In her first Blog, new Head of Lower Prep, Clair Foster explains how talking honestly about pandemic fears and worries has helped bring the Prep community even closer. PLUS: A special sporting achievement
Where did all the time go? is the question I find myself asking as I write this blog. It seems only yesterday that I was embarking on my first day as Head of Lower Prep. Yet suddenly its mid-October and, half term has arrived.
It’s been an intense seven weeks. The start of the year always feels slightly frantic but Autumn 2020 has been a proper roller coaster. In normal times in September we try to keep things nice and stable so children can settle into their new school, or year group. We want to create the calm that facilitates making friends, feeling comfortable and building teams.
Inevitably, this year, returning to school after a six-month gap felt like a leap into the unknown.
Months of thought and planning was invested in the creation of our year group ‘bubbles’ and putting in place all the complex logistics and changes of routine they involved: one-way systems, discrete play areas, expanded and unfamiliar dining arrangements... How, we wondered, would our younger Harrodians cope?
Much to our relief, most Prep pupils seemed to take the unfamiliarity of ‘Bubble Learning and Living’ in their stride. The shared sense of pleasure at being back together was almost tangible and this fed into the maturity of their attitude to their approach to socially distanced conditions. Throughout the first half of the term Prep pupils have been patient, well-behaved, co-operative, quick to adjust to change and uncomplaining. If there has been any disappointment with the inevitably Back-to-Basics character of the extracurricular clubs on offer or the lack of the usual exciting Harrodian trips, I haven’t heard a hint of a grumble. It seems no one was prepared to let minor details get in the way of their delight at being reunited with their mates in a place they love.
Prep pupils have been patient, well-behaved, co-operative, quick to adjust to change and uncomplaining
So far so good then but you can't get carried away. One thing we’ve discovered about the ‘New Pandemic Normal’ in the past six months is that it never lets you take anything for granted. Two weeks into term came the jolt that we’d half expected. Confirmed Covid cases in late September first forced all the 12s to self-isolate then obliged around 30 more children from other Prep year groups to join them working from home.
At first, it felt like a serious blow. Alongside Corona concerns, suddenly Prep teachers were facing the challenge of teaching groups split between classroom learners and individuals. In fact, things turned out rather better than we might have hoped. The threatened outbreak never gathered any momentum, and after a few false starts, teachers were able to successfully prove the feasibility of using classroom computers to deliver surprisingly good classes to both classrooms and bedrooms simultaneously.
The dark Corona cloud came with a precious silver lining. It provided unforeseen and priceless new insights into the potential impact of the pandemic on pupils’ mental health.
Just as important, to our pastoral concerns, this dark Corona cloud came with a precious silver lining providing unforeseen and priceless new insights into the potential impact of the pandemic on pupils’ mental health. As they swapped greetings and chatted with pupils in Harrodian classrooms and those stuck at home, our classroom teachers quickly began to notice worrying differences in their sense of well-being among the group. Our Prep Head of PSHE Annabelle Morrow was quick to voice shared concerns. ‘We‘ve found that that some remote learners are really struggling with a sense of disappointment and isolation,’ she told me. ‘They feel as if they’ve waited months to get back to school only to have it snatched back away from them.’ Miss Morrow had a plan in mind for tackling this and other Covid-related mental health issues head on. She suggested that ‘Keeping Positive in a Pandemic’ should be set in place as the Harrodian Prep PSHE theme for the first half of the term, a proposal that was enthusiastically endorsed by class teachers.
It has turned out to be the perfect message for the moment. As Prep teachers began encouraging pupils to openly share their pandemic fears and worries during form and registration periods they found they themselves pushing at an open door. Children were eager both to voice their concerns and to act. Over the past four weeks the theme has picked up momentum. Some classes have been drawing up positive action plans, lists of tips and publicity posters that address the Covid blues and other problems that impact on mental health. Others have just been happy to talk. World Mental Health Day last Friday – when Harrodian teachers and pupils dressed up in yellow ‘to show young people they’re not alone with their mental health’ – provided a focal point and catalyst for some moving conversations in which children and teachers honestly addressed darker pandemic-related concerns including death and grief in some depth.
All of us – teachers and parents as well as children – have our wobbly moments at times like these but it’s not always easy to express these feelings openly. So, we’re proud and pleased that so many of our young Harrodians have the confidence and the trust to share their intimate concerns and worries with classmates and teachers as well as to offer so much empathy and support to peers who are struggling. Accepting that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ has helped bring our already close-knit community even closer. As teachers I think the experience has made us more determined than ever to ensure that Harrodians are able to remain and work together in a place that they love.
Accepting that ‘it’s ok not to be ok’ has helped bring our already close-knit community even closer.
Miss Morrow is planning to make Online Safety the PSHE theme after half term. But our experience over the past two months has already convinced us of the need to keep our mental health channels well and truly open. Thanks to careful social distancing strategies, we've been able to reinstate our temporarily suspended mentoring scheme (which assigns specially trained Senior pupils to talk to selected Prep pupils who are struggling with anxiety, confidence or mental health issues). Alongside this, from now on every year group will also have a worry box in which pupils in need of support can outline the problem and ask for help.
We also know from experience that we can count on our close-knit parental community to get behind our initiatives. So, if you are happy to do your bit by chipping into conversations about Covid if they come up at home, at the dinner table or wherever it happens to be, I hope you agree that it can only be a positive step. We’ve found the guidance about supporting children during the pandemic that you can find here and here especially useful.
Clair Foster is Head of Harrodian Lower Prep
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..... AND IN SPORTS NEWS
As a little postscript newsflash to this Prep blog, I'd like to offer many congratulations to Liv in the 9s for her fabulous achievement in tennis competitions. Liv is a rising star in the junior game and was given news that she has achieved the most points in the country for her age in LTA recognised competitions as a special announcement in a Mathematics lesson at school. You can tell from the class reaction that they were almost as pleased and proud on her behalf as Liv was herself. Keep practising Liv! We look forward to seeing you at Wimbledon in the not-too-distant future.