The Covid crisis has reinforced the need to put well-being first

Well-being and personal development must no longer be undervalued in the post lockdown world

Co-Headteacher Surrey Square Primary School

Our mission at Surrey Square primary School of  ‘personal and academic excellence, everyone, every day’, drives and shapes every decision we make. In pre-covid times, our emphasis on personal excellence (pupil well-being and development), putting it intentionally first, meant that we had developed a sophisticated approach to teaching personal excellence, and the pastoral infrastructure to support every child and family on that journey. 

Our values underpin it all – and live and breathe throughout every child’s (and adult’s!) day. 

We have long advocated for this kind of balance being a priority in schools, watched with heavy hearts as the focus over the last 15 years has become ever narrower, and proudly stood steady with our broader agenda.

Our experience through the lockdown process has saddened and enraged us; the continued focus on academic learning, with all other considerations much further down the agenda. The immediate issue of food, along with safety, were the top of our agenda, while others were worrying about how to ensure curriculum progression and the impact on exams. What a light it has shone on the difference across the sector there is in terms of what schools do and don’t see as their responsibility. The lack of clarity and definition of ‘vulnerable’ pupils from the start added to the problem.

8 Steps to a comprehensive support structure for supporting pupils

A week in, we had a full vulnerability matrix in operation, with processes to support every family on it, as well as identifying those who became newly vulnerable, through teachers having live contact with every child every week. What enabled us to do this?

  1. The will. This being a priority for every single member of staff and living our values, so that within a week we had called and spoken to every family in the community to see how they were and help us understand their circumstances.
  2. The nuanced understanding of, and relationships with, our community. This is so profound – and means that our community trusts and will talk to us about the reality of their situation (see the wellbeing survey we sent out here).
  3. The skills and capabilities in the team to meaningfully support those families
  4. The multi-agency relationships and resources to access specialist services and ensure our response was informed by those disciplines (e.g. Place 2 Be helped write the shared script to be shared with all children to explain what was happening and have provided guidance on working with children with particular needs at this time)
  5. The creativity and child-centred focus to really think through what children needed, including a ‘proper’ ending (no uniform day, assembly (social distanced and outside!), drawing on the symbolism and rituals that make the occasion along with a special management of year 6) and identifying families who would need extra toys or resources
  6. Intense consideration for those with additional needs, including writing ‘social stories’ for ASD pupils and their families.
  7. A long term focus on wellbeing, and tools to understand this in our community, including work with ImpactEd to collect student information.
  8. Generosity of spirit from the leaders and staff- a willingness to help in flexible and unusual ways, for example allowing older siblings from vulnerable families to come in to school

Dealing with inequality

Creating this support structure was an intuitive starting point for us as a school, alongside focusing on access to food (enhanced by food parcels from Magic Breakfasts and Mercato Metropolitano in Borough). But the lack of thinking about this more widely in the sector in the early weeks was a real shock, and deeply unsettling. 

Of course, alongside this work, (the mission is ‘personal AND academic’..) we were busily setting up our approaches to remote learning for students. Again here, we saw so many schools leaping into elaborate online solutions, competing to out-do one another, without actually starting from the reality of the children and families in their community, creating an ‘ideal’ from the point of view of teachers. A lack of empathy for the community or practical consideration of how things could actually work best – something of a ‘reality gap’. 

For Surrey Square, part of this involved a detailed survey to understand the technology access for each child, including level of access to devices but also access to unlimited broadband. This focus on understanding the reality from the start, and then seeking to address the issues, through accessing devices but also ensuring an equity in quality of an off-line offer, was key. This was also an opportunity to work with others to campaign and highlight this issue as seen here

We have designed an approach now truly based on our values – including Joy Enjoyment (see the dance challenge here) but also fully taking Rafa Responsibility for minimising stress in households and ensuring equity between online and paper based offers.

6 challenges for the future

Now that our systems are up and running, we can reflect on what this all means for us as a community and what might be the learnings for the longer term. We have 6 challenges for consideration;

  1. How can we plan for the reopening of schools in a way that is informed by and models best practice in mental health, wellbeing and personal and social education?
  2. How can we understand and respond to the longer term implications on mental health and wellbeing that will have been exacerbated or established in this period, and what is the role of schools within that?
  3. How can we look beyond simple definitions (e.g. FSM eligibility) to really understand our communities and the vulnerabilities?
  4. How can we re-evaluate the role and purpose of schools, so that it more accurately mirrors the critical role we play at the heart of life for many families, especially those from the most vulnerable families?
  5. How can we re-balance the priorities in the system so that efforts, attention and resources are focused on the full reality of what it takes to change lives? 
  6. How can we empower school leaders to do more of what they think is ‘right’ for their community, and focus less on accountability measures which can distort this?

For us, this period has exposed the fact that ‘personal excellence’ is in crisis in the sector -squeezed out, under-prioritised and under-funded. For us, living our mission, focusing on personal excellence in this crisis, and beyond, has to be our first priority.

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