Lockdown 3.0: The Joy of Communication

2. The Joy of Communication

The two core threads of the week were free school meals and autism. The first became national news by the middle of the week, the second is barely mentioned. Do people realise special schools are fully open?

Both the ‘school-that-didn’t-really-close’, and the remote learning ‘school’ settle down on Monday. We have around seventy-five pupils in school and this is fine; the tough thing is linking this with what’s happening at home. I have such sympathy for one-form entry schools – teachers must be totally exhausted. I continue to be in awe of all of them, not just my own colleagues. All of them.

On Monday, we make final decisions regarding our free school meals offer. The brilliant local bakery, Homebaked, will support us with deliveries of lunches each day from 16th January and I’m really positive about it. However, that evening on Twitter, I notice an emerging polemic surrounding food parcels. It starts with a few photos, develops on the airways on Tuesday and ends up being the central theme of PMQs in parliament on Wednesday. Fascinating to watch how a story gathers pace so quickly.

So I have a call to make. This could backfire big time. Visions of social media hell, infuriated parents, unnecessary community angst. BUT, I know this is right for the pupils, so we give the go ahead and I share with governors. There’s no turning back.

On Tuesday, it’s school assembly time. At All Saints, we have two classes of children with severe learning difficulties, working in partnership with the local authority. Most have significant traits of autism. One of the classes is self-isolating because their teacher tested positive (another avoidable consequence of the foolish school return last Monday), but the other class comes in with me to assembly. We do a live link up with Mary Sahyoun, director of the Sierra Leone Autistic Society. I’ve visited one of her schools in Freetown, an oasis of love for around forty autistic pupils. It’s pioneering – the first time in the country’s history that such education is available for these children.

Our pupils wave and say hello, her pupils do the same back. We finish the assembly with spontaneous dancing, stressing the message that communication is not solely about speech. It’s an absolute joy.

Doing the research for the assembly, I’m excited to find out that Mary features in a recently released documentary film ‘The Reason I Jump’. It was featured at the Sundance Film Festival and has been adapted from the bestselling book by Naoki Higashida. I make a mental note to have a school screening of the film once we’re all back in.

On Wednesday, one of our mainstream autistic pupils is brought to me – she’s reading so well. It occurs to me that the current set-up is a perfect situation for her. A small class of ten, plenty of adult support, space, less noise. Lockdown will have its benefits for some.

On Thursday, I do a version of the assembly for the Reception and Year 1 pupils. The highlight is yet another autistic pupil receiving his ‘star of the week’ award. If we’d recorded his reaction and shared it via social media, it would have gone viral. Pure joy. He ran up to get his certificate, flapping his arms wildly, oblivious to the perceptions of others in the hall. The Reason I Jump.

I ask our deputy head just how many pupils we have who are on the autistic spectrum. Incredibly, it’s now eighty-two. This is a huge part of our work and I need to promote it more. The staff are doing an incredible job.

On Wednesday evening, I check Twitter to see how the free school meal story is going. It’s still big news with all sorts of people having their say. It really irritates me, all these middle-class liberal commentators throwing their opinions left, right and centre. Do they realise just how many vouchers have been unclaimed? Do they have any idea of the real poverty surrounding school like ours? It’s not simply food stuffs, it’s a poverty of spirit, of hope. A poverty of trust. This will not be solved by a voucher.  It’s extremely complicated and, in my opinion, needs a Citizens’ Assembly.

By Thursday evening, Homebaked are nearly ready to launch. I cannot believe just how many people are involved here. We’ve got the local dairy, local butchers, fruit and veg providers, food banks, community associations. This is a clear rallying of a local community, exactly how it should be. Bypass the politicians who are absurdly out of touch – and that’s all stripes by the way. I feel humbled, I really do.

Thursday and Friday are taken up with ‘comms’. When you’ve got most of the staff at home, most of the pupils at home and most of the parents at home, I feel that a central part of my job is to try and communicate with them. Video messages, newsletters, assemblies, whatever we can think of. Like in the first lockdown, I’m trying to keep the community together as best as possible.

Meanwhile, Dad is not great. He is moved to a different ward on Monday, then admitted to a new ward on Tuesday. At least he’s in the system. Consultants, mental health nurses, psychiatrists, all on hand to assess him properly. I manage to give him a shave on Tuesday which was a lovely moment, then listen to him talking total nonsense for an hour or two. He’s still keeping the security guards busy on a daily basis.

The other family worry is how we get our eldest son back to the Czech Republic next week. He’s on his Erasmus year (at a Spanish University, so he’s spared the Brexit changes). Interestingly, having experienced a lockdown in both Spain and now the Czech Republic, he feels that the English lockdown is light relief – it’s hardly a lockdown at all, he says. That’s not what our doctors and nurses want to hear, I’m sure.

The truth is that this is a middle-class lockdown. For many people, they have no other option but to go to work and to go about their business.

By Saturday, the final pack is ready for the free school meals service. I think it’s an incredible feat of local action and service, but the proof of the pudding will be next week when the food arrives at the doors.

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