Karen Burns talks to the Manchester Evening News about the Trust’s focus on Mental Health

Our Chief Executive Officer Karen Burns, spoke to Charlotte Green at the Manchester Evening News about our Trust pupils returning to school after lock down. This article was published in the Manchester Evening News on 17th June 2020.

A focus on mental health and ‘separation anxiety’ – that’s how one Greater Manchester academy trust aims to help children adjust to life back in school after nearly three months at home.

Staff at the Victorious Academies Trust in Tameside have spoken about how they are preparing to change their teaching methods as more children prepare to return.

The trust is holding off on opening its primary schools back up to more year groups until June 22.

It came after the council wrote to parents telling them that the authority no longer wished schools to reopen to more pupils, telling them the R rate of Covid-19 infection was now ‘above the critical value of 1’.

Karen Burns, a former headteacher in the borough and now the trust’s CEO explained the challenges staff will face, including pupils struggling being away from home.

She said: “If they have not been vulnerable children or the child of a key worker it’s a good ten weeks since they were last in school.

Social distancing and hand washing signs have been put up around Victorious Academies Trust Schools

“There will be separation anxiety from leaving their parents and not necessarily going back to the same classroom or the same teacher.

“The first couple of weeks, the teaching centres predominantly around mental health and well-being. Dealing with the separation from home, getting children confident again and confident to communicate, to be speaking to their peers and speak in class. That’s the first phase of the children returning – obviously that’s underpinned with education, basic skills, learning activities.”

All their staff have undergone training about mental health support, and each academy will have a ‘wellbeing champion’ appointed.

They are also having to change the physical infrastructure of the schools  and the numbers of youngsters in each classroom – to enable social distancing. Children will be taught in ‘bubbles’ of 15 or fewer. That won’t only apply in the classroom – it will also be the rule for break time, which will be staggered.

“One year group might be spread across three classrooms with different members of staff,” Ms Burns explained. Members of staff are teaching different year groups that they normally would not teach because we have only got so many members of staff.”

“There is hand sanitiser all over the show and hand washing reminder posters and signs. All of the things that have been done we have managed to do without making it look too frightening or threatening for the children. We put the social distancing measures in place without making the school feel too alien.”

She added: “Children will be encouraged to social distance but getting young children to social distance at all times isn’t necessarily something we can guarantee.”

The trust works with nine schools, eight in Tameside and one in Derbyshire, with a combined total of around 3,000 pupils.

These include Discovery Academy in Hattersley, Greenside Primary School in Droylsden and Inspire Academy in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Teachers are also preparing for the gap in educational achievement for some pupils to have widened while they were being homeschooled.

Some children will have a ‘slight dip’ where they have forgotten their teaching before lockdown but quickly bounce back, others will find they have been set back ‘quite a lot’ and some children will have had ‘significant home learning and have made big strides forward’, Ms Burns explained.

“I do believe that there will be a real disadvantage and advantage gap,” she added. “I know that people in private schools have pretty much been running the days as normal whereas in state schools, that’s not necessarily the case. Different families will be able to give children different levels of provision at home.”

“Unfortunately many of those contributing factors do come down to materialistic measures in the sense that it is often disadvantaged people that don’t have the optimal learning conditions at home.”

However the academies are aiming to tackle the imbalance with ‘interventions’ from teachers offering specific individual support to pupils who are struggling or falling behind.

“There is a lot of change that the children are going to face in terms of logistics and being around their peers, but I do believe that this is the best thing for the children – for their mental health and for their continuing educational development it is vital that we get them back into school,” Ms Burns said.