The story of one primary school during lockdown: unity, commitment and focus

Strategies to ensure the most disadvantaged are supported during and after lockdown

Head of School, NET Academies Trust, Harlow

‘The main hope of a nation lies in the education of its youth’

Erasmus

 Unquestionably, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for change for many professions, but for education, the change has been significantly more public and acute: home learning has facilitated the rise of social technology; parents have learnt the ‘language of learning’, in addition to acknowledging the skills and expertise of teachers; children have taken greater ownership of their learning, self-regulating; schools have been at the very heart of society – the golden thread uniting a plethora of public services: health, social, emergency and community; children’s well-being has overtaken performance data;  and the teaching profession itself has been greatly enhanced in the eyes of many.

All are positive affirmations of the unconditional support schools provide daily for communities and our wider society. We build clear, concise foundations, which springboard our pupils to cope academically and pastorally, with the greater demands, pressures and expectations of life beyond school. Furthermore, schools provide the essential foundations for a society’s emotional and intellectual culture and climate; an infrastructure that is especially necessary for our vulnerable and disadvantaged children, if we are ever to breakdown socio-economic deprivation

‘A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members’ - Mahatma Gandhi

Since Friday 20th March, our Trust has actively campaigned to insist upon daily attendance from our vulnerable pupils; championing smaller groups, which in turn champion vocabulary-rich conversations, alongside a more personalised, individualised lesson schedule to engage, encourage and excite our disadvantaged children to want to learn. The results across all key stages have been staggering, in terms of the pupils’ academic progress, well-being, confidence, reading attainment and ‘finding’ their learner voice. Moreover, these pupils have been presented with opportunities to develop other key life skills: cooking, Oracy, peer learning (team building), collaboration (exploring ideas, making mistakes and adapting them), … even designing a garden! Concentrating specifically on their ‘attitudes to learning’ and their well-being, teachers have devised a bespoke learning programme, that taps into their pupils’ interests: use of social technology, contemporary influences – ‘popular culture’, physical activity, kinaesthetic skills (cooking, gardening, composing music, building, designing) and how effectively pupils learn from each other. Teachers’ foci were to become experts in their own small focussed group, encouraging failure – in order to learn and build positive relationships with their pupils. Finally, teachers were teaching again, no longer shackled by the restraints of structure, buildings, etc. In turn, teachers have witnessed first-hand, the marked progress that the vulnerable and disadvantaged children can make when taught in small groups rooted in positive relationships with their peers and teachers.

‘A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilisation’ - Samuel Johnson

Similarly, armed with sharper data from a more ‘specific’ gap analysis, staff were suitably empowered to rethink curriculum coverage and drive essential knowledge and skills, that would permit their small groups to access the curriculum more easily from September and beyond. The optimism and inexorable desire to use this time beneficially has been palpable and humbling, among teaching and support staff. Perhaps there was also an epiphany from teaching staff, that a pupil’s ability to achieve academically primarily comes down to teacher expertise. How teachers think, make daily decisions and judgements are clearly the most important ingredients within a school.

This pandemic has also afforded many school leaders the opportunity to take tremendous pride in their school staff, supporting and nurturing not only our children, but also the wider community too: delivering food, smiles, conversations, art packs, support, school work, messages via social media platforms – all in a valiant attempt to support those more vulnerable members of our community. It is worth noting also, that teachers, LSAs, school staff commence their academic journey and training in order to educate thirsty, young minds. I am sure they did not therefore, ever expect to be ‘frontline soldiers‘ during a medical pandemic; contemporary heroes and heroines by default, when the rest of England was sent into lockdown and isolation.

Despite some initial anxieties and fears expressed by many members of staff, not one member of staff has ever failed to show up for work during lockdown, to support our community.  Subsequently, it has been a real honour and privilege to witness such camaraderie and genuine affection for our community. Despite receiving very short lead times, teachers managed to effectively remodel the education system, providing high levels of expertise and work for both school and remote learning.  Indeed, the efficiency and collaboration from teachers greatly reduced and minimised damage to children’s learning.

‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it’ - Goethe

Subsequently, having all the staff back together again over the past three weeks, in order to review our new policies and procedures for EYFS, Year 1 and 6’s was optimistic and reassuring. The collective voice was loud and clear, and the narrative we established as a staff, is that our profession, and indeed society, is so clearly in need of schools, like ours, to bring about consistency, stability and to provide a safe haven for fuelling young, curious minds – especially our more vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils.  

Whilst we are not naïve enough to believe that there is not still a percentage of ‘invisible’ and ‘hidden’ pupils prevalent during this pandemic, that will require time to reconnect to their school communities, school leaders must not let the learning opportunities from our COVID-19 experiences pass by, and attempt to return to the old ‘norm’.  On the contrary, we need to harness what worked well from the views and opinions of our professionals and establish different ways of working going forward: many of them remote/digital learning successes; having high expectations of all pupils; smaller intervention groups; vocabulary-rich conversations with adults; peer to peer collaborations; tapping into the multi-modal world of a twenty-first century child; children’s well-being. These ideas will form the measure of our success in years to come.  

Significantly, for the first time, since I have been an educator, I have seen a tidal wave of unity – a true coming together from a variety of stakeholders within society – recognising the essential part education has had in binding ‘people’ together. Our hope now, as we extend our phased return to ‘normality’, is that society and our community, remember the unconditional services schools have provided, and thus continue to value and support all school staff. Perhaps education’s greatest success therefore, during this unnatural experience, is that it is not about ideology and policy, but far more about the people within its care.

Conclusions - opportunities to re-think education

Whilst helicopter parenting and online learning may not completely replace the benefits of real-life teachers, the education sector still ought to seize the many benefits that digital platforms and remote learning have provided for during this pandemic:

  • Let us not rush back to the old ‘normal’ – rather capitalise upon important, positive lessons learnt. For example, how can teachers bring the use of social technology back into the classroom; providing a safe environment and learning tools for expressing what children ‘do not know’.
  • There are minor differences between school and home learning, in terms of impact and outcomes. It is more to do with what teachers ‘do’ that matters, not the ‘medium’ they use that matters.
  • Be especially attentive to pupils’ well-being, but do not assume ‘negative’ outcomes, rather diagnose each child’s experiences of lockdown, upon re-entry into school; especially as there have been so many positives.
  • Capitalise upon the collaboration that has occurred between the teaching profession – internationally too.
  • Reinvent the school day and the amount of time teachers spend in front of a class. The COVID-19 pandemic, has removed many obstacles – environment, buildings, structure etc. from a teacher’s routine, allowing teachers to spend more time on teaching.

As Professor John Hattie starkly warns, ‘the worst scenario is that we return to the old normal and no lessons or opportune moments, have been capitalised upon’.

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