About the author…

Andy Fitzgibbon is the principal of Ormiston Horizon Academy in Stoke on Trent.

These are not easy times for anyone!

By Andy Fitzgibbon

  22 July, 2020

Andy Fitzgibbon, Principal of Ormiston Horizon Academy

Hear from one of our north region principals, Andy Fitzgibbon. Here, Andy shares his experience and reflections of school life during this pandemic. He provides an insight into how the education landscape changed overnight and what he and his staff did to address it, whilst trying their very best to make the experience for all involved as successful as is possible!

When the announcement about the lockdown came through in March, I was sat with my Chair of Governors. We both sat in silence and gathered our thoughts for a moment, because it all felt very surreal, even though we had been expecting it. My initial concern was for Year 11: despite all the speculation around exams, it definitely shocked me when they were actually cancelled. They are a fantastic year group and I was worried about the impact it would have on them. I wanted to make sure they had the right level of support around them to help them cope with the news. Once we had put a plan together, I felt a little happier and then we started to focus on what needed to be put in place for the rest of the academy.

The school landscape changed overnight, with Microsoft Teams suddenly taking centre stage. I was very proud of how quickly staff at Ormiston Horizon Academy (OHA) adapted their practice and got up to speed with new platforms and live and recorded lessons, and made resources available online and printed for those most in need. They have really thrown themselves into this and done what is best for our students. Working from home is difficult. It might have always sounded appealing, but a couple of weeks into lockdown and I think we all realised how tricky it can be. We’ve put staff wellbeing at the heart of what we do, sending postcards out to thank them for their efforts and ringing and texting them on a regular basis to check in.

“I was very proud of how quickly staff at Ormiston Horizon Academy adapted.”

Alongside staying connected with our staff, we’ve made sure to keep in consistent contact with students and families through weekly phone calls and emails. We’ve also launched a couple of Instagram campaigns to keep families active and entertained, which have garnered a great response with hundreds of our families getting involved, which has been amazing to see. A handful of Olympians have taken part too, which has really motivated students and staff. Over the last five weeks we have also had live assemblies take place, which has allowed us to deliver clear and consistent messages to our OHA community.

Ormiston Horizon Academy student who received her “care” package from school

I’ve been really grateful for the support of the wider OAT community at this time. Our regional director Phil has been great as usual. He’s always been there to reason with and remind me of the bigger picture when I’ve been struggling with a decision. One of the hard things throughout this is that there’s no blueprint or rule book, it’s all about what feels right for your academy and community. The resources that OAT has produced have been fantastic and it’s always nice to know that you are not making a decision in isolation. I also think working with the other principals from the north region has been invaluable; they have many good ideas and suggestions, and I’d like to think we all make each other’s jobs a little easier.

Of course, school hasn’t been shut over this period, we’ve had vulnerable children and children of key workers in attendance the entire time, right through Easter and May half term. We’ve had consistent numbers of between 18 and 25 students on a daily basis. The students have formed a really close bond as you can imagine. A lot of them did not know each other at the start of lockdown but have developed excellent friendships over the last fourteen weeks. I really hope this continues when we get back to ‘normal’.

When we knew we’d be reopening the school for Year 10s, I was worried about the potential pitfalls, but it went really well. The team has been great, and we had invested a considerable amount of time into ensuring the building was as safe as possible for students and staff. Our biggest concern was that our families would not send their children to school as they thought it might not be safe. We spent quite a bit of time winning hearts and minds by phoning parents and students, putting health and safety videos on social media and answering FAQs. By the time they were due back in, we felt we had covered all the bases and the academy was safe and secure. As a result, we have had 132 out of 200 students return which we are really pleased with.

The week before students returned, all staff came in for reorientation sessions. It was really nice to see staff in smaller groups and go through the procedures for the partial return. Staff left these sessions feeling the team had put a lot of thought in the process and had made the academy as safe as possible for everyone. It also allowed us to touch base with individual staff and answer any concerns or queries that they have. The staff are so important in this process, from those in the kitchen to those in the classroom and, it was really important that everyone knew the procedures and processes that were in place and what their role in it was. It’s been great to see how students have responded to being back.

“It’s been great to see how students have responded to being back.”

It really shows how resilient young people are. They have been keen to get on with their learning and despite finding it “a little weird” they have got back into the swing of things very quickly. Tyler from Year 10 told me that he’s really missed seeing his friends and that “it’s been great coming back; everyone seems so happy and upbeat.” Meanwhile Lilly confirmed that although she was worried to start with, “the video the school put together really put my mind at rest. Since being back in, it’s been business as usual and my teachers and I have really focused on following a routine for my home learning.”

The staff have been amazing, and I’ve been really impressed by their ‘can do’ attitude. They have been extremely positive which also helps the students. I think we are all looking forward to some normality come September.

It’s hard to know yet what the impact will be on students, I don’t think we will really know until we are up and running properly and we’ve all had time to work with our students. I think it’s important to realise that every student will be impacted differently, and a one size fits all model won’t be the right way to approach this. We have tried to take each student on a case-by-case basis and put a support package together for each one. Our pastoral staff have been wonderful and been in regular contact with all of our families. This has helped us to identify specific issues and allowed us to put a carefully constructed plan together depending on the barriers that were in place. When students return fully, we will work with each year group on an individual basis and identify the support needed for that particular cohort. I think it is important to take stock of your school and your community and work out a clear strategy that will work for them.

We plan to start with a Subject Enhancement Course over the summer for Year 10 into Year 11, which has been well received by our community with a lot of students signed up for multiple sessions. We’re also working with a local sports company who will run a summer camp for the local community based at the academy. In preparation for September, like all other schools are looking at our plans for “year group bubbles”. This gives us the opportunity in certain areas to restart and improve on the routines and procedures that were already in place. I think you have to see these things as a positive challenge to be overcome. Getting the students back into school safely is important to everyone but mostly to the students themselves.

Schools are the cornerstone of society; students spend the majority of their time in school and learning from their teachers and peers. Twenty-three weeks out of education will leave a mark on every student, but we hope that they have been able to spend lots of quality time with their families which under normal circumstances, they might not have been able to do. We are really excited about having all of our students back in the building and reminding them of the skills and qualities of an “OHA‑er”.

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About the author…

Andy Fitzgibbon is the principal of Ormiston Horizon Academy in Stoke on Trent.