Well, the beginning of the new school year finally arrived and many staff opened the doors to their schools to welcome many, many children and young people into their buildings; both those who were returning to the school they hadn’t been in since March, others starting their new schools for the first time – without the usual visits and induction programmes.
We’ve heard a great deal about the anxiety felt by many adults about how to manage the full reopening of schools but we also know that there was much joy and relief expressed by school communities about being able to open their doors again, even with the high level of organisation and preparation that preceded it. And we know that there was much relief and joy expressed by families and parents who have worried about how well they have been able to support their children’s education during the lockdown months when they waved them back into their classrooms.
But it would be wrong to assume that “everything’s back to normal” within nurseries, schools and colleges. They continue to face 4 major challenges - uncertainty, managing a plethora of advice from many different sources, trying to find some time to reflect upon any learning gained during the last few months to shape a possibly different “new normal” and ensuring that all children and young people are welcomed back to full time education.
All schools have opened whilst still having to manage a high level of uncertainty – until everyone has the chance to talk to and listen to each other (children, young people and adults) they don’t know exactly what experiences they’ve all had during the last 6 months, they don’t know what impact those experiences have had on the individuals thus far – nor how the impact might manifest itself in the coming months. They also don’t know how long they must continue to plan for more possible closures and the management of blended learning at a localised level if the incidence of virus infections continues to rise and new information arises relating to schools. So, every day may bring new information and new uncertainties.
The plethora of information and guidance that has been written and provided for schools in relation to Covid-related safety and education has surely reached unprecedented levels – which is quite some claim given the amount of information and guidance that already existed for schools! The navigation and implementation of all this well-intentioned advice and guidance may feel like an unsurmountable burden at times for all staff, and particularly for senior leaders.
Much of the discussion around the educational impact of the last months has focussed upon the expected negative implications, particularly around emotional wellbeing and the level of learning that has been lost – but, it is also important to try to find some time to reflect upon any positive elements that have surfaced in some situations – children and adults who’ve developed new dimensions to their relationships with each other because of greater proximity (at home) and different methods of interaction (via the use of technology to support communication between school and home). Some children and young people have developed a greater sense of personal responsibility with how they best learn and organise their own learning whilst at home, which may support them as more active learners in the future. Some school staff have recognised new patterns and reactions to the different methods they’ve had to use to deliver their teaching which could lead to longer lasting changes to their teaching in the future. The greater use of technology has had a positive impact on the quality of communication between some parents and school staff. It is crucial that, whilst the focus is upon return to school and keeping everyone safe, there is time taken out to reflect upon how to capitalise upon what we have learned to support all aspects of education in the future.
The final challenge I want to outline here is that of welcoming all children and young people back into full time education. Reports suggest that, although CYP with SEND who have Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) were promised priority places to be able to continue to attend schools during lockdown, many of them did not attend school, partly because of family concerns for their health but also because of schools feeling that they couldn’t offer the appropriate support for them within the school environment. Their rate of return to school now also appears to be slower than their peers without EHCPs but it is so important that energies are expended into including them within education according to their identified needs and provision.
The 5 principles outlined in the guidance “Recover, Re-introduction and Renewal” are more important than ever to help staff within schools to meet all of these challenges:
Reaffirm school’s strengths and core values
• Place relationships front and centre
• Put emotional wellbeing first – for everyone
• Acknowledge loss, change and bereavement
• Reaffirm safety and routines
It is very heartening to see that the government’s latest programme – which is a joint initiative between the DfE, the Dept for Health and Social Care, Health Education England, NHS England and Public Health England to support the return to school - is based on those 5 principles and offers a slightly different narrative (albeit with significantly less money to support it!) to the £1B programme which focuses purely on “catch up”.
Recovery, Re-introduction and Renewal: Safe and Successful Returns to School can be downloaded for free from our Whole School SEND resources page.