Responding to COVID-19: NSN Spotlight visit with Marine Academy Primary

On Tuesday 7th July, Marine Academy Primary hosted a virtual Spotlight event. Spotlight events offer free schools that are open or approved to open the chance to hear from successful free schools. This series of Virtual Spotlight events are designed to highlight the strategies free schools have implemented in response to the challenges of COVID-19. Marine Academy Primary's Spotlight focused on how the school has adapted arrangements for pupils transition years. The school is based in Plymouth, and is part of the Tad Wragg Multi-Academy Trust.

Marine Academy Primary (MAP2) is a school based in Plymouth, one of the more deprived cities in the South-West, with 30% - 12% above the national average – of the school’s pupil classed as disadvantaged and over 110 families on food vouchers since schools shutdown. Enabling underprivileged children to gain the knowledge that they need for success in later life underpinned the school’s decision to follow official guidance and open their doors to certain year groups in early June.

Despite much trepidation among parents on whether or not to send pupils back to school, MAP2 has had 180 of the school’s pupils in attendance during these last weeks of term. While it is true that the South West has not felt the impact of COVID-19 as strongly as other areas of the country, it is clear that  the inspirational ‘can do’ attitude of the school’s senior leaders played no small part in encouraging parents to let their children come to school. The day before children returned to the school, Headteacher Siobhan Meredith reassured staff that putting on their ‘positive pants’ would help pupils to get the most value out of these precious few weeks, minimising progress lost as much as possible.

With their positive pants on, leaders at MAP2 are keen to seize the opportunities that the past few months have brought about as well as mitigating the challenges. Although all children in the trust have access to Chromebooks, at MAP2, teachers have been aiming to get children out of the classroom as much as possible. A new focus on outdoor lessons has supported the children’s emotional development and enabled them to learn more effectively by removing restrictions of the classroom environment. Outdoor leaning, amongst other new changes - stationery pots at the pupil’s desks, and classroom-based lunches - have not only helped keep children and staff safe, but have had other positive effects, such as a reduction of behavioural incidences.

The school has always been proud of how it helps young children from Pre-School transition into Reception. Their mission is to make children feel comfortable from the day they arrive. But in the past, the school has typically used face-to-face contact with the children and their parents to ensure this. Clearly, this wasn’t going to be possible in a new COVID-19 environment. On top of that, staff are also aware that many of the children transitioning into the school in September had missed out on six months of Nursery and therefore lost out on a critical step in their social and emotional development. As Deputy Headteacher Claire Jones noted: ‘If children don’t have a positive experience in their first year, it could put them on the wrong foot for the rest of their school life.’

The school has also gone to great lengths to ensure that children will feel comfortable from day one in September. Along with their personalised “invitation” to attend the school, new pupils have also received a link to a virtual tour video. Mrs Jones said the feedback from parents was overwhelming as seeing their school from the comfortable environment of their own home gave them a genuine sense of excitement, rather than anxiety, about what lies ahead. Over the summer staff will also send videos of themselves reading books, so that the new pupils get a chance to familiarise themselves with their new teachers. Of course, September preparation plans wouldn’t be complete if the children didn’t also receive a personalised welcome letter from the school’s dogs, Watson and Little Bear.

Plans for Year 6 children who are leaving the school in July are similarly concentrated around the needs of pupils as they set off to a new learning environment. COVID-19 has clearly exacerbated an already apprehensive time in a child’s life as they move to senior school, but steps have been taken to ensure that all the Year 6 children at MAP2 will be prepared the challenges that secondary school brings. According to Assistant Headteacher Georgina Brunning, ever since schools closed in March, MAP2 teachers have made it their priority to ramp up the English, maths and reading skills of their Year 6 children. They want every child to go into Year 7 ‘with their head held high’, knowing that they are capable.

MAP2 has taken big steps to ensure that the children are academically prepared for next year, and has put a strong emphasis on making sure that the pupils are resilient and emotionally prepared. All pupils have been given a reading list of books that have qualities such as compassion, empathy, and kindness as the underlying themes. Teachers have made themselves available to the children and their families for discussions about some of the challenges that secondary education will present. They also went to lengths to make sure that children who were going to the same secondary school, would be grouped in protective bubbles together so that when they arrived at secondary school they had familiarly and friendships were formed so that they could share some of the challenges together.

MAP2’s positive outlook and approach to supporting children through transition periods has demonstrated the importance of adaptability and looking for the opportunities in these challenging times.

NSN would like to extend its gratitude to colleagues at Marine Academy Primary who so kindly shared their experience, and a wonderful video of their school.

NSN is always on the lookout for fantastic free schools to share their journey with others. If you have been open for more than three years, have a Good or Outstanding Ofsted and are interested in sharing best practice, then our Events Team would love to hear from you. Keep an eye on our events page for details of more virtual Spotlight events in the future.

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