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Pupils back to school at ‘absolutely the right time’, says headteacher

Richard Vernalls, PA
·5-min read

Pupils have returned to lessons at “absolutely the right time”, according to one headteacher.

Greg Williams, of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter Academy, said: “It couldn’t have been (put off) any longer”.

At the secondary school, which is run by CORE education trust, 325 students in Year 11, 10 and 9 were back at face-to-face lessons on Monday – many for the first time in months.

Coronavirus – Mon Mar 8, 2021
Children arrive at Jewellery Quarter Academy in Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

On Tuesday, 270 more pupils – the rest of the school’s cohort in Years 8 and 7 – are returning.

Mask-wearing is mandatory at the school, but take-up has been almost universal, said the head.

Mr Williams said there was currently only a single pupil who did not have to wear a mask, and that was for a medical exemption.

Many have school-branded masks, which were being handed out to those who needed a face covering at the front gates, together with a squirt of hand sanitiser.

Pupils have also had to get to grips with rapid-result lateral-flow tests (LFT).

Coronavirus – Mon Mar 8, 2021
Students take lateral flow tests at the Birmingham school (Jacob King/PA)

But take-up has again been high and by Monday morning the school had parental consent for tests for more than 530 of its 597 pupils on-roll.

Mr Williams said to avoid too much disruption, it had invited pupils in at the end of last week to its own on-site test centre – named the Seacole Centre for 19th century nurse Mary Seacole, who tended to wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.

More than 350 pupils took up the chance to have one of the Government-mandated three LFTs they need this week, aimed at controlling virus among the school populations.

From the following week, pupils will take home school-supplied tests and use the swabs on themselves, twice-weekly.

Despite the introduction of new health measures, pupils have been “really keen” to get back to class, with the school recording a 94% attendance on Monday, above the national average.

Mr Williams said, before reopening, the school had focused on supporting pupils through remote learning, giving out 148 laptops and up to 20 dongles to allow internet access, together with BT-donated data bundles.

The school’s community has also been distributing food vouchers and handing out food parcels, put together and delivered by staff and volunteers over the past few months.

He said: “If teachers weren’t teaching, we’d drive out and do food parcel drops.”

In recent weeks, following the Government announcement of a full return to classes, staff have also been doing door-step visits to many pupils, so youngsters and parents could be briefed on what to expect.

The testing regime, in an on-site testing facility run by school staff and three volunteers, takes about an hour.

Josie Wall, a volunteer tester, said: “I’ve worked with the school previously, through the Jewellery Quarter Cemetery Project.

“When I saw how hard the school had worked to keep children safe, I thought I would volunteer to help them continue to do that.”

Pupils were taking the testing regime in their stride on Monday, before heading to their first lesson.

Asked about the return for all pupils, Mr Williams said: “It couldn’t have been (put off) any longer.

“The support we’ve had from Government is clear direction, and we’re really appreciative of the run-in time; the advanced notice.

“We would have been ready to open the day after the announcement.”

Coronavirus – Mon Mar 8, 2021
Year 11 student Dante Ross (Jacob King/PA)

He added the additional financial support from the Government had also helped, providing items such as screens for teachers’ desks and in meeting rooms.

That support has also allowed the purchase of 18 graphics tablets, allowing teachers in subjects such as art, science and maths to interact more closely with pupils in those subjects.

He added: “It’s absolutely the right time for the students to come back.

“School is the best place for our students.

“Preparations have been extensive, we have set up a brand new testing centre.

“We have also encouraged the students to come in and think about any help and support that they need, so there’s an hour’s time with their form tutor, just to go through that.”

He added: “It must be quite daunting for young people sometimes, to think about having to have regular tests and it’s not something they’re used to.”

Students arrive at the Jewellery Quarter Academy in Birmingham
Students arrive at the Jewellery Quarter Academy in Birmingham (Jacob King/PA)

He continued: “We’ve put in a lot of support – our remote learning provision has been exceptional.

“But they want to come back today.

“Very early this morning, the students were arriving – much earlier than we thought.”

Among the students is Year 11 Dante Ross, who has his eyes set on a career in engineering.

The 16-year-old, from nearby Hockley, said: “I’m excited to come back to school, see my friends and just get learning with teachers in a friendly environment.”

Asked what he had missed the most, he replied: “The social interaction with people my own age.

He said the most difficult challenge had been getting used to wearing a mask, which he found “claustrophobic”.

Dante has the “stressful” prospect of teacher-assessed grades for his GCSEs this year, with results in August.

He said: “I think it will be much harder to compete against somebody in the job market, that has sat their GCSEs.”

Asked about the state of pupils’ mental health, Mr Williams said: “By and large, our children are very resilient, and I think that is helped greatly by the frequent contact we have with them.

“But it will be lovely to see them back today.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for face-to-face teaching.”

Mr Williams said the potential for an expanded school year would be “welcomed” if it “contributes to the well-being and learning progress of students”.