Despite being in Tier 4 before Christmas and having some predictions about what the immediate future for schools might be, it has still been incredibly difficult to keep up with, let alone stay in front of, the decisions that have needed to be made.
Being in Kent, we were in that initial group of schools told that we would be reopening only for children of critical workers and vulnerable children for two weeks. Whilst speculation had already begun about whether this would be for two weeks or longer, planning had to begin – even if it was still the holidays.
After an impromptu meeting with my amazing team, we confirmed our strategy moving forwards. Lots was said during the first lockdown about how everyone was thrown in at the deepens with no domain specific knowledge on what to do and how to handle the situation best. However, how much had really changed?
Let’s start with those able to attend school. Much has been said about the vast increase in numbers between the lockdowns. Ours went from about 20 (although at the very start of lockdown 1 we only had 8) to over 100. Therefore, everything that we ‘knew’ from our previous experiences needed rethinking.
The other significant change was the much higher focus on remote learning. This was not only a consideration for the children not coming in to school but also for the significantly greater number in school. We had spent a long time going over the theory of how this would work. We had undergone our training on Teams, set up a dummy class to practice, discussed how we would be teaching (we decided on pre-recorded) and even had a couple of mini practice runs when some of our bubbles closed in term 2. However, theory is one thing. We were soon to realise that practice was something quite different!
At this point, it’s worth sharing what our ‘Plan A’ was. Due to the numbers in school and the need to continue with the curriculum and as a two form entry school, we split out teaching staff so that one could manage the remote learning and one the learning of those in school.
Even on the first day, we encountered problems. These ranged from children not being able to log on to Teams and login details disappearing to feedback on the content of the remote learning. It was already becoming apparent that the theory we had in place to tackle what we thought initially was going to be two weeks, had its problems. The announcement of lockdown 3 only added to those as our initial idea was based on the theory of supporting the two weeks.
Throughout the first week, and in constant communication with those at home, we monitored, evaluated and adapted our remote plans, responding to the feedback from parents and the teachers who were so brilliantly delivering it. It is here that the practical side of things was starting to take over. All the theory and planning that had been undertaken since September was unravelling because the reality of the practice was so different. I’ve reflected on this a lot. Was this because we hadn’t given enough thought to the situation? I don’t think so. Was it because we had based our theory on our perception of what it would look like? Possibly. Was it because there were so many variables that, having no domain specific knowledge, we were unaware of? This was definitely a factor.
As we entered the second week, it became even more apparent that we had to have rethink. The announcements over that weekend from Matt Hancock prompted me to ask on Twitter about children in school (https://twitter.com/mrmchatley/status/1348199859040509952?s=21). However, numbers in school continued to rise and feedback from teachers working at home was that the workload was unmanageable. So the theory that we had spent the best part of three months thinking about, discussing and preparing for had unravelled in a week and a half.
I think my point here is that there is very little substitute for practical knowledge in these situations. We didn’t intentionally set out to make mistakes or make things difficult. We did what we thought was right with the knowledge that we had available to us. Knowing what we know now has completely changed that.
So, with a new approach formulated, we could go back to using what we know to help. We communicated honestly with staff and parents, holding up our hands to apologise for the mistakes made and the changes we had employed. There were obviously some anxieties – change and new things will always bring some anxiety – but a trust that the changes have been made for the collective good of everyone involved.
One of the pieces of reading that really resonated at the time of reading and even more so now is from Matthew Evans in his book Leaders with substance. In there he talks about domain specific knowledge and it’s importance. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that untested theory without practical knowledge will always have variable success. That’s not to say that time, effort and preparation haven’t gone into it, but that you can’t prepare well for things that you haven’t experienced before.
As lockdown continues (and whether it continues beyond Feb half term), there are likely to be more lessons to be learned. The good news is that every day that passes, we gain that little more knowledge that can help make the theory more likely to be successful.