24 Jul 2020

NEMESIS in Covid Times – Staying social and innovating – Interview with Jane Fearnley, Willow Tree Academy CEO

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24 Jul 2020

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Schools involved in NEMESIS have found themselves in extraordinary times. Given the situation and pressure they are experiencing, how and why are schools continuing the NEMESIS project? Last month we heard from Willow Tree Academy Head of School, Louise Greenwood, who described how NEMESIS activities were going online. Now Jane Fearnley, CEO and Executive Head Teacher of the academy, explains what life has been like at school and why it has been important to take NEMESIS online. 

Q: Could you paint a bit of a picture of what school life has been like since the lockdown? 

Although society has been in lockdown, schools have been open to the children of NHS staff and keyworkers and vulnerable children. After the lockdown announcement we had a couple of days to prepare and got plans in place very quickly, for home working for staff and children, and also for onsite provision. A main concern at the beginning, and through these recent weeks, was about how we maintain the health of those colleagues who are working in schools, and the children they are working with, and also the parents coming in and out of school. Then there were other practical issues to deal with such as working out how to support children who receive free school meals, and providing food parcels to families.  It’s been very difficult but staff have been amazing. We’ve been very conscious about the mental health of staff, and the pressures they might have at home, and we keep doing check-ins and meetings, as well as more social elements such as staff quiz and bingo, so they still feel part of the team and get to socialise even though we’re working at a distance. That has just helped to lighten the mood, and keep people connected. 

Now we’re moving into a new phase as more children return to school. There’s been a lot of work around how to make sure children are safe and social distancing can be observed as everyone moves around the building. You really feel that these are life and death decisions, it’s been quite a journey. Premises are really important because we have to clean a lot more and how to manage staggered lunches and breaks. Everyone has really risen to the challenge and though we started with returning Year 1 and Year 6, now we’re extending to foundation and Year 5. 

Throughout all this time, we’ve tried to hold on to what Willow Tree would have been doing, so we’ve had a Willow Tree virtual sports day, we’re having a Willow Tree film festival, a parents evening,; giving those opportunities for children and families to be connected. The way we’ve organised ourselves has been really important; we’ve had three teams – strategic, coordination and operational – so each team has had tasks to do, for example, the operational has audited all the home learning and then made recommendations to all teachers. We’ve moved to virtual governance meetings, and for the first time ever had 100% attendance, so we might keep that! The important thing has been to have structure, for staff, children and parents, and to support everyone in the best way we can. 

Q: Given all of those other priorities, why have you felt that continuing and developing NEMESIS has been important?  

What I’ve really noticed, is that when the world has been going out of control, the thing I’ve seen is staff, children and their families using the social innovation competencies that we talk about. We’ve all been using, and focussing on empathy, resilience, responsibility. We’ve all been helping each, whether it’s to be organised at home or work, or if we know of people who are vulnerable and shielding, providing a lifeline, providing that contact for them. In terms of the children, in terms of their skills, we want them to connect, and stay connected. Some children, perhaps because parents have needed to shield themselves, have not gone out at all, maybe not even for a walk, because of the health risks, so we still wanted them to feel like they were part of something, and able to participate, to contribute, to make change happen at home.  

The turning point about how we do this was when we had a project video call, with the NEMESIS consortium, and I just came off that and felt like, instead of talking about the things that weren’t possible, we could be talking about the things that were possible. We are committed to making NEMESIS work, and I want to feel that this wouldn’t stop us, and not stop us achieving developing the skills in staff and children and parents and bringing people together to work on things that are really important to them.  So, then we started asking ‘why can’t we do virtual meetings? and ‘why can’t we engage with parents?’ and ‘why can’t we invite community members or social innovators or experts to join us?’ At that point there was almost so many people working from home it almost got easier!  

Q: What kinds of NEMESIS related things have you been doing?

The first thing we did came about because of the stories we were hearing about older people in care homes. It was in the news about how care home residents were not seeing anyone, they were not able to have family visitors, they were absolutely quarantined. So we started asking, ‘how can we help?’ ‘how can we connect?’ and children we were having the empathy to connect with that issue. So, ideas were discussed about what we could do to make a difference, lessen that social isolation somehow. All four schools got involved in a writing project where we were connected with a care home and starting writing cards to residents. The postcards children made had kind messages of support, and telling something about their lockdown. We got feedback about how valued these messages have been, including from relatives of residents, who have got in touch to say how much it has meant to them that someone is thinking of their loved one. Then we’ve thought about how residents might get some exercise if they’re not able to leave the care home, and children made some gentle keep fit sequences, and seated exercise for people who are not mobile.

After this initial project, others have also started to develop. So there was concern about what was happening to homeless people now many services have been impacted, and we connected with the Safe at Last charity to learn about what the challenges were and co-created fundraising ideas to help raise funds for the charity, who are trying to provide their support. Some other children are doing some growing for a soup kitchen, staff sent seeds, pots and compost and children have been getting involved in that. And we are at the beginning of a fundraising drive for the LEAF centre, which was one of our first projects that came out of a NEMESIS co-creation lab. We’re re-developing an old caretaker’s house at Rockingham to be a nurture base which will help children who have social or emotional needs, and support inclusion. We’ve got a co-creation lab coming up with Kat Cooper from Hubbub, who kindly offered her time to help us think through rewards-based crowdfunding ideas. 

Q: Children recently had an online meeting with pupils in Spain – what was that like? 

A really positive and enjoyable part of NEMESIS for us has been connecting with partners, schools and children across Europe. Continuing to collaborate, share ideas and keep in touch is important to us. We had an online session with our partners in Spain, and their experience has been quite different, because their lockdown was total, schools were completely closed. It was really important for children to share their experiences and what their experience of being and learning at home has been. Some children were saying how much they miss their friends and the structure of school, some children have quite enjoyed being in charge of their own time. Our next step is to connect again and share how we’re developing NEMESIS. The skills and the values that children are developing through this kind of interaction, they’re very important – very human – skills. That’s why, not just despite of everything, but because of everything that’s been going on, that’s why NEMESIS is so important.

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