When schools across the UK went back earlier this month, government guidance was to separate students into ‘bubbles’, to reduce the chances of contamination.
If a case of coronavirus is detected then a bubble can be closed, and the rest of the school can remain open.
But asking hundreds of children, who come to school every day to study and socialise, not to mingle certainly has its challenges.
Nevertheless, the ‘new normal’ at Twickenham School, a co-educational secondary school in Whitton, appears surprisingly normal.
Students fill the corridors in facemasks, and gossip in the playground in groups of six. They walk around with coloured lanyards, identifying whether they belong to Bubble A, B, C, or D.
It’s a smooth operation from the outside but one that took Head Teacher, Ms Ruse, a whole summer’s worth of planning.
She said risk assessments were re-done countless times, to keep pace with changing government guidelines.
Over the break, the school was given an overhaul, creating Covid-friendly seating plans, and hiring a company to disinfect the school from top to bottom.
The timetable had to be reimagined, cutting out morning break-time and reducing lunch, to limit moving students around. ‘Recovery lessons’ have been added for Year 11s before and after school, to get them up to scratch for GCSEs.
No detail has gone amiss – though Ms Ruse stresses this has come at a price.
“I don’t know if people on the outside appreciate just how much planning has gone into this. Our job is to teach – I would happily spend twice as much time if it means we get the kids in,” said Ms Ruse.
Before July, when the government reimbursed emergency school spending, laptops were bought so that every student could have access to online learning, as well as digital thermometers and face shields for staff.
But since the government budget has reduced, schools are on their own.
“The Covid spending just doesn’t stop – think about the bottles of hand sanitiser and stacks of wipes, we don’t get that money back. It now comes out of curriculum.”
“God forbid we don’t go into lockdown again but if we do, we have every single child set up on Microsoft Teams with a laptop.”
“We’re not out of the woods yet. If it happens it happens, but not because we’ve been careless. I know I can sleep at night knowing we’ve taken every single precaution.”
This week in assemblies students are being given a clear message : Keeping you safe is our priority. pic.twitter.com/fK0W7W8o04
— Twickenham School (@TwickSch) September 18, 2020
Student support is a priority at the school, with the safeguarding team recently expanding, and new paternships forged with youth mentoring charities.
“Lockdown was devastating for the kids’ mental health. We lost a mum from Covid and a member of staff had a sudden heart attack in June. It really hasn’t been easy on the young people,” said Ms Ruse.
But for the Head Teacher, the heath crisis has also been an opportunity to strengthen the school.
Twickenham School has already come a long way since she took over in 2016, when it was in ‘Special Measures’ – the lowest category by educational inspectors Ofsted.
“20 years ago, people called it the dumping ground, kids were made fun of in playground, they were told it was a place that losers go.”
“So, I came determined to change that. I swore I would make every child who came here proud,” said Ms Ruse.
On temporary leave from neighbouring school Waldegrave – voted best comprehensive school in the country in 2016 – she immediately closed the sixth form, let go of staff, and within 18 months the school was lifted into the ‘Requires Improvement’ category.
“I couldn’t justify it in my head, that the kids that go to Waldegrave have the best teaching standards, but the kids here just a mile down the road never had the chance, because of the postcode.”
“In a nutshell we build aspirations, we make them believe. I want them to think about Oxford and Cambridge, I want them to go to university or college.”
“The first day back to school we had a staff meeting. I said, ‘welcome back everyone, I’ve invited Ofsted to come.’ You could hear a pin drop.”’
“People think I’m crazy, but I want to show off the kids and the staff. And I want the whole world to know we are not a ‘Requires Improvement’ school, we are an ‘Outstanding’ School. So, they are coming this week to look at everything. I can’t wait.”