NI primary school children describe their joy at being back with their friends

GRAEME COUSINS finds out how being back at school had lifted the spirits of pupils and teachers at Ballymena Primary School

Wednesday, 21st April 2021, 8:00 am
P2 pupils take part in their exercise class at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON/PACEMAKER

Now that schools have returned to something resembling normality after the latest lockdown, the News Letter paid a visit to Ballymena Primary School to find out if pupils are glad to be back.

Mia from Mrs Logan’s P7 class said: “I just love seeing everyone back at school – pupils, teachers, assistants, everyone.”

She said that during lockdown she liked getting her school work done quickly so that she had more time to do the activities that she wanted to do.

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Ballymena Primary school has received a prestigious Royal Society Grant for science and engineering work. Celebrating the award are pupils Myles Burnside and Melanie Saratian with Gareth Bridges, Vice Principal, Tracey Woods, Controlled Schools Support Council, Elaine Ritchie, Principal, Andrew Kennedy, Chairman of the Board of Governors and Sandra Logan, teacher. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON/PACEMAKER

Beti said lockdown was a bit boring as there wasn’t much to do while Denis got a new dog to keep things interesting.

Sophie from Miss McKinley’s P6/7 class had mixed emotions about the return to school learning.

She said: “I was excited and worried about coming back to school. I was excited to see my friends and my teacher. Now I am back, I don’t even know why I was worried.”

Harvey, from the same class, said: “I missed school and I also missed making my friends smile and laugh.”

Mrs Robinson with her P5/6 class at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON/PACEMAKER

Cosmin from Miss Ferguson’s P3 class said: “I couldn’t wait to get back to school as I love this school. I really missed it and the people in it.”

Lucy from Mr Bridges’ P3 class said: “I am excited to learn in the classroom with lots of people around me.”

She went on to suggest that the school structure was an improvement on homeschooling: “Break and dinner happen at the right time at school.”

Maya from Mr Murray’s P3 class said: “I am so excited to be back to school because it has been so long since I had seen all of my friends and my teacher.”

P1 pupils take part in their cycling and scooter skills class at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON/PACEMAKER

Joseph added: “I am really excited to be back at school because I will get to see and learn so much more from my teacher and also see all of my friends.”

Principal Elaine Ritchie said: “In terms of getting the children back to school, it has been both a joy and a challenge.

“We are all glad to get back to learning, but making sure all the staggered arrivals and pick-ups as well as ensuring all the sanitising measures throughout the school are carried out with as little disruption to the school day and to children’s learning as is possible – that has been a challenge.

“The task arises from time-tabling, yes, but also putting all of the measures in place without frightening very young – or even older – children.

These P1 and P2 pupils were working together in their Learning Support groups at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

“Schools really have had an onerous task both throughout and after all lockdowns and this has been carried out with great care and efficacy, this is very much to the credit of school leaders and staff.”

The first date for school closures in Northern Ireland was March 23, 2020.

They remained closed for the rest of the term with teachers, pupils and parents getting to grips with home learning.

Pupils were phased back in September though by Christmas with Covid numbers rising again a second period of closure was announced, with exceptions made for vulnerable pupils and children of key workers.

It would be nearly three months before education got back to something close to normal.

Outlining the differences between school now and school prior to March 23, 2020 when the education moved to a home setting, Elaine said: “Since returning to school the main physical differences can be seen in the lack of congregating around the school by parents, the copious handwashing, sanitisers at children’s desks, the confinement of children to their class bubbles and the presence of masks for close up work with any adult entering the school.

P2 pupils take part in their exercise class at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

“These images are now part of our everyday school life but ones we have adapted to and probably no longer think about.”

She continued: “There are deeper differences beyond the physical however, and they can be harder to detect but are no less present.

“Children have needed to talk, they have needed time to adapt to coming back to school and time to re-socialise with their friends and be part of a classroom again.”

She said that although there was a high engagement with online learning during lockdown, children missed the connectivity with peers and teachers and being part of the school routine and atmosphere.

To combat the social anxiety about being around others again, worries about their learning and about coping outside of their home, the school has created ‘nooks’ in the classroom and around the school where children have space to relax take a ‘time out’ if they feel overwhelmed.

Elaine said: “The concern was that this could be abused and children would just use it to avoid completing class work, but we have not found that at all. It’s something they know is there and it just gives an assurance that, ‘it’s okay not to be okay’.

“I have made available a member of our Learning Support team to listen to children if they are showing signs of anxiety or even if they have expressed a desire to talk themselves.

“This member of staff has reported that just talking for a short time in a relaxed atmosphere with a safe adult has meant children start feeling more assured and calm about the transition back to everyday schooling and this impacts positively upon their well-being.”

She said the school has started a “gentle and age appropriate” programme about mental health: “We are encouraging everyone not to ‘navel gaze’, but be aware of times they may get anxious or feel down and then give them strategies to do something about it, to help to build resilience. The programme is unobtrusive and we plan that it be effective in preparing children to cope with life immediately after lockdown and throughout their future.

“We remain a school – like all other schools – aiming to prepare its pupils for the next stage of their education, so our children’s academic learning is of utmost importance to us. They are tomorrow’s leaders, shop keepers, doctors and citizens.

“Very much linked to that obvious curriculum is the need to meet their needs as they are now, to prepare them for a future whatever that may be and to help them meet it with compassion, kindness, strength and resilience.

“These are lessons the pandemic must have highlighted as a need in all of us, and they might just be worth going to school for.”

Andrew Kennedy, who is on the board of governors of three primary schools in Ballymena, was pleased that the transition back to face-to-face learning has been a seamless one.

“All three principals are reporting that things have gone really well,” said Andrew, who sits on the board of governors at Ballymena PS, Ballykeel PS and Kirkinriola PS.

He continued: “Primary children are very resilient. They went back into their bubbles, back into their routine, it’s been fairly seamless.

“The problem I see is with the secondary sector where children have missed out on a year.

“At Ballymena Primary we’re delighted with the feedback we’ve been getting from parents about how the school handled remote learning.

“We’re very, very grateful for the amount of work that the staff put in, in very difficult circumstances with the school on and off.”

A grant from the Royal Society – the world’s oldest independent scientific academy – will allow Ballymena PS to further develop its STEAM education and forge sustainable links with local businesses who can offer pupils hands-on learning opportunities.

The grant, totalling around £6,000, will be used to boost Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths projects. Among the aims of the school is to encourage more girls to take on these subjects.

Principal Elaine Ritchie said: “We’re trying to reduce the stigma that engineering and mathematical subjects are just for males. Great Britain and Ireland want engineers to stay here and to make us a successful country in that field. This is a long term project.”

Discussing the move from STEM to STEAM, Elaine said: “I think it shows that creativity is not just limited to what we normally see as artistic endeavours like painting, music and drama. When you look at James Dyson, he’s probably one of the most creative people alive. He sees possibilities where the rest of us don’t. That’s what we’re saying – creativity exists in all areas of our life.

“We’re obviously doing literacy and numeracy with children as well but this is a whole other side of things we’re trying to develop with children. The Royal Society gives us a definite way in which we could do that and build that forward.”

P5 pupils get to grips with the STEAM work tasks at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 19/4/2021: Back to school after lockdown. Miss Logan and her P5 pupils get to grips with the Steam Work tasks at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
Miss Laura Davison with P1 pupils at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 19/4/2021: Back to school after lockdown. These P1 boys were enjoying their Outdoor Play based learning class at Ballymena Primary School. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON