I was delighted to be able to visit Grove Junior Academy in Hanley at the end of October whilst children were on leave and in advance of the new restrictions, to see some of the everyday challenges the leadership team and staff are facing challenges which have been magnified by the new problems which the Covid-19 safety requirements have created.
It was plain to see the absolute determination of the Head and the Principal of the Trust to provide the best possible support for children and staff, and I was saddened to hear that they did not feel appreciated nationally. As such, I want to unequivocally stress to all our teachers and educational leaders that you are truly valued and that the Herculean efforts you have put in during these difficult times are recognised. I, and everyone I have spoken to in government, has nothing but admiration for the utter dedication shown by teachers across the whole country for stepping up to ensure that our children and young people can continue to have access to education and the wider pastoral care that is such an important element in our schools and colleges locally.
Our schools come in all shapes and sizes, which in some areas it is much easier to accommodate social distancing both indoors and during outdoor recreation. My visit to Grove Junior Academy highlighted a particular challenge that what older schools in Stoke-on-Trent face. It was built for approximately 100 Victorian children and over the years has had various bits of building added. It now needs to house 480 pupils. The school is ‘land locked’ by 4 very busy roads, dense housing, businesses and parking restrictions.
The very limited outdoor space with no playing fields is inadequate for our children’s wider health. One of my biggest concerns for our community, is the high level of childhood obesity in our area, and ass I said in the Chamber recently: “Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. It leads to a range of long-term health conditions that adversely affect life chances and life expectancy, particularly in less affluent constituencies such as Stoke-on-Trent Central. The impact of health inequalities has been highlighted by the Covid pandemic.” Exercise is a key element in combatting this. The Head explained to me that many children locally come from terraced housing with no gardens are now accessing a typical ‘Covid’ day which sees them only leave their classroom bubbles for 30 minutes of physical activity. This is exacerbated by the need to now run the Before and After School care, the only space available being the gym, so when the weather turns worse, there will be no indoor space for PE either. Due to the layout of the school, the school hall is not appropriate for PE lessons.
I was told of that the school had made use of the Northwood Stadium facilities, so I was very saddened to hear of the arson attack on the Stadium only a few days later. In the short term there is an area of council owned green space which I hope will be made available for the school to use as an emergency stop gap. However, it is clear to me that a longer-term solution must be found, and I will be taking this up with the Council and the Department for Education.
I am incredibly proud of the support schools and colleges across Stoke-on-Trent have offered to pupils and parents during the last few months and the remarkable way in which they have adapted in response to the changing world we now face. I recognise the challenge that ‘mid-year’ arrivals in our schools pose and the need to look at the special funding requirements for this and for the added costs of home-packs where there is digital exclusion. We must work together to ensure that those who start off with disadvantages are not further disadvantaged during this time. I am aware that infant and primary schools have particular challenges, ensuring that the behaviours which will keep younger children (and staff) safe are constantly reinforced. This inevitably means the school day is heavily weighted towards safeguarding rather than learning. I will be raising this with the Schools Minister, as I know that there are concerns about Ofsted inspections failing to recognise this issue.
We all recognise it is essential for our children to be in school as far as possible during the pandemic, not just for their education but also for their mental health. Making it possible has been a mammoth task, recognising that a generation of children’s future prospects are at stake. I want to say a sincere and heartfelt ‘thank you, to all those who have played their part.
Published in The Sentinel - 12th November 2020.