As they prepare for reopening, Dr Martina Lecky, Executive Headteacher at Vanguard Learning Trust, describes how the trust’s schools have split their preparations to focus on the immediate, practical logistics while remaining considerate of the longer-term impact on their communities.
As we now consider and make plans for reopening next half term or in September, our reflections over the past few months will serve us well as our schools return to classroom learning. Our ability to adapt has been essential as we have faced unprecedented levels of uncertainty. David Eagleman’s book about the human brain makes clear that we are designed to mature into highly adaptable individuals. Our innate adaptability has been a necessity on a daily basis and Robert Burns’s ‘best laid schemes’ has never seemed more pertinent.
‘As school leaders I believe we have a critical role in building the confidence of staff, parents and students that we can reopen schools in a safe and orderly manner. We cannot expect to get all of our answers from the DfE. Our ability to collaborate, make effective decisions and communicate concisely over the coming days and weeks will have a significant role in helping our communities to move forward from this challenging situation.’
Gary Mullings, Headteacher of Vyners School
In terms of reopening we have dichotomised our preparations into ‘knowns’ and ‘unknowns’ so that the former can be planned for now, whilst the latter is about the human narrative of the pandemic. The ‘knowns’ have been focused on logistical arrangement, in terms of social distancing in classrooms and around the school site, as well as hygiene and facility preparations. The ‘unknowns’ are more fundamental to our role as educators and relate to reasons we entered the profession. Whilst our schools have been committed to community engagement and dealing with the needs of specific individuals, we are not yet in a position to ascertain how lockdown has affected our students both personally and socially, including the loss of loved ones; the same applies to our staff and the wider community. It will take time for us to assess students’ progress through remote learning and understand how the curriculum will need to be adjusted over the next eighteen months.
By May half term, our schools will have been closed, to the majority of students, for thirty-four school days. As we consider the first 100 days of our schools reopening, including what we hope to achieve, firstly we need to take time to think strategically in order to inform our decision-making. As part of this process, our schools have been reflecting on their guiding principles such as a commitment to inclusive education, our responsibility to keep students and staff safe and the importance of using evidence to inform our decision-making.
The practical measures we are using for the ‘knowns’ are based on applying risk management principles as well as pragmatic solutions in order to prepare school sites for the possibility of reopening next half term. All schools are having to prepare COVID-19 risk assessments; it is important that they collaborate, welcome external scrutiny and adjust plans as and when required. They are developing models to decide their capacity on a daily basis, with a contingency plan for absent staff, and the decision matrix for closing their school. Policies are being adjusted, in particular health and safety, managing students’ medical needs and safeguarding. Regarding ‘unknowns’, our staff are best placed to ascertain the impact on individuals in terms of their learning and personal experiences. Parent surveys and staff feedback have been most helpful in gauging their initial response to reopening; we know it is imperative to communicate and be open to the uncertainties we are all facing.
‘I believe passionately in the importance of clear, honest communication with all stakeholders. This crisis has made clear to me that the community will accept that school leaders may not have all of the answers as long as we communicate not just the ‘what’ but the ‘why’. Clarity of communication will be even more important when it comes to reopening as staff, students and parents will feel understandably anxious. We cannot shirk the responsibility that has been placed upon us; schools will reopen and it is incumbent on us to communicate the decisions we make to our communities.’
Gareth Davies, Headteacher, Ruislip High School
As we look forward to a renewed future, we know this period has left an indelible mark on us all. We have certainly learnt that our school community is not defined by its physical boundary and is so much more than educating the next generation. Guided by our moral imperative, we are resolute that we will provide unwavering support and compassion, each day, to every member of our community, in particular our vulnerable and disadvantaged students. In the book, Making every lesson count, it advocates that: ‘One of the joys of teaching is that responsive differentiation is a game of trial and error, as you seek to adapt with agility to a forever unscripted play.’ We know our passion for our vocation remains steadfast: we have, and will continue, to be adaptable in these uncharted waters in order to be a constant beacon of light to our communities.
‘At this moment, our job as leaders is to acknowledge the uncertainty whilst providing people with a purpose as well as the moral incentive to act in the service of the broader community. We need to understand how scary things feel, but also be comfortable with ambiguity. We need to let go of how things used to be and commit ourselves – term by term – to navigating this turbulence strategically. Leaders need to be courageous, agile, and embrace improvisation, but most of all we must be hopeful that something better awaits us on the other side.’
Colin Tucker, Headteacher, Ryefield Primary School