Our Derbyshire primary-only trust’s return to school programme has attracted international attention from every phase, writes Matthew Crawford

Our trust of nine primaries across Derbyshire began to plan early on for supporting children on their return to school after lockdown. That work has resulted in the “reconnection to recovery and resilience programme” that has garnered attention from as far as Australia and New Zealand and been sent out to schools by the Welsh government.

It’s a project that has already gone far beyond anything we could have predicted, impacting on so many more children than expected. But that global impact has been assured by thinking and acting locally.

We knew that our students’ experiences of the Covid-19 crisis would be hugely varied. Some may have thrived, but many will have suffered a range of effects from poor to no home-schooling to poverty, from economic precariousness to the traumas of bereavement and domestic abuse.

That range means we had to be ready for a challenging period of readjustment for them and for us. We want all our students to thrive, so to bring our school communities back together around that aim we fell back on our core trust values: family, integrity, teamwork and success. They are universal, yes, but their global appeal is precisely because their focus is as local as a can be.

The resources are for ages 3 to 18 as well as special schools

Our first steps emanated from a conversation with Sarah Armitage, Embark’s chair of trustees and a national leader of governance. It became obvious that to be successful for all our students, we would need to grow the team around the project. We enlisted the support of leaders and staff from across the trust, from local secondary and special schools, and sought support from Sharon Gray and several specialist and national leaders of education.

Gray, a headteacher of 20 years and an expert in supporting young people experiencing social emotional and mental health difficulties, has been instrumental in creating this programme. Working with her and Armitage, we ensured everyone within Embark was able to contribute openly and freely. We didn’t want to make any assumptions, so through sensitive outreach school leaders allowed all stakeholders to feel safe in sharing their personal experiences of the pandemic. The result was a detailed picture of the kind of support that was needed for children – and for parents, staff and local communities.

We set up nine teams, each focused on a waypoint on the pathway to recovery, according to their expertise and strengths. That pathway starts with connection to the community, then with looking after our staff. Next comes gathering and circulating information and ensuring everyone is well-resourced. Only then can risk assessments properly inform the creation of safe spaces. That is stage six of nine on our road to recovery.

Anna Upton, the head of Chaucer Junior School, led team six – planning and resourcing the interim recovery curriculum itself, under the theme of “rising strong”. It’s an extensive resource bank of activities that includes social and therapeutic stories, transition ideas, wellbeing support and opportunities for outdoor learning. And while Embark is a mainstream, primary-only trust, the resources are for ages 3 to 18 as well as special schools.

Through this and ongoing work at every stage, we can begin the final steps towards full recovery. Stage seven is about ensuring all stakeholders are supported to heal; stage eight about understanding what our new normal is. Taking all assumptions and preconceptions out of the equation means it will take that long to truly understand it. Stage nine acknowledges that support will need to be ongoing.

We know the range of experiences, and we know that different members of Embark’s family will be at different stages on the journey from rupture to reparation at different times. But it is only together that we will truly emerge from this disruption, and the solidarity across our trust and our communities gives us solid grounds for hope and optimism that we soon will.