Responding to COVID-19: NSN Spotlight visit with XP School Trust

On Thursday 11th June, XP School Trust hosted New School Network’s first 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 Spotlights is designed to highlight the strategies free schools have implemented in response to the challenges of COVID-19.

XP School Trust comprises six primary and secondary schools based in Doncaster, and the trust’s flagship free school, XP School, sits amongst the top performing schools in the local authority.

Schools in XP School Trust deliver a curriculum which is academically rigorous, standards-based and destination focussed. Pupils are taught through cross-subject Learning Expeditions which connect students to the community and the world. XP Schools have a relentless focus on beautiful work and character growth and the trust is committed to making sure that pupils continue working hard, getting smart and being kind while learning at home.

Like all schools across the UK, XP School Trust has had to adapt quickly in response to the global pandemic, implementing a clear strategy to minimise disruption to pupil’s learning. To begin the presentation, Neil Butler (Executive Principal) outlined the trust’s response to the COVID-19 crisis and explained that the strategy was built upon a noble mission of ’keeping schools open, keeping all children safe and ensuring the curriculum is online for all students and families’.

XP School Trust’s strategy contains six key phases which are designed to be implemented flexibly in response to the Government’s wider recovery roadmap. These phases are:

  • Phase 1 – Pre-closure: Develop new safeguarding plans and move the curriculum online.
  • Phase 2 – Introducing: Create new team rotas and ensure pupils and parents gain access to free school meals.
  • Phase 3 – Easter period: Manage team rotas to ensure that all staff have the opportunity for an Easter break.
  • Phase 4 – Expedition: Engage all pupils in learning through online learning expeditions.
  • Phase 5 – Transition: Prepare pupils and staff for the next phase of learning including internal transition, new starters and staff induction.
  • Phase 6 – Reopen: Enter the new academic year with a full return. Plan new learning expeditions and ensure that all pupils are equipped to learn.

At the time of the event, XP School Trust was experiencing high engagement in phase 4, following the successful re-launch of expeditions across the trust. Neil Butler and colleagues attributed this success to the groundwork which was laid pre-closure, including the establishment of online support centres for parents and staff. Having created new norms, the trust was able to build upon strong foundations to engage pupil’s in home learning expeditions.

School closure has presented a pressing opportunity for many schools to move their curriculum online. During the presentation Martin Said (Curriculum Designer) noted that the trust had been planning to develop an online curriculum offer before the pandemic and that current circumstances had simply accelerated the process. Within expeditionary learning models, teachers act as designers and guides and are not viewed as the gatekeepers of knowledge for pupils. Developing an online curriculum website, where pupils and parents are able to access Expeditions at their own pace, has helped to secure immersion and bring the curriculum to life. Through online small-group crew sessions, teachers are able to assess pupil’s progress, address misconceptions and provide academic support where required.

Technology has been a key tool for XP School Trust when establishing an online curriculum. Martin explained that the trust has simplified the process by using familiar programmes, such as Google Suite, where possible. For schools looking to implement an online learning offer, Martin recommended first identifying the online platform which worked best for the school. Acknowledging that there is a wide selection of potential platforms, Martin suggested starting with something familiar, gradually building the offer and ensuring that all staff, pupils and parents could access training where necessary.

Engagement in online learning is a challenge for many schools and distance learning presents its own set of unique challenges. During the presentation, Claira Salter (Head of Greentop School) highlighted the trust’s blog as a great way to boost engagement. XP Schools have a “hook week” at the start of each Expedition which immerses pupils in the learning they are about to undertake. By sharing experiences and celebrating pupil success online, the school community has found that overall engagement in learning has improved across the trust.

Looking forwards, Neil explained that the trust is now looking to strengthen the online learning offer further, while preparing for welcoming back pupils and returning to a sense of normality. With reduced contact a likelihood until the new academic year, XP School Trust are building an online offer to support staff. The online staff site will include materials for new staff induction, CPD and collaboration. Similarly, a parent support centre will guide families through online learning and induct parents who are new to the school. By providing information accessibly online, XP School Trust are hoping to improve clarity, reduce anxiety, and ensure that all members of the school community feel well supported to transition effectively.

NSN would like to extend its gratitude to colleagues at XP School Trust who so kindly shared their experience of implementing online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. All attendees found the event useful and asked brilliant questions throughout.

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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