COVID-19: What challenges are primary schools facing and how can the arts help?
From virtual tours to live streams, podcasts and Twitter challenges, arts and cultural organisations are making heroic efforts to share resources online, helping schools and families to access a cultural offer during the COVID-19 outbreak. And a vast amount of content is hitting teachers’ inboxes as more and more organisations open up their resources for the world to access.
But what do teachers really need and how can arts and cultural organisations best support schools and families? Teacher Development Fund Associate and digital specialist Julia Lawrence spoke with five primary school leaders taking part in the TDF programme to find out more about the challenges schools are currently facing and how the cultural sector could help.
Getting the basics in place
The focus for all of our senior leaders has been allocating staff resources to ensure that the children of key workers have provision in school whilst also providing support for families, particularly those of the most vulnerable children in their care.
We have very high levels of deprivation in our school with 150 children with social workers, so our time has been [spent] trying to ensure we keep in regular contact with these children. We are also delivering food hampers and vouchers to parents…we’ve been hand delivering 200 packed lunches every day to our most vulnerable children.
Providing food, vouchers and meals to ensure children are fed was top of the list whilst several schools were also providing materials such as paper, pencils and felt tips so that children could engage in learning and other activities.
It’s about the family
One of the main priorities for all of our school leaders has been trying to reduce the pressure that many families felt to ‘home school’ their children. Colleagues were in agreement that the focus of activities should be on engaging the whole family, helping to create positive family relationships.
We are very mindful that a lot of parents are really struggling, so we don’t want to overlay work on them. Some of our parents also have their own literacy issues and others might have three or four children at home all of different ages, and they are really struggling. For us, we want things that engage the whole family in learning together – not necessarily academic activities with learning objectives but using things in the home – being creative, etc. We need to help families in just getting along.
One school, which had sent out activity packs to every child to cover work up to the Easter holidays, had also been posting a daily five-minute art challenge online. This has proved very popular with parents.
Our parents aren’t teachers, so putting pressure on them is not right. We can’t get fixated on core subjects at this time, and I think the arts are a key way to frame activities and help parents. We post a very simple prompt each day, such as, make an image out of your laundry, or visit this particular online gallery together. It’s been really successful.
—Arts Subject Leader
The curriculum lead for a multi-academy trust emphasised how important it was to ensure that tasks were achievable to enable pupils and families to feel a sense of success.
We’ve been providing open-ended activities for our children with lots of options as to how they might be completed. We need to help keep children and families positive and keep them engaged.
Mental health and wellbeing are key
Colleagues emphasised how challenging this period will be for many children and their families. Most schools have high numbers of vulnerable pupils and children on free school meals. Support systems are in place through learning mentors and, where required, social workers but colleagues felt that their schools had a key role to play in maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing for their communities. All believed that the arts could be central to this.
If you are a large family in a very small flat with no outside space and you’re only allowed out once a day then life is difficult. We want more resources that bring the joy back into people’s lives. Arts-based activities are great as they can calm things down at home, and that’s important for our families.
Digital inequality is an issue
One element that emerged quite clearly from our discussion was that all schools were being mindful of the digital divide. Although all were either posting or about to post activities online for their pupils, they were aware that some families had either little or limited access to the internet. One school had done a digital audit before shutting to check on connectivity across their school population.
We checked that all families had access to the internet through at least a phone, and all did, so we’re now posting activities on our website and on Facebook. These are just prompts for children to do offline so they don’t need a device to do the activity.
Another school found that although all of their families had at least one device, younger children in the household rarely got to use them.
Most of our families have devices, but we’re having trouble with our primary pupils being able to access computers if there are older children in the house. The secondary school pupils get priority as they have to log into their school platforms to access their work. This means that younger children can’t ever use them.
Most schools were using multiple methods of dissemination, sending printed tasks home for those pupils without connectivity, whilst also posting simple prompts online to encourage offline activities for those with limited access.
We’ve been using a resource created by [our arts partner] it’s a PowerPoint that children can interact with, which contains a simple story [plus some] prompts for activities. My children have loved it, as the prompts are fun, e.g. dressing-up tasks, writing, drama, etc. It’s very open ended, and it can be done with parents and siblings and once tasks are completed children can take a photo and send them back to school. It’s digital content to enable offline activity.
Keeping it local
All schools were making use of resources and content from the national arts and cultural organisations. However, some were also continuing to work with their local artists and arts organisations, as they felt that they best understood their context and their communities. For some, this was also about keeping established relationships going so that momentum wasn’t lost when schools reopened. For others, it was a way of continuing to support local self-employed artists.
We’ve developed a website with local artists and in the ten days [since it launched] 1000 people have accessed it from five countries – it’s been such a success. We have a focus on supporting the mental health of parents in our area, and our local artists are aware of this and are providing content that also builds on this and the work they’ve already done in school. Plus it means we can keep the relationship going, and we can continue working with them in the long term.
Finding the positives
Everyone recognised the many challenges faced by their communities, but there was consensus that, as schools are released from the pressures of SATs and Ofsted – at least in the short term – this period also provides an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the importance of the arts. Senior leaders wanted to grasp this, with the hope that it would alleviate some of the immediate challenges and more long term generate a wider understanding of the true value of the arts – not just to education and learning – but to health, wellbeing and the wider society.
We have never had a period like this before and we need to see it as an opportunity for children to access the arts…Maybe as a head it’s odd for me to say this, but we need less focus on core subjects and more on the social and emotional at this hard time. This is why the arts are so crucial right now.
Julia Lawrence is a consultant working in the areas of arts, education and technology. She provides strategic advice, project manages and teaches. Julia has been an Online Safety Mark Assessor for the UK Safer Internet Centre and was a part of a team to be named in the EdTech50 list for innovative work in education technology. Julia is an Associate for PHF’s Teacher Development Fund.