In this strangest of times . . . embracing a new way of learning and leading

Claire Heald is Standards Director and Executive Principal at Inspiration Trust

Reflections on a MAT response to the prolonged school closure caused by COVID-19 – PART 2

I have no doubt that I am not the first to say this, but this has been the strangest fortnight of my teaching and leadership career. Across the country, schools and MATS have faced unimagined challenges, including but not exclusively:

  • Initially staying open to support our families, despite staffing absence and shortage
  • Closing for an indefinite period at relatively short notice
  • Keeping education going for our students in varying new ways
  • Supporting our staff and students in a time of great uncertainty
  • Implementing plans to support and safeguard our most vulnerable students

These challenges have required a careful balance of short-term operational agility and long term strategic focus. They have also required very careful thinking around curriculum and pedagogy.

One thing we’ve learnt from trying to balance these priorities, is that our schools and our MAT (including our students and families), are a resilient and powerful community that has pulled together when they really needed to.

Our wider networks and partnerships have also been vital to that community, from other MATs that have been supportive and collaborative, sharing ideas and resources, to the taxi firm we normally use helping to deliver free school meals to families in need.

We, like so many other MATs, schools and LAs have achieved so much in the last couple of weeks. I am not sharing ideas because I think we’re necessarily getting everything absolutely right, but in the interest of being collaborative. This is such a challenging time and  it makes sense to share as much as we can.

What we did first

  • Establish new leadership frameworks and systems – meetings became video conferences, priorities shifted, some existing plans became redundant. We focused first and foremost on the most urgent operational priorities. Strategic thinking is key of course but comes later.
  • Understood what we needed to do as leaders to support our teams, given needs had changed. For example, we tried to understand which staff were feeling particularly isolated and develop new ways of ensuring social contact and interaction. We also thought about how we could save teachers time with curriculum planning – what could we work on centrally to ease the load?
  • Ensured all our schools had a good remote learning strategy, providing advice, guidance and examples where needed.
  • Planned priority CPD e.g. using Google Classroom effectively, designing effective home learning resources. We’ll be sharing some of these video CPDs to support the wider education community
  • Began to develop a home learning core primary curriculum, ready for after Easter, Our top curriculum thinkers and subject leaders are working on this now, to ease the pressure on schools and their teachers and leaders

 What we will do in the weeks to come

  • Continuing to work on our home learning core primary curriculum, so it is ready for after Easter.
  • Thinking about wider aspects of the curriculum, for example what are the priorities around PSHE and relationship and sex education during school closure? What can we usefully do to support careers education? How do we help students stay safe online?
  • Looking at ways to reach out further within and beyond our communities, for example online art and writing competitions across schools, letters for the elderly project.
  • Developing transition plans to support families and students who may join our schools for the first time, when we reopen (depending on closure length).
  • Planning a longer term CPD strategy – focusing on curriculum and pedagogy for when the schools reopen. We will face significant challenges when it comes to the achievement gap. Again – we’ll be sharing our thinking and CPD videos for those that would find them useful.
  • Planning for re-opening. What will need to be in place in our schools to ensure we support our students effectively?
  • Long term strategic planning – we will use the closure period as productively as we can, supporting school leaders with curriculum planning and important school improvement work. Often, in busy schools, there is limited time for thought and reflection. We must make the most of the time that we have now, however unexpected this may have been.

 A remote learning case study

Within our trust, our schools each have their own identity, developed to meet the needs of their communities and demographic. This is also reflected in our approach to remote learning – it is simply not one size fits all. Depending on school and staffing size and families’ access to IT and Wi-Fii, our schools have blended digital and print based approaches.

At Jane Austen College, our secondary free school in Norwich, despite the fact that events unfolded quickly and we moved rapidly towards school closure with little time to prepare, they were able to establish systems to allow students to access a normal school day fully remotely.  Their day begins with an assembly as normal, they are able to log in to lessons delivered for them by their teachers (with opportunities for feedback and questions) and also receive electronic rewards postcards to keep them motivated.

Online attendance on day 1 of school closure was 95%. Parent and student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and it means that a good quality of learning continues.

The school has of course approached things sensibly. We know that many teachers are also now balancing remote learning with home schooling for their own families for example. Teachers don’t teach a full timetable, use is made of pre-recorded lessons and whole year groups are often taught together.

Final Thoughts

Lessons from effective remote learning like this, and the other successful approaches that have been employed across the country, may well be highly valuable when thinking about learning as we move forward. I hope that we will continue to engage in wider scale shared planning (in our trust we already do a lot of this) and there are potentially things to take forward when it comes to supporting children with long term absences.

If there is one other positive hope I have, it is that our communities will remain strong and the new connections and partnerships remain, when we are on the other side of this unique experience. And I firmly believe that they will.