Education, to put it mildly, has been one of the most affected and debated elements of our society during these past months, as the country has grappled with the unprecedented impact of Covid-19. Schools, colleges and universities have had to navigate a constantly fluctuating level of risk, which has been accompanied by an equally fluid set of guidelines and laws. Ensuring the safety of students and staff, whilst also trying to keep some semblance of academic progression, has been a perplexing equation for government and educators alike.
If academic target pressures and physical safety weren’t enough to worry about, there have also been a variety of shadow symptoms associated with the virus’s impact. These have primarily taken the form of problems related to mental health.
Managing these complex issues has been an immense challenge for those in the education sector across the UK. Despite this, some schools have proven that they are able to keep the dual plates of academic progression and student wellbeing spinning. Even as the chaotic circus of Covid rages around them.
KCW London talked to the Headmaster of one such school about how they have managed to continue to keep standards high during one of the worst pandemics in Britain’s history. Andy Southgate is the Head of Blundell’s Prep School, located on the eastern edge of Tiverton. One of the key factors for their success, especially during the initial lockdown back in March, was the fast-paced development of a digital means of teaching. This, as Mr. Southgate rightly points out, was no mean feat in rural Devon.
Mr. Southgate said, “Blundell’s luckily has a strong IT department which helped us adapt to online teaching fairly rapidly. Although we had some device and connectivity issues, which were expected, we were in the fortunate position of being able to offer daily live lessons to many of our children.”
Teaching through a purely digital platform is not just about getting the technology to work, however. Adapting learning to the medium is equally as important. As Mr. Southgate said, “Lessons designed for conventional classrooms do not translate well to the online world. You have to think differently. Breaking lessons up into smaller chunks is important in conventional teaching, but the need for this is amplified by the remote world and is something crucial to keeping students engaged throughout the lesson.” Especially as attention span is calculated at 7-10minutes, and that’s for adults.
This type of learning, although not ideal, did provide some unforeseen benefits. According to Mr Southgate, “For some students who are reluctant recorders in the conventional way of writing down answers, providing video submissions proved far more suited to how they would prefer to operate. Some were much better at expressing themselves through this medium, which is something we can now work into normal teaching.”
Dealing with needs outside of academic achievement proved to be just as important when keeping students’ education moving. Mr Southgate said, “There was also a very strong emphasis on individual pastoral support and community engagement and enrichment.” Providing this more holistic approach to education even amid lockdown, meant students benefited from what Mr. Southgate calls a “full Blundell’s education, rather than just simply having work to complete.”
Mr Southgate is under no illusions about the advantages that his prep school is afforded in comparison to, for example, inner city comprehensives. As he explains, “Smaller class sizes and greater access to additional funds, were also key factors in our ability to adapt to the pressures of Covid-19.”
These factors however, should not detract from the excellent work that both Blundells’ teachers and parents put into supporting their children during this difficult time. This work meant children kept safe whilst attendance, according to Mr. Southgate, “was well into the 90’s,” even during lockdown. Indeed, working closely with parents and listening to their requirements was just as critical to student welfare as talking to students.
Staff at Blundell’s and indeed across the nation were put under enormous pressure to make sure that students had plenty of resources and tasks. Fortunately for Blundell’s, their staff did not shy away from the difficulties. Mr. Southgate said, “The staff here were absolutely incredible, because every single member put their hand up and took on the challenge.”
The bulk of the work in making sure students would be provided for came in the initial few weeks, as the virus began to take a real hold on the country. The rate at which institutions had to develop new strategies for teaching and looking after their students was so quick, many schools struggled to coordinate such an undertaking in the time available. Mr. Southgate said that for Blundell’s, “many hours of hard work went into redesigning lessons and creating new resources that suited the needs of our families and children.”
Fun also played an important role for both teachers and students. Making activities entertaining as well as educational, helped to address some of the anxieties that students had and kept spirits high. It was also paramount, according to Mr. Southgate, that not too much of a fine point was put on academic perfection in all areas. In strange and trying times such as these, it is more important to get the foundations of literacy and numeracy right, as the building blocks of further education.
It’s very difficult to quantify the success of a school in dealing with this completely unprecedented situation. Academic results, for example, will not show the hours of effort that schools have put into checking on the mood of their students. Or students’ feeling of connection to their school and community. However, through flexibility, understanding and hard work, some schools such as Blundell’s have at least seemed to weather the Covid storm competently.
“When students did return to school”, Mr. Southgate said, “It was the most joyful time, and it reminded us of the importance of that human connection between teachers and pupils. To connect with each other once again, was lovely.”