A week in the new-normal life of a headteacher: Rebecca Hickey for the Evening Standard

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After six months of virtual lessons, Monday was back to school for Peckham’s Harris Academy — and top of Principal Hickey’s agenda is pupils’ mental health. Katie Strick, reporter for the Evening Standard joins the bright class of 2020. 

It’s a grey day for the start of the new school year but Principal Rebecca Hickey couldn’t be happier to see so many bright, smiling faces. The one issue is there are (slightly) too many of them, she confesses to a colleague as they stand welcoming students at the gates of Peckham’s Harris Academy.

Today is meant to be a year sevens-only induction but much to the barely disguised delight of staff, several older students have turned up at the gate, blazers buttoned and eager to learn. “It seems so cruel to have to send them home when they’re so excited,” says Hickey, pausing every couple of seconds to wish a timid-looking teen a good morning and happy start of term.

She can hardly blame them for turning up three days early: since Covid-19 caused schools to shut down almost overnight in March, many students haven’t seen friends or picked up a book in six months. The excitement is palpable, says Hickey, executive principal of eight schools across the Harris federation, the largest academy chain in London. But there’s also some confusion: one poor year eight had a nasty shock this morning at the gates. “He thinks he’s still halfway through year seven.”

Classrooms might have been empty since March but Hickey and her team have never been busier. Aside from “turning into a virtual school in 48 hours” to deliver a full schedule of online lessons on Microsoft Teams, staff have also been hard at work to equip families with internet, home-schooling tools and food provisions (60 per cent of students are eligible for free school meals). Among the resources delivered: 250 laptops, dozens of internet dongles, 1,500 school meals and 2,500 School Food Matters breakfast boxes from local restaurant partners including Wahaca.

There have also been summer schools and socially distant teaching for children of key workers and vulnerable and special needs students. But nothing can make up for seeing the corridors buzzing with young life again, says Hickey — even if children do have to walk in silence to reduce the spread of germs. As of this week, all 605 pupils have been ordered back to school under “compulsory” attendance rules by the Government, despite parents’ concerns that a lack of testing will bring learning to a halt every time one develops a cough or cold.

For year eights and above, the new term looks a little different to last September. Staggered start times and year-group bubbles will be the new normal, says Hickey. But much to many students’ surprise as they step off the bus, there’ll be no masks on campus. Instead, each child is handed a clear plastic bag for storing their face covering on arrival and ushered towards a line of metal sinks lining the playground. It might all seem rather militant if it wasn’t for the giant rainbow above reception and chorus of smiling staff dressed in bright primary colours wishing them a happy start of term.

Hickey is the brightest of the bunch sporting an electric blue pencil dress. She is bubbly and cheerful, even as calls start ringing in on her Apple Watch. Clearly, she understands the gravity on such a day, not just for herself and her fellow head teachers, but for their staff, students and concerned parents.

“There will still be a minority who haven’t left their own homes since March and are therefore genuinely frightened,” she tells me, listing the safety measures in place: round-the-clock cleaning; disinfected netballs and footballs in PE; a medical isolation toilet for suspected Covid cases; separate year entrances; and shorter lunchbreaks to ensure no mixing of bubbles.

Classrooms, too, have seen some changes. This year it’s teachers who’ll rotate around the classrooms, with children staying put to minimise the spread of germs. The downside? No more hands-on teacher time, explains year seven form tutor Miss Enderby as she attempts to help her new cohort with their ties from a two-metre distance. From now on, she has to stay within a gaffer-tape box on the classroom floor.

Enderby admits the distance is difficult. Her teaching assistants can roam wearing visors but she can only watch on from the front. How do students feel about the changes? A pause for questions offers some insights from form 7B1. “Why were there no temperature checks?” Because we trust you. “What about sets?” We’ve abandoned sets this term. “What if my friends are in another bubble?” You’ll have to keep your distance. And crucially: “Will there still be detentions?” Yes.

You don’t know what the person sitting next to you has been through,’ Miss Enderby tells class 7B1

Visors and gaffer tape were the best of a bad set of options, says Hickey. Children’s safety is her top priority, but she was determined not to create a school that looked like a hospital. “That would actually traumatise the students,” who have weathered enough. Many children will have experienced severe trauma over the last six months. Domestic violence, knife crime and drug abuse are some of the issues the welfare team have been tackling with students at home and, Hickey says, “we might never know everything everyone’s been through.”

Students and parents were called at home at least once a week over lockdown and plans are in place to continue over-the-phone counselling for some parents even now school is back. “For some, tutors were the only other adults they were speaking to all week,” Hickey explains. To help spot the signs and triggers of trauma, all staff have now received at least two days of training from the charity Trauma Informed Schools and well-being is central to the new curriculum. “You don’t know what the person sitting next to you has gone through,” Enderby tells class 7B1 on their first day back. She shows a picture of Black Panther actor Chadwick Bo seman, who died last month at 43. Almost every hand goes up to identify him, but most don’t know about his secret cancer battle. The lesson quickly sinks in.

It’s for hidden reasons like this that Hickey isn’t interested in talking about academic testing. “They’ve already been tested in all kinds of ways until now,” she says, explaining how all talk of assessment will be delayed for four to six weeks “at least”. Plus, there is urgent work to be done. The Black Lives Matter protests have erupted since students were last in school and there is not a moment to spare in making up for lost conversations. With 78 per cent of students from BAME backgrounds, she was concerned about them “responding to it in a way that we weren’t able to help guide them through”.

Mental health, too, tops the school’s agenda. Lockdown anxieties, coupled with concerns that students will become fidgety from staying in the same seats, prompted teachers to introduce mindfulness and breathing sessions to the start of each lesson. Such moments of “transition time” are also about injecting routine back into pupil’s lives. In a class activity on superpowers, students write about playing video games until late while their parents worked night shifts.

Of course there have been more serious setbacks. One special-needs student regressed by 19 months over lockdown and many will have lost six months of learning. But talk of “the pandemic” isn’t helpful, says Hickey, who’s trained staff to discuss the highs and lows of students’ individual “corona-coasters” and replace “catching up” with “revisiting”.

For Hickey, attention to language is an attempt to humanise months of dramatic news full of “imposing” words. She wants to take a more “therapeutic” approach — and not just with students. In some schools, up to 50 per cent of staff are shielding and though her own team are not in that boat, she is aware they’ve all had their own challenges.

Then there are practical challenges. Three maths teachers are currently quarantining after arriving in the UK from Jamaica, now on the government’s red list. For two it’s their first time in the UK, so providing welfare and technical support for them at home is crucial before they start the new job.

Tech support is a school-wide issue as the academy pivots to a Teams-based homework system. The decision to continue work online is partly because of the “positive response” from students, but it’s also a case of pandemic-proofing in case of a second or local lockdown. In mild circumstances, teachers might have to start wearing masks in classrooms but Hickey recognises there’s a chance everyone will be sent home again. “Someone could get symptoms tomorrow,” says Hickey, resolute. “We’ve got to be ready for it.”. Until then, it’s back to the classroom for everyone — especially the over-eager year eights.

School reports: The students’ view

Year eleven student Addis Richard, 15

“My lockdown wasn’t that bad, but I missed school. My sister was very distracting at home – she kept talking and watching TV in the background when I had lessons and she broke my laptop playing games. The school had to provide me with a new one.

“It was hard not getting to see our teachers face-to-face, especially when it came to focusing. I think everyone got very distracted. I got lots of headaches from so much time on a screen and one time I fell asleep during a lesson! We didn’t have our cameras on so the teachers never knew. If I already understood a lesson and teacher was still explaining, I’d just pick up my book and start reading.

“We did some online mocks over lockdown, which went well for me. If it was an English question and you didn’t understand a word, you could just look it up on the internet, even though you weren’t meant to. I didn’t, but I did use a dictionary.

“In classes, people would just login to log their attendance, then go away, so a lot of people will have fallen behind. But I think they can catch up. Our teachers here are really good. I’m not nervous about a second lockdown because we know how to work at home now. And it wasn’t all bad: I watched lots of films, I cooked almost every day for my food tech GCSE and I definitely slept more.

“We’ve always talked about mental health at school. Everybody has different experiences and places they come from, you never know what’s happened to them. When I first came to this country and joined the school in year seven, I was nervous and some people were rude because of the way I talked. It’s made me more sympathetic to other people and their situations, because I’ve been through that.”

Year eleven student Moyo Olufeyiso, 15

“Ah, my lockdown. It was so boring. My mum didn’t want me to go out because she was afraid of me getting coronavirus, so I washed my hands endlessly, ate a lot and watched lots of films. Once I was doing an online lesson but ended up watching Chinese films on my phone instead. The teacher never knew. We had to have our audio on but not our cameras, though there is a notebook online where the teachers can see what we’re writing.

“I came to school a few times to help hand out meals and see friends. Addis and I have been friends since year seven and we spoke every day over lockdown via WhatsApp and calls. Every time I spoke to Addis she was reading. It was so impressive, but she was also impressed with me because I read a whole book for the first time.

“When we did mocks, I got most of the answers from Google. I’m scared for my GCSEs because I’m not prepared and there are so many unknowns. I didn’t do a lot of revision – my mum wasn’t used to me doing online lessons so she’d be on the phone speaking really loudly in the background. I had to ask her to go out of the room for me to finish my classes.

“We came into school last Friday to see what school would be like. I miss being able to get closer to friends and it’s weird staying in the same classroom for eight periods, with only a break for break and lunch. I’m sure we’ll get used to it, but I can’t wait to go back to how things used to be.”

To view this article on the Evening Standard website, click here.

For more information on Harris Academy Peckham, click here.

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