I'm delighted to be joined by Cathy Smith, acting head teacher Lyng Hall school Coventry in presenting the outcomes of our research into the impact of the engagement of parents and carers during lockdown summer 2020; research that involved teachers, leaders, parents, carers, children and young people.

Achievement for All is a charity that began in 2011, driven by the outcomes of the Lamb Inquiry into parental engagement in schools for children identified with special educational needs and disabilities. In 2012 our remit was expanded upon by the then Minister for Children and Families to include disadvantaged children and young people.

Since 2011, AfA coaches have delivered 11,000 programmes across England and Wales in partnership with early years settings, schools and post 16 provision. In the majority of cases all children and young people targeted in the programme were among the lowest achieving 20%. In all cases our programmes have improved outcomes for children irrespective of their background, challenge or need.

Each of the pillars detailed above identify AfA’s findings during spring and summer terms 2020. Our research included interviews and delivery reports with international schools, maintained schools in England and post 16 settings.  Evidence shows that schools, supported by AfA, who based their delivery on the four pillars provided an impactful curriculum and wider support throughout the unprecedented pandemic, as illustrated by Lyng Hall school.

Cathy Smith explains, Lyng Hall school serves a catchment area that is socially and economically disadvantaged.  Pupils are drawn from 6 main wards which are among the most disadvantaged in the country. The prior attainment of the pupils is significantly lower than the national average. Over half of our pupils are eligible for free school meals.  This is well above the city average.

The ethnic mix of the pupils has changed in recent years.  There is a wider range of ethnic groups represented in the school than was previously the case, 61% of pupils have English as an additional language.  This is above the City average.  There are currently 47 first languages represented in the school, 16 by more than 5 pupils each.  

The variety of community groups that we have to reach means we need to be connected and see the educational relationship as one that is everyone’s responsibility. We have a team of associate teachers – so named, as they aren’t assistants to teachers, they are the vital link to parents and pur community – they come from the community, they are ex students or have their children in our school and therefore, parents engage really well with them. Having a clear communication pathway, through phone, text, email to guide parents through the new way of learning was vital. Knowing what a barrier was quickly, meant no frustrations could set in – a hotline email helped with this. 

A central platform was set up, all parents had the codes, associate teachers were explained to parents how it worked – so we all learnt together. We were firm early on that it wouldn’t be on screen for 5 hours – we had to be flexible as families were sharing devices or internet was a problem. Listening, sharing feedback, being adaptable was really important. Parents liked that we were following lessons as normal, that the school day still happened from the very beginning.

We have canvassed feedback twice – once in the Achievement for All interviews with Sonia – we witnessed how families and students were eager to share their experiences and get their voice heard. We have followed this up with a student forum with key questions asked each day, parent surveys, staff online interviews and a second round of interviews with all aspects of the school community. Parents like the little things that help, like the resource bus that takes out pads of paper, art supplies, pens, pencils, data, workpacks, sanitary products and an associate teacher to answer any questions – it travels to the key community areas. We have looked for any way we can support, not just education but the parents and their families – from a refugee whose family didn’t have any clothes or basics when they arrived to us to students who just wanted to talk – setting up an online chat with their regular associate teacher twice a week, so they could have contact about silly, every day things.

Students have contact every week, we are flexible, as some need to work differently from others – but they have the same person they work with each time, they trust that person. Checking they have whatever they need has been vital. Carrying out the everyday – regular assemblies, a whole school forum to keep in touch with little challenges, videos to help learning, subject hubs with videos and content about core knowledge, so students know what the very basic expectations are. At the heart of it – the relationships that are formed and grow as students know that staff are in their corner. For example, I’ve had honest posts on the class streams about not being able to use a microphone on that question because a child was involved in a lesson and childcare. A late submission because of internet connection – students are not afraid to share, they don’t think anyone will judge them. A quote: “Lyng Hall is about equality, everyone at the school is treated the same” A parent quote: “There is a good vibe about the place with children from many different nationalities doing well and working together.”

Another parent: “I am so thankful for everyone for putting so much effort in to educate children during these difficult times.”

As the above slide explains, due to the pandemic the practice of teaching has completely changed. Adapting to different home situations – no devices, different times students can work, supporting those who are carers. Quickly we realized that little routines, like setting pre-reading for a lesson, or pre- watching of a video before the class, gave children time to support or complete the roles they had at home. Continuing Professional Development training for staff was recorded, so we could share the insights of what was working well and online department meetings used this, so any parent comment, student feedback or teacher experience could be quickly shared across the school. Using different apps, discussing activities that worked, skilling each other up rapidly has been really important, alongside discussing the needs of the students – for example, student x struggles with access first thing, though they are around at the end of the day. Making sure all information about the families was available so we could be adaptable. 

We also have a lockdown register, which is a live document filled in at the start of the lesson. Associate teachers can then see who is saying hello at the start of lesson, as teachers fill it in – they can then text and check in – ‘is the internet down? Is there a problem with data? Does it make sense?’ Is there anything that is a barrier? All work is posted in advance, so students can access it when it is best for them. All associate teachers are members of the classrooms and they can see who is online, see what the register is showing and fill in the missing pieces. Parents have strong communication pathways to ensure they are open and honest with the relevant person, who they speak to often. Making it one person has made a huge difference, the parents discuss them as their champion as well as the school link and it opens up a realistic dialogue. 

Our timetable is double, single, double across the school day – so it gave us more time to be flexible, promote less busy minds and contact individuals. Cognitively, 3 subjects a day works best for the students and everyone gets something learnt. We were adamant that blended learning with flexibility was key – contact, but for key elements – boil it down to the essence of learning, keep it to key learning, so cognitively, students can process. Using technology in new ways greatly enhanced the learning experience – break out rooms – so students could talk to each other, but the teacher can visit and see all of the chat – such a simple thing makes all of the difference. 

We also have a whole school classroom, which students mostly use, but parents have also used to ask specific questions. It has given students a chance to ask random questions and get answers from other students or staff quickly.

All education settings involved in this research, most notably Lyng Hall in partnership with parents and carers, demonstrated resolve and resilience throughout last year.  We must acknowledge that much of the excellent practice that has been developing throughout the pandemic builds on existing partnerships with parents and carers. 

The pandemic is a period in education that will be followed by post-pandemic educational practice and partnership with parents and carers, we do not want to return to pre-pandemic practice, we need to re-imagine and reform practice based on what we have learnt.

Cathy Smith comments, it is an opportunity – teaching has made rapid changes and a big part of this is adapting so we can engage students and their parents – explaining what needs to be done, showing that any question will be answered, no matter how small. Using platforms to show key learning concepts – videos that are there for ever – to enhance learning at any point. Being absolutely clear and transparent about how we are working.

Each teacher following a set platform – thinking about ways to make the learning easier and encouraging time away from screen – students still working in their books a lot of the time and sending in a picture – it is a choice. Planning screen time carefully for optimal gains and trialing different ways then getting feedback about which works best. For many, group work continues to be the most successful, setting timed work off screen, so a 20 minute task doesn’t take an hour and sharing on the stream so they could see other students work and not feel confused. Modelling good responses with good communication. Feeding back using the classwork submission area or the stream or getting workpacks in, or using the varied array of techniques to allow a diagnostic questioning of where students were in that knowledge.

Ensuring that those who couldn’t access online had key content delivered to them or the flexibility as described. Those in school – especially with this lockdown were also key – 3 sessions for second language learners who needed the contact with school, a Foundation group of our most vulnerable learners with their normal teachers – they are taught in the primary model of one main teacher for most subjects and the support this brings has continued to be well-received. Our students at risk of exclusion – the SAILERS, all in on a rotating timetable to ensure they engage and don’t get side-tracked and continuing connections, such as our Duke of Edinburgh programme online, workshops and fundraising efforts to support our community charity (we raised money to fund 70 Christmas dinners for the residents of the local hospice!) all meant we were trying to stay connected.

Talking honestly to future sixth-formers and giving the then Year 11 information and time to talk about sixth form – which we have started again. Keeping connections now with those who are at university and checking they are still ok.

As illustrated by the above, students come from low starting points and we are aware that each cohort is showing the legacy of changes that have been made, especially with our literacy programme. Ofsted recognized the change that is underway and the journey we still have to take. Our results are effected by a small few – as we keep hold of students who would have been given up on – this moral dilemma is one we take on. These students are the ones where we have the strongest parental relationships, the continued supportive work and getting students in for set sessions who would normally be getting into all sorts of trouble is paying off. All staff are conversant in cognitive load, the difficulty of retention in children with ACEs and the need for retrieval, which the lockdown could have been catastrophic for. Yet the portfolio of evidence for exam groups continue to be strong, hard data, such as the reading tests we ensured were completed when students returned to school

Some live data therefore from the reading results from NGRT - results from tests in November demonstrate that during lockdown students continued to improve their reading levels by at least a year, in a notable year group, this improved by 1 year 11 months. The only year group that improves less than a year was Year 11, who are the last year to have not had full exposure to the reading programme.  Also, a self-esteem survey and work we have completed have given us a clear understanding of which students we need to work with – with regards the children and their families. 

If I have to sum up, it is that we are a family, in our Ofsted in June 2019, one student commented, “This is like my second home, we are all family.” What I take great pride in as an Acting Headteacher is, despite the lockdown, despite not being in the same building, that sense of community has still continued.