Day one of the new school year and no one – not even the clingiest new boy or girl grabbing one last tearful hug at the gate – was quite as nervous as Cassie Buchanan.
In eight years as head of Charles Dickens Primary School in the London Borough of Southwark, she has faced a few challenges.
But none has been quite like the one before her yesterday morning: reopening a full school for a full term after six months of uncertainty.
Fast forward eight hours, however, and I find Miss Buchanan justly proud – and very happy. ‘It’s been a super day,’ she tells me as the last of her pupils heads for home and her 70 staff get things ready for Day Two.
‘Just having the classrooms full again is an amazing feeling.’
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All summer, she has been playing three-dimensional chess with classroom configurations, timings, entrances, exits – and a lot of new plumbing.
However, her greatest concern, she says, had been that significant numbers of parents might keep their children at home: ‘We have done everything we can and we have followed all the guidance but you never quite know how people will be feeling on the day.’
In the event, those fears were unfounded. Out of a school roll of 500, a total of 88 per cent had returned yesterday, and the vast majority of the absentees were children still in quarantine after summer holidays in the wrong countries. A tiny handful were off sick (though none with Covid-19).
And the number of children being kept at home by worried parents? A grand total of one.
As for the staff, she says, all had been raring to go. ‘Teachers come alive in the classroom,’ says Miss Buchanan. ‘They’ve all been waiting for this.’
Students are pictured on their first day back to school at Charles Dickens Primary School in London
Charles Dickens is clearly an excellent school. Quite apart from last year’s Ofsted report (‘outstanding’ in all areas), that much is obvious just listening to the parents whom I meet waiting outside.
The official start date for most London schools is September 2 (today) at the earliest and many don’t open until next week. However, as an academy, Charles Dickens can do its own thing – it avoids the usual half-term slots, helping families get cheaper holiday deals – and the parents seem even more elated than Miss Buchanan to see everyone back in the tidy red uniforms, while the rest of the capital is still manacled to its offspring.
‘They’ve been very clear from the start how it’s all going to work and what to expect. Nothing has just been thrown at us,’ says Damion Lorentzen, father of Bethan, five, and Danny, eight.
‘But the main things is that the kids can get on with their lives.’ No sooner had the school gone into lockdown back in March, than the staff were up and running with virtual classrooms and online teaching for all on a daily basis. ‘They even sent us round all the workbooks we needed,’ says Nij, 28, a bus driver and mother of Eri, six, and Aria, four. ‘As a working parent, it’s been a struggle but the school has been brilliant.’
Like many parents here, Nij has been a key worker during the pandemic. The school is within walking distance of some of London’s biggest hospitals and major transport hubs (including Waterloo Station). As such, Charles Dickens has remained open through it all to look after the children of those on the front line.
This is a mixed area, with its fair share of gentrification and its fair share of poverty. It sits on the street where Charles Dickens lived while his father languished in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison round the corner.
Needless to say, being an inner city school, it is not blessed with much in the way of outdoor space.
However, there is just enough to ensure that every year group can play in its own separate area, complete with new sink arrangements for each one.
Two children who attended Charles Dickens Primary School, in Borough, London, are pictured on their first day back to school on Tuesday
After hours, Miss Buchanan shows me round some of the facilities. After-school clubs are under way in the main hall, but with each year-group partitioned from the next. Inside the classrooms (each named after a different Dickens character), the carpets have been replaced with washable floors and some desks have been switched from clusters to an old-fashioned format, with everyone facing in the same direction in tidy rows.
All have named places and named pencils and pens. Arrivals, departures and meal-times are all staggered – and the school assembly has to be conducted via video links to each classroom – but everyone still gets served lunch (a straw poll suggests that the pizza has been today’s favourite dish).
So, how has the school endured all the diktats from the Department for Education, which still seems to be changing its guidance on a weekly basis? ‘Everybody’s still learning about this virus so I’m willing to cut them some slack,’ says Miss Buchanan. She has been impressed by the response from the local branch of the teaching union, NEU. ‘We’ve been totally transparent about what we want to do and we’ve worked really well together,’ she says. ‘The main things is just to stay positive. We do positivity!’
During the summer, the Charter Schools Educational Trust, which runs the school, paid for all the staff to have virus antibody tests.
Three of them registered positive, despite having shown no signs of the virus. None of the pupils who came back to school during the pandemic are known to have been infected.
Outside, I do meet one parent who admits that he is worried about the disease. ‘You’ve got to think about the risk of putting 30 kids from 30 different households together,’ says Abdullah, father of an eight-year-old boy. ‘We’ll see how it goes.’
Children in Scotland and Northern Ireland are already back. Now the rest must follow. However, the verdict from this English early bird seems to be an ecstatic thumbs-up.
‘We cannot thank the teachers enough,’ says Anna Kukhnina. She has been home-schooling her three girls since March while her husband has been reduced to doing his financial services job from the bathroom.
This week, he has returned to his desk in the City and the girls are back in class. ‘Today,’ says Anna, ‘is my dream come true!’