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Grenfell Tower: how schools are responding

Senior leaders from three London schools and one in the West Country explain how they are helping students and staff to cope, on emotional and practical levels, with the aftermath of the devastating fire

The events and outcomes of the horrific Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington, London, have dominated the national media and political agenda for the last two weeks, and its repercussions show no sign of abating. Attention has necessarily focused on those directly affected, and those in the neighbourhood, many of whom have shown remarkable generosity in coming forward to help and support the victims.

But the effects are being felt much further afield, as Sarah Gillett, chief executive of ACE Schools Trust in Plymouth points, out. ‘People forget that wherever you live there will be people who live in tall buildings with similar cladding. There are some tower blocks in Plymouth with cladding like this [which have since failed the urgent fire safety tests], and some of our kids who live in them are anxious, asking questions about the safety of their own homes. In school, the children are discussing these things, along with the effects of people’s social circumstances. Social media are fanning the flames and increasing young people’s anxieties.

‘As teachers, we have to deal with it through education, to counteract the tendencies for panic or rabble rousing. We have to stop some of the rumours, conjectures and fear through calm, reliable and balanced information.’

Help students to cope by giving them things to do

Although Green Spring Academy Shoreditch is some seven miles from the Grenfell Tower area, a number of its students have family or friends there, and in any case the concerns (and sometimes panic) were endemic throughout London and elsewhere.

Assistant vice-principal Angela Wallace noted that after the tragic news started to come out, ‘initially, students were not saying much, but they slowly began to talk more. There was a lot of confusion: they were hearing conflicting things in the news and from friends and neighbours. Many of our students have backgrounds with challenging circumstances, and school for them is a place they can put these aside. Learning and student wellbeing are always a key focus; we aim to get a balance between supporting and responding to their questions.’

So the academy staff based their responses on being positive and pragmatic. ‘To show some solidarity, students supported through Go Green for Grenfell fundraising, which marked the beginning of an ongoing fundraising project until the end of term. Additionally we held a two minutes’ silence in light of the series of tragic events in recent months. We focused on asking students to spend time reflecting on the importance of peace and wellbeing for all. We created a display around the theme of peace in The Street (a communal atrium located in the centre of the academy), where students were able to write their thoughts and feelings, and in form time and PSHE we gave space for students to discuss questions or concerns.’

Throughout, the academy has concentrated on giving students information and opportunities to ask questions.

Ms Wallace added: ‘in recent months there have been many events which can be worrying for some students, particularly when they are in and around London. The fundraising the students are doing is helping to channel those feelings – and we have a netball challenge this Friday!’

The pastoral leads follow up conversations with students who are particularly distressed by these events: ‘We try to reassure them that they are safe in their environment. And parents receive a follow-up phone call, where necessary.’

Typical of the academy’s pragmatic approach is how they responded to one male student who was angry, because a family friend had been directly affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster. He was encouraged to support the fundraising campaign by helping to collect loose change, using the designated collection buckets. This gave him something practical to do, which helped to deflect the anger related to his concerns in a positive way, and to reassure and calm him.

Give opportunities to help

Westminster Academy, less than two miles from Grenfell Tower, had some students and staff directly affected as they knew people involved or living in the tower. One student had to be temporarily rehoused as they lived in the area and there was a concern about drifting debris. ‘Immediately on hearing the news, students and staff wanted to assist in whichever way they could,’ reports vice principal Maka Baramidze. ’We put a plea out to parents via our newsletter asking for donations and were inundated by all manner of things including bedding, clothing, personal healthcare items, and food parcels.’ Buckets for students, staff and parents/ carers collected over £1,700, a week later the school’s ‘Green for Grenfell’ dress-down day raised a similar amount, and cake sales on various days have raised over £550.

Several staff members volunteered their services during the early days when volunteers were requested, and a ‘small selection’ of students were encouraged to take flowers to the site, and pass respects and thoughts on behalf of Westminster Academy.

On Saturday 24 June, staff and sixth formers held a car boot sale to sell the donations received, and students sold smoothies at Westbourne Festival. ‘So far, Westminster Academy community has raised £4421.86;’ says Maka Baramidze. ‘Our commitment to supporting the Grenfell Tower victims continues and we aim to raise more money.’

To reassure the academy’s own students and staff, everyone has been given access to qualified counsellors if they feel the need to discuss the incident and their emotions in more depth. And all staff will now be trained in how to approach trauma among young people who are vulnerable.

Be open, and focus on supporting staff and students

Robin Street, co-principal, The UCL Academy, describes their experiences following the Grenfell Tower fire – and the evacuation of similarly clad towers on the Chilcott estate, right next to the school, where 150 of the school’s pupils live. ‘We’re in an even more acute position than many other London schools,’ he notes. ‘It ups the anxiety. London is a tough place to be in a school at the moment.’ The Finsbury mosque, scene of further recent violence, is also just two miles away. ‘But Grenfell is on a different level.’

In such situations, he says, ‘our job is to give stability and security. As I said in the first assembly afterwards, that’s why we are teachers: our job is to develop the next generation into people who will build bridges, not destroy.’

On a practical level, as the school buildings are new (and cost £7 million), he says, it has very good fire systems, etc. ‘But we have published emergency procedures, and we did a practice lock-down and fire drill.’

It helps that the five-year-old academy, sponsored by University College London, follows UCL’s ethos of the greater good to the greater number, with a focus on global citizenship. ‘We’re not an exam factory. We have a long school day, with long lunches encouraging kids to socialise, and basketball and other events after school every day. We think about the staff as much as the kids, supporting them so they can support the kids.’

‘That’s why we are teachers: our job is to develop the next generation into people who will build bridges, not destroy’

After the devastating news of the Grenfell Tower fire and its consequences first came out (as with the other traumatic recent events including the Westminster Bridge attack, the Finsbury mosque attack and the Manchester bombing) Robin Street or his co-principal Simon McBride issued a message over the school Tannoy and gave the school ‘a moment of reflection’. They also took the opportunity to celebrate and recognise the efforts of those who had helped out, often in extraordinary ways, as the first responders did at Grenfell.

Each of these traumatic events is given a minute’s silence, though the way it is introduced and managed varies, with year or house assemblies, and a considered announcement or even a poem.

After each of these events staff also quickly check the school’s database in case a member of the school community is closely linked to any of the casualties. Particularly if it’s in their city, ‘you can be absolutely sure that someone in the school will be directly affected by it.’

Don’t stop the trips

Communication after the event includes assemblies and direct communication with parents by email and text, to reassure them that the school community is supportive. These actions are important because, Robin Street points out, ‘it would be so easy to allow a climate of fear and panic, leading to schools saying they will stop all trips, for example. We don’t think that’s right. In fact, five days after the Grenfell Tower fire we had a school trip to Thorpe Park and three of the coaches happened to pass the tower on their way back. It was shocking to see, but at least the students had had a chance to come to talk about it beforehand, and begin to come to terms with it.’

If students, or staff, are extremely distressed they all know there is access to the school’s self-referral system for mental health. This has been around for some time, so ‘there was no dramatic announcement, just a reminder that “open minds” as we call it, is there, and there is someone they can talk to.’

He thinks such support is essential for all schools as, ‘no matter how leafy your school is, there can always be the risk of a significant incident that may have a negative impact on the school community.

‘The most important thing is, we support and help each other. The school is a diverse multicultural community where students represent the broadest range of socio-economic backgrounds, yet we’ve had no horrible comments, bullying or racism, or inappropriate jokes.’

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