Image above: Laura Ellener, Head Teacher of Chiswick School (library picture not taken during the pandemic)
Head teacher of Chiswick School Laura Ellener told the Chiswick Area Forum on Tuesday 12 January she was “devastated” that GCSE and A Level exams were not going ahead this year. She said her Year 11 and Year 13 groups were still working very hard but she felt very bad for them that they would not be able to prove their ability in public exams.
Schools have been told that the public exams are cancelled, but as yet, she said they hadn’t been given any alternative framework, there’s “no back-up plan”.
Laura Ellener was reporting on the school’s record over the past twelve months. In January 2020 Ofsted inspectors pronounced Chiswick to be a ‘Good’ school, after a long period of instability. Laura was appointed the previous year to turn the school around and was gratified that Ofsted had recognised all her team’s hard work. They were also awarded ‘Oustanding’ in promoting their students’ personal development.
The school is focused on academic standards, she said, and they had been looking forward to achieving record results in 2021. They added an additional intake form to Year 7 in September because there is now such interest from primary schools in the area. They had a record number of primary school applications for this academic year. Her mission is for Chiswick School to become the number one school of choice for Chiswick residents.
Images above: Students at Chiswick School (library pictures not taken during the pandemic)
The online meeting was attended by the nine Conservative councillors who represent Chiswick on Hounslow Council and was open to members of the public to dial in. Laura told them that she also wanted school to be fun. “I want children to really love coming to school” she said.
That too has paid off it seems. The attendance rate since September has been 94% despite the pandemic, which is higher than the national average. Attendance rates in schools in England were around 88% in the Autumn term, according to the Education Policy Institute.
Staff attendance also had been very high. The school has not had to resort to using a single supply teacher during the year, she said. When she arrived at the school to take over as head teacher, supply teachers covering lessons were the norm. During the pandemic, if teachers have had to isolate, they have taught virtually from home.
One thing Laura has done this year is to introduce a ‘Director of Fun’. There have been Beat the Teacher quizzes and a competition between subject departments for teachers to escape from a virtual escape room. Children have also come into school in fancy dress.
Images above: School staff delivering equipment and lunches to students; food parcel
Coping with the pandemic
Laura’s message was unremittingly positive, despite the difficult year they’ve had. She has been determined that students would not lose out on their education. They were among the five percent of state schools which started live online learning during the first wave.
She described how they’d spent the summer holidays of 2020 redesigning the school to accommodate social distancing, which meant taking down some walls to make classrooms bigger, and marking out lines on the floor.
This time, for the third lockdown, with a day’s notice they managed to get their entire timetable up and running through Google Classroom. Students start the day at 8.40am with Live Tutor Time. All students have their lessons delivered through live, and occasionally pre-recorded, lessons. They are also set tasks to do away from the computer so they aren’t looking at a screen for six hours a day.
The school had received “fantastic support” from LB Hounslow’s Director of Public Health Kelly O’Neill, she said, who even if she rang her at midnight, could always be guaranteed to reply. She was particularly gratified that they hadn’t had any transmission at the school, she said. If someone had symptoms they were isolated quickly, so there had been no clusters of cases at the school.
Asked whether the pandemic had affected children’s mental health, she said some had, but the most worrying theme they’d seen was the increase in domestic violence. In terms of supporting more vulnerable students, her Special Educational Needs (SEN) team were giving 60 children one to one support.
Image above: Chiswick School gym laid out for mass Covid testing
Setting up mass testing
Even the task, thrown at them just before Christmas, of setting up a mass testing operation, she sees as a positive.
“We are picking up positive (Lateral Flow) tests” which means that staff and students who have Covid but are asymptomatic do not continue to pass the virus on unwittingly.
“I am really pleased that we are able to add another layer of safety” she said.
Laura and her staff have also spent extra hours making sure students get on the right buses at the end of the school day, travelling with their appropriate bubble and wearing their masks.
Image above: Chiswick School staff delivering mass Covid testing
Talking round the DfE
She was asked about what help they’d had from Government. Asked about provision of laptops she said they’d originally been allocated 130 laptops by the DfE. They were then told they were only getting 28. “Our business manager got on the phone” she said, and by the end of the phone call they had the original number they’d been promised.
She said they’d had to absorb an enormous amount of guidance, delivered at the end of term, on a Friday night, or at 8.00pm the day before it was meant to come into effect. They never had any advance notice of changes in policy.
“We hear about it only when everyone else hears it from Boris”.
Asked about the meager school lunches which have received such adverse publicity in the past few days, she said “our hampers do not look like that”, but to be fair to Chartwell, the company which has been criticised, “the Government has given a list and what they’re providing is on that Government list”.
Laura thanked the community of Chiswick for their generosity when they’d launched a fundraising appeal.
She said she was pleased that the voucher scheme would be reintroduced next week, as it was impossible to deliver free school meals to over 300 pupils over a wide area.
Images above: Students at Chiswick School (library pictures not taken during the pandemic)
Support from Chiswick School staff and the local council
Laura said LB Hounslow’s Executive Director of Children’s and Adult Services Steven Forbes and David Brook had been “fantastic at bringing us together”. Head teachers in the Borough met once a week to share experience and they had a What’s App group on which they compared notes.
She paid tribute also to her fantastic leadership team within the school, in particular her deputy head Jane Mills. She described her staff as “a very strong team”, noting that several were Oxford and Cambridge graduates who worked at the school because they were interested in social mobility. The school succeeded in getting students to Oxford and Cambridge last year and there were many more who went to Russell Group universities.
Appreciation from parents
The staff get feedback from parents, using regular surveys, and that feedback has been consistently good and appreciative, Laura told the meeting. Members of the Parent Teacher Association had snuck in under cover of dark in December she said, and stuck hundreds of grateful messages on a board for the teachers to see when they came in the next morning.
The school has just under 1,300 students and 120 staff. Around 330 pupils are entitled to free school meals, as 40% are considered officially to be ‘disadvantaged’.
“There’s a lot of comparison between state schools and private schools, but they serve very different communities”.
She described the “army of teachers” who drove around Hounslow delivering equipment, laptops and lunches to students “so no one is left behind”.
Image above: Chiswick School
Laura said they were looking ahead to a time, hopefully this summer, when they could get back to concentrating on making Chiswick an Outstanding school and a fun place to be.
Asked by councillors what they could do to help, she said:
“Talk positively about the school and dampen all the noise in the media about teachers being uncooperative”.
Cllr Sam Hearn asked her how she felt about the introduction of Street Schools, which will stop drivers using Staveley Rd at peak times when students were arriving at school or leaving. She said there had been a very nasty accident about 18 months ago and “not having the amount of traffic is very reassuring for us”.
Cllr Hearn said the three ward councillors in the ward in which the school is located (Chiswick Riverside) supported the introduction of Street Schools in Grove Park.
Laura was thanked by Chair Cllr John Todd for doing “and outstanding job”, endorsed by the Leader of the Conservative group of councillors, Gerald MacGregor, whose comment on the school’s performance was “absolutely stunning”.
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