Reflections on the Monmouthshire's schools through the COVID-19 Lockdown and the return to school in the summer. Verbal Update - Will McLean
Chief Officer Will McLean gave a general update. Following the announcement in March, the Government announced support for vulnerable learners and childcare for key worker children. Monmouthshire responded to that request very well. All of our schools have delivered those two critical aspects. The method of delivery of childcare was through Hub schools – that model worked really well. We looked at the demand in each town, the local authority took responsibility for identification and registration of childcare. There are areas of significant demand in certain places e.g. two hubs were run in Abergavenny, at Llanfoist Fawr and Deri View, due to there being a district general hospital; in the south of the county there were hubs in Rogiet and Dewstow, with a further hub in Thornwell, one in Monnow in Monmouth, and Raglan school opened to support the county’s rural centre. School clusters working to support hubs has been one of the biggest positives of this period. We’ve seen a greater level of collaboration in our clusters, with enhanced personal relations between some of the headteachers. For the Easter holidays, Monlife provided support – teachers therefore had the opportunity to step away from school. Monlife provided a combination of youth work, outdoor education and sports development. This was very well received by parents and children.
In the summer term the seven hubs were retained but it became apparent that the Secondary schools wanted to open to offer support to their vulnerable learners and key worker children. We therefore stood up 11 hubs. We decided to provide childcare up to Year 8. There was a very low uptake compared to primary. The secondary schools were able to put into place their own systems and use the time almost as one of soft testing how they would work once there was a return to school. Two of our secondary schools house Special Needs Resource Bases, both of which operated through that period.
On 22nd June, we changed our model in preparation for the return to school on 29th. Every school opened in Monmouthshire for vulnerable learners and key worker children. This allowed the hubs to have a more manageable number of children, and allowed schools to put in place operational plans and to test them. An important point to make is that childcare in this period was a significant pressure on our schools – we had a high number of children accessing the childcare, when compared to authorities of a similar size. 80 children returned in the first week, rising to over 300 by the end. MCC colleagues did very well organising the registration process, and Headteachers did very well managing the balance of key worker children and their significant desire to have as many children return as possible. This was managed without having to say no to anyone regarding childcare provision.
It has therefore been a very challenging period, but everyone involved has risen to the challenge with great success. The Minister for Education is to make an announcement at 12.30 today about future plans.
Sharon Randall-Smith gave a further update regarding learning specifics:
Schools have responded very well to the demands that have been placed on them, particularly with regard to learning. Their first priority was wellbeing, but all were conscious to keep the lines of communication open with pupils and parents to provide learning even at that early stage. Schools were at different relative levels of capability regarding how they could step up to the challenges. But every school had something in place whereby work was being provided to children, and support to the families. Initially, there was a 50% uptake of schools using Hwb; this has increased significantly. There has been a good uptake in professional learning, ensuring that what children are being asked to do will be appropriate and engaging, as well as covering wellbeing. The learning model is coming to fruition now; the learning is of a new kind. Schools have been provided with a huge amount of training and professional learning from our colleagues in the EAS. Engagement has increased in some areas but not in others. There has been helpful feedback from young people, which has been shared with schools: for example, looking at amounts, access to resources, etc.
Schools noted immediately that some children would find it more difficult to engage in the learning offer. Schools have worked directly with parents whose children need additional resources and were finding it difficult to engage sufficiently. We have cultivated very good relationships with parents.
Some children and parents remain a concern; in those cases have maintained very regular contact. For example, up to three times a week with families in some schools. We have looked at other ways that we can give support. This remains a priority for schools moving forward. There is huge enthusiasm within schools to develop learning; good practice has been shared within hubs very effectively – schools have been working together. Schools have prioritised pupils who are a concern for their ‘catch up and prepare’ sessions. Schools have been clear that they won’t return to the old way as they’ve found so many strengths and made such positive developments in the way they’re delivering learning now; synchronous (i.e. ‘face-to-face’), contact with groups of children, and also a-synchronous learning, where there is flexibility for the learner to engage at whatever is the most appropriate time. Schools have looked at learning as a family, where everyone can learn together, making it a more meaningful experience.
The last few weeks in which the children have gone back to school has been used very well to prepare pupils and staff, offering a comprehensive blended approach as we move towards September and beyond. Support from EAS will continue to be needed.
There is a concern that if not all children are back in September, and online learning is used more and more for them to keep up, the existing achievement gap will increase. Has social services working in tandem with schools been considered? What about volunteer support?
Vulnerable learners are indeed a national concern. We hope that as many pupils as possible are in school in September. There is a necessity to close the gap – this is an existing aim of ours. Regarding digital accessibility: we’ve been working with schools to ensure all children have access to what is needed. We bought and provided 200 personal internet connections (My-Fi), and equipment has been borrowed and lent between schools (around 80 pieces of kit on average, at secondary school level). A very positive outcome is how closely we’ve worked with social services, we’ve been very careful to pay attention to ensuring that the needs of vulnerable children are met.
Regarding volunteers: we met recently with Jill Langford and her team to learn how best we can make use of the range of volunteers available to us, and we met with a core group of headteachers. They wanted time to consider what they would want and need. We’ve spoken about supporting wellbeing: children learn best when wellbeing is high; how we can support delivery, and support families – this is key for stopping that gap from widening. We’ve met weekly with social services to discuss and review supporting provision for children who need support. We’ve utilised EAS to identify any barriers to learning support. Schools have maintained regular contact with vulnerable families, as mentioned earlier. Our Flying Start service has identified families, they know them very well; these have been discussed and we’ve looked at what they need to thrive. The sharing of devices across schools has been very positive. We may need to look at that again as parents return to work.
Regarding borders, and disparities between England and Wales: might there be a problem with childcare if, for example, someone teaches in Wyedean but their children access education in Wales? Is there adequate communication to key worker parents about nursery and childcare provision?
There is inevitably a challenge in managing having English schools so close to us. We’ve worked with the guidance from Welsh government, offered schools the flexibility to interpret that in a way that suits them in their local context. We will continue to do that, so they can make the best use of their facilities and resources (in terms of teaching staff).
We’ve been able to provide significant childcare throughout this period. Early decisions to extend the remit of our Flying Start offer enabled us to stand up resources effectively, and we’ve been able to use some private providers. We’ve been supported by the Welsh Government CCAS scheme, in which the previous 30-hour allowance was suspended, and moved it to support key worker children in this period. It is worthwhile stressing that when we do return to a broader school attendance, it is important that everyone is aware that childcare cannot be provided by our schools.
According to Wales Online there is less availability of online learning in Wales than in the rest of UK. But there is a national platform – are national facilities not all available in Wales?
As a border county, walking the line between Westminster and Cardiff decisions is a continual concern. Hopefully, today’s announcement will see our children returning, as in Northern Ireland. We’ve worked with the guidance from Welsh Government, and worked with schools to interpret it as they need and see fit. Wales was in an advantageous position given the use of Hwb prior to lockdown. England had to rapidly procure a provider, whereas Hwb is specific to Wales, and enables a huge amount of information to be shared, lessons to be created, and provides full access to all pupils in Wales to Microsoft and Google provision. It was provided well in advance of the pandemic.
We’ve had feedback from parents about synchronous teaching. There may well be more a-synchronous provision in some schools; every school will apply the model differently. The latter provides more freedom and is more accessible as it can be utilised whenever is best for the pupil, and therefore creates better results, as studies have shown.
Lots of children don’t get statements of additional learning needs. This can take a long time. What provision did we ensure was given to children in the process of receiving one, or missed out on one? What was put in place for them, and will be put in place in the future in case of another lockdown?
We had direct dialogue with parents of children attending SNRBs. For those without a statement, we worked to ensure vulnerable children were identified and supported. It is a challenge to do that, and we continue to look at it. We will reflect on the support we’ve provided as we prepare for September. We do have to think about potential localised lockdowns, and ensure schools are ready to respond. We continue to work with Welsh Government to ensure we meet the requirements under the ALN legislation; it is difficult because often the provision is identified as being ‘at school’, and we have to find a way around that.
There will be children who have done as little as possible during this time – how will they be integrated back into the routine of regular school lessons?
The decision by Welsh Government for every pupil to have the opportunity to check in, catch up and prepare is a fundamental part of how we do that. These three weeks of contact time between learners and their schools are vitally important. The three elements are really important: the message from Welsh Government throughout this period has been that welfare and wellbeing have to be the number one priority – that relates to the ‘check in’ part. The ‘catch up’ is because clearly we need to understand where our learners are. The third part, ‘prepare’: the message we’ve had from headteachers is that this period is critical to allow the young people to come back and make sure they understand how they access the education and Hwb, how they interact digitally with their school, etc. Our colleagues in education welfare have contacted those learners who need to access school – we know there is a group which will be vulnerable to not doing that. We’ve been working hard to ensure that continuity. It is important that we don’t think of the future as binary, with children either in or out of school – it is likely to be a blend, and this ‘prepare’ element is vital to how we manage that as we go forward.
What is the status for families where either the parents or children are in the shielding category? pupils going back with medical conditions, or with parents who have them.
Any child in receipt of a shielding letter is not expected to be in school at this time. The same applies to staff, or those who have a close family member in receipt of a letter. Further consideration of the shielding regime will take place in August. We’ve worked very closely with trade unions, HR colleagues and headteachers about staff returning, or those with underlying conditions remaining at home. We will wait for further guidance about shielding in the future. We’re very clear at the moment that children enter into a group in the morning then don’t leave it, to keep mixing down and to implement social distancing correctly.
In order to meet social distancing requirements, are leisure facilities being used?
Chepstow and King Henry VIII schools are currently using leisure centres, Monmouth and Caldicot didn’t need to. We’ve begun to prepare contingencies for other locations to ensure social distancing if they are needed in the future, and have identified a number of buildings throughout the authority, though HR and additional staff need to be considered.
Could it be clarified that all pupils have access to I.T.?
I am not currently aware of any cases of I.T. kit not being provided to those who need it. We have been funded by Welsh Government: they brought forward the second tranche of the EdTech fund to furnish children as needed.
Is there further reassurance that the attainment gap will not widen during this period?
The Minister for Education launched a £29m initiative this morning to support more professionals to be brought in for the next academic year to close the gap. Details will come in the coming days. It can be a challenge to find the right staff in the key subjects. But we will await further details from Welsh Government this morning.
We have considered dysfunctional families potentially lacking full resources, and the use of IT. It has been very good to hear that every pupil has had their technical needs met. Issues of border schools and blended learning were considered. We covered the matter of pupils with ALNs, or who haven’t been statemented. We considered issues regarding shielding. Welsh Government’s announcement today will give clarification, and we look forward to that.