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Back to school: Who comes first?

by Mark Bocker

There is significant, and often heated, debate on social media and in the press at the moment regarding why, when, and how we should begin to scale up action in bringing children back into our schools.

Much of the debate centres on the impact on our most vulnerable children which is understandable. This must be a priority and we are rightly very concerned about how we may best support these children and their families. Worth bearing in mind however that ‘vulnerable’ relates to vulnerability to risk and is not a descriptor of the child. Indeed, many are incredibly resilient – they have had to learn to be!

These groups of children will undoubtedly have been more susceptible to adverse experiences – highlighted by the DfE in their guidance – despite school leaders and teachers desperately striving to provide the best education they possibly can at this very, very difficult time.

In addition, while our schools remained open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, the percentage of those identified as vulnerable attending has been very low – in the region of 5 – 10% only (Guardian report of 21/04/20).

Critical phase

This is a critical phase in their lives and, while schools do their best to attend to their needs, the factors identifying these children as vulnerable often serve to create barriers to our best intended interventions and communications. The resultant disparity in the achievement gap is well documented and sadly will have widened considerably with many commentators claiming it may be at its worst now more than an any time due to the impact of choosing not to attend or not being able to attend. Many have the most supportive parents one could wish to meet but sadly many don’t and live complex lives.

Indeed, I wrote a blog Mind the Gap attempting to identify all the gaps. I saw a flawed focus solely on academic catch up as all children were affected in terms of time ‘lost’. However, the media seemed to keep bringing focus back onto academic progress rather than our vulnerable students. I highlighted other gaps such as transitions, missed celebrations and, of course, the achievement gap. I wanted to be more strategic about all of the gaps rather than simply focussing on academic progress.

My view is that the biggest factor is the lack of connection between children and staff. While not in school these connections are massively reduced which will inevitably have significant educational and emotional impact. Children have lost out on the aspects of those connections which support their chronological development. In particular, learning challenge and support, kindness, empathy, understanding and optimism.

Holistic approach

If this is the case, with the vast majority of children who are currently being educated at home, then our focus on our most vulnerable children ought to be completely holistic and with an intense focus on mental health and reigniting those relationships which serve to support them so effectively. These relationships create the network of support that allows our most vulnerable children to develop chronologically at a pace indistinguishable from their peers who have considerably more support and stability and their lives.

So, what’s the solution? How do we specifically plan for the reintegration and the successful reignition of these special relationships such that our most vulnerable will close the gap and be more likely in future to achieve their full potential? I have seen very few examples of post Covid-19 action plans with the exception of @SchoolProTLC and the Chartered College of Teaching report. They offer a considered approach with specific reference to vulnerable groups. Please note the focus on staff mental health! My suggestions are unworkable unless staff return safely, in good health and confident of school plans.

I would like to suggest we take this rare opportunity to address the needs gap when we consider who it is, we actually need to prioritise. Surely, we must focus on the greatest need. And whose needs could be greater than our most vulnerable children given the gap which already exists and the fact that it will have widened – maybe even significantly.

Emotional gap

We already acting in loco parentis when we manage the welfare and wellbeing of all our children, and you will not find a member of school staff anywhere who would deny that our most vulnerable children have the greatest need at this moment in time. I therefore, would argue that it’s not the academic gap of year 10 and 12 that matters as much as the emotional and relational gap that exists for our most vulnerable children.

How do we go about it then? What’s my solution? Well, I would say we need to learn the lessons provided by our amazing pupil referral units and AP providers who really get to know their children with such depth, understanding and compassion that they achieve incredible outcomes when resourced adequately.

These professionals highlight the need to work collaboratively with our external agency colleagues in support of those families most in need in our society. They demonstrate how a values-led approach is effective and which, in turn, makes the children and their families feel valued and secure. Can mainstream schools do the same? Of course. And many, many do already but, is their current focus on the academic or the pastoral? On ranking students’ grades or reintegrating?

I believe we have an incredible opportunity to stage the return of our most vulnerable children first. Let’s put real needs first. Let’s be humans first, teachers second. Let’s give our most vulnerable children the opportunity to reignite relationships with us, hear their stories and their experiences and rebuild their dreams. Bring our vulnerable children back first and, in doing so, show them how highly we value them by offering them our unconditional regard. Show them we care, and that they belong. Offer support, a listening ear, and optimism and we might just close some of that gap.

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