If you work in childcare and education, in any age phase and in any part of the sector, you will know one thing above all else: it’s tough right now.
It’s late autumn 2021. We’re almost two years into a global pandemic. We’ve all just lived through the most troubling, uncertain and disruptive period of our shared existence. In Britain, political and social attitudes towards Covid-19 have shifted in recent months. Life, in many ways, is ‘back to normal’. Education is back to normal. Schools are back to normal…I mean, they’re absolutely not back to normal…but that’s the spin at least.
I’ve worked in primary education since the last millennium. I’ve been in positions of leadership for 16 years and been a headteacher for 11 years. Most of my career was spent in the pre-Covid world; the latter part in the new world. What’s changed? Where are we at? How much can we take?
Here are my reflections on some of the most pressing challenges facing education at the end of 2021, in the third academic year of Covid-19. These issues are in no particular order, although children come first. Children should always come first.
1. Children are Struggling (A Great Many Children)
In late 2021, there are, I believe, more children than ever finding it difficult to access education or simply to make sense of the world. You might know of pupils in your own class or school. Or perhaps you know this as a parent. I know this from both camps. I live it every day.
Now it’s not necessarily the case that the pandemic has caused this situation but the context has undoubtedly exacerbated many pre-existing factors. And how do we know that children are struggling? Here are just a few of the manifestations.
i. More and more children are presenting challenging behaviour. In some cases, those with challenging or complex behaviour can find themselves permanently excluded from mainstream schooling.
ii. In the Early Years, many children are joining settings with significant delays and gaps in their development, eg language or self care, and with under-developed core strength, reduced mobility and a lack of social awareness.
iii. There has been a sudden increase in the number of children with anxiety based school refusal. Meanwhile, high numbers of children (of all ages) are presenting mental health issues, some of which we have never before encountered. Yet our ability to help is fundamentally hindered. External support services are stretched thin. Children who require urgent support for their mental health can face waiting lists which are many months long. Quite often, those who present the greatest concern don’t even meet the threshold for CAMHS.
iv. Issues relating to SEND and safeguarding have become more frequent and more complex. They impact on children in and out of school 24/7. Many parents and families are struggling. The scale of this particular matter is almost overwhelming. The significance of this would justify a blog of its own (and a change in national policy).
v. There’s something else to mention here too, something not so well known: The Lost Children. There is, quite simply, a staggering number of children currently out of school. I don’t mean those who are officially home-schooled. I mean the hundreds of thousands of children who are without a school place, not attending their place or ‘missing in education’. This might be subsequent to a permanent exclusion. It might be related to an additional need. It might be for reasons related to mental health, to geography or to waiting lists. Whatever the reason, you could feasibly argue that, in any instance, it’s a tragedy.
vi. Finally, on the subject of children struggling, let’s not forget the matter of poverty. 4.3 million children were living in poverty in the UK in 2019-20. That’s 31% of all children, or nine pupils in a class of thirty. Over 420,000 pupils became eligible for free school meals between the start of the first lockdown (March 2020) and June 2021. Aside from the statistics of those living in poverty, we also know that a great many families faced unexpected and sudden hardship, and other domestic pressures, as a result of the pandemic. Marcus Rashford’s high profile campaign and schools’ efforts to distribute food and check on the vulnerable – these things were heroic. But they need to inform our direction, not just be remembered as a selfless moment in time.
2. Teachers, Support Staff and Leaders are Exhausted (A Great Many)
Over the years, I’ve worked in enough schools, in enough positions and with enough people to know that this is a tiring profession. It always has been and, probably, it always will be. Children are tiring! Our jobs are demanding! Schools are busy (non-stop) places! Of course it’s a tiring profession. It’s par of the course.
But right now it’s different. Right now, there is a sense of fatigue which permeates the profession. It’s tangible. Now, don’t get me wrong, fatigue isn’t exclusive to our profession, but schools have been through an arduous, ever-changing and confusing 20 month period. Both physically and mentally, it’s been hard work. Remember, at one point, we even reimagined school and established remote education overnight!
In my opinion, the vast majority of schools responded remarkably, at every stage of the pandemic: key worker provision; holiday provision; food parcels; welfare checks; remote learning…you name it, we did it. BUT… all the trials, the changes, the intensity…. they come at a cost. And now we’re seeing that cost. What we have now is individual members of staff – teachers, support staff and leaders – who are considerably more tired than usual. Some are fatigued and others utterly exhausted. For some, the exhaustion has contributed to deteriorating mental health. Of course, in any workplace, at anytime, some employees will be feeling tired and perhaps not at their best. What’s different now is that a significant proportion of education staff are feeling it at the same time.
Why is this a problem? Well, quite simply, fatigue is not generally a positive state. It affects mood, behaviour, health, culture and climate. It can take the form of grumpiness, sadness and intolerance. It affects decisions, relationships and word choices. When a workforce is tired, pupils aren’t getting the best deal.
It’s not just the tiredness though. It’s a great concern to school leaders that ill health is increasing and staff absence levels are at an unprecedented high. And here’s the paradox: at the very time when children need us more than ever, the workforce is at an all time low, in terms of energy, health and well-being.
3. Teacher Retention Rates are Disastrous
If you spend any time in the world of EduTwitter, you’ll have noticed a common Tweet in 2021: the departure announcement. They’re posted daily by disillusioned teachers, young and old, and by leaders, worn down and heartbroken. Individual posts have an air of relief, despair and hopelessness:
“I didn’t want it to come to this but today I’ve handed in my notice…”
“That’s it. I’m done. I’ve got nothing left…”
Here are some statistics which would raise eyebrows in any profession or industry:
*Between 2011 and 2019, the proportion of teachers leaving the profession within one year increased by 25%. This is a potential loss of 3500 new teachers per year.
*The number of teacher vacancies has more than doubled in the last ten years.
*A quarter of new teachers leave the profession within three years.
*A third of new teachers leave the profession within five years.
*School leaders are walking away at an alarming rate, some from their posts, many from the entire profession.
At the same time as the above, teachers are now working more hours than before and the pupil to teacher ratio has increased in the secondary sector. When teachers and leaders leave their posts prematurely, schools lose experience, skill and knowledge. If we are unable to recruit suitable new staff, this has an impact on a school’s immediate capacity, as well as affecting its longer term succession planning.
4. Assessment and Inspection
Here are some acronyms of great things: RNLI (courageous); AA (saviours, both organisations) and NAAFI (a nod to my military station childhood!). Those acronyms reflect institutions which are inherently supportive, important and beneficial in their respective fields of work. They rescue, they repair and they provide. Here are some acronyms which instill fear and despondency across an entire profession: SATs and Ofsted.
Successive Governments have spent years trying to justify Ofsted’s very existence. Ofsted itself has spent much of the last 18 months trying to prove its own value in a changed sector. The latest official position is that it exists to support schools. They’re supporting schools right now by inspecting them fully and, in many instances, making no allowance for the impact or ongoing disruption of the pandemic.
I have experienced five Ofsted inspections across four schools – two as a class teacher and three as a Headteacher. There have been different agendas and different formats but, essentially, the process was the same each time: Inspection>Judgements>Outcomes>Report Publication>Celebration or Aftermath.
My most recent experience of inspection resulted in an RI outcome, which was a little different to the Outstanding outcome the school had enjoyed ten years previously. In Ofsted’s defence, the inspection itself was fair and the outcome objectively accurate. (As an aside, don’t all schools actually require improvement though?)
For me and my senior leadership, our most recent inspection served as a mandate to continue with the changes we had begun. But, my goodness, would anybody actually choose an RI or an Inadequate judgement? The pressure! The fall out! The additional expectations! The urgency to bring about change! The inevitable negative comments and the perception (by some) that the grading means a school has fallen from grace or is falling apart…
As for SATs, it’s very hard to understand what these (and other) assessments actually tell us. And if they do tell us anything at all, is this not information which we could gather in a different, kinder way? Much like Ofsted, the problem with SATs is that some schools play the game and others do not. Some shape their entire calendar, direct their resources and pile on the pressure, to ensure sustained ‘performance’. Others sail a different path.
I don’t have a problem with accountability; after all, children have a right to a good quality of care and education. But children and schools don’t need Ofsted and they don’t need SATs. These things are no longer fit for purpose and they simply add to the pressure within a strained sector. They’re not buoyancy aids and they’re certainly not the RNLI. They’re the mysterious under-current.
5. Politics, Education Secretaries & the DfE
The Government’s handling of education and its treatment of schools during the pandemic has been well documented. At its best, political leadership has been confusing. At its worst, it’s resulted in widespread despair. It’s certainly not a good thing when the Secretary of State for Education becomes a national laughing stock.
Now, whilst I could quite readily recount any number of Gavin Williamson’s greatest hits, I must point out that this isn’t a new scenario. It’s not even just a Conservative scenario. Even before the pandemic hit, in more normal times, and under successive Governments, educationalists have felt battered by politics: the interference; the ideology; the spin against the profession; under-funding; the trade union spats and the Ofsted agenda.
There have been twelve Education Secretaries during my 23 year career. Typically, each has served for about two years and become known for one main agenda item. The two longest serving Education Secretaries of the last 25 years have been David Blunkett and Michael Gove.
Blunkett presided over the Department which introduced the Literacy Hour. Publishers of big books rejoiced over healthy sales figures but teachers weren’t entirely convinced by the methodology. In my school, we had to stick signs on our classroom doors: “DO NOT DISTURB – LITERACY HOUR IN PROGRESS!”. My, how Ofsted loved that.
In the case of Gove, he served for four years, during which he pushed the academy and free school agendas. He also inflicted a bad mood and a sense of deflation across the profession, often before he even spoke.
But let’s forget about Blunkett and Gove, and the others you’ve already forgotten about. Let’s instead remember Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, 2001-2002. She held a BEd degree and had enjoyed an 18 year secondary school career, as a PE and humanities teacher, and as a Head of Sixth Form.
Imagine a world in which a qualified, skilled and experienced teacher and senior leader presides over the political department which directs the entire profession. Imagine the potential for empathy and for child-centred agenda, and the scope for positive change.
There are nine million pupils attending 24,000 schools in England. There is a workforce of just under one million teachers, support staff and school leaders. Many children are struggling, many staff are fatigued and too many are walking away. SATs, Ofsted and political agendas continue to add tremendous strain to a world of education which couldn’t be less ‘normal’ if it tried.
Children, staff and schools are under too much pressure.
It’s time to do things differently.
Steve B Headteacher @75ThunderRoad
5 thoughts on “UNDER PRESSURE: EDUCATION IN A NEW ERA”
This is a brilliant assessment. You really know and understand what is going on. It is also so helpful for a former teacher like me because we don’t know what it has been like for the last 18 months in school and why it is so much worse than our own experience. Your analysis of the mental health issues for pupils and teachers is particularly helpful here and helps understand what I have been seeing from a distance. I also agree that Estelle Morris was the best of all the educational ministers in the period described.
Thank you, David. I appreciate your kind words.
Thank you, David. I appreciate your kind words. These are incredibly challenging times for everyone.
I’ve never known a couple of weeks like the two weeks I’ve experienced, over 10% of children out of school due to positive covid results or awaiting a test. A huge number of staff out for the same. Teachers from other year groups covering different classes, classes being split to release teachers to cover other classes. No money for supply teachers if there were any available. PT teachers offered toil. Not great as I haven’t seen my class for 2 weeks, my job share not been in our class for 3 weeks. Behaviour of children who are vulnerable and not seen their class teachers or any routine (which has been their everything since Sept) just not coping. SLT having quiet breakdowns when no one is looking! I qualified in 96 and haven’t seen pressure like this.
I’m sorry to hear all this, Andrea. These issues are paralysing schools and it’s completely heartbreaking.
Everybody deserves better.