Liz: I’m joined today in conversation with Nicola Noble, co-head of Surrey Square Primary School. Nicola, it’s great to have a chance to come back together, having worked with you on the wellbeing playbook. We worked together in the summer to pull together and share some of your practice and thinking, particularly focused on wellbeing for the staff team, so I thought it would be really powerful to revisit some of that work now that school is fully back. And I know that others will find it really useful to hear your reflections and learnings from this time, so thank you so much for giving up your time to talk to me.
First of all, how are you doing, three weeks into term with all the children back?
Nicola: Remarkably well I think. It has been lovely being back at school and seeing the children and the families and staff coming back together, seeing how much people miss school and how much we love being at Surrey Square.
It’s been really energising, although in the summer it felt challenging, really thinking about logistics and making plans – you put all your best laid plans together and then spend a lot of time wondering whether they were right and whether they would work. There’s the feeling of the unknown. I find the unknown quite challenging and although I like planning for it I don’t like the feeling that it gives me. So, there were definitely some sleepless nights before coming back to school in terms of wondering if we’d made the right decisions, but the minute we opened the school gates and saw the children’s faces, saw our logistics come to life and actually work without losing the essence of Surrey Square, it made it all worthwhile. It gave us a lot of energy and it was great to see.
Liz: Brilliant, it’s so lovely to hear that and, having been in and seen it in action, it was really joyful. There’s a real sense of the community reconnected and as you say that value shining through, warming up and creating a very special environment, despite the fairly stringent restrictions and protocols that you’ve got in place, so that’s great to hear.
So, you personally, what have you been doing to ‘top your bottle up’? (We talk about topping up your bottle in the playbook.)
Nicola: I think the realisation for me was that during lockdown we all become quite used to working in quite unusual ways and, for me, the summer was a bit of a line in the sand, of realising that I needed to work like that for a period of time because the situation needed it, but actually it’s really important coming back into school that I reset, and that I was working in the way that I’ve always chosen to work as a head teacher, which is not full time, and that when I was at home I actually gave the time to my children rather than spend my time on email.
I’ve got three children and one of them is about 16 months and although it’s been lovely spending lots of time with him at home over lockdown whilst working, it’s also been very challenging, and just being able to spend a day with him without any other interruptions and reconnect and be a mummy has definitely felt like it’s topped up my bottle and it’s time more than ever now that I will make sure I preserve and protect.
In terms of other things, making sure all those great practices that we all got used to during lockdown, like going out for daily walks in the fresh air. Again, I think it’s been a conscious decision not to go back to such a hectic way of life where often, as the leader, you can put yourself at the bottom of the pile. So, noticing the importance of fresh air, exercise and making sure that I am prioritising that has been really important.
Liz: Brilliant. That’s so powerful to hear and well done you for noticing that and, as you say, using the summer as a time to reset and challenge those kinds of expectations that leapt up through that emergency response period. I’m delighted for you. And lucky little 16 month old getting his mummy back full time for those days as well. Well hopefully he thinks it’s good news – I’m sure he does!
And how about your team more broadly? I’m interested to know what’s going on for them at the moment? What are the challenges and how is everyone coping with this new phase?.
Nicola: We really thought about our return to school, putting children’s wellbeing and staff wellbeing as part of it. In the same way that we had done all the way through lockdown and in same way that we produced and brought to life a recovery curriculum for children, we really thought about how we could replicate that for staff.
So our INSET days at the beginning of the term were based around four key things which are: hope, gratitude, connectedness and self efficacy. These are things that we had developed working alongside Place2Be that should really be the foundation of our recovery curriculum for children and so why would we not replicate that with staff? So it started from the very first moment the staff came into the INSET day. We had physical symbols for them of those four things, so they were met with a badge representing self efficacy that said ‘I can and I will’; there was a candle to encourage them to reflect and think ahead about what they were hopeful for; we created walls of gratitude as teams of things that we were really grateful for through lockdown and moving forwards; and we made physical representations of strengths that we brought to the team. We actually made paper chains which were a representation of our connectedness.
Alongside this, we also did some work with a clinical psychologist who helped us to unpick the shared trauma that we’ve all been through during lockdown, both as individuals and as a community, not only helping us to understand the experiences that children and families have had but also really connecting us in the experiences that we’ve had personally.
So, alongside that we continue to offer staff options in terms of one to one support with a trained counsellor and other opportunities to reflect and think. I think through doing that we were showing staff how we were really prioritising their wellbeing and continuing to do that. We have asked for regular feedback now we’re at school and that’s a way of us being able to get that feedback, collate it and really do things and take action according to how staff are feeling. It made it really clear to staff that we’ve made these decisions because we believe they’re the right things for our school community, but it’s a work in progress and these things can change and will change as we go along.
We thought really carefully about the bubble situation and keeping staff in bubbles and we really explained that to staff. That’s a different way of working for our school – the school is really based on relationships and being connected with each other. I think staff have found that challenging, the sense of, “I don’t want to only stay with these people, I’m used to going to talk to others”. So we’re really helping people to navigate that and finding other ways that people can be and stay connected.
We also really thought about the beginning of term. We wanted to keep as much normality as possible so we kept children and staff in the year groups they were in last year. We’re yet to get the holistic feedback on that because we really want staff to reflect on that process, and also what it’s been like now starting with new children, but the feedback we’ve had so far is that it’s enabled staff to come back into the known, they didn’t have to build those relationships with the children again, they were already there and they really knew what they were coming back to. So, I’m not saying we’ve got it perfectly right, but by prioritising that we’re seeing staff generally in a good state, very positive and very happy to be back at work.
Now we’re navigating new challenges which are staff absence due to COVID symptoms, children having symptoms, needing to self-isolate or quarantine. I think that presents a new challenge for us now both in terms of making sure that we have the right staff in the right places and also supporting staff because those challenges unnerve everybody, so there’s a lot of work that we’re continuing to do to support people and ‘hold’ people more widely.
Liz: It’s incredible when you describe the experience of those members of staff coming back and how you thought so deeply from the principles about what everybody needs, what pupils need and what adults need coming back into school, and how you’ve made that manifest for them that you’ve actualized that for them to come back into the space. It’s really inspiring to hear, so absolutely credit to you and your team for the way that you’ve designed that. And clearly, the fact that people are in really good states says a lot and hopefully that will add to the resilience in the next few months which we know will continue to be quite complex.
Is there anything in particular that you think is one absolute top tip if you had to pick one or two things to say that really worked across the board with staff?
Nicola: I think reconnecting has been crucial and really taking the time, seeing it as your to-do list, making the time to talk to people, to listen, to hear their experiences and understand that everyone’s experiences are different. Some people have loved locked down,and other people have absolutely hated it. Some people have been directly affected by COVID and others haven’t and some people are still living through the effects of that, so I think, in the same way we receive children in the state that they’re, in it’s about receiving adults in the state that they’re in and putting as much support in place that we possibly can to give them an opportunity to work through that without judgement, which is really important.
I think it’s been critical to me to think about a recovery curriculum and apply that to both children and adults and really think about replicating the same processes that we’ve been working through with the children with the adults as well. Doing shared training around trauma gives everybody an understanding and a language. The language included talking about our internal ‘security guard’, that’s the alarm bell that goes off when you are feeling unsafe or you’re nervous or you’re challenged in some way. Just hearing people using the shared language and immediately knowing what that means is another practice that I think has been really powerful.
Liz: So it’s a way of giving people an element of emotional intelligence, to notice when things are challenging them or they’re not feeling ok and to actually name that and recognise it in themselves and then have a shared language, an acceptable language, which for many people is a real challenge, actually being able to articulate those difficult feelings at times. So it’s powerful and such a potent metaphor.
Nicola: I think even some granular detail, for example we shared our risk assessment with all staff and were really clear about why we’re doing certain things and things that could be missed, such as the fact that we changed all of the taps so that they’re not twist taps now, people move them with their arms, and a member of staff said they’d never have thought about it but it’s such a good thing and made them feel really safe.
I think that’s been our key aim, we’ve tried to think through everything to think about how would a member of staff see that? Would that help a member of staff feel safe? So some of the decisions we’ve made, like when our parents come in at the end of the day they all wear masks and we all wear masks as well and that was something that isn’t necessarily because we’re all outside, but it’s made everybody feel safer. I think those things which seem quite small actually have a really significant impact on people.
Liz: We’ve talked quite a lot about the idea of ‘psychological safety’, so there’s the physical safety and the safeguarding in all the senses of health and safety, eg what are the right provisions and infection control mechanisms but actually the psychological safety, that feeling of it feeling safe, is actually just as important if not more important in terms of people feeling okay and feeling comfortable and confident and therefore being present and doing great work in the building, which is what we need of them, to be doing their jobs brilliantly and working with the children directly. So, a really powerful exemplification of being really explicit and intentional and showing people what you’re doing has added to that sense of safety above and beyond the physical safety of the interventions that you’ve put in place.
I’m interested in your senior team. Presumably, they’ve had a big role in supporting everybody else (and I’m sure you’ve had a big role with your co-head, Matt, supporting them) so have you done anything specific with them that is a good top tip?
Nicola: Well they are incredible and it’s a total team effort. There is no way, even as a co-head, that you could do it just the two of you. I think for me it’s been really important that we, again, help them to reset the way that they’re working. A lot of our senior team work flexibly and work part time and a lot of them didn’t do that through the lockdown so it’s really important that we supported them to really think about their work patterns and ensure that they went back to the way of working that they have previously chosen.
We do lots of work in our senior leadership team meetings around reflection, sharing examples of excellence, giving each other feedback, and that’s really powerful, stopping and really thinking about what’s going well. So often as leaders we’re preoccupied with the things that go wrong, or the things that need improving, without really stopping and thinking about what’s going well and giving each other feedback about what we see each other do and the impact that it has. It’s really important. There’s seemingly little things like writing cards for people to acknowledge their contribution, or the odd bottle of wine is well received. And again, taking time with that team to help them to debrief and really think about what their role is now, because we all have our normal role and then we all have the role that COVID has presented us with. Really helping them understand how they balance their normal role with their new COVID induced role and really managing that. I think, again, they’ve done that absolutely brilliantly and are continuing, which is amazing, to not only support people but actually move things forward at Surrey Square. That I think is really important, that we’re not just stuck in a survival mode of making it work whilst we’re in this COVID time, but actually build some energy and some momentum and do some of the things that we were planning on doing and really drive that practice forward. Obviously to do that we’ve all got to be a good state, so that is of paramount importance and we’re very good now at calling each other out when we see that we’re not in a good state. I’ve definitely moved some meetings that we’ve had recently to a local coffee shop, we’ve had a coffee and cake and people have had time away from school to reflect, refuel and have some space.
Liz: Absolutely. That’s really powerful Nicola. Yes, they’re a great team and great teams need great leaders, so absolute credit to you and Matt.
So, to wrap up, you and I have shared a saying in the last couple of weeks about dealing with the unusual in the usual way, so a kind of sense of unusual-ness is the name of the day for the next few months and beyond. There’s a change of mindset into how do we deal with that in the usual way. So your usual way are your values at Surrey Square and your principles. So, my question around that is that if this is the new normal, ie unusual is the new usual, what are the things that you’ve learned and done through this time that you will keep forever, that will become part of just how you do things at Surrey Square?
Nicola: Honestly, at the beginning of this I wouldn’t have said anything, but there are things that I now think why have we never done that before? In the morning, we have designed a drop off system, where everyone can arrive within a 15 minute window, and that was designed a) because of my own experience of having multiple drop off times for my own children and realising how tricky that was and b) because we wanted to keep that sense of community and being together. And we love it! It’s slick, we get to see every child as they come through the gates and staff have informal conversations with children in the playground. It gives a really special start to the day and I think there wouldn’t be one member of staff that would go back to the way that we used to do it. And we had done it like that for 16 years so it shows that there are things that really make a difference.
We’ve also really thought about opportunities for children to participate in physical activity and we have been creative in our use of sports coaches so that every child now has two dedicated PE sessions a week. Of course we all know that’s best practice and that’s something that we all want to have but until now we’ve never made that happen and I think, again, seeing the impact of that on the children, seeing their engagement and seeing how much the coaches are loving it, we wouldn’t want to change that.
There are definite elements that are incredible: we start every morning with a personal excellence session. We were supported by Place2Be and our Place2Be manager here to really think about our recovery and that it’s not just a week or a two week long piece of work but for some children the trauma can show up in three months, six months, nine months’ time, so things like having a personal excellence session at the beginning of every day shows our commitment to that and shows that work is continuing and it’s work that, as our mission says, is a priority. Again, we will continue to do that work.
Through lockdown staff also needed to have far more contact with parents more regularly and staff have absolutely loved that. They’ve really enjoyed the richness and depth of the relationships they’ve built with parents and are really keen to explore ways they can continue to do that and continue to manage that.
Virtual meetings: I’m not a massive lover of Zoom, but it certainly enables you to be in multiple different places throughout the day. Although I do like actually visiting with people, there’s a definite benefit to it including the saving of travel time.
And it’s really important that, as much as we learn from lockdown, we learn from this period as well and continue to use our learning to evolve our practice and find our new normal.
Liz: Fantastic. Well, Nicola on that note, I will say a massive thank you to you for giving up your time this afternoon to talk to me. It’s been so interesting to hear how you’ve implemented the work, the impact it’s had and the difference it’s made and how the return to school has been for Surrey Square staff, and of course the pupils and families. So huge congratulations to you and the team for the work you’ve done and thank you for sharing it.
This interview is part of our Learning from Lockdown series and the playbook focused on wellbeing is available to download for free, as are our other playbooks. We’d encourage you to look and to share with anyone else you think it may be helpful for.