It’s back to school and a new normal for students at Okehampton College

Okehampton College returns after lockdown.

At the beginning of the month pupils across the UK returned to their classrooms for the start of a new school year.

Despite many months of uncertainty, a summer of discontent coupled with mixed and confusing messages emerging from Westminster, one man already had it nailed. Mr Derrick Brett and his formidable team at Okehampton College had been planning this day with military precision.

Mr Brett explained: “From the very beginning things started very, very quickly. We had to make sure we were open for the vulnerable students and children of key workers and we put some plans in place for that.

‘There were not very many to start with but gradually those numbers increased and we had one block in school which was given over to them.”

Previously a foundation school administered by Devon County Council, in January 2018 Okehampton College converted to academy status and is now sponsored by the Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust.

Derrick Brett joined the College as Vice Principal in September 2006 and became Head Teacher in 2016. Together with the unswerving dedication of his team, they have created a fine example of how students and teachers can feel safe and still learn effectively, despite all the changes that had to be implemented.

“We have the students back in a ‘year bubble group’,” continued Mr Brett. “We have to do risk assessments for anyone who’s vulnerable and we have to make sure that staff are two metres away from classes.

‘The students themselves can be in class together and it’s more about mitigating the situation and being able to know who they’ve been in contact with should there be a problem and we need to go to track and trace.

‘We now have staggered lunch and break times so there are no year groups out in the same area of the college on break at the same time as each other. We have two canteens so one gets used and then gets cleaned while the other one is being used and that one gets cleaned and so on.

‘We’ve put in a one way system which goes right round the school; the students and staff are still getting used to it. We’ve got new students who started this term, I said to them don’t worry about not knowing your way around the school, no one knows their way around the school at the moment!

‘We’re still tweaking the plan; we learned things from the day we came back and the days since so we’ve tweaked things around. In terms of the children, their morning lessons are just over two hours long as opposed to the usual one hour so we’re reducing the amount of movement around the school where possible. We’ve tried to keep the Key Stage 3 students in tutor groups all day in the same classroom where possible. Obviously they move for science lessons and they move for PE but wherever possible they’re staying in the same classroom for the whole day.”

The children themselves seem to have accepted this ‘new normal’ with surprising ease. Those encountered appeared happy, if a little nervous of what to expect, but remained well behaved, well-mannered and polite. All students were adhering to the one way system, and with signs on every available wall space leaving you in no uncertain terms that social distancing is important, they accept these changes with intelligence and respect.

“We’ve really tried to work hard on the idea of our college values, which are community, opportunity, respect and equity,” explained
Mr Brett. “We made the point in our assembly on the opening day of term that community and respect are the big deals in this situation; the idea of looking out for each other, as people have different ideas about how to go about dealing with the pandemic, and then respecting those views around the school.”

But other things have had to be sacrificed for the moment. Although PE is still allowed within their bubbles, the students are having to forego any trips or sporting competitions with other schools. Mr Brett said: “With regards to extra-curricular activities within the school we have late buses
on a Tuesday and a Wednesday so that we can still run clubs and still get children back to the outer parts of the community. What we have said is that any clubs that are going on can only be year group clubs so they stay within their own bubble.

‘Opportunities are a massively important thing to us and we think it’s really important that we provide as many extra curricular opportunities as well as providing those opportunities within the curriculum. We can’t plan any trips at the moment because of the ever changing circumstances.”

This means that the annual sponsored walk that the school has undertaken since 2003, initially organised by Steve Blackmur, has had to be
re-thought. Each year the entire school take to the moor to complete a 10-mile walk. The walk tackles challenging terrain, leaving from and returning to the college site. Each year the Student Council nominates charities that the student body vote on. Last year the chosen charities were Cancer Research UK, Exeter Leukaemia Fund and Greenpeace.

The money raised is divided equally between the chosen charities and a donation to Dartmoor National Park. This year the students are still undertaking the challenge but individually, recording their miles as they go. It is still felt that they want to give something of themselves and are asking for donations from the public as well as their families to raise money for their chosen charities. The Moorlander has already set the ball rolling, if you wish to donate please contact Lisa Thompson or Jackie Stevens at the college.

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Author: Eric Partridge

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