What’s worth hanging onto?
‘It’s when we stop and think that we rediscover the courage, wit, compassion, imagination, delight, frustration, discovery and devotion that work can provoke…in short all the things at work that do count, beyond measure’ (Margaret Heffernan, ‘Beyond Measure’ 2015)
We’ve all experienced big recent changes in our lives and children and young people not least. For most it’s been ‘stay at home’, rather than go to school; online rather than upfront and personal; inside with family rather than out with friends; PE with Joe rather than their teacher in the school hall, and May and Sats, and June and exams dis-aggregated for the first time in years. And for some, it’s worked well: more time within a mostly harmonious family, more hugs, more reading, more screen time, more time outside in gardens or parks, more clapping and more looking out for neighbours. But Covid 19 doesn’t hit equally but seems to exacerbate health inequalities, so starkly evident in areas of disadvantage. It’s casting a long shadow for those who rely on schools, the health and social care system and the voluntary sector. Their critical levels of support and protection have been stripped down or away and school closures for most pupils, while necessary to halt infection rates, have heightened risks. Despite herculean efforts from staff in schools, early help and social care to reach out to those children and families they know to be vulnerable, some have stayed home and stayed at risk.
If it’s been change for children and young people, it’s definitely been profound change for those who work with and for them, supporting their learning and achievement, identifying and providing early help, recognising and responding to risk and harm and all the other ways to ensure children are seen, safe and heard. It’s now a strange and rich mix of zooming and teams, rather than meeting in the same room; reading people remotely, rather than being able to use the full range of non-verbal cues; pre-approval to ‘just do’ what matters, rather than briefings, reports and agreed objectives in strategic plans; and dynamic risk assessments to respond to new and developing needs.
And now, as we’re all having to grasp what the changed realities are, is a good time to reflect on, share and talk about what’s not going away anytime soon, what’s here to stay, who and what is newly resilient and who and what might be freshly fragile. In short, what counts?
Recovery plans are the new mantra and clearly these are important documents to guide and shape policy and practice but planning can sometimes miss reflection and learning so what are the conversations to have? They might be about emerging as well as enduring needs, risks and resilience for children and communities:
- How can we best meet the existing and newer needs of our children and families?
- Which children may have fallen deeper into the cracks?
- Who’s missing out on daily contact with trusted adults, the ones who look out for them and are a crucial source of safety, structure, and support?
- Who’s lost out on access to key workers and support services?
- Do we target the same vulnerabilities as before or are there new risks to be aware of?
- What are the heightened challenges for the communities we serve?
- Where are the unexpected pockets of resilience?
- Where are risks diminishing?
As well as what’s changing on our risk radar, importantly, how do we sustain the best bits of working differently? What’s worth hanging onto? How do we hear and capture the learning about what’s worked and should be here to stay?
In a sense we’ve all spent the last few months doing the opposite of Margaret Heffernan’s call to pause and reflect in ‘Beyond Measure’. Leaders and their teams have transformed the way they work and done it with speed, agility, kindness and compassion. They’ve done the right things quickly, learned and collaborated. What comes over powerfully to me is how important compassionate and collective leadership is in enabling a clear and common sense of purpose about what matters for children through changed practices, ensuring children and staff feel a great sense of belonging in virtual times and keeping oversight of children and staff welfare in challenging times for everyone. No-one knows all the answers (or even the questions!) but what has shone through is a culture of ‘do what you know to be the right thing… and if you don’t know, ask’. Right now workplaces may be socially distanced but people remain warm, welcoming and focused on children staying safe, happy and healthy, succeeding in their learning, with a better now and an even brighter future.
So what might be the conversations to have about what counts, what’s for keeps, what to ditch or do less of? They might be:
- What’s the learning about autonomy, control and responsibility in changing times? And about voice and influence?
- What’s the best balance to strike between virtual and interpersonal connections? Right now? Going forwards?
- How long can you stay ‘stepped up’, stretched …and feel motivated and supported?
- How do you nurture staff through and beyond a crisis?
- What are staff missing and mourning?
- What are staff excited and curious about?
- Which hierarchies and boundaries have been blurred or erased? And which, if any, need redrawing?
- Who and what needs nurturing?
And that doing differently has been matched by many people in many communities reaching out to others with small and larger acts of kindness and compassion, providing a consistent beacon of hope and optimism for children, vulnerable adults and families. However, when poverty and a global pandemic collide, it becomes even more challenging to improve outcomes for poorer children. As ever, it’s the human stuff that matters and seems to me to matter even more – the hope, the kindnesses, the relationships, the belief in children and communities as both our now and our future. As Coretta Scott King once said:
‘The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members’.
So what do you think is worth hanging onto?
Rose Durban, June 2020