COVID-19 in a Special School

I interviewed headteacher Claire Wills to find out how the school managed the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year, and how they supported families at home.

Mill Ford is a school for children and young adults aged 3-19 with complex needs, including severe and profound and multiple learning difficulties, complex medical needs and autistic spectrum conditions. The first national lockdown declared all schools to be closed except to vulnerable children, which was a challenging time.

"We rapidly had to make a decision that we would open to what we consider to be the most vulnerable – so there were about three families that had to have us five days a week, normal school days, and then there were a number of families who had to have us just a few days a week”.

“We’re meant to socially distance, our children can’t socially distance, and we can’t; the building isn’t big enough to put them into single rooms … So we made sure that in a classroom, you could socially distance if they agreed to stay apart from each other. [At this time] the classes are not very big, no more than about 3 or 4 in each class”.  Claire added that the pupils are still learning about selfcare and hygiene: “they find it difficult to wash their hands adequately or correctly even with supervision... They can’t tell you if they are in pain, they can’t tell you if they are getting a sore throat. They can’t tell you those things, so there is always a greater risk with health to children who have learning disabilities.”

Family support network

The school focussed on building a family support network, including doing shopping and home deliveries to families who couldn’t get priority shopping, vital ingredients or medication. Regular conversations with parents and carers at home meant that the school could individualise the support they gave. A rota was set up to ensure parents could have a break while their children were at home.

There were also a number of children deemed to be extremely clinically vulnerable so remained at home to shield. The school also had four staff members who were extremely clinically vulnerable, including a class teacher who taught online. This revealed some of the challenges of teaching children with disabilities on Zoom – “you can’t see those small nuances of things they are learning” such as eye contact.

Online lessons

Parents were asked to be in the room for all online learning to ensure children were safeguarded. Some of the young adults were able to take part in Zoom lessons watching Newsround together to discuss topics in the news. However, most of the children needed support from parents and carers to access online learning. "The children are never going to be able to teach themselves like in mainstream [education], they’re never going to be able to sit on a Zoom and be taught. The parents had to be with them in order to engage with that lesson and get anything out of it… Our children need a lot of support to engage with their learning”. The school acknowledged that parents had different responsibilities and varied in the amount of time that they could give.

Home learning

Children at home needed support with structure, reassurance, and social stories to explain why they weren’t in school every day, calendars to show which days they were in school and which days they were at home. With this kind of support “the children seemed very adaptable to the change.” Claire explained that some of the children at home did really well with their communication. “Their parents would spend a lot of time sitting and talking to them, and encouraging communication, and working through all the training we had done with the parents to be able to educate the children in communication. So we did see children who were stuck at home whose communication had improved”.

“As far as tracking progress, the children who were at home did not make as much progress as the children who were in school, and the children in school did not make as much progress as usual because some of their targets were around socialisation and they didn’t have as many peers to socialise with, so that impacted on them. We expect nine points of progress, and on average around seven and a half points were made for children in school, and about four points for children at home”.

Worksheets were very personalised to each child’s individual learning. One teacher created a range of activities for children who were learning about phonics “so around a sound, for example ‘n’, she would give the families a load of ideas of what they could do, so a scavenger hunt around the house to find something beginning with ‘n’ so a necklace, so they would run round trying to find those. For fine motor skills: threading a bead to make a necklace, anything that related to where that sound could be emphasised by the parent. She produced for each sound a list of ideas for activities with sounds”.

Claire explained that some parents were able to use an app that enabled communication between home and teachers to share children’s progress; “we also have something called Evidence for Learning…  [parents] could upload evidence to show what their child had achieved, so we can then assess it and give suggestions and that can go back and forward throughout the app”.

Home learning package

Mill Ford school offered personalised remote learning packages to parents who wanted their child to remain at home. Regular contact between school and home enabled the school to listen to what families needed; “we took puzzles, games, toys round to families if that’s the level the child was working at. We sent education plans, communication plans home to families so that they can support the children at home. We sent work packs home, and we went by what the parents wanted and how much the parents could do.”

The school shared some of the resources with researchers at Plymouth Institute of Education, and you can see some examples below. A research project with settings and families in the UK and Malaysia that designed home learning support can be seen here. Individual home learning packages enabled staff and families to continue children’s learning at home.