Reflections on Virtual Primary Parliament, July 2020
The Nottingham Primary Parliament is an initiative run by Nottingham City Council’s Engagement and Participation team in collaboration with cultural and educational partners. Each term, school council delegates (usually years 5 and 6) from over forty primary schools in Nottingham are invited to take part in a day at the Council House. Pupils collaborate with their peers from different schools on creative activities designed around themes such as Learning and Earning and Healthy, Creative You. At the end of the day, pupils present their ideas to councillors in the Council Chamber, responding to feedback and questions. The sessions are designed to provide all pupils with the opportunity to consider real-life issues affecting Nottingham, be creative and have their voices heard.
Ignite! has supported Primary Parliament for many years, and it has been a vehicle through which the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity has engaged large numbers of primary pupils in its programmes, notably an air quality monitoring project in 2019. Ignite! also accompanied delegates from Primary Parliament when they presented to the Transport Committee in Westminster. The Festival received a grant from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust through the UK Science Festivals Network to explore the theme of Environment in relation to Antarctica with Primary Parliament as part of their Antarctica In Sight 2020 celebrations.
Like many school engagement programmes, in the early stages of lockdown, Ignite! planned to postpone the Antarctica project until the Autumn term. However, in late May it became clear that many schools were reopening for year 6 pupils, so the potential to deliver the programme digitally arose. The Nottingham City Council team convened its Primary Parliament partners - including the Bulwell EAZ (Education Improvement Partnership), Nottingham Castle Trust, Ignite! and the Carbon Neutral Nottingham 2028 lead - to discuss the potential and logistics for delivering Primary Parliament virtually. A call out to teachers received a positive response from nine schools, and the day was designed to accommodate the schools’ needs.
Adaptations and Challenges
The event was designed to bear as much resemblance as possible to regular Primary Parliament sessions, but there were of course lots of adaptations. We delivered two days, with five schools on the first day and four on the second day. The theme of the day was ‘Why should we in Nottingham care about what happens in Antarctica?’.
Teachers informed us that they had already been using Microsoft Teams as a way of keeping in touch with pupils so already had this installed on computers (rather than Zoom), so we decided to use this platform.
However, due to licensing restrictions, we couldn’t set up breakout rooms, and instead had to set up one meeting for the morning session and one meeting for the afternoon session that everyone was invited to, and then mentors had to create a separate meeting that they invited each bubble within their school group to. This was quite complicated, and there was some confusion from teachers about which meeting to join. There were fewer issues on the second day, when we made sure that the log-in details were communicated really simply to teachers. In the end it worked fine, and the teachers were really accommodating and well equipped to deal with virtual learning (but we will be researching a way to do this in a way that works for everyone in advance of the next virtual Primary Parliament).
We sent resources out to the schools in the post and digitally in a Google Drive folder so they had lots of material to use in advance. This was received positively by teachers as it meant their pupils were well prepared on the day.
Each class was divided into bubbles in different classrooms with different start times and break/lunch times. This meant that there were only two times during the school day when all the participants could be present in one call at the same time, 10-10.30am and 1.30-2.15pm.
We are able to successfully mirror the regular opening session, with introductions and school ‘shout-outs’, and we were able to bring councillors into the presentation session at the end of the day to feedback as usual on pupils’ work. The opportunity to share their work was highlighted by one of the teachers - “Getting personal acknowledgement from the adults about their work - that individual feedback meant a lot to them. They were a bit nervous to present but full of beans after they had done it”..
In the opening session, we invited two scientists from the UK Polar Network to deliver a presentation and answer questions from the pupils. This was the section of the day that translated best to a virtual environment - they were able to deliver a really engaging talk with a highly visual powerpoint, and pupils could be called upon to ask pre-prepared questions. The “unique opportunity” for pupils to engage with scientists was highlighted by teachers as a key benefit of the day.
Working with pupils on the tasks was more difficult, and the mentors paired with individual schools relied much more heavily on teachers to lead the sessions than usual. Rather than taking a leading role in brainstorming ideas and getting creative with pupils in a really hands-on way, the mentor was in much more of a supportive role - prompting and responding to questions from teachers and facilitating Q&A sessions with the polar researchers. It did feel odd at times to be watching pupils as they worked rather than getting stuck in with them. We were able to have the Polar Scientists jump into the individual calls at different times to speak directly with specific groups, and give more detail on themes the classes were interested in learning about.
1. Creativity - the pupil’s responses were excellent, and demonstrated some real deep thought and creativity. Pupils sang raps, performed role-plays, wrote poems, created posters and the level of engagement was really high. It was great to see pupils expressing their creativity and curiosity despite all the challenges they have faced over the past few months.
2. New audiences - Primary Parliament usually only engages with a handful of school council representatives from each school due to capacity constraints of the Council House, but virtually we were able to engage with whole classes, including pupils who are less engaged at school
3. Attention-span - in the written feedback from pupils, many of them wrote that they felt the session was ‘too long’. Our sense is that this could be due to a combination of factors; pupils had been off-school for a long time and their timetables had changed to shorter lessons, so they weren’t used to deep, focused work; there were parts of the day where pupils were listening to others rather than presenting themselves which tested their attention spans; there were pupils engaging who haven’t participated in Primary Parliament before and are not used to the format.
4. Adaptability - the teachers we worked with were really flexible and supportive of the session as an experiment in new ways of working. There were schools that have been involved with Primary Parliament for many years, and therefore have a level of trust in the process based on previous experience, but there were also schools that have not been involved before, and saw it as an opportunity for their pupils and were open to a new learning experience.
Conclusions, implications and recommendations
There were many challenges in delivering a STEM based topic in the format of Primary Parliament, but the schools quickly grasped the relevance of the central divergent question. We feel that a similar approach can be adopted for future Primary Parliaments and other schools projects. We are really grateful to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust for their flexibility and enabling this opportunity for us to adapt and learn.
The preparation of the science researchers was much appreciated and they were excellent communicators, pitching their presentations entirely appropriately for the age and ability range of the pupils. The vehicle of Primary Parliament is an excellent opportunity for researchers to achieve outreach and engagement goals.
The technology of multi-participant platforms can be challenging. We feel that the availability of an IT expert person is an invaluable support to events of this nature.
As schools return in their very different COVID secure environments we envisage many new challenges for learning - including the attention spans of pupils and the revised lengths of lessons. We will pay particular attention to adapt our approach accordingly and offer a wider and diverse range of learning opportunities for pupils in the terms ahead.
Finally, thanks again to UKAHT for supporting this project.