“This was our moment” – How Jane Austen College took on Covid-19

David Thomas is Principal at Jane Austen College in Norwich 

Two days before schools were told to close we had a middle leadership meeting to run through our contingency plan. I had one message: that this was our moment. At Jane Austen College we exist to give a life-changing education to our students. We serve a community that ranks 323rd out of 324 in the country for social mobility. Many of our students come from a background that means the odds are stacked against them. In a time of crisis, when the normal support disappears, the gap between these students and their most advantaged peers would normally widen. It was our job to stop that happening.

We told our students that if physical school closed, school would still go on. We brought them all into assembly and told them that they didn’t need to worry about this crisis. This was our crisis. It was our job to make sure that they are still on track to become the best doctors, scientists, nurses, teachers, politicians and leaders possible; so that when the next crisis comes in a few decades’ time, they’re ready to lead us through it.

We launched JAC-online on the first Monday of school closure. Every child had a 9am-3:30pm timetable (for Y9 and above this was just their normal timetable). At 9am I was terrified. What if it just doesn’t work? Now plenty of things didn’t work, and we did a lot of fixing the proverbial plane whilst flying. But on that first day we had over 95% attendance (we still take registers and record attendance as normal). Teachers taught great lessons. Students worked hard. It wasn’t perfect, but children learned. Since then we’ve been doing our best to get ever better. Here’s some of what we’ve learned in the process.

Don’t lose structure

We strongly believe that children crave structure. It makes them feel safe and secure, and frees up their minds to focus on more important things than wondering what will happen next. We made a decision early on to keep running a timetable that was as close to the normal school one as possible. We recognised that this was a big ask, but we felt that the sense of security it would offer our students would be worth it. This structure has also meant we are able to keep tracking lesson attendance and picking up on any students who are not accessing learning. That attendance data is vital for our ability to support families and identify safeguarding concerns early. The right way to keep structure might look different in different schools, but the underlying principle is common.

Don’t replace teachers with computers

Futurists have talked for decades about replacing teachers with technology. There is always a story about how teachers will be made redundant by computers. They won’t be. Teachers are so much more than givers of information. They are crucial adults in children’s lives. They are role models, advisors, mentors and coaches. It matters a lot to our students to know that their teachers are still there behind the screen. One of the only rules we put in place for teaching at the start of closure was that each lesson had to include the teacher’s voice. It didn’t matter whether that was video or audio, live or pre-recorded, but their voice had to be there. I think that was one of the most important decisions we made.

Do celebrate each other

Coronavirus has changed the lives of everybody in our school community. Everybody is having to step up. Our staff are, our students are, and their parents are. Being kind and supportive to each other matters more than ever. One of the things that has made a huge impact to our staff morale is the gratitude they have received from students and parents. They are trying to communicate the same gratitude back. This is difficult for us all, and the more we celebrate each other’s successes the stronger our collective spirit will become.