How Schools North East is bringing teachers together during difficult times

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We’ve had it as a constant theme through our events programme, but also our newsletter and press releases, that schools are the fourth emergency service.

Chris Zarraga Director, Schools North East

A regional network of schools has proved its worth during the coronavirus crisis by bringing teachers together like never before.

In the past two months thousands of teachers have engaged with Schools North East. Director, Chris Zarraga, says it is because the organisation is uniquely placed to support the region’s education professionals.

Chris and his team talk to school staff every day, and he believes many are “on their knees” right now due to the tremendous hard work they have been doing in the last two month to support their communities. He says that help and reassurance from fellow professionals is key to getting through the crisis.

With teachers and school leaders facing pressure from government, press and public, Chris is keen to highlight the amazing work being done by school staff during lockdown.

“We’ve had it as a constant theme through our events programme, but also our newsletter and press releases, that schools are the fourth emergency service,” Chris says.

“The Multi Academy Trust where I’m a trustee is in central Middlesbrough, one of the most deprived areas in the country, and the school has made 5,500 food deliveries over the last two months.

“When you look at what some schools are doing in terms of deliveries, the welfare calls, and the rest of it, the figures are absolutely staggering.

“We’re also having massive issues up here regarding the tech and the promises of government laptops which haven’t arrived. A significant number of schools have spent a huge amount of money buying kit for kids.

“And then many families don’t have broadband, or if they do, there’s just one device in the home, and that’s Mam’s phone that she needs for keeping in touch with friends and family.

“The commentators don’t understand the real issues. Instead they’re writing that schools should be Ofsted-ed on their online offering.

“The message we’re trying to get out is that the issues that are coming out of this are not Covid-specific.

If you just put a sticking plaster over these issues as a response to Covid, you’re going to get bitten by them year after year.

Chris Zarraga Director, Schools North East

“The tech issue, the negative narrative around the teaching profession, these are perennial issues.

“Learning loss may be the biggest in living memory as a result of Covid, but it is not a new thing. Learning loss happens every year and it is more significant for disadvantaged students.

“If you just put a sticking plaster over these issues as a response to Covid, you’re going to get bitten by them year after year.”

Lobbying to highlight these disparities and to change the negative narrative surrounding education in the region has long been a key priority for Schools North East.

That lobbying has continued during lockdown, while other aspects of the organisation’s work have moved online.

Chris explains: “When we went into lockdown, we transferred everything to the virtual format.

“We made the commitment that, as far as we could, we’d carry on running all the major events that we had planned for this year – those that support governors, mental health, our celebration of education, and so on.

“We also decided to massively increase the number of webinars we were running, so we could specifically support schools with issues related to Covid.”

Chris says the response from teachers has been extraordinary.

“In the physical events programme last year – and that was another record year – we had about 3,500 people engage with the events programme, including the webinars. But in just two months since lockdown, we’ve had over 2,000 engage.”

The most recent event, held just before half term, was CelebrateEd – the Northern Celebration of Education.

“We were desperate to do the Celebration this year, even though we couldn’t run it physically as we normally would.

“The idea is that we get teachers out of that mindset of Ofsted, bureaucracy, and form-filling and  get them back into the space that teachers went into teaching for, which was pedagogy and what works in the classroom and what will benefit them in transferring that knowledge of the subject they love to the kids in their class.

“The lead-in time has been really short,” says Chris, explaining what a challenge it has been to adapt the programme to contact-free format. The result, however, has exceeded all expectations.

“We expected maybe 500 delegates and we ended up with 1,600,” he says. “And we’ve received some amazing feedback.

“People do like the getting-together element, which is really difficult to replicate in a virtual environment, but we did have school performances and a virtual pub quiz.”

Chris says the success of the virtual conference will change the way similar events are run in the future.

“We’re going to revamp the whole events programme to incorporate the virtual side because that will then allow everyone to access every session pre-recorded whenever they want. Timings become irrelevant. We’ll have both a physical programme alongside a much deeper pre-recorded programme.”

This way, people will be able to either attend in person, and get access to both the live and pre-recorded material or sign in as a virtual delegate and access recorded presentations at any time, at a reduced cost.

Chris says School North East’s new online community ConnectEd has also seen a surge in membership over the past couple of months.

He believes the network is giving teachers an opportunity to discuss issues with other colleagues they would not otherwise meet.

“Before Covid, we had been operating a controlled rollout of ConnectEd, but we decided to make it available to anybody in the North East who wanted to join straight away,” he says.

“Earlier this year we had 800 people registered for ConnectEd and that’s grown to 2,500 now and we’re literally getting dozens a day coming in.

“It’s a time when people want to be together and they want to have somebody to bounce off.

“With bringing teachers together we’ve been able to offer that sense of relief that they are not missing something, they are in the same place as everybody else.

“Teaching’s a very lonely profession now because you tend to only be brought together for Ofsted, exam results, data and so on, and it becomes very isolating. As a new teacher in particular, when you’re developing your craft and your lesson plans, it’s very difficult to get advice from colleagues and have the time and the space just to ask simple questions and talk with people at the same level as you.

“So, we’re trying to build that community around them, physically through the events programme, and then virtually through ConnectEd; where they can talk to each other, they can ask questions, and  find out that they’re not alone.

“It is tough for schools at present, but there are a lot of positives out there; particularly the strength of the community we are creating.

“With our events and ConnectEd, we can enthuse teachers about their profession and the work that they do by connecting them to like-minded colleagues,

“We are bringing them into a community that says you’re not alone, it’s a brilliant profession and you’re a brilliant part of it.”