The outbreak of coronavirus has led to unprecedented changes in our schools. Engaging students, parents and teachers in service activities can help regain a sense of control, enabling them to practically reaffirm their values, and strengthen relationships through action.
It is also symbolically important that schools who claim to place service learning at the heart of their educational philosophy, do not leave it forgotten or sidelined from their online curriculum.
My kitchen window looks over the flower beds of the Sevenoaks School almshouses; yet, until the coronavirus outbreak, I didn’t know the elderly neighbours I saw gardening by name.
Whilst they have been pleased to receive support from our staff volunteer team in the shape of shopping trips and prescriptions, alongside Easter cards and letters from students, it has been invaluable for me to find new caring ‘grandparents’ on my doorstep. The same is true for many others.
Service in school
The crisis brings a time for independent schools to reflect on the reason for their existence. Sevenoaks School was founded in 1432 by William Sevenoke as a free grammar school, with the almshouses founded as part of the school with the purpose of providing accommodation to local people in need.
Amidst the transition to online learning during lockdown, it has been important for us to consider our history, and ensure that whilst supporting our own students, we look to our partner schools and organisations to see how we can together support the needs of local people during this crisis.
Schools across the country have been reflecting on what resources they have to offer, whilst also offering an education to our students in crisis response. This has stretched from catering items being sent to local food banks, to accommodation being offered to the NHS and technology departments leading the production of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Indeed, many independent schools across the country are consistently engaged in valuable partnership work; however, this crisis has driven schools to ask, have we done everything we can to help others in need?
Engaging the school community to help locally
With the parents, students, staff and alumni behind them, schools can be a potent force for social good.
We’re working closely with the Sevenoaks District Council, national groups such as Mind and Age UK, alongside local groups, to identify key needs. We have held a weekly collection with a shifting shopping list, raising awareness amongst the school community of the work and impact of a particular local charity at the same time, with support growing each week.
We also partnered with Care for our Community Sevenoaks to lead an online communications project, which led to the rehoming of numerous smartphones, tablets and laptops, enabling community members to become reconnected with the outside world.
In this process, it is vital to find space for student engagement and leadership. Whilst the school plays an instrumental part as a role model for the service ethos it hopes to inspire in its students, it is also important that students feel involved in the service process, rather than potentially creating a sense of disempowerment or insignificance.
This could be as small scale as encouraging students to design posters to promote collections, enabling them to research local organisations online, or asking students to create weekly community newsletters, podcasts or video updates.
Many service projects such as partnerships with local refugees or care homes can continue, with students using their creativity to find strategies to work alongside their partners to take their projects online, or plan for future activities.
Giving space for students’ leadership is key – especially as students are familiar with online spaces and navigating dialogues of change within it. New service initiatives may emerge, such as think tanks for NHS support, knitting or bingo partnerships, or creating cookery books using simple equipment and basic ingredients.
Supporting the school community
Many schools will have members of their own community who are themselves being shielded from coronavirus and need support; many staff members will be in isolation and will benefit from a kind note as much as their elderly neighbours.
Focusing on the potency of all our actions for social and environmental change continues to be central, rather than constricting service to a ‘placement’ form, it should rather be instilled as a way of viewing the world and acting within it, inseparable from the pastoral and academic aims of the school.
Engaging students globally
Many students will have suggestions for their own initiatives, and there is great value in supporting them to become a reality – whether a lockdown concert including music groups from the whole community, or online origami lessons.
It certainly presents a valuable creative and critical thinking challenge for students to consider how they can make a positive impact whilst keeping their distance, following safeguarding rules and when they live in different time zones.
Indeed, recognising the different communities that students inhabit is important; the differing experiences of the pandemic could be shared through journalism.
Connecting with global partnership links can also bring the global impact of the crisis to life – our students have been able to fund a community kitchen delivering to the elderly in the hills of Suurbraak in South Africa, create community hygiene stations and textbook loaning systems across nine libraries in Ghana, and support remote learning for girls living in the remote Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Schools can also use this period to strengthen the theoretical understanding students have of social issues and enacting social change.
Teachers could offer a reading list of famous biographies such as Nobel Prizewinner Wangari Maathai’s autobiography Unbowed, describing her journey leading the Green Belt Movement, alongside key texts unpicking the ongoing crises people suffer across the world regardless of coronavirus.
Ultimately, when students look back at this period, we should hope that they will be able to remember what the school did to support their community; we should also hope that this sets a precedent for the actions they take in their later lives, enabling them to create a local and global society that is permanently a fairer and safer place for all.
Together with EduSpots, Cat Davison has developed two online courses focused on local community action and global development, for use by schools during the Covid-19 outbreak. Details can be found by visiting: www.eduspots.org/onlinecourses