In my first year as Headteacher, the usual challenges presented themselves. An Ofsted inspection after 3 months, finance audits, poverty proofing audits, were all successful and navigated round, but nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen from early March. So, as the Headteacher of a PRU and Home and Hospital service, that serves one of the most deprived towns in the UK, what challenges did we face?
I had started drawing up a contingency plan in early March, as it was becoming quite apparent that COVID was not fake news, nor would it be going away quickly.I stressed to my team of staff that whatever happened, it was very important that we did not lose sight of our core business – which is improving life chances.
As March continued and COVID 19 started to snowball, the first major challenge presented itself, with staff having to rightly self-isolate. This caused obvious challenges to all schools, but particularly those with relatively small staffing numbers and also where the needs of students is high.
So, our first plan was to come up with something that could compensate for staff absence and be easy to manage, something that would engage the students, and most of all something that would make a difference to the most vulnerable in our local community. We then came up with the idea of turning school into a foodbank, which the children revelled in. Our first task was to advertise the foodbank, I emailed all Headteachers in the town to publicise within their schools, the local newspaper and radio station publicised our appeal and we highlighted this in our own Newspaper and Radio Station, which we had launched in September. As well as the appeal, we also asked for nominations of those who needed support and a food hamper. The response was phenomenal and instantly we started to receive huge parcels of food and essentials – we even had packets of toilet roll and bags of pasta, so at this point (which was the height of the panic buying), we must have been the envy of the nation!
The students then duly arranged the donations into hampers and we set about the task of delivering in the school minibus and on foot, to the most vulnerable in our community.
This had really taken off and the local newspaper asked if they could write an article on this amazing project.
As we moved throughout April, it became very apparent that a crisis in the care homes was manifesting. Again, I just wondered what small things we could do, to support and make things that little bit easier. Our school newspaper and radio station had been very successful, so I was very keen to keep this going through COVID and lockdown. I contacted the Head of Social Care in Hartlepool and asked if it would be ok if we could extend our media into the care homes of the town. She was delighted with the idea, so we provided this, which included a special V.E Day edition of our radio programme – the feedback from the staff and residents of the care homes was incredible.
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As well as doing some things that were positive for the community, our students really benefited from these projects, as it helped break down inter- generational barriers. It was also important to me to challenge some stereotypes of how PRU students are perceived. We have four core values in our provision: Consideration, Aspiration, Resilience and Endeavour and combining these together, which come together in CARE.
Using these projects to help teach the children life skills and help re-align their moral compass, by being able to help those who need it most really meant a lot to everyone in the school.
We worked very closely with the amazing people at the Children’s Hub and Hartlepool Foodbanks, so even after the school went into partial closure, we could ensure the high volume of foodbank donations we continued to receive went to those who needed it the most. By this point, the local supermarkets were on board and had made incredibly generous donations, including hundreds of Easter Eggs, so we made sure they went to the children and elderly, who may have missed out on this tradition.
The foodbank and other topics introduced were part of our Project Based Learning. I first witnessed how effective PBL could be, during an inspirational visit to School 21, as part of the Future Leaders study tour of London Schools, in 2014.
My link with Future Leaders/Ambition Institute continues. Regional Director Sean Harris, has always been on the end of the phone throughout COVID, as he has during my first year in Headship and for a long time prior to this. A virtual meeting with all Headteachers within Hartlepool, regular telephone meetings with senior staff from the Local Authority, networking with other Heads from alternative provisions became permanent fixtures in my weekly routine. In addition, and so importantly, a weekly meeting with the Headteachers with the two special schools within Hartlepool – where we not only supported each other with suggestions around operation and strategy, but also provided each other with a cathartic release and emotional support.
I truly believe that these supportive mechanisms are the key for all schools, as we rebuild our foundations and try to return to the levels of stability we all hope for. I could not help thinking throughout all of this that I never witnessed levels of collaboration this strong – it is imperative that we hold on to this.
The autumn term and possibly the entire academic year ahead will not be ‘normal’; however, in all of my planning I have vowed that I will not lose sight of what is my main duty – improving life chances. Education will prosper once again and it will be the remarkable dedication and commitment from its people that will ensure this happens.
I hope everyone has a good term and a big thank you for all that you do.
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