The beginning of the Institute’s COVID-19 journey

On Wednesday 11th March the Releasing Potential Institute team was in our newly refurbished training room delivering the final day of a locality-wide training project to Chichester primary and secondary schools. The attendees, who were teachers, heads, TAs and SENCOs, joked and laughed, shared tea, coffee and fruit and swapped OFSTED stories. We were relaxed and even slightly oblivious- at that time, the approaching COVID-19 pandemic had seemed like a distant disease affecting those in a distant country.

That was the last day we were able to deliver face-to-face training. By Tuesday 17th March, I was being told to cancel groups for April and May, and to pack up my desk and files and work from home. In a single day, we wiped thousands of pounds off our books in cancelled training but were then hopeful it would all be re-organised for a few weeks’ time. We rushed to communicate with our mailing lists and students and set up online learning where possible, but felt that this was all just temporary. By the following week it was clear our optimism had been way off. On Monday 23rd March the government lockdown was announced, hot on the heels of the announcement about the closure of schools and other education settings the previous Friday. 

As a training provider the Institute was faced with some difficult decisions. We knew we had to cancel face-to-face training and were trying our best to move as much of it online as possible. There was a sharp rise, in the first week of lockdown, in people buying our existing online CPD and Level 2 courses. However, the magic of our taught courses has always been about face-to-face interaction—learning from others, working and laughing together and exploring (largely) humanist, trauma-informed approaches to supporting children and young people. We found it impossible to quickly translate that kind of pedagogy into something that would work online – and, to be honest, we are still in the process of trying. 

The Releasing Potential Institute has made significant changes to our teacher training courses given there is limited teaching practice happening in schools, including our own, and like all further education institutions we are awaiting news on how qualifications will be calculated. These worries, however, pale in comparison to the situation that the Releasing Potential School staff now find themselves in on the front line every day.

Releasing Potential School

As part of a bigger organisation, the Institute supports the work of the Releasing Potential School, which caters to 50 students with EHCPs. Our students are some of the most vulnerable in the country, either for socio-economic reasons and/or the additional needs that make learning and processing emotions particularly difficult for them. The school does a fantastic job of ensuring these students get to access a full and rich curriculum that focusses on their strengths and helps them see themselves as learners who can achieve; they are part of a community of students and staff with professional ‘love’ at the heart of everything.

When the closure of schools was announced, it was clear that RP School would need to stay open because of students’ status as ‘vulnerable’, but this was further confirmed when those who commission places with us made clear they would not be paying for a service if we could not deliver it. Unlike maintained schools, we had no choice but to stay open for as many children as possible, requiring staff to be on site in ways their mainstream school counterparts were not necessarily expected to be.

The education landscape in lockdown

The response from school leaders to the closure of schools, very broadly, seemed to fall into two categories. Evidence of these opposing approaches could be seen in late March across social media streams, with heads, teachers and other staff taking to Twitter, in particular, to express their views and frustrations about particular school policies. However, as time goes on these differing attitudes are also being reflected in the mainstream media and in various research being carried out by both government and other interested parties, such as the National Union of Head Teachers. There is, as I see it, no wrong or right response to what is an unprecedented chain of events; each school leader has made decisions, under extreme pressure, that they feel are appropriate for their staff and students. 

The first of the two approaches seems to be oriented around maintaining business as usual as far as possible. In these schools, staff are required to attend and complete work on site or offer online classes from home. Those who are in high risk groups are self-isolating until further notice, and those with symptoms are self-isolating for a period of time but are expected to return to work after this. In much the same way as the NHS and supermarkets, these schools are trying to run as much like normal as it is safe for them to. In these settings, children are based at home but are offered as close to the full curriculum as possible, and parents are communicated with regularly to check up on what children are doing.

There is a clear (and laudable) focus on ensuring continued access to provision, and staff are finding themselves working as hard as ever, even harder, in the new normal. In some of these schools, staff are marking work and emailing to express concerns when parents have not accessed online learning or worksheets that schools have delivered home.

The other type of approach taken by leaders seems to have been to keep schools minimally staffed (if not closed entirely) for reasons of safety, with home working largely only being done by school leaders or when absolutely necessary. Staff are required to attend school on a rolling basis only, usually for a couple of days or a week at a time, with the rest of their time at home. There seems to be an (equally laudable) focus on staff wellbeing as a priority, therefore expecting staff (particularly those in delivery roles like teachers and TAs) to work much from home while juggling child care etc is too much to ask.

In these settings, leaders tend to have acknowledged that it will be impossible to track what children are doing from home with any rigour, nor will there be any way to measure progress fairly when students return, and though communication is happening with parents there is not an expectation that work will be completed at a certain pace or to a certain standard. Both approaches have garnered criticism, and it remains to be seen what the impact of each will be when schools are reopened. 

The Releasing Potential approach

As an Independent School whose places are funded by local authority commissioning teams, Releasing Potential have been unable to adopt either of the above approaches and have had to operate in ways that straddle the two. We can’t close—to do so would risk the safety and wellbeing of our students but would also force us to make staff redundant and potentially risk bankruptcy. We are not eligible for the government’s furlough scheme, thus, we also can’t send staff home even if that wouldn’t make it impossible for us to stay open. Like all employers, our leadership team sent home anyone whose role could be done at home, as well as employees who were older, pregnant or with underlying health conditions back in March. 

The school is offering a part-time timetable to students on a 1-1 basis, ensuring no groups of children are ever on site at school, but 1-1 sessions can be facilitated in our buildings if necessary. Provision is also delivered in the community, with a big focus on outdoor learning, or in homes and gardens at a safe distance where appropriate. The school has instituted extra precautions around hand-washing and transporting students, and has, where possible, implemented social distancing; this is an ongoing challenge in work with students with Special Educational Needs.

The majority of students are engaging – those who are self-isolating or too anxious to come to school are being sent printed work packs that correspond to online videos of staff demonstrating tasks and offering humorous mini-lessons. Staff make daily welfare calls and visits to the front door of students, and we are able to drop off food packages to all our families. The team has risen to the challenge of keeping the school ‘open’ while trying to mitigate risk to themselves. However, it has been difficult and remains so. 

Our team has responded to the new normal in a range of ways that have caused us to continually re-consider whether our policies and values still make sense in this strangest of times. Some have thrown themselves into the key worker role, enjoying the distraction provided by a busy work life at this time of national crisis. The workload has been heavy since the number of those in isolation or working from home has added extra burdens to front line staff, perhaps inevitably resulting in, working a bit too hard and losing the balance.

Others have been overwhelmed by all that is happening, and are fully invested in the government’s advice to “stay at home” to protect themselves and their loved ones. Understandably, those who feel going to work is too much of a risk in the current climate have been frustrated by their status as key workers. Unable to claim on the government’s furlough scheme, the organisation has really struggled to deal fairly with those who are able to, but do not wish to, work due to (what seem to be very reasonable) anxieties.

There have had to be some really difficult conversations with staff and a lot of soul searching to try and understand who we want to be as an organisation, and who we can afford to be and still operate, in this crisis. The answer to those questions we were able to find within our values and principles, which define and help continuously shape the Releasing Potential Institute. You can read all about that in the second part of this article here.