Inside Schools: Principal Peter Groves and Harris Boys' Academy East Dulwich
The pandemic’s effect continues to grow as a nuanced, multi-levelled experience for schools, staff and students. Tackling this interconnected web of personal and social experience is a unique and trying challenge for school leaders everywhere. Continuing this evolving conversation between central and academy-based voices on COVID-19, we spoke with one of our very own, Principal Peter Groves.
Connecting virtually over Microsoft Teams, Harris Boys Academy East Dulwich Principal, Peter Groves details his academy’s experience from lockdown to half term. As we grow closer to the end of the year, Peter takes us through the timeline with key insights on student experience, their return to school strategy and managing student and staff wellbeing virtually.
Touching base on the beginning stages of preparation, Peter recounts what seems like a lifetime ago from where they are now. Nevertheless, one thing stands out, action from strong cohesive leadership.
PG: “Initially, what we were dealing with was part of a collective response. Much like everyone else, we reacted as and when the news came out. It was important for us to move and pivot as quickly as possible to ensure safety first and foremost. That was our primary concern for staff and students. In this, the key thing for the leadership team particularly was keeping communication channels open, to keep staff, parents and students informed. Part of this was making sure that whatever we were sending out as communication was accurate, clear and in confidence. It was a deliberate decision to ensure that when we spoke, we spoke with purpose, with clarity and decisiveness.”
Preparing an academy for a virtual world
PG: “We had some notice, and we could see where it was going after the call to lockdown restaurants and so on - so we had prepared for virtual learning alongside other preparatory measures. We were able to move quickly between stages and work with our different year groups to ensure they were getting specific support and in tandem, we quickly identified who our vulnerable groups of children were and made sure that they received everything they needed.
Amongst the first to go remote, we sent Year 10 to work remotely as we had prepared virtual learning for them on Teams. The plan was to keep Year 11s on site as long as possible because we thought they would be in exam groups. There were a lot of important measures to put in place at this time and in doing this, it was also a key time for us to check in with staff and see to it they were also happy with the processes put in place and what was scheduled, changing and so on. It was and had to always be a conversation that was fluid due to the evolving state of the pandemic. We heeded advice, adapted and changed for our students, staff and community.”
As we discussed with Laura Stoneman previously, Group Health and Safety Manager for the Federation, the central team support system is vital to ensuring academies are fully assisted in the transition and beyond. Where there are resources that need ordering, guidance to be given or otherwise, this is an important arm of support for academies. Peter shared his experience:
PG: “Well, we benefited from our collegiate network of headteachers and principals. It was useful to understand and find out where and what was happening at other sites. Centrally, we had the support through experts in IT, HR and Health and Safety that were constantly sharing risk assessments, guidance and equipment where possible. When there are documents that come out about who should shield and what categories there are for example, there are Health and Safety professionals that know what that looks like and can assist in making sense of it in the context of our academy. In the transition to remote learning, IT assisted this shift over to see to it our students were as ready as possible.”
Keeping a pulse on staff wellbeing, like many of the other affected actions, can prove a difficult as a in school exercise to replicate. Where you would normally have a designatory staff space to hold this or a specific time to sit down, checking in isn’t as easy as it was with the virtual school day to run. However, much like the school day, adaptation is key. Expanding on staff exercises, Peter touches on the importance of checking in:
PG: “At a school level, it was about making sure that staff who were not regularly at the academy felt supported. Checking in on them was an important pulse reader, ensuring that they had the space and capacity to deal with whatever their situation was. Where there were new environments to navigate, such as juggling childcare or working within a multi-generational house with high risk relatives, it was important that they felt heard and supported. The other side of this of course is holding staff to account as teachers. More than anything, it was about getting this balance right without the ability to see how people were, gaging that on a face to face basis. It was clear that it was easy to lose focus on the core purpose, so there was an emphasis on reminding staff everywhere that we operate from and are a part of a wider school community and that all contribution is key to this. Through lockdown, I made a personal point to speak to all staff at least three times on a one on one basis. This was about making sure that the cohesion of our academy team remained strong. We were apart but we were together!”
Pushing through it
Each site has their own individual and unique set of obstacles to face. HBAED is no different – dealing with a staggering loss suffered across the academy, Peter recounts this as an eye-opening experience. In response to the pandemic’s obstacles, there has been a great deal of mobility in their academy led support provisions across domestic, financial and educational levels:
PG: “As far as obstacles go, it has been a sordid reminder of why I do what I do.
What I know from my personal world is not what many of my students were/are experiencing. The contrast to some of the other perspectives I’ve heard from family and friends to come out of the pandemic where there is access to laptops, houses with a garden and so on. It was clear that while some where finding it quite manageable, this was not a shared experience. Some of my students were experiencing a very different reality. Whether that be sharing a very small accommodation space, a lack of financial stability from redundancy or being a part of a multi-generational household with high-risk relatives.
The loss in this school, in terms of family members, is substantial. There are at least 10 students who have lost a direct parent and that is a devastating loss. This had a profound effect on me because I knew I work for and within a deprived community and we have a mission statement to help, here at Harris Boys Academy East Dulwich that we work and stand by - but to have seen how the direct impact this has had and is still having, it is staggering.
We have worked on hardship funds, food banks and with various local organisations in the last few months to ensure there was and still is sustainable support provisions for our community. We have worked on domestic issues with the police and child services were appropriate and sometimes holding them accountable, because that is also a big part of this. We became a multi-agency of sorts, making sure we are supporting every member of our school community. Pairing of course, with the key job of making sure the boys do not fall behind.”
Transitioning Back to School
With the back to school period well under way, Peter explains that when news broke in June that more students were able to come back, there were plans to in place to ensure that if and when a full return period ensues, that they were prepared to facilitate this:
PG: “Well when news broke on June 1st that we could potentially have more children in, we did. We looked down our list and realised that many of our Key Stage 3 boys did not have access to a computer and we set up a ‘Digital School’ in response to ensure they were properly equipped with laptops or access to computers to continue learning. Later down the line, we decided it wasn’t good enough that we were not going to see our year 7s to year 9s for six months and prepared to ensure we could facilitate time with them before the big break too.
We got them in for catchup days, wellbeing exercises and ultimately, it was all part of making sure we could alleviate any angst from returning off a national lockdown. In the process, we have given out 90-odd laptops, had regular 1-1 catchups, students were doing live lessons and receiving a call a week if not a call a day to check in. Over June and July, we had around 100 students in every day, so we’d see them. When they all came back after the holidays, they had scheduled 1-1s to manage anything they needed to support with either a member of staff or a counsellor – so, all the anxiety and angst off leaving their family home wasn’t a shock. The first time they were out of their family home, they were with us, people they trust.
Active Citizenship: A principle that lives in each day
Though the pandemic’s effect is continuous and evolving by the minute, Harris Boys Academy East Dulwich stands tall, mobilising its students, staff and school community to be active citizens. In the last few weeks, the academy participated in Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC) campaign led by the UK's anti-racism educational charity. As part of their wider black history month initiative, 30 students interviewed Baroness Wheatcroft of the UK House of Lords opening up important discussions around equality & diversity, raising achievement, global warming, the police and gender.
Despite the changes to the routine, the boys' excellent conduct has remained the same! With 25,836 positive points awarded by staff, over 100 of the boys were rewarded, receiving a special breakfast with Principal Peter Groves. The tradition continues, even though this year they must be in year group bubbles and socially distanced, of course.
PG: “The idea is to recognise and reward the vast majority of our students who behave extremely well. As an Academy we passionately believe in the importance of preparing our students academically, but also ensuring that they have the social skills to be able to contribute to society.”
As the half term draws to a close, the gates of Harris Boys Academy East Dulwich swing open once again. Principal Peter Groves takes his morning walk over to the gate on the grounds of the school to welcome students back in. The bell rings once more and pupils make their way back into class to take their seats. Just like that, another term begins.
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