All schools have felt the effects of the enforced lockdown both in terms of wellbeing and the interruption to their school year. The disruption to our normal daily lives will continue to impact in ways that we won’t even be aware of yet and this is mirrored in education.
We have been fortunate as an industry not to suffer any severe financial consequence of the lockdown, promised funding has been forthcoming even if we have had to endure some additional costs which were not covered for every institution. Schools were directed and have strived to continue their operational duties, paying all staff including those with casual contracts and paying for external contracts and commitments. Some of what we have been asked to do has been challenging, ensuring our vulnerable student’s welfare, making sure that free school meal students have food and offering online learning to name but a few.
In the SEN sector, this has been particularly challenging, all students are classed as vulnerable and many are unable to access their education and have their needs met by traditional means.
The summer period saw many of us welcoming back some of our students, for special school and special resource provisions this meant offering the chance to come back into school to the majority of students. This meant immediately facing the challenges that the mainstream sector are now dealing with in putting in place protocols and systems to ensure students and staff safety. However, some of the systems that mainstream schools have used to be ‘covid safe’ tend not to work so well within our SEN sector.
The SRP in my own school is large, up to 120 plus students and the needs are often complex and varied. The difficulties of having our SRP students back into the school was a closely managed and planned process. The staff were very aware of the fragility of many of our students who were suffering from losing the structure to their day. This created feelings ranging from frustration to fear and a sense of isolation for many. At the start of the lockdown it was the responsibility of the staff to keep in contact with their allocated students, making sure they spoke most days and checking in on families as well.
This was a huge task, meaning that these staff were often working long hours and through the holidays to ensure our pupil’s wellbeing. In addition, a lot of work went into planning to bring them back into the building, something that our most vulnerable students were desperate to do. As School Business Leader, myself and my team were involved in this, looking at the plans for the main school and adapting them for the SRP.
Colleagues who work in Special Schools have additional challenges. The protocols for them cannot be based entirely on social distancing and bubbles in the same way as the rest of the school community due to the complexities of the needs of their students. Introducing the new normal and making it the new school practice requires constant confirmation and reiteration of the new processes.
The inability for some students to adapt to new routines has in some cases impacted negatively on their mental wellbeing as well as behaviour. The lack of understanding of the enforced situation manifesting itself in the return of some of the behaviours that the schools have worked so hard to transform. Colleagues in these settings have had to very quickly establish new norms and consistent practices to once again bring back that stability and structure.
Most of the students that attend our provisions are ‘delivered’ every day by taxi. This has proven challenging with students needing to understand that they need to wear masks and enduring changes to start and end times to allow staggered arrival and departure so that hubs don’t mix. At our SRP it has required a complicated plan to ensure that students don’t cross paths and get to the correct area in school for their bubble. The special school which shares the site in my other school has shorter days just to allow this to work effectively.
The gaps in learning that the lockdown has caused have been impactful for our more vulnerable students. Their ability to access online learning has often been limited and the isolation from both their peers and staff as well as the loss of their routines will have had an impact that may not yet be apparent. Lots of research has been carried out on the effects of lockdown and the ongoing situation on our most vulnerable students and their families.
Research from the Sutton Trust has shown that students who come from disadvantaged families have been the least able to access the online learning and for our school’s this is compounded by the ability of our students. This has meant that more innovative ways of providing education scaffolding to go alongside the pastoral support is needed. A key piece of advice has been around expectation by schools on students around completing work at home. The normal expectation of the amount of work achieved is reduced and more emphasis to be placed upon contact with the students and families.
The DfE has provided resources for families recognizing that parents and carers have had to take on all of the responsibilities of looking after their students, everything from education to physical care on a full time basis.
Looking forward, attendance has started to improve as parents and students become more confident in their school’s ability to keep their students safe. We will always suffer from the fact that physically, our students are more vulnerable and the likelihood of them having to self-isolate is more likely. This is compounded by the natural concerns that their parents and families will have over their safety and physical vulnerability.
Change is hard for our SEND students and the need to maintain some consistency is important, a key concern for our sector during these difficult times.
Sue Birchall is a consultant, speaker, writer, trainer and business manager at The Malling School, Kent.