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Ms Dixon's #governoreffect at St Mary's

Ms Dixon's #governoreffect at St Mary's

Sarah Dixon is the school’s Safeguarding governor; her remit covers our Junior School, Senior School and Boarding. She has been a Headmistress of two schools and a Non-Executive Director at two NHS Hospital Trusts in Cambridgeshire. Here she reflects on the importance of schools providing “remote pastoral care” while pupils continue to learn at home.

You may have seen a recent tweet, from the front line of a non St Mary's parent teaching at home, “Home schooling going well: two students suspended for fighting; one teacher dismissed for being drunk on the job”.

This joke made me smile, not only because of its formal language describing family friction but also because of what it reveals: however well brought up children are, teaching involves careful management of behaviour and it’s a highly skilled job that requires insight into human nature as well as academic expertise. I am sure that no St Mary’s girls will be fighting at home, and we hope no one is being driven to drink by overseeing digital learning, but how can the school help with maintaining happiness at a distance?

At St Mary’s, we hope that parents are actually enjoying enabling their daughters to continue their education at home. We are fortunate that the digital transformation programme launched by the Headmistress, Charlotte Avery, a couple of years ago has borne fruit in the online remote learning programme that all students are benefitting from, using Teams technology. As our Chairman has said, governors are hugely aware of the massive amount of work St Mary’s teachers have completed, very quickly, to ensure that we continue to provide a focused and stimulating curriculum online. Feedback from parents, on the ease of use and the quality of materials, has been fantastic.

It could be argued that providing lessons is the full extent of a school’s responsibility when pupils aren’t physically present. When pupils are there, the school is “in loco parentis”, and must ensure their safety and wellbeing but when pupils are at home their parents will meet all their welfare needs. This simply isn’t how St Mary’s ticks. As a boarding school, we know how to look after girls on every day of the school term 24/7: when to nurture their growing independence and celebrate new talents and achievements; when to give them space to relax and think, and when to reach out to help overcome problems and lift spirits.

The Headmistress, and Aodain Fleming, Pastoral Deputy Head, in the senior school, and Matthew O’Reilly, Head of Junior School, are experts at understanding the complexities of growing up and they and their staff continue to be available for consultation, throughout the quarantine. At this time, girls may be worried about their own health and members of their families, as well as disorientated by different routines, but no St Mary’s girl is alone, and nor is any parent.

No St Mary’s girl is alone, and nor is any parent

I have found it heartening, in my role overseeing safeguarding, to receive so much confirmation that the school’s attention to the detail of getting this right is as rigorous as ever. At the most fundamental level, this means ensuring that increased digital communications with pupils are always safe. Parents are aware of the school’s commitment to online safety and there is a plethora of advice about how to monitor computer and phone use at home. Our online learning programme has safeguards built into it to ensure pupils’ privacy. Some of our boarders are operating in different time zones so the school has made arrangements for them to access lessons during their working days. We have also been looking after a small number of key workers’ children in school, with Mr O’Reilly and other members of Junior and Senior staff undertaking this throughout the holidays and Easter week.

Many parents have been grateful for the clearly published online policy, We are #stillStMarys, which has “Community and Happiness” as an explicit aim, and provides details of the school’s ongoing support to help pupils remain happy and healthy. Teachers, tutors and pupils continue to interact in their online lessons and a protocol for safe working has been developed for staff; individual advice and support is being given by teachers and tutors. On a more light-hearted note, the school continues to provide fun for the girls: I understand that Miss Fleming’s request for photos of best pet poses (animal or toy!) has had a warm response.

Governance is about ensuring that an organisation is well led and efficiently managed; that’s particularly important at periods of great upheaval. I hope this brief overview indicates how fully the Headmistress and her team have provided me, remotely, with assurances regarding the high priority given to keeping the girls safe and well cared for, and how well their arrangements are working.

We all look forward to returning to school but, until that time comes, the community is in safe hands.

Find out more about remote learning at St Mary's.