The Headmaster writes for Independent Schools Magazine:
Let me begin by expressing my surprise at the Government’s decision to send all pupils back on 8 March. I was certainly expecting GCSE and A Level examination year groups, and given the complexity of distance learning, maybe the youngest pupils too.
Interestingly, only a matter of days later both the Prime Minister and Professor Chris Whitty have tempered our joy by warning us of increased (pupil) transmission risk and a potential new infection wave later in the year.
The return of pupils had a ‘start of term’ feeling about it, and it was wonderful to see so many happy pupils back on our Prep and Senior School campuses. For the first couple of days, I stood shivering at the front gate, largely to remind parents of our COVID protocols. Thankfully, the vast majority get it, but sadly some still subscribe to the ‘overreaction theory’.
On Day 1, pupils could not contain their excitement at being reunited with friends, whilst on Day 2 many declared exhaustion after only one full day back! That said, I am delighted to report that masks universally failed to hide the smiles of staff and pupils alike. We recently ran a ‘smile with your eyes’ photography competition and all entries were incredibly heart-warming.
However, and understandably, there are pupils and colleagues who remain anxious about being back in large numbers, and it is important that we seek to normalise this anxiety, make all reasonable adjustments to our campuses and beef up pastoral care and welfare provision.
Equally important is acknowledging how marvellous pupils, staff and parents have been over the course of the last year. I have continually asked the Solihull community for kindness and teamwork and the response has been humbling. Furthermore, the way in which everyone has got to grips with technology, as well as those practical subjects which do not naturally lend themselves as well to remote provision, has been remarkable.
In my first ‘Wellbeing and Personal Development’ lesson of the week, I asked my Year 10 pupils for their thoughts on lessons learnt by society and individuals during the pandemic, and their answers reassured me that the future will be brighter. Their comments on the environment, family life and consumerism strongly suggest that a welcome recalibration will be permanent.
Returning to masks for a moment, the Government unhelpfully stopped short of making them compulsory in lessons, as it did with lateral flow testing too, but we felt compelled to insist that masks are worn for most of the school day. Of course, this is not ideal, nor is pupils wearing masks during mock examinations, but we have sought to safely provide appropriate respite wherever possible.
Turning to testing, given the considerable time away from school, we chose not to interrupt distance learning or face to face learning by testing all 1,100 seniors over the weekend of 6 and 7 March. We moved our previous test facilities from the Chapel to the Sports Hall to cater for the increased task, and worked tirelessly to source equipment, train volunteers and establish COVID-safe protocols. It is at times like this that you really appreciate how brilliant staff are at stepping forward, putting themselves in harm’s way for the children and doing it all with care and a smile. Things were fraught behind the scenes, particularly given the frailties of the NHS upload facility, but pupils were in, tested and out in six minutes each, and we got through the task as planned.
In the days following, and in the run-up to home testing, I am disappointed to share that we have been scouring the Borough, begging, borrowing and bending ears at the Department for Education and Public Health in order to secure sufficient kits. Whilst our efforts have been rewarded, it is clear to us that time spent on the telephone, often in queues, is time that could be spent supporting staff and colleagues through this difficult time. That said, the support we have received from Public Health Solihull (our local team) has been invaluable and always friendly and solution focussed.
I do not underestimate the monumental job facing our Government, its departments and Ofqual, but if I may offer a little amateurish advice, it is to talk to each other more, offer consistent (and clearer) guidance and give us more notice. Without all of this we are misappropriating scarce and valuable time and resources.
It is so lovely to see the campus alive with learning and laughter again, and I hope it will not be too long before we can resume assemblies, chapel services, sports fixtures, music and drama and much more in the normal way. Never again will we take simple pleasures such as dining together for granted, and I look forward to confining bubbling and isolation to the history books.
David EJJ Lloyd