Skip to content.

Podcast: impact of coronavirus on school staff and pupils

Last updated: 22 Jun 2020 Topics: Podcast

We asked our guest speaker about their teaching experience during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown

Schools have been at the frontline in supporting the wellbeing of vulnerable children since the lockdown began in March 2020. From remote learning and online platforms to taking on a more active pastoral role, how have schools responded to the challenges?

In this episode, we speak to Shirley Dunn, a form tutor and head of department at a secondary school about measures her school has taken to safeguard children including:

  • remote teaching and how pupils have responded to this
  • supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing
  • the pastoral aspect to teaching
  • how concerns have been dealt with
  • pupils’ resilience to changes.

This is the penultimate episode in our coronavirus series which explores what professionals from different sectors are doing to safeguard and protect children and young people during this challenging time.

About Shirley Dunn

Shirley Dunn has 18 years of teaching experience and is currently the head of department at a large secondary school and a form tutor.

NSPCC Learning Podcast

Our podcast explores a variety of different child protection issues and invites contributors from the NSPCC and external organisations to talk about what they are doing to keep children and young people safe. Use our episode directory to browse through all our episodes to date.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast through Audioboom, Apple Podcasts and Spotify or sign up to our newsletter to hear about new episodes.

Related resources

> Listen to our episode on enquiries we’ve received from the education sector recently

> Get more information about undertaking remote teaching

> Learn more about how you can support children and young people’s mental health


Podcast transcript

Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to inform, create debate, and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child's voice, and how what they tell us, informs the work we do.

Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. Over the next few weeks, we're releasing a compilation of episodes on topics related to how professionals from education, social care and health have adapted and adjusted their services in order to safeguard children and young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The third podcast episode in this series follows on from last week’s and focuses on education. I had a chat with Shirley Dunn who is a head of department at a large secondary school. We talked about the safeguarding concerns her school has for both pupils who had remained in school and those that have been learning from home and what a huge learning curve this has been. We also talked about how the school has adapted as time has gone on to assure pupils and staff feel safe and supported. And we also talked about the resilience of the children and young people in Shirley's school.

Times are very strange at the moment. School isn't closed because we're reading a lot about schools being closed and they're not. They're just closed to the majority of pupils aren’t they? How has remote learning and teaching been for you generally from a teaching perspective?

It's evolving shall we say? So at the start, it's been very much a learning curve for all of us, students, teachers and parents alike. We haven't been expected in our school to do any lessons remotely, as in do videos, so we've been setting it on our online learning platform and feeding back that way.

Great. And has that been working well?

Like I say it's a massive learning curve. I'm a tutor as well and so as tutors, it's been really important for us to know what's going on in the individual families. Around half term, so Easter time, we were all asked to send messages home to our pupils, asking them to get in contact with us, just to see if everything was okay. And at that point a lot of the kids were quite buoyant. The weather had been really lovely and there was a novelty factor to it I think. And then following that about two, three weeks later when they've had an entire half term of trying to be self-motivated and deal with all of the issues within families, then we saw a real dip in terms of the way that they were coping with work. So there was less work being submitted. There was an increase in students getting in contact saying they were struggling and just needed a bit of reassurance more than anything really, particularly in our school. But more recently having conversations about how to organise themselves mostly and the importance of that routine and just reassuring them that they will have up days and down days. And it might feel like one step forward, two steps back at times. Other than that, I think the most important feedback from a teacher and head of department perspective is, have they accessed and done the work and submitted what you've asked them to? Because just like in class if they haven't done that, then there's something wrong with what you've submitted. If the majority haven't done it, there's a problem with how you've presented it. So it's reflecting on that and then beyond that, asking their tutors if there are any issues that they're aware of that might have prevented them from being able to access the work that's beyond your control.

From your school's perspective, what have been the main safeguarding concerns?

In terms of the safeguarding there's about 60 pupils who have been classed as vulnerable and they've been contacted weekly by the safeguarding team. So us as teachers have been shielded from making the most challenging phone calls. But also, that's made sense because the safeguarding team have been closer to those students prior to lockdown anyway.

And then any students for whom we know already that there are issues at home that might mean that they're going to be struggling a little bit more, that there's somebody out there that they can contact at any point. And I think from my teacher role perspective, that's the biggest thing that we've been trying to offer them. Just making sure that they realise that they're not on their own and then reaching out to them when they're not coming back to us saying that everything's okay.

So would that be quite a bit of a red flag for you guys? Pupils that you see daily in class and you know their behaviours and their personalities if they're not getting back to you--

Yes, yeah.

Like we say for safeguarding it's a change of behaviour. It still is applicable [inaudible]. That would be a worry for you.

Yes, exactly. And that's it. That's where it's been a learning curve again over the last few weeks where we've gone from expecting pupils to submit work or it's the volume of work that we've been asking them to submit. We recognise that actually it was too intense for a lot of students. Reducing that amount and if you see that a pupil is still not able to cope with that, then it's checking in with them from a teacher perspective. But also as tutors, we can monitor whether they are accessing the online learning platform regularly. We can see when they last logged on and when the parents last logged on. And so, if none of them are logging on at all, then clearly there are issues there.

Again it's just making sure that we know our kids and that we're communicating with each of other. I think most of those have been the biggest things. And like you say, I think from my perspective that anxiety of has that person contacted me? Making sure that my lists are really up-to-date, that no stone's left unturned, more than ever before really. But again, regular contact with every student and making sure that we have that expectation that they get back to us and where they don't get back to us, that's when we'll pick up the phone or email home directly.

It's been challenging making a couple of the phone calls knowing the home context but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think that human contact that we're all craving, so parents, teachers and students alike, it's been really important to have just that contact however you do it.

We decided as well to have a catch-up week this week which has coincided with Mental Health Awareness Week because we recognise that a lot of students were getting behind with work. Saying that, some kids are absolutely thriving, particularly the ones that you wouldn't necessarily expect. So some of the some of the pupils who actually fall by the wayside in a classroom situation are really flourishing with their independence. I think the message to get out really is that resilience to when there are problems and enabling the kids - if they can't find their own solutions - to ask that member of staff directly, where again, in a classroom situation they might not have the confidence to do that. So it's very interesting as well how they're responding to it. Especially some of the kids that you wouldn't expect to respond really well and vice versa.

It's interesting that you talk about resilience and perhaps sometimes we underestimate the resilience of our children [crosstalk]. Can you just talk a bit about that?

It makes you realise how important that routine is and then when that's taken away from you, how you respond to that. But also again, what's going on at home and how much the parents or the carers are able to do that for you. Some kids have had to be more independent than others at home as well. I think it's helping them to recognise that the fact that they're struggling is okay. So the mental health side of it, if they are struggling that's okay. That's natural. They won't be on top of all of their workload. And also then factor in other things to help themselves out. Making sure that they get out at least once a day and you know teenagers are bad for staying in their rooms anyway at the best of times but again, it really is about looking after the child as a whole. And so, the pastoral role is really come into its own - I think the last couple of weeks particularly for our school.

I was going to ask more about that pastoral side which is really important in teaching. It sounds like you're being really honest and transparent and open with your pupils to say, it's okay that you're struggling. Have you guys also been saying look we're struggling as well? This is strange times for everybody. What are the messages that you've been given to allay any pupil's fears or worries?

We've been encouraged anyway to keep in contact with our form group and so it's exactly that. Saying that we appreciate as teachers that you might have been set too much work, we're learning as we go along as well. And then again, trying to re-establish that routine for them. It's just that message isn't it, in terms of mental health it's okay. Whatever you’re feeling at the moment is okay. And that if you have a day where you can't go anywhere near your work, where you're feeling overwhelmed and you're feeling anxious, it will still be there tomorrow and you will manage it. And if you can't manage it contact your teachers because none of us want you to struggle and that's first and foremost. Obviously as teachers, we've got that anxiety in the back of our minds as well about how we're going to then approach the next stage of their academic progress. But it's making sure that our anxiety doesn't spill over and affect them negatively. And I think particularly like I say again over the last two weeks that's been something that we've been re-evaluating as to what the expectations realistically can be.

And it sounds like there's a real partnership going on between the pupils and the staff. You're all working together to make sure everybody is looked after and as safe and well as they can be.

Yeah. That's been really, really important for us as teachers as well. I'm lucky that my school have got wellbeing on their agenda. And so, I've had phone calls as well with my line manager and Zoom meetings with my team. I think the digital era that we're in has made all of that so much easier for the vast majority of people.

Sure. Can we talk about the social aspects of things? Schools are really social environments. Children have their friendship groups. That's going to be really difficult for kids. So how have you guys been making sure that they retain that level of sociability, that they're in touch with their friends but obviously safely? Because that's quite difficult to navigate, isn't it?

Very. Before lockdown they had PSHE lessons every fortnight in our school and we talked about online safety there. We've talked about friendships. Those first few lessons for year seven for my form were about friendships, navigating friendships, navigating problems with that - any kind of relationships as well. And the fact that you should talk about that whether that is face-to-face or whether that is online.

The ICT department in our school have been setting PSHE lessons every two weeks based on the ThinkUKnow resources from the National Crime Agency. And so, they've got age-appropriate lessons for every level, from primary right up to secondary. I had a couple of issues in my form. They've got a group chat which is absolutely brilliant in some respects. It's been really important to me that they come together and I say we respect each other and we don't all have to be best friends but we look after each other and we support each other and they've really taken that on board. But just before lockdown, there were a couple of friendship issues on there where a couple of students then came off that group chat and it was them who came up with that solution. They obviously came to me with the problem of the friendship issues and we discussed then what they could do. So I think this generation are a lot more savvy - again it's that word 'resilience' - than we maybe give them credit for. But they've also been supported all the way along that with the resources that they've been given as well.

And how's it been with parents? Have you been in contact with parents and carers quite a bit as well?

Where necessary really. From a head of department's perspective, I've been really busy with all the other timetable and admin issues and options. So I've prioritised those students who I haven't heard back from or who have flagged up that they're struggling. I literally gave them three options in my form to say: ‘all fine here thanks’; or ‘please call’; or ‘please email my parents’. And the majority of them were ‘fine thanks’. And then the ones that I didn't hear from are prioritised.

The parents have just been really grateful to hear from you and to be able to check in with you and it opens that door then to the contact the other way as well, where they might think, “oh we don't want to bother them actually”. That sort of barrier or potential barrier has been lifted.

We all know that schools are brilliant, safe spaces. They really support their pupils over and above the teaching aspects. There's the pastoral care, you guys wear so many hats and it's brilliant to see that still continues in this really kind of strange environment. [crosstalk] I know it's probably really tricky for you guys but as ever, education staff have stepped right up and made sure that things are in place. That the children being looked after and they feel secure and happy that they've got people to go to whether home life is secure or not.

I think it's been an intense few weeks trying to juggle everything and make sure we get that right for pupils. But I think a new normal is emerging in that respect.

I agree. Thank you for talking to us. I know you have a lot on your plate, so we really appreciate it.

Thanks very much.


"Thank you for listening to this NSPCC Learning Podcast. If you're looking for more safeguarding and child protection training, information or resources, please visit our website for professionals at"