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- by Robert Hard­man Parenting · Family · Charles Dickens · London Borough of Southwark · London · Southwark · Southwark · Northeastern University · Northern Ireland · Turkey

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.’

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.’

CHARLESDic­k­ens 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.

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!’

 ??  ?? End of germs: Girls at Blessed Trin­ity This is Col­lege a in Belfast cap­tionThis yes­ter­day is a swathe
End of germs: Girls at Blessed Trin­ity This is Col­lege a in Belfast cap­tionThis yes­ter­day is a swathe
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Good to be back: Aria, left, and her sis­ter Eri re­turn to school
Good to be back: Aria, left, and her sis­ter Eri re­turn to school
 ??  ?? Raise your hands: Pupils at Charles Dick­ens Pri­mary in South Lon­don at their desks yes­ter­day
Raise your hands: Pupils at Charles Dick­ens Pri­mary in South Lon­don at their desks yes­ter­day
 ??  ?? Pride: School head Cassie Buchanan
Pride: School head Cassie Buchanan

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