Lockdown in Sixth Form

Interview with Kate Spencer Ellis, Head of Sixth Form on the lockdown experience for her and her students.

As the lockdown period continues with some easing of restrictions but still a great deal of uncertainty, we asked Ms Spencer Ellis for her views on the challenges that our eldest pupils and the Sixth Form team have been grappling with.  

Q: What would you say have been the successes of our Sixth Form provision during lockdown? 

In terms of what has gone well, the transition programmes we have developed for Y11 and Y13 are things that we have been thinking about and planning for all year.  It has been strategically really important for us to bridge those two gaps – the gap from GCSE to A Level and the gap from before the white gates to beyond the white gates.  

This has been on our minds since September and – despite all the very obvious and tangible negatives of this situation – it has afforded us an opportunity to pursue our aim to bridge those gaps in a full-blooded and whole-hearted way.  This situation has focused our approach.  

At the beginning of the year, we were talking about quite small tweaks to our provision but, in both cases, we have been able to put together much deeper and wider programmes than perhaps we even anticipated.  We have learned things from what we have done this year that we will absolutely want to bring forward into future years.

Q.  What has the remote learning experience been like for students do you think?

The students have done really well with their remote learning.  As teachers, we always try and assess our practice through the learners’ eyes and really needed to get their feedback on what had worked, and we did that really early on with a survey during the first week of remote learning.  We got some real nuggets from them and I hope that the students have felt listened to.  

We recognise that it’s not ideal and we would all much rather be in school and we always knew that getting this right was going to be an iterative process and the students have really informed that process.  For example, we know that the blended approach of live lessons and more independent work really suits the Sixth Formers.  

I think a lot of them will have developed substantial independent learning skills from this experience.  The level of self-discipline required is higher.  The structure of the school day has its own momentum and carries you to a certain extent.  Whereas, if you are at home on your own, you must provide that momentum yourself.  In a sense, there could be no better preparation for real life – university study in particular, but also the world of work.

Q.  Where there any specific things that came out of that early survey that changed your team’s approach?

Unsurprisingly, the biggest issues at that stage were technological.  Students and staff were using platforms they were not always familiar with which was challenging at the outset.  

Students were very precise in their responses in talking about what they liked and were quite forensic in their understanding of teaching and learning.  The hardest thing is when a teacher has to transform a piece of knowledge or a concept and the students were fierce in advocating for things like voiced PowerPoints, live lessons and the importance of practical things like teachers explaining how long they anticipated a task should take to complete.  

Students were also advocating for things like soft skills as well – patience for themselves and for staff and even passed on advice about structure and organisation of workspace and having clear divides between work and non-work time during your day.  

We have learned that there is no one single journey through this and some students started all guns blazing and then found the whole experience of working remotely incredibly tiring and since had a bit of a dip heading towards half term.  Whereas others found it tricky to start with but have listened to advice and engaged and have found it much more manageable as time has gone on and we have adapted our approach to that feedback.

Q. What about changes prompted by the survey that went beyond teaching and learning?

Some of the things that came from that first week of remote learning were about the importance of reconstructing the Forest community as best we could.  The priories were community, interaction, connection and engagement.  

We have had to really think very carefully about our morning programme and how best to deliver that.  For example, fifteen minutes in the Deaton Theatre feels very different from fifteen minutes remotely which feels more like three hours.  So, we have had to find ways of compressing everything down and creating opportunities for students to talk and interact with one another.

The fact that we conducted that survey in that first week meant that we got to the bottom of some of the more pastoral issues with remote learning like students missing the opportunity for interaction with their peers, very early on.

Q.  How have students and staff been coping with the other aspects of the remote school experience? 

Students have responded extremely well to our wellbeing interventions and our pastoral interventions.  Everything from the Monday night quizzes which have seen extraordinary levels of cut-throat competitiveness between Tutor groups; to engaging with the podcasts, interacting with their Tutors in Tutor time once or twice a day.  The students have looked out for each other in a way that I am incredibly proud of.

My favourite part of every day is at 8.45am and 2.00pm when I hop between the different Tutor groups and see what is happening there.  There are lots of moments of ‘magic’ – some of it quite quiet subtle magic but magic, nonetheless.  I think the work of the Sixth Form tutors in just reassuring and providing opportunities to laugh, connect and engage has been formidable.  It’s not showy but it’s so important.

Q. How has student voice informed your approach throughout the lockdown period?

The student leadership team have been instrumental in guiding us, giving us feedback on what has worked and what has not and we have been meeting with them regularly and we will now be meeting with the new leadership team that has just been announced.  We will be using them – as ever – as a conduit for student voice.  

They know their year group extremely well and they are very honest in a constructive way.  Sometimes we will run an idea by them and there will be a polite pause and then they will say ‘no’ and that is part of what they are there for and has always been part of our practice.

Q.  How did student voice influence our Y11 and Y13 transition programmes specifically?

When we were planning the roll out of the programme for Y13 there were some very specific things that they asked for that we have implemented.  They wanted opportunities to mentor, they wanted to hear first hand experiences of others from within the Forest community and they were quite fearsome about their definition of what ‘young’ was which was quite painful for those of us who went to university last century!

So much of remote working can feel like screaming into the void so you must seek out feedback.  The students have really shaped what we have included in the Y13 transition programme especially and we have also included feedback we gained from a survey this time last year asking students what they were most anxious about.  

Regarding the Y11 transition programme, there has been less student involvement during the lockdown period but prior to that we held a series of focus groups with high achieving Y12s and talked to them about the skills they developed that enabled them to be successful and we have weaved that into the programme.

Both the Y13 and Y11 programmes launched on 11th May and we are really pleased with the response and the levels of participation especially amongst Y11s which has been very high.  We are also delighted that we have been able to make the technology work so that the current Y11s joining us in Y12 in September have also been able to participate in this transition provision and I hope that they have felt welcome in those virtual classrooms.  

Q. The Sixth Form has its own identity – has that diminished during lockdown?

The benefit of our Forest community is that enables students and staff alike to offload and to normalise; sometimes you just need to vent or you need someone to say ‘Oh me too,’ and sometimes you need someone to stay ‘Stop it you’re being ridiculous and here is some practical advice.’ That’s where the power of community is.  It can really help individuals as they negotiate this time.

Q. What are the other challenges that students and staff have faced?

We do observe cyclical dips in engagement and last week we spotted a little dip in terms of how many people were watching assemblies.  So, we went to the Sixth Form staff team and the student Leadership Team and we talked about ways we could refresh things.  

The key theme is the relentlessness of remote working and we have looked at technological solutions to help with this.  I attended a webinar with Louise Golding-Hann, and we have been looking at Pear Deck amongst other options (which is an add-on within powerpoint) as it is amazing how much technology can help.  For example, you would not believe how much having the hands-up function in Microsoft Teams has helped us run our classes.  

Before half term we managed to do our first ever live LookOut Lecture, which several weeks ago felt far too hard, but we are finding we just must give these things a go and 99% of the time they are successful. 

Q. Would you say that our approach to remote working for the Sixth Form has been an iterative process?

We are quite outward looking in the Sixth Form and I am a member of a professional organisation called IACAC which has meant that I have had quite a lot of insight into how schools that have been closed since January have been operating.  The first things they said we would have problems with were student engagement beyond the first week and tracking students’ engagement and lo and behold those are the key problems we have encountered.  So, we knew it was coming but we didn’t quite know what form it would take.

We have considered mixing up how we do Tutor time, we have looked at other changes to routine which is a difficult balance as people like routine but too much routine can also be a bad thing.  We are constantly looking for ways to refresh and react and this week assembly views have gone right up again – although that is obviously only one measure of engagement.  

Things like the Vivas for Y12s and the EPQ presentations are quite important things that they have to think about and prepare for which introduces some variety to what students are doing and puts them in a more reflective mode.  All of that is positive – you don’t want too much change nor do you want monotony.  

For me personally, the Vivas have been an absolute joy, giving me the opportunity to talk to students one to one and the student leadership interviews are always one of the highlights of my year.  


Q.  Are there any positives that have come from this situation that you would say are specific to Sixth Form life?

It has accelerated our progress with technology.  I now cannot imagine life without Microsoft Teams as a way rationalising our communications and our interactions with our year groups.  Also, we knew this already and as we have talked about, the importance of student voice in informing our decisions.

Students have also gained increased independence during this time.  They are learning that they can choose not to do something or not but there will be consequences.  It is not about sanctions but about learning that if you do not do things you cannot replay those opportunities again, which is an important life lesson to learn.

In Sixth Form students do start to learn the skill of asking for help which has been even more important during lockdown.  I always say this – and it’s a bit of a Ms Spencer Ellis-ism – but successful people are not effortlessly good at everything but they know what they can’t do and find people who can help them and that’s a hard lesson to learn.  

This is especially true for students who were especially able in Y11 –the huge transitions are really emotionally and socially.  In Y12 they come to the realisation that they will have to ask for help and that is not weakness or failure but a really smart thing to do and again, that has been an especially important skill whilst working remotely.  

We give students so much support – which they acknowledge – but it’s about knowing when to access that support and how to access it which is really the big challenge.  The same will be true at university.  Universities have infrastructures to support them.  There are office hours there are student support services, there are mental health services, but your self-advocacy has to be really strong.  There are several things I hope they leave the white gates with and one of them is that skill of self-advocacy.  

Q.  What do you wish you had known at the beginning that you know now?

On a personal level, I started out spending twelve hours in one place and you can very much live at the beck and call of emails so, from my point of view, remembering the importance of putting structures in place and taking the advice I was giving.  

I also think that knowing when to communicate and how much to communicate is always so tricky and this is particularly so at a time of such high anxiety.  

Students may have thought we had information before it was announced publicly.  I spent time in the common room with around thirty students when the announcement was made about school closures and exams and I heard about it at the same time as they did, and it was really important to communicate that.  

I think I also underestimated the importance of those ‘corners’ of lessons that are so important that you never plan for.  The interactions where you ask students how they are getting on or you say well done on their performance on the netball court – those edges of lessons and edges of meetings with colleagues are much harder to recreate in the virtual environment, and I am now making a conscious effort make those moments happen because they are so important.