Three special free schools announced for North East

The North East will see three new special schools bringing over 200 places to the region for students with social, emotional and mental health needs. The schools will be due to open in September 2022.

The new schools were announced by Gavin Williamson earlier this month as three of 35 special free schools to be opened across the country. The Department for Education’s estimations on places needed indicate that by 2022 areas of Northumberland could need as many as 200 more primary places while by 2024 Darlington could need up to 600, Middlesbrough up to 900 and Stockton may need over 900 new places. While these are total numbers of places needed the pressure on SEND is acute with the region having the second highest proportion of SEND pupils in the country, at 12.8% while the England average is 12.1%. 

River Tees Multi-Academy Trust will set up one of the schools in partnership with Darlington, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton councils. Spark of Genius will be setting up a school in Hartlepool, while another school based in Northumberland will be run by Prosper Learning Trust. 

Christina Jones, Chief Executive Officer of River Tees Multi-Academy Trust, said: “We are very excited to be able to open a new free special school for the Tees Valley. River Tees Multi-Academy Trust has a great track record of achieving outstanding outcomes for learners who face additional challenges. We combine academic and therapeutic approaches to ensure every learner can achieve their potential. We also offer training and outreach support to other schools and this will be a key feature for the new school, helping learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to access the fullest range of opportunities both in school and their local community.”

Jennifer McCreery, Trust Operations Manager at Prosper Learning Trust said ‘Free schools are providing capacity for systems that are over-subscribed and over-extended especially in the special and alternative provision sector and being part of a Trust that is concentrating on those sectors is very exciting.’

Zak McIlhargey, Managing Director of Spark of Genius Trust added: ‘Spark of Genius are honoured to be taking forward this exciting and much needed new provision. This addition of new special Free School places in the North East is a much needed boost and will help to ensure that fewer young people with additional needs have to travel far from their homes to be educated, a situation that has occurred for a number of reasons including the soaring demand for special school placements. With new places made available, young people can receive this valuable education in their own community areas, vastly contributing to an increase in their wellbeing, emotional resilience and natural support networks and improving their chances of success when they move on from school.  As a longstanding provider of education and support for young people with SEMH, we are committed to improving the life chances of every child and family we work with, and the Free school offers a new and unique opportunity to do so.  We look forward to working very closely with the council, with the Department of Education, with the residents, groups and businesses of Hartlepool, with parents and carers and with the young people themselves in achieving the highest quality of education for young people in Hartlepool who need it the most.’

National Audit Office launches investigation into FSM scheme

The NAO has announced that it will be investigating the Free School Meal (FSM) Voucher Scheme. The scheme has been widely criticised, and school staff and parents faced huge challenges. 

The scheme was introduced at the end of March when the Government recognised that partial school closures meant that many of the 1.4 million students eligible for meals were not able to access them. Despite schools finding ways to deliver meals and offer lunches for collection, take up in many areas has been much lower than anticipated, with many barriers to this from staffing to geography and transport issues. 

The scheme offered eligible students £15 per week in supermarket vouchers from contractor Edenred. In the initial weeks of the scheme issues included inability to access the system to request the vouchers, massive delays in receiving vouchers, and even parents who were told vouchers were invalid at checkouts. This placed a huge burden on school support staff, particularly School Business Professionals who were reporting that the only time they could access the system to process their requests was late at night or in the early hours of the morning. 

Despite the scheme being introduced, food insecurity has increased with more than 200,000 children having had to skip meals because their family couldn’t access sufficient food during lockdown according to The Food Foundation. Academics at Northumbria University have also identified that the scheme has led to a massive decrease in fruit and vegetables consumed by FSM students, and an increase in sugary snacks and drinks. The scheme has also been criticised as in some more isolated areas the only nearby supermarkets which will accept vouchers are more expensive, and affordable places to shop locally are not included in the scheme. This was a problem experienced by a local Northumberland primary school.

NAO’s investigation will ‘set out the facts about the free school meals scheme’ and say they will be looking at the Department for Education’s objectives, their choice of contractor, how the scheme performed and costs. 

If you would like to provide evidence for the investigation, please email the NAO investigation team at putting the investigation title (‘Free school meals voucher scheme’) in the subject line.

Proud year for Schools North East supporting the fourth emergency service

End of term typically comes with celebrations, fun, special assemblies, sports day and of course, reflections. However, you certainly don’t need us to tell you that this year has been anything other than typical! More than any other year, the current circumstances offer a great opportunity for reflection, both on the long term issues that Covid-19 has exposed and the incredible work our schools have achieved in the last four months.

Proud to be part of the NE Schools community

More than anything else we are incredibly grateful and proud of the hard work of our school staff who have stepped up under unbelievably difficult circumstances to support not just their students but entire school, and even local, communities. Our schools have been working together, and with local charities and businesses to do what they can to support our children with basic necessities, as well as trying to teach remotely. You have kept our vulnerable students safe, supported families in need, and allowed our critical workers to do their jobs to keep the country safe.

Never before has there been a summer break which is so needed or so well deserved!

As ever, we have worked to support our schools in whatever way we can. Watch our short video on what we’ve achieved this year:

Our network

With the challenges we have all had to face this year, the Schools North East network has become stronger than ever. We’ve engaged with over 6,000 members of school staff from 1,039 schools across the North East and beyond. For our Partner Schools, this year saw us break the 500 mark and we now have 555 Partner Schools – nearly half of all schools in the North East, not to mention 42 Partner Multi Academy Trusts. Following on from our first Non-North East Partner Schools last year, we now have 16 out-of-region Partner Schools and have had engagement from nearly 200 out-of-region schools.

We want to give our sincere thanks to all of our Partner Schools who believe we are stronger working together for the benefit of all of the region’s young people. No other region has such a network of schools collaborating to help each other and change the education sector for the better. Without your contributions to our events programme, lobbying, media campaigns and more, Schools North East would not exist and would not have the impact that it does now.  

As well as growing our North East network, we have finished the year on some exciting news. We have been commissioned by the DfE to set up a national network for School Business Professionals in Special Schools and Alternative Provision. We announced the National Network of Special Schools for School Business professionals, or NNoSS, just last week and already have representatives from over 50 LA areas throughout England signed up. You can find out more at

Influencing and making your voice heard

The beginning of the academic year saw a very strong focus on representing the concerns of school leaders and influencing those who develop and implement education policy and practice, with the development and publication of our Manifesto for North East Education, calling on all parties to ensure that education policy properly understands and supports North East schools. This was built on through the year at various events including the start of our Policy Roundtable events in February to dig deeper into these issues. We also introduced our Bitesize Briefings for our Partner Schools, one page summaries of major policy reports which help to put them in context of the North East and the specific challenges the region faces. 

Our events also attracted senior figures within government and the educational establishment, providing our schools with a platform to influence the influencers.  In October we hosted Lord Agnew, previous Minister for the Schools System, and in January Education Secretary Gavin Williamson came up to the North East to speak directly to and hear from our school leaders. 

Since March this work has become all the more important as schools became buried under a mountain of government guidance, which has been at best tough to navigate and at worst contradictory and impossible to implement. To support you at this time we set up regular CEO and SEND/AP Roundtables to hear your concerns. We’ve also hosted an SBM Coffee break to hear what you’ve been doing in your schools and share your issues and concerns in an informal space. 

We’ve responded to calls from school leaders on important issues, such as the concern around next year’s exams which came from Head Teachers in Durham, leading us to get in touch with a range of senior figures on the topic and eventually hold a Roundtable with directors from Ofqual to hear directly from our school leaders. 

The issues that Covid-19 has exposed around many aspects of the education sector – from access to technology for disadvantaged students to the faults of our high stakes accountability systems – have shown the points we raise in the Manifesto to be even more important than ever before. We will be continuing this work in the new academic year to highlight the specific issues faced in the North East to key politicians and policy makers, helping to make the voices of North East schools heard at the highest level.  

Communicating and connecting

The beginning of the year saw a gentle roll-out of our online community ConnectEd, to help North East school staff, leaders in particular, connect, engage with each other and share ideas and resources. However, with lockdown and partial school closures, connecting to colleagues has become more important than ever.  The online community has boomed with almost 3000 now signed up, over 30 groups including role specific areas for SBMs and Governors, and subject hubs for teaching staff. 

We’ve also been keeping you up to date with everything you need to know, sending over 130 coronavirus updates to CEOs, Head Teachers, SBMs and Governors, with news, government guidance, resources and support. We’ve dug through the mountain of government guidance, helping you to see relevant information as soon as possible. 

Events – physical and digital

We started the year with a packed schedule which has become our ‘normal’ for the last few years: 

  • A sold out Summit of 525 HTs/CEOs from across the region;
  • Over 450 attending our annual Ofsted Update;
  • Sold out events covering developments in curriculum and managing challenging behaviour, and 
  • Gavin Williamson using our Academies Conference in January as the platform to deliver his first speech as confirmed Secretary of State following election

We had an equally busy schedule for the summer term, but of course lockdown meant that four of our major conferences, not to mention our standalone single issue events, could not go ahead physically.

Fortunately, our amazing events team (both of them – Sam and Rose!) responded immediately, converting the entirety of our remaining events programme to a virtual one, all alongside homeschooling! This has enabled us to support staggering numbers of school staff from across the region, but also, Yorkshire, Cumbria, the South West, London, the Midlands, and beyond. 

Since March we’ve been able to: 

  • Hold 3 major annual conferences online to support over 3,000 delegates
    • Governance Conference
    • Healthy MindED 
    •  CelebrateEd 
  • Hold free legal support webinars to support you with the ever changing situation;
  • Host a CPD day for School Business Managers; and
  • Host the launch of the Money and Me resources from Bank of England, TES and Beano

Our new flexibility to be online has made our events more accessible to school staff. In total in 19/20 we’ve held 34 events, with a total of  7342 delegates throughout the year, reaching over 1,000 schools in the region. 

Supporting recruitment and retention

Our not-for-profit portal Jobs in Schools North East continues to grow with more schools signing up. This year has also seen an increasing number of MATs use Jobs in School to recruit across their whole trust. Despite the halt on recruitment due to Covid-19, we have still seen a total of  800 vacancies advertised this year. We have also supported our schools through the challenges to recruitment in this period with dedicated webinars on the topic. 

Next year will see Schools North East roll out plans to ‘sell’ the NE as a destination for trainee and existing teachers.  

Ednorth – driving a culture of change 

We are seeking to drive an educational culture change through our Ednorth programme. Launched this year we are being supported by Advocates across the region as well as a growing list of Ambassadors. Our partnership with SHINE is bringing over £500,000 worth of funding to the region and so far we’ve worked with teachers to devise over 40 projects. Of course Covid-19 has put a halt on things while many schools formed an emergency response, meaning the next round of funding has been extended to October. If you are interested in finding out more visit

As well as developing research projects, we have launched our first TeachMeets. At the first two physical events we hosted over 70 teachers at Macmillan Academy in Middlesbrough and Royal Grammar School in Newcastle. Since the lockdown began in March we have moved the TeachMeets to an online format, hosting three more events. Over 500 frontline teachers have attended the TeachMeets in total getting off to a great start. The introduction of a dedicated Ednorth group on ConnectEd has also allowed us to bring more teachers together than ever before to collaborate, network and share resources, currently we have over 1,100 members and growing.

Looking ahead

It’s been a busy year for everyone, and the challenge is far from over with plenty to be working on as we return in September. We will be back with events earlier than normal as we bring you a ‘Back to School’ Programme in August to support your plans to reopen fully. 

As we have mentioned previously, Covid-19 and the effects of lockdown and partial school closures have exposed many problems which are long term issues, from the serious digital divide suffered by disadvantaged students, to the learning loss suffered every year, and flaws in our high stakes accountability systems. These are issues that we will continue to address in the new academic year through our Manifesto and influencing work. 

We are incredibly grateful to all our school staff for their not only their hard work, but their determination to support the region’s children. We could not be more proud to serve a profession which had truly stepped up to the plate during such a challenging time, and will continue to do so in the future. You have truly been our ‘fourth emergency service’. 

For now it’s time to take a break and enjoy the summer, because this year, more so than ever, you certainly deserve it!

Improvement for a new look Norham High School

Terry Conway, Head Teacher of Norham High School was kind enough to share with Schools North East the journey which the school has been on from September and the changes which have been made to aid school improvement.

A new Head Teacher, Deputy Headteacher and Senior Leadership Team was brought in for the new term in 2020 alongside good support from their Local Authority- North Tyneside Council which has all factored in to help start to rebuild the reputation of the school. Terry Conway, Head Teacher of the school said “we are candid, tell it like it is, wear our heart on our sleeves and our biggest credit this year was being told we displayed ‘the best example of moral and ethical leadership seen.’” Following this there were big changes and decisions made such as closing the school’s isolation room and the number of exclusions from September to January went from 40+ in the past to just 2 since the new school year. 

The announcement of the “staged re-opening” of schools has set a seemingly impossible task of catching pupils up, especially those who are taking exams in the next year. However, Schools North East are proud to know that education institutions in our region always rise to the task and find a way to succeed even in the most trying of times. Norham High School has managed to figure out a timetable which enables year 10 pupils to receive 50 hours of face-to-face teaching before the summer. This has seen a positive uptake with the pupils and the school community. Alongside this year 11 students engaged in distance learning on evenings and weekends.

Though apart, a part and a partnership of something bigger in Wallsend

The ongoing situation and school closures as result of Covid-19 have a number of different implications for the education sector. We want to dig deeper into these issues, with help from the experts. This week, Emma Barker, Community Coordinator of Wallsend Children’s Community, looks at how community and collaboration has helped local schools through the pandemic. 

There’s nothing like a crisis to bring people together to take action. For schools in Wallsend, working in partnership was happening a long time before we’d ever heard the word coronavirus. Made up of all primary, secondary and specialist school provision in the area, this group of people have become an even stronger group during the pandemic. Making time to come together (online) to learn from each other, support each other and to do the very best they can to support families in Wallsend. 

As the Wallsend Children’s Community we have been working alongside the Wallsend Schools Partnership for a number of years. We work to help all people and organisations (schools, individual families, community groups, youth provisions, statutory authorities, to name a few) that make up the community around a child in Wallsend understand how they all work together and apart to best support our children and young people. 

Our role, as the three members of staff employed to facilitate the Children’s Community, is one of gathering insights and sharing them across the whole area in a meaningful way to enable true partnership working. 

While everyone is scattered apart, due to COVID19, our role of having eyes everywhere has been really valued, especially by the Wallsend Schools Partnership. To capture the community’s voice we have conducted multiple surveys across the community, had hundreds of one-to-one conversations and scoured social media to build the best picture possible of how our community is responding to the crisis, the challenges they face and where a bit of additional support is needed. 

Our research has shown how crucial the role of schools have become for families as a source of information and support. We’ve also seen how, as the lockdown has progressed, families are struggling more and more to facilitate home-schooling often combined with work demands and how this is taking a toll on everyone’s mental health. 

The information which we have gathered has helped to inform the schools’ response and decision making over a huge area of topics. An example would be how the schools are working in partnership with Wallsend Action for Youth, to consider how to support families over the summer. Funding has now been secure to offer a programme of summer activities, which is currently being offered out to families who need help. The Schools Partnership produced this video which has been widely shared across the community and the comments have affirmed the crucial role schools have held at this time. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child and over the last few months our village has been tested in a way it has never before. However, we’re really seeing the fruit of the time invested over the years in forming deep relationships and partnerships with our schools for the benefit of our young people in Wallsend. The journey continues, but we continue together. 

Ofqual directors attend Roundtable with North East School Leaders

Julie Swan, Executive Director for General Qualifications, and Richard Garrett, Director of Policy and Strategic Relationships for General Qualifications, joined over 100 North East Head Teachers to discuss changes to secondary exams next year. 

Opening the roundtable Julie Swan gave a general overview of Ofqual’s consultation on this issue and what the proposed changes are, stating that Ofqual ‘are considering contingency arrangements but the consultation is operating on the basis of exams going ahead next summer.’ She also noted that the consultation was limited by government policy, which does not want to see a change in content.

Within this remit, the consultation is seeking views on proposals to adapt assessments to free up teaching time and take account of public health restrictions. These proposals include changing exam timetables, the length of exams, and the use of more optional questions in exams.

Schools North East also invited local Head Teachers Nick Grievson, from King James I Academy, Bishop Auckland, and Mark Tilling, from High Tunstall College of Science to be part of a panel discussion with Ofqual. Nick began by responding to Ofqual’s opening with the concern that many of the changes are ‘small adjustments’ and that the proposals in the consultation ‘don’t go far enough’. Mark went on to say that there needs to be fairness, particularly for disadvantaged students who have lost out even further due to partial school closures, highlighting the failure of the government laptop scheme, as many of these laptops had still not been delivered as recently as this month. 

Mark also raised the incredibly important question of what would happen in the event of local lockdowns, which will put certain areas at an even greater disadvantage. Chairing the panel, Schools North East Director Chris Zarraga emphasised that this was a significant consideration particularly for the North East as previously three of the region’s local authority areas had been in the top ten areas for highest rate of infection, and the evidence seems to point to areas of high deprivation being more vulnerable. 

Julie Swan recognised the problem posed for disadvantaged students, and spoke about the difficulty of balancing this with a system which rewards those who do engage, going on to ask ‘how do we create a testing system that is fair for all?’. She also highlighted that the changes made are about freeing up teacher time to deliver their curricula, for example the ability to opt out of practicals or fieldwork which may be more difficult under current circumstances. 

During the panel discussion Schools North East took polls on some of the key questions which arose. When asked about exam dates being pushed back further into the summer, 87% of attendees were in favour. Interestingly 74% of attendees were against narrowing the curriculum or subject options, reflecting Mark’s concern that ‘if I remove options for them, I am narrowing their life chances’. 

The overwhelming sense from both the panel and delegates was that this is the perfect opportunity to make lasting changes and confront some of the perennial issues regarding how we test our students and that the consultation was merely ‘tinkering with a broken system’. A number of options are not being adequately considered, such as greater optionality in exams, more open book examinations, and centre-assessed grading.

Following the panel Nick said  ‘It is critical that students facing examinations in 2021 are given the opportunity and support they need to achieve success and to become a generation motivated by, and not blighted by, their educational experience. We need Ofqual to deliver an examination season that is adapted to meet the challenges we have faced and to fairly recognise and reward students’ resilience.’ 

Mark agreed with this sentiment: ‘I only hope that we do not continue to accept that some students will be further disadvantaged in exams in 2021 is an inevitability as indicated by Ofqual.  As educationalists we have been challenged by government to narrow the gap and we need Ofqual and the government to do their bit and make the changes necessary for 2021.’

Submit your response to Ofqual’s consultation on proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2021​. The closing date is 16 July. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, Schools North East will continue to push for policy around exams that is fit for purpose, that thinks in the long term and is not simply responding to problems as they emerge. We are keen to hear your views to help us do that, so please fill in the following survey.

Schools North East asked to lead the way with a national network for School Business Professionals in Special Schools and Alternative Provision

Schools North East is delighted to have been commissioned by the Department for Education to deliver a national network of Special Schools and Alternative Provision for School  Business Professionals. The vision is for all School Business Professionals in maintained, free and academy AP and Special Schools to have access to an effective support network. 

The North East is truly leading the way in terms of collaboration and networking and this has been recognised at the highest level, with the DfE choosing to use our network model for this national programme. Our Partner Schools are at the heart of our model and their ongoing support has allowed us to work for all the schools in the North East, supporting staff in all roles and at all levels.  

Alongside our extensive events programme, including our annual School Business Management Conference, Schools North East has successfully supported networks across the region. This year we have also launched the online community ConnectEd to help SBPs, Head Teachers and teaching professionals across the region connect with each other, engage in discussions and share resources. 

The national network will build on this work to facilitate good and best practice, it will lead, drive and deliver behaviour change in schools’ buying practices, and be linked with wider regional and national networks. It will be a source of support, information, advice, guidance and continuing professional development for its members.

We aim to make this network a powerful voice for SBPs in this sector, building upon the many excellent local networks that already exist. This national group will work to engage with decision and policy makers and think tanks and work to create efficiencies across the sector. It will also be a platform on which to celebrate everything that is wonderful about these diverse schools, and will be supported by Advocates and Ambassadors from across the country.

Chris Zarraga, Director of Schools North East, said ‘We are delighted to have this opportunity.  We recognise how diverse this sector is and how much support and value the network will bring to those working in Special Schools. We are pleased that Schools North East has been selected to expand our work for SBMs and school networks across the country’.

Alison Jefferson, Director of Resources at Durham Trinity School & Sports College, and Schools North East SBM Council Member, said ‘I am delighted that Schools North East has been awarded the contract to host the National Network of Special Schools. This network will be a valuable resource for the sector. As special schools are quite often unique in their local area this is a fantastic opportunity for national collaboration. I am very much looking forward to being part of the Network and meeting and sharing with other special School Business Professionals.

We welcome the opportunity to expand this work to SBPs in special schools and alternative provision across the country. If you would like to find out more about the network please visit or email

North East school leaders give their views on exams next year

As schools begin to prepare for September, we asked school leaders what their biggest concerns were about the Government plans for next year, specifically the plans to reintroduce accountability measures.

Exams and KS5 and KS4

We first asked what ‘catch-up’ changes schools would like to see to KS5 and KS4 exams. The most popular response was a reduction in content in individual subjects, with 61% supporting this. This was followed by greater optionality in exams with 52.5%. ‘Reducing grade boundaries’, ‘More open book examinations’, and ‘delayed exam dates’ all were voted for by 40% of respondents. A reduction in the number of subjects taught only had 3.4% support, showing this to be an unpopular option. Several gave other options, and a common theme in these was a reduction in the exam element in certain subjects, and in general less of a focus on exam results.

Only one of the options then had significant levels of support, and this was backed up in comments elsewhere in the survey which emphasised that there is not a simple answer to the learning loss, especially at this stage when the extent of learning loss is unclear.

KS1 and KS2 SATs

There was overwhelming opposition to whether KS1 and KS2 SATs should go ahead. 88.7% responded that KS1 SATs should not go ahead, and 77.8% that KS2 SATs should not go ahead.

From those who opposed SATs going ahead this year, there was a broad consensus on the reasons why. As pupils return, schools want to concentrate on getting children back into learning and socialising. The damage caused by the Covid-19 lockdown would need to be undone slowly and gradually, respondents said, without having to worry about testing at this stage.

This recovery would also have to be done without a narrowing of the curriculum, which might be at risk if the focus is too much on SATs. Respondents wanted a focus on key skills, mental health and wellbeing, that would ensure children are ready to learn. A broad curriculum was seen as necessary for ‘catch up’.

As well as this broader curriculum, schools were worried about how useful SATs will be in addressing the learning loss. Pupils have already missed too much learning, and preparing for tests may mean more learning time is lost. Pupils will have had a variety of experiences of online and remote learning, and especially those from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds may have experienced a greater learning loss. SATs and high stakes accountability may damage their self-confidence if they have poorer outcomes and differences in results could have an affect on future targets and expectations. As such, SATs are unlikely to be useful for comparisons, and are likely to not treat all pupils fairly.

On this point of high stakes accountability, respondents felt that SATs were merely an accountability measure, arguing that teachers should be trusted to make assessments, with some expressing a preference for continuous low stakes assessments to inform gap analysis.

Finally, concerns were raised about the stress and pressures that would be put on children and staff alike. KS1 and KS2 SATs were seen as placing undue pressure on staff and children during a normal year. With schools facing a year of uncertainty, removing SATs could enable schools to provide a bespoke curriculum tailored to the needs of their children.

From those that supported SATs, there were some similarities in opinions. They recognised that SATs as an accountability measure weren’t helpful, but keeping them on as a means to baseline assessments would be useful. Indeed, this particular criticism of SATs was likely held by all, as when we asked about suspension of league tables, everyone responded that they should be. In terms of how long league tables should be suspended for, 52% said for the full year, 48% for more than a year.

In general, there was much stronger support for KS2 SATs, as they were seen as a necessary part of transition from primary to secondary, with respondents saying that allowing KS2 SATs would prevent further disruption to this process.

In our wider questions about concerns around exams, many of the issues discussed above were reiterated, especially around the ability to deliver content in the time available. These concerns were particularly acute around KS4, with more confidence expressed for KS5 where there had been better engagement with online learning.

The opposition to high stakes accountability was also further discussed with reference to what role Ofsted might play next academic year, with opposition expressed to a return to normal inspections.

Within these legitimate concerns about next year, one response did strike a more positive note, saying: ‘We have found children returning have not dropped anywhere near how much we thought they would. We are in a disadvantaged area and are confident that good teaching next year will enable them to reach their full potential.’
Schools now need clarity and more information on what adjustments can be expected to exams next year to ensure they can plan and address the learning loss. To that end we have contacted a number of senior figures to attend a roundtable discussion with the NE school leaders. We can now confirm that representatives from Ofqual will be attending our roundtable on Monday next week, so that North East leaders can hear from them, and have the opportunity to ensure that Ofqual properly understand the concerns and hopes of North East school leaders regarding this subject.

Dealing with Post Covid Trauma in school

The ongoing situation and school closures as result of Covid-19 have a number of different implications for the education sector. We want to dig deeper into these issues, with help from the experts. This week, Lynn Miles, from Centre for Social Innovation, at Teesside University, looks at dealing with Post Covid Trauma in school.

Covid-19 has been a traumatic experience for many of us.  As the definition of trauma explains, it has been and continues to be a deeply distressing and disturbing event that overwhelms our ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes our sense of self and our ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.  That is challenging enough for the most resilient adult, but for our children the impact of Covid-19 could remain with them for many years.

Statistics suggest that as many as half of our children in the UK will have suffered one adverse, potentially traumatic, experience before the age of 18; 10% will have endured four or more (Bellis, 2014; Young Minds, 2018).  But as we know, trauma does not discriminate, and now we all – both adults and children – are experiencing such extraordinary events, that many more of us may be left feeling helpless, numb and overwhelmed.

So, whilst many of our most distressed children have been, and continue to be, isolated and punished for behaviours relating to their trauma, we can no longer ignore these cries for help when the likelihood is that we are going to see many more of them in our classes as a result of the pandemic. 

The research tells us that without intervention, adversity and trauma can impact children’s physical, social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic and brain development. It can impair executive functioning – working memory, emotional and impulse control, organisation, ability to prioritise and make predictions, flexible thinking, self-monitoring – all vital for effective learning. And toxic levels of stress can cause children’s stress response system to become overactive and their nervous system to become dysregulated, causing them to see threat and danger around them where there may be none. In the long term adversity and trauma can have a detrimental impact on physical and mental health, school experience, life chances and length and quality of life.

Our children’s brains organise from the bottom to the top, with the lower parts of the brain – the brainstem (survival brain) – developing first and the neocortex (thinking brain) much later.  Sadly, children who have experienced trauma can become stuck in their brainstem and swing between the survival modes of fight, flight, freeze and collapse. Children who are stuck in their brainstem cannot learn.

Children (and adults) may have developed sensitised alarm and nervous systems as a result of their experiences during Covid-19; of course, many of our children (and adults) lived with this before the pandemic.  Dr Stephen Porges calls this ‘neuroception’ – our subconscious system for detecting threats and safety.  Those of us with ‘faulty neuroception’ may detect danger everywhere.

As Dr Gabor Mate suggests, safety doesn’t come from a lack of threat it comes from connection with people.  Education professionals already know that attuned relationships are what allow children to learn, and now more than ever we need to ensure this is this case. As Dr Bruce Perry explains, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will recover from trauma and thrive.  Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love. 

So, the adults in our schools need to be the source of calm, safety and security when we return in September.  If teachers and TAs are anxious, children will sense it and anxiety is evident in the eyes, tone of voice, body language, head movements and vocal bursts. As Dr Bruce Perry says, security is the key to an optimal learning environment.

Our understanding of trauma-informed care suggests that schools need to prioritise the following on their return:

  • Strong adult-child relationships
  • Children’s ability to self-regulate attention. emotions and behaviours
  • A sense of belonging
  • Good cognition skills and increasing competencies across all areas of development

All within an environment promoting the core ‘trauma-informed’ values of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration and empowerment.

Our classrooms have always needed to be trauma-informed and compassionate – now more so than ever.  This means, a place where our children feel physically and psychologically safe, where there is an established predictability, a clear sense of trust, where children are offered choices, where they are truly seen, heard and valued and where the environment enables them to remain regulated.  

Dr Bruce Perry explains, that in order to help our children remain in their ‘learning brain’ or return to it after a stress response is triggered, we must ensure they are:

  • Regulated – calm, out of their brainstem and fight, flight, freeze
  • Relating – connecting to others through an attuned relationship
  • Able to reason – so our children can reflect, learn and remember

So with this in mind, it is essential that we proactively weave activities into the school day, little and often, that will enable our children to remain calm, open to connecting with others and in a good place to learn.

Dr Bruce Perry, explains brainstem calming activities need to be:

  • Relational (offered by a safe adult)
  • Relevant (developmental rather than chronological age)
  • Repetitive (patterned)
  • Rewarding (pleasurable)
  • Rhythmic (resonant with neural pathways)
  • Respectful (of the child and family)

Examples of these activities include walking, running, dancing, drumming, singing, humming, tapping, colouring, deep breathing, movement, music, yoga, qigong, mindfulness and laughing.

When we return to school in September, many of our children are likely to be sensitised to people and their environment.  Their brains are more likely to swing between fight, flight, freeze and collapse, spending more time in their survival brain and less time in their learning brain.  In order to learn our children need to feel safe and calm, it is therefore crucial to embed brainstem calmers proactively into the school day.

Lynn Miles is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Teesside University and leads on their innovate MA Education (Trauma-Informed Practice) and the new Postgraduate Certificate in Trauma-Informed Learning and Teaching which is available for educators of children and young people across all settings.  For an informal chat about these courses please contact Lynn Miles at

The trauma team in Teesside University’s Department of Education and Social Work also offer CPD and short courses, both face-to-face and online, and are available for consultancy work. For further details please contact: / telephone 01642 384068.

Jumping Over Hoops And Through Walls

Head Teacher Andrew Ramanandi, from St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Blaydon, considers the reintroduction of accountability measures next academic year and what it will mean for his school.

As the Christmas holidays were coming to a close, I braced myself for what I knew would be a challenging two terms. OFSTED were coming to inspect St Joseph’s under the new(ish) framework and we were ready. The story of this academic year was clearly going to be ‘Climate Change’ and the Australian fires had painted a vivid and frightening reality that had visibly affected our children and, for me, this would be the true test of our curriculum, rather than OFSTED.

I had questions which were very much about the qualities we had developed in children. Did our older children have sufficient knowledge to begin to understand the myriad of complex and interconnected aspects of the situation? Had we given them a wide enough vocabulary to express their concerns and articulate their fears? Were we fostering creativity that might enable them to solve some of the problems we were facing? How far had we developed their values and ethics to engender a sense of belonging, of citizenship and of responsibility?

What I didn’t realise was that these queries would soon be truly tested and done so under the lens of a global pandemic.

The past four months have been the most challenging of my career. In late March, like schools across the country, I closed the gates for the majority of our families and did so with a heavy heart. We interpreted and implemented ever changing guidance and provided emergency childcare as safely as we could whilst supporting home learning. We expanded provision as soon as we could do so safely. Now all of our ‘bubbles’ are full and our thoughts have turned to how we will expand provision to all in September. 

Curriculum design is going to be more important than ever and, in the desire to ‘catch up’, there is a risk schools will feel pressured to narrow the experiences children are given instead of seizing this opportunity to reset. This is especially so now, as we have been told all Primary accountability checks will still take place in the next academic year. The risk that this pressure is passed onto children is an all too real possibility. 

I have experience of a bright and thoughtful 10-year old who cried this week. When asked why, the answer was simple and logical from his point of view. He knows he has SATs next year. He knows he’s missed a lot of year 5. He’s fearful he won’t do as well as he could have and that this will have consequences for his future. I hope our reassurances that SATs don’t matter and that they test us and not him worked.

I suspect they didn’t.

Previously, the whole country had been running timed races over set distances; fastest wins. For the convenience of the analogy, let’s pretend some aren’t cheating and using buses! We all stopped mid-race and had a huge pause. Children in schools were accessing childcare, and families – mine included – were bumbling through home learning. Many of our children will have moved further away from the finish line and have effectively now run less than they had when the race stopped. We can’t expect them to start the race now and, despite this pause, end the race when they would have had this not happened. 

This a great time for renewal and it is necessary.

Having widened our provision and being as full as we can be, we are seeing huge variance in children’s experiences. We are having face-to-face socially distant meetings with all pupils and we anticipate increased attachment issues in September, especially with our youngest children. We will be assessing well-being in the first few weeks and we will revisit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the Leuven scales with staff. 

We will continue to prioritise developing a ‘Growth Mindset’ with a specific focus on both resilience and perseverance; many children have found these areas particularly challenging, during this period away from school.

We need to invest in meta-cognition and reteach children how they learn. We need to support staff and put great thought into how we teach and what we teach, especially in these restrictive environmental circumstances. 

This awful situation gives us an unprecedented opportunity to really assess what we do and plan to do it better. We’re designing numerous systems, procedures and protocols and it’s all too easy to get hung up on the logistics of the ‘What? and the ‘How?’ and perhaps lose sight of the ‘Why?’.

If we get the learning conditions right, children will be in the position and in an environment that will enable them to make the rapid and sustained progress we all want them to. This learning needs to be deep-rooted and have substantive foundations in order for our children to thrive and to flourish.

We should be redesigning the whole system to create an environment where children love learning and are challenged to beat personal best after personal best instead of being asked to jump over hoops and through walls.

Like the majority of school leaders, I will continue working to enable my staff and school community to support children’s learning based on their age and stage, devising appropriate, broad curricula to enable them to move forward and become thoughtful, creative, articulate, healthy, happy and motivated citizens.

That’s what I intend OFSTED to see the next time they visit St Joseph’s.