Making provision for the vulnerable during extraordinary times: reflections from Janice Cahill OBE, Executive Headteacher, The Pendlebury Centre & Highfields Inclusion Partnership, Stockport (part of the Alliance for Learning Teaching School Alliance)
As we were hastily asked to social isolate and schools were partially closed for the majority, it was extremely difficult to ensure that the right support was given to all our students and staff. The government’s definition of vulnerable did not include the students that we work with daily, but in every other guidance, the word ‘vulnerable’ includes every young person that attends a pupil referral unit or alternative provision (AP).
We had to therefore rag rate our students to prioritise them according to this definition. After much discussion, we decided that all our students sat within the vulnerable group and whilst not opening the centres up as requested, we agreed to implement an effective remote system of contacting every student initially twice a week and then once a week as the lockdown become our ‘normal’ working practice.
Every student was provided with both physical learning resources – delivered personally to their homes and a range of online learning opportunities. We were very fortunate that all our mainstream schools supported their young persons’ learning and safeguarding and collectively, we have provided an inclusive learning platform.
Links into social care and CAMHS, by having our every other day conversations about students with the wider multi-agency community which tend to work with our students, has been strengthened and regular contact has been imperative.
Initially for many of our students, home learning was not an ordeal. For many students attending an AP, it is unfortunately the school environment that triggers their social emotional and mental health issues and on telephone contact with both the students and parents they have reported that their anxiety and mental health issues have reduced, which often happens particularly in the long summer break.
Like many schools we have provided online guidance about how to keep yourselves emotionally fit and well. The Secondary Jigsaw team (our mental health team) have continued to provide support through weekly sessions and have updated their assessments to ensure that the young person and family still feel supported.
Our staff have found this social distancing extremely difficult and as several members of staff have said, “I shall never complain about the length of a term again!” The request for volunteers in the Easter break was met with a 100% response of YES! They have missed the core purpose of being part of a fabulous profession – to interact, communicate and develop relationships with young people which enables them to learn, but more importantly to develop resilience and emotional strength. This is very difficult, indeed impossible to do via a telephone or video link.
Whilst the positivity within our team been overwhelming and we have done everything possible to help our students, this has been a challenging time. In terms of self-care, my approach has included being mindful that none of us are indispensable and a good team will carry on, so I have:
- made sure I have had my own personal down time which has included gardening, whilst practicing some basic mindfulness
- enjoyed face time with friends and family so we can see that we are all OK and enjoyed a glass of wine, sharing laughter
- been feeling confident that my staff have continued to do a great job, communicating the numerous missives we receive
- reminding myself that between us all we are safe. The whats app group has shown what a great team we are, having a sense of humour over each other’s pressure points. Seeing each other’s family members having their fringes cut has been a highlight and one of my staff teaching us Yoga. I’m just happy no one else could see my moves!
When we do finally return, we will need the opportunity to rebuild the teacher/ child relationships, we will all have to get used to working in our school communities again. We hear that life will never be the same again and in many ways it won’t. Businesses will look at their infrastructures and determine how they can function with remote working and the increased use of technology, but schools cannot function without contact.
My hope is that when we do reconvene, schools have an opportunity to rebuild a routine which meets the needs of all. There are concerns, quite rightly, about the learning that has been lost and this time will need to be reclaimed to ensure that next year, when students sit their examinations they are not at a disadvantage. The emotional and mental wellbeing of our students has to be at the forefront of our planning. This is an ideal opportunity to implement the recommendations of transforming the mental health of children and young people in schools and to embrace some of the recommendations of the Timpson Report to ensure that our systems include all our students, the most vulnerable students who attend our schools every day.
Most heads acknowledge the emotional wellbeing of their students as a priority and with the temporary removal of SATs, Progress 8 and Ofsted inspections, they have the opportunity to design a curriculum which meets the needs of their school community, placing emotional wellbeing as a priority. Because of this recognised need for support, both locally and nationally, local authorities and the wider community have been quickly implementing and transforming existing services to ensure our families are better supported with emotional wellbeing hubs being established so that help is available.
This crisis will touch the lives of every single person in the country and we must ensure that the right support and interventions are in place to enable all our young people to continue to live healthy and happy lives.
As I have said before, this is not rocket science, it’s all about human relationships.