I write in the fourth week of ‘JCoSS online’, noting that with a change in the weather there has been some change in mood: as the political messaging indicates that the haul is going to be a long one, I sense more despondency and frustration among us all, partly reflected in the online activity of some parents. I offer the following rather lengthy missive (feel free to read in instalments!) with some more news and observations on this unfolding experience.
1. Online Learning and Teaching
Teachers are continuing to work hard on providing online learning for all students, and the evidence is that for the majority of students this is working successfully, even though not a proper substitute for real school. I have said before that this is a balancing act: for some families, live lessons are the obvious way forward and you want as many as possible; for others, the pressure they put on IT resources and the family schedules is a burden. Some crave structure, others crave freedom; some need short deadlines, others prefer longer projects. If we provide a mixture of all the above, we hope that it will at least be unsatisfactory for all in equal measure – which is maybe the best we can hope for.
We know that many students enjoy live lessons, and we are increasing the number of lessons with a live element. However, it may help you calibrate your own expectations and frustrations to reflect that:
· The majority of Barnet schools (to judge by the WhatsApp group of headteachers to which I belong) are providing no live teaching at all, even to Year 10 and 12, and have no plans to do so. I know of one primary school in St Albans that is providing no work of any kind for children. One of the Barnet secondary schools is permitting no contact between students and their teachers.
· Teacher Unions have strongly advised that live teaching should not be expected of any teacher, both for safeguarding and for workload reasons.
· Most maintained schools are providing very little live teaching; some independent schools are (perhaps with an extra eye on fees income) but some of the most prestigious have stopped it or never started it. There is evidence that ambitious and enthusiastic beginnings can turn out to be unsustainable for teachers or students or both.
· Live lessons are very labour intensive: they take up to 5 times as long to prepare – and as I have said before, we are a workforce depleted by illness, and by family and childcare demands of our own.
· Meanwhile there is not yet hard evidence that live lessons are educationally more effective, even though they clearly have lots of advantages including feeling more like normal school.
· Students are on the whole very appreciative of what we are providing, but some are unexpectedly reluctant to interact with the ‘live’ aspect. Please encourage them to do so – a lesson delivered to a silent online wall is a struggle!
· Many adults across different fields of employment are reporting how tiring it is when work is a string of conference calls. It should be no surprise if some students feel the same.
With all that in mind, we are continuing to evolve our provision but believe it is a strong one: a good number of lessons in Year 10 and 12 are live, and most subjects at Key Stage 3 are running at least a live lesson each fortnight, often for feedback and to help sustain the communal life of the class. For the rest of the time, there is plenty of work to be getting on with, and suggestions of other ways to fill time…or not fill it. We are keeping in contact with students who are vulnerable, or who have additional needs, or who we notice are not engaging. There is provision for Year 11, excellent advice regarding well-being, and a full careers and UCAS programme advice ready or in preparation for Year 12 students. We know it is not perfect – nothing is, especially at the moment – but are grateful for the support of the great majority of parents in what are very difficult times for you and for us.
2. Public Exam Grading
Teachers of exam classes have been devoting many hours to the process of producing ‘Centre Assessed Grades’ for students who were due to sit public exams this summer. To give you an insight into the process, it requires each teacher to give a grade to every student they teach, and to rank them in order; then to cross-refer this with all other teachers and classes in the subject; then to check the outcome against previous years’ results for JCoSS and the prior attainment record of the students. We are nearing then end of this part of the process, after which the grades from departments will be cross-checked and quality-assured, and then scrutinized student-by-student to ensure that we have done the best we can by each one. Those grades then go to the exam board for further crunching, moderating, cross-checking and adjusting.
For a subject with 50 students in two classes of Year 11s, the process takes at least 6 teacher hours; for subjects that teach the whole year group it is perhaps 8 times as long, because the whole team have to meet together (online) to discuss each student. Spare a thought for departments like English and Science who teach two or more subjects per GSCE student. And then we do the same for A level and Vocational subjects. All I have heard makes clear to me that the whole exercise is being done with enormous integrity, patience, professionalism and (for want of a better word) love, to make it work as well, as fairly and as positively as it can. I asked last week that you bear with us during this process – now you know why.
3. The JCoSS Community
You will heartened and inspired to hear what some of our teachers and students have been doing in support of the national response to the virus: Mr Corman (DT technician) has been using school equipment to produce 90 PPE visors – with more to follow when we can source more acetate. The cost of raw materials is being met by a social action project run by the Informal Jewish Education department. Ms Raven and Mrs Reissner are co-ordinating a programme for staff to make scrubs and masks at home.
Meanwhile, Eitan Richards in Year 11 has (in addition to engaging in all with all available work for Year 11, including subjects he is not planning to take in Year 12, and asking for more…) managed to learn some Portuguese, embarked on teaching himself A level Biology, done plenty of cooking and cleaning, worked on memory improvement techniques, done virtual tours of museums around the world, including an in-depth study of Vermeer, volunteered in many social action projects such a packing up visors…and made a scrap book of all the above. We may not all have that kind of capacity but he is an inspiration to us all and of course a thoroughbred among Mensches.
Finally a special mention to Mrs Lethbridge, who has been training all year for the London Marathon, starting more or less ‘from the couch’ last year. The actual race would have been last Sunday and she ran it anyway from her own treadmill, completing it in 5 hours 51 minutes, consuming about 4000 calories and maintaining an average speed of 8m 20s per kilometre. It is a fantastic achievement, and to cap it all she has raised a significant sum for Norwood, a charity which does so much to support JCoSS not least in funding for the PSRP. It is not too late to add to that total via this link – I encourage you to do so.
4. “The Yoms”
This week marks Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers) and Yom Ha-atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) and in normal times Wednesday would have been a day of festivities and madness second only to Purim. The Informal Jewish Education department, undaunted by closure and with an energy almost Israeli in its joyful intensity, have produced a fabulous range of diversions and activities online which were circulated to you yesterday. They include a JCast and a humus recipe from Mr de Jong (who shares his birthday with the State of Israel, as it happens). I warmly encourage you to engage with these offerings – there is something for everyone!
5. The Tree
Finally…you may remember that we were privileged earlier this academic year to take delivery of a chestnut tree, grown from an offshoot of the one Anne Frank could see from her window during her incarceration under Nazi occupation. We planted it in front of the school, roughly where the Hanukiah is placed each year and, after a few fragile and fearful months, we are delighted to report that it has burst into leaf this month. A photo is attached. The connections between our lockdown and hers are easy to overstate, but as a symbol of new life bursting forth amidst grimness and gloom, it speaks gloriously for itself. It is, you might say, a tree of life for all who hold fast to it.
Also at the front of the school (photo also attached) is new signage that was installed just before we closed, with the JCoSS logo now proudly emblazoned on the Jerusalem stone of the Main Hall. That logo now reads, ‘The Ronson Jewish Community Secondary School’, reflecting the massive involvement and investment of the Ronson Family Foundation in the establishment, improvement and ongoing life of JCoSS. In monetary terms this runs well into 8 figures, but just as significant is the huge personal support we receive from Gerald Ronson our President and from the family. I put on record here my own personal indebtedness to them, and the gratitude of the whole community for this wonderful project in which they have been so pivotal.
JCoSS will still be called JCoSS in all normal circumstances, but there will be a formal ceremony to ‘unveil’ the new name and signage once we are back.
With best wishes and thanks for your ongoing support