The return to school this autumn provides further challenges for the senior leadership teams of schools across the UK following months of lockdown and schools’ closures. Most of us will focus on the practical issues of education with necessary restrictions alongside the need to restore confidence in students, staff and parents.
There’s much we have learned from remote teaching and learning that we will want to continue, but there are wider gains too. The pace of change has been unprecedented, and that is a challenge as well. Change itself can be difficult, for individuals and organisations like schools, though not always unwelcome.
The Stephen Perse Foundation has had an exceptionally positive experience of remote teaching and learning, this success attributed not only to the hard work and dedication of our teaching and support staff, but also our well-established digital strategy.
With school sites closing in March this allowed us to plan, test and implement remote teaching. We had already recognised its potential, and our staff and students were fully familiar with online learning and teaching. This meant that at 8.30am on the Monday after lockdown commenced, our students switched on their iPads for their normal timetabled day of lessons and received live teaching from their normal teachers.
We experienced an equally positive return of our nursery and junior schools in June and are now anticipating our senior school and sixth form students’ return in September. Significant planning is under way to enable the reopening of all of our six school sites meaning a busy summer in what would normally be a quieter period of the year.
There’s no doubt that the new school normal, and managing the next period of change, will be significantly harder than implementing the remote teaching plan at the start of lockdown
There’s no doubt that the new school normal, and managing the next period of change, will be significantly harder than implementing the remote teaching plan at the start of lockdown.
While we have had some planning time for schools’ return following the guidance issued by the government early in July, all plans are subject to last-minute changes and we have a strategy that covers all foreseeable circumstances, with a level of preparedness to act whatever happens. Timetables are being rewritten, risks are being assessed, site and operational logistics are being reworked and budgets redrafted – everything that would normally have been finalised by this point in the year is being reassessed.
For September, our nursery and junior school pupils will receive the care and education according to the guidance that has been in place successfully since June. Our senior school and sixth form students will be in separate year group bubbles; our sixth form boarders will form a household and teachers will socially distance.
Whilst we will try to ensure that the experience of the students is as close to normal as possible, we are allowing for the possibility of an amalgamation of remote and physical schooling.
This will be essential should a member of staff or a year group have to move into quarantine and will allow for the education of the students to continue.
The new school day
Far harder has been the logistical organisation of the school day with the need to stagger breaks and lunchtimes, to find additional sports facilities and to organise separate entrances with hand-washing facilities to ensure that students do not mix across year groups outside of the classroom. This has been achieved through proper risk assessment, creative thinking and collaboration between leaders, teachers, support staff and external providers, as well as a significant level of flexibility.
Transport to and from school is another challenge we need to meet. Many of our schools are based in the heart of the city of Cambridge and we have embraced our location close to transport hubs to encourage our students and staff to travel to school sustainably using public transport. Up until now this had been actively encouraged by local and national government.
Now that government guidance indicates that the use of public transport should be minimised, we are looking to expand our already extensive school bus provision, as well as introducing park and stride, and park and cycle schemes so that we can avoid significant traffic flows through excess car usage around the school sites.
The issues relating to sixth form boarders returning to school are greater still. We are delighted that almost all have indicated that they intend to take up their places in September and have booked their flights to the UK. Quarantine arrangements will be in place as needed from mid-August at no charge, with the encouragement that all overseas students join us early whatever their home country situations may be, to allow school to start unencumbered in September.
If local restrictions prevent some students from travelling, we are set up to deliver remote schooling until such time as they can join us. Arrangements have also been put in place so that the boarders can remain in the boarding house should future lockdowns occur. We have achieved BSA Charter Boarding Status to provide external validation of our preparedness and give comfort to parents sending their children overseas.
Preparing for these major changes in school operations has been an endurance exercise, especially for our support staff involved in estates, IT and administration who have worked hard behind the scenes since the beginning of the year and continue to do so. Many have worked remotely and we expect this to continue until Christmas.
Staff wellbeing, across teaching roles and support staff, has been an important focus and we will continue to develop this. We recognise that remote teaching changes the nature of the organisational culture of the school and have formalised activities to provide support through buddy systems and regular communication.
Many of these measures for the September return, while necessary under government guidelines, are also in place to provide parents with the confidence to continue to send students to Stephen Perse for their education. This cannot be underestimated as we value the trust that parents place in us to deliver both education and wellbeing for our students. The vast majority of parents are greatly in favour of the return to school and have been for some weeks.
Many independent schools will have benefited from a stronger bond in their relationship with parents as a result of lockdown. We know from our own experience at Stephen Perse that parents may, for the first time, have experienced or at least seen the teaching and learning involved in a school day through remote learning taking place in the home.
This opportunity to see first-hand the quality of teaching received has reinforced the choice of an independent education and reinforces our core values and overall reputation. While the vast majority of parents have been overwhelmingly positive about the education and support their children have received through lockdown from us, a small number have been focused on what’s not available through digital methods. We would prefer that choosing an independent education is not like selecting items from a menu in a restaurant, but a holistic experience.
This raises the question of what we believe a good education to be; excellence in teaching and learning at its core alongside wellbeing, but so much more. Social interaction, collaboration, teamwork, development of interpersonal skills and many other skills students need for their future are better gained in person in school.
This is why, despite practical difficulties and the experience of other countries that the return to school may be fragmented and stressful, we believe it is important that our students return. Our ability to switch seamlessly from physical teaching to remote learning will minimise potential teaching issues, while the students are able to fully benefit from the physical interaction being on site enables.
On a positive note, there are a significant number of opportunities that lockdown has highlighted. Levels of altruism across the school community has reinforced our vision for education and we see greater possibilities of sharing remote staff training and teaching locally, nationally and globally as part of our charitable strategy.
More flexible working practices for all of our staff are now firmly on the agenda, as is the need to challenge accepted practices. Improving our use of our physical spaces as part of operations and our sustainability focus will also be assessed in the next academic year.
The Stephen Perse Foundation is a family of schools in Cambridge, Madingley and Saffron Walden educating boys and girls aged 1 to 18.