EDUCATION is all about learning skills and knowledge. For all the experience of teachers and head teachers have imparted and digested over the years, nothing can have prepared them for recent challenges and those ahead.

Mark Tilling has recently overseen an £18m development as High Tunstall College of Science in Hartlepool moved from their old building to a new build on the same Elwick Road site.

And his biggest concern he’s endured? It’s not been the cost of the building operation - the adjacent old blocks are being demolished - but the impact of a free school meal during lockdown.

Schools are closed, but while the students are absent and at home their welfare remains of paramount importance.

For all the logistics of adapting classrooms from holding around 30 kids to reducing that number to half a dozen at the most, of introducing a one-way system around the building to wondering what sort of curriculum will be in place come September and ensuring students are home schooled for now, it was the mental and social health of students that concerned him the most as the school closed.

“The biggest challenge, with sleepless nights, was free school meals – how do I get those children fed?’’ he mused. “I saw the logistics of getting children back in small groups, I still can’t see opening in September and how we educate in social distancing rules. Things have to change, schools can’t double in size, but as the pandemic reduces then social distancing reduces.

“I lost so much sleep worrying about meals. First month in lockdown, staff were brilliant, but we couldn’t feed the kids. If you live on the Headland why would you travel across town to us for a £2.20 meal? But if not then you may not have had any food.

“We spoke about hubs and we couldn’t do it quick enough. We were feeding families with children at other schools to help them. We couldn’t say no.’’

He added: “Everyone in here today, all key worker children, will be fed. The local authority was clear that all children in should be fed. Credit to them. Every school has done it and it’s made a difference.’’

The government stepped in to change the system, with supermarket vouchers introduced.

“The free school meal vouchers are good, but how much are used by the kids….’’ he asked.

“As long as families and children are being fed, then I’m comfortable. It’s about the personal side, the health of kids. There’s been deaths in the town, suicides, and it worries me and we have to reassure young people about their mental health. We have been out and spoke to them. I worry about the human side, but in six months time I’ll be worrying about the academic side.’’

HIGH Tunstall is a school for the future, the building still carries the smell and shine of new after only opening last November.

But like any business, building or operation, it is not designed for the impact of social distancing measures.

Some schools and some years are due back today, but not in Hartlepool as the council made a stand early to say they wouldn’t be reopening just yet.

“That was the right thing to do,’’ said Mr Tilling, who has been High Tunstall head since 2010. “We sent a message out: this town hasn’t reached its peak yet and we weren’t ready. I applaud the council for it.’’

Now there’s the prospect of adapting and changing, while adhering to new rules and regulations in the process.

Mr Tilling added: “How can we educate 1,300 people? Guidance about educating year 10 face to face gives us a way forward, but it’s still about social distancing. Do the workforce wear PPE? It’s not recommended for schools, but there’s anxieties raised about no PPE and managing that anxiety is important.

“The sheer level of information from central Government means risk assessments have to be written, re-written and re-written again.

“I think having a new building helps as there’s a natural one-way system to it. This makes it quite easy in some ways. Our fire evacuation procedure means we reverse the ways out to be ways in.

“How about provisions for staff, where can they share a coffee? Rooms where we could get nine in, now it’s only three.

“Some kids are naturally anxious about returning. We have five who are officially shielding and another 10 shielding with family members, we have 11 staff shielding too.’’

Many schools have been partially open for the children of key workers, a safe haven for them and a base while parents are on the frontline.

Asking teaching staff to work to support the system has not been an issue at High Tunstall. Equally important has been the need to keep the students engaged while away from the building.

“We have been doing one day a month for most staff, then one day a fortnight and it will go to one day a week depending on how many kids return,’’ added Mr Tilling. “Some staff live alone without any social contact. Mental health support has been big as a school.

“We make phone calls, contact via Zoom and we make 1,300 calls a week to the children. We attempt to ring every child every week. Some get a call a day, some get a home visit depending on circumstances.

“Staff are phoning that from home, which brings issues with calls and phone numbers. I believe we are a big family, people belong to the High Tunstall family at all times. Some parents like the calls and it gives them an adult to talk to.’’

And then there’s the education side of it all. Thousands and thousands of hours have been lost, life experiences missed. Exams have been put on hold or cancelled all together. The fabric of education, exams and sitting them, has been altered. Grades for leavers will not be based on sitting exams in a hall, but by what they have done over the course of the year and more.

Mr Tilling added: “We were big on IT when we first closed, then the number of work packs has changed from 100 to 400. We hand deliver it as post takes days and it has to be on time. Two staff in PPE deliver Tunny Post!

“Keeping the curriculum going is part of the need.

“Grading for year 11 is tough. Let’s hope they get what we have put in. It’s been a real interesting exercise in terms of education. Having the evidence and the responsibility is difficult. Take out the personality and work what is in front of you. What will that child achieve? They may be working hard, but they will still get a five not a nine.

“You may have a child on a six, but you know can get a nine when he starts working – will he do it? How many work at the last minute ….’’

And how about the release and leaving the comfort of a school as year 11 ends? “We had a leavers’ assembly at the last minute, but 50 were missing. The prom is postponed, but in six months will they want one? The longer away the more distant they are.

“Work experience in year 10 has been missed and the year is missing so much ahead of their exams next year.’’

THE education family in Hartlepool, like in other towns and cities, has worked together to come up with plans and answers. A collective effort has been the outlook with positive results.

Members of the senior leadership teams have been in contact regularly.

“We share information as we meet twice weekly remotely with heads and the local authority and share information,’’ said Mr Tilling.

“How do we make the gap up when they come back? We are looking at a recovery curriculum rather than straight back and we will look at emotional and mental health and then start again.

“They have had a long time away. We think of the gap, the time between primary and secondary and the lapse. They do SATS, then have no focus in the holidays, then come back. That’s been a gap since March – it’s a big job to get them back on track.

“How can we be accountable for kids who have missed six months of education?

“Every school in Hartlepool is working hard to meet the needs of the kids, but everyone is at different levels.

“There’s no transition between primary and secondary schools this year, year six into seven are supposed to have visits, a welcome, a two-week transition – now how do they get uniform, PE kit, equipment?

“We are doing videos, blogs and the like for them.

“We usually go into primary school and meet them and they see us, hear us and those stepping up who are anxious are going to be more anxious now about stepping up.

He concluded: “I’m proud of the school and staff and how they have engaged and adapted. We use an on-line tool called Century Tech and since we closed on March 20 they have answered 1.2 million questions. It shows they are engaged and involved and we were the best users worldwide for a period of time.

“Staff have come in, helped, those who are shielding and with concerns we work together. It’s been half-term week and our senior leaders are around to keep it open for key worker children and 80 per cent of staff volunteered. Over Easter weekend no-one complained.

“Their work is on-going and I’m very proud of them.’’