I sit down to write as we prepare to turn another corner on the journey of recent weeks, namely the reopening of the school to some students. That wording might imply it is as simple as turning a key and opening a door, but you will be aware it is far more complicated than that. I therefore want to start by paying tribute to the team of colleagues who have been preparing for Monday: it is a wonderful example of the care and thought that we aim to bring to all we do. The IT team, the site team and the cleaning staff have made some significant changes within the building, while teaching colleagues have identified students and staff to return and planned rotas and timetables to make the best use of time. Risk assessments have been done (and redone as guidance has changed…), tape has been stuck, screens installed, furniture moved, routes and logistics planned, PPE sourced…all to ensure that things are ready.
Only a few students will see at first hand the fruits of this mighty labour, but you can all get a glimpse of it in this video (already circulated to students who are due to return). The operation has been ably and tirelessly led by Mrs Armstrong our Director of Finance and Resources. She – typically – was on the invisible side of the camera for this surely Oscar-worthy offering but deserves huge thanks for it all, as do Mrs Lethbridge, Ms Weddle and Mrs Follett my other deputies for a huge volume of work in recent weeks. In the last 24 hours we have had another announcement of plans for education over the summer: schools hear these at the same time as everyone else so we, like you, will wait to find out what might be involved.
As schools have considered how to reopen, I have been struck repeatedly by the tension between two moral imperatives within education: one is to keep everyone safe, without which no learning can take place at all, and the other is to reduce the gap between those with the most advantage and those with the least. Although our context is different from the average, that gap exists at JCoSS just as it does elsewhere, and whatever frustrations and fears exist about bringing students back to school we need to stay on the same side as a community and a nation – namely the side of our students, and especially those who are at the most risk of falling behind. The sense of ‘yachad’ (togetherness) that coursed through the nation in the early weeks of the current restrictions was precious and needs to be tapped, before it ebbs away in the scrabble for recovery.
The context of tackling inequality is high on our agenda this week in light of the recent BLM protests in the week of the murder of George Floyd. We are glad to see that the issue is exercising and angering our students as it should, and we know there is a petition circulating to encourage us towards a review of our curriculum. We will read and respond to that when it arrives, but have meanwhile commissioned two of our BAME students to help lead that review – looking not only at the content of what is taught (a good deal of which is dictated from outside) but also at the whole experience of this group within our community and our school. There is both tension and overlap between the BAME experience and the Jewish experience: JCoSS wants to be a place where these complex issues are heard and where we as a school listen carefully and humbly, with hearts, minds and hands open to change. Next week would have been the annual ‘Interfaith Tent’ week at JCoSS and we are using that opportunity to focus on building inter-cultural dialogue in the broader sense: the Jewish Education department will be leading on that with their customary outward-looking energy.
Amidst the swirling global political activity and energy, more domestic matters continue: today I have signed off the ‘centre-assessed grades’ for public exams for Year 11 and 13. This has been a painstaking and laborious process, and for it to end with the clicking of a button on a secure portal felt rather an anti-climax. As I put it that way, however, I remind myself (and you) that these are not final grades, which will be subject to the number crunching of the exam boards, and with that in mind I reiterate that we are not able to tell either parents or students what has been sent off. As they used to say about asking for credit in shops, ‘please do not ask as a refusal often offends’. We are already working on next year’s graduates – with over 140 Year 12 students already logged in to the UCAS application process and benefiting from a full online induction and coaching process to help them – whether university or some other route is in their sights. The Careers and 6th form teams have done an extraordinary job – a model of how to be creative under duress! Another good example of that can be seen in how Governors have adapted the admissions process for the current Year 5 hoping to join JCoSS in 2021. You will probably know about this if it directly affects you but you can read about it here if you are interested.
Looking further ahead, students in all years may like to know that we do not plan any formal exams for students this academic year. Years 10 and 12 will have them when they are back in school (or in an online form in September if necessary) and we are very aware of their need to have enough experience of the exam hall before next summer. In other years, teachers will assess their progress in the usual ways without exams, and we will send a report for all students home as usual towards the end of term. Please read this carefully, as it will provide a useful measure of students’ level of engagement during ‘JCoSS online’, which may in some cases be different from how it is in more normal times. Before then we will be seeking some ‘student voice’ on the experience of the virtual curriculum so that we can continue to tweak what we do and – if necessary – plan for how it evolves next term.
To lighten your spirits as I close this email I thought you might like to see the attached photo, captured this week behind the Science corridor – a nicely-laden fig tree, one of the Biblical “7 species”: life and fruitfulness continue, even in unusual circumstances.
With thanks to you all as always for your support for the school and for your partnership in the process of educating our young people – if anything, even more real and important while we are closed.