Best-laid schemes…

Martyn Oliver is CEO at Outwood Grange Academies Trust

As Robert Burns wrote in ‘To a Mouse’ in 1785, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”.

Certainly this year, everyone’s best-laid schemes have gone askew and we all have scrambled to develop home-learning solutions whether they be in-house, off-the-shelf or a mixture of the two.  Of course, even when we all found the platform(s) that we would use we still had to contend with problems like: consolidation vs teaching new knowledge and then to live-stream lessons or not? Even now in week three we don’t know if this will last a few weeks or a few months?  What then to consolidation vs new material? Is next year going to be a full year or a year of constant disruption? What of our disadvantaged students and a likely widening gap? Oh, and what about the students who don’t have wifi?

No one had, or has, all of the answers but I do know that from the hundreds of conversations I have had with leaders across the system the first intent of everyone was to protect our children and staff as much as we all can: work is important but nothing is more important than the sanctity of life: as I write this, yet another member of our staff has lost their parent to Covid-19.  It is desperately sad.

So, if it is worth anything, here, in brief, is what we did and are now doing across Outwood Grange Academies Trust in this period:

Firstly, we embraced the point that we wanted the Outwood community, the Outwood family, to remain a strong and cohesive body and so we focussed on developing regular and systematic communication between schools and children, heads of department and department staff, leaders with all staff in their schools and leaders with each other across the whole trust.  Our intent was excellent communication first and foremost, not excellent learning because we simply didn’t think we could achieve the latter universally. Communication amongst these groups isn’t solely focussed on education either, as the old BT campaign said, ‘It’s Good to Talk’. We have set up across 33 different schools and nearly 3,700 staff competitions and quizzes, mindfulness sessions and even now looking at online yoga, anything to keep students and staff talking. Next, we accepted in the first few weeks that consolidation rather than pretending we could continue to teach new material would be the best solution: after Easter we will think again about this. As Professor Daniel Mujis and Dr Dominique Sluijsmans wrote in Schools Week, this wasn’t the time for large-scale educational experiments so we stuck with what we knew both in terms of how to teach well and how to organise delivery.

We were mightily thankful that we had a strong history of using Google’s – G Suite for Education – to quickly build upon, and experts like our Director of Computer Science who we could rely upon (link to his initial strategy paper here). Without this existing infrastructure and without the strength of the Trust enabling our group of schools to work systematically and coherently in sharing resources this would have been a much bigger challenge!

In essence, we ensured we had the means for all students to access learning whether that be online or paper-based packs: Outwood has a much higher than average proportion of disadvantaged children but with some careful and sensitive checks in the week before lockdown we ascertained who would be okay with online learning at home and who would need a paper-based solution, not forgetting that our most vulnerable were the students who we wanted to still be in school. We immediately brought forward the entire laptop purchase planned for next academic year, 250 laptops, and purchased an additional 150 mobile phones on top of the hundreds we already had. We then set about creating high quality resources for home-learning, acknowledging that that would be very different to creating resources for a normal face-to-face lesson: Google’s own distance learning strategies were extremely helpful, but were adjusted to our trust’s context and shared with all staff (link here).  I will not pretend that it wasn’t extremely helpful to have the trust’s very large team of subject specialist directors, 70 of them, design and develop resources at the start to model to all and then have them curate resources.

As we all know, high quality professional development is integral to any high performing system and so we invested in developing resources aimed at teaching our own staff and quickly developed a website for effective use of G Suite to support colleagues.

Lastly, we developed routines to give a sense of familiarity, issuing work in small amounts to create new timetables and to enable us to follow-up on nil returns. We even created resources for a regular school assembly to be accessed. Staff have embraced these ways of working and are beginning to innovate within these systems: in support of parents, they developed a website for fun and creative activities over Easter, there is absolutely nothing about any week at the moment which is a normal school week right now and as sure as anything, we aren’t about to make Easter holidays another abnormally, normal school week!

What has this resulted in? Well Google Analytics runs about one week behind but in these early days we have Trust average engagement with lessons running at 70% in primary and 77% in secondary.  Some schools have 98% (one primary) down to 56% in one secondary accessing work via the online platform. It isn’t good enough, but combined with the paper-based packs and the small numbers still coming into school it is a start.  We still maintain though that keeping our children safe and keeping our communication strong is the best outcome we can hope for right now and will give us the best shot at returning to normal as quickly as possible when this is all over.

Outwood has a long tradition in supporting the system and not just being receivers of support so we set out to make everything we produce freely available via an external website for teachers across the system.  As Leora Cruddas, CEO of CST has stated for some time now, we have a duty to be civic leaders within civic trusts.

As I said at the start, no one has all the answers but together we will overcome this.

Take care and stay safe.