HAPPEN Primary School Network Wales will be conducting research into schools returning on June 29th through a teacher survey and by speaking to pupils and teachers about their experiences. In this blog post Emily Marchant, Child Health and Education Researcher and part of the HAPPEN team, discusses their up and coming research with us.
To understand initial concerns and questions, we compiled the recent twitter Q&A with Kirsty Williams about schools returning. Here is what parents, school staff and practitioners think is important when schools re-open from June 29th.
The Welsh Government recently announced that schools in Wales will be returning from the 29th June. Through a phased approach, the aim of re-opening schools is to ‘check in, catch-up and prepare’ for summer and September. The HAPPEN team will be conducting research into schools returning by finding out pupils’ and teachers’ experiences and via a teacher survey and focus groups and interviews with teachers. This research will aim to uncover some of the practical barriers and facilitators which can be shared across the sector to promote areas of best practice and inform school planning and delivery from September. If you work in a school and would like to be involved with this research, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
The announcement that schools are to reopen has been followed by unanswered questions and unknowns from everyone that is impacted by this decision, from pupils and parents, to teachers and headteachers. To try and provide some clarity and offer an opportunity to answer questions, Kirsty Williams, the Minister for Education held a number of Q&A sessions on social media. Before the HAPPEN team undertake the research into schools returning, we have gathered responses from the Q&A into themes in order to try and understand some of the initial barriers, challenges and opportunities that returning to school will bring.
Mental Health and Wellbeing
Of high importance to parents and teachers was protecting the emotional health and wellbeing of children and school staff. This has been acknowledged throughout the ‘Decision Framework’ document published by Welsh Government, which states ‘the safety and mental, emotional and physical well-being of learners and staff’ as one of five principles for this next phase. Putting this into practice however, is likely to require an intense focus from schools and working closely with families and communities in order to prioritise the wellbeing of everyone at school.
The school grounds and classroom will be required to adhere to social distancing and with this, concerns have been raised about the impact this can have on pupils, particularly those in the younger years. A key concern was that despite the positives of returning to school for children’s development, imposing social distancing measures could be equally detrimental to their wellbeing. However, with just a third of pupils likely to be present at one time, this means that children can receive the dedicated time of school staff. One such avenue in fostering wellbeing that was raised within the Q&A and is reflected by Welsh Government in their guidance for schools is the use of outdoor spaces.
Outdoor Learning and Play
The great potential that the outdoor environment can offer was also mentioned by parents, teachers and practitioners in the Q&A. Research conducted by the HAPPEN team has highlighted the range of benefits of outdoor learning to children and teachers’ wellbeing. Coupled with the reduced risk of virus transmission outside, the outdoors provides a unique opportunity for schools to deliver the curriculum whilst simultaneously improving the wellbeing of learners. This has been reflected within the Welsh Government’s guidance, stating that learners should be given as much opportunity as possible to learn and have breaks outside. This also encourages schools to maximise children’s access to play, another suggestion raised by parents and teachers in the Q&A sessions. The new Focus on Play guidance published by Play Wales offers information to schools on promoting play and the important role that play offers in helping schools to reopen. This is vitally important given that our research findings from the HAPPEN at Home survey indicate that although children are more active during lock-down, children in deprived areas report having fewer places to play.
A key concern by teachers was the logistics and practicalities of adopting a blended learning approach to teaching. Over the last few months, schools have been adjusting to providing online learning opportunities for pupils to ensure learning progression. The blended learning approach, recognised as the combination of face to face learning with remote learning is undoubtedly going to be at the forefront of education delivery over the coming months. A number of teachers questioned how they are able to balance remote learning with in-school lessons. This is likely to pose a challenge to schools as they adapt to this new way of teaching. It is also an essential approach in ensuring that those learning from home are still provided with curriculum activities to encourage learning progression. Despite this, concerns have been raised within the education sector about the impact of lock-down on widening inequalities, as those from disadvantaged backgrounds or less academically confident learners are less likely to engage with home learning. This raises the question as to which groups of children to prioritise returning to school, with the Welsh Government guidance stating another key principle as the ‘ability to prioritise learners at key points, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds’.
A challenge to the majority of parents during lock-down has been balancing home learning and their own work commitments. Parents in the Q&A session called for more support from employers regarding consideration of these challenges. They also wanted to ensure autonomy in decision making regarding their child returning to school. Some parents with family members in the ‘at risk’ category acknowledged the difficult decision in whether their child should return to school and the risk this can bring in the possibility of virus transmission to family members. It is unquestionable that parents and families must make the decision that is right for them.
What will work when schools return? HAPPEN aims to find out
Here we have discussed some barriers, challenges and opportunities that emerged from the Q&A session with Kirsty Williams about schools returning on the 29th June. Since then, a number of these queries have been addressed in the operational guidance for schools document. Regardless of the amount of planning and preparation that schools can do, much of what works to ensure learning can be delivered within a safe and secure environment whilst fostering school well-being may be achieved through trial and error. The return to a new normal is likely to be a long process for schools, but the structure, routine and social interactions that the school environment provides will no doubt be of benefit to children and their development.