NEWS: Erdington Academy given green light for £6.8m expansion to cater for 300 more pupils

Words by Adam Smith

Erdington Academy has been given the go-ahead to increase the number of its pupils from 900 to 1,200 after Birmingham City Council agreed to inject nearly £6.8 million into the school.

The Kingsbury Road secondary school will be refurbished and a brand new two story teaching block will be built on site – with work beginning next month and completed by Christmas 2021.

The new teaching block will include science labs and prep rooms, a drama teaching space, staff work rooms, office space and new staff and pupil toilets.

Birmingham City Council’s cabinet approved the £6,825,463 capital investment after a report from Dr Tim O’Neill, Director for Education and Skills, which said the authority had “a statutory duty to ensure that there are sufficient pupil places.”

The near £7m bill will be paid for from the Department for Education (DfE) Basic Need Grant and School Condition Grant.

However, consequential revenue costs arising from additional places including additional staffing, utility costs and any on-going day to day repair and maintenance will be the responsibility of Erdington Academy.

Balfour Beatty has been chosen as the construction partner for the scheme and ground is set to be broken at the school on November 23.

Councillor Jayne Francis, cabinet member for education, skills and culture, backed the new investment into Erdington Academy.

She said: “We have a duty to ensure that sufficient school places are available in our city.

Erdington Academy currently has 900 pupils, and the proposal is to expand two forms of entry to 1,200 places for pupils aged 11 to 16 years old.

There’s been a slight delay with planning, so it will be heard toward the end of September and once secured we will be able to carry on with completion of the work.”

Erdington Academy (formerly Kingsbury School and Sports College) converted to an Academy within the Fairfax Multi Academy Trust (FMAT) in 2016.

To find out more about Erdington Academy visit www.erdingtonacademy.bham.sch.uk

For more on Fairfax Multi Academy Trust (FMAT), visit www.fmat.co.uk

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NEWS: Socially distanced ‘grass cutting protest’ to be held on Short Heath Playing Fields

Words & pics by Ed King

On Saturday 3rd October, around 50 local residents are holding a socially distanced ‘grass cutting protest’ on Short Heath Playing Fields in Erdington – continuing their fight to save the ‘beloved parkland’ from property developers.

Meeting at 2pm, friends and families from the local community will organise themselves on Short Heath Playing Fields – cutting the overgrown grass with handheld gardening tools and scissors.

The ‘grass cutting protest’ is being organised after Birmingham City Council’s refusal to cut the long grass, or to allow privately owned motorised equipment onto the land – such as lawn mowers.

Organised by the Short Heath Fields Trust (a recently formed community action group, dedicated to protecting the 26,912 square metres of cherished green space) the demonstration will be following all the coronavirus crisis guidelines – ensuring the community endeavour is fully COVID-19 safe.

Campaigners are wanting to help make the area more accessible for local children and elderly residents, by stripping back the long grass and thistles to encourage healthy outdoor activities for people of all ages.

In a statement from Short Heath Fields Trust, representing the wider community, protest organisers Estelle Murphy and Stephen Hughes say:

We have asked Birmingham City Council to cut the grass on Short Heath Playing Fields, so that whilst our community cannot meet in their homes and gardens (due to coronavirus restrictions) they have a space to be outside and safe.

There is a fight going on to save Short Heath playing fields, as Birmingham city Council want to build a housing estate on the beloved park land. But in the interim we can see no reason why the green space cannot be used to help keep local residents healthy and happy during this global pandemic.

As the Council have refused to help make the playing fields safer and more accessible, and won’t allow any third party to help with the appropriate motorised equipment, we have organised this grass cutting protest to help everyone in our community.”

The ‘grass cutting protest’ is the latest challenge to Birmingham City Council, following outrage across the community about the proposed housing development on the park land.

There have been further concerns about the lack of community consultation, with many local residents not being informed about the huge housing development that would take place on their doorstep.

In July 2019, Birmingham City Council sought approval to ‘dispose’ of the park land from the Department of Education’s portfolio – where it had been held as playing fields for local schools, including Court Farm Primary and St Mary Margaret Primary.

So far, the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields has attracted thousands of supporters across the Erdington constituency – including a petition signed by 1500 local residents, that was presented to Birmingham City Council on Tuesday 15th September.

Erdington Councillor and leader of the Birmingham Conservatives, Robert Alden, has also been challenging the proposed developments in Council meetings for months.

Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area,” says Councillor Alden. “They are a green lung – that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise, and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

In the post Covid-19 world even the Council admits that it is vital to provide green space yet despite us making it clear to them at numerous Council meetings and in petitions presented to Council that Erdington and Perry Common have a shortage the Council refuse to scrap their crazy plans to build on this valuable green space.”

Erdington’s Labour MP, Jack Dromey, has also called on the Council to listen to the concerns of local residents.

It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents,” states Jack Dromey, “and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable.

Going forward, I will continue to argue that it would be wrong to go ahead with these proposals without proper consultation that involves local voices at every stage.”

Campaigners continue to challenge Birmingham City Council’s plans to develop a housing estate on Short Heath Playing Fields.

For more information about the campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit the group’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/1007069176404521

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

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NEWS: Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigners call for ‘common sense’ collaboration with Conservatives and Labour

Words & pics by Ed King

In a rare show of solidarity, the campaign to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ has grabbed the attention of top local politicians from both Labour and Conservatives – Erdington Local can reveal.

In exclusive quotes about the campaign to Erdington Local, both Jack Dromey MP (Labour) and Erdington Councillor Robert Alden (Conservative) came out swinging – with each elected official challenging Birmingham City Council for their disastrous first attempt at a public consultation.

Jack Dromey MP stated: “It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents, and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable.”

Whilst Councillor Robert Alden said: “Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area. They are a green lung in the middle of our community and it is disgraceful that the Labour Council wishes to rip out that green lung that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.”

But the two local residents spearheading the campaign, Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy, want a commitment that Labour and Conservatives will work together on the issue.

In an email to Jack Dromey MP and Councillor Robert Alden, sent earlier this week, the campaigners asked both politicians ‘to write jointly to Councillor Ian Ward’ – expressing their concerns directly to the leader of Birmingham City Council.

Speaking to Erdington Local, Estelle Murphy and Stephen Hughes said in a joint statement: “We have said it before, and we will keep saying it because it is the simple truth, this isn’t political, this is about our community.

We have simply asked two of our communities most influential people, who are in a position, and have both offered their support and help, to join together and work for our local community. Surely that’s just common sense.”

Councillor Robert Alden has previously raised concerns to the Council about the proposed developments on Short Heath Playing Fields – including the lack of a robust public consultation.

The top Birmingham Tory has also met with campaigners, joining them for a day of litter picking and talking directly to local residents.

Jack Dromey MP met with Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy on Saturday 5th September – the first time the MP’s constituency office has been opened during the coronavirus crisis.

Following the meeting, the MP told Erdington Local: “Steve (Hughes) and Estelle (Murphy) agreed to draw up a proposal on behalf of the community that would then be presented to the Council for consideration.

I will ensure that they are alongside me. Their views, along with those of the local community, will be central to these discussions at every stage.”

As of yet, Erdington Local is unaware of any meeting with the ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’ campaigners where both political parties have been present.

The next campaign community meeting, held under COVID-19 safety restrictions, will be held on Short Heath Playing Fields on Saturday 12th September.

To sign the petition to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

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FEATURE: Promised land – a community unites to save Short Heath Playing Fields and fights to be heard

Words & pics by Ed King

All we’re asking for is the Council to be honest with people, we’re not asking for the Earth. We’re asking for them to be honest with the community and tell them what’s happening.”

Three weeks ago, Steve Hughes and Estelle Murphy had never met – despite living round the corner from each other, one on Short Heath Road and one on Court Farm Road. A familiar tale of neighbours yet strangers.

Now it Is difficult not to see them together, clearing up the green space between their houses – championing the cause that brought them and the wider community together.

Save Short Heath Playing Fields began as a campaign to do just that.

But the signs, slogans, banners, and banter that now surround this urban oasis have already achieved something else, something powerful – galvanising a community into action. Real action. The kind of action that changes things.

And what started with a simple question – namely, did you know about the proposed development on Short Heath Playing Fields? – is now a clarion call for an increasingly empowered and united neighbourhood.

Community is what this is all about,” tells Steve. “It’s a community thing, and it’s massive now. And it’s not just here – I’ve just been talking to a lady who lives over there (Streetly Road, Edgware Road, Marsh Lane) and people are talking about it over that side of the park as well.”

People are stopping us in the street and asking how it’s going, what we’re doing, where we’ve been, who we’re speaking to. Throwing ideas at us,” adds Estelle – after a long weekend with a community cleaning up the park on their own time.

We’d got kids over here litter picking, old age pensioners litter picking… it didn’t matter if you were 7, 17, 27, or 77, everybody was out – all pulling together.”

It’s spotless if you walk around it now,” continues Steve, “it’s amazing. We’ve had the Erdington Litter Busters here, and the Short Heath Wombles. Then we’ve joined in and done our bit… people are talking to each other again.”

Since Steve and Estelle joined forces, after both spending several months independently challenging the proposed development of 84 houses on Short Heath Playing Fields, hundreds more local residents have banded together – bringing a unified fight to Birmingham City Council’s plans to ‘dispose’ of the public land, previously earmarked for local schools.

Over recent weekends, and following the correct COVID-19 safety precautions, scores of residents have routinely descended upon the open green parkland – initially to hear about the campaign, and the proposed development, but then turning their hands to maintaining the ground themselves.

From litter picking to landscaping, people power has been filling the void left by over a decade of Council neglect.

We’ve done everything by the book,” explains Steve, “everyone had safely equipment, everyone had masks. We socially distanced. We’ve done everything to COVID rules. All the people down here were spread across the park – they worked in their family bubbles. We’re being responsible.”

I’m going to keep coming down to stay in the mix,” add Jamie Stanley – who saw Steve and Estelle back on the parkland earlier in the day and jumped in to help the with more litter picking.

It’s nice to be able to bring my son down, and he can look around and there’s no litter anywhere. He loves coming here. I told him about it last weekend, that they wanted to build on here, and he was upset. We was like, ‘aw, but I like playing football with you here dad.’ But it benefits all the kids, you know.”

Steve Hughes began with a petition, hosted on the popular Change.org website. At the time of writing, this has amassed 1422 signatures – with a private Facebook group attracting further support.

Estelle Murphy was one of the handful of local residents who heard about, and attended, the public consultation – which took place last year. Although what unfurled at the meeting left her so disillusioned, she began fighting for the clarity and transparency that any local community deserves.

But awareness of the proposed plans has been the sticking point for both, as the due diligence and legally required public consultation that is needed for such a drastic change to a community has been arguably clandestine. And whilst the fight may not be a new one, it is still a fight.

We’re not political in this,” tells Steve, “we’re doing it from a community perspective, but we’re being forced into a political arena.

And when you speak to the community, the residents, the people who live right by the park, the problem we all have is that the Council keep calling it ‘consultation’ and they DO NOT consult the people who live by the park – or use the park.”

The meeting was shocking,” adds Estelle, “they shut (Erdington Councillor) Robert Alden down at every option and just said ‘no, planning will sort that out.’ No… you sort planning out, not the other way around. And when it went to a scrutiny committee, who said no, it’s not up to the Council to tell scrutiny to basically shut up – which is pretty much what they did. It’s shocking, absolutely shocking.”

Whenever Erdington Local goes to meet Steve and Estelle, as they continue tidying up the field the Council states has been ‘unused for 10 years’, a constant stream of dog walkers snake round into the playing fields – taking four legged friends for a healthy ramble across the open green space.

Children come and play in the areas where the grass has been cut back, chasing footballs not dragons – on what has been referred to as ‘a drug den’ for heroin users. (It is worth noting that on a recent litter picking sweep, not a single needle or spoon were found – despite trained healthcare staff rifling through the undergrowth with metal gloves and a spike box.)

Countless local residents also come out and ask about the campaign, commenting on the signs or the work then have seen volunteers undertake – all are curious and supportive, not just of the campaign but of the sense of community it has ignited.

On Erdington Local’s last visit to the site, a man from the neighbouring HMO came out to thank the campaigners and volunteers for their work – asking Steve and Estelle to sign small wooden hearts so he could put them into his new-born babies birth book. You rarely see something that beautiful between strangers.

The notion that this Short Heath Playing Fields are ‘unused’, as declared on official Council documentation, is laughable.

But the backbone of the issue is ultimately political, regardless of how bipartisan the approach of the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigners has been.

Erdington Councillor Robert Alden, who has been on site meeting residents and helping with the litter picking, alongside Councillor Gareth Moore, told Erdintgon Local: “Short Heath Playing Fields are vital to the local area.They are a green lung in the middle of our community and it is disgraceful that the Labour Council wishes to rip out that green lung that helps clean our air, helps provide residents with an area to go to help exercise and improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing. 

In the post Covid-19 world even the Council admits that it is vital to provide green space yet despite us making it clear to them at numerous Council meetings and in petitions presented to Council that Erdington and Perry Common have a shortage the Council refuse to scrap their crazy plans to build on this valuable green space.

It has been great to see residents come together to fight the Labour administrations plans to build on the fields and I have of course been happy to work and support them and will continue to do so in our fight to save Short Heath Playing Fields.”

And moving down the field with this political football, Erdington MP Jack Dromey told Erdington Local: “I have been in dialogue for some time with local residents who have expressed profound concerns about the proposed housing development on Short Heath Playing Fields. I have made it clear to Birmingham City Council that local voices must first be heard.

It is essential that the views of local people are always considered before any development takes place.

It is clear the Council have not done a good enough job of consulting with concerned residents, and local people understandably feel that they have been ignored and the sense of anger is palpable. 

I want residents to know their concerns are being listened to and taken seriously. I will be meeting once again with key campaigners and local residents this Saturday (5th September) to hear their views on the proposals for the playing fields. 

Going forward, I will continue to argue that it would be wrong to go ahead with these proposals without proper consultation that involves local voices at every stage.” 

But for Steve Hughes, Estelle Murphy, and the many hundreds of local residents that have now put their hands clearly in the air to be counted – this is still firmly about community. The strength in their increasing number is only the beginning too. Doors that were once shut are creaking open and conversations that may be nearly a year overdue are finally starting to happen.

There is hope in Short Heath.

There is conversation, houses that were alien to each other are now borrowing cups of sugar and exchanging titbits about boundaries and planning regulations. There is a sense of community and connection, one that many of the people who live in this pocket of Erdington haven’t felt in decades.

The whole thing is crazy,” admits Steve – as he and Estelle pack up after a long day cutting back the thorn bushes and overgrown grass at the top end of the playing fields. “All they (Birmingham City Council) do is try and undermine the community and not actually give us the chance to have a say in it. And you know what, that’s all the people really want. What we don’t want is for them not to listen – and that’s the problem.

Why is it that a politician will promise you the Earth when they’re after you’re vote – but when we’re asking them for something, they don’t want to know unless it suits their agenda. Why should that be the case?

Why are they not even prepared to do the right thing and talk to the community – to give the community the chance to have their say and say what they would like to happen. But also, to listen and act and what people say.

Why can Birmingham City Council just run roughshod over people?”

It’s difficult to know.

But what’s certain, is that the residents around Short Heath Playing Fields are not going to be silenced without an answer – and with an ignited sense of community and pride, they’ll want to hear it together.

To sign the petition to Save Short Heath Playing Fields, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

To further support the Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaign, you can donate through the official GoFundMe fundraising platform: www.gofundme.com/f/save-short-heath-playing-fields

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NEWS: Furious Erdington families join campaign to Save Short Heath Playing Fields

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

An almighty row has erupted over the future of Short Heath Playing Fields, with more furious Erdington families joining campaigners to help dispel Birmingham City Council‘s claim the parkland is ‘unused’.

On Saturday 15th August, a 50 strong crowd of concerned residents gathered to listen to Save Short Heath Playing Fields campaigner Stephen Hughes – following a 12hr dash to drum up local support and spread the message.

Several huge banners were unveiled and leaflets distributed, declaring ‘SAVE OUR PARK’ and informing people about the proposed development on the public green space.

Teams of residents were allocated streets to canvas, looking to raise more awareness about the threat to the playing fields – amongst a community that has, for the large part, been left in the dark about the council’s plans.

Stephen, age 52, told the crowd: “We have to save these playing fields, we cannot let them disappear forever. Just seeing how many people are here today shows the council’s claim that it is unused is total rubbish, people care about this place.

I keep on getting told it is ‘a done deal’ but it is not – the Department of Education have not agreed to the sale yet. We all need to fight to keep our fields.”

He added: “The council have not told enough people about their plans to build, people do not even know about what they are planning, that is the biggest travesty.”

The day of action saw residents rallying together, sharing memories, and declaring they are up for the fight to keep the fields – which used to be used by Court Farm Primary School and Stockland Green Academy.

Stephen added: “To know there is this much community spirit here is an amazing feeling, to have so many people turn up to support us really makes me think we can win this campaign.”

Fellow campaigner Estelle Murphy is also determined to stop the council’s plan to build 84 houses behind her Short Heath Road home, she said: “We are going to fight this all the way. This campaign is not political, it is about keeping our green fields.

We are already under the quota in this area for green space and the council still want to build on it.”

Another Short Heath Road resident Jamie Stanley, aged 31, added: “This can’t be allowed to happen. Finsbury Grove is for the elderly and vulnerable and there is no way a lot of my friends there will be able to get to another park like Witton Lakes.”

Sheila Applebly, aged 78, has lived in the area since 1966 and remembers when fields were full of school children playing with regular sports days and other events.

She said: “We have got so many other places where houses can be built, there is land across the road. It is shocking this is going ahead, is this green space being sold off because of the debt of this council?

This has been left and neglected but it is a bonus that we have still have some green space and clean air to breathe, we live near to Spaghetti Junction so we need it.”

Another Short Heath Road resident Derek Loughead at the rally wants the campaign to hire a solicitor and start fundraising for the fight ahead.

He said: “We have to play the council at their own game, we need to get a license to get it back being a playing field, but it is all in the wording. So, we need a solicitor who understands the wording of documents, we need to raise money, hold a march and agree as a group how to fight the council. We need to tie-them-up in knots.”

However, Birmingham City Council have doubled down on their claim the fields are not used and should be sold off for housing.

In an exclusive statement to Erdington Local the council said: ‘The playing fields at Short Heath are under the ownership of education services but haven’t been used for over ten years by any of the local schools.

‘Following cabinet approval in 2019, Department for Education set processes have been followed, including consultation with local ward members and local schools, and the land will be transferred through appropriation to our housing development team.’

The confirmation statement added: ‘They will look to create a proposal whereby the land can be better used and will bring this to public consultation in around 12 months time. Residents will be notified and given the opportunity to respond, comment and ask any questions at this time.

‘The playing fields are adjacent to Bleak Hill Recreation Park which is a large open space and this will not be affected by any of these changes.’

To sign the petition to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, visit: www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-birmingham-education-department-bob-beauchamp-jack-dormey-save-short-heath-playing-fields

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NEWS: Residents rally to save Short Heath Playing Fields – protecting Erdington’s green spaces from developers

Words by Adam Smith / Pics by Ed King

Shocked Erdington residents are furious about plans to turn a local beauty spot into a housing estate.

Short Heath Playing Fields have been at the heart of Perry Common for more than a century, but Birmingham City Council wants the green space for housing through a private property developer – despite families regularly using the parkland.

So far over 800 residents have signed a petition demanding to save Short Heath Playing Fields, with many claiming they were left in the dark about the multi-million pound housing development.

The council are remaining tight lipped about the timetable for the ‘disposal’ of the 26, 912 square metre site, which has proved even more popular during COVID-19 lockdown despite the council claiming ‘the fields are not being used’.

The removal of Short Heath Playing Fields during a time of worrying childhood obesity is even more controversial – the beloved green space is just over a mile from Burford Playing Fields in Kingstanding, which is also about disappear to make way for houses.

Court Farm Road resident Stephen Hughes was so upset about the prospect of losing the playing fields he set up an online petition which clocked up nearly 800 signatures within weeks.

He said: “I live opposite these playing fields, I can see them from my window. But I was not included in the so-called consultation about selling them off for housing.

I played on these fields as a child, my children played on these fields, and now I am getting the joy of taking my two-year-old granddaughter over there… but now they could be gone forever in a few months.”

The 52-year-old automotive engineer said: “This is one of the few green spaces left in Erdington, the wildlife is amazing to see, and you always see people walking their dogs or enjoying a stroll. For the council to say no-one uses it is unbelievable.

A lot of people have messaged me saying they live in a flat and do not have a garden, they are really upset about losing their only bit of green space. Throughout the lockdown more and more people began using the park to exercise.”

He added: “We have got 800 signatures from people who live around here who did not know anything about these plans. The council put up two pieces of A4 paper up informing people about the plans to sell the land, that is why so few people know about it.”

A Short Heath Road resident, Estelle Murphy, whose house backs onto the playing fields, attended the consultation meeting at St Barnabas Church last August and branded the entire exercise as a “joke”.

She said: “The consultation was an absolute joke, this fella from the council stood and told us he was going to build on the playing fields no matter what. There are supposed to be 84 houses going up, we were told it was a done deal, how is that a consultation?”

The NHS worker added: “The wildlife is something special, I sit and watch the bats fly around at night and we have a world shortage of honey bees – but we have more honey bees in the playing fields than we ever have, and they want to build over it.

The bit of land at the back which they are saying will remain a green space is a floodplain and gets soggy immediately. I fear it is a done deal.”

The consultation was held between July and September last year – with Birmingham City Council promising to spend the proceeds of the land sale on sporting facilities across the city.

But as the Short Heath Playing Fields were originally allocated for use by two local schools, Stockland Green School and Court Farm Primary, the Department of Education will have to approve the sale.

The Secretary of State for Education will ‘take into consideration residents’ comments before making the decision – however, residents who did not know about the consultation want their opposition noted.

Birmingham City Council’s proposal said: “The playing fields have not been used by a school or any community group for 10 years.

Although the fields are not being used, Birmingham City Council continues to maintain them. There are ongoing costs for the maintenance and upkeep of these fields.

Should approval be given, Birmingham City Council is proposing to use the land to address the current housing shortage.

This will be subject to planning permission and all other relevant approvals. Any proceeds from the disposal of these playing fields will be used to provide alternative sporting facilities in the city.”

Birmingham City Council would not comment further on the matter.

To sign the petition to ‘Save Short Heath Playing Fields’, visit: www.change.org/save-short-heath-playing-fields

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FEATURE: James Brindley Academy’s Dovedale Centre – school life during lockdown

Words & pics by Ed King

There have been a lot of words used to describe the coronavirus crisis. But when it comes to education, one stands out. Uncertainty.

Out of all the public sectors, withstanding healthcare professionals fighting on the pandemic’s frontline, education has been one of the most affected by lockdown restrictions – with staff and students alike having to embrace dramatic changes.

But whilst ‘uncertainty’ is ever present across all year groups, thanks to COVID-19, those in transition are amongst both the most talked about – with Year 11 students preparing for further education under the biggest question mark of their young lives.

The thought of going to college is still ‘a big one’, for me personally,” explains Archie Walters – who has left his leavers BBQ to sit and talk to Erdington Local in a now physically distanced classroom. “But at the same time it isn’t massive, because I’ve got an older brother who is eighteen and in his second year of college – and seeing him do it has made me realise that I can do it as well.” 

I’ve had quite regular communication and emails from, and to, teachers,” tells Callum Kimberley – who is also leaving Dovedale this year to go into further education, “checking up on me and seeing if I’m alright.

Regarding how they prepare me for collage, one teacher did all that before lockdown… Miss Connor. She helped me a lot. When we went to Sutton (Collage) and we went into one of the classrooms for a lesson, she was more worried about that than me. She was like, ‘ah, you’ve really made me proud…”

Part of the James Brindley Academy, the Dovedale Centre is ‘a 81 placement provision for pupils with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC)’ – teaching Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, preparing the older children for the next stage in their educational journey.

With a cohort that require a more tailored approach to teaching than those in mainstream schools, Dovedale’s students could be suffering the most during lockdown. But for Archie and Callum, at least, the experience has been surprisingly straightforward.

One of the reasons for that, is because in this school…” begins Archie, “it makes you feel like you’re important because they (teaching staff) will take their time, to give you emotional support wherever you need. And that’s partly, in my opinion, what makes the relationships between pupils and teachers here as good as they are. Because they’re willing to make the time.”

Quick to mirror the feelings, Callum continues: “Yeah, we have very good relationships… we have different ‘go to’ teachers. It’s basically ones with similar interests and there’s just loads to talk about – to be honest, quite a lot of pupils and teachers get along really well here…” 

As robust as any 15-16 year old you might want to meet, Archie and Callum head back out into the schoolyard – soaking up the last few hours with the people who have been so important to them over the past few years. But the students are only one side of a school, and life under lockdown has also been a shift for the staff at Dovedale.

At the start is was quite challenging,” tells Mr Ellery, a Teaching Assistant and Pastoral Worker with the Year 11 cohort, “it was difficult imagining being away from them in such an important year… and ending it almost halfway though. 

Usually they come to us for the answers – you’ve been through this before sir, how did you cope with it? But no one’s been through this (COVID-19) in their lifetimes and we can’t predict how long this is going to go on.” Concerns that are peppering society, but more acutely when it comes to education.

But like the world of work now entrenched in Zoom meetings, digital technology has helped Dovedale function during lockdown – using interactive online platforms, staff have been able to maintain a semblance of the status quo with their students.

We were able to get a group of kids together in a weekly Skype call,” continues Mr Ellery, “getting them talking to each other – encouraging them that, in a time like this, the best support comes from your friends and family, as well as your teachers.”

But Year 11 has its own challenges, not least of which is the transition from secondary to further education – a difficult time for any student, let alone a young person living with autism.

A lot of what we would have done in physical face to face meetings, has just taken place over the phone or virtually – via Microsoft Teams,” explains Ms Lowe, a Special Educational Needs Coordinator and English Teacher who works with Year 11 at Dovedale.

A lot of colleges have been great in providing virtual support as well,” continues Ms Lowe. “We’ve got one young person whose college has given them six weeks – half a day every week, for the last six weeks – where they’ve had a virtual tour of the college. They’ve met their tutors already; they’ve already been introduced to the people in their class. So, that’s really great.”

But necessity is often the other of invention, and the digital platforms that began as an interim measure are now being looked at as an unexpected silver lining – especially when dealing with students who can find social situations more of a challenge.

In my role as SENCO, it’s given me food for thought for some of our young people who’ve got real anxiety about coming to school in the first place,” adds Ms Lowe. “We’ve now got the tools and the knowledge and the skills to be able to still give them the education they’ve got the right to.”

A lot of them present themselves quite confidently, but they’ve got these deep rooted anxieties,” explains Mr Ellery. “But today, when I asked about their thought process about college, each one of them have said ‘I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m anxious about it starting, but I’m looking forward to it.”

This experience,” continues Miss Lowe, “it’s forced them to transfer the skills they’ve learned in school into their own personal life. Coming back after the lockdown, they are so much more mature. Their resilience has been overwhelming. They’ve been amazing.”

The strength of the relationships between students and teaching staff at Dovedale is palpable, mirrored in the words and actions of both. It’s the first thing everyone mentions when asked about school life.

But at the top of the hill you get the broadest view, and Dovedale is a community of students, staff, but also the parents and carers of the children that attend.

We started looking at what do parents want? What’s the need?” explains Charmaine Parry, Centre Leader at Dovedale.

Surveys were then put out to all our parents,” continues Ms Parry, “to find out what do they want? And not only do they want us to be open, but with what sort of provisions. What can we do to support them as parents? And to get our young people transitioning slowly back into the school system.

So, we went through that process, gathered the data, and then as a team – with the attendance officer, Pastoral managers, SENCO – we spoke to every parent. We said, look, tell me what you want. We’ve done the survey. We’ve got an idea. But now as an individual, you tell me, what do you need?”

One of the widespread concerns, in the media at least, has been physical distancing – clouded by doubt over whether young people would stick to the guidelines in school. At Dovedale, however, this hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

To start off with, we looked at the size of the classrooms – so we could work out how many pupils we could have realistically in school,” tells Ms Parry. “Then we did all the markings. The one way flow system, that was all put in place as well – having to come in through reception, go down the corridor, up the back end ,up the stairs, to come down the front, we put all that in place.

Surrounded by black and yellow can create a sense of safety, but also of urgency – how did the children at Dovedale respond? “There’s been a huge change,” admits Ms Parry, “but the minute they came in, they saw that they could understand it. It was very clear. The signs are really clear.”

But how about the parents and carers? “I think the parents are probably being a little bit more anxious,” continues Ms Parry. “But I’ve had emails from parents saying that they are now happy to send their child to school after hearing from other parents – telling how well it’s planned, the structure that’s in place for them, the one way system, and the social distancing. And that means a lot. 

We’re doing our best to make sure that staff and children are kept safe in school. And everyone’s adhering to that. Everyone understands the guidelines.”

So, despite understandable concerns, it seems life under lockdown at Dovedale has not made a drama out of a crisis.

And whilst many questions remain, there is another word that would be appropriately applied to Dovedale. One that may not have been spoken in March, but as September approaches is growing in both suitability and strength.

Confidence.

To find out more about James Brindley’s Dovedale Centre, visit www.jamesbrindley.org.uk/dovedale

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