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Back to Schools

Lessons from Lockdown: What headteachers learned

Three Sussex heads on the lessons of lockdown, kids' mental health, taking tech into the classroom and how parents can support their children from September onwards.

September is on the horizon but Back to School is about a bit more than new stationery and uniforms this year. Many children have been at home for the duration, and it’ll be their first classroom encounter since March. Things will look very different and parents and children alike have a lot of concerns.

We grilled the heads of three of Sussex’s most prestigious schools to find out what they personally learned during lockdown, how they will take these lessons into the new school year, and how parents can best support their children with the transition come September. We also found out what a ‘fogger’ is – read on!

Our heads are (L-R) Tom Rogerson of Cottesmore School, Pease Pottage, Kirsty Keep of Lancing Prep Hove, and Gareth Jones of St Andrew’s Prep, Eastbourne.

What’s the most significant thing you personally learned from lockdown?

GJ: I’ve realised how much I’m inspired by the children and the things they do at school, and I’ve been reminded too how much the children rely on the cues of a classroom and learn so much from each other.

KK: I’ve always known my staff go the extra mile, but the move to using Microsoft Teams for distance learning was a tour de force effort by everyone.

TR: I learned that humans with a common purpose are extraordinary, that it’s a 24-hour job communicating with everyone during a crisis, that normal leadership and remote leadership skills are very different, that personal mental health journeys are exacerbated in isolation, and that being grateful is an important state to nurture.

Cottesmore School

What’s the most significant thing the children have learned?

TR: Self reliance, independence, resilience and resourcefulness. And to be even more tech savvy!

KK: The children have appreciated just how much they value being part of our school family, and the online lessons and form time kept that community feel of the school very much alive.

GJ: Pupil IT and keyboard skills have certainly never been better. More importantly though has been the development of a more independent and resilient attitude. Children are generally needier at home (thanks for noticing, Gareth!) and it was easy to rely on attentive parents, but they learned to think and act for themselves and revel in the freedom.

And the most significant thing you feel families have learned?

TR: Families have mainly learned that they don’t want to be teachers. It requires a huge amount of resource.

GJ: It’s been a great opportunity for families to take stock and re-engage, take meals together, go for walks, be creative with games – for many it has been an enjoyable time. I genuinely feel families also have a greater recognition of the lengths the school will go to to support them.

KK: I think perhaps they understand a little better just what teaching involves and appreciate even more what we do for their children. We were all in it together and we made it work.

Lancing Prep Hove

How do you see your practices changing as a result of lockdown?

KK: Mental wellbeing has emerged as a major theme during lockdown. Our pupil welfare officer championed Wellbeing Days when we went off timetable and ran a series of fun activities from mindfulness to zumba. These days were huge fun and gave everyone a break from. normal distance learning, with families (and pets) joining in too. We will definitely continue these.

TR: We’ve bought a special gun/bazooka that looks like something from the film Ghostbusters, it’s called a ‘fogger’ and it fills the room with disinfectant vapour. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measure. We’ll also have a Remote Learning Day every year so we don’t lose those skills.

GJ: One of the unplanned benefits is the fast-track development of technological understanding and this will enhance learning for the long-term. I am very wary about screen-time but I do believe we can build positively on these new-found skills.

How can parents best support their children with the transition back to school come September?

KK: We found for some children they had, away from the classroom environment, become a little more anxious to get things right first time. For us, making a brave mistake is more valuable than cautious perfection and we ask parents to encourage their children, whatever their age, to be curious and independent and praise them more for their brave mistakes than anything else.

GJ: Parents must help their children recognise all the triumphs they have experienced over the last few months and turn frustration into opportunity by focusing on what can be done, not what can’t. Refraining from expressing concerns about potential academic gaps is important as children are quick to pick up on parental anxiety. Schools will have re-planned their schemes of work to re-integrate the children and there will be team-building sessions and various discussion forums to support the children as they return to a more normal school provision.

TR: My experience is that the children are beside themselves with joy to be back at school. But if they have had a tough time for any reason, communicate it with the school. Let them assimilate seamlessly back into school life, given half the chance, they will.

St Andrew’s Prep

What will the school community be celebrating from how it responded to the challenges of lockdown, and this unique time?

GJ: It became commonplace to receive comments which described our provision as outstanding and recognised the incredible efforts of the staff to go the extra mile – this made it all the more worthwhile and motivating.

KK: We all – school and families alike – finished the year a little exhausted by the experience but valuing the closeness of our community.

TR: There was an outpouring of gratitude for Cottesmore’s Remote Learning offering, in which we cut fees by 50% and provided 10 live sessions per day with teachers present. The programme was up and running three days after the enforced lockdown and by end of term all pupils had been invited back.

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