Gretton School’s executive principal Ian Thorsteinsson and head teacher Beth Elkins reflect on returning to school
Alongside every other school in the country, we have returned this month to full-time on-site teaching, despite the continuation of these strange and unpredictable times. I think if I hear the word ‘unprecedented’ again, it may send me over the edge! But the truth is, we none of us have all the answers about this return to school and what it will look like, so planning this particular start of year return has been inevitably affected by all the additional layers of planning around safety, social distancing and well-stocked cupboards of hand-soap and sanitiser!
Working in an Independent Special School for children with autism sets us somewhat apart from other educational establishments in many ways, but what we have noticed this year unlike any other is that we share one very important thing in common with every single other school in the country and that is that – regardless of our young people’s diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Condition – they are so happy to be back at school. Of course, our young people benefit enormously from the structure of school, from the predictability of where breakfast is served, to the four-part lessons and the visual supports to guide them through the day.
But what has delighted us the most is that, despite the very high levels of anxiety that many of them experienced through the period of lockdown, they came back to school delighted to be back amongst their peers and the staff that know them so well. Friendships have rekindled, new ones forged already and staff that are new to the school have already got to know the individual special interests that our learners are so passionate about.
Friendships have rekindles, new ones forged already
Although the lockdown came with its own challenges, we were surprised to note that some learners – once away from the social expectations of school, where every opportunity is a learning opportunity for the social and emotional development of these young people – actually were better able to engage with the academic demands of school. Suddenly, young people who are often distracted by others or troubled by the sensory challenges of a busy environment – were eating up learning through our virtual learning environment and making leaps forward in their academic progress.
If we were to take a very shallow view on the purpose of education, the continuation of virtual learning could be a huge benefit for the school to ‘up’ their grades and achieve those coveted A*-C grades. However, we now have a really interesting challenge ahead, as we recognise and are passionate about the holistic development of our students and the important role that we as a school play in the critical area of development of their social and independence skills.
If a school were purely grade-hungry and sending children out into the world with a raft of certificates, this would be a no-brainer. Our school wants more, though, for these wonderful young people. They cannot turn up – at the age of 19, after leaving Gretton School – to a workplace with a certificate but no ability to communicate effectively in a group, or ability to transition from one room to another past people that they haven’t seen before. The ability to build groups of friends and navigate the inevitable challenges that friendships bring through life must be at least as important as a GCSE!
Our challenge this year, then, is to embrace the opportunities that enhanced virtual learning and ICT have given us, whilst maintaining the social and relational environment that is key to seeing these young people emerge from the chrysalis of social anxiety to become the work-based and socially capable butterflies of the future. All within the context of social distancing and the very real possibility of school closures; maximising social support and building these essential relationships must stay at the forefront of our priority list… but don’t forget the exams!