Clarity is in short supply at present. Political leaders are either changing their minds about what we should do or simply ignoring what is going on around them. Journalists continue to publish conjecture and give voice to views, however outlandish as long as it is about COVID-19. And schools, what clarity exists for this academic year? What is in store? What do we think that we are going to do?
Take it one day at a time. There is so much uncertainty around we should encourage pupils to make the most of today and prepare for tomorrow. There doesn’t seem a lot of value in thinking that we are going to be able to do all of the things that we normally do, so taking things day by day and week by week means that we can plan in line with the latest advice and be agile in the face of change. We should look to celebrate each day, all that has been achieved and what has been learned.
Do as much as we possibly can. It is vital that our young people have as normal an experience as possible. Those who can come into school should and they should experience as wide a range of school activities as they are able, safety permitting. We do have some clubs running at lunchtime, there is limited sporting activity and it was good indeed to see some of our peripatetic music teachers coming through the gates again this week.
Push on as far as we are able. We have to accept that we could be asked to close at very short notice and that we may, once again, be learning remotely. However good our offer there is a progress penalty when learning is remote. Yes, some may very well flourish and maintain their results, but we will never really know what they would have learned about themselves by sitting an exam in a hall or had the chance to work with someone else on a project. We may not be venturing far from the school campus in the coming months, but this gives us the chance to use our time in the classroom to best effect.
Look after each other and build relationships. Our school is a happy and supportive environment. I’d be a liar or a fool if I did not admit that there are individual acts of unpleasantness but for the most part, for the vast majority of the time, our community is one that radiates friendship and in which support is palpable. We must invest in our friendships and bask in the warmth of companionship. A sign of a successful education is leaving with academic accolades and lifelong relationships in equal measure. We must take the opportunity to make the most of the time that we have together.
Be grateful for what we have: If this current situation has taught us anything it is the fragility and preciousness of what we have. Coming back from lockdown I can’t tell you how many pupils told me they had missed school. Some were as surprised at saying this as I was at hearing it, but strange things happen when something is denied to you. We’ve just had the most glorious spell of weather, the school grounds are looking wonderful and we have space to simply be and grow.
And we are here, learning together. I couldn’t really ask for a lot more than that at present. In this I do have clarity.
“I think that when we know that we actually do live in uncertainty; then we ought to admit it; it is of great value to realize that we do no know the answers to different questions. This attitude of mind – this attitude of uncertainty – is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire.”
Richard P Feynman
The modern world isn’t terribly good at uncertainty. We as a species have often seen ourselves as the measure of all things, the solvers, the knowers. Progress is regularly seen as a march of progress, we are always going forward, going faster and getting better. Both the start of term and the COVID pandemic are moments in all of this certainty when we, like Feynman, realise that we don’t have all of the answers.
At the start of a new term and particularly if it is a new school then many things are uncertain. Simply finding your way around presents challenges, this year made all the more difficult by a new one-way system. You are never quite sure where you need to be and when, you might not know exactly what is expected of you. Happily, if my less than scientific observations are true, then those who were new a couple of weeks ago now seem comfortably at home.
In class I hope that as pupils grow in confidence they will begin to relish uncertainty. Without a feeling of not knowing there can be little chance of experiencing the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of understanding something new. If our pupils came knowing everything then there would be little point in spending each day in our school by the Seine. A truly worthwhile school experience is one that allows pupils to ask why and then affords them the opportunity to find out the answers.
What will happen this year, no-one really knows. Studies will be interrupted, we may see year groups sent home, we could even be placed in lockdown once more. Some activities will be restricted or curtailed. I hope that we can find ways to work around and take a different approach rather than simply cancel, I suspect our pupils will come up with some original ideas to overcome the challenges that they face. Staff are working hard to ensure that whilst different the experience of school is still rewarding and fulfilling.
In the coming weeks it is highly likely that our approach will change. Some activities will continue, others will take a different form. Some pupils will be asked to remain at home and isolate, there is an outside chance that we may be asked to close our doors once again. In the midst of this upheaval I am sure our pupils will ensure that they make the most of every opportunity and all classroom experiences. Perhaps this is a year when we give ourselves to uncertainty, we use each moment to its fullest extent, and we seize every opportunity to learn.
As much as I never thought I would ever be walking around school wearing a mask, I also never thought that I would be looking forward to a week of hot fine weather with the degree of trepidation I currently feel. Rain is usually the meteorological challenge that I fear with the associated steamy classrooms and muddy shoes that follow. Next week we are told that temperatures will rise into the 30s and there is no sign of a relaxation of rules on mask wearing for our older pupils and staff.
Wearing a mask when teaching is a bind, wearing one while learning is no less of a bind. There are some splendid examples of home crafter face coverings and the now ubiquitous hospital light blues that we have become so familiar with. But there is no escaping the fact that wearing a mask makes teaching more difficult. To mitigate my rising irritation with having to cover up I have taken to reminding myself that in wearing my mask I hope that I am protecting other people. Our School holds the concept of service as one of its values. By wearing a mask, we recognise that school value. I also consider the individuals who have given so much of themselves in helping others; front line carers, those who have kept food shops open and others providing essential services such as education. Our masks are therefore a tribute to all who have stepped outside the safety of confinement to support other people. I take the opportunity to remind myself that many people have had to endure far greater discomfort than I feel wearing a mask by contracting this virus. We live, it has often been said, in uncertain times. By wearing a mask, I believe that we are doing something practical and useful, it is a simple act that perhaps provides stability. Seeing so many pupils simply getting on with their learning behind their masks is inspiring. Proof, if needed, that superheroes really do wear masks.
Our approach to re-opening has been one rooted in caution. I am pleased to be able to report that as we move further into term, we will be able to offer a wider range of activities on site. Please do keep checking the website for information. I thank all of my colleagues for their support in this and parents for their patience. As we move into the new normal, we must acknowledge that all our plans could be suspended at very short notice. Should a school-wide measure be necessary then I will inform you by means of a group called letter. Please do take a moment to check that the contact details that we have are accurate.
This has been a most successful first full week of school. Our pupils have made a positive start to their learning this year and they have coped with good humour when new rules and approaches have been instituted. We are trying to ensure that their experience this year is as close to that of every year while keeping them as safe as possible.
We live in a changed world. We may not know how long lasting these changes are, but we can be in no doubt that things are different at the start of this year in comparison to last. Starting term wearing a mask, unthinkable a year ago, acceptable now. Performance in academic subjects assessed without an exam, bizarre a year ago, is the reality of today. The Roman writer Tacitus records that before the final stand of the Caledonian tribes against the might of the Roman Empire at Mons Graupius AD 83, the leader of the tribes says the Romans “create a desolation and call it peace”. Coronavirus has affected every community in the world in some way and now it is time for us to decide what we are going to do about building our world once again. The virus is not a conquering imperial power, so it is perhaps a little melodramatic to call it desolation, but it is certainly fair to observe that much has been dismantled. We have a valuable moment to take stock.
As communities we have to decide if we are going to accept cancellation and isolation or if we are going to find new ways to build connections and to provide support. We can choose to be positive about the challenge or negative. There is room to be both as George Bernard Shaw put it: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to the society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” I have been inspired by recent sporting endeavours – the cricket matches between England and the West Indies and more recently against Pakistan have shown that we can enjoy the things we do and we can be inspired by the actions of others, even in a biosphere. The Tour de France and La Course provide us with similar hope. The issue of when to return to the workplace is one under scrutiny in many countries. Some organisations will have people at home until well after Christmas but in the case of schools there is a different approach. We can debate the motivations of governments over the timing of school reopening and the new levels of protocols in place, but I firmly believe that it is better to be educated in a school than to be educated remotely. In saying this I’m making an important distinction between education and teaching. We have demonstrated that technological tools are invaluable in facilitating the delivery of lessons and we know that academic progress can happen (very effectively) via remote learning. What can’t be learned remotely is everything else that happens in schools “around the edges”. All schools have a hidden curriculum, all schools talk about educating the whole person, we all talk about holistic education. Schools are face-to-face places. It is difficult to replicate the social interactions that take place at break times or during lunch, team sports, music, drama, debate can all be done but without all being in the same place (albeit appropriately distanced) it is, quite simply, not the same. Character develops more when we are in real rather than virtual situations.
I am choosing to look at the coming year with a significant degree of hope and optimism. We have the opportunity to relish the opportunities that being in school provides. Nothing makes you appreciate something like coming close to losing it. Whilst there will be challenges along the way we owe it to ourselves to make the very best of the situation that we face. Now perhaps is time not for a wringing of hands but for a rolling up of sleeves.
I’m delighted to extend the very warmest of welcomes to those families who have joined our community for the start of term. We are looking forward to working with you this year and hopefully for many years to come. The BSP community is one that is welcoming and I’m sure that this newsletter will give you a clear picture of all that we do.