Sitting here in June 2021 we can look back on the last year and evaluate how we kept connected with our students through a global pandemic and two lockdowns. We have 16 places for S3 and S4s for whom 5 days a week 6 periods a day in busy classrooms is just not the way they learn best. The March – June 2020 lockdown came suddenly, unexpectedly and with very little time for us to prepare the young people. So at least when the same situation came up in December 2020 we were better prepared and knew what to expect.
Almost all the academic teaching at the alternative school is 1:1 and we did the same on-line. Our students work best when they are freed up from anyone looking over their shoulders or watching what they’re up to. Many have had disruption to their education and may have been more often out of the classroom than in it. Every teenager is self conscious at the best of times. Knowing you can learn at your pace, free to make mistakes and try things out with a trusted staff member is vital to what we do. Some students worked even better at home where they felt completely free from judgement. It was fascinating to see that some of the shyer students were much more confident on-line. This concentration and connection with our staff meant that student learning and attainment continued and all our leavers are leaving with the results we expected them to get. A few have even exceeded our expectations.
Many of our families and young people needed support to access IT. In the first lockdown schools did their best but were unprepared. Partners like U-Evolve helped by supplying tablets and then we supported parents/carers and young people to access their work on-line, often via their mobile phones. As our students have often missed so much school many of them aren’t confident with accessing school accounts or even opening emails. We supported them to find their school work as well as with working directly with us. Sometimes this remote support with IT was frustrating and time consuming - but we got there! We helped with College applications, facilitated Teams meetings with careers advisors and delivered Art materials to students' homes so that they could continue working on projects. The Academy was acting as a food distribution hub and we were able to deliver food parcels to students who needed them and signpost their families to other types of support to help them get through lockdown.
"I think it has made me behave better. It is better than school."
- Alternative School Student
Connection and Relationships
Everything do at the Alternative School is grounded in the trusting relationships that we forge with young people and their families or carers. Every lesson – either face to face or on-line begins and ends with a chat and checking in with how the student is feeling. They set the pace of lessons and we empower them to ask for movement or screen breaks when required. The latest addition to this is mask breaks so they can go outside and continue chatting to staff without needing a mask. The chat is led by the young person and they choose the topics. We are learner led - connecting with topics and areas of interest that students find engaging. We recently looked at a rap music film ‘Shiro’s Story’, followed Celtic’s ill fated trip to Dubai, learned about knife crime, read about the biographies of drill artists and followed the careers of boxers including Josh Taylor and Anthony Joshua. Gaming was a massive part of how a lot of teenagers got through lockdown and we found immense success in lessons where the young person read insider tips and tricks to master the more complicated aspects of their games. One lesson over-ran by 20mins as the student was taking screen shots of what we’d been looking at so he could study it more closely on his own. This is the invested type of student-led learning that our young people thrive on. We continued to partner with our U-Evolve therapists and they reached out to support young people with their mental health through lockdown - encouraging them to be active and stay connected with their friends. For a few of our students on-line learning just wasn’t for them and in those cases we began some socially distanced face to face outdoor walks to help them get out and about and to feel connected to us. Other staff set creative challenges that encouraged the young people to explore their home city or learn new skills so that they could feel motivated and get some variety in their days. Lockdown gave us the opportunity to get to know many parents and carers better and to listen to the challenges of feeling trapped within the same four walls. One of the things we noticed was that for some of our students night was turning into day. Recognising this, most of our on-line lessons started after 11am unless a young person requested an earlier time.
Our students had to know that despite lockdown we were not giving up on them. Getting some of them to engage on-line took a great deal of perseverance but with the help of parents and carers we always got there in the end. Staff had to be willing to be flexible to reschedule or abandon calls until the young person was in the right space to turn up. Some drifted away for a week or two but with gentle nudging from us and parents/carers they would hook back in with us. Just at the point we’d think we had lost an individual, they’d reappear. That taught us all the importance of consistency and remaining open and curious to what might be going on for that student and how we could help to support them better. Treating each young person as a unique individual and accepting and valuing their map of the world is one of the things we do best at the Alternative School and lockdown learning let us re-examine those principles in action.
As we said goodbye to our 2020 leavers in a fairly chaotic and hilarious on-line quiz, we reminded them they are now part of the wider Spartans family and we remain here for them, whenever they need us. Many do stay in touch. Some reappear in our Strachan Personal Development course in partnership with Edinburgh College. Others drop by to tell us how they’re getting on or reach out to us for assistance with job or training applications. Just before Christmas a former student needed a model for a blow dry as part of her hairdressing apprenticeship and our Alternative School manager was delighted to oblige! We have learned that our students’ levels of resilience and flexibility are high. They adapted often better than the adults did and although they frequently asked: ‘When are we going back to Spartans?’ - they didn’t complain. They kept their heads down and kept working with us. Our Alternative School is a physical and sensory experience – students missed cooking the lunch for the group, outdoor art activities with spray paint and boxing gloves, kicking a ball in movement breaks from English and Maths and working on digital music production with Heavy Sound. Now that we’re all back together the connection and the relationships are stronger and we’re working to get settled back into a more structured alternative way of working. Being an alternative school perhaps made us ready to seize the opportunities of being even more alternative whilst maintaining connection and finding ways to help our students succeed.