Educating Oxford in Lockdown

26th June 2020

Dr Jackie Watson (1986, English) is Vice-Principal of Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school in Oxford.

In this blog, she reflects on how schools are helping to provide for students during a lockdown which has exposed and intensified inequalities across the country; and how she and her colleagues, not to mention her pupils, are getting on with the job despite the challenges.

Dr Jackie Watson

Oxford Spires Academy is a large comprehensive just off the Cowley Road. It’s a part of Oxford that many Somervillians perhaps don’t know well if they didn’t spend a year living out nearby. The school has a very diverse catchment, both socially and ethnically, and despite being in ‘leafy Oxford’, parts of our patch score highly in national measures of deprivation.

A great deal of our focus in lockdown has been on protecting our most vulnerable families, those who rely on free school meals, for instance, and helping them to manage each week. We’ve been delivering over 120 food parcels to local families, as well as making phone calls and visits to those students on our safeguarding register to check that all is ok. Local businesses have been brilliant in contributing to food parcels.

We just need the government promises of vouchers for students who receive Free School Meals to turn into reality now!

As well as the most vulnerable, and the children of key workers (for whom the school is still open every day with teachers still coming in), much of our focus has been on setting up and monitoring remote learning for all our students.

Teachers are setting tasks and responding to the work submitted by their pupils. A very high percentage of the work we set is completed, but there are still worries about students with limited access to IT.

Families often have only one device in the house. With parents working from home, and perhaps more than one child with educational needs, it can be hard to manage ‘live’ lessons – so we’re developing recorded sessions that students can access at a time suitable for them. Many of us have never recorded ‘video’ lessons before and it’s a steep learning curve (especially for those of us more mature in years!), but we’re all getting there.

The real difficulty comes from not knowing when, and how, things will develop over the next months. As Head of Sixth Form, my responsibilities mean dealing with the uncertainty head-on. Am I planning Induction for my new Year 12s in June on site, or electronically? How am I going to enrol them on to A level courses if we’re still not back in August?

And how can my new Year 13s prepare competitive university applications when all their university residentials, work experience and science placements that would normally have taken place over the summer are being cancelled? There are online alternatives, but making sure everyone knows about what is there for them is a continuing challenge…

Luckily, I didn’t go into teaching for an easy week’s work!

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