This special WW! report shows how children and teachers are learning to adapt to a new type of school, dictated by the world of coronavirus. Their resilience, ingenuity and optimism offers lessons for us all.
The return to school and college after the summer vacation is traditionally viewed with mixed feelings – the end of the freedom and leisure of holidays balanced with the delight at meeting up with friends again.
That’s in a normal school year, of course. In 2020, most young people haven’t seen their classmates for six months, never mind six weeks. The usual social interaction of school, so essential to individual development, has been missing.
We suspect that most young people couldn’t wait to get back in the classroom.
There are, of course, new challenges to meet as the coronavirus pandemic persists. So WW! spoke to schools across our region to find out how staff and pupils were coping. The answer was reassuring and rather inspiring.
The idea that pupils were delighted to be back in the classroom in September was certainly reinforced at Oldbury Wells School, in Bridgnorth.
Headteacher Lee Tristham says: “The mood was summed up by one student, a Year 10 boy, who said simply: ‘It’s great to be back’. As efficient as online learning is, nothing compares to the experience of being in school, of being with your friends and interacting with others. It is an extremely important part of social development and I can understand why children say they have missed it.”
Mr Tristham is full of praise for his staff who worked hard over the summer to ensure the school would be a safe environment for returning pupils, as the pandemic continues to present massive challenges across the country.
“Our staff have done a great job. There was huge pressure coming back, with lessons taking place in bubbles plus the importance of good hygiene and maintaining social distancing. We have had to do a lot of preparation work through online meetings on Microsoft Teams. Members of staff have had to develop new skills as we all try to make school as normal and enjoyable as possible for our students, within the restrictions. Our core aim is to offer our full curriculum.”
“To ensure social distancing, year groups at Moor Park take are taking turns to worship in chapel while the remaining pupils watch mass on a webcam. It enables all pupils to have the chance to interact in chapel on a regular basis.”
As a ‘new boy’ himself – Mr Tristham took up his post in September – he can empathise with the Year 7 pupils who not only missed out on the chance to say a proper farewell to their primary schools but now face the twin challenges of entering a strange environment at a very strange time.
“We have worked really hard to help students to settle in. Children are very resilient and can generally adapt very well to changing circumstances. Some students are being given a little extra support where they need it and maintaining contact with families is as important as ever.
“In many ways, after a six month interruption, we have had to reboot school life as we re-engage face to face with our students. The aim, though, has not changed. It is, as always, to make education enjoyable and stimulating so that every student gets the best they can from the opportunities given.”
The need for flexibility has been underlined by the Covid challenge, says Charlie Minogue, Headmaster of Moor Park School, near Ludlow.
“We have all needed to adjust quickly in recent months but one interesting consequence of the pandemic has been to throw a magnifying glass over the relative flexibility of various organisations,” he says. “Those who have managed to adapt quickly whilst ensuring a shared understanding of the mission amongst staff have coped well and this may be particularly true in schools where the efforts of all school staff have an enormous effect on the outcomes for children.
“Within schools, staff with a shared sense of purpose, a focus on the needs of individual children and a sense of pride in what they do have fared well and the results of this are clear to see. The range of provision during lockdown has highlighted those who have let the ‘unprecedented times’ defeat them and those who have embraced it and have shown, above all, they have an embedded focus on mindsets and creating an effective education for children, a continued focus on the health and well-being of individual children and a can-do attitude to problem solving. All of which has led to outstanding outcomes for children during a difficult time for many.”
Shrewsbury High students tackle shapes – in this case 3D Sierpinski Tetrahedrons – at a Junior Maths Conference
Having reviewed its entire curriculum and teaching methods two years ago, Moor Park deliberately encourages children to think in very particular ways: critical thought, curiosity, confidence, independence, creativity and resilience are all developed from Tick Tock nursery to Year 8.
“All our staff have reviewed their entire scheme of work to ensure that creative thinking is actively encouraged alongside our other Moor Park mindsets; however, this process has also encouraged the adults in school to be creative when finding solutions to problems. How do you teach children and progress when some are present and some are isolating? The result of the creative thinking is that a full timetable of lessons and extra-curricular activities has been possible. A creative use of technology has enabled the ‘normal’ timetable of school to be a reality whilst still adhering to ‘bubbles’ and government guidelines, and, for example, making daily chapel services and assemblies for all children a reality,” Mr Minogue continues.
Determined staff displaying their own resilience and creativity of thought enable events as varied as carol services, halloween fright nights and poetry recitals, ordinarily watched by the parent body, and parents’ evenings to take place whilst adhering strictly to the latest Covid guidelines.
Mr Minogue adds: “This ensures that the children and the parents do not miss out and everyone is kept safe. This creativity and willingness to go the extra mile for the children is a litmus test for any school and I could not be more proud of the work that our Moor Park staff do for the children here.
“Our priorities throughout the whole Covid-19 period have been to save lives, and protect student achievement”
“The world of work was changing swiftly before this pandemic and I suspect that the pace of this change has only increased since March. Now, more than ever, it is important for organisations to encourage creativity and I suspect those who thrive will often be those in whose culture this mindset is firmly embedded.”
Life at Tettenhall College got off to a flying start in September when the whole school returned, says Head Christopher McAllister.
“Watching our children arrive through the college gates and having the sounds of their laughter and voices in the corridors, once again, was a joy,” he says.
In fact, the entire preparatory school had already returned during the summer term, joined by some year groups in the senior school, also back on a phased rota. Throughout the lockdown, lessons for pupils in both the preparatory school and senior school continued in a live interactive format using Microsoft Teams.
“Remote learning has gone well over the past few months but, from the staff’s point of view, it’s great to have the pupils back”
“Ensuring the education of our pupils continued was our priority,” Mr McAllister says. “This was not only in terms of the academic lessons and attainment but also their pastoral care from form tutors, teachers and their heads of house.”
Tettenhall College remained open throughout the lockdown for the children of key workers as well as providing live lessons, assessment and feedback via its digital platforms for pupils continuing their studies at home.
“This allowed the college to ensure the safety and well-being of all our pupils present on site and to prepare for the full return of the entire school in a safe, socially distanced and welcoming environment. Adapting to the challenges of the new normal is one that our pupils and staff have more than risen to.
Providing emotional support to each individual pupil is as important as ensuring their academic attainment and progress continues. Our 33 acres of grounds and historic buildings certainly help us to safely socially distance while also allowing the wide range of our co-curricular activities that are part of the daily life of the school to continue unabated,” Mr McAllister continues.
“An ambitious and engaging curriculum and co-curriculum is at the heart of what we provide for every pupil. Whether they are two years old joining our nursery or in our sixth form, everyone is a member of the Tettenhall College family. This family atmosphere is reinforced by the fact that the college is a home, not just a school, for our boarders who join us from around the region, the UK and abroad. This was never more evident than in our recent open morning which was a great success in a digital format. We look forward to our next digital Prep School Open Day on Tuesday 3rd November as well as our Entrance Assessment Day on Saturday 23rd January. The best way to get to know us though is to meet us and take a safe, socially-distanced tour of our college. The Tettenhall College family will always offer a very warm welcome.”
Wrekin College returned to the new academic year determined to ensure traditional events outside the classroom continue to be held while keeping safeguards in place to protect against coronavirus.
The school at Wellington has not only staged a musical evening with a socially-distanced audience but has also taken its new Year 7 pupils on a team-building day climbing the Wrekin and made the most of its extensive grounds to run a whole school cross country event.
Headmaster Tim Firth says that pupils had returned after lockdown eager to make the most of being back in school with all the opportunities that created for them.
Do your best
“Our online learning programme was extremely successful delivering a full timetable but it has been magnificent to see pupils return to the campus,” Mr Firth says,“They returned with a positive mindset and eager to get involved. Our ethos at Wrekin College has always been to just give it a go, do your best and always maximise your opportunities.
“Therefore we felt it was important to come up with ways in which as much as possible of the usual Wrekin way of life continued in a safe way.
“Creating specific year bubbles, carefully-managed use of the buildings and extensive grounds and a meticulously-crafted timetable means children can move about for lessons and take part in extracurricular events.”
Winners of “Welcome to Wrekin’s” virtual competitions which was run over the summer to welcome Year 7 students
Mr Firth says that the school’s Young Musician of the Year finals was a wonderful evening with only parents of the performers invited to attend with a socially-distanced seating plan in the school chapel.
Rehearsals were also ongoing for the school’s ambitious production of The Sound of Music.
The Wrekin Business School has introduced a new Preparing For Life Beyond School conference for the Lower Sixth year group, focusing on career skills.
A Pax (Latin for peace) room rather sums up the caring approach of St John’s Catholic Primary School at Bridgnorth. Pastoral care ranks very highly on the list of priorities here, making the school the perfect environment to help children cope with the challenges of a different world.
“As efficient as online learning is, nothing compares to the experience of being in school, of being with your friends and interacting with others.”
Tracey Rix is SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) at the school and designated lead teacher in charge of general pupil wellbeing.
“The social and emotional wellbeing of pupils is of paramount importance at the moment and staff and parents both have a role to play. The mental health of children during the pandemic has been a major issue and it is something we take very seriously,” Mrs Rix explains.
“The vast majority of children are very excited to be back in school but there are some who will find it more difficult to adjust than others and there are many ways we can help. These include games, talking one to one, relaxing music and many other initiatives.
“We have offered counselling sessions to children and chatted to them about how they felt during lockdown. This emotional care of children is very much our ethos anyway but it has probably become more important than ever.”
The school is situated within its own grounds with a playing field, a trim trail and two playgrounds, allowing plenty of space for its 188 pupils. Practical measures to counter the Covid threat include a one-way system, social distancing guidelines and staggered start times to limit the number of parents and pupils arriving at the same time. Measures to ensure strict hygiene levels have included the purchase of an antiviral fogging machine to maximise room cleanliness.
It all seems to exemplify a school where academic, sporting and cultural achievement goes hand in hand with a caring approach, a strong moral code and a certain spirituality at its core.
Wolverhampton Grammar School has held virtual open days throughout the summer
Continuing the theme, Wolverhampton Grammar School has always prided itself on extraordinarily high levels of pastoral care and that has certainly stood pupils in good stead during the current health crisis.
Wolverhampton’s approach is based on the belief that happy children do well, thrive, and leave school with excellent exam results and the confidence to embrace whatever opportunities come their way.
The coronavirus pandemic has presented so many unprecedented challenges to the nation – and the wellbeing of children during the fractured spring and summer terms has been a huge concern.
The return to the classroom – in very different circumstance to those they left it in – has inevitably affected some children more than others.
But Wolverhampton Grammar School’s promise to every parent is that your child will never feel alone.
Assistant Head of Pastoral Care Claudine Jones leads a team of staff to support and work with families to ensure every child gets the care and individual attention that they need. Support includes a dedicated, expert pastoral team, school counsellor and annual adolescent mental health tracking using the latest digital tools.
Students at St John’s Catholic School adapting to socially distance learning.
The school’s stunning 25 acre campus is certainly an environment that enables safety guidelines such as social distancing to be implemented with ease. Small class sizes and space for individual tuition further enhance this, as well as enabling teachers to get to know each and every child.
Pupils were clearly keen to return to Bridgnorth Endowed School, where 96 per cent of the 500-strong roll were back in the first week, above the national attendance average.
Head Barry Worth said new Year 7 pupils were given their own transition day – when the school was only open to them – to ease the switch from primary to secondary school.
“We’ve created zones for each year group, each with its own toilets and pupils stay in their classes all day, to limit contact as much as possible,” Mr Worth explains. Frequent hand washing and sanitisation are part of daily school life.
“All of the pupils have adapted to it very well and some of them love the new structure. Members of staff have worked very hard to put these safety measures in place and make sure the school operates as normally as possible for the children.
Headmaster Barry Worth with students at Bridgnorth Endowed
“Traditional sports are not possible because of the 2-metre rule but we are looking at different ways to get fresh air and exercise.
“Remote learning has gone well over the past few months but, from the staff’s point of view, it’s great to have the pupils back.”
Staff at Haberdashers’ Adams at Newport have been surprised and delighted by the way pupils have settled back into school life. Headmaster Gary Hickey praised their resilience and acceptance of the situation they find themselves in. “The sense of community at Adams is one of the stand out features of our school and normally that is fostered across, as well as within, the year groups via our House system. The different years are now remaining in their year group bubbles which has meant there is no direct face to face contact possible.”
“However I know the Heads of each of our four Houses, along with their respective House Captains, are finding innovative ways to foster a sense of belonging via remote assemblies, meetings and competitions. In early October our annual House Cross-country competition, which normally sees over 1,000 pupils and staff challenging themselves around the extensive playing fields of Longford, was replaced by five separate races spread over a week.”
Telford College says students have reacted well to new procedures introduced around the campus to minimise risks of spreading coronavirus. A one-way system is in operation around the Haybridge campus to reduce incidents of students crossing paths, with class groups operating in ‘bubbles’ wherever possible. Classrooms and workshops have also been reconfigured to ensure they are Covid-safe, and there is restricted access to social areas around the site.
Engineering student Yacine Oumar said: “It’s been good so far. Everything seems well organised with timetables, and everyone’s been given hand sanitiser.”
Principal and chief executive Graham Guest said: “Our priorities throughout the whole Covid-19 period have been to save lives, and protect student achievement. Inevitably, there are different curriculum plans for different areas, reflecting the contrasting needs of our students, and the practical nature of many courses. But as a general principle, we have built a blended learning timetable which will involve most students spending much of their time in college, but also studying from home.”
Since the start of the new academic year, Telford College has been carrying out a survey among students to gauge exactly how they feel about college life, with 100 per cent of those questioned saying it is a safe environment.
For the first time in its 71-year history, Concord College held an online open day. The event, on October 20, was part of Concord’s response to the challenges posed by coronavirus. In the past the Acton Burnell-based college has enjoyed welcoming prospective students and their families to its inspiring campus for the traditional open day.
Colour run fun at Concord
This year, along with everyone else, Concord finds itself in very different times. The online open day started with a welcome talk by Principal Neil Hawkins who was joined by Vice Principal (Academic) Tom Lawrence as well as Head of Lower School Mrs Rachel Coward for a live question and answer session.
The second talk, on the admissions process, featured a question and answer session with Head of Marketing Mrs Vanessa Hawkins and Admissions Secretary Miss Karen Pike.
Visitors to the online open day had the chance to watch an exclusive video tour of the campus, filmed recently and not available to view elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has failed to derail Shrewsbury High School’s plans for one of the most exciting projects in its 135 year history.
The school is pressing ahead with plans to unite on one site as part of its ongoing development. From September 2021, all pupils and staff, currently on two separate sites, will be based on one site at Town Walls.