SCHOOLS in some of the hardest-hit areas of the country are rising to the challenges presented by the pandemic, in the face of what one described as the “tsunami” that has hit them in the eight months since its outbreak.
Despite the record levels of coronavirus infection in the Blackburn with Darwen area, there had been no case of infection contracted within any of the ten schools of the diocese of Blackburn’s Cidari Multi-Academy Trust, the chief executive, Peter Ashworth, said at the end of last month.
All its schools remained open throughout the first lockdown for the many disadvantaged pupils and the children of key workers, who represent a significant proportion in the area. Teachers had put what Mr Ashworth described as a “monumental effort” into maintaining a minimum standard of at least one phone call a week to every pupil, and two or three a week to the most disadvantaged, totalling something approaching 20,300 phone calls between March and June.
The schools benefited from having access to virtual data storage and resources by means of Google Classroom before the pandemic. They also took a pragmatic view on the funding of free school meals for the most vulnerable families during the holidays, sourcing their own £15 food vouchers for 880 children during the October half-term break. “I’m happy to report that not a single parent was unable to spend their voucher in a supermarket, and that none of our head teachers had to be up at two in the morning to order vouchers from the government scheme,” Mr Ashworth said.
He described the staff as “super-professional and working really, really hard. We are making sure they are supported and rested.” The children were “resilient, with a lot of fragility hiding round the sides and in the corners”, and the schools’ “strong culture of collaboration and shared leadership”, underpinned by faith, had brought them through challenging times.
“We’re doing a good job at the moment, but no one’s going to win the prize for sprinting to the front,” he concluded. “It’s about pacing yourself really, really carefully, because I can’t see a reduction in what we’re experiencing until at least early spring.”
In the West Midlands, too, there have been high rates of infection. Schools in inner Birmingham and its outer estates serve some of the most deprived areas, but the director of education for the diocese, Sarah Smith, said that they were trying hard to provide the wider things that were needed.
“A head in one of the most deprived areas said to me, ‘Our school is always faced with challenge. This is just another challenge.’ They are used to working with challenge, with a parent community that doesn’t engage terribly well. Deprivation has a knock-on effect, but he approaches this in the same way that he’s always approached the school, which is, to do their best to meet the needs.”
Those schools not having to deal with a high level of absence were able to focus on improving the standards where there was inevitably need for catching up — something more difficult in those with a continual hard core of staff being sent home and pupils off school, she said. “All the schools I’ve spoken to have got the blended learning in place that is required of them, including through paper packs where pupils don’t have digital access at home.
“They’re very mindful of the lack of technology, and families who have nothing struggling financially. Even those incomed, so not completely disadvantaged in a traditional way, may have one laptop but three children needing to use it. But my main overriding feeling when I talk to people in schools is a real can-do attitude. They just do it.”
Children would catch up, Ms Smith said. “I’m not so worried about that. I’m more worried about the effect on their health and well-being that the situation is having, particularly in some of the challenging areas of the city, where being at home all day is not a great experience for children. That’s not put right by great teaching, and that concerns me a lot — much more challenging than the fact that they may have missed out on how to do fractions.”
Jill Pilling, a lay canon of Manchester Cathedral, is the chief executive and executive head teacher at Bishop Bridgeman C of E Primary School in Bolton, one of the three schools that form the Bolton and Farnworth Multi-Academy Trust. Two are in areas of deprivation, and the challenges in the area were quite intense, she said on Monday of last week. She remained “in awe” of the leaders and teachers, however, who had done “a phenomenal job”.
In one of the schools, 24 of the 44 staff were absent this week. Parents had been supportive, and the opportunity to work across the Trust via Zoom had been a positive, enabling a significant amount of work to be done on the curriculum. But the difference between children who had online provision at home and those who had not was apparent when their “bubble” returned to school after an absence.
“There’s always going to be a handful of children who can’t, and that’s a worry for any school. It needs to be built into the catch-up when they do return,” she said. Some laptops had come through the government scheme: one of the three schools had received its full allocation of 39, but another’s had been reduced to 13 from a promised 64, and the third had been allocated seven but was to receive none.
The schools have some devices that can be taken home, but they hope to take advantage of a Vodafone scheme offering free SIM cards to 250,000 schoolchildren to enable them to engage digitally at home through data on a parent’s mobile phone.
A school culture where the staff supported each other had been of enormous benefit, Ms Pilling said. “People have a wobble, but they take it in turns, with the rest shouldering them them until it’s their turn, so to speak. And our trustees have been phenomenal
“At times like this, whether staff have a faith or not, there’s a real benefit in being a faith school. It just strengthens. It isn’t all sweetness and light; it isn’t all wonderful; we have many challenges, but we face them together.”
There was a “new normal” in it all, she said. But, when Bishop Bridgeman School brought in a one-man panto interacting with a cast on screen, the reaction of the children had made her feel quite emotional. They watched in turn in their “bubbles” throughout the day. “It’s March since I heard the children laugh and say ‘Good morning,’” she said. “You’re firefighting, day in, day out; so to actually hear them laughing and joking and clapping and singing was a joy.”