In the service of others – ATT’s response to Covid-19

Debbie is CEO of the Academy Transformation Trust (ATT)

Halfway through week 4 of the ‘lockdown which isn’t a lockdown’ and in which ‘schools are closed but not closed’, it is certainly timely to reflect on our trust response to current, very real, challenges. We are certainly learning a great deal very rapidly – embodying the spirit of our purpose as a learning organisation.

So what have we done and what have we learned to date?

Partnership is THE name of the game

As a trust leader, in some form or another, since academies were invented, I am elated with the response of so many of my peers. Too often, in the bad old early days of trust establishment and consolidation, true partnership was either ignored or was a fig leaf failing to cover singular isolationism. Throughout this crisis, the genuine spirit of sharing (never with a cost – including financial) has been superb. We have shared numerous key policies, protocols, schemes of learning, teaching resources, human resources… I could go on. In return, we have received truly huge amounts of materials – all of them gratis. I am elated and so proud of our sector’s record to date in this regard. We must ensure that this modus operandi continues when we return to ‘normal’. This is an open invitation, reader, to ask us for anything; if we have it, you are welcome to it!

Communication is everything

It is a truism but, especially in a large, national trust such as ours, communication has become a daily imperative. From the daily briefing issued by our (marvellous) Chief Operating Officer (not so much back office as front of house!) across the trust; to common and regular agreed messages to pupils and families; to preparing a clear (and tightly amended) bereavement policy and protocol; to thanking God we had in place a very clear (and up to date!) communications strategy… This has all been so important. At a time when (and this is absolutely acceptable) the Department for Education is always running to catch up; we have used our strength in communications to translate DfE complexity into straight, quick read messages for all in our communities. We have also made, quite deliberately, prolific, judicious use of social media (particularly Twitter) to spread positivity and to try to engender true collegiality. Tweeters will judge that for themselves I guess!

Technology can facilitate some learning; it’s less good at teaching

In common with many other schools and academies, we became immediately reliant upon the variety of on-line platforms used across our academies; and, in common with many in the sector, all of the pros and cons of such media moved quickly into sharp relief. Yes, such platforms can consolidate old learning better than they can facilitate new learning (you kind of need teachers for that); yes, they can be a quick and easy way to check knowledge recall (but not new knowledge acquisition and comprehension (you also need teachers for that); yes, most (but far from all) our pupils had access to a device of some sort (but not all devices are equal in such contexts).  So, in response to those pros and cons, we have evolved a more nuanced, varied approach to the local circumstances of each academy and each pupil. Unsurprisingly, we have a significant number of our pupils reliant upon a more mixed diet (involving paper resources) where technology is not easily available (although, as with many other trusts, we have invested heavily in increased access to laptops – much more rapidly than we had planned to).

What has become startlingly clear, and so very rapidly, is that the capacity of a trust of 22 academies means that our large numbers of subject leaders have ensured that resources we have produced and issued are top drawer and bespoke to our pupils. More than ever, the professional expertise of our teachers has been an absolute essential.

But technology is a godsend for leaders..

As a geographically disparate trust operating across 11 local authority areas, we have long been obsessed with developing technology to minimise waste across our trust; the financial waste through expenses budgets; and the human cost (and risk) of unnecessary travel. So we have become absolute disciples, loudly trumpeting the utter joy of Microsoft TEAMS! We had already developed a very clear protocol around the need (or not) to physically travel; but the current prohibition on travel for the vast majority of us has been a genuine turning point. We can now see that a majority of our various executive and non-executive meetings/forums/workshops will continue, routinely, to be virtual. Used well (and we have a written protocol around chairing MS TEAMS meetings – it is an essential in our experience) this new way of meeting really is groundbreakingly effective.

Social mobility remains an imperative in our country

Much has been written around this key worry in our sector. As an historian (by original trade) I know very well how, throughout history, the poorest and most disadvantaged in any society pay the heaviest price in times of national/international crisis. This period of time is no different. Along with many other trusts, we know that our most disadvantaged pupils will struggle the most: we know they are least likely to access technology – and to access that which they have, well; we know they are least likely to have a structured learning day built around well-being and consolidated, varied learning; we know they will suffer most from missing the routine, discipline and structure of their daily academy life; and we know they will take longer to catch up on missed learning when we return to full time, routine schooling. Everything we read in the Sutton Trust’s most recent report around the Covid-19 crisis we recognise and see each day.

In response, we continue to do much that is already well known (and done by many others): ensuring the supply of free school meals during ‘school holiday periods’; providing trusted technology; ensuring easily obtained paper based resources; stressing the use of tried and tested approaches to well-being; daily safe and well telephone calls or home visits for our most vulnerable; analysing home learning metrics each week; ‘chunking’ learning (sorry teachers!) into non scary units of achievable work; communicating very regularly as described above.

It is an oft beaten drum; but the fate of the most vulnerable is probably the one, non-medical dimension of the current crisis which taxes us most.

So where are we now?

We are ok. Our weekly executive team and trustees’ emergency sub-committee meetings evaluate all of the above, and much more, each time we meet. As I write, we are preparing our thoughts around the next phase of this ‘schools which are closed but not closed’ status quo: focusing on where we have gotten to so far; and how we will evolve our response into week 5 and onwards. It is perhaps obvious, but a prolonged period of our current context will require further change and further nuance to its management.

What we are absolutely clear on is that we must protect the many gains from this crisis: better, deeper, genuine partnership and collaboration; better, deeper understanding of the huge significance of our teacher workforce; better, deeper understanding of the benefits, and limits, of technology in education; better, deeper understanding of the key role schools and academies play in educating and protecting the most vulnerable young people in our society; better, deeper understanding of those who govern our system; and, finally, a better, deeper understanding of the front and central role (never back office) of those who support pedagogy in making our schools and academies work best.

I hope this ending, from the mighty Mahatma Ghandi, is not trite:

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

May you keep safe and well in your service of others.