Keep Calm and Carry On-line

Two weeks ago, few of us had heard of Zoom. Now we’re mentoring students with it.
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Much like the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expects a global pandemic. In a few short weeks - days, even - life as we know it has changed beyond recognition. Today, with schools closed and the UK on lockdown, it’s unclear when it might return to something approaching normal.

As educators, the health and wellbeing of the young people we serve is among our top priorities. We know that, for many, school or college is a respite from challenging home lives, and a ticket to a future they once thought was out of reach. When I heard that we would have to temporarily cease all face-to-face sessions, my first thought was: How will they cope? Yes, they are creative, tenacious and resourceful - and of course we have secure “VP Mail” email and some online elements to our programme - but I worried about them nonetheless, especially those with looming exams; or, rather, a lack of them.

School's out - to the dismay of many students

For our Year 11s and 13s, COVID-19 is a double-whammy: like everyone, they are shocked, upset and scared by the situation unfolding around the world and, now, here on their doorstep. But as so much of a young person’s life revolves around education, perhaps more tangible right now is their fear of the academic unknown: will the alternative GCSE and A-level assessment methods be enough to secure them a place at their chosen institution? Will they be denied the scholastic rite-of-passage endings which students usually take for granted? Like everything else right now, it’s unclear - but we’ll be supporting them every step of the way.

Moving online

Human beings are nothing if not adaptable. Like many organisations, we’ve had to respond rapidly to ensure that the show can go on - and it must go on for the sake of our young people. Just last Wednesday, all staff at Villiers had a working-from-home practice to ensure that we had the tools and connectivity required, should we need to continue with this longer term. After my check-in Zoom meeting with my team, I knew that online mentoring would be a great way to support and reassure our Scholars, something Villers’ central Programme team had suggested.

That afternoon, the Hastings and Bexhill Scholars Programme team - with guidance from our central Programme team - spent some time identifying the students we felt could most benefit from a pilot online mentoring programme over the next two weeks, prioritising Year 11s and 13s, and others with specific support needs. We emailed those Scholars on Friday last week, and on Monday 23 March - the very first day of school closures - we ran Villiers’ first ever online mentoring sessions with great success.

The new normal?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be assessing the effectiveness of these sessions and piloting more online delivery, using screen- and resource-sharing to undertake activities online. This is something we’ve been contemplating for a while, but coronavirus has forced our hand. What we hope to have at the end of all this is the blueprint for a more flexible, personal, accessible, and adaptable delivery model which gives young people more control over their learning.

Many of the online mentoring discussions I’ve had so far centre on how students will fare with the continuous assessment model now being deployed to grade them. Colleges and universities have for a number of weeks been under pressure to safeguard their students and staff, and to keep the show on the road. Once they’ve settled into the “new normal”, I hope that they will reach out to their offer-holders with messages of reassurance, as far as they can give them. This is a pivotal moment in young people’s lives. To know that their preferred institutions have them in mind would be hugely soothing, even if they don’t have all the answers right now.

Beyond my gratitude to be going through this in a relatively affluent country with an incredible health service, I’ve found joy in belonging to an organisation that can turn on a dime to keep supporting our future leaders, and its staff. Viva Villiers!

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