What lessons have been learnt from the covid pandemic in UK boarding schools? One thing is clear – students are eager to learn.
It is an understatement to say that the Lockdown period provided a variety of challenges for leadership teams at The English Education’s Guaranteed Placement member schools and at other good independent schools here in the UK. Perhaps the greatest challenge was having to make decisions in such a volatile and changeable climate, the difficulty of which could be equated to the proverbial nailing of a jelly to the wall. That said, and however much we wish the pandemic never happened, it did compel educational decisions to be made that otherwise might well have been procrastinated over, endlessly debated or even summarily rejected. At times it did feel as though necessity was indeed the mother of invention.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learnt over the last six months is that we should never underestimate how much children want to learn. Time and time again, the healthy skepticism of experienced educationalists has been proved unfounded by pupils’ embracing opportunities to learn, with seemingly little incentive to do so. Following Ofqual’s guidance to schools, once the announcement regarding public exams being cancelled had been made that no additional work or testing could be undertaken by GCSE and A Level pupils in the Summer Term, we all feared the worst. With no prospect of exams; no ability to use any testing to confirm Centre Assessed Grades; lessons taking place remotely, and no real motivation to work, turning up to lessons to consolidate what had been learnt or to introduce some new material didn’t seem an overwhelmingly attractive prospect to understandably disgruntled teenagers. Our doubts were cast aside as we observed the positive, enthusiastic and cooperative responses of pupils, who showed a remarkable willingness to learn for learnings sake.
Schools managed academic programmes during lockdown in their own way, although at the heart of all provision was an attempt to promote rigour, breadth of interest and a continued focus upon skills and individual aptitudes.
Buoyed by pupils’ preparedness and enthusiasm in the first three weeks of the Trinity Term, Dean Close’s Deputy Head Academic, James Hole, reports, “we offered the 5th Form and Upper Sixth online Eton X courses which are designed to promote skills that will be useful at university and the world of work. Pupils were able to choose from: Research Skills; Public Speaking; Making an Impact; Writing Skills; Entrepreneurship; Critical Thinking; Interview Skills; Verbal Communication CV Writing and Creative Problem Solving courses. We optimistically ordered 100 in the first instance, but had to reorder three times with well over 200 courses being signed up for by pupils. The vast majority were completed in the two weeks before half-term and we were surprised and refreshed by the eagerness to learn new skills with absolutely no compulsion to do so.”
Dean Close also put into place a successful and well-received 5th Form to A Level preparation programmes and a university preparation seminar series, involving external speakers and current staff, for the Upper Sixth in the second half of term; an astute choice of external talks ranged from student finance to online gambling to managing anxiety to food allergies. Pupils were also offered seminars from their own teachers on topics as diverse as nanotechnology, Brazilian politics, Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, paleography, Jacques Louis David’s art, genetics, graph theory, W B Yeats, cannibalism, Cromwell and organic design to name only a few.
So, whilst school leaders would all wish we had never heard of Covid; didn’t have to teach remotely and didn’t have to tear up plans and return to the drawing board on a daily basis, there have been moments during the pandemic where the instinct of pupils to learn and predisposition of teachers to teach have resulted in creative and innovative approaches that might otherwise not have been sought. Teachers have moved from talking facts and being directors, to listening how students are thinking, to seeing struggling as desirable, to teaching students the skills of self-regulation, so they can become their own teachers; remote teaching allowed children to be more confident in asking questions and they have been given more tools to carry out their own further research and learning to understand a topic, providing them with an opportunity to fill in the blanks of what they don’t know, rather than just listening to a teacher talk. All very desirable.
And what about the return to school in September? Mrs Emma Mayo, Deputy Head at The Leys, said: “From the outset, The Leys was aware that it would be something of a leap of faith for some international families to feel confident about sending their son or daughter back to school while the pandemic situation in the UK seemed to be deteriorating. We have several overseas families with long-established links to the school, and we built on these to reassure parents that we were actively addressing their worries. We contacted international families and guardians regularly, explaining our plans, highlighting mitigation measures we were putting in place, and responding actively to any specific concerns raised by parents, guardians and agents. Parents were pleased to hear that we had signed up to the Boarding Schools’ Association Covid Safe Charter.
“We offered two quarantine houses for the last two weeks of August, and pupils who were flying unaccompanied were met on arrival at their airport terminals in the UK and driven to The Leys in taxis adapted to minimise the risk of the virus spread. We took an early decision to wear face coverings as pupils walked between lessons and in areas where social distancing was a challenge. A detailed risk assessment was drawn up and shared with families so they were aware of the procedures and protocols in place. Mrs Helen Hynd, our Director of Pastoral Care, put a huge amount of thought into a programme for the pupils in quarantine, to ensure that they were well looked after, had some routine and structure to their day, some academic stimulation, and opportunity to exercise”. Time in quarantine was well spent, new pupils were given a welcome course to English education and given EAL tests and classes to follow, while returners used the time to develop new skills such as touch typing. Boarding staff have been particularly mindful of the pressures felt by international pupils joining the school community at this time – before the start of Autumn term, all pastoral staff in houses were trained in how to support international pupils who might be feeling anxious.
Several school noted that, on a positive note, quarantine saw the forging of close bonds between pupils who would never normally have spent such a long period of time together. At The Leys, it was a great joy to see an Upper Sixth girl acting out a charade with a Year 7 boy, to the amusement of a group of pupils. This has been a time of great pressures, but those in school communities have found many chances to laugh together.
The Royal Hospital School had been planning for re-opening for five months and was delighted to welcome pupils back in September. The school’s management has taken a proactive approach to risk mitigation, combining the introduction of preventative practical measures alongside systems that influence the behaviour of individuals and ensure pupils operate in year group bubbles. The introduction of hand sanitisers throughout the school, the use of fogging machines within classrooms, screens in communal areas and provision of reusable water bottles were just some of the many visible additions to the school. More significant has been the redesign of the school’s timetable to enable year groups to be taught in discrete areas, in specially spaced classrooms to promote social distancing. In addition, the boarding houses have been restructured so they are in year group bubbles, with restricted movement into and out of houses. Training and constant reinforcement of personal hygiene has been paramount to developing a self-responsibility amongst pupils and we are introducing the use of masks in communal spaces as a further reinforcement. If and when the schools encounters a case, they are well placed with an onsite health centre that has been redesigned to cater for pupils who will need testing and self-isolation.
The Headmaster of Royal Hospital School, Simon Lockyer, reflects on the return, “it was wonderful to see the energy and enthusiasm of our pupils as they returned to school. They’ve been consistently respectful of the safety measures in place and making the most of every minute they have here.”
And we now approach half-term, still uncertain on both a national and global level as to how Covid-19 will pan out in coming months. Pupils all over the world have undoubtedly had an incredibly challenging time, but we are proud that The English Education’s Guaranteed Placement member schools were able to deliver a full online timetable from the beginning of the UK lockdown and were then brilliantly placed to welcome children back to boarding houses, classrooms and games fields, ensuring that the very best bits of education could still be delivered, and enjoyed.