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We’re doing our best... because only the best is good enough for our children

Posted on: 26 Jan 2021

Jonathan Brough, head of St Swithun's Prep School, shares an insight into how the school is navigating primary education during the national lockdown.

Last term, we breathed a sigh of relief only two days before the Christmas holidays. We had finally reached the nirvana of syllabus coverage and evidence of pupil understanding in line with that during any other year. In the core subjects of maths, English, science and computing, data suggested it was as though the period of remote learning earlier in the year had never happened.


Just 96 hours later, we first heard about the new variant: an announcement that prefaced three weeks of reassurances that primary education would continue regardless. Everyone’s eyes were on secondary schools, and the challenges of swab testing. January rolled around and we even got as far as a teacher training day immediately prior to the start of term. The irony of having to cancel the planned First Aid Refresher because it didn’t meet health and safety protocols was not lost on us. But instead of enhancing our medical skills, we found ourselves refining “bubbling” - maximising the children’s learning experiences whilst minimising contacts with other groups during the school day.


Yes - we rewrote our school timetable, still labouring under the impression that all the pupils would be back with us the following day. But at 3pm, when the first minister of Scotland announced a lockdown north of the border, we began to think the writing was on the wall and scurried away to dust off the remote learning timetables. We still didn’t really believe we’d need them - after all, both the prime minister and the secretary of state for education had been adamant that life would continue as before, at least for those of us lucky enough to learn in leafy Hampshire - but still, it seemed sensible to rework our remote schedules, just in case…


We’d been compliant with previous government demands and had a policy, set of documents and parent communications… but oh, how different life seemed when we needed them in January 2021. However, five minutes after Boris Johnson finished his speech, parental devices chimed with our school’s arrangements. Twelve hours later, whilst our Nursery children were arriving in school for a perfectly normal school day, packs of exercise books, learning resources and anything else that the other children would need at home (oh, how our parents of Year Three children would have been delighted at the news that we were sending home melodica musical instruments!) were either being consigned to all other families in the post or being left outside school for collection from suitably socially distanced trestle tables.


For we were, and we are, adamant that we must do better this time than we did last year. Yes, electronic learning is always going to be a poor second to face-to-face instruction. Eye contact is non-existent; the “hidden curriculum” - all those extras that enhance adequate schooling into an exceptional transformative experience - is much harder to deliver; physical movement is extremely challenging; it is a no-brainer that children need to move around and should not be stuck in front of a screen! But we must not let lockdown cause children’s learning to suffer; we can’t use the virus as an excuse. For if we do, the consequences will be a generation of young people spending their lives believing themselves to be second best - “oh well, of course I didn’t get that job. It went to someone who didn’t grow up in the COVID years,” - such a future must be avoided at all costs. It is a dystopia that we must deem absolutely inconceivable.


We now have a mantra - If we planned to do it when we thought we were going to be in the school building, then we’re going to do it now through remote learning. With very few exceptions (swimming and team sports being the obvious two) all of our schemes of work are going ahead regardless; we’re not going to allow our children to fall behind what we would normally expect of them.


First time around, we thought that was impossible. Neither children nor staff should spend all day in front of a laptop. But that doesn’t mean they can’t cover as much of the curriculum as they would have in school.


I have a theory that all good primary school teachers - the ones whom children remember; the ones who make a real difference - are, each in their own way, idiosyncratic and quirky. They see the world through unique lenses and pass on the passion that arises from their own particular viewpoints to the pupils in their charge. Put them in front of a bunch of young people and they excel; their maverick natures shine through and their enthusiasm for life glows. That’s why they do what they do; they’re born, not made. But put them in front of an audience of parents and the result can be very different. Until COVID I never used to worry about that - because I knew the children who worked with that teacher were about to embark on the best days of their lives. And the parents? Well, they’d cope. The good ones would understand and empathise.


But, of course, if a teacher does get nervous or apprehensive when working in front of an audience that goes beyond children, remote learning is going to be very daunting for them because there are adults in hearing distance of the speaker.


So we realised that our mantra applied to the nature of our lessons as much as to our curriculum. If a school-based lesson would have started with 10 minutes of whole-class teaching, then that should be the case when it’s taught over the internet. In the classroom, children might then have worked independently for half an hour, asking the teacher if they needed help. So we make it the same for remote learning - the teacher stays on the video conferencing platform, but quite possibly doesn’t say anything to anyone other than the child or group they’ve chosen for focused instruction, until a child asks for assistance. In school, we’d then have a 10 or 15-minute conclusion to the lesson when the children would share their work with each other. So we do that now; the only difference is that it happens over the internet.


Hence the children’s screen time is far less than it might seem, and the balance of teaching - what the teacher does - and learning - what the children do - is maintained. This also puts to bed the oft-touted suggestion that school leadership has become complicit with a mysterious expectation for teachers to become children’s television presenters overnight. Of course that’s not the case, we just want teachers to teach. Any parents who are listening in really should have something more appropriate to be getting on with.


Our school’s lockdown timetables are pretty much identical to what our in-school schedules would have been. All of our pupils access just over six hours of learning per day, although we put the most important subjects first in the morning, encourage children to go outside during lunchtime, include Forest School and outdoor learning in our provision and we tell parents that afternoon sessions are optional. We’re also using subject specialists to give form teachers at least one hour of non-contact time each day.


And it is possible. It doesn’t, however, come easily. Rather, it is the outcome of a great deal of luck, combined with an enormous amount of hard work, a dedicated teaching and back office team and parents who give unequivocal support and access to appropriate – and charged – devices.

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About Jonathan Brough

Jonathan Brough is head of St Swithun's Prep School in Winchester.