Neston High Blog
If you were to drive non-stop from Neston to Ankara, in Turkey, it would take you roughly forty hours (according to Google). Alternatively, you could fly from Manchester to New Zealand with a long layover in Singapore in less time. Or better still, perhaps, you could enjoy nearly two days with friends or family, with plenty of sleep, good food and drink. Instead, this is how long I spent running in an ultra-marathon, over a weekend in May. As you can imagine, I had plenty of time to think during the race. I realised that in many ways, training for and running, an ultra-marathon is just like the long-term preparation our students go through in the run up to their exams: careful training, hours of preparation, mental determination and overcoming personal fears and barriers. I wondered whether any of them had ever thought of it in that way?
I have always enjoyed being in the hills and mountains and spent a number of childhood holidays walking them with my family. As I got older, naturally, I enjoyed going further and higher and ultimately faster! That said, running, and definitely long-distance running, is not something that I feel has come naturally to me. When I was seventeen, I accidentally ended up being asked to represent my school at a cross-country race (I was in the wrong place at the wrong time). I came in last out of hundreds of runners, having had to walk most of the second half of the race. It would be justifiable for me to hold on to this experience and use it as my excuse for avoiding any type of running.
The problem is that I have one more childhood experience that I can’t shake. On a holiday to Chamonix twenty years ago, I witnessed a running event whilst we were there, and came to understand it was the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc – a 100-mile race around the Mont Blanc Massif over many high passes and mountains. The runners coming in looked like nothing I had seen before: exhausted and shuffling strangely along the paths, but their faces revealed a sheer joy at the realisation of their achievement. I had no real understanding of what this was, but I knew I wanted to join them.
I believe a person has to make the most of their gifts and I often think this when I look at our talented Neston students who sometimes hide their gifts and lack the confidence to make the most of them. One of the reasons I enjoy working at Neston is that, as teachers, we are always encouraged to see the best in students and help them discover who they are and what they can achieve if they try whether this be through the arts, music, sports, or like me, a talent in maths or conceptualised thinking or something different. I like that we help our students to find the limits of what is possible for them. For me that has led to completing five ultramarathons in increasing distances, but I have also failed to finish one. Last summer I was on the start line for the Lakeland 100 (105 miles around the Lake District with a total ascent of 22,000ft.) In retrospect, I hadn’t trained enough (as well as the arrival of a new baby a fortnight before the race). In short, my poor preparation and inexperience led to me withdrawing at sixty-six miles, seventeen hours after setting off. Reflecting on that experience was tough and it took some time for me to rationalise my thinking and look at the reasons why I wasn’t ready both physically and mentally.
Failing is an important part of life; it is about finding your limits and then working out how to overcome and stretch those limits in the future. In the Neston Maths Department, we try to instil this way of thinking into our teaching, particularly in maths lessons where sometimes students want to give up usually when a problem isn’t easily resolved or when students are first introduced to new and overwhelming topics, such as trigonometry. Training for an exam or training the brain to think of new ways to approach a problem is part of the job of teaching but it is only recently that I have had to reflect on what resilience really means to me. Over the last year, I have trained properly for the first time; I have listened to hundreds of podcasts absorbing as much information about training, nutrition and kit and I feel stronger than ever before in my running but still, when approaching the race last weekend, I was terrified. The more I considered it, the more impossible it became in my mind. I had to keep reminding myself that I was much better prepared than I was last year.
To summarise the race (and any ultramarathon) would be to say that it is all about problem solving (classic maths teacher!). Throughout the 100 miles I encountered numerous problems, such as early dehydration due to unexpectedly warm weather, much more technical paths meaning slower progress than anticipated, running through a second night, painful feet and some entertaining hallucinations. All of these issues were resolved in one way or another, whether it was adjusting my fuelling strategy, reframing my expectations for the race, rationalising how painful something actually is or whether it just seems worse because it is hard to ignore and so on. All of these problems were easier to solve because my preparation meant that I had more options available to me to find a solution. I knew how my nutrition worked so I could easily adjust it to compensate for the unexpected weather. I was anticipating issues with my feet so had done some prevention and taken various things with me to counteract any issues. I had also prepared for the fact that I didn’t really know how long the race would take and had started with several levels of expectations which made it much easier to just fall back on the ultimate goal of finishing rather than being disappointed with slow progress.
Every time I complete a new challenge, I cannot avoid reflecting back to coming in last at that cross-country race. If only I had seen in those moments what was to come. What if I was still holding onto that perceived failure as my excuse for not trying now? The experiences I have had so far, and will continue to have through my ultrarunning, have happened because I refused to let that bad day define me as a non-runner. Clearly that translates to school life – we will have bad days. We can all find reasons to label ourselves as not capable of something, but are we giving ourselves a fair chance? Or actually are there good reasons why it went wrong that day? Could our preparation be better?
Most struggles come down to a problem that has a solution and how well I can find that solution is impacted by how well I have prepared and trained for that situation. The more preparation I have to fall back on, the easier it is to adapt and adjust when needed. Being aware of what I can control and what I can’t control is a massive part of my preparation for races. I learnt this through a very tough life experience a couple of years ago when I struggled most with coming to terms with what was out of my control; these races have been a positive way for me to improve my ability to separate things that I can control from those out of my control.
Twenty years ago, I came up with a vague, seemingly unrealistic, aspiration to compete in the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in Chamonix. Today, I am now just one ballot away from realising that dream. I can’t control when I am accepted into the race, but I can make sure that I am the strongest and most prepared I can be when that opportunity comes by. In the meantime, I hope to continue to inspire our students to have an attitude of dreaming big and then working hard to make their dreams a reality. The greater the preparation, the greater the ability to solve the problems that inevitably arise along the way.
This week’s blog is written by guest writer, Mrs D Roberts, from the English Department.
It was wonderful to listen to two stories, read out in briefing by the SENDCo recently, about the successes of some of our ex-students, one of whom has recently been selected for the National Emerging Talent Centre for Football, where he may be selected for the England Development squad: what a fabulous success!
This made me think back to the conversations I have had with others about the nature v nurture debate. For some, the talents we often witness on the sports field, in the music hall or at the theatre are genetic – a talent gene that some are lucky to possess. However, for others (such as myself), the development of talent is a complex process that often involves hours of deliberate practice on a long and winding road. For me, these individual talents do not operate in a vacuum and development is usually the consequence of support, care, and a great deal of nuture by others, whose contributions often go unnoticed.
When I decided to embark on my Special Educational Needs training back in 2004, a requirement of the course was that I spent six weeks working as a Learning Support Assistant. Having worked the best part of a decade as a classroom teacher, this role reversal was quite a change! The job was far more difficult than I imagined; sometimes I felt undervalued, and it certainly took me out of my comfort zone.
Since then, I have been fortunate to work with a number of caring and compassionate LSAs during my teaching career. They have been my ‘guardian angels’ and without their know-how I would not have been able to do my day-to-day job. They have been an extra pair of eyes (a key requirement when I forget my glasses). They have listened to my frustrations after the most difficult of days and have provided a shoulder to cry on when things have been tough.
Over the years, I and many of my teaching colleagues have become accustomed to this collaborative way of working and I have and will continue to appreciate and value this partnership, a partnership that helps so many of our vulnerable students reach success on their own developmental journey. Learning support assistants probably spend more time with the learners than anyone else throughout the day. They are the first point of contact for the child and the LSA is perhaps one of the most important influences on a child’s development outside of the home environment.
The LSA provides the impetus and support for those children with special needs and disabilities; they promote confidence and a ‘can do attitude’ and it cannot be overstated what impact LSAs have on the lives of those in their care. As a school we really could not function without the tireless, personalised support they give to the students on an hourly basis - in an ever more demanding role.
If we circle back to the beginning of this blog, and the celebration of the talented footballer we can begin to appreciate the role of the LSAs, as without doubt there are some similarities here. The talented footballer presumably required the support of coaches, parents, officials, and teachers from both the local community as well as from the support systems we have in place here at Neston High School. Collectively, when we work together as a team, we can make an impact on the success of others and regardless of whether talent is natural or nurtured, we know that these individuals who help guide, inspire and nurture pupils are the cornerstone of any successful environment.
This week’s ‘Guest Blog’ is written by Ms T Birkett, teacher of computing and IT.
The importance of robotics
“It’s difficult to name a job that doesn’t involve an element of digital literacy,” says Paul Thornton, the network education lead at STEM Learning in a recent TES article. He continues that “employers have known this for some time, but the global pandemic has really highlighted the level of need.” It was during the pandemic that reliance on technology increased for man: from family zoom calls to online shopping. Many workplaces realised the benefit of employees working from home and even today equip their staff with the resources to work from home, saving a huge cost on travel and premise expenses. But who is behind these life changing apps and services, developing them to meet the changing needs of society? The answer is computer scientists.
Computer science has been a fixed part of the curriculum since 2012. Students in primary school are expected to learn some form of programming before building on this further in high school. The subject covers a range of specialisms, each to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to continue into further educations and employment. Learning skills such as computational thinking, logical reasoning, performance modelling, programme design, cyber security, knowledge of computer systems and data representation - to name just a few currently on our Key Stage 3 curriculum. As suggested in the same TES article Paul Thornton spoke in “the element of trial and error in coding encourages greater resilience; another important quality for future study and the workplace.”
At Neston High School, the Computing Department deliver a rich curriculum taking students on a progressive journey thorough Key Stage 3, building on their skill year on year but always delivering something new. Year 7 will begin with learning how to program a game using Scratch, by Year 8 they are coding shapes and patterns using EduBlocks and writing their first text-based programs in Python using CSUK Coder. In Year 9 they continue their Pythion programming experience using IDEs such is IDLE and MU, ready to continue into Year 10 and 11 on the GCSE Computer Science course.
The curriculum, however, can only go so far to equip our young people with the practical skills required in industry. With resources provided from organisations such as STEM Learning, the National Centre for Computing Education, the Raspberry Pi Foundation and The British Computer Society, The Chartered Institute for IT; schools have been able to create engaging and enlightening schemes of work for their students in Year 7 to 9. But missing in almost every school in the country is curriculum based physical computing – where students use their skills, on a physical device, where they can see their code come to life, via movement, sound or visual display. The main barrier to this is cost. It is expensive to ensure every student in a class has individual access to such devices, and not just for a single one-off lesson, but over several lessons where they can really get familiar with the devices and build on their coding skills lesson on lesson.
A government funded scheme was launched seven years ago where every student in the country received a ‘BBC Microbit’. A small circuit board with an LED display and built-in sensors which could be programmed to perform a range of tasks, such as games and animations. Every Year 7 student at Neston High School received one of these devices and they were used in lessons over for half a term, to explore the possibilities with the devices and be creative to see what they were capable of. Enough devices were left in school to continue this scheme with the following year 7s for several more years.
As with all technology in our own lives, as soon as one new piece of technology is released, a newer version becomes available with even more functionality than before. Hopefully one day we may see a scheme of this kind brought back again to give our students a sample of these newer types of technologies with no cost to the students or schools.
Outside of the curriculum, many schools offer physical computing as an extra-curricular activity to help achieve the 1-to-1 experience for the students with the technologies that can’t be replicated in a classroom environment. Over the years organisations such as Raising Robots have donated Lego Robotics kits to schools to inspire more students into STEM subjects, such as computing, and to enter regional and national competitions.
On Tuesday 25th April, Morgan and Will, in Year 7, represented the school at the EEP Robotics Challenge regional competition hosted at Edge Hill University. We took our Lego Spike Prime robot kits with us to face the various challenges of the day. This is the first time the school team has competed in a competition like this since before Covid. Over the years Neston High School students have competed in cyber, STEM and problem-solving competitions hosted by other universities and colleges. It was great to organise a competitive trip again, getting to recruit students through hype and excitement for the challenge and spend time with them over the school year practising with the robots in their own time after school and at lunch.
Arriving at the event, the atmosphere in the staging area was excitable, with nine other schools there – the room was alive with Lego robots running along the floor and across tabletops. It was very soon obvious that we were the smallest team there – all other schools made up of around ten students compared to our team of three. Edward, Morgan and Will rose to the challenge and divided up the challenges between them to get though as many as possible and therefore achieve more points. Industry experts were on hand at the event from various areas of STEM, such as the RAF, Nuclear engineering, Formula 1 and computer systems design. Many experts visited our practice area speaking to the students about what they were doing. All were impressed at their efforts and teamwork, keeping up with teams of ten as just the three of them.
There were many challenges that faced the Neston Team that day – from a ‘surprise building challenge’ to a ‘building speed test’. In one of the challenges the students had to perform a presentation on what they had learnt from using the Lego robots. Our students spoke confidently and openly about their experiences; the fun they’d had and the problems they have had to overcome. They also shared their views on the future of robotics and their own places within that future. Heavily mentioned was the prospect of jobs being replaced by robots however they discussed humans would still be needed to maintain the robots so the role of a human workforce has not been completely lost.
Our efforts from our small group of three paid off as we came 3rd overall in the speed test challenge.
A successful day, not for trophies but for experiences and skills learned that they would not have experienced within a classroom environment. Looking to the future of the school Lego Robotics team, the students will be able to come back in Year 8 and stay part of the team where they will be able to mentor our new Year 7 students in the new school year.
This week’s guest blog is written by Mr Smith from the English Department
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” – Neil Gaiman
‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’.
‘Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy’.
My bookshelves and reading material have drastically altered over the last 4 months. My view on reading has also evolved as my perspective has widened from English teacher to parent.
Particularly, as an English teacher, time after time I have been faced with the dreaded question: “What’s the point in reading?” As teachers, we have the stock answers: (and there is nothing wrong with these) reading widens our horizons and perspectives; reading is a great cross-curricular skill; reading sparks creativity and is great for our mental health. It was not until I became a parent that I developed my understanding of just how much reading connects us and how valuable and important it is to humans.
Reading as a parent has also connected me to my community further. Next to the venue for ‘Bounce and Rhyme’, there is the local library. After the first session, I wandered around the children’s library and registered Evie with her own library card! We usually borrow a couple of books a week for her bedtime story. After speaking to the library assistant, it became apparent how this local resource was so underused (and of course, underfunded!) it reminded me how fortunate we are at Neston High as so many schools do not have a library.
Our library nestles at the heart of the school; there is a real buzz during break and lunch times as it is an inclusive and diverse space. Our library aims to cater for all tastes and students are encouraged to request books for our shelves. An initiative we launched last year was the library Amazon Wish list. We received numerous donations of new material which met the needs and interests of our students, much to their delight. Here is the link, if you felt that you could contribute to our library stock: Amazon.co.uk
Building our reading culture at Neston includes daily encouragement for reading and opportunities to engage in literacy in lessons, tutor time and beyond. We do our best to have regular author visits and these continue to have a huge impact on students. When students have an author in the same room as them, they are able to see the possibilities reading and storytelling has - it inspires them, and they begin to understand its power and importance. Students feel included in this literary world which can sometimes feel like they are excluded from. We are already planning our next author visit!
I’ve been staying in rather a lot recently and have noticed so many celebrities promoting their latest podcast. From Abbey Clancy and Peter Crouch’s ‘the therapy podcast’ to Russell Tovey’s ‘Talk Art’ and Jessie Ware’s ‘Table Manners’, there is something for all tastes. There is a real appetite for stories and non-fiction through this medium and through audiobooks. A reminder: all of these forms are powerful and useful for us to guide our students and children to (and us adults!) We must work together to encourage them to engage with reading whether it is fiction or non-fiction whilst developing this life skill.
Over the years, many parents have told me their child used to love reading when they were younger’, I firmly believe this is not a skill or habit that disappears, it simply changes, and we need to adapt as our interests change. Reading material comes in a variety of ways; we just have to find one to suit us as individuals. Whether you’re a book holder, a kindle gripper or an audio book listener - you’re still being exposed to the wonderful world of literature!
So I’ll retreat back to Evie’s bedtime reads now. But let’s not underestimate the reading of ‘The Gruffalo’; let’s remember the power of stories in whatever form. ‘The Gruffalo’ isn’t just an amusing story about a clever mouse, it has the capability of helping children to problem solve and develop skills in friendship. The story also helps lead on to other important educational topics including rhymes, grammar, and the food chain. Most importantly, this little story is helping me build a strong relationship with my little girl.
Follow our library Instagram: @nestonhighlibrary
As the dancer, Agnes de Mille said: “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”
One of my earliest memories is watching my grandparents dance at their wedding anniversary. I was so envious of how they glided round the room and my grandfather took pity on me and tried to teach me the waltz. Dancing was so important to them: they first met at a dance during World War II; they celebrated many major family milestones with a dance together; and in their twilight years they enjoyed nothing more than going on cruises and attending dinner dances. It is a shame how the generations that followed them did not always place such importance on dancing together. That is why it was so special to see so many of our students participating in our Performing Arts show, last night: it was phenomenal. It was clear that the students found so much joy in what they were doing too. There were looks of concentration and ecstatic smiles at the end, safe in the knowledge they had performed well. It truly was a fabulous medley of talent. We witnessed spectacular dance, where students were able to showcase their talents and performed what we all agreed were graceful (and sometimes eye-watering) moves. A wonderful choir performed their own rendition of ‘Chasing Cars’ and later, some of the students performed solos – something I always think takes such courage. And what about the performance of Matilda, where students of all ages worked together to pull off a flawless set of scenes from one of our favourite musicals? It was filled with laugh-out-loud moments, where the students held their own on the stage and really shone. We were treated to the samba band, and let’s not forget the KS3 dance club, who performed a piece choreographed by older students. It makes me feel immensely proud to see our students achieving so highly and working together so beautifully.
The audience too, were brought along with the emotion of the performances, some of which were happy and upbeat, whilst others were more pensive and drew us on an emotional journey. The students were able to articulate their thoughts and emotions so vividly through their performances. We have certainly felt the lack of opportunity to perform over the past few years of covid. Like most of us, I am very glad that we are back to being able to bring our community together through dance, music, singing and musical theatre again, once more.
Dancing is such a natural thing for humans; we have all seen babies and toddlers swaying to the beat of music. Students here are able to foster their love of dancing through exploring different types of dances and the progression they make from their first performances in Year seven to the accomplished dancers we see in the Sixth Form is phenomenal. Perhaps, we adults need to take a leaf out of their books. We may not all dance like our grandparents did, but let us think about the importance of being together as a community, working with people we wouldn’t normally connect with, celebrating the arts in all their forms which ultimately, is an expression of what it means to be human. Let’s show our children that we understand the importance of The Arts and what a great effect they can have, not just on our wellbeing, but on our lives as a whole.