In this strangest of times . . . how can we best support our most vulnerable learners

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 1

This is the first of two blogs I have written in response to this strange situation we find ourselves in as educators and leaders. In the first, I’m aiming to focus particularly on the challenge of supporting our most vulnerable learners. In the second I will explore some of the ways that we are now thinking about learning, but also leadership, in our current context.

I believe the thing that is worrying school and MAT leaders the most is probably our most vulnerable students and how they will cope in our current situation. These are the conversations I’m regularly having both within our MAT community and beyond.

In the longer term we’ll all be thinking about how to ‘catch up’ these students and respond to the widening achievement gap that we will inevitably see when these students return to school. We will of course try and mitigate this and there are many strategies we can use: tailored approaches to home learning, 1:1 remote tutoring, innovative rewards and incentives, prioritising student support where they do happen to still be attending school. But the fact remains that without having these students in school where we can have a more direct impact, the achievement gap will still be evident.

However, tackling the achievement problem (and there will of course be a time when we get to that) is not the biggest challenge we face right now. Right now, for some of these vulnerable students, we are simply trying to do all we can to keep them safe.

I share some of our approaches to this challenge, not from a place of suggesting we’ve always got it right or that our response has been better than that of others, but with the intention of sharing ideas and experiences. In times like these, collaboration is key.

Here are some of the things we’re doing to support our most vulnerable learners:

  • Having safeguarding and vulnerable students as a top agenda item on every single one of our trust leadership team meetings. And they happen twice a week.
  • At least bi-weekly phone calls home (speaking with parents or carers and the child). For some students it needs to be more regular than this or use face-to face technology.
  • Weekly ‘virtual’ meetings between trust safeguarding leads and school teams, to monitor work and also provide support for safeguarding leads. 1:1 phone calls happen too.
  • Google ‘Chats’ or Hangouts with our most vulnerable students, to ‘check-in’ (appropriate working practice needs to be agreed for this).
  • Coordinated SEND leadership across schools to ensure all schools have strong SEND leadership in place, even with ‘skeleton’ staffing complements of where there is staff absence.
  • Providing IT devices so that students without IT access can still learn, where remote learning is digital
  • Providing technical support so that students can access learning effectively
  • Understanding where our young people are still receiving support from other agencies (for example mental health support) and where this has been pulled back to support other priority services. This helps us to target more enhanced support.
  • Where learning is digital, tracking our most vulnerable students’ learning as a priority and intervening if things aren’t going so well.
  • Taking a flexible approach to free school meals provision to ensure families get what they need: vouchers/meal pick up/ delivery/weekly food parcels
  • Identifying where students are in multiple schools across the trust to support more effective and streamlined working with families
  • Sending out a weekly safeguarding electronic newsletter to keep safeguarding teams updated with the latest guidance and share good practice
  • Close liaison with local authority and other agencies
  • Working with other agencies and services when we feel a ‘home visit’ might be needed
  • Monitoring parent feedback, including social media, to help identify where families may need support
  • Putting new procedures and protocols in place around safeguarding and family liaison, to support social distancing for example.
  • Signposting support services like the Samaritans and local charities with our families

And of course, these challenges won’t be gone when our schools reopen. All our students will need time and support to re-adjust, but it is probably our vulnerable learners and families who will cope least well. We all know that with many of our students we notice changed behaviours after school holidays, which could be for many different reasons. For some it is simply the case that they need to re-adjust to the structure and expectations of school. For some of course, the situation is more complex. We are likely to need to upskill our leaders and teachers in how best to support students and families. For some students we will be dealing with a prolonged impact and significant period of readjustment and support. We will need to provide targeted CPD to help our teachers and leaders meet students’ needs, whilst maintaining high expectations around behaviour and keeping our schools safe and structured. And that’s before we even start to think about how we can help students catch up on their learning.

Within our trust, we have already had an 18-month long focus on inclusion. We knew that we weren’t doing as well as we should in this area and were determined to do better. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we’ve had some great successes. Exclusions across our trust have dropped by around 50% and we’ve led high impact CPD and leadership development programmes on key areas. We are going to need all the expertise we’ve gained and more in order to support our most vulnerable learners when they return to school.

Going forward, schools, MATs, LAs and the charities and agencies that work with these young people need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate. Our young people really need us now, and they will need us even more in the months ahead.