Rebuilding Learning and Mental Health at School after the Covid Pandemic

Six years ago I interviewed headteacher, Rob Dell, asking him whether he thought mainstream schooling and gentle parenting could mix (see it HERE). The article proved insanely popular, so I thought – given the huge changes that have occurred in education because of the Covid pandemic – it would be a good idea to catch up with Rob again, this time with a focus on moving forwards and helping children at school. I hope you enjoy it as much as his first interview!

Sarah: What were the biggest hurdles with virtual schooling for you, and your school, professionally during the Covid lockdowns?

Rob: The biggest hurdles were that none of us had experienced anything like this before, so we were improvising the best we could. Rosemary Works School is a small, family-feel, personable school, so the idea of remote learning was quite the challenge. We had a sense that a full lockdown was potentially on the horizon as early as February 2020, so we ordered activity books in the core subjects ahead of time ready to give out when the Government made the announcement, and we looked into how we could engage with the children on a daily basis. For the first lockdown, we settled on daily, pre-recorded online videos that our teachers sent a link to along with the activities for the day, and some project-based activities for the afternoons. We organised a timetable for our staff to care for and educate our key- workers’ children mindful that we wanted to minimise the amount of different people interacting with them. That group worked with laptops and headphones to view the same videos the teachers sent out to parents. This took a lot of organising and reassurance – another hurdle. At the time, understandably, staff and parents were anxious about covid-19. Parents transformed their homes into offices and makeshift classrooms in a very short space of time and the adjustment took some settling in. People were worried about their families contracting the virus and the isolation some felt with lockdown and, with Rosemary Works School being in London, many families had limited space both indoors and outdoors, and many worried about their children’s mental health and their own finances. We needed to create new policies to safeguard pupils and staff, especially after a few weeks of lockdown when software like Zoom and Teams were possible offerings, but we wanted to get it right to ensure we maintained, best we could, the well-being of our community. We sent out questionnaires to parents to see how they felt about our provision and made changes based on the results, and teachers and I met weekly in Zoom staff meetings to check in with each other. When the Government announced a partial reopening of schools in June 2020, we worked hard to ensure we could bring back as many children as possible based on the then guidelines of no more than 15 in a setting, bubbles, etc. By the end of the summer term, we had been able to welcome back every child to school mindful that the long summer was approaching and the need for children to return to a normal routine was essential for their wellbeing, particularly for the Year 5 pupils that could have ended their penultimate, and arguably, most important term learning remotely. The second lockdown in January 2021 was a better experience for us all. By then, we had put in place a robust structure for daily live lessons and our teachers gave plenty of opportunity for individuals to stay on a call after the lesson had ended if they needed 1-1 further support. This worked extremely well and parent surveys reflected this. We set up software and email addresses for pupils so that they could communicate with each other, upload work and receive personalised messages from their teachers. I checked in with some of the live lessons to offer a pep-talk, and we had fortnightly virtual celebration assemblies which the children tuned in to both at home and for the key workers’ children at school. Thinking on your feet and responding to the ever-changing Government guidance was professionally challenging, whilst maintaining staff, pupil and parent morale, but the team at Rosemary Works did extremely well and we were delighted to welcome everyone back to school in March 2021.

Sarah: What effects (if any) are you seeing in children now they have returned to school after the Covid lockdowns and virtual schooling?

Rob: Once pupils had returned after the first lockdown, it was a challenge to motivate some of them back into a routine. They were used to the comforts of being at home and grabbing a snack or drink when they felt like it, and despite our best efforts to encourage a structured timetable to support parents and their children, it took some children a few days to assimilate. Nevertheless, they did and they were grateful to reintegrate back into bubbles within school. The second lockdown return went remarkably smoothly. We had devised and implemented a ‘recovery curriculum’ to ease children back, and it was only as the term went on that we realised that one or two pupils displayed inexplicably out of character behaviour which I put down to the turbulence of the past year. Missing grandparents, holidays and structure created an aftershock, and, with our PSHE lead, we increased the importance of maintaining well-being best we could by focusing on the more social aspects of being back in school with friends and colleagues. Introducing activities like Niksen was invaluable to the overall recovery and return to the new normal. We also looked closely at pupil progress, especially among the children with SEN. After a round of assessments, we were delighted to learn, having analysed the results, that no children at Rosemary Works regressed, stopped or slowed down making progress academically. A testament to the incredible efforts of our teaching team and to the resilience of our pupils (and parents!).

Sarah: Do you think enough is being done to help children with their mental health since the start of the pandemic?

Rob: Good schools, such as ours, would have placed a greater emphasis on the well-being of children since the start of the pandemic, and it was always my endeavour to ensure that safeguarding them was our highest priority. It was an uncertain time for adults, so one can imagine that for children, it was disorientating, frightening at times, and a break to routine which all children need in order to feel safe. I had heard of some schools that offered limited support from the start of the pandemic, whether it be opportunities for children to effectively learn at home or wellbeing support. It takes a lot of organising, cooperation from staff and from families to make it work, but I understand that without good broadband and a laptop, some families and schools would have been at a disadvantage.

Sarah: Do you have any special programmes or measures in place to help the children in your school since they returned after lockdowns?

Rob: In addition to the recovery curriculum, which placed a greater emphasis on reintegrating our pupils socially and offering opportunities to talk about their experiences or use our ‘worry monsters’ (which are soft toys that live in classrooms where pupils can insert messages which the teacher reads periodically and talks about in general terms with their classes), we also reintroduced fortnightly mindfulness sessions with our amazing teacher Jyotismati, we increased sporting provision both in school with a specialist team and out and about at Shoreditch Park and we offered extracurricular clubs (within bubbles) like karate, cook school and booster club. We also reintroduced Conversation Café – a chance for children to enjoy a hot chocolate, some toast and to use our cue cards to converse with someone in their bubble that they’ve not had the chance to get to know. These were invaluable and we continue to use them now.

Sarah: Do you see any benefits in virtual schooling?

Rob: Given the choice to return to home schooling, I’d rather not, however there were a few benefits to home schooling dependent on individuals’ circumstances. Essentially, if parents were able to successfully juggle their busy workload, home-schooling, managing the household, etc. and had the time to spend with their children that they normally wouldn’t have had to bake, play, take long walks, etc. then these were invaluable, unforgettable benefits. However, there was a lot of unavoidable screen time. We made the decision to offer two hours a day for children in Years 1 to 6 to engage in English and Maths lessons plus one lesson in the afternoon, but we also actively encouraged them to do activities away from their laptops. So, the quality of project-based work I saw was exceptional, again, when parents could afford the time to support their children. There were some outstanding movies that some children made, amazing science experiments, sculptures, recipes – in fact a great deal of wonderful work. Overall, a return to virtual schooling would not be my preferred route should there be a potential return to lockdown. Zoom meetings will never offer the same qualities as person-to- person interaction. When in school, teachers are brilliant at ‘reading the room’, adjusting pupils lessons and approaches according to the general feeling and instinct that goes with class teaching supported by their teaching assistants and by each other. Is there anything you learned as a (head) teacher during the pandemic that has/will improve your practice in the future? The main thing I’ve learnt is that the partnership between school and home plays a vital role in the development and healthy progress of children as seen first-hand during the lockdowns. Should there be another lockdown, I would continue to take the views of parents and staff to ensure we adapt our curriculum and provision to ensure we maximise the opportunity, and I’d consider it just that. An opportunity.

Sarah: What do you think about the ‘zero tolerance’ school behaviour approach that the new Government’s Social Mobility Commissioner Katharine Birbalsingh and the ‘Behaviour Tsar’ Tom Bennet advocate for? Do you think this is the right approach to take to ‘fix’ the UK’s education system?

Rob: Behaviour management is a very subjective topic and it should be personalised to the school setting, its demographic and the ethos the school imbeds. Zero tolerance should be adopted by all schools but the handling of this should be carefully considered. At Rosemary Works School, we have a robust behaviour policy, clear indicators with a display in our classrooms of the ‘three strike rule’ and our expectations are crystal clear and foster mutual respect between adults and children. Mutual respect is the important point here. Adults speak to and treat pupils with respect so as to expect it back. We are all called by our first names and reject the ‘us and them’ approach. ‘Bad behaviour’ is dealt with under the assumption that the individual needs help. Putting aside ‘persistent bad behaviour’ for now, we believe in dealing with contraventions to our school aims in a supportive way by talking through the issue and expecting pupils to realise for themselves what went wrong and, with our guidance, how to put things in place to rectify the matter in hand. This is highly effective and I rarely see children ‘reoffend’. However, with pupils that show persistent bad behaviour, we look deeper into why this might be happening, involving families for additional support and sometimes healthcare professionals. Punishments like detention or missing play are counterproductive and in my professional experience over the past 26 years, I’ve never had a pupil reflect on their behaviour as a result of missing out the invaluable free outdoor time or Golden Time they sorely needed. They simply resent the fact that they’ve missed out and cannot see beyond that. That said, if there has been concerning behaviour, I might well use some of their break time to talk it through – partly to send a message to others that we have taken it seriously and there is a consequence and also to ensure they have the best opportunity in the next lesson to focus and do their best. Schools need to afford the time to explore the reasons for bad behaviour by digging deeper into the cause. They should celebrate good behaviour and know what expected behaviour looks like. Having displays in the classroom of individuals’ behaviour is potentially damaging and, again, counterproductive as is offering stickers for expected or good behaviour. What I’ve learnt at Rosemary Works is that children respond very well to visiting my office with their excellent work or effort in another one of the school’s aims and being effusively complemented by me. I’ll take a photo of them and send it to their parents. The draconian approach to zero tolerance is a wholesale regime of crowd control and, in my opinion, it fails to tackle the route of bad behaviour. To invest in an individual takes a lot of time and effort, but the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term ‘bandage’ of detention or missing out on a valuable lesson.

Sarah: What do you think schools, with limited funding and resources, could be doing to support children more holistically?

Rob: It’s a difficult one, but from what I’ve seen in other schools, the relentless machine of academic achievement and ‘success’ as a school culture could be reconsidered. Rosemary Works achieves incredibly good results that sometimes match and often beat both local state and independent schools but with a more measured approach to achievement mindful of the fact that in order to get the best out of children, sometimes it’s wise to slow down and take stock. I mentioned Niksen earlier which is the principle of doing nothing and being bored. We’ve known for some time that children develop great ideas and creativity when bored, but we now live in an overstimulated world. Children are overscheduled and many participate in activities beyond the offerings that I had of weekly cubs back in the day. Moreover, some parents feel the need to stimulate children when they say they’re bored. As an example, in restaurants, there are menus for children to occupy the wait by colouring in and one often sees children watching or playing on their tablets or parent’s phone. Niksen is a few minutes at any time of the day or week to stop, take a short walk and quietly watch the world go by – the contrails in the sky, people-watching, making daisy chains, etc. I have observed that pupils who have had some Niksen time are able to concentrate much better during lesson times because they’ve had this opportunity. In turn, the quality of education, when it matters, improves. This costs nothing, so there is no reason why all schools shouldn’t take this or a similar approach to consider the speed with which children are expected to learn. In addition, we created two new areas of the curriculum that we believed would best meet the needs of 2020s children. Enterprise and Global Awareness Studies. Enterprise is reserving a block of time or weekly sessions to learn about money, goods and services, commerce and how to make money. Children instinctively love these aspects and it underpins the maths curriculum and PSHE brilliantly. Our aim is that when pupils make a profit, they donate the proceeds to one of our local charities. Global Awareness Studies focuses on some aspects that we believe are missing from the national curriculum. We believe that children should know more about the world, ecological matters (i.e., the Global Goals) and we take an unconscious bias approach to literature, the arts and how we speak. These, too, have cost nothing. It’s important for schools to be responsive and be mindful of the needs of modern children and their responsibilities for a more sustainable future.

Sarah: How did you cope personally with the lockdowns, work and having three children of your own to (help) educate?

Rob: It was an extraordinary time. Reinventing the education system practically overnight was a huge challenge but one that I relished. Let’s face it, one doesn’t go into education expecting any day to be the same! Fortunately for me, I came into school one or two days a week during lockdown to support the staff and key workers’ children, and I had three or four days working at home. My wife (a very experienced and talented teacher) was able to support our three academically and with art projects, and I was responsible for movie-making, music, long walks and most of the meals! At times, it was stressful – the never knowing what to expect next was exciting, but also required me to think on my feet and have many discussions with the senior management team, staff and parents to ensure we maintained the best possible provision. I miss certain aspects of it – the additional time at home with my family when I could afford the time to have fun (which in hindsight I would have made more of), and I had first-hand experience of the juggling act so I had full empathy for parents who also had a wobbly, spinning plate from time to time and was well qualified to offer support best I could.

Rob Dell is the father of three children (two at secondary and one at primary school) and is passionate about education and making a positive difference to the lives of children. He has a BEd in Education and has worked in primary schools since 1994. For ten years he worked in an Inner-London school as a class teacher, then spent five years in the first academy which opened in Bexley, where he became head of teaching and learning, then deputy head, then head teacher. The opportunity arose to become head teacher of a small independent school in Hackney and, having worked in state education and academies, he was keen to see how independent education worked. Since 2009 Rob has enjoyed developing the school to be a truly wonderful place to be both for children and adults alike. He has pioneered some innovative approaches to learning and is very proud of the achievements of his staff and, principally, the children.

Come and meet Sarah and Rob, at a special evening to discuss publication of ‘How to be a Calm Parent’ – for more information, or to book a ticket click the image below.

You can chat with Rob on the following accounts:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rosemaryworks/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/rosemaryworksschool/

Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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