Mosquito season has started in Milan, adding to the tragedy of the latest James Bond movie being delayed until November. Meanwhile the lockdown continues. Mouth masks are compulsory, the visit to the supermarket remains the highlight of the day, while the only people left on the streets are the crazies and the carabinieri.
As a school operating virtually, our aims throughout this period have been: to ensure students make the same amount of academic progress remotely as they would have done at school; to lead the conversation with parents, responding quickly and professionally; to foster relations and create a culture of trust, transparency, empathy and good will; to involve all members of the community in communications – students, staff, parents; to manage people’s emotions and provide emotional support – hence the availability of our counsellor during this period, and to develop our response strategically and sustainably, knowing this could last for months.
Students are being set as much work as they would have been in a normal school week; some of this learning is done online, some offline. It’s impossible to conduct science practicals online; watching a video is best done offline; the same is true for reading and writing tasks and practice in maths. Online lessons are more concentrated, intense and draining than normal lessons. Yet attendance has been better than ever, and most students seem to be working hard.
We’ve cancelled exams for Years 7-9, to maximise teaching and learning time. But we still plan to go ahead with exams for Years 10 and 12, albeit completed online within a tight window. For our Year 11s, we’ve created a bespoke programme of pre-IB courses, while for our Year 13s, staff have created an exciting set of 26 elective courses, which students are enthusiastically pursuing. (You can take a look at them here.)
Meanwhile, life goes on as normal. Assemblies and PSHE are conducted online. The primary parents’ evening will go ahead remotely. Grades are being issued according to the planned schedule. And an unprecedented number of merits has been issued.
Primary and senior school staff have responded outstandingly to the new challenges. Teaching virtually is a complex skill, managing students on a screen when you can’t always see them, needing to keep them engaged, participating and responding. Given that some staff live alone and have been isolated for a lengthy period, their professionalism, personal resilience and general cheerfulness have been remarkable.
The aims of our communications during this time have been clarity, transparency, and regularity. As principal, I’ve written directly to parents most Mondays and Wednesdays, updating them and announcing new initiatives, in addition to the Friday Newsletter. There have been regular consultations with parent representatives, and communications with staff and students (including a special letter addressed to the student body at this time).
We’ve conducted four parent webinars, two student webinars and two staff webinars, all using a Q&A format. Regular social media communications, including 10 principal blogs have sought to foster a sense of community, showcasing student work and displaying images of pupils working online. And we’ve created an Admissions under Covid page, with a new video introduction, details on how we are operating currently, and concise details about the school.
If you ask me whether the students are making good, even normal progress, I am confident to answer yes (provided they do the work, of course). In this sense, we are absolutely fulfilling our mandate. Moreover, the younger children are making great leaps in emotional maturity, and maturity facilitates improved learning skills. So yes, we believe that students are learning as much as they would have done in school, in some cases more.
Where we struggle, of course, is childcare. We simply can’t engage all students from the age of 3-18 meaningfully from 08.45 to 15.20. It would be too exhausting, involve too much screen time, while managing the concentration levels of very young children is impossible for long periods online; this can lead to frustration from some parents as they juggle their own work commitments.
I asked my SLT colleagues – who have been simply outstanding during this time – if there were anything we should have done differently, including training, content and delivery of courses, how we’ve developed our provision, and our communications. We could think of very little. This is testament to the collegiate nature of the enterprise, the centralisation of communications, and the expertise of staff who – like all great teachers – have proved great learners themselves.
Whatever difficulties lie ahead due to any impending financial crisis, we believe that the school’s project remains more viable than ever. For students to maximise their chances of success in the world, they need a world-class education that can maximise their opportunities in a global marketplace. This has been true for some time. It is likely to be even more true going forward.
Dr Chris Greenhalgh is principal and CEO of the British School of Milan