Keeping the school community spirit alive during lockdown

By Talk Education
28 January 2021

Behind the scenes of almost every school up and down the country is an unsung community of parents running that formidable organisation, the PTA (parent-teacher association). Not only are they logistical wizards – pulling off elaborate Christmas fetes, leavers’ balls and bumper fundraising events to boost local charities or the school’s bursary coffers – but they know staff, pupils and the entire school community inside out too. 

In January, as we all know only too well, schools were forced back online with just a moment’s notice – so now that we’re stuck in a virtual world for the foreseeable, how are PTAs keeping up their community’s spirit?

‘With all the to-ing and fro-ing of restrictions, parent associations are having to pivot all over the place’, says Susan Burton, CEO of online community-building website Classlist. ‘We’re still seeing virtual events – book clubs and quiz nights are doing really well; wine tasting is, for obvious reasons, very popular – but there’s certainly a bit of fatigue starting to set in.’ With lockdown 3 in full swing, run-of-the-mill no longer cuts it. 

One school that gets full marks for thinking outside the box is Knightsbridge. ‘Parents are really missing the normal school mornings [of] walking into school and seeing the positivity,’ says principal Magoo Giles. With last term’s highly anticipated Halloween bake sale out of the question, the PA festooned the outside of the school building in balloons, hay bales and pumpkins – and gave Magoo a much-loved opportunity to dress up. Social distancing rendered the Christmas fair redundant – instead, the PA rallied around to create personalised hampers for each class, bringing the festivities to them. Such was its success that they did the same for a local primary school too. ‘The more we can reach our arms around our neighbours, the better,’ says Ryan-Marie Brooks, secretary of the school’s PA. 

Knightsbridge School's PA decorating the outside of the school for Halloween

Other initiatives have helped inspire family quality time. Knightsbridge School has a longstanding relationship with its neighbours at the Royal Hospital Chelsea – and the PA has been busy making craft kits for pupils to send a Valentine card to a Chelsea Pensioner. As well as spreading a bit of much-needed cheer, it’s something for families to do together – off screen – on a rainy day. 

Community spirit is flourishing in boarding-school families too. Benenden has opened up its house social events to parents, inviting them to join in with quizzes, bake-offs and the popular Friday-night wine club – where sixth-formers are encouraged to enjoy a glass of wine with their parents – while learning about its origins from an expert.  

At Wetherby Prep School, in-person parent socials have been replaced with weekly Zoom quizzes (with winners announced on Instagram); weekly house-point winners are sent their Haribo prize in the post; extracurricular activities have decreased to prevent children being glued to their screens for longer than necessary – and the school’s head of wellbeing checks in on individual boys most days to see how they are.

Wetherby School's head Nick Baker fixing his son's PlayStation during lockdown

Wetherby’s charismatic head, Nick Baker, emails his pupils’ families every day. ‘It’s usually just nonsense,’ he tells us, ‘but designed to keep everything going and a bit of structure, normality and – most importantly – empathy with parents that everyone is going through the same thing.’ His weekly ‘Wetherbuzz’ has become an outlet for his daily musings, be it film recommendations, games he’s made up with his children – or a running commentary on how he fixed his son’s PlayStation. ‘He writes it from the heart’, says a mother. ‘There’s a real feeling that we’re all in this together.’ 

One Hampton School parent we spoke to waxed lyrical about how the school – and its PA – are helping support boys through lockdown. Their newly launched ‘Thursday Night In’ initiative gathers hundreds of parent and pupil attendees in their sitting rooms each week: speakers so far have included the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth and, this week, news anchor Julie Etchingham. And earlier this month, to mark the Samaritans’ ‘Brew Monday’ initiative, teabags and a postcard arrived through the door of every Hamptonian – encouraging them to take five minutes out of their day to connect with family and friends over a virtual cup of tea. ‘In these tough winter months, the message of togetherness, kindness and reaching out is important – and it is wonderful that the school has thought to do so,’ says a parent. 

Finally, never underestimate the power of a parent community, and how quickly it is able to react, adapt and get results. At Benenden, a fundraising initiative for a second Covid rapid-testing machine – which provides results in as little as 90 minutes –  was born out of the school’s live online Q&A sessions between parents and the senior leadership team. The school has made the device available to two local primary schools, extending its benefits to the local community. 

There’s no doubt that schools and their parent communities are doing a brilliant job of keeping community spirit in full swing – but none of these virtual initiatives quite replace the real thing. ‘What we’re all dying to do is be back together in one room,’ says Ryan-Marie Brooks. We couldn’t agree more.

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