To say that schools are so much more than buildings with classrooms, staff and pupils is an obvious understatement. They are far greater than a sum of their parts; above all, they are communities, each with their own unique DNA and characteristics. Can such communities be uprooted from their bricks and mortar to eke out an existence on digital platforms? Not easily, that’s for sure but necessity currently dictates it. At a time when the future of many schools up and down the country – particularly those reliant on parents being able to come up with the fees to cover their fixed costs – is precarious, they must look hard at how to secure a successful future. Without doubt, schools which keep the idea of community at the heart of their remote engagements with parents and pupils are most likely to emerge from the lockdown least scathed, with their pupils best prepared to make a seamless return to school when the time is right.
The ties which bind a school community, like in any relationship, are kept strong by good communication. Whether it is the relationships between teachers and pupils or parents and staff, regular communication and empathy between school and home during the lockdown is the critical factor.
We’re well aware that this is new for everyone involved. In working out what and how to communicate, The Good Schools Guide hopes that schools prioritise that which is really important. Parents want their housebound children to be occupied constructively but schools need to take into account the range of situations among their parent bodies and take care to communicate their expectations sensitively to create an appropriate balance.
For parents who are key workers, have to work at home or who have other dependants, supervising a daily 9-4 curriculum is simply not possible and can only add to family stresses. We are seeing many independent prep schools ruthlessly focused on delivering ‘value for money’, only to force parents to be tied to the kitchen table supervising endless lessons with their primary aged children, potentially causing untold family stress and, in many cases, neglecting the jobs that pay the bills. It is inevitable in both the state and independent sectors that some pupils will arrive back at school having had months of one-to-one attention with enthusiastic, time-rich parents while others will have made do with little more than an occasional glance at an online video lesson.
Yes, lessons and studying are important. We want to see all pupils advance through their respective curricula but the mental health of every member of our schools’ communities is being tested at the moment. The academic cut and thrust, complete with heavy workload and demanding assignments, may not be the most important thing presently. Encouraging pupils to stay active and find creative outlets can play a huge role in maintaining pupils’ well-being. The buoyancy of a school community depends on being able to rise to this challenge.
Whether by post, telephone, email or social media, schools have an opportunity now to explore creatively how to engage their pupils. New ways must be found for drawing pupils in and making them feel a part of the school community. Children may not be able to shamble into a big room and yawn through the headteacher’s spirited announcements; they can’t sit down with a form teacher or tutor to discuss progress and options; they can’t work towards a performance or exhibition. So, despite schools taking great strides with remote learning, so much of a school’s community is founded in the spaces before, between and after learning. Careful consideration must now go into filling these voids. Lack of attention from a school may make pupils and their families feel neglected or forgotten and could result in a loss of trust and a rift in the school community.
What primary-aged children may miss in terms of learning can be caught up at a later date. Oxbow lakes and the Vikings can wait – and parents should have faith that schools will catch everyone up where necessary.
Where possible, we think schools in both the independent and state sectors may like to consider doing at least some the following to maintain a sense of community:
- Regular emails work wonders. Pupils can be sent praise, inspiring quotations or tips for remote learning – we’ve seen ‘Thought for the day’ become a popular feature; even a simple daily ‘good morning’ would do. Parents also like to be kept up to date with school news.
- Build daily podcasts or vlogs into the timetable. These recordings can take the place of classes and assemblies and are perfect for academic or pastoral content. Keep pupils up to date with the latest school news and read stories, set challenges and give advice.
- Take work off-screen. With parents and children all trying to work from home, there might not be enough computers and devices to go round. Any work which takes place away from screens will be gratefully received. For those families with very limited access to devices or internet, schools can use the post to distribute work packs, timetables, advice and stationery.
- Live broadcasts bring the whole community together. Video assemblies can be broadcast live using various online platforms (YouTube, Instagram) and are a great way to get all the school watching as one.
- Communication in smaller groups is also important. A number of apps allow a more intimate setting for conversations, whether that’s an online morning registration, tutorial, house meeting or one-to-one help.
- Start an online notice board. It’s a great place to post positive stories, impressive pieces of work, class points and announce birthdays or other news. There are online platforms for this but a section of the school website or a shared cloud doc works well.
- Offer pupils prescribed office hours. A scheduled time when pupils can have phone, web or video chats with teachers provides an opportunity to receive academic or pastoral advice and support.
- Start an online playground. Somewhere children can play with their friends during timetabled periods or pauses in the online school day are never going to come close to a real- life school break but it provides a chance for children to interact with each other in a supervised setting.
- Find activities which can involve pupils, parents and staff. A weekly family quiz broadcast live online gives everyone the chance to pit their wits against each other. Sporting activities for families like virtual park runs, or races (on foot or two wheels) can be coordinated using running apps. Set a new route each week or keep a running total of miles covered.
- Set tasks and challenges. Challenging a class, year group or the whole school to do something can lift spirits and bring pupils together. Sporting tasks like keepy-ups with a toilet roll (whether that’s football, hockey, tennis, cricket), or creative tasks such as recreating a famous painting, piece of music or baking are great, especially if there’s a camera around to capture the moment. Group emails, online notice boards or social media are a great way for pupils to see what their peers have managed to achieve.
- We’re all in this together. This is a two-way street and teachers, like pupils and parents, are walking down it for the first time, so we would hope that all parents and pupils feel able to praise teachers for doing a good job and to give constructive feedback when necessary.
Finally, we don’t underestimate the challenge the current situation poses and schools differ widely in the resources they can muster. We are seeing brilliant initiatives and wonderfully inclusive and imaginative work. Let us know what your school is doing at [email protected], Twitter or Facebook.