Educating pre-prep children during lockdown

Children between two and seven could suffer the most from any extended lockdown, says Victoria Playford, headteacher at The Mulberry House School in London

We have heard a lot about how GCSE and A-level students have been affected by the extraordinary times we are living through, but I believe it is children at the other end of the scale who could potentially suffer the most from any extended lockdown.

This is because the learning children do between the ages of two and seven forms by far the most important stage of their education. It is in these years that we help to lay the most fundamental building blocks on which their future learning and educational success lies.

Reading, writing, social skills and interaction, a love of making things and learning how to harness their imaginations are all skills and talents which we aim to nurture in these younger years. Equally, children learn for the first time to be independent outside of the home and start to flourish and blossom as their own person.

The progress made between two and seven is rapid and transforms children from toddlerhood when they are heavily reliant on adult supervision to the brink of their junior years when the majority are becoming responsible and independent children.

At the school I lead in north west London, some of our younger age group in the early years foundation stage (two to five year olds) are still getting used to being in school for the first time, while others are preparing to transition to another school after a 4+ assessment.

At the upper end we have year two pupils who have already secured places at their chosen prep schools and year one pupils who are preparing for their 7+ exams in the next academic year. All of them are at very different stages with different learning priorities.

But for now, almost all of our pupils (except for the children of key workers) are at home with their parents. For many of them, this is a difficult and confusing time.

For some of our younger children, there is a very real concern that they will quickly forget about school and the familiar faces of their teachers and friends, while many of our older children are concerned about missing out on vital preparation for their next schools. So how do we find a way to challenge and educate all of them during these stressful times?

The learning children do between the ages of two and seven forms by far the most important stage of their education

Setting out a routine and some standardised rules has been a vital first step. All of our children are expected to be in uniform for school registration at 8.45am. Putting on their uniforms helps children to ‘be in the school zone’, mentally prepared for the day ahead.

Every day, each class teacher sets out what is expected for the day and what their pupils will be covering. Time with the teacher at the beginning and end of the day provides a vital link to school and helps the children prepare for the day ahead and for the next day. For the older children, it helps them to be more independent as they are encouraged to consider and plan their own resources.

For our younger age group, learning through play is vital and it is really important to maintain as much of a sense of normality as possible. Although they are too young to follow formal lessons live via our remote platform, we are ensuring we film messages from their class teacher and that they have a chance to take part in weekly show and tell sessions with the rest of their group.

We suggested a draft timetable to parents, which mirrors the learning their children have been doing in school, and suggested themes and activities. We also ask these young children to set up a desk at home just like they do at school and to pick five rules to share with their parents. Setting their own rules helps to give them ownership of their ‘school day’ and develop a sense of justice when the rules are broken.

We learnt very quickly that there was a demand for live learning from our older pupils so now our years one and two follow a core live learning programme with a number of live lessons a day. Reception class also have opportunities for live learning.

Pupils and parents are offered live Zoom calls to motivate the children and reinforce behaviour expectations. I believe one of the most helpful things we can do for parents is to set out these expectations and learning goals for their children very clearly. This helps to take pressure off parents as it is still the school and the class teacher who are setting the boundaries.

Supporting school learning is a huge ask for parents, almost all of whom have no formal teacher training. Instead of expecting them to be faced with mammoth learning responsibilities, we are therefore concentrating on looking at specific learning intentions for the week and suggesting they focus on achieving three things.

Children have faced the new challenges with remarkable resilience, and I am in awe of the effort and dedication of their parents, often both of whom who are balancing their own work with looking after their children. We have found it is more important than anything for the early years to be social and interact as much as possible with their peers and their class teacher while the older years enjoy a more structured day, live learning and the responsibility of independent learning.

Each week, we will be reviewing what works, what does not work so well and how we can adapt. Children’s wellbeing will be at the heart of everything we do to ensure they are supported and still feel they are a valuable part of the community even when we cannot all be together.

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