Social distancing and serious learning – the challenges facing one Hackney school

Students in socially-distanced classroom at The Urswick School. Pic: The Urswick School

Lockdown and social distancing have created new challenges for a Hackney school which has one of the highest levels of deprived students in the country as it opens up again for teaching.

The Urswick School is a mixed secondary school located in the heart of Hackney. Dele Rotimi, 47, the Head of School, is facing a particular challenge in comparison to other schools due to high levels of deprivation among its pupils.

Dele Rotimi in school canteen of The Urswick School. Pic: Dele Rotimi

Rotimi told Eastlondonlines that questions around buildings and HR had become increasingly important. He said: “What do we have to do to the physical building of this school now to ensure that it is fit for purpose in a post-COVID world?”

This involved thinking about how to maintain social distancing and to meet new hygiene standards on the premises. The Urswick School will adopt new timetables to minimise contact.

Rotimi said: “Nationally, it is the 11th most deprived school according to the Department of Education who base their calculations on the percentage of students eligible for the pupil premium”. More than 71% of The Urswick School’s students are eligible for the grants.

Like others, the school has continued to teach children of key workers and those with special needs. Rotimi said: “We are the only school in Hackney dealing with these large numbers, on average 30-31 children come in each day”. He added: “But we’ve moved to a skeleton staff because at the moment we are only teaching the children of key workers and vulnerable children”.

He worried about his students’ mental wellbeing and the impact of prolonged absence on learning needs. Teachers have to send booklets home as around half of the students cannot access the internet at home.

Rotimi told ELL: “We fear the ramifications for Year 11s and Year 13s who will not sit exams this year. We hope that employers don’t disadvantage them”.

The school has maintained constant communication with teachers and staff members via email and online portals to ensure their safety. Those who need to be shielded due to underlying medical conditions or other vulnerabilities have been asked to stay at home.

As an extra precaution, he said: “We’ve kept staff who would have to come in by public transport away from the school because we feel there is a lot of anxiety around public transport”.

On 15 June, secondary schools were allowed to reopen for some year groups. The government’s policy aims to increase contact time for Year 10s and Year 12s. Rotimi said: “We will give valuable face to face time with teachers going forward, but we haven’t rushed into that as we need to plan properly”.

The Urswick School has not allowed all Year 10s and 12s to come back immediately. Given the reduced staff numbers, Rotimi said that the school has to carefully consider what kind of contact time would be most beneficial for pupils.

The school is adopting a staggered approach to increase contact time, starting off by opening the school library for Year 12s to use in a socially distanced way. Students can register to come in the morning or afternoon.

Rotimi said that the future will involve “a blend of learning”, a mix of teaching in school and online work completed remotely. He said: “We will start welcoming Year 10s back into school in batches over the next 2-3 weeks for half a day”. The students will have two hours of contact time in the core subjects, English and Maths, to receive clarification and guidance from teachers.

Although Government has said that ‘all pupils’ will return to schools in September, no details have been given as to how this will be managed although there is speculation that social distancing rules will be scrapped in favour of students being placed in ‘bubbles.’

Unsurpringly, Rotimi said the biggest challenges for schools in September still revolve around planning: “What’s underestimated by the public is our concerns around physical aspects of the day”. From working out how to close the learning gaps to the timetabling of lessons and regulations of break times, a lot of work is required to meet the needs of pupils and keep them safe.

The government has launched a study to monitor prevalence of the COVID-19 in schools. Data will be collected from up to 100 schools across England, including 15 schools in London for the initial phase. The study should help to better understand transmission rates of the virus within schools.

Leave a Reply