The second lockdown: Our plans and reactions
Our CEO reflects on Teach First's response to the most recent national lockdown.
For many people, the start of the second lockdown somehow felt worse than the first. Maybe it is the darkening time of year, maybe it is the sense that the end point keeps receding into the future. At least the recent announcement of a successful vaccine now offers some hope of an end.
One vital point of difference between November and March is that most children remain in school. For some children this is a lifeline; for many others, it ensures that learning can continue. And, of course, it makes a real difference to parents and carers to be able to continue their own work. Livelihoods and family cohesion can depend on that work, which in turn affect the welfare of young people. We’ve been able to team up with our corporate partners to supply digital devices and dongles in some areas, and we’re looking at extending this. We’ve highlighted useful resources for schools, and we’re also reviewing what more we can do to help schools continue successful digital learning in the longer-term. This will help bridge the gap but, really, there is no better place for most pupils to learn than in school, and there are so many ways we all benefit when they are there.
So, it seems an important moment to step back and express profound thanks for the work of teachers, support staff and school leaders, both now and during the previous lockdown.
For some children [school] is a lifeline; for many others, it ensures that learning can continue.
Children do not seem at elevated risk themselves, but that is not necessarily true of the adults who work with them day-to-day. We are fortunate as a nation for our school workforce. We should ensure in return that they have the protection and resources they need, and clarity about assessment and accountability so they can focus on what they do best. Schools face uncertainty as well as risk; they face anxious, sometimes angry, parents and pupils. As a country we can reduce both the uncertainty and anger. A firm position on examinations would help here – their cancellation is not necessarily the answer, but we need serious thought as to how they can be sat fairly in the face of disruption. Prioritising school staff early for vaccination would also help maintain continuity.
We are fortunate as a nation for our school workforce. We should ensure in return that they have the protection and resources they need, and clarity about assessment and accountability so they can focus on what they do best.
One thousand, six hundred and ninety-nine trainees began their journey as teachers with Teach First this year. What a year to start. The beginning of their training - Summer Institute - was entirely online this time, without the ‘school centred learning’ that would normally help prepare them for what they’ll face in the classroom. Our Training Programme conference days need rearranging at short notice as schools understandably struggle with cover. Feedback from our partner schools was that three quarters of them are (again totally understandably) not permitting external visitors. All our trainee teachers in school now are therefore both our most important and, at the same time, our most vulnerable cohorts. To everyone who is developing their teaching or leadership practice in this the most turbulent of times, thank you for your courage and commitment. It is never easy to teach or to lead, and this year it is harder still. Your resilience will serve you well over the course of your careers.
To everyone who is developing their teaching or leadership practice in this the most turbulent of times, thank you for your courage and commitment.
Our plan at Teach First was to resume comprehensive school visits after the autumn half term. A lot of good support can be provided online, especially as we experiment with video observation technologies, but there are times when a visit is ideal – to observe a trainee in action, or to facilitate a full leadership team session with our Leading Together schools, for example. Our Development Leads and Achievement Partners who do this work certainly want this, but for now are providing online support and coaching for all our programme members. The second lockdown put our plans to return to schools on hold. It would be risky to increase our visits at a time when social contact is being reduced in order to prevent deaths – particularly as our staff would need to travel from school to school. Ironically, this consideration is particularly acute with the announcement of a vaccine: avoiding an infection now does not merely delay the inevitable, it could prevent it entirely. We want to do our part to ensure this pandemic ends as quickly as possible, and we have the potential to be an organisational super-spreader. Teach First is a national provider with a distinctive model; I can imagine some other providers will sensibly be able to make different decisions.
Avoiding an infection now does not merely delay the inevitable, it could prevent it entirely. We want to do our part to ensure this pandemic ends as quickly as possible.
We want to support the teachers and trainees on the frontline so we have decided that, while we can’t yet make large-scale visits, we can continue to undertake limited school visits in exceptional circumstances – where we consider a trainee at risk of withdrawal and can see no other way of preventing it, for example. This will take place with volunteer staff and with the permission of the school. The numbers should be such that we can spread the visits out in time and not risk transferring the virus from school to school ourselves. And we will restart the more extended programme of school visits (where schools want us in) as soon as this second phase of the lockdown completes. We’re gearing up for it now on the assumption of a December start.
We’re also considering how we can schedule additional support and training for later in the year (alongside additional support from the accelerated roll out of the Early Career Framework). We won’t be running large conferences, where people gather in one place from a variety of schools, for quite some time to come. The risk is high, and we are increasingly experienced in digital alternatives to this approach.
Of course, things change all the time so we may need to revisit these plans, but I wanted to set out our broad intentions and sneak in the chance to say thank you. If there are things you think we should or shouldn’t be doing to continue our support for schools at this time, then I’d love to hear them.