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Education SOS: coping with back to school

Well, it's been a nightmare year for kids only made worse by the exam results debacle. As we plot their return to school, Reading Blue Coat's new head Peter Thomas offers some keep calm and carry on advice.

Superhero teenage school boy

Wow! What a year our kids have had to endure. One minute they were skipping into school (or dragging their heels), hanging out with their mates and, y’know, learning stuff. Then they weren’t. The global pandemic saw classes shift online (or from worksheets), exams were cancelled, friends missed, and life turned upside down.

It is a lot for young people to deal with and, as parents, we’ve had to juggle home schooling, home working and everyone’s mental health. Yes, we were able to take our foot off the pedal and even enjoy hanging out for the first few weeks. BUT if lockdown did one thing, it’s that it shone a big ‘ol spotlight on what’s important – particularly when it came to our children’s education, happiness and future prospects.

Getting good grades is a given. It’s the stuff you can’t measure that will set this generation apart, and given that research shows 85 per cent of jobs they’ll be applying for haven’t been invented yet, parents need to be savvy and look beyond bragging rights.

PeteThomas Reading Blue Coat

Reading Blue Coat School’s new head Peter Thomas thinks that the global pandemic has highlighted the importance of school values and community in helping pupils cope when they lurch into unfamiliar territory. After a challenging few months is it time to close the Covid chapter?

This is your life… give us a rapid rundown?

I grew up in Horsham, Sussex, and went to a state school. During my gap year, I flipped burgers in McDonald’s so that I could travel and work in Australia, before heading up to Durham University to study Geology. When I graduated I joined the police force, but I’m glad not to be doing it now..

I was introduced to teaching while I was a police officer – tutoring new recruits and visiting schools. I took the plunge and changed career and joined Judd Grammar as a geography teacher. After a couple of years, I left the state sector to join Dauntsey’s School in Wiltshire where I was quickly appointed day housemaster, later running a boys’ boarding house. I joined Blue Coat as second master in 2015, and will fill outgoing head Jesse Elzinga’s shoes in September 2020.

Crikey! Are you nervous about the new job?

Jesse brought humour and compassion to the job and the school. That’s not going to change. Over the last few months, those qualities have been much needed. But everyone’s conscious of the unknown.

Marked wooden school door with metals sign Exam Room Enter

Dare we mention this year’s exam results?

The Class of Covid at Reading Blue Coat notched up record-breaking A-Level results and 52% of GCSEs were Grade 8-9 – which is A* in old money.

Lockdown really affected years 11 and 13. They were severed from the teaching, the school and their friends. Calculated grades based on mock exam results and assessed work is the best outcome. Whether moving onto university or Sixth Form, once these young people hit the ground running they’ll move on. My concern is for the Sixth Form leavers. Universities make more offers than they have places, so have become overstocked. It will be incredibly difficult.

That said, I’m delighted for the Blue Coat pupils who worked so hard over the last two years and had their efforts recognised with excellent results. Their grades come from two years of effort and application.

If the government guidelines allow, we are trying to host an Autumn Ball and prize giving so they have those rites of passage moments to look back on.

Are we facing a youth mental health crisis?

It’s been an incredibly odd time. For teenagers, keeping touch with their friends remotely is completely normal. So, for some, lockdown felt like an extension of the weekend or school holidays. But they do need some sense of normality. Good working habits start to drift and having a big chunk of time away from school will be detrimental.

The mental wellbeing of the students is something we must take very seriously. Resilience is built up through the curriculum and relationships with staff and pupils. It has been incredibly important to touch base. We held virtual assemblies and the Chaplain and teachers have all been available online.

Let we forget… the parents

Parents sometimes get forgotten but they are a significant part of a school community. When we pivoted our learning online, we sent out a document to parents to ask how we can help them. As someone who has had four boys at home of different ages it can be incredibly hard.

Scrabble letter spelling back to school

How do we get our kids motivated for school?

Read books. Enjoy the extra time. Try and get your kids to set goals and try something new – they’re all good life skills. Most importantly, find the positives. Remember to continue to check in with friends, family and communities. Those small acts of kindness go a long way. It’s all about the attitude of gratitude.

Read the Muddy review of Reading Blue Coat. Or see for yourself at its next Open Morning on Sat 3 Oct or Sixth Form open evening on Tue 13 Oct.

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