Recent months have been an extraordinary chapter for education and the classes whose public examinations never happened will certainly never forget this year. There has been – justifiably – much concern over the potential harm to young people of all ages and stages denied ‘normal’ school life, with all that this entails. But behind the negative stories, a quiet sense that something rather revolutionary happened in Summer Term 2020 is beginning to emerge. 

Schools around the country managed the unthinkable – shutting their gates but finding ways to ensure both academic continuity and their spirit of community carried on. Plans were brought forward, remote learning ideals became practical necessities and staff and school leaders dug deep to prove the old adage about the ‘mother of invention’ in delivering pastoral, extra-curricular, sporting and creative provision. In this article, Libby Norman asks six schools to give us their early impressions of the lessons learned from lockdown.

Lessons from Lockdown

James Allen’s Girls’ School – “Pupils are very resourceful”

At James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, remote teaching and learning swung rapidly into gear to support some 1,000 pupils aged 4 to 18. While there were inevitable teething problems, inventiveness saved the day. “If anything, this made the outcomes even richer as colleagues and students found creative solutions for common issues,” says JAGS Deputy Head Pastoral Samantha Payne. She describes a period of remarkable agility, especially in the use of technology, and with real enthusiasm from everyone to keep the learning varied and enjoyable. “An added advantage to working online is the ease with which pupils and teachers can share their resources, and the outstanding sense of collegiality that comes as a result of this.” The way in which pupils and teachers have been able to communicate more broadly is certainly something that the school wishes to retain. 

Wellbeing surveys and daily contact with form tutors enabled robust formal pastoral support, but clubs and regular assemblies have also played a pivotal role. Girls responded enthusiastically to extracurricular opportunities – virtual quizzes, sports and baking challenges and music, drama and art events. The JAGS’ Parent Talk programme also flourished. Larger numbers of parents engaged and some noted that it was far easier to join a Zoom event, so the school hopes to continue live-streaming to benefit parents who struggle to attend in person. Counsellors, nurses and chaplain made themselves available to staff and parents, as well as pupils, and this has informed future plans. “Online pastoral support will certainly feed into JAGS’ wellbeing strategy as we face the coming months – and we will adapt and tweak – and embrace good ideas, as ever,” says Samantha Payne. Read Digithrive’s guide to communicating well with parents here.

Pangbourne College – “Parent communication and pastoral care are key”

Pangbourne College in Reading, Berkshire has spent the last few years rolling out a ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policy across the school. “Originally intended to cater for the increasing use of technology in education, this turned out to be a boon for a rapid transition to online learning. College students and teachers quickly adapted to a normal timetable of lessons conducted via Google Classroom, Meets, Hangouts and Gmail” says the school’s Director of Development Karen Hartshorn.

Inevitably, while some pupils thrived on remote learning others found the absence of classroom and social routines more difficult. “We were surprised by how quickly and how well nearly everyone adapted,” says Headmaster Thomas Garnier. “We quickly realised that good pastoral care and regular communication with parents were key, as school was suddenly more visible to them and they were more involved in the day-to-day education of their children.”

A key part of Pangbourne’s ethos is pastoral care. The College uses the AS Tracking system, an online assessment tool which monitors student mental health and can identify when an individual needs extra support. Combined with weekly online staff pastoral meetings, this ensured that teachers were able to provide support as and when needed.

Pangbourne also held virtual focus groups with parents to understand family expectations for a return to school – and any elements from the lockdown worth keeping. The overwhelming message was ‘back to normal, please’, with parents talking about how much they valued the social interaction, teacher-pupil interaction and co-curricular activity.

There were positives which may continue. Parents like the option of online parent-teacher meetings and the increased visibility of lessons and teaching. For times when pupils are unable to be in school, due to illness or circumstances, the College has invested in additional technology to enable hybrid learning and live broadcast of classroom lessons.

Queen’s Gate School – “Digital literacy has been enhanced significantly”

Uncommon with other schools, Queen’s Gate rose to the challenge of moving its entire operations online almost overnight. “The management of this change was not in accordance with text-book advice, with limited time for planning and no time at all  for pilot schemes – but it had to work and it did,” says Queen’s Gate Principal Rosalynd Kamaryc. 

The school selected Zoom as its platform, and with a few quick lessons on the basics staff were ready to go. “We always encourage our pupils to take risks in their learning, to enjoy ‘having a go’ at something new and to learn from failure and what a wonderful opportunity we had as staff to lead by example as we learned how to set up meetings, send out invitations, share our screen, annotate and use break-out rooms. It was a steep learning curve, but one which staff embraced,” she adds.

GCSE and A-level pupils were particularly affected, so staff created Extend Programmes of taster lessons for the next stage of education, as well as lectures and enrichment opportunities – parents seemed to enjoy joining the lectures too. From the beginning, it was clear that social contact should be offered at every opportunity, so the External Relations team set up an online weekly newsletter. Before the end of term, there was a discussion about what might continue after Lockdown and staff were enthusiastic about continuing Zoom for some meetings, lectures from visiting speakers and collaboration with other schools. “Lockdown was a unique opportunity, but we now look forward to using the best of our experience to enhance the educational opportunities we offer our pupils,” says Rosalynd Kamaryc.

Repton School – “We can support those who need more hours in the day”

Repton found positives in online school life, says Deputy Head and Director of Digital Development James Wilton. “For us, Microsoft Teams was the killer app for Lockdown. It was extraordinary how quickly the staff and pupils got behind this.” Perhaps the greatest indicator is in the stats – 203 messages via Teams on 23rd March, as opposed to a daily average of 8,957 messages each day towards the end of summer term. 

The Derbyshire school took what James Wilton describes as an “arguably risky” decision to adhere to its regular timetable. Every class had its own Team, but also every boarding house, every sport and every single co-curricular activity. Not forgetting Chapel, which had two virtual Team services each week. Lessons were a blend of pre-recorded video, live streaming, interactive presentations and quizzes. Assignments set tasks to complete in the lessons and tried to leave it at that, avoiding additional ‘homework’ to reduce screen-time and the wellbeing issues that might follow. For overseas pupils and those who could not join live lessons, recordings were stored in Microsoft Stream.  

One key takeaway is the potential flexibility of online learning when it comes to co-curricular activities. “Remote learning showed us we could support those who needed more hours in the day; there is no longer any reason why a Repton pupil can’t participate in learning because they are on a coach to play sport or give a concert. They can learn actively from anywhere, on any device,” says James Wilton. “Perhaps most exciting of all is that great use of technology should give us time back to invest in the things that have an even greater impact.”

Southbank International School – “Primary age children have impressed us with their independence”

At Southbank’s three campuses in London for children aged 3 to 18, technology-enabled teaching held no fears, even for those at Primary level. “Our school community were already used to an integrated technology approach – especially our Hampstead campus, which has an Apple Distinguished status,” says Hampstead Principal Shirley Harwood. Daily ‘live’ teaching and pastoral meetings ensured teachers maintained a finger on the pulse. 

Another important facet of teaching was the social side and Principal of Southbank’s Kensington  campus Siobhan McGrath says here Google Meet proved vital. “It allowed teachers to develop social interaction across a class.” Staff found some things easier using remote learning – for instance, finding out what students could manage independently and when more support or instructions were required. “Some children really impressed us with their creativity and independence,” she adds. 

While Upper Primary children were able to complete and submit work independently and could ask teachers for a Google meet if they needed help, the youngest children did need extra support. Here short videos and live ‘meets’ proved invaluable. Staff rose to the challenge, often re-thinking how best to present new material or enable activities to continue. For instance, the Music department found ingenious ways to cut videos so that students could play along virtually with ensemble pieces from their own homes. 

 Hosting whole-school community events online has also proved successful. Siobhan McGrath says Southbank parents made the online journey easier. “We have always had a great community and although we were physically apart, this shared experience seemed to make us stronger.”

ArtsEd Day School and Sixth Form – “A hefty dose of positivity has meant the show did go on!”

For all schools Lockdown was a test, but for ArtsEd Day School and Sixth Form in Chiswick there was an extra challenge – the logistics of delivering its nationally recognised programme of creative teaching. Its pupils are used to singing, dancing and acting together, so how to create that ensemble spark remotely?

Well-laid plans, a switched-on IT team and a hefty dose of positivity ensured that the show did go on during the summer term. “In spite of not being in the same building, let alone the same room, students and staff made full and inventive use of remote platforms, with dance classes, singing lessons and drama sessions continuing right alongside Maths, History, English and the rest of the full academic curriculum,” says Headteacher Adrian Blake. 

“The smoothness of our transition to a virtual timetable was the result of our excellent teaching staff, our hard-working IT Team, and our dedicated pupils all working together. Regular one-to-one catch-up sessions also ensured the continuation of our pastoral care, and the educational and vocational guidance that is so valuable in enabling pupil achievement.” With Year 13 pupils heading off to leading drama schools, universities and direct into acting work, the graduating class of 2020 have certainly had a crash course in managing performance under pressure – surely experience to stand them, and their fellow pupils, in good stead in their professional futures. 

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2020 edition of Absolutely Education magazine.

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