Coronavirus: Our Angels of the North

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
Inspiration: The Angel of the North, designed by sculptor Anthony Gormley and built in 1998

Teachers and schools across the UK have gone above and beyond in recent weeks to support pupils and families. Sean Harris reports from the North East on some of the work being undertaken to support communities during the coronavirus lockdown

One of our favourite landmarks in the North East has to be the Angel of the North. The angel, designed by sculptor Anthony Gormley, was built in 1998 on the site of a former coal mine in Gateshead.

The wings stretch out 54m, wider than a Boeing 757, and overlook the A1 motorway – with an estimated 90,000 people seeing her every day, although I suspect far less in the current coronavirus lockdown.

Standing 20m high, the angel sits on an underground plinth 5.3m tall which rests on concrete slabs that weigh around 150 tonnes. These anchor the angel to solid rock at least 20m underground. Without this stability, the angel would collapse.

In the current climate, schools across the North East, just as across the UK, are continuing to offer stability and sanctuary to children and families.

While these colleagues may not be the centre of the Thursday evening applause or be wearing the latest streamlined protective visors – they are still frontline.

I wanted, therefore, to write about some of the ways in which these “Angels of the North” have been continuing to ensure that children and families are supported and that learning and education can continue.

Acklam Grange, Middlesbrough

Jon Tait, deputy headteacher at Acklam Grange, and his team have been going the extra mile to support parents with home-schooling and to ensure that all pupils in the school continue to benefit from teacher input.

Via his YouTube channel, Jon has been offering parents and carers five-minute virtual tips and learning habits to practise at home.

He explained: “Six months until September is almost impossible to recover from if your child does nothing over that period of time. It is essential we support parents and pupils as much as is possible.”

His tips range from exploring how to build realistic timetables for home-learning, developing healthy habits for study at home, and empowering parents to remember that they have some of the skills needed to navigate this uncharted territory.

Jon’s hashtag – #WeCanDoThis – and the YouTube channel is publicly accessible and can be widely shared with parents and carers (see further information).

Unity City Academy, Middlesbrough

For Scott Danks, assistant vice-principal at Unity City Academy, the top priority has been stability – just like for our Angel of the North.

“Our team have been nothing short of amazing in response to the ever-changing situation,” he explained. “We started with daily emails to all students with individualised work, before deciding to make the move to Google Classrooms.”

Pupils in the school have since been following lessons in the same routine that they would do in-school to help families to maintain some routine and stability at a time when homes, livelihood and society has faced so much disruption.

Vulnerable and disadvantaged children have, like in many other schools, continued to attend and the leadership team has a rota system in place to ensure that staff are well supported too.

Work is submitted and teachers give detailed feedback via the online learning platforms, just as they would usually offer verbal or written feedback on a day-to-day basis. While this will help to close gaps in learning, the focus of this feedback is to applaud and affirm the achievements of individual pupils and continue to provide pupils with the stability of daily interaction with teachers.

In addition, the school has implemented an eco-shop for those families feeling the strain, offering them a range of food and essential supplies for low-cost or, in some cases, for free.

Scott says that this has been “important for maintaining contact with our families who need it the most”.

“We have also hand-delivered free school meal vouchers to families that we know would otherwise have struggled to access school or leave their house.”

To ensure the stability of social interaction and support for colleagues, the school has started to run a weekly virtual quiz night (bring your own drinks!) and have set-up a school WhatsApp virtual staffroom to continue to support colleagues, share strategies, ideas and an occasional meme to offer light relief!

Scott concluded: “This is a hard time for staff as well as pupils. We really miss interacting with our pupils in the same way and with each other, so it is important we continue to maintain contact with each other and try to achieve some level of normality and interaction with each other as a staff team.”

EXTOL Learning Trust

Across the North East, the EXTOL Learning Trust has been employing a range of strategies to support pupils, parents and colleagues.

At Thorntree Academy, in addition to setting online learning tasks, the school has used some of their time to call parents and ask for honest feedback about the learning materials and the ease of access to the learning platforms.

Mike Foster, assistant headteacher, explained: “This has helped the staff team to revise materials and adapt content to ensure that all families can easily access it.”

The trust has also offered essentials free of charge to families, up to five free items per week, to support them at this difficult time.

Meanwhile, to help explore the pitfalls and positives of working from home – in response to a recent article I penned for SecEd and Headteacher Update (Harris, 2020) – Julie Deville, executive headteacher with EXTOL, has co-designed a seminar with colleagues to encourage positive interaction with the video-conferencing platform Zoom and to encourage colleagues to consider how to best apply the principles of the article into their own home working environments.

Duchess Community High School

Within days of the school closures being announced, Duchess Community High School (DCHS) in Alnwick, Northumberland, had enabled colleagues around the country to access their online learning drive and shared their school closure plans and strategy action plan.

The school closure toolkit was composed with four key areas in mind: teaching, safeguarding, access to ICT and technology, and school absence. The toolkit lists a range of expectations, routines and approaches that each member of the staff team at DCHS needs to adopt.

James Wilson, deputy headteacher and one of the key architects of the plan, was keen to ensure that other school leaders across the country could access the plan to avoid having to start from scratch.

He explained: “We drafted the plan in the event that schools may close. When the government announced it we were obviously concerned like other school leaders, but we had a plan that was ready to be implemented and we didn’t want to keep this plan exclusive to DCHS.

“It is there to support other school leaders that may need access to this, even if just to sense-check their current operations and strategy.” (for details, see further information).

The team at DCHS has also been carrying out phone calls and online surveys to get an accurate and up-to-date picture of which families are unable to access good technology in order to use online learning materials.

James added: “We distributed some of our school laptops to families that needed it the most. We discovered some of our families had been displaced as far as Cumbria and Scotland due to family issues and so made the decision to travel to these families to drop off technology to ensure that they could access what we are offering by way of learning online.”

Kenton School

The school community at Kenton School in Newcastle upon Tyne has come together with “calmness, compassion and collegiality” according to headteacher Sarah Holmes-Carne.

The school has dropped off food parcels to families in need, provided paper copies of work to families that do not have online access or the skills needed to access online learning, and continued to ensure that teachers make daily phone calls to families that need it the most (with a minimum expectation of all other families being contacted at least once a week).

Sarah explained: “We decided that it was also important to offer some light relief to families and pupils in such a troublesome time, so we have actively encouraged staff to use social media to engage with pupils safely but to do so in a more light-hearted manner to support the wellbeing of staff, families and children.

“One parent at the school told me that ‘despite us not being in the school building at the moment, the spirit of Kenton school is extremely strong in this local community’.”

Oxbridge School

The staff at Oxbridge School in Darlington have been keen to ensure that the whole-school community understands that they can make a difference. And Amy Blackburn, who is in her first two years of headship, said that colleagues were rising to the challenge.

This school is regularly contacting pupils, families and carers, but Amy and her team have been mindful of the ways in which this is achieved. She explained: “We have recorded videos and personal comments for pupils to ensure that children and families experience a personal touch. We didn’t simply want to rely on emails or letters.”

The school also wanted to create a sense of collaboration with children and teachers working through the current challenges together and so have built a number of learning challenges for children to complete with teachers, such as writing poems about being in isolation, competitions for the rainbows in windows, and organising teddy-bear hunts via pupil windows in the locality (while maintaining social distancing and following government rules).

Amy added: “We have also suspended aspects of our usual CPD programme for colleagues and instead encouraged all staff to attend CPD on mental health and wellbeing. This will help them to look after themselves but also to practise techniques and tips with pupils and families too. The wellbeing of our adults is just as important and it is essential we apply our own oxygen masks before trying to help others.”

Eden Academy Trust

A brief visit to Eden Academy Trust’s social media feed will see executive headteacher Neil Nottingham with outstretched arms trying to keep up with pupils during a Joe Wickes PE lesson on YouTube.

In addition, at Stranton Academy, Neil and the team have been using a pupil and teacher-led radio station to broadcast positive messages, learning activities and other tips to families throughout the local area – whether they attend the school or not.

For example, pupils have recorded themselves reading bedtime stories to replay to siblings and broadcast via the radio station.

Elsewhere, the teams in the trust’s schools have been dropping off food parcels to families in need. There is also a daily effort to champion pupil work, as well as friendly “teachers versus pupils” challenges to encourage positive interactions between the teaching teams and students.

Neil said: “The staff in the school have been fantastic. They have been delivering around 300 meals on wheels a day. We are immensely proud of staff across the trust.”

Schools North East & EdNorth

Schools North East’s EdNorth network has been focusing on continuing to provide online and virtual support for school leaders across the North East to ensure that schools feel supported and to encourage collaboration between education leaders.

With this in mind, a newly launched virtual community, ConnectEd, is available to all North East schools wanting information during this period of uncertainty. The team is currently providing regular updates and encouraging regular sharing and collaboration between teachers and schools.

In addition, a dedicated virtual MAT CEO group has been created as well as a group for CFOs and school business managers.

Ambition Institute

The North East Ambition Institute team has been working closely with all of the above school leaders and organisations to offer access to free online learning blogs, articles and virtual meetings to explore CPD and continuing to help school leaders think about their on-going professional learning needs at a time when it would be easy to focus purely on the challenges of running school and the learning needs of pupils (see further information).


It is estimated that the Angel of the North will last for at least 150 years. It was built to last. While we have no definitive date of when our lockdown will end, it is clear that through the efforts of school leaders and teachers across the North East, the legacy of this period will be one of continuing education and ensuring that no child is left behind.

  • Sean Harris is the North East director for Ambition Institute. Sean regularly writes for SecEd and is a published author in the fields of education, theology and youth work. He is a governor for a school in Northumberland. You can follow him @SeanHarris_NE.

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