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Headteacher collaboration in the South West region

Headteachers from the South West, who contributed to the SWEIC Blether in October, share their recent experiences of school recovery during lockdown. 

Martin Armstrong, headteacher of Troqueer Primary School

Digital learning then and now - one school's perspective

In the few days before lockdown in March, we had several members of staff shielding, both support staff and teachers. Things were hectic in school covering classes, waiting for latest guidance and monitoring the situation meticulously and none of us at that time really knew quite what to expect. 

As we tried to keep school as normal as possible, our absent staff immediately set about establishing our digital learning platform, using Microsoft Teams, as promoted by Dumfries and Galloway Council. Whilst learning at our school did make effective use of technology, it was limited in its application. By setting ourselves up with Teams, we were being proactive in establishing how learning would take place when the inevitable lockdown began.

Troqueer Primary School sits close to the centre of Dumfries. It is a large school of 10 primary classes and an Early Learning and Childcare setting. By our statistical report, we have children from all 10 socio-economic deciles, so we have a very mixed catchment. Access to devices for digital learning, like in all schools, was going to be varied.

Team working

When lockdown came, we established our teachers in small teams at a similar stage, rather than taking responsibility for their own class. This was in case particular teachers were taken ill, leaving their class without the main teacher to lead the learning. The teams published weekly learning grids made available on Teams, our website and on our app. We opened weekly channels with set times where children could have dialogue with staff, ask any questions and share their learning. Cathy Mackenzie, who was DHT at Troqueer Primary School at this time, made a short video - Learning at home with Troqueer Primary School - published in Education Scotland’s digital learning blog, which best explains our learning.

Digital access

Dumfries and Galloway Council was able to make an offer of loaning digital equipment out to families who did not have access. Through this scheme we were able to identify 18 families who had no access to a device to access the digital learning. I-pads for these families were acquired and distributed very quickly, and we were confident that all of our children now had access to our digital platforms. Of course we now realise that this was a naïve view. ‘Access’, we now know, will often be a phone, sometimes with damaged screens, or a laptop that needs to be shared amongst several family members. 

Digital equity

Digital learning has the potential to meaningfully enhance learning, whether or not we are in a crisis situation. In some respects our hands were forced in March, and the move to digital learning would simply not have happened to the same extent, no matter what initiative we used, were it not for the situation. However now that we have made this step, it is my belief that we must now harness this use of technology in everyday learning. Over the past decade our access to devices even in school has suffered and as a profession we often lament that (some) children have access to better technology at home. So we need to think differently. Could there be the potential perhaps for every child in any given authority to have access to the same technology? Surely we can find ways to explore equitable access to technology for all learners? Could we explore a system whereby authorities could acquire devices for everyone? By this mass acquisition the best prices could be found, Pupil Equity Funds would pay for some, and the rest paid for by families through a Government-backed scheme of affordable repayments. This is a different model of infrastructure to the systems we have had in place since we began to harness such technology in schools in the 1980s. With this investment in infrastructure surely there would be a surge in provision of digital learning fit for purpose? It is certainly ambitious, but if we as a country are to commit to digital learning with the recognised benefits, then it is time to do things differently; it is time to provide the infrastructure that our children deserve.

Elaine Harrigan, headteacher of Girvan Academy

Recovery planning, collaboration and evaluation

Reflecting on our return to the school building post-lockdown, I cannot believe we are now already in November. It has been a whirlwind of recovery planning, collaboration and evaluation. 

Safe and calm return to school

At Girvan Academy, our mantra has been a calm and safe return to the school building. As a school leader, my time has been spent working with colleagues, young people, their families and our local community to reassure them that we are doing all that we can to allay their fears in relation to COVID-19 and to provide young people with a purposeful continuation of their education. As a whole school team, staff have stepped up to ensure a level of normality in the face of adversity. Young people, staff and their families have coped admirably and with great understanding in relation to the ongoing changes they face.

What have we been doing since our return?

A critical focus was to ensure minimal disruption to learning and teaching and firmly embed health and safety protocols for all young people and staff.  It was important to reflect on the experience of learning at home within the first few weeks of our return; the Learning and Teaching group carried out a whole-school survey and collated responses from all stakeholders. When the school re-opened, it was apparent that young people were excited to return and continue with their learning.

However, it was evident that young people had to overcome a number of challenges during lockdown, eg busy family homes, sharing of IT or other IT challenges. School staff were available to provide both educational and pastoral support to young people and their families. Although challenges in learning were encountered, the school community worked together to minimise these. Staff delivered IT to young people throughout lockdown. 

Improving attainment

Improving attainment is a key focus within Girvan Academy and during the lockdown period of learning it was difficult to gather reliable and robust data. Data was collected in relation to engagement, quality of work submitted and previous attainment. An analysis of departmental tracking and monitoring was used to identify data for individual young people. This collated data was then used as a baseline for their return and initial deployment of COVID recovery teachers. SLT met with all subject PTs to discuss and review course recovery planning at all levels. In the senior phase, cognisance of emerging SQA updates during the stages of return meant that teachers were planning with a focus on key assessment items and collection of evidence at all levels.

Lesson observations

Our programme of lesson observations continued as we sampled pupil experience. SLT allocated one department per week to visit and a number of lesson observations took place. The focus of observation was to observe and monitor the readiness of staff and learners for their return, pace of learning, the implementation of health and safety protocols and overall wellbeing within the school. Departments were provided with written feedback of the SLT experience and a follow-up meeting was set with the PT to discuss findings and next steps for individual departments. This promoted greater professional dialogue in recovery planning and identification of ongoing CLPL, with staff leading sessions based on their professional learning. It also allowed us to take initial conversations away from a purely COVID-19 focus and bring our attention firmly back to learning and teaching.

Changing our approach with community partners

Our return has also found us working with partners and parents/carers in a very different way. External partners have experienced success in reaching young people via video conferencing and virtual online events. In the classroom, flipped learning approaches now allow young people to research key content as part of home learning, with skills development and consolidation occurring within the classroom. Staff are thinking differently on how to deliver excellent lessons, developing their creativity in digital learning platforms with young people working collaboratively within current restrictions.

On a final note

Finally, it was great to be involved in the SWEIC HT Big Blether in October: sharing experiences, hearing from colleagues and engaging in critical thinking. As we continue this term, we ensure high expectations for all learners and continue to live our values of ambition, community, respect and responsibility. We respond with courage, determination and mental toughness as we progress through this academic session.

Lorraine Dougan, headteacher of Mauchline Primary School and Early Years Centre (EYC)

The SWEIC Headteacher Blether

I was delighted, if not a little nervous, at being asked to talk at the first SWEIC Headteacher Blether. Some people may find the fact that I was a little nervous strange, given that I had taken to producing a daily short video, which I tweeted via the school twitter page during lockdown. However I believe that those butterfly feelings show that I really care about what I do and I use them to my advantage.

I was pleased to be asked to talk about my post-lockdown experience and return to school in regards to parental engagement, which is an area I feel very strongly about, and continually strive to maintain. I am currently headteacher at Mauchline Primary School and EYC in East Ayrshire. My school role is 277 in the primary and 38 in my EYC. I hope you enjoy reading about my experience.

Parental engagement during lockdown

Parental engagement is a key strength of our school. We are a very open school and my staff are readily available to speak with and support parents and carers.

Reflecting back to the start of lockdown, my immediate thoughts were around how parents and carers would be feeling at that time, assuming that a large majority of them may be worried, scared and feeling unsafe. My gut reaction was that I felt that the school had to be there as the ‘steadfast rock’ to connect with and support our families. Knowing our families really well, I was aware that the support and engagement that we offered to our parents would play a key role in how well our parents and carers could support their children.

Connecting with families through Twitter

I then started to think about how we could continue to connect and communicate with our families during the lockdown, and decided that on the first school day of lockdown I would do a little twitter video for our parents, that would help reassure them that we were there for them, and give them a little guidance on what they could be doing at home. I then continued these little daily video tweets for the rest of the week.

The feedback we were getting from our parents about the daily tweet was really positive and they felt like we were there for them and ‘going through’ the experience with them. I felt I had then committed to this offer for our parents, and decided I would do it for the duration of lockdown.

Initially I didn’t appreciate what a big commitment this was, and there was a real emotional element to it as well, coming up with new ideas for parents, empathising with them and trying to remain positive. In order to share the load a little I managed to enlist some of the other staff across the school, who weren’t too afraid of the camera, to help make little videos too. This worked really effectively, and also gave our viewers a change of face.

Communicating with families via phone calls

We also used phone calls as a regular way to communicate and connect with our families. Across the school and EYC we initially made weekly contact with our vulnerable families. The primary staff volunteered to call our other families monthly. This idea came initially from staff check-in with children via emails and Teams, and then staff asked if they could call families for that more personal contact.

In the EYC the keyworkers made fortnightly contact with parents by telephone.

The phone calls also allowed us to know which children and families needed immediate extra help, which children may need extra support on return and which families weren’t engaging with the online learning and the reasons why.

We wanted to ask our parents and carers how we were doing with regards to communication during lockdown, so issued a questionnaire via email. The feedback from parents was very good, with all those who responded to our questionnaire stating that they appreciated the phone calls and felt well supported by the school.

Managing parental expectation

During lockdown it became clear that parents had very different expectations of what they expected from the school. We had some varying expectations from parents, from wanting 5 hours of live lessons through to potentially opening schools at the weekend.

To help manage this we communicated very clearly what parents should be expecting from us with regards to the learning offer we made each week. We also communicated what we expected them, as parents and carers, to do to support home learning. This was communicated via the school blog and was effective and a strategy which we have continued to implement on our return to school.

School return

On returning to school we wanted to engage with our parents and carers very quickly about what they felt was important for their children as part of a school return and recovery. We did this through a parent and carer questionnaire using MS Forms. The children and staff were also consulted as to their views at the same time.

83% of our parents and carers responded to the questionnaire, with the following results:

  • More than 75% felt their child has most missed the social aspects of school.
  • Almost 75% said the social aspect was the thing their child was enjoying most about being back at school.
  • Parents felt the most important aspects of learning to work on now were literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing.

Moving forward and looking to the future

This term we have focused our curriculum around the three core areas of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing, and I am confident that we have used parental engagement to shape the high-quality learning experiences that are relevant for our children right now.

In looking to the future the big questions for me are:

How do we use parental engagement to shape the future of Scottish education and how do we create the space to further engage our parents in creative thinking around the future of the curriculum?

John Doherty, headteacher of Largs Academy

New headteacher working remotely

I started a new post as headteacher at Largs Academy in January 2020 and shut the school during lockdown before the end of my first term.  By August 2020, I had been a remote headteacher of the school for longer than I had been someone who worked with the staff and pupils in person.

Largs is a large secondary school of just over 1000 pupils and about 150 staff in North Ayrshire. It is a brand new campus and is a central focus in the local community. Lots of our parents went to Largs, lots of our staff live in Largs, lots of our staff went to Largs and lots of their children are now pupils. This has huge benefits - it is truly a community school. However, during a pandemic it also can feel like we are under an intense microscope at times.

Pupil and staff engagement during lockdown

During lockdown we had many successes of which we are really proud. Our pupil engagement with work was strong - particularly in maths and English. Our staff engaged positively and lots were up with experimenting with virtual platforms. We managed to maintain a strong ethos through CLPL activities, social media, staff fitness classes and regular competitions and quizzes. Lastly, we took our responsibilities seriously in supporting our vulnerable families through our pupil support staff and in our day-to-day operation as a hub.

Challenges during lockdown

The challenges will resonate with other headteachers. I was concerned that the pupil experience was inconsistent and that work rate for many was non-existent. I wasn't sure how to best deal with this. Furthermore, as lockdown went from weeks into months I felt the frustrations of our parents and pupils who felt that we could and should be offering more. Lastly, as a new headteacher, imposter syndrome was ever-present. I was making lots of decisions with serious consequences and had only really been in post for a matter of weeks.

Our learning and contingency planning

Since returning to school we have worked really hard on contingency plans should we have to close again. Planning 'what-ifs' isn't how I naturally like to lead - instead I usually have an unbridled faith that everything will be fine. Careful planning for things that haven't yet happened has been both new and good for me. Throughout I have tried to be clear with staff that we cannot restart a blended or home learning model as if we have learned nothing. Together we have agreed on shared platforms and approaches to ensure that the pupil experience in learning and teaching is both consistent and high quality. This has been a huge change for many staff and throughout I've tried to balance staff wellbeing with a mindset that we can't go at the pace of our most hesitant member of staff. 

Moving forward and collaborating as leaders

Moving forward, I'm most interested in how schools and leaders can work together and collaborate during these times. The role at present is quite insular. We are in our school buildings all day every day with few visitors or opportunities to network/visit/look outwards. Our local authority afforded the secondary HTs the chance to engage in facilitated sessions during lockdown to agree upon our blended model. These focused problem-solving sessions are the type of professional learning activities that will best serve us as we move forward. 

Ayrshire headteachers blogging this week

Martin Armstrong, Elaine Harrigan, Lorraine Dougan and John Doherty.