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Back to school 2020: Navigating ‘the new normal’

11 September 2020

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Alice Rose, Lucy Williams and Teddy Wolstenholme, Talk Education

September has always been a time for fresh starts and good intentions: new teachers, new schools, new classmates; resolutions to complete homework promptly, join new clubs, nail that piano practice… As parents, we normally wave our children off and go back to real life with a sigh of relief. This September, however, the return to school is different for all of us. Talk Education have been talking to schools and education experts to hear their advice on how parents can help their children navigate these changes.

Over the past six months, those of us who have been working from home have seen our children, and their schools, through a different lens. When school closures were announced on 20th March, most independent schools leapt into action with admirable speed to set up home-learning platforms, with some maintaining a full teaching timetable between staff and pupils. Children, and their teachers, had to adapt to a new way of learning overnight.

After a prolonged period of lockdown and upheaval, it’s time for children to get back to school. This will feel unsettling for some, and David Goodhew, head of Latymer Upper School in London, sums up the situation well: "We are all going through the same pandemic, but not everyone will be having the same experience of it." It’s important to make time to get back into a routine, listen to your children and acknowledge their concerns. "Some – perhaps the more introverted – may have flourished at home, while others may have found working at home tough and fear that they’ll have fallen behind," says parenting expert Heather Rutherford of the Parenting Partnership. "As our children go back, we should try to keep the rituals, the one-on-one time and the family fun going."

There is no doubt schools will look and feel different to what we’re all used to – and heads and their staff have spent their summers busily preparing for that. Temperatures will be checked, masks worn, boarders confined to social bubbles, assemblies and chapel services conducted via Zoom, and parents barred from the school campus for all but the speediest drop-off. Many schools have lengthened lessons to reduce time spent moving around; others have implemented staggered start times and tweaked the rules of team sports to limit close contact.

Mental health and wellbeing are more important now than ever. Sussex prep Cottesmore recently hosted a ‘back to school’ mental-health webinar in partnership with Place2Be, open to all pupils of prep-school age; other schools have added extra wellbeing and mindfulness sessions to the timetable to help pupils struggling with the consequences of the pandemic.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how schools might be affected by a second wave of COVID-19 infections. In August, Boris Johnson spoke of a "national priority" and "moral duty" to get every pupil back this term, indicating that the government would close pubs, restaurants and shops before schools in the case of a second lockdown. It’s encouraging to know that now the equipment and procedures are in place, online lessons could be picked up again very easily if the need arose.

Andrew Nott, the new chairman of the Independent Association of Prep Schools, likens the beginning of the autumn term to launching a ship. This year, he suggests, the waters might be choppier but "fundamentally the ship is the same. We won’t be back to complete normality until a vaccine is found, but there’s still going to be lots of sport and music and art and drama, and quality teaching in the classroom from subject specialists." He describes independent-school heads as "inspirational leaders" – "I’m fully confident that they will see their way through it," he adds.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a real test of grit and resilience – but there are some positives we can take from it. Time away from school and the office has given families the opportunity to reflect and slow down, take stock, re-energise and prioritise quality over quantity. "The way that pupils responded at schools across the country was deeply impressive," says Sir Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and the former head of Brighton and Wellington Colleges. "The people who really succeed in life are those who are resilient, resourceful and get on and make the most of it," he continues, "and the winners will be those who see problems as opportunities and challenges as hurdles to be jumped over."

We wish you the very best for your children’s return to school.

 

Talk Education's dynamic digital schools guide provides the highest-quality information and guidance on the British independent-education system, giving parents a unique behind-the-scenes view of UK private schools and unlocking the secrets of a world that can seem mysterious and complicated. Their expert team has a combined total of more than 75 years of visiting private schools, as well as unparalleled contacts with school leaders; with a parent-advisory service and educational-events programme, they are a one-stop education shop, helping parents find the right school for their child. To read their school reviews and sign up as a subscriber to Talk Education, go to talkeducation.com. If you have questions or would like to know more, please contact the team at talk@talkeducation.com.

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