Head’s Blog: Innovation and creativity – the silver lining of 2020?

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you

Desperado, The Eagles, 1973

Heading into Lockdown 2.0, there is some sense of having been here before and yet it also feels oddly different. It’s easy to attribute this to the welcome fact that schools are staying open though, more broadly, there appears to be a diminished sense of confinement and a resignation to simply getting on with it as best we can. Quite how we got here again is another story; as the philosopher Hegel said, the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.

It’s only a few weeks after all’ someone said to me the other day, perhaps forgetting that the original lockdown was only meant to last for three weeks. We will all look to Christmas as hopefully providing at least some relief from the torpidity, though I must say that Mr Sunak’s extension of the furlough scheme deep into next year does not particularly raise the festive spirits.

So, get on with it we must and that means making the most of a situation that has been imposed upon us. At the risk of sounding smug, I have long learnt not to get too bothered by things I can’t control (Preston North End’s annual flounderings are testament to that) and understand the psychologist’s assertion that it’s not negative events per se that defeat us but our emotional reactions to them.

And whilst the last 9 months has not been without it’s challenges as far as running a school goes, there are many things that we will undoubtedly benefit from in the longer term as a result of the pandemic. Being forced to do things differently and innovate for the benefit of the pupils means we’ve unearthed new ways of doing things that have turned out rather well. Necessity being the mother of invention has never been so true.    

Arguably the best example is the use of digital technology by teachers. If someone had told me last February that all our staff in the Junior and Senior Schools would be teaching online lessons via Teams by the start of the summer term I’d have questioned their grip on reality. Add the widespread use of OneNote amongst staff and pupils for resource sharing, note-taking and file management and I’d have said they were away with the fairies.  And yet within just a few weeks of school closure – thanks to the dedication of talented staff – this came to pass and our three-year targets for staff IT training were met in barely three weeks.

Being able to deliver online lessons and share work digitally doesn’t just shore us up for any future school closure, it also means that if a teacher is away from school for any reason but still able to teach, then pupils will be taught rather than simply set work. We have also found that the use of OneNote in the Senior School has significantly benefitted many students with their organisation of work and notes and therefore also their completion of homework. In tandem with our Learning to Learn programme, this should also boost the effectiveness of pupils’ revision and preparation for tests and exams for many years to come.

The use of Teams and remote technologies has also, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, helped facilitate meetings and collaboration both within the school and with parents. It will be interesting to see if some aspects of parents’ evenings in the future can be just as effectively held remotely; something busy working parents and those who live some distance from the school may well appreciate.

With the need to keep pupil bubbles separate and maintain distancing from staff, we have had to consolidate where pupils are taught and how they move around the school site. Whilst new one-way systems, ‘bubble classrooms’ (one of many new terms in the Covid dictionary) and divided corridors took a bit of getting used to, they have encouraged more orderly and efficient movement around the site and therefore a much calmer atmosphere at transition times.

Perhaps the biggest difference to parents this term has been the relative ease with which drop-off and pick-up has taken place; an important part of arrangements at the start and end of the day to avoid congestion and pupil mixing. Whilst this has involved a significant investment of time from our excellent facilities staff, and whilst we still prefer pupils to arrive on foot, bike or buses wherever possible, it does seem to have worked exceptionally well, with much more fluid flow through the site and far less parental frustration.

One unexpected bonus has been a significant decrease in the incidence of rhinoviruses (common cold) amongst the pupil body, with a consequential drop in the absence rates we’d normally expect at this time of year. Although we’ve understandably had our fair share of pupils and staff having to self-isolate as a precaution this term, we do believe that the decreased prevalence of illness in the community is related to all the hand-washing and better standards of personal hygiene. Whilst I long for the day we can say goodbye to face-masks, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to maintain such general hygiene standards going forward which should mean much less school being missed.

It hasn’t all been plain-sailing through the pandemic, of course, and there have been some pretty grotty down-sides, particularly during the period of school closure over the summer term. Even now, with pupils restricted in their socialising and sporting activities and with all the uncertainty about the future, things are by no means ideal.      

We also need to remember that central to the pandemic are those grieving the loss of loved ones or continuing to care for those struck down by this awful virus. The aftershocks of that scale of loss and the enforced isolation of so many others will no doubt shape society for many years to come.   

Looking ahead to the sun breaking out across a Covid-free landscape, however, we will be taking forward a number of new ideas, initiatives and procedures, borne out of compulsion and necessity, for the benefit of all members of the school community. So, whilst I am not sure we will look back at these times with great fondness, we can at least thank them for compelling us to make the best of a bad situation and that’s a really important life skill for us all.