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Headmaster's Blog

Why we are doing things differently to other schools

We have been back just a few days and very quickly I have been asked why we are doing things differently to other schools. In some instances, those voices have been critical of our approach but the majority have been very supportive.

I am aware that most schools are trying to stick as closely as possible to delivering their normal timetable but we have gone a different path. I suspect many schools are trying to continue as they have done to provide that sense of continuity and stability that families are looking to get from somewhere at the moment. That is a laudable sentiment but I am not convinced that in the longer term these schools will be doing the best by the children or their parents. I simply don’t think we can continue as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed and we have to face that head on and respond accordingly.

In putting together a different programme, we have not done it without first seeking advice from those who have already gone through what we are going through now. This is where being a global community has such benefits because we can draw strength and wisdom from those who have already faced the trials we are currently facing.

One of the people I have been in touch with is Mark Steed at the Kellett School in Hong Kong and he shared with me how they had responded to the situation and the challenges their pupils were facing. They made their changes four weeks after their lockdown and I have looked to make similar changes from the outset. Why would I not if I could recognise that we would be facing exactly the same challenges later on.

It has also been helpful hearing from classroom teachers out there to discover their experiences and the impact that COVID-19 has had on their working and personal lives and I think this was even more significant when I was deciding on the path we would take. I don’t think many have considered the immense pressure on teachers at this time; I had an excellent member of my staff in my office in tears the other day, overwhelmed by the new teaching world in which we find ourselves where teachers are having to quickly become experts in online technologies and have become so visible to everyone; every lesson is now potentially being observed by parents (and by me as a I work my way through the classes to see how they are going) and teachers are under a level of scrutiny that has never been known. It is a stressful enough job normally but the pressures have been ramped up significantly. The teacher’s workload has also soared as they have to plan their lessons for online teaching; delivering their usual lessons in a completely different way is a massive jump in expectation, workload and emotional pressure. We need to look after the pupils but we also need to look after our teachers.

What then have we done?

Let me start by saying not everything has changed, certainly not in the morning.

Having a clear start to the day is important. The pupils need to have a clear routine and getting them started promptly in the morning is important. We therefore have online registration with their form tutors at 8.30am, an opportunity just to pass on any notices as appropriate, and then we get into our lessons.

During the morning we have four one-hour lessons every day, focusing mainly on the core subjects. All of these lessons, with our pupils from Year 4 upwards, are being taught through Google Meet so we ensure that we do maintain our interaction with the pupils and can respond immediately to any issues arising. We make sure that classroom etiquette continues to be observed so, to all intents and purposes, the morning lessons are much as they would be if the pupils were in school. If anything, because the pupils are not able to interact quite as much as usual, the teachers are finding that they are able to get through more material than they might when in a normal classroom setting. One feature of the morning programme that we have introduced and enables the pupils to take individual responsibility for their learning is an Enquiry Based Learning project that all the pupils in Years 5-8 are doing. This enables them to go away and study something about which they have a particular passion and for which they will produce a written report and then present back to their teacher and peers.

Having had a lot of screen time in the morning, I simply don’t think it benefits the pupils to be in front of a computer throughout the afternoon as well; there is an impact on a child’s power of concentration if screen time is excessive. In countries where schools initially persisted with their normal timetable online, parents reported concerns about their children suffering headaches, poor concentration and simply being overwhelmed by the experience, particularly in the afternoons. David Boddy, Chairman at Anglo Schools International and author of ‘Mind Their Hearts – Creating Schools and Homes of Warm Heartedness’, has pointed out that there is a sensory impact on screen-watchers of any age, but it is particularly acute in children. Levels of attention drop if the screen-time is too long, he says, and then the lesson impact is reduced; “The light through the screens is absorbing; this is why the children seem to be captivated by it. But they are taken by the colours and the movement, not necessarily by the material being delivered. So, it makes good educational sense to measure out how much screen time youngsters should have during the day.” Reading books, making drawings and doing anything tactile is a good antidote, he suggests.

Our afternoon programme is designed to afford families flexibility. They can follow it rigidly if they so wish and I am aware that for some this will be helpful and they will appreciate routine and direction. However, for others, the programme is such that the pupils can follow the sessions as it best suits them. I believe it is important to offer flexibility and for us to recognise that every family is going to wish to manage these days as befits their own circumstances.

For those following our programme, the afternoon commences with a fitness programme for 30 minutes followed by consolidation tasks from the morning’s lessons. Depending on the age of the pupils, we direct them to use Century Tech for part of their afternoon consolidation slot so that they can be doing a Maths, English or Science task in that time. I have been a big advocate of Century Tech for a while now and this is not just because of the tasks that it is able to do with the pupils but primarily because of the way the AI aspect of the platform is able to help teachers identify areas that they need to spend more time on with the pupils so this time in the afternoon is directly informing teachers in their planning for the forthcoming lessons.

We also set aside 30 minutes each afternoon for reading. This is reading (of a book!) simply to encourage the pupils to recognise the value of having an outlet where they can escape from what they have been doing and delve into new worlds where their imaginations can be encouraged to flourish. We point out to the parents that good readers are also good writers as they develop their vocabulary and communication skills.

We also have slots in the afternoon to specifically support our pupils’ mental health and well-being with the aim of taking the pupils away from their academic work to help them learn how to do some cooking or some meditation exercises.

There is also one afternoon in the week where we encourage the boys to still be doing something that will contribute to the School’s House competition. At the moment we have them working on a poetry competition and photography competition. Again, it is time away from their computers where they can be reflective and hopefully have the chance to get outdoors.

To finish the day, the pupils catch up very briefly with their Form Tutors so that if there is anything of which we as a school need to be aware, we can act on it quickly. It is important to be prepared to make changes if they are warranted and flexibility and adaptability is the name of the game nowadays.

I don’t think any of the above is rocket science but it has been about trying to make sure that as a school we fulfil our obligations to the pupils and parents to deliver a good academic programme but then to also make sure we are looking after the whole child which includes their physical and mental well-being. There has to be a sensible balance that enables the pupils to step back and get the support that is needed and we hope we are getting this right.

When Napoleon was asked how he would describe himself, he said he was “a dealer in hope”. That is the challenge to all of us at this time; it is not just about looking for hope from others but looking to be the source of it ourselves and I hope that as school leaders think about the programmes they are putting in place for the children in their care, they are considering what hope they can offer to this generation of children who are living through unprecedented times and for whom there are uncertain times ahead. I hope they will also stand firm against the expectations that put occupying our children throughout the day ahead of protecting their mental health. This is not a short-term situation we face and we need to look after our children and those working with them because they are our future and we need to get it right.