As we near the end of our first half term of the year for independent schools, many of us have also taken the chance to consider more deeply what the impact of Covid has been for our schools and our student community. Speculation in the media and among ourselves has been rife when considering just what might have been lost since the first lockdown in March of last year.
An initial response, particularly in the independent sector might be “not a lot”, all things considered. Thanks to the swift response of schools in moving online and trying to preserve our timetables in the fullest possible sense, students have made a much stronger degree of academic progress than might have ever been imagined in the first few weeks of the pandemic.
Yet there is a need for caution when considering the broader implications of what has been “lost” during this period of disruption. While all independent schools will have faced unique challenges when coming back in September, there are perhaps a few aspects that are common to us all:
The loss of school routine
Given that a student starting Year 10 this year will have been in Year 8 the last time they had a September without restrictions (and were in Year 7 the last time they enjoyed an uninterrupted school year), it will be no surprise if certain aspect of a schools routine have to be re-emphasised or even reconsidered.
“There is a strong opportunity for schools to think carefully about what the key messages for students are.”
From uniform guidelines to ensuring that students get to lessons on time or arrive to assembly in the right way, there is a strong opportunity for independent schools to think carefully about what the key messages for students are. This is no small point; schools are run on routine and so it will be crucial to pick up which aspects of school life will return to “pre-Covid” routine without change, as well as which areas are ripe for review.
There is always a danger that we patronise our students and fail to recognise the robust manner with which they deal with disruption. At the same time, this September will be the first time that all students are fully immersed in the cut and thrust of school life, including the perils of negotiating between friendship groups or balancing their own emotions against the needs of others.
“Many schools are reporting that students are appearing ‘younger’ or less mature.”
If last year saw students bond over a shared experience, the broadening of opportunities and horizons might mean the renegotiation of friendships or contending with new challenges, and as such require a little more pastoral care and attention from tutors and teachers alike.
Anecdotally, many independent schools are reporting that students are appearing “younger” or less mature than students in their year group might typically act, and this again is worth talking through with pastoral and middle leaders to see if it something that persists or evens out in the months ahead.
We have all enjoyed a variety of rites of passage in our own school lives and should not underestimate the formative nature they play for our students. This would be for students who didn’t get a ball or formal celebration of their achievements following public examinations last year, through to those year groups who would have otherwise been the senior squad in rugby or hockey, the leads in the school production or the leaders of academic societies or extra-curricular trips.
“Some milestones will perhaps have passed without a chance to replace them.”
There will be many who look back at last year as a “lost opportunity”. Some of these milestones might be easier to restore or offer a similar experience (for instance in doubling up of trip opportunities or being creative about student leadership opportunities), but some will perhaps have passed without a chance to replace. Do not be afraid to talk to students about this and their feelings on lost milestones during student voice sessions; articulating disappointment is often the easiest way to help students contend with it and look forward to new opportunities.
I’m sure we are all aware of the fact that parents will have been denied the chance to come onto school sites over the last two years, and again we should not underestimate this fact. From those who will have seen their children perform only via zoom or pre-recorded concerts, through to those who have simply missed the chance to develop relationships with other parents in the same year group, trying to restore or offer new opportunities for parents to come into school and reconnect with the community is going to be crucial for all of us.
Trying to achieve this, while also balancing against a need for continued caution or sensitivity for those who are still uncertain about gathering in larger groups is a particularly interesting challenge.