Anyone in education knows first-hand how difficult this last year has been as online teaching became the norm, with both teachers and pupils learning new ways of working together away from the classroom.
Yet there have been unexpected benefits too. Naturally, like schools throughout the country, our first priority at The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL), was to make sure that we carried on teaching and learning in an environment where everyone continued to thrive. However, as we settled into a new routine of virtual lessons, we started to look at other ways to benefit from the technology we were using with pupils on a daily basis. One obvious area was our partnerships and outreach programme with schools throughout Leeds, West and North Yorkshire.
Rather than putting the programme on hold during lockdown, could we make it accessible to more schools and reach a wider audience?
Our work with partner schools had grown in range over time and, until the pandemic struck, we were organising a number of events a year where different age groups from local primary and secondary schools were invited to join our pupils for talks and workshops.
The programme was popular, but the downside was that we were limited by the number of visiting pupils that we could accommodate in school. Typically we hosted four to six schools – and a maximum of 24 pupils – in a classroom for events ranging from French days, to art or science workshops. When it came to author visits, held in the library or assembly hall, more could be accommodated but we were still limited to a mix of around 300 of our pupils plus visitors.
By taking the programme online however, we are now able to live stream events and workshops to any school wanting to join in. All sessions are interactive so members of the virtual audience can take part in discussions and ask questions.
Sessions are filmed and we have created a dedicated website, GSAL Presents… to host the content, making it available for schools and the wider community to access at any time.
The reaction from our partner schools has been hugely positive and we have massively increased our reach from a handful of visiting children to several thousand at each event.
These have included:
- 2,000 pupils from 30 schools taking part in the science show Zap! with Marty Jopson, in conjunction with Otley Science Fesitval
- 2,500 pupils, in years 3 to 6, from 31 schools attending a visit from author Chris White. This also included a number of children and their parents who were self-isolating at home
- 3,000 pupils, in nursery to year 2, from 33 schools taking part in a visit with author Claire Culliford in partnership with Bookmark a reading charity
But it is not just in teaching that we have seen surprising benefits to our existing partnerships and outreach programme.
Just before the start of the pandemic, we became involved with an initiative to provide school uniforms to families in need. As part of the joint enterprise with Families Together Leeds and Zero Waste Leeds , a plea went out to GSAL parents for unbranded uniform, particularly white shirts, polo shorts, black trousers or joggers, school shoes, grey or black tights and red or blue sweatshirts.
The initial response was amazing with pretty much every item of donated clothing being reused or recycled. However, after a year of lockdowns, as many people faced redundancy or were furloughed, the fledgling scheme took on an even greater importance.
As demand for help in the community grew, the number of donations received at the school increased. Through the generosity of parents, 1300 donations have been received to date.
These have been collected and sorted, on a voluntary basis, by two indefatigable parents who run our school second hand uniform shop. Clothing is taken to children’s centres in Leeds where it is available to vulnerable families or those struggling to make ends meet, as well as to children in care and foster care. Some donations have also gone to our projects in Malawi.
Everyone deserves a treat from time to time and another of our initiatives, this time with Child Friendly Leeds, saw our parents, pupils and staff step up to the plate once again to provide youngsters in care with seasonal gifts of chocolate.
After taking part in the scheme for the last four years, we were overwhelmed this year with the response as GSAL families helped us to donate more than 400 Christmas selection boxes and advent calendars as well as 300 Easter eggs.
To see our collaborations continue to grow in this difficult year, and the positive difference they are making to the lives of children, is heartening and rewarding in equal measure.