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Opinion28th January 2021

Inside Ark’s community classrooms

Our schools continue to face their biggest challenge in ensuring education continues during the pandemic, so how have they done this? We hear from Una Sookun who joined Ark Globe Academy in 2013. She became its Associate Principal in 2018, and she’s responsible for the secondary phase. She tells us how the school has adapted its approach to running community classrooms and supporting their vulnerable communities.

Before March 2020, we were focused on securing excellent outcomes for our students, especially those in their final year. We’d run our second set of mock exams, and we were driving forward, motivating students to do their very best.

We’d been watching the news but didn’t think lockdown would happen. However, it soon became clear that we had to prepare for school closure as things were changing rapidly. We started giving students work packs as we were aware of the lack of access to devices and the internet. Knowing there might be disparity on who had a device or not, paper-based provision ensured all students could access learning. We knew that most students had a mobile so we could run quizzes and other sessions if needed, which helped us to have some measure of their learning and engagement.

We didn’t know how long lockdown would last, maybe a few weeks. When it became clearer that lockdown would last much longer, we had to think about creating our school online, updating our website, ensuring it was accessible for students and making sure we had the right information on there.

When we first opened the community classrooms, we engaged with parents, so they knew the provision was available to them. It was a worrying time for us all and the focus was very much on being safe. If students had alternatives available, they made use of them. However, as time went on it was clear that for many children, the community classroom was their only alternative. Their home was not set up for them to learn or they had specific learning needs which meant they really needed to be in school. We called parents encouraging them to send their child and checked in on them too, reassuring them around the safety of the provision.

In the first lockdown, we only had three community classrooms with around 40 students from primary and secondary. They spent much of their time completing work packs, and we provided personalised support. The work packs focused on students learning digestible and accessible content. Outside of this, there was enrichment- group reading, a daily mile, cooking, art – there was a real community vibe and teachers created a nurturing and special environment.

Enrichment activities definitely played a role in helping students explore their feelings and process the strange circumstances we find ourselves in; for many they have provided an outlet for discussion, for others, an opportunity for escapism. We had assemblies where the community came together, and we gave students a platform to process things that were going on in the world. Helping students process the process the world around them is something we’ve continued to focus on, especially given all the events of the past year.

When schools reopened in September, we’d learned so much and looked ahead to what could happen again. But we felt confident that we could flip in and out of remote learning/community classrooms if we had to. In the autumn term, we ran a session with students covering what we’d do if there was another lockdown. We communicated plans with parents and prepared a leaflet, and students were given folders with resources to use should lockdown occur. We also ran an afternoon where year groups joined classes via Teams, practised emailing their teachers and navigated the school website – so we did a lot of preparation.

Community classrooms now feel like an even better provision for students. We’re making it the best possible experience it can be, especially for those we’ve identified as vulnerable in secondary. Like other schools across the country, we have more students on-site. We’re following the normal school timetable and making it as impactful as possible with personalised intervention where possible and creating opportunities for students in school and at home to work together and be together. Whether students are learning in the classroom or at home, they’re learning simultaneously and the same content.

Anecdotal feedback has been very positive for students who are at home. Every morning students have Learning Family Time (this is similar to tutor time). This provides students with a sense of community and connection. They meet with their Learning Family Lead (form tutor) each morning and their Learning Family (tutor group) to discuss current affairs, share their own news and start the day with some much-needed positivity. It sets us all up for the day, helps us stay connected and most importantly, gets our students out of bed! We’re making sure that students know our expectations regardless of being on-site or online. Whereas before students would’ve submitted work at the end of the work pack. Now, they’re in daily lessons and expected to hand in work or extra tasks each lesson. The online lessons continue to be supported with work packs so that students do not need to be online all day.

The laptop initiative from Ark has been a godsend. We could not have done what we’ve done this time around without it. Our reality is that we can provide so much more because of Ark’s drive and foresight to prioritise this. It will put us in a better position to put the children in a better place, and it has been a game-changer. Luckily, we did the bulk of the distribution before lockdown, but we still have families making requests, having been reluctant initially. We’ve got two distribution sessions running every week with families picking up a device. This is another great opportunity to connect with the community and it is great to be there when families arrive.

Being part of the Ark network means there’s been a considerable amount of sharing. We talk a lot about the community, well-being, and the ability to get through things. You are part of a network, which sets a standard but also provides a safety net; if anything comes up, you’ve got somebody to call.

We are responding rapidly to a situation that we’d never expect we’d have to face. There’s not been a point where things have felt normal, and we are constantly having to adapt. The determination of all the staff and our families to make things work and do what is necessary makes me feel incredibly proud. We are learning from one another, supporting each other and getting through. It’s been a difficult time for many, but we are responding to it in the best way we can – together.

Our school is open to those who need to be here. It would be good to get back to normal – whatever normal now is. When it happens, our priority will be, as it always is, to provide a safe and welcoming environment where our young people can thrive.