There can be no discussion of the challenges facing schools and the education sector in 2021 without mentioning the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, despite the immense disruption that the health crisis has caused, the industry has rallied to maintain the best possible learning experiences and outcomes for pupils.
Sonia Adu is the headteacher at Hodge Hill Girls’ School, a secondary school in Birmingham, West Midlands with 750 pupils on roll. Speaking to The Parliamentary Review, Sonia reflected on how Hodge Hill prioritised regular engagement with learners and their families through online support to help maintain educational provision while schools were closed during the phases of full lockdown when schools had to close their doors.
Sonia recalled: “We value our home-school partnerships, and regularly engaged with our learners and their families through online support. Welfare calls were integral to our practice during this challenging time and although we were unable to provide our usual ‘hands-on’ learning experience and opportunities for our pupils, we sought alternative ways to ensure they were able to learn, progress and develop themselves.”
Furthermore, sustaining an open line of communication was critical for the school to quickly identify any pressing catch-up needs among specific pupils, while Sonia also revealed that staff were asked to participate in online training to ensure they were adequately equipped to continue to teach via online resources.
“To help mitigate the impact of Covid-19, we created very detailed communication plans,” Sonia outlined.
“This ensured that the needs of all students were clearly identified. All staff members took part in online training and assisted throughout as we adapted to the new circumstances. The situation was challenging for all; however, we rose to the challenge.
“I am proud of the way our whole team has responded to give our students the best educational experience during these unprecedented times. As we look to move beyond the pandemic, we are keeping our focus on the long-term future of our young people and their families. By maintaining perspective and keeping sight of our overall vision, our outlook has not been compromised. It is this firm focus on the possible that has allowed us and our community to keep looking forward, despite the challenges we have faced this year.”
Meanwhile in London, Dr Gordon Carver - CEO of The United Westminster and Grey Coat Foundation - has been grappling with the challenge of running an educational foundation and charity through the pandemic with five different schools under its care which extend across the capital, Reading and Maidstone.
Given that the group - comprised of three independent schools and two academies totalling over 4,500 pupils - is run on a devolved basis, each individual school has their own governing body, meaning that leadership through crisis commands much more of a collaborative approach. However, thanks to the Foundation’s role in coordinating the ever-changing regulatory guidelines from government to each of the five governing bodies, all five schools have been able to operate to the best of their abilities and the strength of the overall group has come to the fore.
While effective coordination and communication have been of great help, it has not prevented the Foundation from having to face up to the challenge of lost learning, an issue which has been exacerbated by the well-documented digital divide during periods of lockdown.
To help tackle the digital divide, Dr Gordon explained that the Foundation had to once again look at its community outreach work and find a new way to mobilise its resources to crackdown on the problem.
Dr Gordon said: “The Foundation has helped coordinate the continually changing regulatory guidelines to all five school governing bodies, as well as sharing best practice between schools where helpful. One aspect of the pandemic that has hit particularly hard, however, is the growing gap for disadvantaged students, who suffer from disproportionate learning losses and a “digital divide” in their access to online learning devices and internet availability at home.
“Our Foundation has considered how best to mobilise our resources to tackle this gap, and we have launched the ‘Covid Catapult Fund’, which went live in September 2020 across all five of our schools and was open for any staff member to propose a project that specifically helped disadvantaged students catch up on any lost learning.
“Ultimately, the Covid Catapult Fund is one part of our Foundation’s wider public benefit work, and we hope it will foster continued collaboration between our schools and focus our collective efforts on promoting social mobility for more disadvantaged students.”
While the Foundation has taken an immense amount of pride from another new arm of its charitable work, Dr Gordon was under no illusions of the scale of the challenge that lost learning has thrust at the education sector’s door, warning that it could take as many as ten years to remedy.
“The lost learning which the pandemic has brought about may take up to a decade to reverse, but our group of schools is eager to work with others at this critical time, both to enhance social mobility and particularly to help disadvantaged students excel.
“We are proud of this new initiative for our charity, and we welcome the opportunity to share more widely across the education sector any learnings gained about the impact of our Covid Catapult projects.”