‘It is the pastoral care that really matters’

While the new online learning curriculum was important, Richard Tillett, principal of Queen’s College, London, says keeping pupils happy has been the main goal throughout the pandemic

You may know the old joke about the two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says: ‘Have you any idea how to drive this thing?’

This pandemic has proved to be a learning experience like no other.

Like most school leaders, I imagine, my first preoccupation after lockdown was how on earth we would keep the curriculum going. However, our QCL@Home programme (delivered via Microsoft Teams) has far exceeded our expectations, with teaching staff stepping up to the challenge phenomenally.

But it is the pastoral care that really matters – in lockdown perhaps even more than in normal times. The happier a child, the better they will do, so doing our bit to keep pupils happy and motivated over this period has been our main challenge.

We have tried hard to maintain personal contact. For the first three weeks of lockdown every pupil received a personal phone call from a member of staff every week, just to check they were OK.

As our community adjusted, we then scaled these personal phone calls back to focus solely on the 20% or so of pupils who we felt were struggling.

Daily form time, via Microsoft Teams, has been really important. Wherever possible, we have tried to stick to these kinds of usual routines: an assembly from me every Monday, and talks by other staff on two other days each week as per normal; house music taking place through recorded video entries; our big academic festival still going ahead, albeit remotely. How we will manage speech day is still up in the air, but we will think of something.

The symbolism of life emerging from lockdown feels important, so each pupil will receive a plant to take home, and we will plant a living wall in our courtyard

Then there’s the important extras, those community-building exercises that help us still feel together while apart. Our brass ensemble has remotely recorded a series of spoof videos based on Queen songs – appropriately enough, I Want to Break Free and Under Pressure – which have gone down a storm.

Our prefects have written a light-hearted weekly newsletter to highlight positive news, called ‘Queen’s in Quarantine’. We have introduced, via Zoom, weekly yoga sessions and an after-school taekwondo club, alongside regular sessions from a PT instructor.

Following the maxim of ‘go big or go (stay?) home’, our most ambitious undertaking was organising ‘Thrive’ week remotely – a series of initiatives to help pupils focus on their own wellbeing. Students were encouraged to tick-off good deeds such as making a playlist for a friend, or a meal for their family each day in order to complete their kindness challenge; staff and pupils made videos about six things that made them feel good, each beginning with a letter of the word thrive (lots of ice cream, lots of struggles with the letter ‘v’).

So now our thoughts turn to how we re-acclimatise to life in school after all of this. The driver, again, will be wellbeing. The symbolism of life emerging from lockdown feels important, so each pupil will receive a plant to take home, and we will plant a living wall in our courtyard.

The pastoral team will run a series of bonding exercises such as online escape rooms and circus skills, just to get everyone used to being together again, and will talk through ways of readjusting and coping with the inevitable mixed feelings that returning to school will bring.

Have we got everything right? Definitely not. But I do think we have got our priorities right. And, by working together, we hope we are continuing to serve our pupils as well as we can.

Even if we have felt rather like fish trying to drive a tank.

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