Britain’s schools have been some of the most hard-hit institutions over the past year.
During a time of major disruption which has seen us push the pause button on many aspects of life, schools have had to think creatively, devising innovative solutions to ensure that children continued to access their education despite, for many, a physical absence from the classroom.
Naturally, Ofsted has been hot on the heels of academies during this time, evaluating their pandemic procedures to ensure as minimal disruption as possible to education. In January, Ofsted published a blog discussing the vital role of multi-academy trusts during this time (https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2021/01/19/the-trust-in-testing-times-the-role-of-multiacademy-trusts-during-the-pandemic/).
In fact, visits to schools revealed that those who were part of a multi-academy trust found themselves in a much stronger position than those who were not.
The trust’s strong ethos of ‘collective efficacy – a shared commitment to work together on the things that matter to improve outcomes for all’ is what enabled and supported colleagues to pull together during this time, much to the benefit of all children, staff and communities.
Navigating the world of education through a pandemic has been challenging, to say the least, but in our experience as a trust, there have been some real positives.
A key point highlighted by Ofsted was the role which trusts played in helping schools to navigate the plethora of guidance received on a daily basis from the DfE.
The establishment of the Trust’s Covid Committee was crucial in leading the discussion and decision making over the past year. This involved the Central Team, trustees and five headteachers making strategic decisions around health and safety, risk assessments, how to manage social distancing, form social bubbles, review safeguarding, attendance and behaviour policies, allowing new risks to be accounted for and mitigated.
Indeed, nobody knows the difficulties of enforcing social distancing and maintaining bubbles better than reception teachers managing classrooms of four and five-year-olds. Kyrstie Stubbs, Principal at Boothroyd Primary Academy, recently said to me that the support from the central team in the development of our Covid procedures was fantastic, and that as a leader in her own school she felt that she had an extra level of security as plans were checked and signed off by not only the team, but also by the Board.
Lizzie Egan-Walsh, headteacher at Lyndhurst Primary School, noted how the Covid committee has been an integral driver in enabling Trust leaders to develop robust risk assessments with confidence, and that the support provided to one another through document sharing and other forms of communication using Teams has been second to none.
Perhaps the biggest transition which staff and children made over this past year was the switch to online learning. Many teachers suddenly found themselves acquiring new digital skills, juggling face to face teaching in the classroom with remote lessons through Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
Donna Tandy, our Deputy CEO and Academy Improvement Partner, led the implementation of the Trust’s Digital Strategy, the introduction of Digital Champions in all academies, and the move to Microsoft Teams and increased use of Microsoft 365 which involved a significant training programme for all colleagues and governors.
Commenting on the transition to online learning, Andrew Chadwick, Head of School at Wilsden Primary School, said the Digital Strategy enabled him and his team to move quickly – overnight – and have effective learning taking place immediately. He added that they are now looking at the ways to continue using digital technology to further improve the school even now all children are back in the classroom.
It has been a tough year, but we’ve come a long way and learnt a huge amount about how things can be done differently. It is our ambition to capitalise on all the skills and knowledge gained to enhance the trust’s educational offer to children, improving the professional development of colleagues and continuing to achieve the Trust’s vision of ‘great academies at the heart of our communities.’
Helen Rowland is Chief Executive at Focus Trust, a charitable multi-academy trust based in the North West of England which consists of 15 member academies.