School News and Head's Blog
Posted on: 26/06/2020
DiversityLast week in the Upper School assembly I spoke to the children about ‘Diversity’. This was prompted not only by my attendance the previous weekend at the DiverseEd annual conference but also by the media coverage surrounding the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests which have occurred around the globe. My opening slide in assembly was this, which shows our current Year 6 pupils back in Year 5.
I asked the children to take a long look at the photograph - what did they notice? What stands out for me is that we have the most wonderful group of 41 individual children in our current Year 6 - but to extend this further we have the most incredible school of 375 unique and wonderfully different and diverse children.
What is diversity in simple words? It means understanding that each individual is unique, and recognising our individual differences. These can be along the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies.
I am sure that many of the older children were aware of the anti-racism demonstrations surrounding ‘Black Lives Matter’ and it is important that as a school we continue to educate your children to be aware of what is going on in the world around them. The children had the opportunity to listen to a very simple video message from one of the Cbeebies presenters which I also urge you as parents to view:
‘A message from our house to yours’
I do not wish to dwell on just one aspect of Diversity but over the past few weeks I have reflected on my role as a leader and at the end of the DiverseEd conference we were all asked to make a pledge to ourselves as to how we will continue our journey to ensure that we are preparing children for the future ahead. I will share my pledge with you all - ‘To keep raising awareness as a leader; to continue to educate myself more to enable greater good in my community and be proactive for change.’
During the online conference, which was attended by over 400 other educators from the UK and overseas, we heard from a diverse range of leaders and educators who continue to make a difference to their communities with the work that they do educating young people on diversity. I realised that, prior to leaving Scotland back in 1989, I had led an incredibly sheltered life. I was brought up in a small coastal town where there really was not much diversity at all in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation or even physical abilities. I do not think that this has adversely affected me as I believe that it is the core values which we adopt and are immersed in that allow us to be accepting of everyone in our society. However, looking back there are possibly some very uncomfortable truths in the lack of education surrounding diversity in my school days.
Thankfully over the years I have met and connected with such diverse groups of people that I have become the person I am now and the values of St. Helen’s College - respect, love, harmony, kindness, friendship, truth, honesty, integrity - are why this school, our ‘second family’, is so important to us all. I am proud that at St. Helen’s College we have good practice and an understanding around diversity; however, we must continue to educate ourselves and each other to ensure that we are correctly informed and this involves parents, of course, as you are a crucial part of our community too. Schools need to be safe places for everyone to have discussions regarding diversity.
I am sure that there are many of us who have faced discrimination at some point in our lives and it is our responsibility to ensure that any low level discrimination that takes place is challenged - whether at school or in the work place. We can no longer accept comments which in the past may have been passed off as ‘banter’. We should be vigilant and spot stereotypes in images or sadly the unconscious bias that people may show. Such discrimination needs to be called out and this is not always easy but it is necessary. We know that the bystander is often as powerful as the perpetrator when discrimination takes place – what we don’t do if we don’t challenge is as much a part of the problem as blatant discrimination.
I expect that, throughout your own lives and careers, there have been diversity issues which you have faced? I hope that, if so, you can use those to inspire you to help be a part of the solution. As adults it is our role to ensure that children do not face the same challenges which we may have encountered. It is by continuing to uphold good core principles, listening and discussing that we will further educate ourselves and help the youngsters of today to become aware, responsible adults of the future - a future which we would want for our children.
Posted on: 19/06/2020
Pupil Perspective: Lockdown LearningThis week I invited our Head Boy, Anish, and Head Girl, Catherine, to co-write a blog to give us a pupil perspective of 'Lockdown'. I was so moved to read their blog, as I am sure you will be. We have the most wonderful ambassadors for what St.Helen's College stands for in our pupils - do enjoy!
Sometimes, life does change overnight. One day, the cities are hustling and bustling with myriad activities and children come back from school with dozens of stories to tell. The next day we wake up to empty streets and an untimely school holiday. We have been in Lockdown since 23rd March 2020. It seems a long time ago but that is when all of the children and teachers started homeschooling. This global pandemic has brought our country to a standstill. However, as we know, every grey cloud has a silver lining and understandably such difficult situations bring out novel challenges that we need to adapt to and overcome! It must have been extremely difficult for the teachers but they embraced the challenge and have been doing and are still doing an amazing job. All of the children have really enjoyed learning from home. The lessons are still bags of fun and everyone is co-operating to help each other do the best they can do. Year 6, with the help of their terrific teachers have even been doing their Year 6 projects at home!
This lockdown has brought in a wonderful opportunity for us to engage in activities we never had a chance to do before and we are able to spend quality time with our family. Also, this lockdown has allowed us to actually and properly direct our attention to nature. Everyday, everyone is waking up to the joyous sing song of the sparrow.
Another great thing that has happened during the lockdown is the reduction of pollution maintaining the tranquillity of nature. Not many of us are going out as often and therefore we are reducing the acceleration of climate change. This is positive news, meaning that we may still have time to save the planet and preserve nature for future generations to come.
Being at home gave us a new insight into school. It was a new step for all of the St. Helen's College community, but we overcame the technical difficulties and set up a hugely successful online learning programme. Google Meet, Google Classroom and Century Tech have allowed us to be able to adapt to these circumstances and still be able to thrive. As Ms Gilham has been teaching us, “The species that adapts will survive; those who don’t will perish”.
Having the opportunity to experience home learning is something that has not only added to our ever-growing list of experiences, it has shaped us into stronger people and given many the chance to develop new passions. It is so important to look for the good in things. As young people, we need to remember these events and reflect on them, for that is the only way we can improve and make a version of ourselves that contributes to society.
In this blog, we would like to show gratitude to all the teachers, staff and parents alike, for their support and hard work. The teachers have put so much effort into making sure we get the best out of our lessons, something which requires a lot of attention and time.
For us, home learning was very enjoyable, though vastly different. We have been keeping in contact with all our friends, via Skype, Zoom, Facetime and lots of other apps. Weekly, on the weekend, 6RD girls have been doing online quizzes using Zoom and Kahoot. This has been so vital, and has helped to bring joy into many people’s lives. This spirit is what will get us through this turbulent time; the sense of community.
As the number of cases have gradually begun to slow down, the Government has allowed schools to reopen partially by allowing Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back. Many of our friends have said that it is great to be in school and that they feel that they are protected with all the safety precautions that the St. Helen's College staff have put in place.
Since then, most of the children have been back in school learning with great gusto. The children definitely showed their love for learning and the teachers are going above and beyond to help us settle in new conditions and have as much fun as possible. The safety of others has always been the priority.
Some of the fun topics in lessons have been maths mysteries, drawing for the Hammersmith Hospital in art, Year 5 preparing for 11+ exams at home, creating board games with Year 6 and the school has been using a new website called Century Tech. Century Tech creates a learning path for you to follow, thereby nourishing your knowledge. In English, Year 6 have been working on their WW2 scrapbooks and Year 1 have been making their very own stories in computing! And the list doesn’t end there…everyone has been enthusiastically listening and participating in the bi-weekly assemblies and class meets. Everyone has loved every minute of this roller coaster experience. It shows how strong and determined our fantastic community is. If we work together and follow the rules, then we can be successful in defeating this virus. Google Meets are a great way of keeping in touch with friends and family, but if we persevere we will meet each other in person in the end.
Certainly there is a light shining proudly at the end of the tunnel, and if we work together, we shall get there very soon!
Catherine L and Anish A
Posted on: 12/06/2020
Joyful JuneThis week I would like to talk about emotions. We are living through an uncertain and difficult time and, understandably, emotions are running high in many of us. At St. Helen’s College, we do not shy away from discussing our emotions, either amongst the staff or with the children. We believe it is important that we all recognise and accept our emotions, allowing ourselves to feel and then channelling our feelings into positive action.
Each month I circulate a calendar to all of the staff to display in the classrooms; this month’s calendar is ‘Joyful June’ and you can see a copy of it here. Every morning I look at the calendar and remember the motto from Action for Happiness - I read the advice for each day and I find that this makes me smile and realigns my thoughts. The Action for Happiness mantra for the moment is this: “The world is in crisis. Keep calm, stay wise & be kind”.
It is not always easy to follow this mantra. Over recent months, I have felt angry, upset and emotionally and physically drained. Should I feel bad for recognising this in myself? No - I do not feel bad for recognising these feelings. We are in a crisis and we are dealing with a situation which is so far removed from what any of us have ever experienced in our lives, it is only natural that we will feel unlike our usual selves. Nobody prepared us as human beings for so much uncertainty and so much change.
The anger I felt some months ago was real. Without getting on a political soapbox, I was enraged at the lack of clarity, communication and consideration given to schools at the beginning of lockdown, since it left us in a very difficult position without any clear guidance. As time has moved on and our situation has evolved, this anger has now dissipated; however, I used this emotion to motivate myself and our Senior Leadership Team to make a difference and to respond with initiative and resourcefulness to the situation we found ourselves in.
I have been upset that we are not able to look after all of our children in the way we would like to as educators, and I know that my colleagues have shared this disappointment and sadness. This has spurred us on to put into place the very best educational and pastoral provision for those children who are not able to be with us on our school site. Although my colleagues and I have at times felt these ‘negative’ emotions, they have been balanced by ‘positive’ feelings too. I am so proud of the resilience of our pupils and the incredible support from parents and staff. We can all take joy and a sense of satisfaction from knowing that we are doing our utmost to look after the needs of the children: not just their academic needs, but their personal wellbeing too.
I have felt emotionally wrung out as the impact of the past 15 weeks has taken its toll, and I know that this feeling has been shared at times by colleagues, parents and pupils as well as family members and friends. Back in February I attended the first webinar on how to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic; we had not been affected at that point but I listened to the experiences of an overseas school and way back then I did not think that, in June, we would still be in such a surreal situation. It is certainly a marathon rather than a sprint, and it is only natural that we will all feel worn out by the emotional roller coaster of hope, disappointment and grief we have been riding, as well as by the extraordinarily heavy workload that the pandemic has brought.
Since February, the Senior Leadership Team at St. Helen’s College has had to focus on planning and implementing strategies and protocols to allow children and adults to be as safe as possible whilst also maintaining a good level of educational provision and protecting our organisation’s future. We should have been moving forward with the objectives of our school strategic plan, developing our provision for the children at St. Helen’s College with exciting initiatives and developments. However, as for almost everyone, ‘normal’ life and business have been put on hold for us, and our - more frequent and lengthy - SLT meetings have had a different type of agenda. COVID-19 features as agenda item 1 and will, necessarily, continue to do so for the immediate future.
I have tried to follow the Action For Happiness mantra and I hope that I have remained calm, wise and kind. However, I have welcomed all the other emotions into my life, being fully aware of how important it is to acknowledge these emotions and respond to them in a mindful manner. In doing so, I am grateful for the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and other mindful practitioners whose books and research help me to improve my ‘practice’ and enable me to find a level of peace in a frantic world. I highly recommend this book or the app.
To all of our community - staff, parents and pupils - I say this: it is ok not to feel fine all the time! It is the ability to observe negativity without criticism which is key. We need to catch negative thought patterns before they take us on a deeper spiral. We need to develop greater self-compassion, observing unhappiness or stress but allowing the associated thoughts and feelings to come and go. I teach the children about ‘thought buses’ - they need to observe thoughts but should not allow themselves to jump onto one of the negative thought buses as it may not be such a pleasant journey. Many parents have approached me, keen to find out more about what we do at school in regard to mindfulness. I recommend that those of you who wish to find out more sign up for this course, which is for teachers and parents, or watch some of these videos.
For those of you who are finding this pandemic difficult, you are not alone. At times, we all struggle, and at times we all need support. There may be greater hurdles ahead as we begin to rebuild some sense of ‘normality’, with the world beginning to open up once more to trading, tourism and hospitality. We need to allow all of our thoughts and emotions a place, but also keep ourselves optimistic about the future. There have been so many positives for us to celebrate as a school, as we have seen children, parents and staff respond to this crisis so magnificently - and when some among us have found it difficult, the school community has worked together and provided the strong pastoral support needed. I am sure we will continue to find more positives as the summer months unfold.
It has been a joy over the last two weeks to see the children from Ducklings, Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back in school, along with the children of our key workers. As they arrive, they are lining up in the new ‘normal’ manner to enter school, the majority of them not even giving a backwards glance as they skip into school after sanitising their hands. I only wish we could bottle up their enthusiasm and happiness to send to you all - it would be a very lucrative ‘happy’ business!
What lies ahead next for schools is still unknown, but what I do know is that our planning has always had, and will continue to have, the wellbeing of the children at its core. As our country’s leaders advise us further, we will continue to respond with integrity and care, planning for the best outcome for our children and our school.
I feel nourished writing this blog and even more joyful as we end our second week of June - today’s note in the Action for Happiness calendar is 'Make a plan with friends to do something fun together!’ I have not seen any of my friends from outside our St. Helen’s College community since February half term. Like many of you, I have not seen my family for much longer. My mother (in her 80s) is alone in Scotland; my Easter trip there was cancelled and, as she does not use technology, weekly phone calls are her lifeline. Thankfully I have a cousin who shops for her and checks in on her. I shall, of course, plan to do something fun with my friends and family when I can - we all need to plan for the future ahead and be proud of what we have all achieved in this crisis together.
So, I have felt anger, frustration, disappointment, joy, pride and hope...but my overriding emotion today is gratitude. I am grateful for our community and the strength we are demonstrating together. I am grateful for the determination and support shown by parents, the resilience, adaptability and happiness shown by pupils, and the perseverance, love and sheer stamina shown by staff. You are all superstars!
Have a wonderful weekend.
Posted on: 5/06/2020
Home Learning - A Parent's PerspectiveWhile many pupils returned to school this week, much of our pupil community continues to be educated via our remote learning platform, supported by their parents.
As all parents will know from the parent surveys you have completed, we have sought feedback formally from parents as we have established and developed our comprehensive remote educational provision. As we have gone along, we have also surveyed pupils and staff, to ensure that we have developed, and continually improved, a system that works for all of those involved. We believe that we have got an effective, user-friendly system in place and we know from recent parent feedback that parents are very happy with all that we have done, and very appreciative of the extra steps St. Helen's College has taken, which have really set our offering apart from that of other schools. Parents appreciate that things have not been easy for any of us but that, under unforeseen and difficult circumstances, the school has worked hard to offer something very valuable and to ease the burden on parents as far as possible.
This week, we have a blog from a parent, Mrs. Jamani, about her experiences of home learning with her daughter, who is in Year 5. Of course, the challenges have been different for those of you with younger children, but I thought you would all be interested to hear about learning in lockdown from a parent's perspective.
What you have all been doing, as parents, to support your children's learning during these tricky times is incredible. We know that you also have full time jobs, elderly relatives to care for, and the relentless 'busyness' that comes with daily family life. The school is very grateful to you all for your input with your children and for your continued support of the school and of each other. You should feel very, very proud of yourselves!
Home Learning - A Parent's Perspective
Like many parents I dreaded the thought of ‘home schooling’. For me, having a full time job that didn’t seem to slow down during lockdown, I wasn’t sure how this would work for us all. How would we all cope? Did we have enough supplies? Could I help with those interesting maths questions?
Looking back on those fears/questions now, I realise that I really had nothing to worry about.
Reviewing the past few weeks since term began after the Easter break, what has struck me as having really made a difference to us is how St. Helen's College has been able to adapt so quickly and the amount of resources we have in comparison to other schools. This has put a tremendous amount of structure back into my daughter's day. Having actual lessons within a structured timetable and live teacher interaction too has meant that my involvement hasn’t been at the levels I feared when first faced with the prospect of ‘home schooling’. I am so grateful for this, as I have no idea how I would have coped otherwise.
I now get to enjoy listening to my daughter’s class calls and the conversations and interactions she has with her classmates in her new study room and can see how much they are learning outside of the classroom setting! Remote learning has also given me a great insight into what her days may have been like when she was actually going into school, which I would never otherwise really have had a chance to experience.
My daughter also has positive things to say. She says that “remote learning has been really positive. If we need something the teachers are always at hand via Google Classroom or they might keep the Meet open so that we can go in and the teachers can help to explain things further. Also, when we mark our work we can go into the Meet and if we get a question wrong our teachers can help straight away. The added bonus is that we get help from our peers too. Our peers might be marking or have already marked the work so they can help by explaining it to us via Google Classroom or we can set up a Zoom call so people on the same thing can communicate/discuss and collaborate.”
Both my children have shown great resilience. They have embraced this new way of learning and living and actually all of us have seen the positives in what we do every day. Learning new things to cook, relaxing more, growing together, playing games, getting on with the ‘to do’ list and actually winning! Having a robust remote learning plan that has been executed well has meant that I, as a parent, have managed to juggle work and parental duties without the added pressure of being a teacher too! It has meant I can stress less and concentrate on making this time we have together as memorable as possible.
So a big thank you must go to all the staff at St. Helen's College for all their hard work, time, support and patience.
Posted on: 22/05/2020
Community Spirit and WellbeingOn Wednesday evening, we held our first virtual PA Forum meeting. Mrs. Hunt, Mr. McLaughlin, Mrs. Smith and I had no idea how many parents would show up online – especially on such a beautiful, sunny evening – and we were absolutely delighted when we were joined by almost every class rep from across the school!
Having already sought and received feedback from parents, pupils and staff about our current online educational provision, the focus of Wednesday’s meeting was to look at the wellbeing of our community, what we have done so far to promote wellbeing during lockdown, and what more we can do to continue to support you and your children.
We began by looking at what we have been doing so far – you can see the slides I used here – and it was heartening to hear that parents agree that the school has been going ‘above and beyond’ to care for our pupils pastorally as well as academically over the last two months of virtual education. It has been a challenge for us to make sure that pupils have face-to-face contact with their teachers and other staff, but we have tried to make sure they feel supported by school as well as home as they have negotiated a strange, changing and quite frightening world. We have held class and small group Google Meets and have set challenges and activities specifically designed to boost their spirits, as well as making school videos just to say hello! It is so important that our pupils remain happy and positive (and that we all do too), even when there is sadness and negativity around us.
We have kept a focus on parent and staff wellbeing, too. As I wrote last week, the world is a challenging place at the moment for most of us: we are being pulled in many different directions, and the rug is constantly being pulled out from under our feet. I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes:
‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…
It’s about learning to dance in the rain.’
I think we have all, thus far, been doing a wonderful job of dancing together! But there is always more that we can do, and so we asked the PA class representatives at last night’s meeting to brainstorm and let us know how else we can raise the spirits of pupils and parents, and care for their wellbeing. They had some great ideas: among other things, they suggested that pupils dress in rainbow colours or fancy dress for Friday assemblies and that we could encourage SHC pupils to take part in the Mount Everest Challenge or go for a Guinness World Record. While the virtual Sports Day leaderboard (which is ever-changing!) has been a hit, they agreed that it would be good to find more ways for the school houses to compete against each other, and they thought of fun challenges to set the children each week, like timing how quickly they could put on and take off ten pairs of socks!
They also said that it would be great to incorporate some form of brain gym or ’wake up, shake up’ at the start of each online lesson, to counteract the potential negative effects of time spent in front of the screen, and they noted that individual encouragement and reward from school staff is a real motivator for children. We will look further at ways to manage this remotely for those children who will remain at home after half term. The parents also asked if we could manage remote School Council meetings, to allow the pupil voice another channel, and we will be putting this into place for Middle and Upper School children.
The PA are keen to support the community, too, and are looking at ways of hosting a virtual social event. I am sure that many parents are keeping in contact in small groups by arranging online meets too, and I have no doubt that you are providing very valuable support to each other during the strange shared parenting experience you are all going through.
We were very touched when the PA reps asked us how the staff are doing, and told us how very grateful they, and the parent body at large, are for all that we have been doing. There was even an impromptu clap for the school staff, which brought tears to our eyes. I was so proud to be able to describe this at a staff meeting yesterday, and became quite overwhelmed as I relived the moment for my colleagues. It is lovely to be part of a community which recognises that we are all human, and that staff have their own challenges too. I was able to say, with conviction, that our staff are very committed to making the phased return to school work. While there is of course some apprehension about returning to school during a pandemic, there is a great camaraderie amongst the staff body. There is also a real sense of trust in the systems that the school’s Governors and Senior Leadership Team are putting into place, and a desire to return to some recognisable structure and routine. Most of all, staff are looking forward very much to spending time with the children again.
As you can see, the PA class rep’s came up with some fantastic ideas, and we hope to put many of these into action soon. If you have any ideas of your own that you feel might lift our community’s spirits or promote the wellbeing of our children, please, please, share them. Our (email) door is always open and we would really love to hear your ideas, or your children’s ideas, and put them into practice if we can. Please send ideas to Mrs. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s keep on dancing through the storm…together.
Posted on: 15/05/2020
Remote TeachingIt seems timely to stop, draw breath and begin some serious reflection on what we have been able to achieve so far with our remote learning provision this half term. We have now received - overwhelmingly positive – feedback from parents, pupils and staff about this via the surveys we sent out earlier this week, and it is important that, amongst our day to day work, we take time to look back at what we have achieved and look forward to what more we can do.
So much has changed in recent months and as we reflect upon our children’s learning, a few things are most readily apparent. We are now living with the daily reality of technology enabled education and, at St. Helen’s College, we certainly now have in place a robust and really productive teaching/learning platform, with which all staff and pupils are familiar. I am sad that so many schools across the country do not, even now, have a satisfactory online offering in place for their children. It is heartening to hear that the independent sector is able to assist schools less fortunate in their provision and schools such as Eton are facilitating remote learning with their A level students holding tutorials for younger children in the maintained sector.
There has been a great effect on staff, too. With remote teaching, staff are being more self critical; individually and as a whole school, we are surveying parents and children much more frequently than ever before, taking feedback on board, tweaking our practice and so, hopefully, providing even more effective learning opportunities. Staff have enhanced their skills and proved themselves adaptable and resourceful; with this has come a renewal of energy and excitement about our vocation and about what we as individuals have been able to achieve.
For most pupils at our school, there is more independent learning, more enquiry based learning and more project based learning. This has led to some wonderful creativity from your children and some really sophisticated and interesting work being produced. What we have also noticed is that, through remote learning, the children are developing ever-greater self-discipline. The timetable is looser, and there are fewer sanctions for children, who have come to realise that ‘virtue is its own reward’. They understand now, if they did not before, that the benefits of engaging fully, willingly and creatively in their learning are a sense of pride, achievement and happiness in themselves. Parents have played, and continue to play, a huge part in motivating the children to work from home successfully, often while facing the challenge of also working from home in shared spaces. We know that parents will have coped with many difficulties along the way and your support is very greatly appreciated.
I am tempted to say here that we could not have imagined all of this two months ago...however, it is precisely because, here at St. Helen’s College, we did imagine it - and worked quickly to build upon and enhance our existing systems, supporting each other and being willing to upskill ourselves - that it has become such a successful reality!
It is really astonishing to think back to what was asked of school leadership teams and teaching staff at the end of March. With virtually no notice, schools across the country were required to move our entire educational provision online for an unspecified length of time. Nationwide, a flurry began to research and select the best online programmes via which to deliver education, and teachers were required to re-plan almost entirely every lesson that they were due to deliver. We were very lucky that, as a school, we were already using Google Classroom and a flipped learning model in many year groups. This meant that many of our staff were already familiar with planning and delivering lessons using online platforms, and many of our pupils were already familiar with submitting work, communicating online and receiving feedback using these systems.
The last week of term is always a time of ‘finishing off’. While teaching continues, units of work are likely to be drawing to a close, art projects are being finished off and children are refining work, writing out work for Exhibition Day displays, and engaging in Easter-themed activities or creating Mother’s Day cards and gifts. In that final week, following the government’s announcement of school closure, these activities had to suddenly (over one weekend) be replaced with online activities, while teachers also struggled with worries over their own health, the health of their families, and childcare for their own children whose schools were suddenly closed. It was a tough time for staff across the school and I believe, honestly, that we muddled through it as best we could.
During that final week of the spring term and as soon as term ended, our School Governors, the Senior Leadership Team and I began planning in earnest for the summer term. It is hard to remember now, but at that time we had no certainty at all over what the summer term would hold. We had to assume that we would be continuing with remote educational provision, but we had no idea for how long. We had to assume that there was a strong possibility of some of our staff falling ill or being required to self-isolate. We were worried for the health and economic stability of our pupils and their families. We were concerned about how to ensure the long-term viability of the school as an organisation.
Our priorities were threefold at that time:
1. To make our first priority, always, the safety and wellbeing of our whole community: pupils, parents and staff.
2. To ensure that we could continue to provide an excellent education to our pupils, which would include both delivering high quality teaching and maintaining the strong and crucial pastoral relationships between pupils and staff.
3. To consider how best to support parents during the pandemic, by providing supervision for key worker children, by considering the economic, emotional and practical difficulties potentially faced by parents, and by communicating effectively with parents over the necessary changes and decisions faced by the school.
Teachers and senior leaders spent what should have been their Easter holidays re-planning lessons, mastering technologies that were new to them, creating videos in order to boost children’s spirits, and analysing, in depth, the school’s economic challenges. We knew that we needed to work out, quickly but with integrity, how to navigate through the uncertainty with fairness, generosity and good business sense in order to safeguard the school’s future for our pupils, parents and staff, and protect the enormous goodwill and mutual trust on which our community thrives.
Many staff were furloughed; we took advantage of the available Government schemes to help organisations such as ours and we worked out fee adjustments for parents for the summer term in the fairest and most transparent way possible – all the while not knowing if or when a return to school might be allowed. Our teaching staff worked hard, many upskilling themselves and stepping out of their comfort zones, to prepare lessons, make videos, research and curate suitable resources for use online, and alter the curriculum provision and timetables as necessary. We ran training sessions for staff who needed extra support in order to use the online platforms; we developed our own systems for online registration; we considered carefully how pupils could submit work and how work could be assessed and feedback given. Staff recognised that they would need to step outside of their comfort zones, work collaboratively and adapt to new timetables and ways of working. They rose to the challenge with courage and grace, welcoming parents into their classrooms and assemblies as regular visitors.
As the summer term began, with a depleted staff body and continued uncertainty over the pandemic situation, teachers communicated daily with pupils, parents and each other to tweak their practice and ensure that children were engaged in the online learning. As well as preparing and delivering lessons, and being available online for large chunks of the day to assist children in their learning, they monitored pupil attendance and engagement and answered parent queries. All the while, throughout the Easter holidays and during term time, volunteers from amongst the school’s teaching and administrative staff have also come into school daily to care for the children of our key workers, supporting them in their learning, looking after their emotional and physical wellbeing, and ensuring that they could have lots of fun and develop positive relationships with those around them. The family spirit of St. Helen’s College has really shone through, here. Miss Walker’s daughter (Madeline), Mrs. Smith’s son (Charley) and my own daughter (Kiera) quickly volunteered to come onto staff and join the team providing exceptional care and attention for the key worker children and ensuring that they are well-supported in accessing their online learning.
I hope that you will agree that, over these last many weeks, the staff here have never lost sight of how hard a time this must be for parents and children. We share many of your challenges: like you, our workplace has changed beyond recognition; many of our colleagues have been furloughed and we have had to spread ourselves thin in order to get everything done; we miss your children and our colleagues greatly; we have our own children and elderly relatives at home who need us; we are concerned for our own health; like you, we are tired, and worried about what the future will hold. We do not underestimate how great these challenges are for parents, and we have tried to be mindful that our communications are clear and honest, that our systems are user-friendly and that the inevitable demands being placed upon parents should be as manageable as we can make them.
It has not been easy, for any of us. And yet, as I wrote recently, there is so much to be proud of and grateful for. We are particularly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback that pupils and parents gave through the recent online learning surveys. Many of you took the time to send messages of thanks to teachers and the school for all that we have been doing – and this week, entirely independently, the children of 6RD also made a ‘thank you’ video for staff, collaborating virtually in order to do so. These words and gestures mean so much to us. We do our jobs because we believe passionately in the power of education and because we love your children; we do not do them for recognition, but we are human and to hear your appreciation cannot help but boost our spirits and make everything seem that little bit more worthwhile. So thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
With the news that schools are being asked to begin a phased re-opening after half term, we are once again doing a lot of planning in order to put rigorous processes in place. As with the news of closure, three things remain our priority: to safeguard the wellbeing of our whole community, to continue to provide an excellent education and first class pastoral care for our pupils, and to maintain an open, honest, mutually supportive relationship with parents so that we may continue to work together for the good of all. Next week, I will share more details with parents of exactly what our phased school re-opening will involve and how we are preparing for it. In the meantime, you might be interested to read this TES article which details how a school in Denmark have found their re-opening, and how they, like us, have come to realise that there are benefits to remote learning as well as to traditional teaching.
Posted on: 7/05/2020
Lockdown by Mrs. CrehanMrs. Drummond, who is leading the school brilliantly in these strange times of teaching online, has asked me to write a blog on ‘lockdown.’ It seems pertinent to do so in a week when we are remembering the great sacrifices made by generations before us as we celebrate VE Day. Certainly their experiences, living through a war, were much harder than ours today, but there are some parallels to be drawn. We are having to pull together, show bravery and resilience, acknowledge and support the front line workers and look for the joy in the little things just as our grandparents and great-grandparents had to back then.
I remember us as a Senior Leadership Team writing a policy for Pandemic Flu about 12 years ago and thinking that such an event would never happen, and yet here we are in exactly those circumstances! Luckily the forward thinking of the school and the expertise of our staff meant that we were well prepared to teach online and that the children were already used to this way of teaching. Indeed, a recent article in The Times noted that state school children are currently at a disadvantage in comparison with the independent sector as we are well ahead with online learning.
Lockdown will have affected families in different ways, according to whether parents are able to continue with their line of work, or whether they have had to stop completely. Parents are also faced with needing to help educate their children online, often alongside a heavy workload of their own, which can’t be easy.
We are all seeing a lot more of our immediate family and little of our extended families. I hope that you are enjoying the time you are spending with your families, as the usual rush of getting out of the house has gone for most of us, and we actually get some quality time with each other. We can also appreciate that close proximity of your loved ones for extended periods of time under stressful circumstances may not be all sweetness and light either!
Our situation in the Crehan household is probably fairly unusual in that four of our children with partners and grandchildren all opted to stay with us at the beginning of the lockdown, so there are thirteen of us here. There are pop up offices dotted around the house in the most unlikely places, and Mr. Crehan has been known to hold Google Meets while sitting on the stairs. We have to take our exercise in small groups so that we are not suspected of breaking the rules, and buying food can be embarrassing because my trolley is so full it looks as though I’m hoarding – especially as I am also providing for my 90 year old parents!
I feel guilty saying it, when so many are grieving or ill, but our lockdown experience has been enjoyable and busy. We have been fortunate in that we have avoided the virus so far and therefore spending an intense time at home with more of our family than we usually see, including one son who we hadn’t seen for a year because he was living in the Philippines, plus his lovely girlfriend, has been an unusual bonus. The weather has been amazing too!
Early on I bought a whiteboard online, and didn’t digest its measurements, which turned out to be large enough to take up a huge part of the kitchen wall, and on this people write down activities or whether they are prepared to cook on a particular night. We also have a column where we have a letter of the alphabet per day with relevant pictures beneath to encourage the three year old before he starts school.
We have got into a good routine (yoga at 8.00 a.m., singing for a video at 10.00 a.m.!) and everyone plays their part voluntarily in keeping the job of catering for so many people quite manageable. We have our three grandchildren living with us too, so some of the childcare has also been shared.
I volunteered to make some singing videos for the younger classes, particularly Ducklings where I would normally have done a weekly sing, and I have enjoyed this very much. We have made one almost every day so far, which has been a great routine to get into first thing in the morning. My daughter Lucy has been my action partner, as I can’t do actions for the children while accompanying on the guitar. (Although she is very pregnant so hopping like a kangaroo may not have happened as the song action required!) In the sessions we have had Teddy who is three years old, Bethan who is one, and behind the camera, the 5 month old Cleo with her mum, so there is an occasional cry from the unseen baby.
Each day I choose a new topic as a theme for songs and I think I must have covered most possible topics. I began with our usual songs but soon wanted to learn new ones, and having a daily topic meant that I researched songs from different times from the ancient nursery rhymes to war songs to the present day. It was a challenge learning a large number of new songs daily so I hope that parents who view them with their children will excuse the frequent mistakes (the tune of some songs may change slightly from verse to verse!) and amateur nature of the videos, but will also be amused by the antics of the children who were my measure as to whether the songs were appropriate for their age group. Bethan, the one year old, discovered an affinity for the camera from the start so there are many close-ups of her as she enjoys seeing herself! Mr. Crehan has also made a fleeting appearance, carrying props for our songs behind us in a couple of sessions, and he ‘swam’ behind us in full diving gear for Under the Sea! I wrote out the lyrics and stuck them on the side of the table and onto a drying rack, and frequently the children would wander in front of the words so that my view was obscured, leading to halts in transmission!
I have experienced a feeling of handing down treasures of songs, however imperfectly, that may have been forgotten today – there are many songs on Youtube but the quality of modern songs offered for today’s younger children is generally not very high, and it was great to delve into songs from the past as well as the better ones from today – several pop songs made it onto my list too! I even rediscovered a song that my grandmother had taught to me, which I had forgotten about. This experience has made the word ‘traditional’, i.e. the handing down from the past, feel very real and natural, especially as my past now goes back quite a long time!
Hopefully our St. Helen’s College family will come through this period safely and the children will not be disadvantaged by having their lessons online for a couple of months. Whatever their experience, it is a global one and they are living through something unprecedented in our history. 2020 will be in the history books like 1666.
I suspect that most of you are very busy but you may also be enjoying acting as co-educator of your children in a way you’ve never had time to do before. I’m sure that for the majority who are at home, it will not be easy juggling your jobs with your childcare. However, if we can stay healthy, and I do appreciate that some of us will suffer illness and loss which is difficult and tough, the positive side of this surreal situation is having time when we are not on the usual hamster’s wheel of life where we hardly see our families or our homes. It reminds us that however important our jobs, it is our families that are the most precious thing in our lives.
So stay safe, keep showing bravery and resilience and, if you can, keep finding the joy in the little things. In the words of the song sung by Vera Lynn during the 2nd World War, ‘We’ll meet again, (do know where), don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day!’
Posted on: 1/05/2020
The Power Of KindnessIn the Upper School live assembly this week we heard from a Year 6 pupil, Krisha, and her sister, Arshia, who participated in Mindfulness training over the Easter Holiday. Krisha spoke to the children about how the way we think can affect what we do and how we behave. She encouraged the children not to let their thoughts become feelings too easily.
How wise and pertinent these words from an 11 year old pupil to her peers are at this most difficult time for us all when we find ourselves spending many more hours at home than ever before. Often we may find ourselves overthinking our feelings and worries and this in turn may lead us to behave in a thoughtless manner. ‘Mindless’ is the term that I like to use with the children to describe this sort of behaviour. We need to ‘respond’ to our feelings and thoughts in a mindful manner rather than ‘react’ in a mindless way.
Last week's blog focussed on adaptability and I am hugely proud of how our community are adapting. As the weeks of remote learning continue, our children’s and our own resilience will no doubt be challenged. Resilience means learning how to cope with uncertainty, how to make the most of the resources and connections you have around you, and how to adapt to changing situations.
Kindness is a big part of resilience: without kindness and support, dealing with difficult situations becomes much harder. Building resilience is also about being kind to yourself, so that challenges become easier in the future. Resilience and kindness build a stronger you and a stronger community.
The British Red Cross have embraced ‘Kindness' on their website and there is an array of resources available there to help children and families to be more resilient. There are also suggestions for ways in which we can celebrate ‘The Power of Kindness’. The children from Lower School and Upper School are being encouraged to record their kind acts in a small booklet which you can download from the Red Cross website, and you may also wish to download the ‘Power of Kindness’ calendar. Please take a look at the website here.
On the news each day we hear of amazing acts of humanity and kindness which people are carrying out through this coronavirus pandemic, and each day I hear stories of pupils, staff and parents which underline that, as a community, we also are playing our part. You will see in the news this week that Manisher L (Year 5) has been working to build a local community of support in her street, while Shakira V (Year 4) is making cards to cheer up vulnerable or elderly community members. Many of our staff and parents are NHS volunteers, using the NHS Responder app to answer calls and help meet the needs of the sick and vulnerable in their communities. We are taking care of each other, too. The lovely ‘Hello’ videos, compiled by Ms Thomas for Lower School and Mrs. Reid for Upper School, are one of the many ways in which we are working constantly to stay connected and to lift each other’s spirits in these tricky times. These acts of kindness are all helping to build resilience and give us all the tools to adapt to our challenges and respond mindfully to our feelings.
Please do continue to keep in touch and let us know about your acts of kindness. I am so proud to hear of every one, and so grateful to be a part of such a kind, caring, resilient, mindful and - despite all odds - happy community.
Posted on: 24/04/2020
AdaptabilityA quick internet search for ‘adaptability’ and ‘employers’ brings up article after article from the broadsheet press, from employment agencies and recruitment websites, and from the websites of top companies, citing adaptability as the key quality that today’s employers are looking for in new hires, including new graduates. Many high level employers have actually devised ways to test for adaptability as part of their recruitment processes.
Adaptability is defined as ‘the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions; an ability or willingness to change in order to suit different conditions’. The specific adaptability that employers are looking for has, perhaps, a slightly wider definition: they might add the words ‘effectively’, ‘successfully’, ‘quickly’, ‘independently’ or ‘good naturedly’ to this definition. Certainly, a key ingredient for success in the adult world into which our current pupils will enter is likely to be the ability to adapt oneself to an ever-changing and sometimes totally unprecedented environment… like the one in which we all find ourselves now!
This might sound a big ask, but it is surely going to be second nature to St. Helen’s College children and, perhaps more widely, to the younger generation in general. When, on March 20th, schools were ordered into lockdown by the government, our pupils had to come to terms, almost overnight, with the idea that they would, for the foreseeable future, be unable to see their friends, teachers and other support staff in person. They had to adapt, with speed and good humour, to learning and communicating online, to working more independently and to finding their place in a household that most likely suddenly became more full of people than ever before. They had to understand, very quickly, that it was their own responsibility to develop and feed their enquiring mind and they had to do all of this while attempting to understand the wider local, national and international implications of the threat of the pandemic in which we find ourselves.
Wow! That is a lot to expect of adults, but for children it feels impossible. However, as Audrey Hepburn said, there is no such thing as ‘impossible’ – the word itself is ‘I’m Possible’. What our children have certainly discovered over the last few weeks is that they themselves are the key to their success. HOW they approach their learning, their relationships and their health is key. The success criteria in a new situation, even an unprecedented one, are the same as in any situation: being willing to listen, learn and think creatively; being able to try, fail and learn from failures; being ready to reflect, be still and find the voice within. Our values are what allow us to do these things effectively in new situations. If we have a strong personal core – if we know who we are and what we believe in – if perseverance, honesty, determination, kindness and the pursuit of excellence are embedded in our very being – then surely we are well-placed for success no matter what the outside world might throw at us. Moreover, if we have our own interests and a willingness to try new things and keep ourselves busy, active and learning in new situations, then our mental and physical health are likely to be maintained even in restrictive circumstances.
This is why the St. Helen’s College aims, and our values-based education system, are given such a high priority at the school, and are referred back to in everything that we do. No matter what the ‘crisis’, no matter what the new demands, no matter what our physical restrictions, we continue to aim for excellence and to nourish a love of learning, to encourage children to discover their own talents and interests by taking part in a wide range of activities, and to instil core Christian values so that children develop integrity, self-awareness and resilience. It has been a joy to hear how our pupils are embodying these aims in lockdown, from keeping busy writing songs, creating art, building marble runs, taking up new sports and hobbies to adapting and persevering in using online systems that might be new to them. We are sure that, having had the opportunity to practise adaptability and reflect upon it in such a major way, they will be high on the list of desirable candidates for any future employer!
There is not time now to discuss the amazing adaptability shown by parents and school staff in the current situation…perhaps that will be for another blog…but please rest assured that we know how very adaptable parents are having to be, and that we are amazingly proud of the flexibility, commitment and great integrity that our whole community is showing during this strange time.
We look forward to practising our adaptability again when we are able to adjust back to some sort of normality – hopefully sooner rather than later!