We can’t turn on the TV, scroll through our phones, or read the news lately without being bombarded by stories about how the lockdowns have set children back in their development by a year or more, in some cases.
Here at Thank A Teacher, we see many heart-warming messages from parents, thanking teachers for all their help during lockdown and as we emerge from the pandemic.
And it’s a key preoccupation in government to try and come up with ways to help children catch up on education they’ve missed because of Covid.
What teachers and other school staff are doing to respond to this has been astounding. And not only with the academic side of children’s development.
This week we caught up with Lindsay Skinner, Headteacher of St James School in Exeter. She has implemented a longer school day on a Wednesday to help the children in her school.
“We decided not to add in extra English and Maths lessons to our longer school day because we felt the biggest deficit our children have suffered was not academic, but social.” Lindsay told us.
From the first lockdown, extra-curricular clubs and activities closed along with schools. And as schools have reopened, a lot of these clubs either didn’t start up again at all, or they were much delayed.
And even when schools reopened, the bubble system meant that children were still restricted in their interactions.
At St James, they now have an electives programme on a Wednesday where the students sign up for a programme of extra-curricular activities. They run in 12-week cycles and across the year groups, so there’s a mix of ages.
Each cycle they choose from a different group of electives, so they do one that is a creative activity, one that is active, and one that focuses on a skill or a service.
Lindsay said: “Even before the pandemic students with SEND or those entitled to Pupil Premium were far less likely to engage in extra-curricular activities. And the frustrating thing was that it is precisely those children who stand to gain the most from it.”
So, Lindsay decided to open up these activities to every child at her school. It’s a compulsory part of the longer school day, just like any other lesson. The only kids who don’t take part are those who are already training in an elite sports programme, or those who have a private tutor.
“We have 97% engagement. And we’ve got a whole range of activities. We’ve got kids going to the Magistrate’s Court to learn about how the law works, we’ve got karate, rock climbing, bowls, roller derby, Ultimate Frisbee with one of the GB team, kickboxing, skiing, bike maintenance, cycle awareness, photography and all sorts of opportunities that some of our kids wouldn’t normally be able to access.”
The only criteria for the activities is that they can’t be something that is offered as a normal part of the school’s curriculum. So, when they do things like art, it is not something that is typically covered in academic lessons.
“So, we’ve got a photography elective, but not digital photography because that’s on the curriculum. Instead, we built a dark room which the kids have loved. It’s all about opening these kids up to something new. They’ve missed out on so many opportunities because of Covid.”
And as Covid restrictions continue to ease, students will be able to sign up to take an elective working in a local care home with older people. Through this, they’ll get their dementia award.
The scheme has been funded through a local charity, Live and Move. In partnership with the charity, the school conducted some research of the families in their community around physical exercise and mental health. As mental health has been hugely impacted by the effects of the pandemic, they wanted to improve the amount of physical activity the kids were doing, in the hope that it would have a positive effect on their mental health too.
What they found is that if they found an activity they really loved, they were much more likely to continue it.
“This is why we’ve offered such a breadth of activities. We’ve got kids who would never have been to a gym now accessing their own personal trainer and bespoke fitness plan.”
The electives are run by a mixture of the school’s own staff, experts that they bring in or meet at an off-site facility. And the whole programme has been organised by Steve Brown, Assistant Head, and a maths teacher at the school.
“We’ve got a lot of quite vulnerable children in our school, so during the lockdowns we had quite large numbers in school. But we noticed that – at the start – they were all pretty much sitting in silence doing their online learning on computers. We realised that wasn’t going to be positive for their mental health, so we introduced art and PE after lunch every day. We noticed this was very positive for relationships between students and staff.”
And the electives scheme the school has started as they’ve emerged from lockdowns, has continued this.
“Seeing staff outside the context of a typical academic lesson has been very positive. We have quite a strict school, but the elective sessions are far more relaxed and fun. It helps the kids see the teachers as real people with lives outside the classroom.”
For Lindsay, it all started when she decided she wanted the children in her school to have the same opportunities in terms of electives that they might get if they went to a private school.
And the feedback from students has been great:
“It feels like a residential and everyone is trying new things.”
“I have made new friends!”
“We watch some very good films in International Cinema Club. We’re learning lots about other countries.”
“I like how the teachers are kind and greet you when you go to your electives.”
“It’s nice to do an activity off-site from school.”
And parents have been so positive about it too:
“It’s really improved her confidence and her physiotherapist says it’s really helping.” (parent of child with EHCP)
“He loves it!”
Lindsay isn’t alone in striving every day to improve the lives of children in her school. School staff across the country are working hard to come up with new ways to combat the negative effects of the pandemic.
Do you know a member of school staff or a whole team you’d like to thank? Send them a free thank you message now.
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