What can school leaders and early years leads put in place quickly, now that all schools in England will be closed?
I hope this brief summary of our action plan at Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre will provide some useful ideas to take away and build on.
As a team, we understand the significant difficulties many parents might face. That’s why we are always ready to offer help as quickly as we can. This can prevent little issues from blowing up into big problems. But as we prepare to close, we know that things may rapidly become much more difficult for some families.
Coronavirus closures: supporting vulnerable families
Research suggests that when parents are under significant stress, incidents of child abuse rise. Children under 5 are more vulnerable to child abuse than any other age group in the school system. Children with special educational needs and disabilities are also more vulnerable to abuse, according to a review of the research by the NSPCC.
We are responsible for a large number of under-5s. Many of them have complex special needs and disabilities. So we have to consider safeguarding risks. We are focusing on how we can help families to manage circumstances that may become very difficult. This is about supporting, not blaming.
Assisting in home-schooling
At a more mundane level, some parents may find it difficult to keep their children positively occupied. Many families live in overcrowded accommodation. Many won’t have a lot of money to spend.
To get our messages out, we have created WhatsApp broadcast groups for different cohorts of children. Broadcast groups are a useful feature of WhatsApp. All the replies go to the sender, not to everyone on the list. We have followed our GDPR policy when setting up these groups.
Here is what we are doing for all children:
- We will broadcast a daily message to parents. This will include ideas for playing and keeping children positively occupied. Messages will always include a focus on outdoor play and fresh air.
- We will share links to the Hungry Little Minds resources from the Department for Education. These resources support playing and learning at home.
- We will also share links to LoveMyBooks, a terrific website, which gives lots of ideas around sharing books at home and having fun together.
- We have signed parents up to the EasyPeasy App, which sends out regular messages with great ideas for playing with your child.
- It’s likely that children will be online a lot more, so we will be reminding parents about keeping their child safe when using a phone, tablet or computer.
- It’s possible that some parents will be very stretched. They may wonder about whether they can leave young children at home with older siblings. So we will share the NSPCC’s useful advice on "staying home alone".
- We will also regularly share other links to help parents access support and help with parenting, including free and confidential live chat with parenting staff from Action for Children.
As well as giving parents ideas, we hope that these regular messages will help families to feel less isolated. We want to keep everyone playing, talking, sharing books and learning throughout our closure.
Protecting vulnerable children
Some of our most vulnerable children will be able to access provision, though how that might look is still to be confirmed by the government. In the meantime, this is our plan.
Here are some of the key steps we are taking for children with a complex special educational need and/or disability:
- Our Sendco will be broadcasting a daily message to "touch base". She will share general advice: e.g., how to keep children communicating using their Core Board.
- Our Sendco will also touch base regularly by phone with each family to check how they are and to offer advice.
- Most families have accessed Disability Living Allowance. They have used this funding to buy specialist play equipment. Where this has not happened yet, our Sendco has created emergency resource packs to lend out.
- We have put together a list of useful contacts for parents who have a child with SEND. For example, a parent might be at the end of their tether at midnight because their child won’t sleep and is highly distressed. They can check the list and contact a 24-hour helpline or another source of support, like the helpline from Mencap for parents of children with a learning disability.
Some families have a social worker because their child needs protection, or is a child in need. We also have many families who have an Early Help Record – that’s the way we work in collaboration with families to help them through a difficult patch.
For those families:
- The children’s centre family support worker will contact them daily to "check in".
- Family support workers will share specific advice on how to manage parenting difficulties. They will base their advice on "tipsheets" from the evidence-based Triple P (Positive Parenting Programme).
- Our list of useful contacts includes services for parents with mental health difficulties.
Our safeguarding team will meet online every day. Staff will have a clear briefing about how to pick up and pass on safeguarding concerns. We will also share information with all parents about what they should do if they are worried a child is being harmed. Parents may have concerns about a child in their neighbourhood and not know who they can turn to.
Keeping in contact
Overall, our commitment during any closure is to stay in touch with everyone, every day.
We will take care to keep in touch with parents who may face significant difficulties during this time. We will be working with the rest of the team in Newham to provide speedy help for any family that has run out of money or food. We will work tirelessly to prevent families from destitution.
We’re fortunate that many parents have strong links with friends and relatives in our community. We have worked closely with many isolated parents, so now they know at least one or two other people who live locally. Families are incredibly resilient. We are confident that our community will pull together and get through this difficult time. We will be here for them, every day, when the school is closed for children.
Finally, could there be anything positive about this unprecedented challenge? We hope so. We are expecting to learn more about the impact of WhatsApp, EasyPeasy and other online resources for families. The Education Endowment Foundation’s excellent guidance report, Working with Parents to Support Children’s Learning, comments that:
‘parents’ interest and involvement in their children’s learning is consistently associated with positive outcomes for children of all age groups but it can be challenging for schools to influence this effectively. The evidence for what schools can do to effectively engage parents in a way that improves children’s learning outcomes is limited.’
We plan to use this time well, to find out more about supporting parenting and supporting home learning. We will be interested to see what works – and what doesn’t.
Dr Julian Grenier is the headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in East London. He co-leads the East London Research School
- For all the latest Coronavirus news, see the Tes live blog
- For a detailed look at the tech options you have, see our guide
- For a guide on safeguarding concerns, see our guide
- For school leaders, see this checklist guide to closures