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The last 18 months has been strange to say the least. Nobody could have prepared for COVID 19 and it was impossible to predict how it would affect all of us and for how long.

Certain sections of society and business were affected more than others but, along with the NHS, you’d probably say that education was an area which faced some of the biggest challenges. Only now, as we head into 2022, are we starting to see the situation return to anything resembling normality.

“It was an extremely stressful time for pupils, staff and parents,” says Simone Niblock, Headmistress of Durham High School. “We all knew that something was starting to grow in importance, but when Boris Johnson announced the closure of schools, it really was a case of putting our contingency plan of action in place as quickly as possible.

I cannot deny that it was an extremely worrying time, but I am immensely proud of the way everyone pulled together. I was starting my second year as Head of the school and we had exciting plans coming to fruition, but it has only been in the last few weeks when I feel that we can now start to properly move forward again.

However, although none of us could predict what the last 18 months would throw at us, I really do believe we are emerging from the pandemic as a stronger school.”

Durham High School is one of the leading independent schools in the region and is the only girls’ school in Co. Durham. Its reputation is so strong that girls travel to Durham from across the region including South Tyneside, Sunderland and Teesside. Its educational standards are extremely high, and so too are the levels of care and attention given to pupils. For many parents, the school is a hub which leads by example. In a large majority of cases, parents are involved in business. Many own businesses which, of course, have also been affected by COVID.

“It is heart-warming to know that our parents really appreciated what we were doing to protect pupils and how we continued to operate,” adds Simone. “We had to quickly switch from faceto-face teaching to providing everything online. Once everyone had got used to working online from home, I am delighted with the way everything settled into a routine. As well as lessons, we conducted assemblies, School Council meetings, Art exhibitions and virtual concerts online. We even encouraged all our pupils to keep fit with weekly sporting challenges and online sports lessons from our PE Department, as well as pupils, and staff, following the Joe Wicks YouTube revolution. End-of -year results were excellent, and we had our usual number of pupils moving from Sixth Form to university.

There has also been an interesting spinoff from working online because staff, pupils and parents are now relaxed, in most cases, about using video conferencing tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. As a result, we are continuing to hold some parental meetings online. This is particularly beneficial if, for example, one parent is away from the region owing to work commitments. We are even streaming some of our artistic and theatrical performances. For example, we have our Junior House Nativities coming up at the end of term. We will be putting this all online so even though, for the first time since December 2019, we will have parents in the audience here at the school, it means that relatives can also see the girls performing. When we streamed our Nativity Plays on Facebook last Christmas, we received lovely comments from grandparents and other relatives as far away as Dubai and Australia.

The last time we visited Durham High School was in the summer of 2019. It’s hard to believe what has happened since then. However, it’s wonderful to report that when we called in to meet Simone again, that the school still felt that like its usual bubbling, vibrant self. There’s a lovely feeling when you walk through the front door. Pupils are no longer separated into bubbles. Lunch is no longer staggered over two hours. Play time has returned to being the usual gaggle of pupils scattered around. However, there is still a determination from the school to maintain hygiene levels, with regular hand sanitising, wearing of face coverings in busy areas and enhanced cleaning still in operation.

“We are looking forward to achieving great things. We are busy working towards our Artsmark and we are always keen to be involved in as many projects as possible. We are very much focussed on providing a holistic education and giving our pupils every opportunity to succeed. As with all schools, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) remains a key focus, but we must not forget about STEAM (addition of arts – humanities, dance, drama, music, design and new media), which plays a huge part of school life. The last 18 months show how resilient, creative and forward-thinking pupils, staff and parents can be.

Most importantly, though we have been physically apart for large parts of the last 18 months, as a school community, I truly believe we have never been closer.”

This interview was originally published in Northern Insight magazine. The original article can be found here.