For children in infant schools, the days before the pandemic are a hazy memory if they can remember them at all. In recent months, countless news articles have been preoccupied with the idea that early years children are lagging behind because of Covid disruptions.
It was during the third lockdown, in early 2021, that it occurred to staff at Cockburn Haigh Road Academy in Leeds, that most of their children had never had a normal school year.
We recently caught up with Deputy Headteacher, Rosie Pratt, and TA and Child and Families Practitioner, Helen Turpin at Cockburn Haigh Road. They told us all about the unusual situation schools like theirs are facing:
“It’s an infant school, so our students move onto a completely different school when they go into Year 3. For our current Year 2 students, the last normal school year they had was when they were in nursery. We’re already noticing the impact this has had on our children.”
While it’s reasonable to expect children will have been affected across the board by the various lockdowns and other restrictions, not all children had the same experience of home schooling.
Rosie says: “We’re really mindful of the different circumstances and contexts our children come from. For example, only children would have had a very different experience of home schooling than a child with multiple siblings. And children have missed out on opportunities to fine tune their social skills, their self-esteem development, confidence building, turn-taking, and problem solving.”
It’s common knowledge that Ofsted is focusing on catching these children up. But, statistically, a school is more likely to be judged below good if they serve a disadvantaged community. And it is those communities who are suffering the most from the widening gap between the wealthy and those who are struggling.
And while there absolutely needs to be a focus on students who are falling behind, schools are showing that there is more than one way to approach this.
“The problem with the lockdowns was that – despite the best efforts of parents – children had no real sense of belonging anywhere outside their family. And for lots of children, school is their safe, happy place where they can shine and thrive.” Rosie explains.
When schools reopened in March last year after the third lockdown, staff at Cockburn Haigh Road took time to rethink their curriculum.
“For the first two weeks, we taught a cross-curricular topic centred around children working together and getting used to communicating, sharing, and taking turns. It allowed us to observe them and make target decisions about additional support.”
Helen added: “A lot of children were out of their usual routines, so we found they were feeling hungry at different times of the day. We introduced extra snack times to combat this, along with a soft start to the day to offer reassurance.”
Staff at Cockburn adopted a flexible approach to the school day as the children returned after lockdown. They found some children struggled with stamina and accessing a full day of normal teaching. Previously, the timetable had been jam-packed and they found it wasn’t working anymore.
“Something had to change. We’re still continually assessing what’s working and what isn’t. We’ve found we can’t assume the same levels of existing knowledge in the children. The vastly different experiences the children had over the lockdowns was really obvious.” Rosie says.
Nationally, schools found that in the second and third lockdowns, the numbers of children they had attending increased.
“As time moved on, families were struggling more to cope and a greater proportion of families who qualified, took up places offered to vulnerable groups.”
And a lot of schools have completely overhauled their behaviour policies too.
“Our behaviour policy is now focussed on developing children’s self-esteem and wellbeing through praising the right behaviour and learning attitude rather than having a list of sanctions and consequences. We have more conversations with children, examining why they felt angry, describing their feelings and thinking about how others might feel. We’ve found with this gentler approach, children are opening up to us more and the restorative conversations develop and strengthen bonds.”
Schools have also been aware that younger children might be disproportionately affected by the closure of extra-curricular groups and the cancellation of school trips over the past couple of years.
Rosie and her colleagues looked at school budgets and how they could fund as many activities as possible at no or little cost to parents.
They have managed to find funding for a trip to Go Ape in Leeds to give kids the chance to develop resilience, perseverance and problem solving as well as it being a fun, physical activity. Other activities, free of charge to parents, have included a music trip, trips to Conisborough Castle, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Snozone.
“We’ve are mindful of the financial impact Covid has had on a lot of our families. So, instead of a trip to the pantomime at Christmas, we brought a puppet theatre into school which reduced the cost for families. It was a really lovely day. And it developed our children’s experiences without putting pressure on parents.”
The school has also ramped up its offering of free to parents after school activities, such as Lego Club, dodgeball, rugby, tennis, and football.
“On a Friday afternoon, Key Stage One children are mixed across our three classes and take part in a non-curriculum activity to develop their skills and enjoyment of doing things they wouldn’t normally do. So, we do a cooking club, drama and dancing, sewing, and gardening. It’s been lovely to see the children develop their interests.”
In January of this year, Helen Turpin has taken on a new role at the school as a Child and Families Practitioner. She supports vulnerable families through outreach work.
“I support families through a range of challenges. From something as small as a child being a bit more tired than usual right up to quite complex issues families can face. We also help with food parcels and vouchers for those who are struggling, and our Head worked through the holidays to make sure our families had food.” She explains.
Helen identifies families who might need support though safeguarding systems and procedures in school: “It’s a supportive, completely voluntary, and non-judgemental process. I introduce an ‘early help’ plan for families. I meet with them and discuss how we can help. We make a plan, and I facilitate discussions with outside agencies that might be involved. The idea is to offer help before these problems spiral for families. These are early interventions in that they remove the need for social services involvement as the problems are dealt with before it gets that far.”
All the work schools do behind the scenes to help their families is not always obvious from the outside. National Thank a Teacher Day on 26th May is your chance to celebrate all they do. Head over to our website now to download our free resources.
Can you think of a member of school staff or a team you’d like to thank? You can send them a free thank you message now.