How schools and colleges can support vulnerable young people during Covid-19

How schools and colleges can support vulnerable young people during Covid-19

How can schools and colleges support vulnerable young people during the Covid-19 outbreak?

By Gabrielle Rowles

“It’s like ‘Whack-a-Mole’,” said Ben Gadsby at a recent conference, referring to the experience of schools trying to respond to the new demands placed on them. Obviously, he wasn’t talking about real moles, so the analogy is a good one. There are issues constantly jumping up, and the schools attempt to tackle them, whilst other issues suddenly appear in a random and frenetic manner. “If anyone has ever played it,” he continued, “you know that it’s impossible to hit all the moles.” Ben is right and mental health practitioners are advising that we take a breath to reflect before acting if possible. We need to understand that everyone is doing the best they can in extraordinary circumstances, and recognise that we can’t tackle this in one bite. We also need to appreciate that vulnerable young people face bigger risks than their peers as a result of this crisis.In 2017 the Department of Education invested around £6m to set up The Hastings Opportunity Area (HOA), bringing organisations together to address the impact of disadvantage on young people in the town. Since working with a number of schools and colleges across Hastings, as part of the HOA offer, I have come to know a lot of the children and staff in each unique setting. Some of these schools have 74% of their cohort in receipt of Free School Meals (FSM). The staff work tirelessly to support children and their families and cement the role of their school within the community; to offset the impact of systemic disadvantage – aiming to beat the odds whilst also changing the odds, as we say at Boingboing, the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice and the wider Resilience Revolution. Schools have closed to all but children of keyworkers and vulnerable children, therefore I have been connecting with discussions nationally, so that we can collectively make sense of the current situation, in order to better intervene. This means I can continue to support schools virtually, as they adapt their present provision, or plan for future reopening and issues they may face at that time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought challenges for everyone, but particularly for schools with large numbers of families whose lack of resources might make staying at home unbearable. Safety and welfare are at the top of the agenda, but education is also a basic right and a key factor in resilience building. To avoid enlarging an already unacceptable gap in educational attainment for children disadvantaged by their circumstances, schools need to find ways to help students to keep learning. It’s a really good thing that the government has at least recognised the need for our most vulnerable children to still get the education they deserve so that attainment gaps don’t widen further as a result of the Coronavirus crisis.

But how to best support them in such complex circumstances? Luckily I can exchange ideas with the Resilience Revolution in Blackpool, where schools and families are already working together to create resources which can help young people to adapt and learn. As is the way with Boingboing and the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice, I want to create practical resources informed by the lived experience of families and evidence of what works in crisis situations. Therefore I joined a virtual roundtable discussion hosted by the Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), in which practitioners from schools and alternative provision came together with policy makers and researchers to share their vision as the fog clears on a changed landscape. It is early days, but three interesting themes emerged from the discussions.

Outreach and safeguarding

Schools are stepping into new and unfamiliar roles, and many are using outreach to connect with young people who cannot safely come to school, using regular calls and visits. Some are considering how to redeploy teaching staff to take on these more pastoral roles in order to prioritise safety and mental health, others ask Form Tutors to check in with their tutor groups. For this to be effective schools need to give clear guidance to teachers about the purpose of these calls and how they can signpost young people to help. Advice might include explaining how to get vouchers for school meal or mobile data, links to YoungMinds and other mental health organisations and campaign groups like the Children’s Mental Health Coalition, or links to useful resources especially those focused on inclusion.

Some schools and colleges are using triage with their diminished resources to decide what support they can and should provide. The voucher scheme has now been launched to ensure families can get access to food, and schools need to consider how to distribute these, whilst ensuring that those who may not qualify for free school meals are also being fed. Some schools are trying to distribute laptops to their pupils to ensure they can access online learning. Also the government has recently brokered a deal with telecommunications companies to remove the cap on data which may enable more young people to access school work. This needs to be balanced against concerns about safeguarding and protecting young people from data harvesting, as discussed in a recent blog from Boingboing and the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice. There is a call for youth services, different schools and education providers to be brought together in daily morning meetings to coordinate local responses.

Workforce

As Eleanor Bernades from Aspire Schools Alternative Provision said, “Professionals need to put on their own oxygen masks first.” Staff may be vulnerable themselves in terms of their susceptibility to the Coronavirus and have family responsibilities as well as their role in education. Everyone is having to learn new skills very quickly, whilst coping with change and uncertainty. There is a considerable risk of exhaustion, especially as more of the workforce becomes unwell. Some schools have already established rotas to mitigate this risk. Unfortunately, exhaustion may be exacerbated by bereavement as the crisis continues. Jo Taylor suggested bringing in support from Educational Psychologists and similar professionals. Resilience research indicates that this is a crucial time for leaders, colleagues (and parents) to offer positive feedback which specifically recognises and celebrates what our keyworkers are doing to support children. As everyone is distracted and there are inevitably false starts and mistakes being made, it can be easier to criticise than to celebrate the effort and goodwill. As the clap for the NHS and a recent tweet from Amanda Spielman showed, recognition goes a long way to supporting people through adversity, and this can be done by anyone on a personal level with a quick message or email to a teacher, keyworker or colleague.

Resources

Some schools are working to provide vouchers for data, or dongles to improve access to online learning for those who are barred from inclusion in digital education. School meals and technology are important, but for some pupils, space, pens, and paper are needed too. Some schools are making resource packs with basic provisions or with ideas to support family relationships and wellbeing. There are also suggestions for leisure-focused activities for pupils to do with their families, as well as learning materials. In Blackpool colleagues have sent rescue packages of hand cream for the children whose hands have become raw from frequent handwashing. The National Autistic Society has posted some useful tips for families. The PSHE Association has also created some home learning resources.

These are just some initial ideas, and as time goes by we may find a rhythm which will enable us to look forward to the next phase where we will need to consider the picture for schools as they reopen. Considerations will include responding to bereaved children, those who are beginning new schools or colleges without a transition programme, and those who may have experienced weeks or months of hunger or family conflict. At Boingboing and the Centre of Resilience for Social Justice, we will work with other organisations to try to amplify the voice of young people and vulnerable families or communities. It is of particular concern that many special schools across the country have closed, making it even more important to provide support and resources for families and carers of children with complex needs. UCL’s Centre for Inclusive Education has recently released some free resources to help with the transition to home schooling, and we need to continue to listen to what families say they need at such a tough time.

In the meantime it feels important to hold onto our Noble Truths: Accept the situation as it is, Conserve the positives and our own strengths, Commit to our young people and our principles of social justice for the long term, and Enlist help wherever possible. It is also worth mentioning that we should expect to wobble and expect to make mistakes. We can also hold onto the opportunities that this situation offers to rethink our system, and call for lessons to be learned so that we emerge with a more equal society.

Gabrielle Rowles, FHEA (Education)
Senior trainer and training coordinator
Boingboing.org.uk
University of Brighton

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