Leaving Headship: Ten Lessons in Life

Three months ago today, I spent my last day in school. I’d been a headteacher for 12 years and worked in education for 24 years. I made the decision to leave, aged 47, because I wasn’t well. I’d been ill for over a year and I’d been back in work – trying my best – for seven months. I knew that the job simply wasn’t conducive to my recovery.

When I made the decision to leave my job and pause my career, I envisaged a period of time in which I would rest, do things which were good for me and then begin to figure out what my future might hold. Of course, life doesn’t always go to plan…

In the time that has passed since I left my job, our family has faced many trials. Firstly, our oldest daughter’s anxiety became so consuming that she became unable to leave the house. Secondly, my dad had a stroke, following which he has spent six weeks in hospital (and counting). Thirdly, my dad caught Covid in hospital and my mum and I caught it from him. I passed Covid on to my wife and daughter, and so it spread. That’s Covid 19, still wreaking havoc in 2023.

But this isn’t a thread of self-pity or about the trials of life; it’s about change and hope.

Here are ten of the things I’ve learned or come to appreciate in a different way than before:

1. Sometimes, when we are worn down, our bodies simply need time to rest and heal. Despite all the challenges of life, and despite recently having Covid again, I am finally recovering from Long Covid. I can breathe normally again, most of the time. My heart rate is stabilising. I have energy to do things. I can give my children piggy backs again and brush our girls’ long hair. One day, I’ll put my trainers on and run again.

2. An unbroken night’s sleep is a wonderful thing. It turns out, I’d not been sleeping well for years. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about safeguarding, Ofsted calling, the school budget or HR issues. I am beginning to actually feel refreshed when I wake up in a morning. What a difference, to feel renewed each day!

3. Having some time to think and reflect is a real blessing. We all need headspace. As educators, we’ve become accustomed to working all hours and thinking about work in many of the other hours too. Sometimes, other very important things (family, friends, personal decisions) can get squashed into a disproportionately small pocket of time.

4. It takes time getting used to being at home and not working to a non-stop schedule. I’ve worked in busy and dynamic places for my entire career, engaging with children, parents, staff and other professionals every day. Now I’m at home every day, presently with my twelve year old daughter for company. It’s quiet, though we do listen to the radio a lot. The quietness and the music have both helped me to relax.

5. When you’re not rushing about or juggling a million work related thoughts, it’s possible to find joy and peace in simple chores. I’ve taken on a few projects at home – things that I’ve not had time to do (or haven’t been well enough to do) since we bought our house four years ago. I’ve been decorating our hall, stairs and landing for weeks now, chipping away when I can. I’ve learned some joinery skills and found the whole process to be rewarding and cathartic. The work has been immeasurably helpful to my daughter too. Painting has given her a focus which has distracted her from worry and actively reduced her adrenaline level.

6. We all need company and support. Social media can be a confusing place but I seem to have found a community of like-minded people. When you don’t see many people in real life, and not least when times are hard, the interaction with others on Twitter and Facebook can be really supportive and beneficial.

7. There is an astonishing number of families whose children are struggling in one way or another. Our daughter’s anxiety disorder has led me and my wife to a number of support group communities. The daily battles which parents share are absolutely heartbreaking. As well as schools, local authorities and the NHS not having enough resources or capacity, it’s also very apparent that there just isn’t enough joined up thinking. There’s also far too much judgement and not enough empathy.

8. Education is a challenging profession and, my word, the last few years in leadership have been brutal. But schools are still wonderful places. I miss the children. I miss the comradeship. I miss playing a part in other people’s lives. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

9. Everything happens for a reason.
When I was considering leaving work last autumn, I knew that, as well as my own health problems, our daughter was rapidly becoming unwell and my dad’s health was deteriorating, due to Parkinson’s. These were factors in my decision to pause my career. I knew my family would needed me.

This year, I’ve seen our daughter change, struggle and become consumed with worry. I’ve seen my dad suffer, become frail and vulnerable. My family have needed me in ways I’d never expected. There have been some very long minutes, hours and days. We still have a journey ahead.

A few days ago, the man in the bed next to my dad’s bed died suddenly, during visiting hours. Things can change in an instant; life is fragile.

10.  Hope is the greatest of things. It’s sometimes difficult to see light in all the darkness. But the light is always there, even when the tunnel is long.

I hope my daughter will fully recover from her anxiety disorder.
I hope my dad will recover enough to leave hospital and be cared for in his own home.
I hope that life stabilises a little for our whole family.
I hope I can make sense of my own future, once the present is a little calmer.
I hope I can still make a difference.

Steve Bladon

20th April, 2023



The Diary of an Anxious Child

This is a blog about an 11 year old girl, my oldest daughter, Amelia. It’s a blog about a child living with an anxiety disorder. It’s a blog for parents, teachers and anybody who would like to understand a little more about a condition which is affecting children and young people everywhere.

Monday 20th February

It’s the first day of the spring second half term. Some children look forward to returning to school after a holiday. Others do not. Some children are ambivalent. Others experience a level of fear that you or I might find inconceivable. Amelia is in the latter category right now. It’s about a month since she was able to enter a classroom and join in with ‘normal’ lessons with her peers. In the two weeks prior to the break, Amelia attended school on just a few occasions. When she did, she was supported in a separate space.

Amelia got her uniform ready last night. She checked her timetable and sorted her school bag too. She did these things off her own bat. No pressure from us. In this routine, she is more organised and seemingly more keen than all three of her siblings! These are the actions of a child who wants to belong to a school and who wants to do well. These are positive traits and they are indicative of her character, beneath the anxiety.

Amelia struggled to get to sleep last night. She lay awake, worried, sad, crying, thinking and over-thinking. She woke in the middle of the night too, as she often does. This morning is as difficult as we had feared it might be. Unsurprisingly, Amelia is exhausted from another broken night, from a lack of sleep and from her adrenaline, which is on overdrive. When she awakes, even the gentlest mention of school causes Amelia to panic. Her heart rate soars and she’s shaking.

Once my wife and I have established that Amelia won’t be going to school today, the morning mostly pans out ok. She’s keen to submit a PowerPoint which she had worked on over half term. She sends that off via Teams and then has a few more spells on the laptop, completing some Maths and French work online. Over the course of the morning, Amelia is hit by a few anxiety waves. I try to use distraction to calm her. We do a spot of gardening, a little painting and have a few games of Mario Kart on the old Wii.

Early in the afternoon, things take a different turn. Amelia asks when everyone else will be back from school and work. She has tummy ache and she’s missing her mum. She hasn’t eaten or drunk all day but the very thought of food makes her nauseous. Worries about all sorts of things seem to come at her from all angles. The colour drains from her face. She cries and tells me she doesn’t want to feel like this.

Over the next few hours, I do my best to reassure Amelia, telling her she will be ok and that the worry will pass. In actual fact, the worry turns into a panic attack. It’s frightening. I’m in new territory here. My daughter has a tummy ache, a headache, a racing heart and she’s feeling sick. She hasn’t had a meal since last night so she’s low on energy too. I’m hugely relieved when my wife comes home from work. Amelia is relieved too. She thinks she has a migraine and she always wants her mum when she feels like this. She falls asleep on our bed, shortly after the rest of us have had our tea.

Tuesday 21st February

It’s been a rough night for everyone and not least Amelia. She was sick multiple times through the night. She’s had just a few hours’ sleep, as has my wife. When she awakes, Amelia panics immediately. She fears she will be sick again and she doesn’t want to be alone. School isn’t on the cards today. Even remote learning is unlikely, given Amelia’s fatigue and worry levels.

As the day progresses, Amelia very slowly begins to feel less nauseous. Her anxiety level remains high though and she doesn’t like being left alone, even for a minute. The high level of adrenalin –  central to her anxiety disorder – causes her heart to race frequently and at random times. It also creates an over-riding sense of fear and doom. Amelia needs lots of reassurance. We watch a Pixar film later in the morning and it does a good job of engaging us both and distracting Amelia.

By the early afternoon, Amelia seems a little brighter. It’s a nice day so we spend a short time in the garden. We have an ongoing project of tidying our rockery. It’s calm and satisfying work. Before her siblings come home from school, Amelia enjoys some reading and a little painting too. She can’t face food or drink as she’s worried she’ll be sick again. She’s worrying about worrying.

Wednesday 22nd February

Amelia slept through the whole night, for the first time in ages. She needed that. For the first time this week, she doesn’t wake up in a distressed state. This is such a relief for all of us. Today is my wife’s day off work; if should make for an easier day all round.

We receive a letter in the post, in relation to the Healthy Minds referral which we instigated last November. We had a triage appointment in early December. This letter lets us know that we haven’t been forgotten.  We’re still on the waiting list. Of course, like most other families in similar situations, we can’t just wait indefinitely. Our daughter’s health and well being are too important. We’ve sought private support and Amelia has her first appointment this morning.

The appointment goes well and Amelia is relieved. She’d been worrying about that too. It’s hard enough coping with familiar people at present, never mind meeting new ones. Before lunch, Amelia sets about doing some more school work on her laptop. She’s proud of her English assignment so she shares that with me before emailing it to school.

For the rest of the day, Amelia is – for brief spells – relaxed, calm and even cheerful. It’s such a relief. She does some art by herself, we do some more gardening together and she is eating and drinking again. It’s very apparent that Amelia feels safer and less worried when her mum and I are both nearby. She has a wobble when her mum goes to collect her sisters from school at the end of the day but I manage to distract her with a bit more time in the garden.

Thursday 23rd February

For the second consecutive night, Amelia has slept all the way through. This is really good news. She seems relatively relaxed as we begin to talk about the day ahead. At half past ten, we have a virtual appointment in relation to Amelia’s health. Ten minutes before the appointment, Amelia is suddenly overwhelmed. I hug her, reassure her and remind her that the appointment is intended to help her. She has a little cry and she clings on to me. She wipes her tears away just as we turn on the video call.

Amelia didn’t have any breakfast this morning and she doesn’t really want any lunch. Even if she’s hungry, the thought of eating sometimes makes Amelia worry that she might get tummy ache or feel sick. I delicately encourage her to have just one sandwich. Early in the afternoon, we decide to go for a little walk. I’m trying to make sure that Amelia gets some fresh air and exercise everyday. It’s good for all of us, I’m certain.

Friday 24th February

When the alarm goes off this morning, we all struggle to jump into action. We are all exhausted. When one person in a household has an anxiety disorder, the whole family is affected. Everything has changed: our days; our nights; what we do; where we go and what we can say. When Amelia awakes, she is calm but still shattered. The adrenaline in her body is having a similar effect to her  running a marathon every day.

Amelia’s mum goes off to work and her siblings head off to school. Amelia and I talk about some things we need to do today. She makes a list of the tasks we decide on. It’s helpful to visualise the day (and to tick things off). We decide to start some school work in the first part of the morning. I potter about doing some jobs in the kitchen but, soon after Amelia has logged on to Teams, she’s overcome with worry. She starts to cry. She tells me she suddenly feels worried and she thinks she might be sick. We turn the laptop off for a bit.

In an attempt to distract Amelia from the worry which has just come on, we do a little bit of housework and tick a few things off the list. It works for a few minutes but Amelia soon becomes very distressed again. If I go into another room, she panics. She says she feels ill but she doesn’t know what’s wrong. During the afternoon, the doorbell rings twice. Each time, Amelia responds as though there’s some sort of immediate threat. She asks me who it is before I’ve even answered the door. She curls up very small on the sofa. Amelia is on heightened alert.

The two visitors to our house were my dad and then our next door neighbour. A few months ago, Amelia would have run to the door, opened it with cheer and chatted with confidence and affection. Today, her adrenaline puts her on high alert, almost continuously. The most innocuous of events – like the doorbell ringing – can cause her to be fearful. It’s utterly exhausting for Amelia and it’s confusing too.

By four o’clock, my wife, our son and our other two daughters are all home. It’s the end of the school week. We should be able to rest, relax and take our minds off work and school. The anxiety doesn’t know it’s the weekend though…

Life after Headship – The First Week

It’s the evening of Friday 20th January, 2023.  I’m sitting in the living room at home, surrounded by cards, gifts and a loving family. I’m trying to work out how I’m feeling. I’m not actually sure how I feel but I’m very tired. I know that much.

It’s been a long day. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long few years. It’s been a reasonably long career in education – 24 years – but it’s over, for now. I’ve just left my job as a primary school headteacher. I’ve just said “goodbye” to a school community that means the world to me and a profession that has been part of who I am for over half my life. Who am I now? What will my place be? I’m 47. I’m not retiring but I’m not well and I need to get better. I intend to get better.

I’ve unwrapped a few presents tonight but, to be honest, it’s over-whelming. I’ve read a few cards but some of the messages have really choked me. I’m taken aback by some of the details which parents and children have recalled with affection. It’s not the big things that are at the front of people’s minds right now. Instead, it’s memories of simple interactions. It’s a few words I said to a child when they were worried. It’s when a child stepped on my foot but we turned it into a little dance. In my leaving assembly, one girl described me as her “light in the dark”. How poignant those four words are. What a privilege it’s been, to work in education.

It was October half term when I realised what I had to do. My Road to Damascus enlightenment took place somewhere on the road between the villages of Seahouses and Bamburgh, Northumberland. It took place when walking in the sand dunes and staring out at the Farne Islands. If you know this region, you will know that this is an area of outstanding beauty. It’s steeped in history. It’s atmospheric. It’s tranquil. It’s sublime. It’s been a place of spiritual significance for centuries.

My family and I were in real need of a holiday. I had just completed my first half term back in full time work. I was exhausted. My wife had been holding our family together for ten months. Our oldest daughter was struggling after a difficult transition to secondary school. My dad had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s too. It had been a tough time for all of us. So off we went – me, my wife, our four children, and my mum and dad – in search of respite and gentle adventures.

It’s Sunday 30th October, 2022. It’s almost the start of the autumn second half term. My family and I have had the most wonderful holiday. It’s been revitalising. We’ve had strolls on the beach, fresh air, and spectacular scenery. We’ve had relaxing family time. We’ve slept well and eaten well.   Most significantly of all, my Long Covid symptoms haven’t stopped me from doing anything. My heart rate has slowed and I’ve been able to breathe well for a week. I haven’t been in constant pain. My body hadn’t been coping well with my return to work. Long Covid is brutal. I’d been trying to push through but I realise I need to listen to my body. I know what I have to do next.

It’s Saturday 21st January 2023. It’s the start of the first weekend of the rest of my life. I’ve woken up at 5am. 5am! The old me would have loved this. I could have crept out of the house, gone for a long run and still been back before anyone else woke up. The new me can’t run. The new me needs rest and sleep and gentle starts. The new me is going to take some time to acclimatise.

It’s Monday 23rd January 2023. It’s the first day of a new school week but I just need to remember not to go to school. I turned the 6 o’clock alarm off last night but I’ve woken up at 5.50am anyway. It’s what I always do on weekdays. This morning, I don’t need to put on a suit. I don’t have a 20 mile drive on treacherous, rural roads. Instead, I just have to put on some casual clothes and walk my daughter to school. It’s not far. It should be straight forward.

The fifteen minute walk to secondary school is not straight forward.  Our daughter is consumed with anxiety. I’ve known about it for months but now I’m seeing exactly how it manifests. She’s tearful leaving the house. She slows down as we approach the school. When we get to the long driveway, she begs me not to leave her. I hand her over to a member of the school’s pastoral team. She’s sobbing. I walk home, feeling guilty and full of worry for her.

It’s Wednesday 25th January 2023. Today is my wife’s day off work. We rarely have time together, just the two of us. I’m taking our other daughters to primary school this morning and my wife is doing the secondary run. Our oldest daughter is really struggling today though. She likes maths and she’s very good at it. But she just can’t step into the classroom for the first lesson of the day. Our daughter is back home with us before ten o’clock. We don’t need to do anything else today. We’ll just comfort her and make sure she feels safe and loved.

It’s Friday 27th January 2023. It’s a week since I left work. I’ve thought about school every day. Why wouldn’t I? I’ve been thinking about schools for 24 years. Schools are busy, varied, funny, unpredictable places. I’ve missed the people and the interaction this week, though I think I can get used to the calmness and the quiet of home. Schools can also be intense, complex and challenging places to work. I haven’t missed the pressure this week. I’ve replaced problem solving and decision making with listening to Popmaster on Radio 2. Ken Bruce is good company.

For as long as I can remember, as both a head and a class teacher, Friday celebration assemblies have been a highlight of my week. I’ve loved finding out about children’s achievements – about “wow!” moments. I’ve adored seeing children blossom and being praised in front of their teachers, parents and peers. There’s no celebration assembly for me this morning. There are no certificates to sign or issues with the whiteboard to frantically fix. Instead, I’ll be quietly celebrating getting through this week. It hasn’t quite gone to plan but life has slowed; there has been some rest and moments of peace. It’s a new beginning. And I’m grateful.

“When Times Get Tough” – A Miniature Blog

When I first became a headteacher, I discovered my long-serving predecessor had left me a special little gift. It sat in the top drawer of my desk, alongside the random array of staples, paperclips, metallic stickers and over-sized calculators.

It was a miniature bottle of something alcoholic – brandy, I think. In true Alice in Wonderland style, the little bottle had a message attached. It read something like “Save this for when times get really tough!” What a curious thing to find!

As a new headteacher, I was initially intrigued by this gift. Alcohol? In school? For when times get tough? How hard can it be…?
Of course, I was new to the role. I was naive. I was in my honeymoon period. I had been in other positions of school leadership for five or six years but I’d never been the one fully steering the ship.

It was February 2011 when I was gifted the miniature. It was August 2017 when I left the same bottle and message for my successor. During the six and a half years in between, this little bottle became something for me. It was a measure. A literal measure of something alcoholic and a metaphorical measure of challenge and resilience.

Of course, I would never have consumed the drink in school but, every now and then, I would read the label and wonder how tough things could get.

I read the label when I was dealing with my first serious HR situation.

“But it might get tougher than this!” I thought.

I read the label a few times when it felt like a serial complainer was taking over all my days.

“It might get tougher!” I told myself.

I read the label when Ofsted called and I was pondering my first inspection as a headteacher.

(I celebrated with a something fizzy, after the occasion, at home.)

I read the label a few times when we were working on a staffing restructure.

I read it some mornings, when child protection worries had kept me awake in the night.

I read it in July, after disappointing SATs results.

I read it in August, when one of our pupils tragically passed away.

I would no doubt have read the label countless times during the pandemic but I was in a different school by then.

I’m about to take a break from this profession, after twelve years of headship. There have been wonderful highs and some really difficult times. I’ve got through them all. I’m not advocating turning to alcohol and I’m definitely not advising drinking in school. But it’s good to have a measure.

We’re all tougher than we think.

A Headteacher’s Short Story about Long Covid

I last wrote a blog in mid-November. It was called ‘Under Pressure: Education in a New Era’ and it was about the many complex pressures in the education sector at present. Intentionally, I didn’t mention Covid; I had wanted the focus to be on other challenges, all of which have been around for longer than the virus itself.

Like other Headteachers, I’ve spent the last two years trying to calmly lead a school community through very choppy waters. There have been all of the pressures I previously wrote about, plus all of the ‘normal’ day to day challenges which are part of school life. All of those have been juxtaposed with the ever present risks from Covid 19. At times, the weight of responsibility for keeping everyone safe has been considerable.

I finally succumbed to the virus on 9th December. I’ll remember that day for some time. I’d actually forgotten to test at home that morning so I took a lateral flow test in my office as soon as I remembered. The double lines came as a shock (I had a heavy cold but no other symptoms). Then there was the realisation of everything I would miss at home and school over the next few weeks. I quickly gathered my things and left school, in something of a haze.

December 9th was actually the last time I set foot in school. In fact, I’ve only occasionally left the house since. This little blog is about what happened when I caught Covid. It’s about how life can change suddenly and it’s a reminder that life is precious.

My initial period with Covid was probably similar to many other people’s. I isolated for ten days and was largely bed bound for that period. I was certainly ill – an intense cold, facial pain, fatigue, tight chest, loss of smell – but I wasn’t hospitalized. My seven year old daughter tested positive the day after me so we took refuge together. Being one of the most cheerful and optimistic people I’ve ever known, she made for great company!

For about ten days after my isolation ended, I tried to revert to normal life. It was the start of the Christmas holiday for me, my wife (a teaching assistant) and our four children. There were all the usual parenting duties and housework, plus Christmas preparations and multiple festive events on the calendar. I was tired but I assumed I was recovering.

And then, sometime between Christmas and New Year, it hit me like a brick. I got up one morning, felt lousy, returned to bed and stayed there for almost 24 hours. I ached all over and had no energy or desire to move. That day marked the beginning of my post Covid illness – a condition which has eventually been diagnosed as Post Covid Syndrome or Long Covid.

Long Covid seems to affect people differently. According to the NHS and the British Heart Foundation, it doesn’t seem to matter how seriously you have the initial virus and it doesn’t seem to matter how fit or healthy you previously were. (On saying that, asthmatics do perhaps seem to be more prone to Long Covid.)

Until mid-December, I was fit and generally healthy. I had a very busy life, at home and work, and I wasn’t good at resting. I liked to get up early, run before work (and at weekends) and do jobs around the house and garden in any other spare time.

I’ve now been ill with Post Covid Syndrome since late December. My life has changed profoundly. Recovery seemingly isn’t linear so some hours/days/weeks are better than others. I now feel fatigued and exhausted almost all of the time. I have no energy, like someone has removed my batteries. If I get up from a chair too suddenly, just to go to another room, my heart rate soars. If I go upstairs or do a simple job (like emptying a bin), I lose my breath. My oxygen levels are fine yet clearly my respiratory system isn’t functioning in the way it should.

When I’m talking, I often forget words and stutter mid-sentence. This is particularly awkward during phone calls. When I’m listening, I find it hard to concentrate. I also can’t separate sounds so I find it stressful when there are various noises and conversations at the same time (like in a busy household!). I’ve driven to a local shop a few times but, again, this seems to require more intense concentration than I remember.

Following medical advice, I’m trying to build up my strength and stamina, but it’s tricky. If I do one simple thing, like a short walk or a visit somewhere, I can then feel immediately exhausted, like I could sleep for days. Sometimes I do fall straight to sleep. On some days, when I’ve felt a bit better, I’ve done more chores or walked further. However, this has sometimes caused setbacks and affected me for days on end. Finding the balance is tricky.

There’s also the matter of palpitations and changes to my heart rate. Pre-Covid, my resting heart rate was quite low, at around 45bpm. It’s now generally 65-75bpm, and often it suddenly jumps much higher. It can soar when I’m resting, sitting and sleeping. An ECG has shown my heart to be medically ‘normal’ but the feel and effects of my increased heart rate take some getting used to.

It’s been ten weeks now. My wife and I have been trying to look for patterns and to establish if any particular routines work better than others, in aiding my recovery. We’ve recently found that, if I have very slow and gentle starts (ie stay in bed all morning), I can get up and just about stay awake for the afternoon and evening. This is clearly a long way from my old life and routines but it is progress.

I’ve not written this blog for sympathy and I’m not trying to be self-pityful. A great many people have endured much greater suffering and loss.  For all the headlines and statistics, there’s still a lot of confusion, scepticism and misinformation about Covid and Long Covid. This is just my experience. It’s very real.

On the worst days of the last few months, I’ve been sitting or lying down worrying about breathing. Breathing is life itself. When you’re struggling to breathe, everything else falls into perspective.

My family and friends have held me up for these last two months. Their love and kindness has been astounding. My employers and colleagues have been hugely supportive too. School has continued without me; the team has got this. For now, I’m putting all of my effort into resting and recovering.

I’m very much looking forward to brighter days, to better health and to returning to the everyday things which I sometimes took for granted.

Steve Bladon



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

The Shaping of a Headteacher

It’s the beginning of September, 1999. It’s been quite a summer. I’ve graduated and qualified as a teacher, I’ve just got married and my wife and I have relocated to the North West. It’s almost the end of a millennium but it’s the start of my career and a new life.

It all begins in a vibrant place called St Thomas’, a large, multi-cultural, Church of England primary school in Blackburn, Lancashire. I know the school already – it’s where I completed my final teaching practice in the spring and where I’ve already learned so much. I’ll be spending the next two years as a Reception teacher. “A Reception teacher?” ask most people I meet, in a tone of surprise, curiosity or even suspicion. “It’s where the magic happens!” I reply emphatically, to everyone who asks.

At the helm of St Thomas’ is one of the kindest headteachers I’ll ever meet. She leads calmly but confidently, guided by wisdom and compassion. She’s called Kath Haworth. She’s given me a job even after I’ve flunked the local NQT pool interview. Her faith in me surprises me still. Kath cuts a diminutive figure. She has a spacious office and sits in an amusingly large, black leather chair. Over the next two years, if ever I find myself in her office, Kath will often wrap up our conversation by telling me that, one day, I’ll be sitting in her chair, making these decisions. Every time she says this, I thank her for her confidence in me. And I laugh.

It’s January, 2005. I’ve spent just over five years in my first school. I’ve served my apprenticeship and  worked with some amazing people but I’ve got itchy feet. Kath retired a few years ago and, from my perspective at least, things have never been the same at St Thomas’. It’s time for a change and the new chapter begins a few miles away, at a smaller school with a very big heart: St James’. It’s back to Reception for me (I was ‘promoted’ to Year 2 for a while) but now I’m also team leader for the Early Years and Key Stage One. The slightly unusual detail about my career move is that this job was first offered to someone else. The preferred applicant accepted, then changed their mind and the post was offered to me. In the years to come, I’ll be regularly reminding my new boss that I was her second choice. It’s ok, she humours me every time.

I’ll spend the next five years at this truly special school. It’s a warm, friendly, family-centred place, with a passion which radiates from the headteacher, a fine and charismatic former nurse, called Sue. I’m nervous about starting a new job but Sue puts me at ease with her down to earth approach and her endless laughter. Sue barely knows me but she believes in me (even though I was second choice). I’m soon given the opportunity to make key decisions, to influence and to shape the school. It’s a privilege and I love it.

As I quickly discover, Sue and I will get along great. We’re different. She’s spontaneous, I’m not. She likes to make rapid decisions, I don’t. She’s mostly taught in Key Stage Two, I’ve mostly taught Year Two and Reception (It’s where the magic happens). We’re very similar too. We share a love of music and comedy. It helps enormously that we both love children. Sue plays guitar in assembly and she checks in on staff everyday. She oozes enthusiasm.

At St James’, I’ll learn about school improvement, people management and strategic change. I’ll learn about resolving conflict and about keeping children at the centre of decision making. I’ll be a teacher and team leader; later, I’ll become Assistant Head and, in sad circumstances, I’ll have a period as Acting Deputy Head. I’ll form some wonderful friendships here too. My leaving assembly features the songs Sunshine on Leith and Never Forget. After I move on, I will always miss this place – the people, the passion and the ethos. This is the benchmark.

It’s the end of February, 2011. I’m in the headteacher’s office, in an infant school in another part of Blackburn. I’m staring at the chair, which isn’t black or leather. It is mine though. I am the headteacher. It’s my first day in post, a million thoughts run through my mind but the thing I keep coming back to is a memory of Kath’s words. She said this would happen. I owe it to her to give it my best. I owe it to the children here too.

It’s the end of February, 2012. I’m in the director’s office at Children’s Services. I’ve been headteacher of Cedars Infant School for one year and I’ve been summoned by the local authority. Surely I haven’t blown it already? I haven’t blown it, actually. Quite the opposite. Our feeder junior school has been in difficult circumstances for some time. Academy trusts have taken an interest but the local authority would very much like to keep control. What do I think of our school expanding, taking over a second site and growing by three hundred pupils?
“How long have we got?” I ask.
“18 months!” comes the reply.
“What’s the risk?” I ask next.
“Oh, there are plenty of risks!” comes the ominous reply.
“Let’s do it!” I say, a little later.

It’s November, 2014. I’ve just taken a call from an HMI. We will be having a full Ofsted inspection tomorrow. Our three form entry, split-site school has only been operating for about a year. We’ve moved Heaven and Earth to get to this point. Inspection was inevitable but a bit more time would have been nice. Things get off to a very good start. The HMI believes in me. He believes in our team. He can see what we’ve achieved and he can see the passion in our vision. We can do this!

On the first afternoon of the inspection, my youngest daughter falls ill and is rushed to hospital. She’s seven months old. The scariest part of parenthood has coincided with the scariest part of headship. This is a pivotal moment for our school and, possibly, a defining moment in my career. More significantly, it’s a terrifying moment as a dad and the HMI doesn’t hesitate to tell me to leave. “I’ll be fine with your team,” he reassures me.

I miss much of the second day of inspection, including the outcome. My daughter is improving (and goes on to fully recover), much to our relief. When I’m able to process the news from school, it’s an utter joy to hear we have been judged ‘Good‘ in every area. I’m proud of our team’s achievements. There were some local heads who doubted my ability to accomplish this, pulling off a major expansion, then leading the biggest primary school in town. The HMI says I have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills. I won’t let it go to my head but those words will help counter my Imposter Syndrome, for a few months at least.

It’s the end of August, 2017. After 18 years living and working in the North West, we’ve relocated to rural Lincolnshire. We’ve moved with our four children, to be closer to our wider family. I’ll be taking up my second headship in a large primary school, in a small, traditional market town. On a personal level, things have got off to a tricky start. Our house sale has fallen through and our new chapter begins with a temporary spell in my in-laws’ house. We’ve enrolled our children in a school near a house that we were buying but have now lost. Sometimes life goes like this. We don’t know this yet but we are about to have the most testing two years of our adult lives.

My new school is a nice place which reminds me of my own primary school days. The staff are welcoming, the parents are friendly and the children polite. It’s a vast site, more like a campus, and the setting is delightful. (The sky here goes on forever too.) There’s an ‘Outstanding‘ label and a tangible air of expectation. In truth, the school has had a few turbulent years; I’m the fourth Headteacher in four years. As I will go on to find out, some things are not as they seem and many things are not as they should be. There’s work to be done.

It’s late January, 2019. It’s been a gruelling 16 months, at home and work. Our Blackburn house sale has just collapsed for the fifth time*. We’re still squashed in a small rented house, we’re running out of patience and hope, and we’re utterly exhausted. At school, I’ve hardly left the site since I was appointed but today I’m going to enjoy a day out. I need it desperately. I’m on a coach, heading to Sheffield Arena. I’m accompanying our school choir to a Young Voices concert – their first one ever. There’s an electric atmosphere on the journey. The children are rehearsing, singing their hearts out. I know some of the songs but none of the routines! No worries. I’ll wing it, not for the first time in my career.

It’s late morning on the same day. We’re on the A1, edging closer to Sheffield. The children are getting more excited by the minute, the staff suddenly less so. We’ve just taken a phone call from school. On the other line, back at base, my deputy is currently taking THE phone call. It’s been ten years since the school was inspected. Ten years! We knew Ofsted were due but, really, today of all days? The children disembark the coach at Blyth services, for a short break. I wave them all goodbye. My concert is over and now I’m heading for an altogether different performance. I need to get back to school and to my newly appointed deputy head (who has been holding the fort magnificently on this fateful day). Before the inspection of my life, I’m in for the taxi ride of my life, with a maverick driver who, I sense, has just left Stunt School.

A little over 30 hours later, my governors, senior colleagues and I learn that out school Requires Improvement. Initially, of course, it comes as a disappointment. It’s the first RI outcome of my career (19 years/5 inspections) and it might well be regarded as a fall from grace for the school. But it is a fair judgement, it is the right judgement and it will be a mandate for change. In truth, this grading actually represents significant improvement from my starting point. This moment marks the beginning of Phase Two.

It’s late March, 2020. We’re really beginning to feel momentum with our school improvement work. There have been inordinate challenges but also hugely positive changes in staffing, in culture and in practice. There’s a great deal to be done still but everything is about to change. A global pandemic is emerging. We’ve just learned from the Prime Minister, in an address to the nation, that the entire country is being locked down. School, as we know it, is closing.

It’s February, 2021 and I’ve just completed ten years of headship. There have been wonderful highs: a successful expansion; delightful children; two ‘Good‘ inspections and the recruitment of great people. There have been difficult lows, including, most tragically, the death of a pupil. The first nine years of headship were the hardest, until the tenth one, which was off the scale impossible.

In the last year, the world has changed and the UK has been ravaged. A virus has stopped us in our tracks and we’ve all had to take stock. For the last eleven months, schools have been places of solace, in a time of uncertainty and fear. Support staff, teachers and leaders have been local heroes (ignore the press and the social media trolls). It’s unequivocal. As a profession, we have reimagined the very concept of education. As settings, we’ve served, we’ve cared, we’ve protected and we’ve pioneered. This is what schools do.

Earlier in my career, a retiring headteacher told me that school leadership is a rollercoaster ride. It certainly is. It’s The Big One. The climbs are steep, the track is unpredictable and there are moments of over-whelming fear. It can be really lonely, even with brilliant people around you. It’s exhilarating too, it’s often funny and it’s full of surprises. At its very best, it is life affirming.

It’s mid-August, 1991. It’s been a long summer. I’ve just received my GCSE results. They’re ok but I could have done better. I’m in the headmaster’s office. We briefly talk about my options for the future. With these results, Mr Shrimpton tells me, I don’t have to return for sixth form. I’m taken aback. He stops short of saying the words but he’s disappointed in me. He doesn’t particularly think I’m up to doing A-levels. I’m sorry that he feels this way but I will be going back for sixth form, actually. I won’t be defined by these grades and this moment. I will prove him wrong.

It’s almost thirty years later.
And what is it that I do?
I conduct the orchestra.
I ride the rollercoaster.
I’m a magician, of course.
I’m a headteacher.
It’s an honour.

With very special thanks to Kath, who believed in me, Sue, who nurtured me, and all those who have supported me along the way.

Steve Bladon,
February 2021

Headteacher Steve B @75ThunderRoad

*After two years, and on the sixth attempt, we finally sold our house and moved in to our new home.
Never give up!

Gav – A Slim Shady Parody

I’ve still not heard anything so I was going to write to Gavin again. Then I thought, this one way street is turning into Stan by Eminem.

So I’ve reimagined Stan.

No longer a psychotic fan writing to his idol, it’s an exhausted Headteacher writing to the Education Secretary in a dystopian pandemic. But with the same level of despair as the original protagonist.

And it’s now called Gav.

Sing along to Dido’s intro…

My tea’s gone cold I’m wondering why I
Got out of bed at all
Even though my window’s open (always)
I just can’t see at all
And even if I could it’ll all be grey
Got your picture on my wall
It reminds me, that it’s pretty bad
It’s pretty bad

Dear Gav, I wrote you but you still ain’t callin’
I left my ‘Back to School’ plan with my email at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em
There probably was a problem at the post office or DfE or somethin’
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot ’em
I tweeted you too. Maybe you’re old fashioned.
But anyways, sack it, what’s been up? Man, how’s your department?
My school’s insane too, we’re just trying to not burn out
If I have a day off, guess what I’m gonna do?
I’m gonna close my eyes and close my own bubble too. And Breathe.
I read about your troubles too I’m sorry
I know you’ve had some tricky stuff goin’ on
I know you probably hear this everyday, but I’m not your biggest fan
The vouchers, exams and all that algorithm stuff. Man that was crazy. What you thinkin of Gav?
The laptops you promised and took away. That guidance you write, it’s always too late.
The distancing: 2 metres, 1 metre plus. Just ain’t no decidin
School’s safe. School’s not safe.
Stay open. Schools broken. Who cares now?
No masks? No worries. But come on now Gav, we are only human.
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
We need to chat, the pressure’s crazy but I don’t want to leave.
This is Steve

My tea’s gone cold I’m wondering why I
Got out of bed at all
Even though my window’s open (it’s cold now)
I just can’t see at all
And even if I could it’ll all be grey
Got your picture on my wall
It reminds me, that it’s pretty bad
It’s pretty bad

Dear Steve, I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy
You said your school’s insane now, has this Covid finally reached you?
Look, I’m really flattered you would write to me so often
And here’s a new photo for your office
I took it with my main man, Nick
I’m sorry I didn’t see your Back to School plan, I must’ve missed it
Don’t think I did that intentionally just to diss you
But what’s this you said about you like to wear masks in primary too?
I say that stuff just for secondary, come on, how freaked by the virus are you?
You got some issues Steve, I think you need some downtime
To help you from bouncing off the walls when you despair some
And what’s this stuff about us meant to send you laptops? You wrote to your MP too?
That type of shouting will make me not want to help you
I really think you and your school need to just deal with it
Or maybe you just need to think of me better
I hope you get to read this letter, I just hope it reaches you in time
Before your blood pressure gets too high, I think that you’ll be doin’ just fine
If you relax a little, I’m sorry I frustrate you but Steve
Why are you so mad with me? Try to understand, that I do want you and your kind
I just don’t want you to have your own mind
I seen this one school on the news a couple weeks ago that left me chomping at the bit
Some Head was too outspoken and led his school as he saw fit
And he criticised the DfE, and cared for pupils just like his own kids.
And his office was filled with letters, but they didn’t say who they were to
Come to think about, his name was, it was you.


The Cost of Poverty

Part 1: The Poverty Promise

On the last day of 2019….

You might or might not recall that, back in 2001, Tony Blair, pledged to eradicate childhood poverty in the UK by 2020. His ambition had cross party support and was eventually enshrined in law, in the Child Poverty Act 2010. The number of children living in poverty officially reduced by over three quarters of a million between 1998 and 2012.

The Child Poverty Act was abolished in 2016. Since that time, the Government has no longer had to set targets to reduce child poverty.

We’re now just a day away from 2020 and whether you talk about relative, absolute or persistent poverty, the reality is that the number of disadvantaged children is increasing at an alarming rate. There were officially 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2017-18. That’s 30% of all children (but considerably higher amongst large families, in ethnic minorities or in lone parent families)! Overall, child poverty is predicted to rise to 5.2 million by 2022.

The Trussell Trust, which runs two thirds of the UK’s 2000+ foodbanks, distributed over 800,000 food parcels between April and September 2019 (a 23% year on year increase). Over 300,000 of these went to children. The demand for emergency food supplies at Christmas and New Year has risen by 73% over 5 years.

This is life in the world’s sixth largest economy, twenty years into a new millennium.

31st December 2019

Part 2: The Free School Meal Vote

On the 21st day of October, 2020, in the darkness of a global pandemic, MPs voted on whether to extend ‘free school meal’ provision into school holidays. The decision would apply in England alone, with Wales and Northern Ireland having agreed to extend their equivalent schemes until Easter 2021. The result of the vote?

Yes to extending provision into school holidays: 261

No to extending provision into school holidays: 322

Those who voted against the motion included the Secretary of State for Education, the School Standards Minister and the Children’s Minister. As a citizen, as a dad and as a primary school headteacher, this political outcome is simply baffling. Earlier today, I expressed my dismay at the outcome of the vote and a friend asked me where I think the state’s obligation to pay to feed people’s children stops. It’s a fair question and one which needs to be debated. I don’t think MPs who voted against the proposal are monsters but I do think their understanding of poverty and of childhood development are inexcusably narrow, to the point of ignorance and danger. Children’s well-being, health, growth and educational development are inextricably linked to one another.

In my opinion, you shouldn’t be the Secretary of State for Education if you think your responsibility only applies for 39 weeks a year. You shouldn’t be the Minister for School Standards if you don’t understand that children can’t thrive if they’re hungry, cold, tired, sad, malnourished or anxious. You shouldn’t be Children’s Minister if you aren’t going to champion children. Between a quarter and a third of the UK’s children live in poverty. Covid-19 has led to unemployment, reduced incomes and financial instability on a massive scale, bringing thousands of families closer to, or into, a level of poverty.

In my career, I’ve taught in or led four different schools, in three towns and two counties. Some of those schools have been in the country’s most deprived council wards, where poverty, unemployment and adult illiteracy combine to thwart children’s life chances at the very start. My current school appears to be in a leafier part of the world, in rural, Conservative middle England. Even here, almost a third of our pupils are entitled to pupil premium funding (an indication of poverty) and we have children and families who rely on meals donated by school and the local food bank. It saddens me to say I have seen poverty and its effects every single day for 21 years.

When politicians and the media talk about child poverty, they tend to narrow it down to make it seem purely about hungry tummies. Poverty is so much more than this but hunger is a fundamental issue. There is invariably also judgement which clouds the topic and misses the point (“Why should my tax go to them?” or “They’ll spend it on cigarettes, drugs, alcohol….”). The bottom line is, if a child lives in poverty, it’s never their fault. It’s often not the parents’ fault either, to be fair.

What we know about child development is that all children need certain basic things in order to be healthy and to thrive. Things like love, shelter, food, drink, warmth and security. Children need other things besides but when any of those core things are absent, it has a detrimental effect. This can be immediate, eg hunger, or it can be slower to impact, eg deteriorating attendance, attitude or behaviour. These implications can apply every day of the week, every week if the year. We have traditionally viewed schools’ responsibilities as term time only but the pandemic has caused a lot of people to think about children’s welfare during holidays too.

Before the pandemic had emerged, we already knew that rising levels of child poverty were a big issue, if not a crisis. The Christmas period and the summer holidays always see huge spikes in families turning to food banks for help. I could relay stories of children eating scraps (not the chip shop kind), parents going for days without what you and I would regard as a decent meal. I can tell you about children who start their school day in wet, dirty or ill-fitting clothes. Or children without a bed or in a home with no heating. These situations leave children feeling sad, cold, tired, different and humiliated. They also have a detrimental impact on mental health. Even in primary education, we are regularly dealing with children who live their lives in a state of trauma or who suffer stress, anxiety and depression. Self-harm is a reality even for the youngest of children.

Caring for and educating children is like tending to a plant. Children need the right conditions and they need those things consistently. Light? Only on weekdays doesn’t work. Water? Only in term time won’t cut it.

As a Headteacher, I will be held to account this year for my children’s and my school’s performance. At the end of the year, a great many children will likely be deemed to have underachieved. Pupils will be judged against criteria which take no account of circumstance. Nationally, we’re talking about millions of children whose start to life has been thwarted. Imagine cutting off a farmer’s water supply and then judging the crop.

MPs shouldn’t be able to claim expenses for their food and drink. Children should be fed and nurtured. The very existences of food banks and holiday hunger are an indictment of a society which has failed to provide adequately for a generation of children and vulnerable adults. It’s 2020 in the world’s sixth wealthiest nation.

The vote in Parliament wasn’t about free school meals.
It was about material deprivation.
It was about social exclusion.
It was about compassion.
It was about inequality.
It was about humanity.
It was about injustice.
It was about children.
It was about life.

22nd October 2020

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