Digging Deep

A couple of years ago, I took part in a cracking half marathon which turned out to be the most gruelling race I’d ever run. Undulating roads, hills on top of hills and descents so steep I could barely stay upright. About a mile from the finish, when my legs felt close to giving way, a spectator shouted “dig deep!”. It’s strange advice (as if I’d not been digging deep for 12 miles already!) but it encouraged me to a finish line which, at various breathless points, had seemed beyond my grasp.

I’ve been involved in another endurance event this half term – The 2020 Education Ultrathon. Not for the first time, I find myself under-prepared, disorientated and not always able to fully appreciate the views from the top of the hills. I think I also chose the wrong running shoes. In a changed and uncertain world, I can say that the start of this academic year has been the most profoundly difficult and relentlessly challenging time that I have ever experienced as a headteacher.

In early June, at a time when the Government was grappling with how to reopen schools, I drafted a plan which I called ‘The Way Back to School’. It was a plan which I really just wrote for myself but which went on to be shared widely on social media. It was a plan which considered every phase from the early years to higher education and which placed children’s well-being at the heart of our mission. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect plan – there were flaws and barriers – but it was an attempt to find a way forward.

My thoughts and ideas provoked much discussion and debate across the profession. The plan received praise from parents and teachers, school leaders, consultants and HMI. It resonated with a great many teachers, I believe, due to its simplicity and child-centred approach.
I proposed changes to the school year (radical but achievable), the Ofsted inspection regime (an unhelpful distraction and not fit for purpose in the current climate) and school infrastructure. In short, the proposals I set out would have provided pupils of all ages with a smooth return to school and school leaders and teachers would have been unshackled, allowed to focus on the thing which matters the most: well-being.

Conversely, despite the extraordinary circumstances, the Government never actually produced a plan for the education profession. It’s a baffling thought: nine million children and one million teachers/support staff but no plan. Sure, school leaders were inundated with guidance documents from the DfE. There were regular recommendations and headines but most of these focused on operational matters (what to wear; how to be seated…). There was never a vision. No direction. Attempts to reopen schools more widely in June fell apart as the most basic of factors (room size; staffing) conflicted with separate guidance about social distancing. In the same period of time, senior ministers appeared to go to war with trade unions when the latter were simply doing their job of striving to keep schools as safe as possible for pupils and staff alike.

By the time September came, my primary school and the nation’s educational establishments had achieved something remarkable. We had transformed ourselves, redesigned our classrooms and our provision and prepared ourselves to care for and educate pupils in this brave new world. In getting to this point, we solved countless unthinkable problems, reinvented our practice and bought the trust of our parental communities. All of this was achieved in a climate of national confusion, uncertainty and a lack of confidence. It is almost a miracle that such a high proportion of the country’s children returned safely to school after a prolonged absence. It’s not a miracle though. It’s simply testament to the fact that we have some of the greatest teachers and school leaders in the world. All of this was achieved because of determination, passion, intellect and innovation. In lieu of an official plan, we did this ourselves.

So how did the first half term go? Well, what many of us can acknowledge and celebrate is that our children and students have been amazing. They have displayed courage, maturity and trust. They have been gung-ho, eager and, for the most part, happy to be back. Prior to this, not only had our nation’s children experienced a break in their formal education, they had first and foremost lived through the most difficult period in living memory. On reflection, it’s fair to say that some children enjoyed the break – some even thrived. On saying that, for other children in my school and in every part of the country, the hiatus and the national lockdown have proved detrimental, traumatic and even disastrous. There is much talk about pupils now ‘catching up’. The semantics are wrong though and so is the sentiment. If children were cars, the Government’s ‘Catch Up’ funding would be enough for an M.O.T. but it would fall well short of a full service.

Whilst acknowledging the fact that so many pupils have returned so positively, it is important to note that this is not plain sailing and this is not conventional schooling. Far from it. There are phenomenal challenges within daily school life in the new world: the regular hand-washing; the one way systems; the separation of classes; the cold classrooms; the reduced workforce; the management of pupil absence and Covid-19 outbreaks. There are implications on the curriculum, events, technology and there are restrictions which make playtimes and lunchtimes unfeasibly difficult to supervise. Remote teaching and learning are exciting concepts but they’re fraught with risk and logistical challenge. As work places, schools and educational settings have almost been forgotten. All of these factors combine to present school leaders with problems which feel seismic.

Of course, school leaders are typically fantastic problem solvers. It’s what we do. Unfortunately, this particular crisis management is in the context of the Government having also pressed the ‘resume normal service’ button for the education system more widely. This has left us in the unenviable position of requiring all our energy and focus to keep children and staff safe, and to keep schools open, whilst knowing that we could face an Ofsted inspection in January and that pupils will still be expected to undertake SATs (or GCSEs, etc). There is little allowance made of anyone’s worlds having been turned upside down in the last six months.

We are currently living in a crisis. It’s a worsening situation and one which is fragmenting families, schools, towns and even the home nations. There is evidently no end in sight. The Government must act fast to protect the education sector. This isn’t simply a matter of keeping schools open at all costs. It’s about making political decisions which remove some of the unnecessary pressures and therefore enable teachers and school leaders to focus on the immediate task in hand. We are a resilient profession and we are playing an invaluable part in the country’s response to the pandemic. However, there is widespread fatigue, concern about the wellbeing and health of our colleagues and there is despondency about the political leadership of education. We are less than two months in to a new school year and the darkest months are still ahead of us.

There are a great many steps the Government could take to help children, schools and educationalists at the current time. Two things in particular would make an immeasurable difference. Firstly, Ofsted inspections should be suspended indefinitely. As things stand, these are due to resume in 2021. It would be a travesty for a school to be inspected under the current Ofsted framework at any time in the foreseeable future. This is because the inspection agenda and process bear no correlation to the landscape in 2020/21. An inspection could simply have no integrity. More than that, schools have far more pressing issues to deal with day in, day out. In such unconventional circumstances, it’s inconceivable that a school should be expected to face a ‘normal’ Ofsted inspection.

Secondly, teachers and school leaders have rightly been prioritising children’s wellbeing since their return to school. We are well aware of the impact of school closures last year and we, as professional, know where we need to direct our expertise. In the summer of 2020, statutory assessments and formal examinations were aborted. In the summer of 2021, those assessments and exams are still due to go ahead. Later in the autumn term, Year 2 pupils across the country will be expected to complete a statutory phonics screening test. The decision to proceed as planned with all of these assessments is absurd; it is to the detriment of children, teachers and school leaders alike. There is another way. We could be proactive. We could make decisions now, decide on alternative assessment processes now and alleviate the associated stress and anxiety. With cases of Covid-19 on the increase and more bubble and school closures every week, it is impossible to see how a summer of formal assessments and exams can be either fair or in anybody’s best interest. It is almost inevitably that the entire schedule will have to be aborted nearer the time anyway.

If you too unwittingly entered The 2020 Education Ultrathon, be sure to pace yourself. This one’s not about pbs. It’s also more of a team relay than an individual event.  Look out for your fellow athletes. Whether you’re new to running or an experienced pro, this one will hurt. If you are a teacher, a leader or a member of school support staff, keep digging deep. When the finish line comes, your accomplishment will have been spectacular.

Steve Bladon, Headteacher @bladon_steve


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