Towards the end of the musical Hamilton is a song entitled “It’s Quiet Uptown”. The song tells the story about how Alexander Hamilton copes with what is described as “the unimaginable”.
“If you see him in the street
Walking by himself, talking to himself, have pity . . .
He is working through the unimaginable.”
At times this year, it has certainly like that for many senior leaders in schools as they have tried to find solutions to moving schools online, finding a way through public exam results and then reopening schools under very significant constraints. There is no doubt that it has been hard.
In the middle of one of these crises, I came across an article about Ryde School on the Isle of Wight. The article told the story of the boarding house that had stayed open throughout the first lockdown and created a community of staff and pupils to live and work together. The staff made sure that everyone was involved in all of the aspects of home life, that they made the most of their surroundings and invested in their relationships with one another. I suspect that neither the staff nor the pupils will ever forget it. I was struck by how much we can learn from other schools and voices and how important it is to understand the needs of the pupils, the staff and the parents. So when Dean Close reopened in September, I was determined that we should really think about what each of these groups needed and be prepared to respond to whatever was needed.
If the pupils were going to flourish, the staff needed to feel comfortable and safe despite the threat of a pandemic. I am fortunate to have a brilliant team of Deputy Heads and support staff who immediately understood how to create a safe environment for teaching. This involved changing our original plan of basing pupils in one zone and moving staff. We created as many safe teaching spaces as possible, including repurposing a few social spaces and worked from the teacher out. Six foot screens, a rotating cleaning team wiping down touch surfaces four or five times a day, one way systems, changes to dining. It’s not exciting, it was difficult but it meant that pupils were taught in spaces where the teacher felt as confident as possible.
When there was so many constraints in school, we wanted the houses to be as relaxed as possible. To do this, we temporarily changed the vertical house structure that has been in place for over 100 years and moved to a horizontal structure of year group houses. We have not only learned a great deal about the benefits of this system but it meant that houses could be relaxed single year group zones.
With sport fixtures off the agenda, the priority of sport became entirely focused on health and wellbeing. Choice was the order of the day with pupils all given freedom to select from a wide range of sports. The sports coaches rapidly evolved from their usual competitive instincts to expert motivators. There was a tangible sense of fun in every corner. Something that extended to every corner of our co-curriculum. We have never had such good attendance, with no need for a “stick”.
Parents have really had to trust us this year. Many have sent their children across the world to a place where the headlines have not been good. In order to reassure them, we focused on our communications. Using streaming kit to involve them in as many live assemblies and events as possible, regular updates from the houses and I committed to writing a daily highlight which also included the latest COVID-19 stats. What started out as an act of duty, became a great way for me to finish each day. In her book, Wolfpack, the US World Cup winner Abby Wambach, reminds her readers that when she scored, she would always point at the person who helped create the goal. The daily email highlight to parents became an opportunity for me to point at a colleague or a pupil and be thankful for them.
Early on in the term, we realised that we needed to give as much certainty as possible to our overseas parents and boarders. We committed to providing activities and accommodation for them over exeats, half-terms and the three week Christmas break. An incredibly committed group of individuals gave their time to provide a superb holiday for 25 teenagers from across the world this Christmas. Deputy Head, Jacquie Davis, booked an incredible country house for the Christmas week complete with individual stockings and gifts for everyone. On this occasion, it was my family and I who elected to take on the arduous task of staying in the beautiful, luxurious surroundings of North Cadbury Court with 25 fantastic young people. In the second week, Jacquie and a small team were with the household based back at Dean Close with time for study and exercise along with a gala New Year’s Eve dinner and fireworks. The third week saw a number of colleagues offering academic clinics and a variety of activities.
Through listening to the amazing work that schools in our sector are doing and investing in understanding the needs of our staff, pupils and parents I believe that this time will be a major turning point in the pastoral care that our schools offer. It really is about putting individuals first.