Wilma O’Donovan, Headteacher, Highpark Primary School, Ruchill, Glasgow
Phase 1 story (Spring / Summer 2020)
How have you been able to keep a focus on what matters to people during COVID?
Our school campus serves a diverse population and includes a Learning and Communications Resource for pupils with autism. There have been both positives and negatives for us as a community in the past few months. We take a holistic approach to how we work with our children and their families, and our key concern has been to ensure that all are included as far as possible. Providing opportunities to learn is a priority, along with ensuring the health and well-being of our pupils and families. Highpark Primary was a hub School during school closure to provide support for key workers.
Many of the families have shown brilliant resilience and have a tendency ‘just to get on with things’ even before these unprecedented times. They do not make demands and sometimes would rather pass on help offered to them to others. This shows the generational strength of the community. Taking that into consideration, a big challenge has been the digital divide, highlighting the wider divide in our city. For some families, they may all be sharing one device, and may not have reliable access to Wi-Fi. Some have asked for paper copies of teacher set work to do at home as they do not have access to Wi-Fi or intermittent access so hence lose out on online teacher support. We have tried to resolve the digital access issues through working with partners such as North United Communities to help bridge this barrier. North United Communities has helped with organising families to have laptops and providing financial support where required.
Access to garden space in living accommodation has come to light with some of my families living in high rise accommodation. The canals and surrounding areas in Maryhill have proved invaluable. Perhaps the school curriculum should build on this rich resource to connect children with their learning in their surrounding environment.
What have you had to do differently and what made this possible?
We have formed firmer relationships with other agencies in the Community, which has been a major benefit of this crisis. I hope that we all get around a table some time soon to grow this extension of community. That includes North United Communities. Achieve More already worked within our school providing physical exercise after the Breakfast Club and within the curriculum P.E. lessons. After our schools closed, they worked with families in the community providing food parcels and connection. Third Sector Partnerships have given me hope after this experience as to what community solidarity can look like. I have a clearer understanding of the school’s social-economic geographical map. I can use this knowledge to not only signpost requests but to build capacity in my own community. Achieve More are running a summer school for 30 children and this will provide physical activity, learning opportunities for some and delicious food.
Nurture Connections (Hazel Cunningham) already worked in my school to support families holistically with nurture and reassurance. Hazel continued this family support, including posting essential oils for the family to use to de-stress. The ‘shout outs’ for family and community connections increase with Covid! Gabi Cullen runs intergenerational sewing programmes, producing family sewing packs which obviously are learning activities but also relationships within the home.
What have you noticed that has been better?
I think some aspects of the community are strengthened and I do not see these partnerships diminishing. As a Head Teacher I have been given a bit of space to reflect how best I can keep improving family involvement and engagement. Our communication with families has been a priority. All of this is necessary to ensure that our children are included, nurtured and healthy in order to be able to achieve their potential.
How did this make you feel?
I am proud of our families for their resilience and commitment to caring for their children. I look forward to continuing to build the community that COVID has reignited.
What have you learned through this?
I see Highpark as being very much part of the community and I think I have learned how to send out messages that reinforce that. We have a role in knowing what is in the community so that we can connect families with the support they need, but don’t always ask for. I have learned more about what the needs of the families are and that we need strong partnerships with local agencies if we want life to get better. I also feel that I need to know how best to communicate with Families where English as a Second Language as unfortunately the translators that help us connect are not as easily accessed during Covid.
Anything else you want to tell us?
I worry about the future, about the financial implications of COVID19, and how these will affect our families. Stronger connections might mitigate some of this but it does worry me. I also want to do more to include families where English is a second language and understanding what lockdown meant for them.
Phase 2 story (Autumn 2020)
What has continued to help keep a focus on what matters for people during the pandemic?
I know my staff better now than before, and they know each other more too. Those mutual support traits have been brought to the surface. Some have faced challenges at home during this time and there is a tiredness that wasn’t there before. I’m trying to look out for my support for learning staff. Many of them have other jobs to make ends meet. We depend on them to keep things going but need to take care not to wear them out.
The children adapt to the limitations and are guided by the adults on that front. They limit their expectations. At the same time, they are looking for something different from the school and they want school to replace some of the lost opportunities for socialising.
I think our relationship with families has shifted during the pandemic. We receive fewer complaints than before. The parent council has been amazing. I am in a Whatsapp group with them. They do what they can to raise funds. This included a pyjama day in school, with a £1 suggested donation. One parent donated her Bingo winnings. We used the funds to make gift bags for the children.
Are there changes that seem to be lasting longer term and are there things that have slid back to old ways of doing things?
We worked very closely with voluntary sector organisations during the first stage of the pandemic. With the funding situation being uncertain for many, that has changed a bit, but we want to keep those links going where we can.
It’s a fine balance between focusing on the health and wellbeing of children at this time and continuing attainment.
What difference has this made to people?
I think the children feel they have more of a voice than before. We have tried to listen to them too. They decided they wanted something to replace Halloween. So we are having fluffy socks, pyjamas, hot chocolate for everyone instead. It’s like that Hygge they have in Scandinavia, except we are calling it a coorie-in week.
Some of our families benefited from having more time together during lockdown. We have a lot of parents in low-paid jobs who are working long hours. When they were furloughed, they were able to spend more time with their children, and that was positive for many kids, I would say they were more nurtured.
How did this make you feel?
I worry about how people are going to keep managing through Winter. At the same time I’m hopeful because of the more positive bits that have come out of this crisis.
Reflecting on your experiences what have you learned?
It is critical to listen to everyone. You are constantly adapting to the latest circumstances of the pandemic and It can be easy to focus on one group without thinking through the consequences for others. There is still that shared sense of purpose though, a feeling that we have the same goal.
What difference has it made to you to tell your story as part of this project?
This project is a bit like Samuel Pepys diary. It’s important to capture these stories at the time especially as diaries are a thing of the past.
I hope the staff know I have got their backs, and maybe this can help confirm that message.
Anything else you want to tell us?
On a personal level, I am finding that some of the people I know outside of school are really struggling with the ongoing situation. Inside and outside school it can feel a bit like climbing a Munro at times. You are trying to see what is coming round the next bend. Self-care is a challenge at times but I am getting a wood burning stove at home and that feels like good self-care for this Winter.