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AEP - Back to school in September: a handbook to help

17 Aug 2020|13:15

The beginning of the new school year in 2020 has attracted more than the usual media interest – whereas stories usually discuss the cost of new school uniforms, advice on beginning school for the first time or transfer to secondary school, the focus of this year’s stories has been around the “re-opening” of schools and the impact that the Covid-19 school closures have had on children and young people (CYP).  

Many views have been expressed – some articulate the fear that the pandemic and lockdown have caused irreparable damage to many CYP’s life chances/academic progress, others that the whole of society can just get back to normal once CYP get back to school – some believe that CYP are currently bored at home, missing their friends, and will be delighted to go back to school, others worry that there will be a huge increase in the need for support from specialist mental health services because of the significant level of emotions such as grief and anxiety being suffered by CYP. There has been little mention of the impact on adults other than to criticise trade unions for raising concerns about how to safely increase the numbers of CYP attending school. 

The reality is that most schools never closed down completely, although they had a reduced number of children attending. Many CYP (and many adults) have had many different experiences during the last few months and the impact of those experiences will be very different too. 

What is generally agreed is that school life can’t just return to how things were in mid-March 2020 and that some careful thought and preparation is required so as to welcome as many CYP and adults as possible into classrooms across England in September 2020.

As ever, “one size doesn’t fit all”. There are a number of common principles which are helpful to bear in mind, alongside the detailed physical and organisational planning currently being undertaken in respect of physical safety, to help the whole school community to recover from whatever negative impact has affected their lives, to re-introduce everyone to their new environments and renew the positive elements of their school. 

A helpful first step can be to perceive the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as a major national critical incident and consider the possible traumatic effects of such incidents. Many schools already have their own critical incident policies and plans in place and referring to those plans will be a very useful first step for school staff – the recently produced Whole School SEND handbook “Recovery, Re-Introduction and Renewal”  and its related webinar is based on many of the established ideas arising from previous work on critical incidents and, most significantly, based on the importance of relationships within a school community. 
The 5 key principles outlined within the handbook are, in no particular order: 

  • Place relationships front and centre 
  • Put emotional wellbeing first – for everyone 
  • Acknowledge loss, change and bereavement 
  • Reaffirm safety and routines 
  • Reaffirm school’s strengths and core values 

Schools, and all the adults who work in schools, are very important in CYP’s lives – the relationships between those adults and CYP (and often with their families) and that “connectedness” matters more within communities than is often recognised – building on and nurturing those relationships will help everyone’s re-introduction to what may be a new and different experience of school from the one they all shared back in March – including those adults and CYP who have continued to attend school regularly. Relationships are the primary mechanism which supports recovery from adversity and the promotion of those relationships is crucial in the current context. 

All adults and CYP will have experienced some form of loss during the last few months. This could be loss of access to typical “rites of passage” such as the usual end of year parties/prom events for Years 6 and Years 11 and induction programmes for those starting new schools – even the usual potentially stressful exams and meeting friends at school for the GCSE results will be very different from the rituals that were expected to happen before March. Losses may include lack of access to friends, to stimulating activities, through to family breakdowns, deaths of close family members or friends. Other CYP and adults may have enjoyed being at home and spending more time with their families – emotional and material resources may have been available to provide a completely nurturing environment to such a level that they are anxious about returning to school and losing the new environment that has developed for and by them.     

It is impossible to predict exactly what impact the last few months has had on the members of different school communities and what their individual needs are – communication, talking and listening to each other are vital – the handbook provides a framework on which to plan an appropriate and graduated approach to determine who needs what support and then provides and signposts some detailed and differentiated suggestions and materials that will be helpful. 

If all staff and related adults (including governors and regular visitors) are fully aware of the 5 principles and can help them to be embedded in all planning for September, then they can also support each other via their own relationships. This then underpins the graduated response to recovery which includes providing universal, targeted and individual support for different members of the school community, including the adults.