We’re in it for the long haul but special schools are the canary in the coal mine of the school system’s resilience, writes Madelaine Caplin...

Opinion piece by Madelaine Caplin - Executive Headteacher, Woodside Academy and Belmont Academy (LSEAT). Schools Week Edition 224 | Friday 25 September 2020 

Despite the tiredness, there has been no better sight in the past fortnight than our classrooms being full of children again. We are all delighted to be fully open, but the reality of operating amid a pandemic is becoming evident. This is true in the mainstream school I oversee, and it is even more palpable in our special school.

Here, all our pupils have EHCPs, many with ASD, SEMH and moderate learning needs. Many are particularly affected by a change of routine, and while the past six months have turned all of our lives upside down, for them it’s been cataclysmic.

All schools have faced - are facing - the dual challenge of reopening safely and of smoothing the transition to the ‘new normal’ for children. For the most vulnerable among them, those who populate Woodside Academy, this has involved individual timetables and personalised behaviour plans that require intensive support throughout the day.

As a result of this intricate planning, the return has run smoothly and our pupils are doing well. But the fact is that the school environment has changed, with children having to learn, play and socialise in different ways and this is a constant challenge for us all. In addition, almost every pupil came back to school on day one but, perhaps inevitably, numbers have

dropped as children have picked up coughs and colds, as they tend to at this time of year. With the chaos around Covid testing and anxiety around rising infection rates, some parents have no option but to keep their children at home if they display even mild symptoms, particularly if the child or a family member is vulnerable.

This will undoubtedly result in more learning gaps across the board and further disruption for children who are already struggling. We have learning contingency plans for children having to stay at home, including online access to the curriculum and bespoke resource packs delivered to homes, but there is no real substitute for being in school.

Teachers too have been affected by the testing chaos. We live with constant worry about whether we have enough cover each day, particularly with the high teacher-pupil ratios needed in a special school. I can only echo the call on government to prioritise schools when it comes to testing, otherwise the important commitment to keeping them open will prove impossible, and many children will be seriously affected, educationally and in terms of their mental and social health.

But beyond Covid testing, delays in assessment for children needing an ASD diagnosis are also a grave concern. Woodside can only admit children with EHCPs and the pandemic has held up the system dealing with these. As a result, some children are not securing places at specialist schools as quickly as they should. We are doing our best to work with the relevant agencies to mitigate these delays, but it is a challenge.

The pandemic hit when our schools were very much on an upward trajectory both academically and creatively. But rather than pushing forward as planned, we now have to focus on helping the children to make up on lost ground and assessing where gaps are. A huge part of the school day is now concentrated on the new regime: constant hand washing, staggered breaks, staggered lunchtimes and staggered home times. For children with additional needs, this is all-consuming and reduces the time we have to focus on learning and development.

Children across the board are being negatively affected by the disruption and uncertainty the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed across the globe, but none more so than those with special needs.

Encouragingly, morale remains high. We know we are in it for the long haul for the benefit of the children. But without the wider support we need to stay fully open, ours and the system’s resilience could be tested to breaking point.


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