BLOG: Governing during the Coronavirus crisis

YST National Manager of Targeted Interventions and Chair of Governors at a primary school, Vicci Wells, blogs about governing in these extraordinary times.

School governors are governing in what can only be described as extraordinary times. The world of governance has been turned on its head. Governors are familiar with adapting and responding to challenges over time, but this is exceptional. Covid-19 has tested us all, but as a Chair of Governors myself, and with a role on the Board of Trustees of a Multi Academy Trust, I am convinced that if we remain united and committed in the support of our schools, we will come out the other side stronger and better prepared than ever for improving the outcomes of the young people we serve. 

At this moment in time, and for the immediate future, all in-school engagement that we carry out has ended; our governor visits, link role visits and Governing Board and Committee meetings within school have all ceased. We have moved to digitally governing, and this can lead to us feeling worried, confused and often helpless.

The past weeks have felt like months and the uncertainty generated across our education system has been very hard for many to cope with. While our schools have been mainly closed for educational purposes but remaining open for child-care and to support vulnerable youngsters, as governors we have been suddenly required to respond to previously unthinkable challenges.

Yet I know that, despite our challenges and dealing with our own personal circumstances, the role every single governor is playing out there is outstanding. As the largest volunteer workforce in the country (there are over a quarter of a million volunteers governing state funded schools in England we need to be demonstrating the kind of leadership that recognises so much at stake is unknowable, yet finding courage through public service in doing what is right.

Leading either a school or trust is a balancing act - driven through collaboration and working together, providing support for schools and senior leaders, and rightly championing the wonderful ways schools are developing to stay connected to their community. We are considerate of the enormous task staff have in ensuring continuity of education and making this work on the ground.

I became a governor because I wanted to make a meaningful difference to the educational outcomes and lives of young people across my community (to hear more reasons why see here). Initially becoming a governor as my eldest started school, my reasons for remaining in governance are still as strong, if not stronger. I am there to make a difference to the lives of every single one of our children and young people across the school I chair, as well as through the Multi Academy Trust.

And these children, the ‘Generation C’, are experiencing something during their schooling journey like no other. From one perspective, some are discovering new interest areas - engaging closer with families, pursuing newfound joy in everyday experiences (such as cooking together, enjoying outside space safely if possible, recognising not all have this luxury, and cycling together on new quieter roads).

Lockdown is inspiring creativity, such as with my own children where we have created fairy houses from milk bottles, toilet roll (yes we found some!) characters that have then participated in theatre performances and made dens for virtual Beaver sleepover camps. We have designed bright, sparkly rainbows for our windows bringing hope and cheer across our streets and we have discovered joy in the simple art of receiving a letter from a friend or a loved one.

Yet…..

Yet our children are struggling. They are sharing with us their loss of structure, of routine and familiarity, of their friendships. Children are missing the physical interactions with friends - despite the wonders of technology in enabling digital experiences for some. For my six-year-old, digital communication does not meet his socialisation needs - he doesn’t know what to say to his peers (although finding how Messenger can enable its users to play over the app and design new hair/faces/masks has been a game changer!). It is difficult for them to build conversations and connect with friends using technology, as their interactions would usually centre around physical play.

There is also the loss of having daily physical contact with friends and family. Research undertaken across the UK, Italy and France has demonstrated that young people of all ages miss interacting with their friends at school. School provides that stable opportunity to have fun with friends daily and helps ease the pressures of education. In my professional role, our research is informing us that there is also a loss of being physically well, particularly for those children and young people who may not have had access to outdoor space, or for families who are constrained in small homes with multiple family members.

The Youth Sport Trust believes in the life-changing benefits physical activity, PE and school sport can have for young people. Guidance recommendations are that young people should accumulate 60 minutes of at least moderate intensity activity a day; which can involve lots of short bouts of physical activity and a range of intensities. These guidelines are based on evidence that more active young people have better health outcomes. There is also evidence that increased physical activity is associated with enhanced mental health, improved cognitive function, aspects of self-esteem, and reduced depressive symptoms in young people.

Yet our schools are already sharing with us their observations and concerns of children who are starting to transition back into school. Children who have a loss in stamina and strength, and those that have not had the opportunity to any physical exercise due to their environments at home and the lack of outdoor space.

PE can be a powerful vehicle for supporting children as they transition back into school. 

It could be too easy to assume the barriers and the concerns I know many of us have had around the safety and social distancing measures that could mean this subject is forgotten, or not seen as a priority, as has been the case in Taiwan schools as they return to education. Yet I would advocate that the subject is needed now more than ever to ‘heal’ our children physically, mentally and emotionally.

From the experiences shared by governors on our forums, my own experiences and international research gathered by the Youth Sport Trust as schools globally start to transition young people back into education, there is an overarching theme that is screaming out from our pupils. And this is the importance of play. Play is one of the approaches we absolutely need to consider, and through focusing on the ‘E’ in PE we can embed this within our recovery curriculum. The physical within PE can be achieved through the teaching and development of life skills and the ‘E’ brings so much more than physical competence. It is the teaching of life skills, which will play a crucial role in the healing process.

How can returning to (safe) playground games create fun, laughter, talking and communicating to make our schools alive once more? It is an opportunity to step up and focus on the health and wellbeing of our communities. It is the time to ensure our curriculums are inclusive, pupil-centred and safe within current guidelines. 

Never has there been such a time for reflections and opportunities to create positive change; to make child-centred decisions to impact positively for the future. One day let’s hope we can look back and agree, that in spite of the challenges we faced, we found a way through - for our children, our staff and our communities.

Youth Sport Trust support

Early June saw just over half of primary schools reopen to more pupils, with one in four children (25%) returning back to school in England.

Even though more pupils are returning to school, it is still not business as usual and we recognise that school governing boards continue to strategically monitor in new routines. With a monitoring focus on safeguarding, health and safety, Head Teacher and staff wellbeing, and continuing education, it is critical that boards maintain their effectiveness while remote.

The Department for Education have highlighted that the priority for primary schools should be:

  • The resocialisation into new style school routines
  • Speaking and listening
  • Regaining momentum, particularly with early reading.

The Department have also highlighted that for those children and young people who have had limited opportunity for exercise there needs to be, as a priority, an opportunity to exert themselves physically with supervised non-touch games.

At the Youth Sport Trust we have developed, working closely with senior leads and practitioners in schools, a range of resources to support schools as they welcome more pupils back. These include:

Questions for governing boards to ask:

  • What challenges are you facing right now as pupils start to return to school?
  • How are pupils coming into school coping with the new arrangements?
  • How are we monitoring the wellbeing of pupils returning to school?
  • What can we do to help?

‘Children who have had limited opportunities for exercise should be encouraged to exert themselves physically, making use of supervised non-touch running games within their group. The Association for PE and the Youth Sport Trust are also offering some support to schools’. Planning guide for primary schools, DfE

Vicci Wells is the National Manager for Targeted Interventions at the Youth Sport Trust. Alongside this professional role, she is also closely involved in school governance, both as a Chair of Governors for her children’s primary school, as well as being a foundation Trustee of a MAT in Worcestershire which is a cross phase MAT for pupils aged 4-18. She is also author of a widely-read blog, the Young(ish) School Governor and has featured several times in Schools Week as part of their Top-edu blogs.

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