21 Mar

One Year on… A Reflection

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.

24 Oct

We are missing an opportunity to truly transform digital education…

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. 

https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
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!

03 Oct

Covid Secure Pupil Voice

white book in white table near yellow wall

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’.
Playground Leaders

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.

03 Aug

Taking a Primary School Online

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.