A year in the life of a school

Week 14: And Now, The End is Near…

In the fourteenth of an ongoing series of blogs for the 2021-2022 academic year, and the final one of the Autumn Term, Executive Headteacher Max Kelly captures his week working in primary schools in the Isle of Man. As the year goes on he hopes his blogs will paint a picture of a “Year In The Life Of A School”….

And now, the end is near. And so I face the final curtain….

Except, unlike for Frank, the curtain call for the Christmas holidays still seems anything but “near” as I prepare to start Week 14 of the Autumn Term at Laxey and Dhoon Federation.

Monday 13th December

I arrive at Dhoon School in the morning and start the day out on the playground welcoming in happy children and saying “hello” to parents. Today is Dhoon’s Christmas Concert performances – we’ll do one this afternoon and one this evening but the first job of the day is to give the children a final run through in the hall. Two of my teachers have taken on the role of “co-director” this year and they have done a tremendous job. I watch the rehearsal and I have to say, it is excellent. I really am lucky to be blessed with such talented and dedicated staff.

Once the rehearsal is done, we start setting out sanitiser stations and face masks, and make sure the windows in the hall are open to increase ventilation. I print out my words for the welcome and introduction and have a little read-through.

I open the doors at 1.30 and the mums and dads start arriving. We’ve requested that families limit themselves to two adults per child to help reduce the audience size as a further mitigation against C19 spread and the vast majority are compliant. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t feel that the school is being as festive and accommodating as usual which does go against the grain with me. Everything we do in my schools is about people, relationships, warm welcomes and inclusion – so restrictions on numbers appears counter intuitive. However, needs must, and most people are understanding and recognise the challenges of the times we live in. At the end of the day I’m just grateful that we’re managing to stage any sort of Christmas Show at all.

The afternoon performance is a triumph and the children do a phenomenal job.

A couple of staff head home for a few hours after the matinee but most of us remain at school. It gives me a chance to catch up on some admin work, but eventually everyone gravitates to the staff room for an impromptu coffee and chat. Everyone is spent, but I’m so impressed at the way the team are finding reserves of energy and enthusiasm from in their own tanks to get through the week and continue to give the children the very best experience possible.

The children start trickling back into school from 6ish, and before long the audience start turning up in the hall. The evening show gets underway at 7pm and once again the children put on a flawless performance. I am so proud.

Introducing the 2021 Dhoon School Christmas Concert
The children on stage, performing the Christmas Concert at Dhoon School

It’s been a long day, but a good one. By the time the school empties out and we’ve had a little clear-up it’s about 8.30pm. I get home just after nine and pour a glass of wine.

Tuesday 14th December

I begin the day in Laxey School – I need to catch up with my Head of School over some urgent developments. Once we’ve worked out a plan of attack I jump in the car and head off to Ramsey Swimming Pool to meet the Dhoon children. It’s a “fun” session today with floats and balls and water toys – the children have a great time and it all helps develop their water-confidence too.

Lunchtime involves a remote meeting with NAHT to discuss the ongoing pay talks we’ve been engaged in with the employer. The National Secretary and the NI President are on the call to offer their expertise and guidance which is always valued.

The Isle of Man Police arrange a “Police Treat” for all the children in Year 6 each year. This consists of an afternoon watching a film and then receiving a goody bag of useful items. We had planned to bring the Dhoon pupils to Laxey and combine both Year 6 cohorts in the Laxey Hall for the Police Treat but given the rising C19 numbers in both schools, but particularly at Laxey, it doesn’t feel sensible to mix the schools this close to Christmas. Instead the Police divide their time between the two sites; the children still have their “treat” afternoon but once again we’ve mitigated against possible community spread. It seems that mitigations are being increasingly deployed at the moment in a way reminiscent of earlier in the pandemic. It’s a worrying trend, and I can only hope that the mitigations work and we can relax the approach a little when we return in January, but it all feels very uncertain again.

The 2021 “Police Treat” at Laxey School
The 2021 “Police Treat” at Dhoon School

Wednesday 15th December

I start my day at Laxey School. The children skip in happy enough: today is an enrichment day of special Christmas themed activities that the staff team have planned for all of the pupils to take part in. There’ll be baking, crafting, music, art and a whole host of other educational (but fun) activities to keep the children engaged.

Photographs from the Christmas themed “Enrichment Day” at Laxey School

My team have worked really hard to plan the day, including the resourcing of it, the logistics and the learning intentions/outcomes. I reflect again, as so often I do, on how brilliant my team are. Even at this late stage in the term they are giving it their all and making sure that children have incredible learning opportunities.

It’s “Christmas Dinner Day” and almost all the children on both sites, including those who usually opt for a packed-lunch, are due to have a Roast Dinner with all the trimmings. The dining rooms are decorated with festive table cloths, crackers and party poppers and Christmas music is turned up and played to create a wonderful atmosphere. I zoom up to Dhoon School to do the first half of lunchtime there, before whizzing back to the Laxey site to see the children there. This is one of those times when working in two schools presents a unique challenge; I want to make sure I’m present for both sets of pupils so it requires some advance planning to get the logistics right.

Officers from the Government’s Department of Infrastructure have requested a meeting with me at Laxey School in relation to the ongoing works on Minorca Hill which is the road the school is on. The road was shut a few weeks ago (for a projected four months) and has presented a range of issues for the school to contend with, not least the relocation of the bus stop and restricted drop-off access for parents.

The news is not what I’d hoped to hear. The work involves laying pipes to help alleviate long-standing flooding issues in the village, and the exploratory work to-date on Minorca Hill has led the team to conclude that they’ll need to come into our school playground. The playground will be dug up for pipe laying, and this will be right across the front of the school by our main entrance. Some of our trees will be felled, parts of of the yard will be closed off, and there will be noise from machinery digging away. And the staff car park will be inaccessible. There is no working solution as to where staff can park – but it is likely to be well away from the school and requiring a walk-in each morning. The time line is extended by another four months. It’s certainly going to present a whole heap of additional challenges in the new year. I decide not to inform the staff team just yet – some of them are already feeling the stresses of C19 and Christmas, and some are just plain shattered. I don’t want to push anyone over the edge so I resolve that the information from today’s meeting can be given in January and we’ll all just have to cross those bridges when we get to them.

On my drive home I mull over how many more challenges can be thrown at us? I’ve never known anything like it.

Thursday 16th December

We’ve had a vacancy to fill on the Laxey site and today we will be looking to fill that post. We have a range of candidates who are coming in; first to teach a short lesson and then into a professional conversation / interview. We have been blessed with a lot of interest – at one point it looked quiet but the applications started to arrive in number in the final days of the advert running.

Sadly we did have to let some very good candidates go earlier in the process because of work permit rules in the Isle of Man, but I’m really pleased that we are able to recruit from today’s field.

I spend the early afternoon updating our recruitment system while my Head of School makes the calls to the candidates to let them know the outcomes.

I head off to Dhoon School for our Annual Christingle Service which is led by the vicar from Dhoon Church. We usually attract a modest crowd of visitors to join us, and despite the restrictions and mitigations we’ve put in place we still manage to have a decent turnout.

The Dhoon School Annual Christingle Service led by Nigel Cretney

I know that the last day of term usually involves a lot of social media posts and messages, so I choose to release my personal statement tonight. I really want to let the whole community – parents, pupils, staff, and friends – know how much I’ve valued their support and resilience over the past 12 months which have easily been the most challenging of my career. I pen some words and post it out on our socials. Somehow there is just one more day to go…

Friday 17th December

The final day of the term begins for me at Laxey School. After 12 years of service to the school, one of our teachers, Tina, is leaving us today to take up a new job at another school from the start of next term. It’s one of those moments when you realise how tight our community is: it’s obvious from the tears and hugs that the teachers are saying “goodbye” to a friend as well as a colleague. We gather, briefly, in the hall with the pupils to make some presentations – but once again C19 gets in the way of our usual “send-offs” and after just a few minutes I’m keen to disperse the gathering.

Mrs MacLaren’s final day at Laxey School

Lunchtime is spent in a virtual meeting representing NAHT in continuing pay talks with DESC. This is the third meeting in this current round of negotiations and whilst I am unable to comment further at the time of writing, the signs remain positive. We’ll pick this up again in the new year.

I close the lid on my laptop and set off on a walk around the classes to say goodbye and “Merry Christmas” to all the pupils and each member of staff. I’ve bought everyone a bottle of wine and some chocolates, as well as a nice panettone for the staff room table. It’s not much really, but it’s an acknowledgment of how appreciative I am of all of my team.

I walk out of the doors at Laxey for the final time in 2021 and jump in the car to head off to Dhoon School for the afternoon.

I repeat my walk-around routine at Dhoon and wish each class and each member of staff seasons greetings. As at Laxey, I have a bottle of wine and chocolates for everyone, and a panettone for the staff room.

I send out a personal message on our internal Teams Chat to the whole staff team – I choose words from a blog by @secretHT1 which I came across earlier this week. They are words which seem to sum things up pretty well.

I stand in my usual spot in the playground to wave the children home and chat to the parents, before heading back into school to spend a little time at my desk and make sure all my paperwork and admin is up-to-date before the break.

It has been a full-on year and the most extraordinary term ever. There is a lot that goes on which I don’t ever include in my blogs – safeguarding issues, child protection cases, personal and private matters for my children and families, and plenty of staff news too. All of that went on this week too, and indeed throughout the term. But, in the words of Frank:

I did what I had to do,

And saw it through without exemption.

The record shows, I took the blows – but we all did and somehow we all survived. Again. They say its always beer-o-clock somewhere in the world. In Max’s world, that time is now. See you next year.

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