Covid-19 response has demonstrated importance of communication and community

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Our relationship with our families and our communities is probably stronger than it’s ever been before

Janice Allen Falinge Park High School

Schools can take away some important lessons from the coronavirus outbreak, says Rochdale headteacher Janice Allen.

The Falinge Park High School head believes relationships between staff, students and their families have been strengthened since the outbreak began, and she feels this should lead to better communication between teachers and parents in future.

She also feels that her school’s response to the crisis demonstrates the importance of working in partnership with local charities and agencies.

Janice and her team have worked hard to keep in regular contact with all of the 1,300 children in their care.

“Every child and every family receives a phone call once a week. We mobilised our office staff and teaching assistants and everybody to make those calls.

“It threw people outside of their comfort zone to begin with but what it has done is it’s created a bond and a relationship between the families and the school that perhaps wasn’t there before.

“It’s meant that we’ve been able to pick up on instances where families have lost relatives, and where they’ve lost their jobs, so we were able to put in free school meals for them straight away.

“We’ve also had more intensive support for children who are vulnerable, children who are disadvantaged. For example, daily phone calls from mentors or heads of year, or home visits from our safeguarding team.

“It’s been very much about keeping connected throughout this time.

“The phone calls have been the best way of communicating with the parents and some parents are spending 30 or 40 minutes on the phone talking to the staff.

“For some staff, they had no idea what it was like for some children. No matter how many times I can tell people, until they have that direct experience of it themselves, they won’t know.

“Our relationship with our families and our communities is probably stronger than it’s ever been before.

“What we have to do when we come back – and lots of schools are saying this – we must try and make it flourish rather than just going back to the old way.

“I know that in some schools – not ours – but in some schools, in the past that relationship has been quite divisive. We’ve all got to work on that.”

Janice says she has noticed a difference in the way her own two teenage sons have reacted since lockdown began.

“I’ve got an 18 and 16-year-old at home, both boys, and both were to sit exams this year. Neither of my children have ever been particularly well behaved through school, but I’ve noticed the stress level in my house has gone down considerably since they’ve not been in school. It’s something I’ve thought about that with some of our parents. They will have noticed, perhaps, that while there may be stresses elsewhere to do with money and so on, the stress that school can bring sometimes has gone.

“We need to think about the way we communicate with parents so that we just phoning them up to tell them that their child has not behaved in a lesson. Instead, we should do what we have been doing this past few weeks – phoning them to have a conversation and for it to be something positive.”

It was from the regular phone calls that Janice and her team discovered just how many pupils do not have internet access.

“A third of our kids, we estimate, don’t have broadband access,” she said, and that’s been an eye-opener for me and the staff.

“I knew that not everyone would have a laptop, but I honestly didn’t think there’d be so many that didn’t have broadband, and that’s been a shock to me.”

The school took the decision, ahead of the government’s own scheme, to hand out computers to children who did not have access to one.

“We’ve tried to do that for all children, not just those who are seen as pupil premium,” says Janice. “That’s an important distinction, because a lot of children who are disadvantaged, on a spreadsheet they don’t say pupil premium. Disadvantage is not just about money. There are multiple reasons why children are disadvantaged.”

While they may not have laptops, most children do have access to smartphones and the school has been trialling communicating with the pupils via Instagram. “I was a bit nervous at first,” Janice admits, “but it’s just been brilliant. Kids don’t use Facebook and Twitter, they use Instagram, so the team have been able to get in touch directly that way.”

For Janice, the other big lesson to come from coronavirus is the importance of community.

“That community aspect of schooling is something that’s perhaps been missing in educational discourse for years, she says. “I’ve always been a strong believer in community partnerships and I think that now is an opportunity for those partnerships to be revived, partly because we’ve had to turn to other people to help us during this coronavirus – at times like this you can’t just do everything in isolation.

“What I hope to see is that more schools look towards the community in that way and build those partnerships with parents and charities and all of those things.”
Janice says her school has, for a couple of years, worked closely with partners including the youth service, and charities such as Early Break, a substance misuse charity.

“We’ve been very much focussed on being a community school,” she says.

I’ve always been a strong believer in community partnerships and I think that now is an opportunity for those partnerships to be revived, partly because we’ve had to turn to other people to help us during this coronavirus – at times like this you can’t just do everything in isolation.

Janice Allen Falinge Park High School

“In 2018/19 we had a tough year where the school was hit quite badly by external violence, and with other things that were happening in the community. There was a period where we were trying to sort it all ourselves.

“For me, when you place schools within the context of a community response, it’s not just that you’re at the centre and everybody else comes to you; for me it’s always about being very much a partnership.

“What we’ve done through the coronavirus is keep really closely involved with our Youth Service and our charities because we are only going to be able to do so much if we attempt to do it by ourselves. If we work in partnership with existing organisations that are out there it will be out there, it will be better.

“So, when we come back to school, the charities will be in school. We’re planning for youth service and for substance misuse workers to be in every dinnertime, so there is that real universal provision.

“On Friday evenings, two of us are going out into the community with youth workers, to talk to young people outside of school, and we’re probably going to continue that for the rest of lockdown and perhaps even longer.

“When you ask how do you get some of these hard-to-reach pupils to engage – well actually they are probably already engaging with youth workers, or youth justice, anyway, so let’s think smart and let’s reach out to these agencies and work with them as trusted partners.”

It has not been possible for any school to maintain life as normal during the pandemic, but when Falinge Park was closed to most children, Janice and her team considered what their priorities were during lockdown, and those areas have been protected. “We’ve looked at our values and we’ve decided what did we not want to lose during this time,” she said. “The things that were really important to us were about communication, about community; we’ve kept that at the forefront during coronavirus and it will be there when we come back.”

Human rights at Falinge Park

Some children may be struggling with home-learning but one part of the curriculum that has kept students and staff at Falinge Park connected during lockdown has been its work on human rights.
“One thing we have maintained is our work with the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights foundation,” says Janice Allen.
“For the past 18 months, since we had our issues within school, we’ve been working with the foundation to deliver a human rights programme
“Officially it’s called the Speak Truth to Power programme, but we call it Ripples of Hope. What it has enabled us to do is for us to increase empathy within the children. We begin on a global level and then bring it down to a personal level to show that they have rights too, but they’ve also got responsibilities. It’s a really interesting approach and it’s a great programme.
“During the time we’ve been absent, we’ve still been teaching our Ripples of Hope programme and encouraging children and families to get involved in things like environmental challenges. That’s given us a hook to be able to keep the children connected and to ensure that we are not targeting individual groups. Everyone can get involved in this and they all do.
“So, even when children come back who may have struggled with learning maths and English, they will still have been involved in projects like this - and we can use their success in this area to help them bounce back into some of the academic learning they've missed."