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Schools’ pandemic efforts prove to be a class apart

15 May 2020

Support ranges from singing to face masks and sports facilities

Bluecoat School

A screenshot of a video showing pupils of the Bluecoat Church of England School, Birmingham, singing “Looking to the Rainbow”

A screenshot of a video showing pupils of the Bluecoat Church of England School, Birmingham, singing “Looking to the Rainbow”

STAFF and pupils of schools with a religious foundation are finding ways to support themselves and others during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Government announced on Monday that primary-school pupils might start a phased return as early as 1 June. Secondary-school pupils facing exams would have access to teaching at an unspecified point before the summer. In the mean time, a number of schools have donated their resources to benefit their communities and the NHS.

Highgate School, an Anglican co-educational independent school in north London, has opened its sports field free to the local community, particularly for the benefit of residents who do not have a garden and do not feel comfortable going into bigger parks where more people might be present. The school’s design, technology, and engineering equipment, including laser cutters and 3D printers, is also being used to make NHS-compliant face shields.

The school has raised more than £75,000 for the pupils of its free sister school, the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (LAET), and their families. Many of these children usually receive free school meals.

Highgate School’s campaign director and LAET fund-raising lead, Emily Clarke, said: “The crisis fund will also support the wider Tottenham community by providing financial support to those institutions who are at the frontline of the community response, such as the Tottenham Food Bank and the Felix Project. This is an ongoing effort: we want to make sure we are able to support our community for as long as our support is needed.”

Eton College recently announced its Eton 2020 initiative, which seeks to address the inequality gap in education exacerbated by the pandemic. It includes plans to increase free places at the school for those from disadvantaged backgrounds to 140 by 2025, as well as increase the free courses available to the state sector via the school’s online platform Eton X.

The college is also planning to collaborate with the Government to set up new sixth-form colleges beyond London and the south-east, as well as youth clubs and summer schools in deprived areas.

Other schools with a religious ethos which are using their resources to serve the NHS include St Peter’s School, York, which has made face masks for the city’s teaching hospital; Bromsgrove School, Worcestershire, which has generated face shields and goggles; and Sutton Valence School, Kent, which has produced equipment for GPs’ surgeries as well as for schools for children and young people with special needs.

School chaplains have found new ways of supporting students and staff during the lockdown. Becky Drake, a songwriter and lay chaplain at the Blue Coat School, an independent primary school in Birmingham, has written a song, “Looking to the Rainbow”, which went from being sung by the school’s pupils in a video seen more than 30,000 times on social media, to being adopted by more than 100 schools in the church-school network. Pupils from those schools will perform the song for Thank a Teacher Day on 20 May.

“Unusually for a primary school, we have a chapel on site, which I usually take services in, but, as that involves contact, things have totally changed,” Ms Drake said. “I really miss that element of my work as assemblies go online, and I’m doing pastoral work only over the phone, but I’ve also been able to teach the children my songs. Although I haven’t had much contact with my local diocese, connecting with the Church of England nationally has meant [that] the song I wanted to write in the lockdown has been picked up, which is great.”

She also expressed concern for teachers as well as families under lockdown. “I think it’s been really hard for our teachers. They feel very under scrutiny, because every lesson is observed by parents, and fee-paying schools are still under pressure to provide a high standard. There are also definitely children for whom school is their safe place, and life will be very challenging at the moment.”

Dioceses have provided resources for parents wanting to continue faith-based activities indoors, including the scheme Faith at Home, which seeks to address the pastoral and spiritual needs of young people (News, 1 May; Comment 8 May). Bristol has ideas on its website for continuing spiritual activities at home, including resources for collective worship and home meditation, while St Albans has created weekly home-worship resources, including creative activities, think pieces, and prayers for home or in schools.

At the end of last month, the Archbishop of Canterbury also led the first in a series of weekly collective-worship sessions as part of a partnership between the Church of England and Oak National Academy, an online platform providing video lessons and educational resources during the pandemic (News, 1 May). It featured prayers, video clips of schoolchildren talking about hope, and talks from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson.

Clergy whose children are unable to attend school are among those for whome juggling work and family has become challenging. Rajiv Sidhu, an ordinand at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and father of two, is also studying for an Oxford theology degree. He said: “Our lounge is now an office with three work spaces. It makes being a full-time ordinand-student quite challenging, as you have 40 hours of study you’re meant to be doing, as well as 30 hours of schooling for your children.

“I used to be a teacher; so my wife and I have timetabled which days we each have the kids. Luckily, the college has said to ‘tread gently’; so we don’t beat ourselves up if we don’t make it to the morning Office because one of the kids has thrown up.”

The Revd Craig Philbrick, an assistant curate of Christ Church, Winchester, and a father of two, said that he wanted to prioritise his children’s mental well-being as well as their academic studies: “We decided intentionally as parents not to ‘hit the books hard’, but to focus on their mental health and on creative play. They have lost a lot; so we, as parents, want to try and give them a sense of calm and peace so that they sleep well. We know that they will pick things up pretty quickly when they get back to school.”

The Revd Sophie Cowan, assistant curate of St Giles’s, Desborough, in Northamptonshire, said: “My husband, who is normally at home with the children, isn’t used to having them all day long. There’s lots of interruptions, but the school week is done in half the time because it’s one-to-one, and there’s far more family time.”

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