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.
I, like many of my colleagues are ready for whatever this school term may bring. But I wanted to take the chance to reflect. I fear many school leaders are bracing for a storm. And in the spirit of airing anxieties I thought I’d explore just what the advice means for primary schools now.
‘Overwhelming’ – an ‘Avalanche’ – according to research carried out by the University of Cambridge and University College London these are the words that heads have used to describe the amout of information received since the beginning of the pandemic. Heads mentioned that they didn’t know what to expect from one day to the next – and that this was more stressful even than student welfare. This was my experience – this summer has been a breathe of fresh air because of the absence of government updates. So – all good right?
Well.. now we seem to have gone from one extreme to another.
The latest government advice seems to be fixated on ‘normal’ school life resuming as much as possible. Suggesting that assemblies resume and that masks are no longer necesssary. Ventilation is ‘important’ but we have received no support in enuring this over the winter months.
They emphasise that schools will no longer be responsible for track and trace and that bubbles are not expected. UNLESS. And here is a big unless – unless there is an ‘outbreak’ – defined as five closely related cases (or 10% of the school population, whichever comes first). Then there will need to be an extra plan in place that relies on the school knowing the close contacts of these cases and putting mitigation in place.
This concerns me (and others) because it appears that the government is waiting to be reactive instead of proactive – to me we are waiting for the inevitable rise in cases and then we have a selection of measures that we can out in place. These measures will necessarily differ from school to school and cause confusion for parents.
Headteachers told me that they find the measures lacking, that they are using local advice instead, that they are worried about their community and about the possiblity of infections spreading from their school. The ‘outbreak’ advice seems to be causing concerns as the management plan offers a ‘suite’ of ideas which Headteachers and school leaders have to choose from. Most schools that I know are using a kind of ‘hybrid’ approach and keeping some measures in place anyway.
Headteachers are not (even now!) infection experts – luckily I have amazing local Public Health support – but this may not be the case everywhere. In a small school like mine, just how many of us would be classed as close contacts? Should I be thinking of minimising this now before an outbreak? Should staff be encouraged to stay within ‘adult’ bubbles? Remember they still do not want us to close schools – but how realistic is this?
This lack of mitigating advice will have repercussions elsewhere – as a small school two or three staff members either ill or isolating will create huge problems in providing quality education. Parents (and indeed staff) who are anxious, or who have responsiblity for vulnerable members of the family may worry about children returning to ‘normality’.
It will also mean that in the event of another serious wave, or a different version, then the government may have to rush out advice and measures, reverting back to last year, which will lead us right back to the initial ‘avalanche’ of advice.
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!
Earlier this month government announced that the expectations for remote education are to be statutory. These expectations cover a multitude of scenarios and can be found in their guidance for full opening.
Do an audit of what subscription services you pay for.
this might prove surprising – especially if teachers have had a bit of freedom in the past to sign up for specific services. Have a good look at what you are getting for your money.
Make use of the curriculum-linked services available.
Not to everyone’s taste I know, but check your long term curriculum plan – are some things covered within Oak Academy? Or BBC services? Can teachers make loose links now within planning which, if needed, can be tightened and shared with parents?
Provide training for parents in your expectations, and what services they can use from home.
For example, if you use Google Classroom do some online workshops with parents. They don’t need to take long, or be particularly technical, but they will provide parents with a bit of familiarity.
Don’ t overload yourself! There is no point in purchasing every subscription just in case, develop the technical know how with what you have.
Finding the Right Service
It can be tricky to find services and support – every school has a different context. Start by thinking what you need the tech to do – for example something that can be used both at school and home – a way for parents and teachers to communicate, something to share files or something to allow real-time online lessons. Services such as Google G Suite, Microsoft 360, cover everything, including video chat and online apps. Some, such as Showbie and Tapestry allow for interaction between home and school and sharing files.
Asking schools in similar situations to yourself can be helpful as well – especially if you have local expertise and people who are willing to help train staff.
It should be said that I am a big fan of Google G Suite for Education – for a small school it really does provide everything you need.
Communication is Key
And luckily tech can help here – whether it is messaging families, or staying in touch during a lockdown. Social media can be a great way to get in touch with parents – just try not to use your own personal account. Creating groups for each class can mean the teacher can share updates in one go – and choosing a service carefully will also mean that you can share it with parents in advance. Linking to key updates on Facebook, creating a dedicated space on the school website and text messages reminding parents of where resources can be found are some ways that communication can help.
Put your provision on paper…
You need to be clear about what you can offer – no point in saying there will be daily maths and literacy lessons if your teachers have no access to the internet at home. Aim for weekly contact, and then some sessions, such as reading, which give a bit of connection with the teacher,
Ensure that parents and governors are all aware and make staff expectations reasonable. Small schools, with mixed age classes, particular need to ensure they are realistic – teaching online can be tricky and in some cases providing workbooks for classes may make life much easier.
Finally, consider that families may find it tricky to keep engagement going – even if they do have the devices and the internet connection needed.
Have a set contact time each day – whether for answering / replying to emails of for video chats. A routine will be beneficial for staff and pupils and will help parents to manage expectations.
Share information in different formats – e.g. weekly overviews can be sent via Google Classroom and put on the website in PDF format.
Continue with school routines – e.g. whole school assemblies that follow the same format. Virtual meetings for groups like the School Council.
Create teacher videos, or record the online lessons – this will mean they can be watched at any time.
Train your pupils – for example our older children are using Google Classroom habitually now so that if they need to use it at home it’s familiar. Some classes watch a bit of Oak Academy, or use apps available at home, so that they will understand their use if they are at home.
Do you have any top tips or questions? Please let us know in the comments!
Prompted by a comment from one of my pupils recently ‘ we never see them anymore really though…’
Primary schools pride themselves on developing pupil leadership; encouraging children to get out of their comfort zone and allowing them to have a say in areas of school life. If your school is anything like mine currently then our pupil ‘bubbbles’ are actively hindering this process as the children are not allowed to mix like they would do – they can’t walk freely around school to look for ‘tidy rooms’ – the older children can no longer lead clubs for the younger children and they can’t meet with different members of staff.
Thinking about this there are several ways in which children can still collaborate around school.
Begin by considering the worth in giving the children ownership over some of the changes in school. Not only by explaining the reasoning behind strucutral changes, or timetable changes, but also in asking them if they can think of anything that may improve it. As an example our older children developed their own way of running the school tuck shop in a covid secure manner.
There will be other areas of school life however that the children will be missing – and it is these that I have been thinking about over the last few weeks – how can we keep collaboration and community at the centre of our schools?
For the School Council
a display area where pupils can leave notes / ideas and suggestions for each other form other classes or bubbles. The school council will have to get in the habit of checking, and responding – and removing notes which have been resolved.
An online book (or even just an online collaborative document) – which will allow the school council to keep the minutes of their meetings, and hare them with the rest of the school. I love Book Creator – but a google doc would work just as well.
Their own webspace to update with what the impact they are having.
Use of google forms (or similar) to guage the feeling from the children regualrly – or even just a quick check in box or ‘worry box’.
If your playground leaders are anything like ours then their favourite part is creating new games and playing these games with the younger children. Of course they may still be able to be outside with their younger classmates – but we want do discourage them from getting too close!
creating videos of their new games which staff can then share with the younger children and then record the children playing them. In fact, creating videos of sports games (or inventing new games) is a great wet PE lesson.
Managing a rota for the sharing of PE equipment to ensure that it is safe.
Cross Bubble Collaboration
Reading buddies and maths game afternoons are an area that has ground to a halt in the ‘new normal’. Of course children can still share challenges and ideas virtually – through online games or online documents to collaborate on. You can record the older children reading their favourite stories or poems to share with the younger children. Older children could lead an assembly (socially distanced…) – or could record their assembly.
I will add to this as ideas develop – and please do add your thoughts and comments below.