Independent schools embarked upon the 2020-21 academic year in a period of international crisis, as communities all over the world grappled with unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Covid remained firmly at the top of independent schools’ agendas, with headteachers and senior leaders working hard to minimise the spread of the virus in classrooms, while doing their utmost to preserve pupils’ education.
It has been an intense experience, with schools forced to switch to new ways of online working and opening only under conditions dictated by a raft of Covid restrictions.
Covid testing centres were set up within schools, staffed by schools (with no government funding for independent schools to cover the workforce costs of testing). Leaders had to cope with the late communication of government advice. Decisions had to be made at the highest level, percolating down once Cabinet approval was complete.
This all took more time than any of us would have liked and made for a frustrating, anxious time.
“Through it all, the independent education sector remained a beacon of aspiration and choice.”
Independent schools found themselves responsible for everything from managing crisis communications with staff and parents to maintaining morale and reviewing risk assessments in light of changing advice. Schools found themselves supporting those who were shielding, managing contact tracing, and monitoring access to — and the effectiveness of — online provision.
Through it all, the independent education sector remained a beacon of aspiration and choice.
We have not seen significant numbers of school closures. Day pupil numbers were down only fractionally in the 2021 ISC Census. Our schools have been resilient — although we need to watch how recovery plays out over the coming years before we can gauge the true impact of the pandemic.
Rather than lose the breadth of educational opportunity that independent schools are renowned for, many schools adapted the curriculum and developed new, bridging study modules, capitalising on speedy technological developments.
Uncertainty around exams and amended grading systems caused huge anxiety for those involved. Pupils (and parents, trapped at home together) were stressed and teachers increasingly in the public and parental eye. This year’s appeals against teacher assessed grades mean that teachers rather than exam boards will be taking the heat.
“Last year saw the lowest ever rise in fees recorded by the ISC and a large increase in fee assistance.”
School leaders were forced to reassess school finances as a priority. Capital projects were shelved, economies made, furlough arrangements explored. Schools kept fees under review. Last year saw the lowest ever rise in fees recorded by the ISC and a large increase in fee assistance.
We ended the year looking back on the sector’s efforts to provide PPE for key workers and develop online partnerships programmes. Some ran educational enrichment, careers and university entry support, sharing academic resources, encouraging wider participation in sport and the creative and performing arts.
Some schools remained open to provide summer catch-up. Pupils were writing to homes for the elderly and providing online concerts. Many were actively collecting for community charities, food banks, and offering more than 10,000 beds to key workers at the height of the pandemic.
www.schoolstogether.org hosts nearly 6,000 examples of cross-sector partnership working that shows our sector is acting on the Joint Understanding on partnerships with the Government. Baroness Berridge, parliamentary under secretary of state for the school system, is keen to see what the sector can do to support the Government’s levelling up agenda, areas of need and accessibility of educational opportunity. So challenges remain.
“The Everyone’s Invited movement offered an opportunity to discuss, to develop a vocabulary to explore these serious issues.”
We went into the academic year thinking about our communities’ reactions to the BLM movement and racial equality, which led to a raft of important discussions and reviews of behaviour policy and equality, diversity and inclusion work.
2021 highlighted the “Everyone’s Invited” movement with shocking revelations about sexual harassment and the Ofsted Review demonstrated that young children are bombarded with unwanted sexting images even by Year 6.
Again, this offered an opportunity to discuss, to develop a vocabulary to explore these serious issues, and to update provision.
Through adversity we learn much and good things that emerged included a renewed awareness of the importance of mental health for all members of the school community; an opportunity to reassess educational and financial priorities; and a step change in the use of technology in education.
In the academic year 2021-2, we won’t “go back” to some concept of normality that existed before Covid-19, we will be moving forward, better informed about the challenges of the pandemic, experienced in dealing with enormous uncertainty and last moment changes.
There remain questions over the future of assessment and the impact of rising costs of TPS; perhaps the consequences of Brexit may be yet to play out too. But on the human level, we have spent time considering equality, diversity and inclusion, relationships and sex education, behaviour policy and expectations: reviewing these important aspects of the culture of our schools is time well spent.
Schools have proven themselves adaptable (with many receiving parental praise), crucial community hubs, and more than ever we feel the importance of human connection and the value of working together.
We end this momentous academic year and go into the 2021-2 academic year hoping for an end to the pandemic and a return to more familiar priorities.