The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed schools and the education system as we know it. Challenges unlike ever before were thrown their way, and their responses to these hurdles have been incredible in many ways.
George Watson’s College quickly pivoted to adapt to remote classrooms and online lessons. While they saw great success with their virtual teaching, there are many other facets of education that the pandemic has shone a light on.
In this blog, Melvyn Roffe, Principal of George Watson’s College, tells us what the pandemic has taught the school, the unique challenges (and opportunities) of the past year and what it means for the future of our education system as a whole.
What was the biggest challenge school-wide of the last year?
Changing a model of education which relies on children attending school physically from all over the region to one where we were educating them through online platforms in their homes.
Apart from the pedagogical challenges, what was quickly obvious is that in school we have a controlled learning environment, but with some 2,500 children learning in their own homes, we have 2,500 versions of what a classroom looks like. This one important aspect of how a teacher shapes learning was completely wiped out overnight.
We were very aware of the wellbeing challenges of our pupils. Providing various forms of online teaching was one thing, but understanding the wellbeing needs of our children and young people was another. Most of our pupils coped well, but that could not be taken for granted and staff were very much engaged in supporting many aspects of pupils’ lives over lockdown.
The main thing was ensuring we were all keeping in touch, whether that was through our number of workshops and specific activities over the period such as ‘Feel Good February’. Our priority was sustaining communication routes for pupils while they were at home and creating opportunities for them to talk about their issues.
There was a focus on supporting families as well as pupils, and we had sufficient flexibility in our educational arrangements as we are aware that many faced issues outside of their control, for example, broadband speed and contending with so many people using their internet connection at once.
Of course, for some there were particular stresses, such as the sheer anxiety of some children who have parents who are keyworkers. While rightly, NHS staff and other keyworkers were being hailed as heroes, for some children this only heightened the awareness that their mums and dads were facing risks every day.
What have the students taught you and your teachers over the last year?
Resilience and adaptability – partly because they are already so-called ‘digital natives’, the pupils were much more comfortable receiving tuition online than some staff were providing it! In some ways that actually boosted staff confidence in delivering online learning, as did seeing how pupils responded very creatively to these new virtual platforms. There was an outpouring on social media of pupils doing all sorts of creative things, not only with the school but within their community too, and it was amazing how they harnessed that experience and created something positive out of it.
I have been quite dismayed at the narrative in some quarters of this being a ‘lost generation’. It is a slap in the face of a generation who have done amazing things throughout this time when they have developed their skills and grown their social conscience.
Pupils have often found new strengths and profoundly found their voices – I have been reading some of the pandemic diaries our pupils have written and they are very revealing of the inspiring resilience, creativity and adaptability they’ve shown over the last year. If, heaven forbid, they are the ‘lost generation’ it will be the fault of adults not the fault of children and young people.
What has been the key learning for the school?
We have learned many things, perhaps one of the most significant is in reinforcing just how important a school environment and the social element of life in school and learning actually is in the success of any school. While I am sure we will still retain various forms of online pedagogy, in future we will appreciate more than ever the social element of being together in one space and learning from one another.
The past year has broadened our base of understanding of what schools can do but also why we do come into one building for education and why learning in isolation online is never going to be the norm.
What has been the priority for the school over the past year?
We set out priorities from outset through our virtual school model, with the first being the well-being of our pupils. Some people were surprised that academics wasn’t given a more exclusive focus, but we maintained that pupils wouldn’t succeed academically if their wellbeing wasn’t at the top of our list of priorities.
We also had an objective about ‘cherishing the positives’, and not simply seeing being away from school as days lost to learning. We encouraged families to think positively about time together rather than focusing on a sense of loss. This approach was helpful, in a way giving families permission to be creative and get outside to spend time with each other instead of thinking that the best use of time was necessarily sitting in front of a laptop screen for six hours a day.
I think everything that has happened since the first lockdown has proved that these priorities were the right ones.
And what will the priority be going forward now? Has it changed since pre-pandemic?
Our priorities haven’t changed in the sense of a focus on the well-being of pupils and staff, but various challenges, not least those of exams and assessments, inevitably mean that as the year goes on, our focus will shift back to academics and what we can now do for extra-curricular activities – our overall approach that has long been proved to stand the test of time.
Are there any different teaching practices or approaches that will be kept on post-pandemic?
The practice of regularly incorporating online learning will stay, as will the concept of flipping lessons so that lessons can focus on understanding rather than content.
We have developed our online learning platform, GWC Plus, which has been successful and we will keep on. This has included inviting visiting speakers who could never have usually come to school – for example the leading philosopher Professor Peter Singer who joined an Advanced Higher lesson on his own work from his base in Australia.
We would never have thought of doing that before the pandemic, but now, we say “why not?” The whole sense of connecting with people from all over the world through technology has opened everyone’s minds and huge opportunities for pupils. Next term, leading up to COP26, we plan to have a series of talks by Watsonians from around the world who are working to combat climate change - a completely new way in which our Former Pupil community is engaging with current pupils.
What would you say are the positives to have come out of the pandemic?
Overall, it’s been a long period where we’ve had to examine what we do in very extreme ways, and the overarching positive to come out of it is that we know ourselves as a school much better than before. We have asked ourselves questions we’d never have thought of asking previously, opened up to opportunities that would never have been considered, and given us a reason to speed up technological developments which were coming anyway.
There has also been a collective discussion in schools and universities about what the use of online learning can be and how it can be utilised in future. It has also given pupils a sense of agency in their learning – we often talked about our older pupils taking responsibility for their own learning, and the past year has been a massive opportunity for that to happen.
What do you think the impact will be on education and schools in general in the years to come?
It is going to be interesting – I think some things, like outdoor learning, are going to be incorporated into a system-wide change. This might seem counter-intuitive as learning has been screen-based, but teachers have taken opportunities to be outside with their class for Covid reasons, and this use of outdoor learning should see long term benefits to the curriculum.
It has also broken the back of any technological reluctance in the teaching profession – I’ve said elsewhere that ‘there are no technophobes in the pandemic’! Even the most hesitant are now using Google Classroom and other platforms like pros. Now we have to get the balance right and understand what is better done with technology and what is better done face to face.
What do you say to parents worried that their child may have fallen behind?
Firstly, I’d say that we are not seeing that in any kind of systematic way in the school and it is important to avoid any kind of generalisation. What I would say is that, as in any circumstances, we’d ensure that we support your child in making progress.
Pupils have been making remarkably good progress, with some speeding ahead of where we would expect them to be. Where there are problems, we’ll deal with it in the usual way. After all, several children a year will typically have a long time out of school during a period of illness. You would never say to an individual child in those circumstances “your life’s blighted”! Mainly because it’s just not true!
How do you support pupils who might be struggling with the transition back to school?
The support is very much on an individual basis in classrooms, with staff aware of those who are struggling and how best to support them. Pupils in junior school perhaps are not as adept at sharing socially as they would usually be by this stage, for example. We are not assuming that everyone is not okay in the same way we are not assuming that everyone is okay.
Why do you think there has been more interest in independent school applications recently?
One of the reasons we have seen an uptick in interest in our school is that parents have seen that independent schools generally have been able to be agile during the pandemic and have made pragmatic decisions in the interests of pupils. Equally committed and talented colleagues in state schools have reported frustration at the things they have not been allowed to do, often for reasons they do not understand.