The post-pandemic co-curricular conundrum

Could independent schools lose the momentum around co-curricular activity that they have worked so hard to build, asks Rose Hardy, headmistress at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls

As schools we strive to deliver a well-rounded education to young people, one that will prepare them for the challenges of the evolving modern world. It is important that this quest for a balanced educational experience encompasses a variety of academic opportunity, creative and physical challenge, as well as nurturing a diverse, inclusive environment where young people are equipped with the tools and support to learn and grow socially and emotionally.

A rich co-curricular programme plays a fundamental role both culturally and socially in helping students to explore their passions, as well as to develop and foster talent. Often the co-curricular offering is what really makes an independent school stand out from the next.

The impact of lockdown and prolonged school closures has played havoc with co-curricular life as we once knew it. No matter how exceptional the remote offering has been from schools (and it has been in many cases), it is virtually impossible to recreate the same level of engagement and physical commitment from behind a computer screen.

Co-curricular life is the heart and soul of a school, it crosses over into the social lives of students, encourages responsibility, leadership, motivation and creativity. It also offers choice and real independence; it is a chance for students to make their own decisions about what they are passionate about and to make mistakes and learn new things.

Lost momentum

Right now, as we open our doors again, there is a very real concern for schools that we may lose the momentum around co-curricular activity that we have worked so hard to build. Schools have always heavily publicised their exceptional off timetable programmes, the world has literally been our oyster in terms of the plethora of activities we can offer.

The question is, have school closures put a strain on these essential after school pursuits? Co-curricular activities have traditionally commanded a special place within the school day and in students’ lives, but will they still have the same passion and drive for those activities when they return to school?

Often the co-curricular offering is what really makes an independent school stand out from the next

Is it possible that the period of remote learning has damaged how students view these sessions and their appetite for them? Will these additional sessions seem somehow, less worthy in the cold light of day? In the case of group-led, contact sport or more specialist activities, these are likely to have been halted altogether during lockdown and may not be able to restart straight away under current guidance.

The longer we are away from these activities, the more distant we can become from them. From a student perspective, there may be an assumption that because they didn’t take part in these sessions during lockdown, why bother now?

Moving goal posts

By the same token, it is possible many students will have learned to take part in a form of co-curricular activity virtually instead and may feel there is no value in being physically present any more i.e., why can’t I just attend that club online like I did during lockdown?

This à la carte style of learning (or dipping in and out of learning) that home schooling has instilled really flies in the face of everything that schools are about. Schools are about structure, routine, collegiality and community, and these pillars sit at the core of everything we do and stand for as schools. But the goal posts have moved.

It would be a real travesty if the culture of co-curricular activities is tarnished by the impact of the pandemic and schools must do all they can to retain its prominence. The world is changing fast and it has been a tough year for all. Rising numbers of young people will be impacted in terms of their mental health and wellbeing as they learn to readapt to school life again.

Learning online for so long will change the way students see the world and also how they access what they learn. In some cases this is a positive, in others it is an obstacle and a barrier than schools may need to overcome.

The co-curricular provision at school can really help in terms of boosting emotional wellbeing, fostering social skills and overall holistic development. Participation in interests outside of the rigidity of the school timetable gives young people another platform upon which to grow and aspire, as well as to look with hope to the future – something they really need right now.

In particular for those teenagers about to go through another year of teacher assessed grades and cancellation of exams, keeping up with passions and outside activities will support academic progress and lift mood, creating a sense of purpose and a positive way to keep two feet on the ground during stressful periods.

Likewise, those looking to go on to universities or indeed looking into different career options will benefit from a CV filled with a rich array of co-curricular activities, which demonstrate commitment, resilience and leadership – something many employers and universities will be looking for.

Health and happiness

The more opportunities young people are given to explore their interests, the better; and in most cases it always works best in person, in the moment. Students who participate in structured co-curricular activities are more likely to lead a healthy and active lifestyle, as well as have higher self-esteem.

It is also worth remembering that taking part in co-curricular activities that children have actively chosen themselves make them feel content and happier, and a happy student is always more motivated to perform well academically.

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