Our schools are at the heart of our communities, we’re the go-to when people need help of any kind
Many schools now offer support that extends far beyond the classroom and at this time of crisis, they have demonstrated their value like never before.
Katrina Morley, who heads up a group of five schools in Middlesbrough, is incredibly proud of the role her staff have played during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As CEO of Tees Valley Education Multi-Academy Trust, which serves areas of significant disadvantage, she feels strongly that schools in these areas take a lead role in their communities.
“I do genuinely feel that we owe it to one another and most importantly to our children to work together through this,” Katrina says.
The schools that make up the trust have achieved excellent results despite the huge disadvantage gap that many of their pupils face. “One of my academies, Brambles, is in the bottom one per cent of schools in the country in terms of its needs and yet we’re outstanding because of the work we’ve put in.”
But with most children currently unable to attend school, Covid-19 threatens to widen the disadvantage gap even further. Katrina knew it was important to respond quickly as the scale of the crisis became apparent.
“We took the decision, even before the government had identified the key worker groups, to identify them ourselves. If we wish to drive our own profession and we wish to be professional, we must drive some of those answers and definitions, not just wait for them to be delivered to us.
“As ever, we came together, we planned together. All of our children and parents deserve to be treated the same, no matter what their background.
“Our current priorities are safeguarding and feeding, so in the first four weeks, we handed out just over 4,000 free school meals – about 1,000 a week – and we undertook 1,800 welfare visits.
“We went out of our way to make sure that families were being fed – particularly those who had suddenly found themselves unemployed.”
For Katrina, her schools are much more than simply places of education. “Our schools are at the heart of our communities, we’re the go-to when people need help of any kind. We are the people who are there to support on things like mental health for adults, as well as children.
“At Tees Valley Education we’ve always taken poverty proofing and cultural capacity as seriously as progress and attainment. We have protected the roles of those people who work with the community and our parents. It is one of our significant strengths and one of our biggest commitments.
“So, when this struck, we were quite fortunate in the fact that we have a very well-established community pastoral and welfare team. For example, we have our own educational psychologist, our own counsellor and we have parental support advisors in every academy. We also have somebody on the senior leadership team in every school whose sole focus is poverty proofing and community engagement.”
So, the school welfare visits are about more than just making sure the children are okay. “The welfare visits are also to work with parents about landlords, benefit applications, and issues of that kind,” Katrina explains. “Some of our parents can’t read or write very well so we can help them with filling in the forms.
“Of course, at present, we must do it at a distance. We’ll either do it on the doorstep, over the phone, or they will come and see us at school. Our schools are open – they never closed, even for Easter – but we socially distance. We have a line they have to stand by, but they’ll pass the form over to us and we write it for them.
“We’ve also got children with a range of special needs, so we had to undertake risk assessments on individual children, not just for their vulnerability but for their care needs as well.
“We also had to make sure that we could try to follow the advice of the World Health Organisation and get what Personal Protective Equipment we needed.”
School staff work on a rota system, working from home and school. When at home, the school has given them phones, so they can call to check on children and families.
The schools have favoured offline learning, as many families have limited access to digital devices.
“A popular phrase now is digital poverty,” says Katrina, “but people’s definitions of poverty can be different. I went to a meeting once and there were people there who genuinely hadn’t got a clue that you would have families without an iPad and access to the internet, never mind one each in the whole family. We live on different planets in some ways.”
“So, every child took home with them a big homework pack of reading books, exercise books and pencils in the first instance. We made sure that every child in the Trust got a pack before school provision as we knew it closed.
“As time went on, parents wanted even more work for their children, so we’ve put together other packs for parents to collect. It’s things like exercise books, pencils, and paint – particularly for the younger ones, so they can undertake creative activities at home.
“We also let them swap their reading books. We have a tub that they put the used ones into so we can leave them, and the cleaners will deep clean them for us.
“Our communities are brilliant so if they knew that anybody was socially distancing or couldn’t come out, they’d come and get the packs for them.”
Katrina chose not to wait for additional funding for the extra resources, instead paying for them from school funds. “As the saying goes, if not you, who? And if not now, when?” she says. “It’s the children’s money, and at the minute, I can’t spend it on them directly in school so I shall jolly well spend it on them in terms of getting, paint, art materials, pencils and paper to them.”
Katrina says she has been blown away by the response her team have received from the local communities since the crisis began.
How do you begin to thank people for what they have done? My staff genuinely couldn’t have contributed anything more, they are phenomenal.
“We have been genuinely humbled by the feedback of parents and by their generosity,” she says. “Down in Brambles they have very little – some of them are lucky if they have white goods such as fridges -and yet the whole community contributed to sending the staff a hamper to say thank you to them for how hard they were all working.”
“It reduces you to tears to think that some of the most vulnerable in society are literally scraping together what they can to say thank you for something which is our privilege to undertake.
“This whole area was forged out of steel and its people are just as strong. When you put them in intensely pressured situations, you just see the depth of their generosity of spirit, the depth of their passion, you see their commitment to finding a solution and you also see them forging a new path out of it.”
As the school plans for the children’s return to school, staff know the attainment gap will have widened.
To begin to tackle that, Katrina says it is important that other factors are prioritised first.
“We need to make sure those children are safe, in every sense of the word, and that the families are. Then, when they do come back, we will have far more chance of being able to hit the ground running with the curriculum and progress. We need them to be in a psychological and physical state that they can actually access learning.
“We’re facilitating as much learning as we can and by that I don’t just mean academic learning, I mean family learning. These people are going through a significantly traumatic time and therefore you can’t constantly add further academic pressure onto them.
“The packs we are giving out are aimed at reactivating the children’s prior knowledge, applying what we’ve already done, while also discovering some new things. This will give us the best opportunity when we do return.”
And Katrina believes it will take some time to make up the lost ground.
“I genuinely think you will be looking at up to two years to close what will be potentially a term’s education gap for us. And that’s on top of what we ordinarily do.
“We already have to work incredibly hard because when our children join us in nursery, only about 28% meet age-related expectations. It takes us to the end of Year 6 to turn that around, so that 82% of our children are leaving with age-related expectations. We must catch up with that, as well as catch up with the time lost during the lockdown.
“I think when we open, our role is going to be predominately about childcare, at least initially. We can’t possibly teach properly and really focus on progress whilst the world is still very different for our children, particularly in the TS3 areas which are seeing some of the highest Covid numbers in the region.
“However, we’re already looking at how we can adapt our curriculum for the next two years. We will be looking at what else we can offer around our breakfast clubs, and after-school clubs. We’re looking at getting student teachers in – particularly readers – to really give everybody an opportunity to catch up and excel.”
Katrina and her team are working with the Ambition Institute to look at the curriculum and what the teachers can best do to help their children catch up. Teachers may receive online training as they seek to adapt in the coming months.
“We’ve got different things in place to support the staff to think about how we’re going to best support our children,” Katrina says.
And speaking of those staff, Katrina is fulsome in her praise of the work they have done during the crisis.
“How do you begin to thank people for what they have done? My staff genuinely couldn’t have contributed anything more, they are phenomenal.”