After first half term with Covid restrictions, we speak to KCC Principal and students

The return to school for Kingsbridge Community College has thrown up some challenges, mainly coronavirus-shaped, but the whole team have been working to move the school forward. 

Tina Graham, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College - credit Education South West

Here’s what they have been up against in the first half of the Winter Term 2020. 

The main focus has been on using the collective behaviour culture within the 1,450 students, to help support each other and keep everyone as safe as possible. 

The main focus has been on using the collective behaviour culture within the 1,450 students, to help support each other and keep everyone as safe as possible

Headteacher Tina Graham took over the helm September 2019 and has already had to deal with a global pandemic. 

Tina said: “With a change of leader comes a change of angle and focus, but a school is only as good as how coherently its staff, students and parents work together. I am really proud of the way the school community have done this. 

“What has been within our control has been maintaining the academic rigor in the school, responding to the national curriculum and equipping our young people with the tools to not only be the best version of themselves, but to be successful in the future.”

What has been within our control has been maintaining the academic rigor...and equipping our young people with the tools to not only be the best version of themselves, but to be successful in the future

But what has been outside of their control has been the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Never before had all schools closed, all non-essential workers told to stay at home, the whole country come to a complete stop. Because it had never happened before, we were all flying by the seat of our pants, teachers included. 

Tina explained: “In March, I sat down with the Senior Leadership Team to discuss our plan. Were we going to press ahead with the changes to the school that we had planned, or should be simply react to the situation we found ourselves in? 

“Our staff are aspirational and have a real moral imperative to give all they can to our students, so we made the decision to keep going with planned changes to the curriculum for September and to do this alongside introducing blended learning - with online lessons, especially for Year 10 and Year 12.”

Our staff are aspirational and have a real moral imperative to give all they can to our students, so we made the decision to keep going with planned changes to the curriculum for September 

The school did everything they could to make sure that students were given all the opportunities they could to stay up-to-date throughout lockdown, teachers used Skype to lead classes, they pre-recorded and narrated powerpoints, the PE department devised lockdown fitness videos that could be done from home with beat the teacher challenges and other online packages to support young people while they were stuck at home. 

Laptops were sent home to pupils in Year 10 and 12 who needed them and the decision to start using the online learning platform ‘Show My Homework’ in November last year proved invaluable. 

It wasn’t just their physical and educational well-being that was high on KCC’s priorities either, with fortnightly welfare check-ins,  the Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education department posting online mental health resources posted on the intranet and check-ins for families. This was all on top of the staff dealing with their own lockdown related pressures and strains. 

Asked whether lockdown would have a long-lasting effect on the pupils’ education, Tina said: “Where circumstances allowed for the pupils to learn independently and there was parental support to do that, the educational recovery will be relatively swift, where that is not the case, it is going to be much more complex.

“It is too simple to say that only the disadvantaged students will be affected most, although insufficient access to IT will play a significant part, but those pupils whose parents are key workers, those on the front line to keep our shops stocked and our economy going, will also have the potential to be disproportionately more affected than others as the adults in those families continued to work – potentially even longer shifts and (through no fault of their own) were less able to support home education. 

It is too simple to say that only the disadvantaged students will be affected most,...but those pupils whose parents are key workers, those on the front line to keep our shops stocked and our economy going...

“What is important is identifying the students who have got bigger gaps and make sure we look at the unique circumstances and tailor a response to the individual.”

One of the biggest frustrations that school leaders had to manage was the GCSE and A Level debacle.  “It was a shambles”, Tina said.  She wrote to the local MP Anthony Mangnall about the situation her students found themselves in. She wrote about her “anger and frustration” at the way the situation was handled, with thousands of students having their exam results downgraded and some expecting to have their university places rejected due to an algorithm. She told Mr Mangnall that “the way the A-Level results had been calculated has resulted in deep injustices for individual students and their families in schools like ours”, luckily the Government U-turned and reverted students’ grades back to their predicted grades. (Read more here

Coming back to school after nearly six months away, was a “relief” according to Tina. There was much anxiety around the return to school, and people’s reactions to this fall on a spectrum. We acknowledge with the students that this is a very challenging situation, much of it out of our control but we do have control of how we respond to it.  

“We have rules in place for mask-wearing”, Tina explained, “they’re not mandatory all day, but they are in certain areas. The students are zoned within their year groups in different areas of the school and the teachers move around, so masks are worn in the corridors by everyone but are optional in classrooms. 

“I can understand why some students found this difficult at first, but in the classrooms, all students are sat at their desks and facing forwards, whereas in the corridors, they’re moving in closer proximity. It’s all about reducing the number of times the virus would have the opportunity to transmit between people.

Some things are quite different. The art and technology department have had to think really creatively for their lessons as students can’t share equipment.  Staff have risen to the challenge and are driven to ensure the best standards of education are reached in spite of the circumstances. 

In order to find out how the students felt the school had dealt with returning during the pandemic, I interviewed two students from Year 7 - Summer Wilson and Sullivan Tann, two from Year 11 - Tabitha Stephenson and George Gopal, and two from Sixth Form - Alfie Ward, 17, from Year 13 and Ellie Steer, 16, from Year 12. 

Talking about returning to school after nearly six months in lockdown, most of the students were apprehensive, but not too worried about being back in school. Tabitha said: “I was apprehensive at first, but not so much for myself, more of bringing it back to my parents or my granny as they’re more vulnerable.”

I was apprehensive at first, but not so much for myself, more of bringing it back to my parents or my granny as they’re more vulnerable

Summer was more concerned about other people too. She said: “I was a little bit scared because I didn’t want to get ill but I was more worried about giving it to my dad. He had to go into the office all through lockdown and I didn’t want to pass it on to him.”

Turning to the measures that the school has put in place to limit cross-infection, all the students understood the reasoning behind the rules and said the vast majority are following them. 

There were some positive aspects to the new rules, especially for the Year 7s. “The students are staying in their areas and the teachers are moving around”, Sullivan said, “it means we’re not getting lost and has given us a bit more time to settle in.” Summer agreed. 

The students are staying in their areas and the teachers are moving around...it means we’re not getting lost and has given us a bit more time to settle in

When it came to mental health support for students, everyone was very positive about what the school had done. “I was getting check-up emails from teachers”, said Tabitha, “there were resources on Show My Homework too.” George agreed, saying: “Every time we had a Skype lesson the teacher was checking up on us and asking how we were.” Ellie said that if teachers wouldn’t get a response from a check-up email, they would follow up with a call to make sure they were OK. "If we needed the resources we would know where to find them.” 

The Year 7s weren’t at school at the beginning of lockdown so didn’t have the access to the KCC online platform but when asked about mental health support, Summer said that the tutors were “very welcoming” and Sullivan said that they were “making sure we were OK and had a positive attitude to learning and interacting”. 

When I asked if there was anything they would have done differently at school to deal with the pandemic, they all said the school had done really well in putting systems in place and “anything that needed ironing out was by the second week”. 

At the end of the interview I asked the students whether they had a prediction about the future, whether more lockdowns are going to happen and what they thought. George and Tabitha both said they expected a second lockdown to happen, if only a short one, and said that certain subjects were taking steps, such as maths lessons including a small test every two weeks, getting as much data as possible in case grades had to be predicted again. 

George said: “As cases go up it would make sense to have another lockdown but you need to balance lockdown and educational needs.”

Tabitha said: “I think a short lockdown would be the right thing to do until the cases go down again and we can be a bit more normal. 

“Scotland has cancelled exams [GCSE equivalents have been cancelled in Scotland, A-Level equivalents will be held two weeks later] and I think that’s the right thing to do, it takes the pressure off. No one knows what is going to happen.”

Sullivan said: “If cases keep going up I think there will be another lockdown and the schools will close but we still need to learn.” Summer said “we know it's for our wellbeing”. 

Ellie said she thought another lockdown was “inevitable” but that this time they knew the school had the facilities for online school. “If it was in the middle of the year it would be easier.”

Alfie said: “It’s definitely going to happen, I’d prefer we didn’t but we have to think about the national interest not just my grades!” he laughed. 

Glad to see the mantra of “community over self” is working. 

All in all, in an unknown, unpredictable and difficult situation, Kingsbridge Community College has risen to the challenge. Let’s hope we remember teachers alongside NHS staff and frontline workers who kept our community running in the strangest of times. 

I hope all South Hams students have a well-deserved half term and are just as positive when they come back in November.  

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