Coronavirus: Pastoral care in a changed school environment

Written by: Anthony David | Published:
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As pupils return to school, we will need to be prepared for challenging behaviour, safeguarding disclosures and signs of mental health and wellbeing problems. Anthony David looks at the pastoral priorities that must be at the top of the list for primary schools

As things stand, from June 1 many primary schools across England will re-open their doors to pupils from Reception, year 1 and year 6.

Since the plans were unveiled on May 10, government advice has been vague and the government’s science-based safety assurances far from convincing.

However, what most of us can agree on is that the key priority as and when pupils return through our doors will be pastoral – namely pupil wellbeing and safeguarding.

So, what should schools be considering in terms of pastoral care when moving forward towards our new normal – whether for your school that is from June 1 or further down the road?

It is interesting to consider Denmark, where schools re-opened their doors in early May. Teachers found that strategies that were put in place to support pupils – including recovery curriculums – had been, arguably, over planned.

In an interview with the BBC, one Danish teacher admitted that they had developed a “recovery curriculum” but, actually, all the children wanted to do was get back to “normal”. The recovery curriculum was quickly rejected.

But we must not fool ourselves. Life will not have simply returned to normal. And Britain is not Denmark. The number of cases and deaths in Britain are much higher than in Denmark (11,600 cases and 563 deaths as of May 27).

Unlike in Denmark, there will be a higher number of children and staff in your school who have had Covid-19. And, sadly, there will be children and staff in your school who will know somebody who has died of Covid-19.

These will be people who you will, in all likelihood, also know. I doubt there is a headteacher in the country who thinks that “normal” life has returned. It hasn’t.

This sentiment echoes the warnings this week from Barnardo’s, which is calling for a focus on the “trauma gap” ahead of the “attainment gap”.

It says that children returning to school will be experiencing grief, anxiety about catching the virus, separation anxiety and other pressures. Its own practitioners are already supporting young people with mental health problems caused by Covid-19, including symptoms of anxiety, stress, sleep dysregulation, depression, reduced self-esteem, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviours, paranoia and self-harm.

So our pastoral systems will need to be ready. Schools in the Barnardo’s report are preparing in a range of ways:

  • Planning a gradual, phased return, with a flexible curriculum.
  • Risk-assessing children on their return, and enabling the most vulnerable children to return first.
  • More focus on mental health and wellbeing in lessons.
  • Dedicated time for children and young people to talk about their Covid experiences.
  • More time for children and young people to play, be creative, and reconnect with their peers.
  • More pastoral provision, including one-to-one support for pupils.
  • Physical spaces for staff and pupils, e.g. quiet rooms and remembrance gardens.

Elsewhere, a basic element of pastoral re-integration will be re-establishing routines. While we might consider behaviour high on the list of things to establish (and it will be), the first basic will be things like getting children used to starting at 9am.

We all know what it is like in the first week back after the summer holiday period – children are like sleep-walkers! Well, pupils have not been in school since March 23. During this time, key basics will have been ignored. For many, they may not have held a pencil for weeks (after all, learning is online at the moment).

One local head is restarting their handwriting curriculum as she is assuming that this is one aspect of pupils’ school lives that can be improved rapidly which will have an overflow impact on other aspects, including classroom learning. But it will also be something they could have completely forgotten how to do.

Coupled to this will be re-establishing expectations. Different pupils will have had very different experiences during the lockdown. The majority of children will have been at home and each of them will have had their own experience.

It will take time to re-establish and relearn the expectations of school behaviour and learning. We know that much of learning is based on practice and we will all be out of practice.

Some pupils will have been in school throughout, though for them school will have been a very different place. We must consider these children who have remained on site. We need to remember that these are our most vulnerable families. There may be issues of stigma as their vulnerability has been highlighted by the fact that they have been in school during this time. Furthermore, there may have been a feeling for these children that school is their safe place and other children returning to school could be “intruding” on this.

Some of the children who have remained in school will be the children of key workers. For many of these, there will have been additional trauma. They may have experienced family separation as part of safety measures.

Even without this, they will have known that their parents were putting themselves at risk. The clapping for the NHS may have made children feel supported, but equally may have acted to highlight the risks their parents face.

The simple impact of not being able to hug parents when they returned from work will have been huge for many children. These children will need additional support as we begin the return to “normal”.

As more children return, it is, sadly, inevitable that we will see a spike in disclosures as well. Children have been locked away for months. Private arguments or abuse will have been played out in front of them.

A colleague who is a social worker has already told me that she has never worked so hard. But despite this, there has been a significant drop in the number of social services referrals. One social care department in the South East of England reports that they are dealing with just 25 per cent of their normal daily referral levels (Headteacher Update, 2020a)

The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has been warning of the problems we will likely see when children return (Headteacher Update, 2020b).

She said: “The coronavirus emergency has put hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children in England at heightened risk. While the government’s decision to keep schools open for the most vulnerable children is welcome, sadly most of them are just not showing up.

“They are most likely at home, often exposed to a cocktail of secondary risks – a lack of food in the house, sofa-surfing or cramped living conditions, neglect, or experiencing acute difficulties due to parental domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health problems. Many will be caring for parents or siblings themselves in these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

We will need to ensure that children have safe spaces to talk about their experiences during the lockdown; they will need access to trusted adults who will listen to them and are ready and trained to respond to them effectively.

Equally, we need to remember that it may take a long time for children to reveal any abuse or other safeguarding issues. They may communicate it through behaviour and other indicators, rather than through disclosure. All staff need to be aware of this and are able to respond appropriately and immediately.

Indeed, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) recently urged a renewed focus on preventing exclusions, which its research shows disproportionately affects disadvantaged, vulnerable or looked after children (Headteacher Update, 2020c).

In a report, the EPI states: “There is a real risk that pupils will return to school with fresh behavioural challenges due to their family circumstances.” Such pressures, the EPI says, will include increased financial problems, neglect or abuse, domestic violence, parental mental health difficulties, and bereavement.

It adds: “We know from existing EPI research that disadvantaged and vulnerable children, including children receiving social care support, are far more likely to be excluded or subject to an unexplained move out of their school than their peers. We recommend that the Department for Education issues fresh guidance to schools about the need to avoid exclusions.”

More than ever, schools will require a deep sense of emotional intelligence. We will need to be particularly sensitive to our pupil’s needs.

While the experiences of our colleagues from Denmark are reassuring, and many pupils may well crave nothing but a “normal” learning day, the circumstances we are working in are not normal.

The trick that we will be required to perform is to present school and education from June 1 as being “normal”, while preparing for something very different. But without a well-considered pastoral plan, this will not be possible and pupils will continue to suffer.

  • Anthony David is an executive headteacher in north London.

Further information & resources

  • BBC: Coronavirus: Inside a reopened primary school in the time of Covid-19, May 2020: https://bbc.in/3c5Pxfx
  • Headteacher Update: Safeguarding: During and beyond the coronavirus crisis, April 2020a: https://bit.ly/2Y9R14W
  • Headteacher Update: Vulnerable children 'hidden and at risk' during coronavirus lockdown, April 2020b: https://bit.ly/3gkzo9g
  • Headteacher Update: Exclusion warning as schools braced for 'fresh behavioural challenges' after lockdown, May 2020c: https://bit.ly/2Xxeqvs


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