate students (a bit like the year 11 prom, we were determined not to cancel again) and thank parents for their support but also to praise staff for what was the most challenging of years. Here is an excerpt from my speech about the commitment of staff this last year:
“This last 18 months staff have had to rapidly adapt to changing circumstances on many occasions. They
- they have overseen the acquisition, deployment and “customer” support of laptops and devices ensuring students and staff are not left unconnected
- they have quickly become experts in delivering remote learning – live lessons, virtual “rise and shine” tutor time, assemblies, recorded lessons, remote assessment e.g. we modelled our remote access Y13 mocks on the Swedish exam system.
- they have become adaptable and flexible in curriculum design, dissecting the curriculum to ensure coherence and ensuring students can progress as much as possible
- they squeezed in foreign language trips (well to Wokingham!), Y11 Prom, sports day, activities week – when other schools may have been unable to.
- led largely remote professional development opportunities for staff in school, our teaching school alliance and through the Maths Hub.
- they have run on-site provision for the children of key workers and vulnerable children during lockdowns;
- they have delivered food supplies to our more vulnerable families
- provided ongoing pastoral support for our more anxious and vulnerable students
- managed complex Covid safety measures; handled the odd positive case
- set up testing stations to enable students to return to classrooms; currently we have our team of exam invigilators/come medics undertaking student Covid testing
- managed the improvement of premises - with shortage of staff and supplies
- they have taken responsibility for assessing students following the cancellation of public exams…… that is the setting of assessments, marking, standardising against grade descriptors set by the exam board, moderating standards and setting the grade - in effect undertaking the work of exam boards
Staff have done all this while being concerned and anxious about their own and their family’s welfare and well-being. They have done all this in a calm, professional and unflappable manner, providing our students with a sense of continuity amidst the turbulence caused by the pandemic, and against a backdrop of constantly shifting guidance from the government which, I would say, has not supported schools adequately during this period and left us shouldering far too many responsibilities which are public health rather than education tasks”.
In other news, my letter of last week provided information on our summer’s exam results and student destinations; please refer to our newly styled website for the details.
And finally, our in-school Covid testing programme worked like clockwork – thank you to parents and our team of volunteer medics (our re-trained and re-deployed Exam Invigilation Team). Students are now in receipt of home testing and we urge parents to ensure their child(ren) regularly take the test on a Sunday and Wednesday evening. Although we have an enhanced cleaning programme, ensure good ventilation, ask students to wash hands or use hand sanitizer before each lesson, and encourage the wearing of face coverings when in confined places, bubbles have gone and students mix across the years. Testing is the main form of mitigation against the spread of the virus. Of course we await the detailed advice from Public Health England to parents following yesterday’s announcement from the JCVI regarding the offer of vaccinations for 12 to 15 year olds. It is likely that schools will be asked to be the venues for a vaccination programme and we shall keep you informed once we have information.