Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of Whitgift, discusses the challenges and benefits of rebuilding group work and communication in our schools after many months of online learning

Almost everyone working in schools will have been feeling a sense of positivity around the ‘great return’. When schools closed in March 2020, I naively thought this would be short-term, but after the trickle-back of that summer, the ‘bubbled’ term of the autumn, the second, depressing lockdown of January 2021 and the spring return, this academic year has felt increasingly normal.

Most schools will recognise the problems lockdowns caused, too: increased anxiety, especially amongst already-vulnerable groups; frustration and even anger at the loss of activity and ‘milestone’ events; social atomisation and, above all, the damage (to be frank) caused by months of online learning. This online environment created a whole set of issues in a new informality of approach (instant messages to teachers at all hours) and a reliance on online material availability. Above all, for some, there was what I might tactfully term a ‘loss of social skills’. Reminders of codes of behaviour have been the order of the day, but also a serious strategy to reboot communication.

Rediscovering group work and discussion – alongside informal meeting points – helps young people reconnect and build key skills

Indeed, rebuilding communication has been one of the most important aims for all schools, I would argue, in the post-Covid months. I think there are four key strands. First, the vital importance of rediscovering group work and discussion. Whatever the EdTech gurus might argue, group work on Teams or Zoom does not work. And as much as it was a relief to be back in school last September, teachers keeping their distance at the front and students in rows did not make for great oracy or articulacy. Students need to be able to take part in discussion more than ever these days, so prioritising group work has been vital for schools. For our youngest students, we ran some ‘collapsed days’ in the summer, with Model United Nations, Global Citizenship discussions and debating… they found it hard, but we needed this impetus.

Secondly, it has been so important to reconnect in person with students informally. Most Heads are good at Assemblies, and most of us developed some skill in online Assemblies – vlogs, streamed talks and so on. But nothing replicates the connection with an audience. With large gatherings still off-limits, I and my senior teams took to visiting tutor groups informally, to take questions, hear views, say what was on our minds. This has been the most enjoyable and I think most valuable way I can possibly have spent my mornings.

“Students need to be able to take part in discussion more than ever these days, so prioritising group work has been vital for schools”

It links, too, to my third strand. I am never sure about Student Voice: schools are not democracies. But there’s no doubt that finding ways to ensure the students all have a vehicle for having a say is increasingly vital. The success (I think anyway) of my tutor group visits has led us to empower prefects to adopt a similar approach by developing their own programme of drop-ins and lunches with groups of younger students built around specific themes – areas of the school where we want to know what people think.

Finally, all this underlines the importance for students of setting out an argument. One benefit of all that time at home is that some at least of our students have found interests to research and even become expert in. We should harness that enthusiasm and find ways to validate and publish the off-beat, the quirky, the unusual: online here works well, although at Whitgift we also publish the youngest pupils’ work in magazine form. The pandemic has taken its toll, for sure, but schools can rebuild, and we can discover hidden gems too!

Whitgift School

Further reading: Habs Girls on the importance of outdoor learning for older pupils