The coronavirus pandemic has brought a raft of challenges to many sectors of British industry, and one that has been left to contend with a significant level of disruption is education. However, driven by a determination to keep its pupils learning and see its community thrive in these times of change, one Central Bedfordshire school has gone above and beyond over the previous 14 months.
St Augustine’s Academy is a one-form-entry, Church of England primary school situated in the Dunstable area, with approximately 170 children on roll. It is in an area of high deprivation, with over 40 per cent of pupils disadvantaged and a similar percentage having special educational needs. During the last six years, it has undergone many challenges including several changes of headteacher, and the transition to becoming a single academy, a Church of England school, and a primary school. Yet, despite surpassing these milestones, the pandemic brought a challenge the likes of which none at the school had contended with before.
However, determined to help its community in any way they could, incumbent headteacher Amanda Howes explains that the school has remained, grounded and focused and put a cohesive plan into action.
Writing in The Parliamentary Review, Howes outlined that the first thing the school decided to do was to remain open all through the lockdown to cater for vulnerable children and those with key worker parents and carers. It also recognised quite early on the scale of digital poverty in the local area and strived to make key resources available to those pupils who were left with no choice but to learn at home.
Howes said: “Throughout lockdown, we remained open for vulnerable children and those of key worker families. This included during school holidays. We also knew from our involvement in the SHEU [Schools and Students Health Education Unit] survey that, for our pupils learning at home, access to computers was minimal. Therefore, we provided workbooks, exercise books and coloured pencils, with additional resources available on request.
“Teachers also wrote letters to the children, and a “Home Learning Checklist” was issued to help structure home learning. We even sent home mindfulness colouring, depicting our school scripture, as a reminder of our vision and a source of encouragement.”
While the school itself remained closed to all but a select few pupils, Howes also recognised a need for communication channels to remain open throughout the school community, and so a weekly school newsletter was launched through the school website, app, and in local shop windows to keep the community informed.
Howes recalled: “The newsletter contained mental health and well-being contacts, links to home learning activities, prayers, school updates and general advice, for instance how to apply for free school meals. It also contained details of weekly home challenges for pupils. Our newsletters were soon full of photographs of children working from home, which helped everyone to feel spiritually connected despite being physically apart. Mobile phones were purchased for our family support worker and SENDCo who, along with the deputy head and me, used them to keep in regular contact with families.”
Indeed, so successful was the St Augustine’s approach that the local authority and diocese soon got in touch with the school and asked to use its resources to assist other schools in the area. But, this headway was not enough, with Howes and her senior leadership team deciding to eye up another key issue to address: financial hardship within the community.
“Many families in our community have recently struggled for food,” Howes wrote.
“Therefore, each week, staff and volunteers could be seen with a trolley full of bagels, milk vouchers and cereals provided by Magic Breakfast delivering to our families in need.”
Howes believes that it is thanks to the school’s speed in mobilising to support the community however it could that has helped enhance relationships between teachers and pupils’ families more than ever before.
“Our parents and carers were so appreciative of our efforts. As a result, home-school relationships have been positively affected and are now, we believe, the strongest they have been.”
Of course, operating during the pandemic was no easy feat and came with its own set of challenges. Howes highlighted that she had little alternative but to limit her team to a skeleton crew of staff while vulnerable staff members were allowed to shield and work from home, which brought a disruption all its own.
However, even at a time of logistical disadvantage, Howes and her staff decided to use their time as productively as possible.
“Our governing board decided to ensure that all vulnerable staff were able to work from home, even when school reopened to more pupils. While working from home, staff upskilled their learning through a range of courses, as well as developing the school’s curriculum. This included the writing of Knowledge Organisers, new schemes of work and policies.
“Even though schools were able to open from June 1, 2020, we decided to use the first two days to continue to train staff in new protocols, update safeguarding training and ensure they were emotionally ready for the children’s return. Many had not been in school for several weeks, and they valued and appreciated these two days.”
For Howes, what has been most rewarding and surprising, was the resilience and adaptability displayed by the school’s pupils, which had left her awestruck when several children were allowed to return to St Augustine’s on June 3 last year to resume their learning.
“It was wonderful to see approximately 60 pupils return to school on June 3, 2020, although we had hoped for more. Our pupils showed remarkable and surprising resilience and adaptability. Although we made provision for one-to-one conferencing for those requiring mental health and well-being support, this was only needed by two children. We found, however, that pupils’ stamina had been severely affected. During the afternoons, children of all ages were seen falling asleep at their desks.
“That said, the general atmosphere was calm and purposeful. Tiny classes, and the need for a higher degree of pupil autonomy, benefited both staff and pupils.”
Having worked diligently to ensure that digital poverty and deprivation has not compromised the education of its pupils during the Covid crisis, Howes remains determined that the school will continue to ensure that the school’s children can continue to catch-up with their education over the coming months, leaving them in good stead to overcome any potential barriers to education attainment and life chances.
She concluded: “Moving forward, we are determined that deprivation will not lessen the life chances for our pupils. Our curriculum will continue to evolve and be shaped by their needs, and we aim to close the attainment gap once more, through catch-up. Outdoor learning will be high on the agenda as many of our pupils live in flats with no gardens, and a focus on mental health and well-being for all will also take priority.
“We hope that our community will always say St Augustine’s is truly a place where we all shine.”