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“We knew this wasn’t really the end of term, but it was definitely the end of something”

Headteacher Kevin Harcombe recounts a poignant last day before his school went into shutdown

  • “We knew this wasn’t really the end of term, but it was definitely the end of something”

When the announcement of school closures was made, staff were visibly upset.

When non-teachers were saying how lucky we were to be getting an early holiday, they totally misread how we felt.

Most of us teachers realised this was not a short-term closure and, realistically, we would be unlikely to see our classes again until September at the earliest, though the government were soft-pedalling this.

Staff were worried for the vulnerable children, concerned for the lost learning and simply sad that these people – adults and children - with whom they work happily every day were about to vanish from their lives for goodness knows how long.

It also symbolised for everyone the gravity of the situation in which the whole world finds itself: we knew it was bad when lucrative sporting events were stopped, but closing schools didn’t even happen in the war! Let’s hope they don’t close the pubs. Oh, wait…

Y6 teachers were, perhaps, hardest hit. The SATs they and the children had been working towards now abandoned, the fun of those last few halcyon weeks in July – that ‘Long Goodbye’ with assemblies and presentations and celebrations – now snatched away.

The Y6 children and parents were asking whether they could they do shirt signing and all the other rites of passage activities on the last Friday before we closed.

I decided to be optimistic and announced an evening date in early September for a celebration of Y6, before they’d spent more than a day in secondary school, with singing and drama and slideshows of their last year in primary – something teachers, children and parents could all look forward to.

‘Will there be champagne?’ asked one innocent, and I was thinking, ‘You know, there just might be…’

On that Friday lunchtime, a ragbag of assorted and unnaturally subdued children congregated in our music room, some of them musicians and part of the school band, others just needing some company.

They picked up tambourines and assorted percussion and we went through a couple of songs.

It’s an uplifting experience for the children and their teachers to make music in an ensemble, no matter how rough and ready: it gives a connection; we laugh at the off notes and the missed beats and the fluffed lyrics and we beam when it all comes together and makes a good sound.

I said to the group, “Let’s do it in the hall!”, so we gathered our instruments and trooped off to the hall where I handed the mic to a couple of girls and we did our stuff to the hundred or so children eating their lunch.

Jen, our music teacher, had for some reason lost in the mists of time, taught the children the South African FIFA World Cup anthem, ‘Wavin Flag’ and it had become one of their favourite songs – probably because it has a deafening African drum beat and the kids like to wave their hands in the air to it singing, ‘When I get older / I will be stronger / They’ll call me freedom / Just like a wavin’ flag!’

The dining hall children are singing this at the tops of their voices with such joy, waving their knives and forks in the air in a manner which might well require risk assessment.

This is the power of music: to unite and to uplift. It is a lesson that is beautiful to learn for all of us, young and old.

The previously subdued players are beaming and energised. Then we troop out to the playground and start up again and the children leave their football games and run to flock round us and join in singing; a moment of simple enjoyment for all the performers and audience.

I learn later the office staff found it too poignant and had burst into tears – though making dozens of phone calls trying to get accurate figures for key workers’ children attending on Monday may also have been a contributory factor.

At the end of that Friday (it will always be known as ‘that Friday’ now), as we do at the end of every term, we gathered in the lower playground to sing to waiting parents in the bright spring sunshine.

We knew this wasn’t really the end of term, but it was definitely the end of something, so we felt justified as we crowded onto the tarmac and flouted social distancing – but then, what had we been doing every day for the past several weeks with 300 children and 30 staff crammed in a small building?

‘Wavin Flag’ was sung with gusto and waving arms aloft, as was Take That’s ‘These Days’ which the whole school belted out, with many parents joining in the chorus, and not without a few tears.

‘Tonight, tonight, we’ll remember, we’ll remember these days.’

As, indeed, we shall. Good luck everyone. Stay strong and sing!

Kevin Harcombe (@kevharcombe) is a Teaching Award winner and headteacher at Redlands Primary School, Fareham.

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