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07 September 2020

The Monday Briefing: Get back (to the College)

The Monday Briefing: Get back (to the College)

Anyone reading the Guardian article entitled ‘I do not see a single student wash their hands: teacher’s diary of the first week back at school’ would be quite alarmed about just how incredibly dangerous the return to school is depicted as for parents, students and teachers. In the piece, behind the cloak of anonymity, the ‘teacher’ explained extensively just how excruciating the return to education following lockdown had been and how every aspect seemed to be fraught with danger.

‘Sneezing fits’, ‘Stomach cramps’ ‘Anxiety’, ‘Horror stories’, ‘As if Covid never happened’, ‘Packed in like sardines’, ‘shock’, ‘rules made up on the spot’, ‘no wiping down or washing hands’, ‘absence of vigilance’, ‘panic attack’, ‘social experiment’. A small sample of quotes might lead one to doubt whether any consideration at all has been made to make schools safe for the return of students, and that they were being marched beyond their will into some kind of war zone.

This is simply not the case at Ealing Independent College.

One of the benefits of being part of Bellevue Education for the College is in having an extensive support network with direct guidance from experienced former headteachers. Several conference calls throughout the lockdown period, and then the summer gave me the chance to successfully map out the return to College for all of our students. We have been able to extend to parents extensive guidelines, and they certainly had not been made up on the spot. 

The image set out in the Guardian article referred to above is unrecognisable from my first week back. Far from being a ‘horror story’, I saw a College community quickly adapting to some new, common sense rules. They were, absolutely, putting safety first, but also sending out a clear message - that they were delighted to be in College, that they wanted to learn, and that they wanted to get back to something as close to normality as possible.

Though I understand that students felt anxious about the return, they were welcomed back with several measures in place to maximise their safety, whilst minimising any possibility of the spread of the virus. The College has adopted a clear ‘prevention and separation’ strategy, geared towards ensuring that education, and the very best education which we can deliver to our students, will go on, no matter what happens. The success of our continued teaching during lockdown means that we can offer this with confidence. Some of our students, still returning from destinations requiring quarantine upon return, will remain home - but the classroom will be brought to them through Google. They will have direct access to their teachers, and we will ensure their progress.

My opening assembly (split into three distinct bubbles - no sardine packing here) was far more practical than I’d imagined. There were no traces of the rousing speech perhaps I’d always dreamed of making on my first day as Principal. I ran them through the vital steps that had been put in place - they understood why they were in place, and have been fully cooperative over the induction period. It was not going to be ‘an elephant in the room’ as referred to in the Guardian article - Covid is a threat, yes, but we can act to mitigate that threat as far as possible.

Sanitising has become second nature to our students and staff. They clean their hands on arrival, and following lesson transitions - which have been minimised through some excellent timetabling. Cleaning at the College has been tripled. A simple one-way system is being followed rigorously and if students feel more secure through wearing a face covering, they can. Most of our students have chosen not to, because the environment is not congested and they feel safe. Our class sizes are small enough to ensure a safe distance. This is no social experiment - it is a College community adapting our approach with care. One part of the article which I really do take exception to is the ‘absence of vigilance’ spoken of. I, along with all of our staff, are present - in corridors, at the entrance and exit, ensuring that students are following the procedures we’ve put into place sympathetically.

As a Principal of a small College, it is easier to make adjustments to timetables, to make cleaning more frequent and to keep sanitiser levels sufficiently high. One must question, however, the value of articles like those seen in the Guardian, particularly as they form part of a series preceded by ‘I’m going round in circles’: Parents in England still undecided about the return to school.’ I understand how difficult reading the media is for a parent. It is, of course, important to recognise that Covid-19 has changed life as we know it. But school is more than just a timetable of lessons. It is a lifeline for many students, providing vital support in the face of the mental health challenges which the virus has also imposed. We must be mindful that a recent ‘YoungMinds’ survey 87% of teenagers felt lonely or isolated over lockdown. Being part of a welcoming, supportive, thriving College community where we take an individualised approach is fundamental to moving forward, and that is what we must do. Safely, of course, but forward, nonetheless. 

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