A very difficult decision to leave this Christmas was taken over the summer – though it had been building up over the last few months. The proverbial straw for me was an article about EYFS reforms I was reading when I suddenly realised that I had reached saturation point. I was becoming someone who read education updates and news and sighed heavily. The type of school leader whose eyes rolled when ofsted tweaked guidance, or when subject reviews were announced. I was no longer excited by it all – and as the summer went on I realised that I was not looking forward to September – wasn’t getting excited about the return like I usually do. And any kind of school coverage in the news just caused outright dread.
Covid of course – but more than that – the realisation that, as we came to the end of it we would learn nothing. More than ever now schools were at the heart of their community. Schools, my school, had worked so hard to keep their community safe and to provide some normality for their pupils. (And don’t get me started on the Herculean efforts of staff to move provision online). Instead of a recognition that perhaps our professionalism was to be commended (or at least not doubted!) we had contempt from politicians and policy makers.
I am so disappointed that the chance we have had for a rethink, for recognition and for renewal has been lost. In fact, it seems to be more materialistic and about ‘end product’ than ever. The changes for baseline, the ‘advice’ from subject reviews, the Ofsted inspection guidance, the continual demand for ‘catch up’. It’s too much. It’s unsustainable and it’s not what I came into this job for.
I’m lucky, or at least I think I am. I am thinking in a new direction and am excited to be heading towards an MSc – exploring Climate Change policy and Zero Carbon Initiatives. But I know so many teachers who are really struggling with this. So many schools will be left rudderless – and governing bodies are going to need support. I don’t feel proud about my decision, it is sad. I will miss teaching immensely. It has been a privilege to work with hugely inspirational people over the years – I have met amazing and resilient children and have been honoured to be at the start of many teachers’ careers. I know I will never really leave…I know I will want to get back to it! It just doesn’t feel like it is the job I love right now.
Postscript – as I was editing this social media is awash with rumours that Gavin Williamson should get a knighthood. So. There’s that.
As I started writing this I realised that, in fact, it would be impossible to write an adequate blog post on the whole year. This then is more of a summary, a review – a kind of diary into what did happen. There is more to be written here – and more time to give this. But – we need to start somewhere, and so to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, lets start at the beginning.
This, I hope, will be a more optimistic piece – after all – we have soft sunlight here in Cumbria right now, vaccinations are going well (so far) – and I haven’t watched any government briefings for ooh, at least a week.
What has this last year given us then?
The beginning – preparedness – how were we prepared for what is probably the first national crisis that any of us have led schools through? When it became clear that the virus was spreading – as Italy suffered and went into lockdown suddenly we were all paying attention – well the public health messages were all about hygiene and that phrase ‘social distancing’. And, well we were, quite honestly found lacking. It turns out that many of our policies and risk assessments were not really written for a pandemic of this nature. (Why they were written is another question.) Government-level communication was too big of a juggernaut to respond to our questions and concerns mid-March, and schools found out about closures along with everyone else. From then on we were running to catch up. And of course suddenly everyone was talking about social distancing.
Once it became clear thought that schools were closing for a while – and that lockdown was the way we were heading well then schools could start to support their communities better. By April we were settled into Co-operation – school leaders showing a previously unknown level of comradeship and peer-support throughout this crisis. For me, here in Northern Cumbria, it can often feel isolating, but the machine that is School Support kicked in and school leaders worked together magnificently. We planned hubs, we identified vulnerable children (and staff) – we volunteered, we cheered one another up and we listened to what others were going through. But mostly we marvelled at how much life had changed in such a short time. The support from our Local Authority was astounding – and as an Academy Head Teacher the irony of this is not lost on me. By the end of April it seemed very clear that everyone was experiencing this very differently – and each school needed different things.
Of course in the background of April, May and June teachers across the country were transferring their skills to online teaching – a process many of us are just starting to feel comfortable with. Often with some pupils in school as well, meaning staff were juggling parallel plans – and we became more familiar with this as time went on. Parents were adjusting to juggling their own family life and everybody was suddenly more acquainted with the twists and turns of school curriculum than they had ever wanted to be. Meanwhile schools were embroiled in an ‘access’ panic – whereby the government and school leaders were at odds over the provision of tech – it turns out that large swathes of the country did not have good internet access (who knew?) and the online provision of easily accessibly lessons and content was sapping teachers morale and time.
In support the Government funded the set up of Oak Academy – which, regardless of the political or pedagogical wrangling managed to galvanise the profession and provide some much needed sequential learning that was accessible. They are still wrangling with the organisation of physical devices but some progress has been made: we have had sim cards, some data free academic websites and my school did get two chromebooks. Of course by this time there were other cracks showing in the school leadership systems – most notably the constant and often downwright confusing communications from Government. And, whilst changes to testing regimes, risk assessment, guidance for online provision, Ofsted (don’t ask) were all passed on to schools almost daily, and usually at unsociable hours, schools supported their communities as much as they could. It should be mentioned here that system-level communication has improved, but press briefings prior to any official announcements just seem the ultimate act of disrespect. Unions and government began to look at just how safe schools could be, a topic that is still the point of much debate now.
The summer is an interesting time to look back on. Like many schools we welcomed limited year groups back in July, but the stress and anxiety for school staff was palapable, and whilst we concentrated on providing for all of our pupils many of us were beginning to see the personal toll the pandemic would take first-hand.
This huge part of school life is one that I think we are still not learning from – following on from a full opening in September schools are still not supported for covid-related staff absences and are not offered support to provide more staff (which would help provide smaller classs sizes, provision of PPA and sharing of the workload) – this in turn leads overwork and burn out for school staff which will ultimately hurt pupils.
Other changes for school staff involved openness – schools were sharing much more with each other, both internally and with parents. Communication had to be very open as we had to find ways to talk to those who may be ‘hard to reach’ – social media came into its own and WhatsApp groups replaced the morning coffee.
Our school, like many others, began to look outside more. Being in such stunning and inspirational surroundings this is something we can do more of – and outdoor education (not just education in the outdoors) needs to flourish in the future.
All of this – these societal changes – the working from home, the online element of schooling and the emotional toll of ‘keeping up appearances’ means that many of us may not have been at our best this past year. We may not have made all of the best choices – or given ourselves enough time to learn from these choices. And we are not looking back objectively or clear-eyed just yet, we are not yet in a position to collecitvely breath out and survey the landscape. The changes and the education priority shifting we can do post-pandemic is something else to reflect on.
Teaching online, it turns out, is not that different from in the classroom… Somethings definitely take longer – especially at first – but then there are some things that are easier. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.
Timing, and that dreaded word, pace – is harder to judge when working online. Especially if you factor in any connection issues. The first time I set my class a First News based task (which would have been a lesson normally) and it took them almost all morning I realised I needed to rethink how I broke down the tasks and how I made sure they had the time. I’ve found that ideally you give them longer to think, slightly smaller tasks with less time to complete and specific time for questions using visuals – e.g. a physical clock you have with you or one shared on your screen.
I’ve been modelling how I take notes on jamboard – especially when working with history and science topics. Sharing the screen to watch or listen to a presentation and taking notes together not only models this important skill but also gives them something to refer to later. Of course, depending on your platform – they could all contribute – but some children may find this a challenge. Equally those children who have got this skill could then lead the note taking.
Questioning is still so important – and it is easier to give all the children the chance to answer online. Depending on the platform you are using the children can reply to just you, or you give them some thinking time and then ask them all to type in at the same time. You can also ask specific children first, which then allows you to check understanding. We use Google Apps and so you can open a jamboard as well as using the chat.
You can always get them to write on paper and hold answers up as well!
This is tricky – especially at first when you don’t know what the children have at home (or they don’t know themselves) – but there are lots of ways to share video, to make use of the share screen and to give presentations. And there is some really high quality stuff out there now – we use White Rose Maths and often share screen their videos. This allows you to pause and ask the relevant questions, as well as to extend areas that you know your class need to work on. Many of the ‘home learning’ video based resurces do not require logins either – which means you can leave the links up for those children not online.
An excellent side effect of remote learning is that the children have to learn the be slightly more independent… Of course the first step to this is encouragement – raising their confidence – sharing good examples, asking the children to explain their learning and allowing them to read out what they are proud of are all good ways of doing this. However the technology itself can also be a barrier – and so model the different ways you can present your screen, watch video, share work etc etc. Ask the children to explain to one another – teaching one another so that if they cannot get hold of the teacher, but they are finding something tricky, then they can help one another.
Other tips I have picked up along the way include planning for online and offline work – so that the children can pick up what they are doing without needing to be online all of the time.
It would be great to share any more tips that you have!
“Okay, as we come inside – wash your hands. Oh, you came in quickly – have you washed your hands?”
” With Soap?”
“Oh – I’ll be right back”
” Miss I’ve got Teddy to show you”
“Ah now, remember we don’t bring things in from home. Pop it back in your bag and wash your hands”
“Miss, I used soap now – here – smell”
” That’s good – now don’t put them near my face, remember? Go and sit down in your seat”
“Miss, can I go and hand in this form to the office?”
“Yes, off you go…Oh wait, no, that’s the other bubble isn’t it – here leave it on that table there. No Jimmy, I don’t want your homework now, remember, your Dad was going to sign in your diary to say you had done it. Oh, you’ve lost your diary – right – I’ll message your Dad. Okay , lets start the register – right, Sarah? oh of course, Sarah is at home – right who is the Google Classroom monitor today? Okay, could you login and see if Sarah is on there and say Hello? Great, thanks!”
This could be the typical conversation in any primary school up and down the country. This pandemic has affected schools in many different ways. Schools have had to take an almost obsessive approach to assessing risk; to cleaning, visitors. We have amended the curriculum to better suit the lack of trips, or to help fill gaps. We have produced back up plan on top of back up plan for home learning , isolation learning, bubbles bursting and full lockdown.
Our pupils too have adapted thoroughly; severely restricted in their movements in their own school they have lost various chances to mix and to lead – reading buddies, playground leaders, digital leaders and many other ‘small’ activites they were used to have gone. Other routines that they have been using for the last few years have disappeared or changed. Different playgrounds, different lunchtimes, not meeting their friends in other classes or chatting to their favourite teachers. Our youngest children are starting school with minimal physical contact, and very little home / school sharing. Parents may feel shut out, or helpless as their access to teachers is appointment only and virtual.
Schools are being inventive with school and community activites too. Think about those traditional activities that we would be doing now, especially at this time of year; the Christmas Fayre, the carols, the Harvest Festival. Every event is now planned through a filter of infection control with audiences moved online and all of that extra worry about just how the technology will work.
Teachers meanwhile are losing their support networks and their chance to reflect and work with colleagues. Chatting online from your classroom does not feel like the time to bring up just how terrible yor last dision lesson was. Zoom fatigue feels like a real thing – fifteen minutes of online teaching feels like an hour, whilst difficult conversations are even harder to have when not in person. Handling lessons online and talking to parents only on the phone is not a natural way for us to work – especially with younger children or those vulnerable families.
We should be so proud of how we have adapted to this way of working; but we should also be aware of the consquences.
There is no easy answer to how we can be supported – this post is not about finding answers – this is a plea for understanding and a reminder to the profession to go easy on ourselves. Of course, government could help immensely by taking the pressure off and funding appropiately. But, whilst we wait for that, lets all take step back and reflect on just how much has changed over the last six months.
Consider your own progress: Just how many times have you stepped out of your comfort zone in order to go to work? How are you tackling your own worries to answer the worried questions of parents and pupils? How many times have you not seen your own family and friends because you feel you an increased risk?
As you think about these take the time to breathe – and to find a way to be pleased with just how far our school communities have come – after all the post pandemic planning may be just as much of an upheaval.
And, it should be said, it is not the schools at fault here.
As a primary school practitioner I am incredibly proud of how schools transformed their provision when the March lockdown got. Schools across the country adapted creatively, often on a shoestring budget, to develop some kind of online space and distanced learning for their pupils.
We saw schools develop online assemblies, inviting in the community just as the would in person. Schools that were open and made use of streaming lessons, or engaging with content already out there. Partnerships with providers (often local) to share resources such as video, or virtual walks. Secondary schools developed online timetables, desperately trying to ensure that teachers were not spread too thinly.
Add to that the communication tools school were using – linking schools with parents became so important and schools adapted quickly: Google Classroom, Showbie, Tapestry amongst many apps and platforms adopted by schools and shared with parents.
And all of this was achieved whilst still providing Free a School Meals and upporting the children of key workers on site.
Of course schools are now much better prepared: they have held training sessions with parents explaining how such platforms work; provided staff training; led lessons with pupils helping them to use the technology appropriately; invested in support from professionals. But we are fighting a losing battle simply because the divide was already too big and there’s no central support to this.
Let us begin with the good news, the government did pledge support for schools in setting up an online platform if they didn’t already have one. This was helpful, and it was backed up by a small amount of money. Probably not enough for a larger school with complex needs and staff training, but it was a start.
Government also started offering devices and 4G routers for ‘disadvantaged’ families – this scheme has been dogged in criticism mainly because it wasn’t particularly timely (I received devices two weeks before the end of term) – and there wasn’t enough.
So, why is it a problem?
We already know there is a huge digital divide – we know that there are families who don’t use the internet. We know pupils who only have access to a phone (and this is often for a few distracting games) and we know families who share one device. The Office of National Statistics also backs up the divide as increasingly affecting those with lower income.
In simple terms of actually having an internet connection connectivity (and availability) varies massively across the country – and a city-centric approach to online education is not helpful. You can check parliamentary data on this issue here. But compare these two images here for different experiences of connectivity.
And it is not as simple as ‘devices and access’ – families may lack confidence with the technology or there may be space issues, especially if a family member is working from home. A sibling may also need access. Cambridge University is really leading the way in this research:
For adults facing digital exclusion, the challenges of social distancing are many. Our research with New Horizons, a one-to-one coaching programme for people experiencing financial issues in the East of England, reveals that digital exclusion creates additional problems for people already experiencing poverty: putting together a CV, applying for jobs, managing and keeping track of money, and applying for Universal Credit are just some of the essential activities made that much harder for the digitally excluded.
But what can be done?
In the first instance we need an admission that all is not as rosy and equal as the government is suggesting. Postcode connectivity, deprivation and access to services all make digital education a tricky concept for school communities.
Secondly the government need to make good on promises – and not just pandemic linked ones either. (Just give the schools the damn laptops you have already purchased!) The connectivity issue has been debated in parliament for years, and for rural areas often comes up in general elections. Less talking, more doing, please!
Finally, remove the pressure from schools to have an ‘online offering’ for all. This map just piles more anxiety on families and children who are unable to take part. Acknowledge that schools may need to deliver paper work packs, or loan equipment out – and fund us properly to do it.
The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the inequalities and digital exclusion in our society – let’s use this as a force for good!
I’m not going to pretend that I am an expert in this.
Having taken the opportunity to reflect on what has been a memorable few months I wanted to evaluate some of the learning that has taken place online within our primary school. I hope that these thoughts will go some way to developing my own practice; and maybe supporting others who are thinking of the best way to get online and support learning during another potential lockdown.
To give you an idea of what we were doing: Once it became clear that schools were shutting we did our best to give them relevant and interesting work that would challenge. Of course, we did not know how long this would last.
Develop your own knowledge
it was important for me before embarking on something new to arm myself with the experience and knowledge of others first. I started here – with a Future Learn course that connected me with others who were just starting out on this path.
We also made sure that the online systems we used – mainly in Key Stage 2 – were ones in which the children and staff were well versed. We use Google Apps and Google Classrooms in school – we turned on hangouts (more of that later) – and spoke to the children about the best way to contact us if they needed help.
Access for all?
We are a small, rural school whose children are geographically spread. Some of our families do not have decent wi-fi and some do not have enough devices for children to access learning at the same time. As we had sent home work, we decided after the Easter Break to start doing weekly learning grids and lessons, with clear links to resources, where available. These were put on the school website, or emailed out as appropiate.
We were however reluctant to do regular online classes / assemblies (at this point!)
We loaned out the school chromebooks where possible – and encouraged parents to contact us if they needed support.
We encouraged parents to contact us – giving out email adresses to individual teachers.
We started a weekly whole school assembly via Google Meets and then Zoom. This started with a special guest (our local vicar) – which meant that families tried really hard to get there.
Regular phone calls to families who might be seen as vulnerable (but who may not have been on Free School Meals.)
We used social media liberally. A ‘running’ – distance – challenge via our facebook account. Enocurage to share work and pictures; link sharing etc.etc. We found that many parents, and the wider community, enjoyed sharing photos and ideas this way.
Weekly online creative writing class and code club. These were a natural fit online as they were already taking place in school – especially code club which allowed the older children to chat and support one another in problem solving.
Google Hangouts was used for the pupils to contact teachers – teachers told the pupils when they were online and checked in with pupils via Google Classroom. (Key Stage 2). This proved very useful, but had to be strictly managed as many children would happily sit online chatting with their teachers for ever…
In it for the long haul…
Once we realised that only a small number of children were going to be coming back into school before September we began to increase the online presence of our teachers.
Weekly zoom meetings for all classes were held.
For the younger classess this meant a book being read, or some simple online number and phonic work.
For the older children they were able to discuss any problems with the work set that week – and ask for help if needed.
EYFS and KS1 teachers recorded themselves reading a book – and these were put on the website.
We provided physical work books in Maths Y1- Y6 – herocially these were delivered by hand by the teachers – and proved very popular with parents and children alike. So much so that we also provided workbooks for Reading and Writing for the younger children as well.
How did we do?
Once we got into a routine and school started opening for more children our attention turned to September. And so, we needed to know how parents had found the last few months. SOme findings were clear and will directly impact our work in September:
Online meetings and short lessons were useful – BUT – some found them overwhelming. Flexibility seemed to be the key.
Keeeping children enagaged and enthusiastic is tricky.. whole school assembly went some way to alleviate this, but the main support seemed to be teachers chatting 1:1 with these children. Whether this will be something we can scale up in the event of further lockdown is worth thinking about.
Paper / workbooks / exercise books are worth their weight in gold. Put simple we are too worried about exercise books and children’s work ‘looking the part’ – we need to ensure that there is some way for work at home and school to be seamless next term and if that means books getting dog-eared between home and school then so be it.
We need to develop Parents’ confidence with the apps and the infrastructure we use for online learning – e.g. Google Apps / Drive / Book Creator and so on.
I’m not sure what we will be doing in September – at time of writing the expectations for schools are still unclear. However I will take any time we have with the pupils and parents in school to prepare for further lockdown.