How can schools reflect on and learn from 2020 and be #remotely ready for 2021?

10.01.2021
Whole School

2020 has been an extraordinary and challenging season for schools nationwide; from the rapid transition to Remote Learning earlier in the year, with all the educational and technological challenges it presented, to an intense summer of uncertainty over exam grading and results, and planning for a safe return to school in September. The necessary shift to life in ‘cohorts’, ‘bubbles’ and ‘households’ alongside ‘blended’ learning, has created an educational landscape that is a far cry from the ideal and yet, rightly and wonderfully, the educational show goes on.

We have just come to the end of a second period of lockdown with more intense restrictions and, with cases rising, particularly in the young, it is difficult to know when we will see ‘normal’ again. Here at St George’s, we are proud of our successes but we are also conscious of the need to respond quickly and adapt intelligently with each new act of the play. As we maximise on our strengths and work hard to respond to challenges, we believe we can continue to provide a challenging, broad and consistent education for our girls, whatever the future may hold.

As lockdown began and schooling, as we knew it, changed so dramatically, we quickly realised that St George's was extremely well prepared to deliver Remote Learning.

We had introduced Google Chromebooks to staff and pupils 18 months previously, prep tasks had been delivered via Firefly (known as Dragonfly at St George’s) for the same amount of time and all our community, staff and pupils alike, were experts in Google Suite. Given the potential complexity of remote learning, all our girls and staff have benefited immensely from having the one cloud platform to negotiate. We are thankful for the time we invested in upskilling, training and preparing our staff and pupils as soon as lockdown looked likely. This meant that we were able to deliver a consistent and thorough academic provision from the very beginning.

We offered a full complement of lessons for all year groups via Google Meets throughout the Summer Term. As a result, subject departments reported that they lost little or no curriculum time, indeed we were delighted that a number of departments reported being ahead of where they would usually be! We were obviously concerned that some pupils might fall behind and struggle academically without the one to one attention they would normally receive in a physical classroom. As a result, we introduced out of hours subject support clinics which pupils attend via Google Meets. We were also able to deliver end of year online assessments for all year groups. Undeterred by the obvious logistical challenges, the girls completed these open book assessments admirably with our teachers on hand on ‘Google Chat’ throughout in case of questions.

Given the nature of the global spread of Covid-19, we quickly sought the advice of experienced colleagues at schools in China, the Middle East and Italy who were ahead of us on the educational curve. Having heard their reflections on Remote Learning, it was clear that schedule and structure were key. We, therefore, decided to keep following our existing school timetable in order to give our girls and staff a structure and rhythm to the day. At the end of the Spring Term, after one week of following this timetable to the minute, we asked for feedback from all our stakeholders, and decided to adapt the timetable, shortening the lessons, giving a 15 minute break between every class and lengthening lunch hours. This reduced the girls’ screentime and gave them the opportunity to exercise, socialise and relax with their families. This change was hugely popular, with 90%+ of those surveyed expressing their approval.

The staff worked hard to adjust to new conditions in order to maintain a consistently high standard of teaching provision. Of particular note was the significant increase in the technological capability of our staff, many of whom were training in applications which they had not used previously.

Teaching via video conferencing became the new white board of this era and all our staff were both innovative and inspirational in their use of this technology.

We saw how easy it was to facilitate a programme of visiting speakers when geography and travel were of no concern. Our Upper Sixth greatly benefited from the #SGAprepared talks from parents and alumnae. Under lockdown, we heard from a senior Human Resources director from the parent body on the topic of ‘Employability Skills’ alongside talks on ‘Conversations about Racism’ and ‘Resilience’ from a recent alumna. The Parents Association also organised a session for the parent body with a wellbeing speaker from a Happy Mind who discussed managing teenage stress which was positively received and well attended.

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Alumna Stephanie delivers an SGA Prepared session entitled: Conversations about Racism and Resilience 

The breadth and variety of the Co-Curricular programme is one of St George’s greatest strengths.

We were very aware that the intense nature of online learning, with the inevitable increase in screentime, alongside the loss of the normal co-curricular balance, would be keenly felt by our girls. We therefore worked very hard throughout lockdown to provide an excellent, ongoing programme of activities.

The School seamlessly transitioned from the physical to the virtual, hosting events such as a virtual Open Mic Night, a virtual Drama Extravaganza, Music for a Summer Evening Concert, Sports Review of the Year, and online Dance, LAMDA and Music tuition. Our Theatre Director in Residence also provided online Dance challenges to partnered state primary school pupils.

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Choir members sing together during the virtual Music for a Summer Evening Concert 

There was a steady stream of imaginative physical challenges set by our PE Department to ensure our girls stepped away from their screens and prioritised their physical wellbeing. We took particular pleasure in the participation of many students who would not involve themselves in "traditional" team games yet engaged with and filmed themselves undertaking different creative challenges.

The cookery programme was particularly popular during this period of virtual learning, giving the girls the chance to learn new practical, creative skills. Even our Headmistress, Liz Hewer, joined in on cookery meets with the Upper Sixth girls for their weekly #SGAprepared Friday Feast. We were particularly proud of our Lower Sixth girls who worked hard to complete their Leiths Toolbox Cookery Course remotely. Undeterred by the logistical difficulties of remote learning, the girls sourced all the ingredients and consistently delivered delicious, useful recipes to complete the 12-week course single handedly. Hilary Jones, their Leith’s cookery teacher, proudly spoke of the girls’ achievement. “They have worked so hard and gained a set of skills that will last a lifetime. Having to work individually at home has given them great confidence in the kitchen and has helped them to add such a positive contribution to family life during Lockdown. I am extremely proud of them.” As all schools reflect on the successes of virtual learning, we will be looking to develop this provision with the development of a new Food technology and Cookery Room in Spring 2021.

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Girls enjoy their remote cookery classes

Looking after, and caring for, the wellbeing of each individual within St George’s has always been at the heart of the school’s ethos and is intrinsic to the school’s reputation.

We are a community that strives to develop Capable, Confident and Connected young women, who are ready to take their place in the world. This challenging season of Remote Learning, if anything, proved and deepened the need for, and strength of, our pastoral focus. It was immediately evident that we needed a proactive, intentional approach to keeping both our staff and girls connected. Our Head kept in regular contact both with our parents and with her staff, swiftly communicating any change to the Government’s guidelines and its impact on school life. We ran a number of surveys for pupils, parents and staff in order to gauge progress and give us a sense of the wellbeing of the entire school community during the period of lockdown. Face-to-face Parents Evenings were replaced with an online provision. These were very popular as, in many ways, they are more flexible in terms of time and location. Our parents appreciated the opportunity to fit appointments around their busy schedules. It is a significant asset to have been able to meet with parents overseas or in jobs which would mean that attendance is normally logistically challenging.

We introduced the ‘#SGAtogether’ initiative, to encourage that sense of community whilst working remotely.

The whole school community continued to gather together virtually each afternoon for assemblies, chapel, tutor time and Year group activities. In many ways our community spirit had never felt more healthy and the experiences of that season, of the sense of connection we shared, gave us great food for thought in how we might revise and improve our communication strategies for the future.

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As the summer holidays arrived and we reflected back on the period of Remote Learning, we were very proud of the enthusiasm and resilience that our pupils and staff showed throughout this phase of virtual school. ‘Remote St George’s’ was an incredible success, and it was the experience of our pupils and the praise of their parents that gave us the greatest satisfaction in a job well done.

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After significant governmental vacillations over exam grading, a growing distrust of educational algorithms and a dramatic U-turn back to using Centrally Assessed Grades, we were finally able to celebrate the achievements of our Fifth Year and Upper Sixth students.

Our Upper Sixth were an extremely capable year group and it was no surprise that they secured a very impressive set of A Level results with 69% gaining A*/A.

We were delighted that 92% of leavers achieved their first or insurance choice of university place, 62% took up places in Russell Group universities and a further 12% headed for competitive courses at Bath University. Three of our girls took up places at the University of Oxford to read Economics and Management, History, and Philosophy and Theology. Successful Georgians headed to Edinburgh, UCL, Imperial College, Durham, Warwick, Newcastle and the University of Arts, London to study a diverse range of courses; from Chemistry to Sociology; French and History to Film Production; Pharmacy to Business Management.

Our Fifth Year girls also produced a truly commendable set of results with 100% of girls gaining 9-4 (A*-C) and 70% gaining 9-7 (A*-A). They all handled the last-minute changes in government policy on marking with great composure. We are deeply proud of this conscientious, capable and accomplished cohort of girls. They were very well prepared, after six weeks of A Level experience and a two week introductory Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) course during their summer term, to progress seamlessly into their Sixth Form courses in September.

After the government announced in July that schools would reopen in September, much of the summer was consumed with intense planning and preparation for the Autumn term start. Covid guidelines were formed, infrastructure was analysed, risk assessed and a myriad of changes made to ensure our community could return in safety. The need for robust Covid procedures was paramount and inevitably life from the pupils’ perspective, let alone that of the School staff, was about to radically change. Of course, it would be all too easy at this point to focus on the challenges and the narrowing of our nation’s educational life, but if we have learnt anything it is in the need to focus on the positive and to rejoice in our capacity to adapt and press on.

So what, from our perspective here at St George’s, are the silver linings to this period of learning through Covid?

Looking back on this term, it is striking that the school has been able to function in a recognisably ‘normal’ fashion.

When last year's Upper Sixth were sent a wellbeing email by our Senior Leadership in Team early in their first term at university, many responded asking how things were at SGA. It was more than pleasing to be able to report that life was carrying on at School in quite a normal way and, above all, perhaps this has been the best of our achievements. To rejoice in normality perhaps seems to lack ambition but those in the education sector will know how much effort, organisation and commitment has been required behind the scenes to achieve smooth waters and how successful ‘normal’ now feels.

Our girls continue to amaze us with their resilience in the face of the challenges this year has presented. They have adopted new procedures without question and with a maturity that belies their age. They have approached the term with commitment and hard work, an attitude that reflects the value they place on their education and a desire to get all that they can from their time at St George’s. Perhaps more than that, however, is their growing appreciation of community and an increase in the value they place on relating to one another - there is nothing like having something restricted to realise its value.

We have been excited to see our girls increasingly looking to use their voices to make a difference, and engage in productive conversations about significant issues here at St George’s.

In addition to the School Council, where our Head and the Head Girls meet with representatives from each year group every half-term, we have held regular virtual meetings of the Charity Committee, Food Council, Boarding Focus Group and a new Sports Council. This term our Head Girl and Deputy Head Girls set up a Diversity and Inclusion Group welcoming all interested parties, who have been meeting online to explore what these issues mean to St George’s and how we can ensure we embrace diversity and ensure every member of the School community feels included. One of our Deputy Head Girls is heading up a new Eco Committee looking at how our whole School community can engage further with protecting the environment and developing sustainable practices in School.

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Head, Liz Hewer with the Head Girl and Deputy Head Girls.

The convenience of Google Meet has begun to pay dividends as girls can engage whether they are in the classroom, in their boarding house, at their kitchen table in Ascot or their sofa in Hong Kong!

So many of the barriers of geography, and indeed Covid, have been overcome by the robust technological connection we offer here at St George’s. Ironically, conversation has never been so prolific in the School and we are sure that the thirst for connection, alongside an ambitious desire to make a difference, has fuelled the momentum.

We have also continued to encourage the girls to connect with the world outside of St George’s as much as to connect with one another. Our Charity Committee led an assembly at the beginning of term in which the girls were asked to vote on the three charities we will be supporting over this year. With the choice of Cool Earth (international), the Macmillan Cancer Trust (national) and Battersea Cats and Dogs home (local), the charitable year was underway. We have already raised funds through JeansforGenes day, a First Year mufti day for Halloween, and a Santa Run organised by the Fifth Year and undertaken a harvest collection for the Wokingham Food Bank and Remembrance collection for the Royal British Legion. In an era of social distancing, enabling the girls to ‘look up and out’ is a more pressing priority than ever.

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JeanforGenes day
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Harvest Donations on their way to Wokingham Food Bank

Of course, a desire to connect with one another is a natural outworking of the restrictions of this season and we are not naïve to the potential for anxiety and distress amongst both our staff and our pupils. Our School community’s wellbeing remains our greatest focus. On the back of our experience of Remote Learning, we have continued to survey both our staff and pupils on a regular basis to help them reflect and also to ensure we are appropriately supporting them at this time. Both groups are finding this a very useful way of communicating their concerns. We are, once again, hugely grateful for the robust pastoral system in place in the School which gives the girls so many different touch points to turn to for support.

The active and intentional engagement of any number of individuals, from teacher, to school nurse, to tutor, to Head of Year, to independent listener, to boarding parent, has ensured that our girls are ‘seen’ even behind the cover of a mask.

This term has seen a particular focus on delivering a strong, connected boarding experience for our girls, conscious as we are of those families who are functioning separately from one another during this challenging time. We are delighted to report very healthy retention in our boarding numbers but we by no means take that for granted. This is undoubtedly a difficult time for our international families and the need to deliver both pastorally as well as academically has been evident. We have introduced significant flexibility of boarding for our international pupils, allowing them to leave School early or switch to remote learning to quarantine for travel or holidays. We have supported fast changing travel plans, with staff ensuring safe travel for the girls, and have offered quarantine at school and provided one to one isolation care for our international pupils. We have also looked for new ways to link our boarding community together, creating small communities within each boarding ‘bubble’ to integrate international and UK based boarders together. It is the day-to-day stories, for example, of Second Year girls helping to make the beds of their First Year friends that are indicative of a culture of kindness and mindfulness that we are proud to share.

Whilst we are very fortunate to have a wonderful site and extensive resources here at St George’s, our greatest asset, as this demanding year has proven, is our fantastic, hard working staff. Securing the girls’ safety, preserving social distance and keeping our cohorts separate, has flipped many of our practices on their head. Rather than moving from classroom to classroom, we have worked hard to keep our girls in one place so far as is possible while also ensuring they still have safe access to subject specialist rooms such as in Science, Drama and Art. In response to necessary changes, our staff have shown their true can-do colours. They have moved from one class to another, transported resources and cleaned down desks, all while delivering the curriculum in an innovative way to ensure that all of our girls, wherever they are learning, continue to achieve their academic potential.

A huge amount of work continues to go into delivering blended learning effectively. Our teachers and our SEN and EAL team have worked tirelessly with girls who are experiencing school remotely to ensure that they continue to learn successfully. As a case in point, the EAL team has been able to access the international girls' Google Classroom and their work on our internal Dragonfly system which has allowed them to support the pupils with mainstream learning during their EAL lessons. The team is also in touch with all the girls' teachers so any problems girls are experiencing can be discussed. The aim is to make our pupils’ overall learning experience successful and to ensure the girls do not feel too pressured or 'remote'. All our staff continue to work on developing their use of the Google suite to maximise its effectiveness in the classroom and, when questioned on ambitions for the future, the entire Senior Leadership Team were of one mind, that maximising our use of technology will be key to maintaining our strong educational position.

...when questioned on ambitions for the future, the entire Senior Leadership Team were of one mind, that maximising our use of technology will be key to maintaining our strong educational position

We are delighted that we have been able to maintain the quality and breadth of our co-curricular provision throughout this term. Staff have worked hard, within the restrictions, to give the girls greater diversity in lessons than they might have experienced previously, for example the new sports of futsal, handball and goalball have been introduced within PE lessons and we are continuing to expand our use of our impressive new swimming pool. We are very thankful for the commitment of all our staff who offer an extraordinary breadth of after school clubs to the different cohorts in rotation. Our online House Debating Competition, our House Swimming competition in cohorts and our Bronze DofE Qualifying Expedition and Fourth Year Wellbeing Walk in Windsor Great Park, have all shown the way in which adaptation can occur to make traditional events function in a Covid safe fashion.

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Bronze DofE expedition

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House Swimming Competition in cohorts

Our Drama Department has delivered incredibly innovative pieces including a Radio Play produced by our Fourth Year girls and the forthcoming First Year film production of A Christmas Carol. Our Music Department has entertained with the online Autumn Concert and our girls have showcased their incredible talents, but more than that their confidence to deliver in a virtual space, in this term’s Virtual Open Mic Night. It has also been a delight to celebrate the positive impact of the Arts on the wellbeing of our pupils in support of the #tuneup campaign with the Girls School Association, and hear a number of girls reflect on the confidence they have gained through their involvement with Fine Art, Textiles, Photography, Drama and Music at St George’s.

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Fourth Year Radio Play

As 2020 draws to a close, we are delighted to be able to reflect so positively on the year that has passed. St George’s has not just merely survived, admittedly an achievement in and of itself in this climate, but has driven forward and grown its educational provision. In our recent online newsletter, we reflected that, with the girls currently coming to School in their sports uniform, there is a sense of activity and purpose around the site and this feels, to us, to be an apt visual of the year as a whole. 2020 has in reality been a year of great adaptability, ambition and achievement and, whilst we join with many in being glad to see its end, it is one of which we are particularly very proud.