Andrew Clowes speaks about his experiences of dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak as the headteacher of Hey With Zion primary school located in Oldham, Lancashire. Clowes has previously spoken about the challenges faced by primary schools and praised the government in keeping education open for all. As schools were suddenly closed on Monday evening, despite communications to the contrary Clowes expresses his dismay in an open statement below.
Within school leadership there is high and growing exasperation with the DfE.
School leaders understand this is a fast-moving situation. We understand that even if it was dealt with efficiently at government level it would be hectic and stressful to manage the required changes to schooling smoothly, reassuring children and staff and keeping education effective in school, at home and doing so in a way which allows the community to function efficiently too.
I am a primary school headteacher, so I shall not speak for how secondary school heads must be feeling about being informed, as they started the Christmas holiday, that they must now set up a medical testing facility.
I shall give a sense of life right now as a primary headteacher.
I watched Gavin Williamson assure us last Wednesday that all schools apart from some boroughs in London would be open this week.
I understood the change two days later to extend it to all London boroughs.
I watched Boris Johnson assure Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools were safe and would open everywhere apart from London this week.
And I watched him wait until 8 p.m. at night on Monday to tell us he had changed his mind.
It is reasonable to change direction when circumstances change but the decision cannot have been made so late in the day; to leave that communication until 8 p.m. seems appallingly inconsiderate of school leaders and working parents who were then required to seek new child-minding arrangements at almost no notice.
I fielded questions from confused parents later that evening asking for example, “Is our Nursery open? Early Years settings are to open and schools to shut- what about an Early Years setting in a school?” and I had to answer I did not know- the communication from government was not sufficiently articulated.
Or had it even been thought about?
I waited for the government’s daily briefing. I received an email shortly before 11 p.m. “(School nursery classes) can remain open.” Can? Not the same as “should” or “must”. School leaders have learned they need to check nuances of wording very carefully nowadays. We note the very real differences for us in “requests”, “guidance”, “instruction” and “law”.
I kept our nursery class open for one day pending further direction. My local authority could not advise me what the DfE wanted so consulted with them on my behalf. The email response returned, Tuesday lunchtime, that, “this is at the discretion of the headteacher.”
I closed the class on safety grounds- if closing the school to all but critical workers and vulnerable children for the other classes helps to reduce transmission risk, the logic of different rules for one year group escaped me.
Thursday’s email from the government- on page 5 of a 61 page document accessed by clicking on one of several links in the email, stated “(School nursery classes) should continue to remain open.” No apology or explanation for the change. Certainly, no following of the science because transmission rates have not reduced at all since Tuesday, very much the opposite and no evident desire to bring attention to leaders of this change which affects a lot of families and a lot of workplaces.
I suspect the decision is not made on safety grounds at all, but to avoid for the government an administrative task of sorting out the free 30-hour childcare vouchers issued.
So, I read the document very carefully indeed, I noticed other changes seeping out: 4th January’s email requirement of 3 hours per day remote learning now, I learned on page 46, has quietly moved up to 4 hours per day for children in Key Stage Two.
It is entirely right and proper that changes of policy happen when there are changes in circumstance; but when the circumstances have not changed, policy should only change if it was not well enough thought out in the first place; and the job of the DfE requires thinking things through and getting decisions right first time.
And when they are wrong, not to hide the policy changes in mounds of detail, but to be open about it. We all make mistakes and leaders should be open when they do, not letting ego stand in the way of humility.
Lest the government think it is just teachers they are alienating currently, here is an email I have received today from one of our children's grandparents. She is referring to Gavin Williamson's suggestion that parents complain to Ofsted if they are unhappy with their children's school- an approach which strikes some of us as insulting in its undue and unfair presumption of inadequacy:
"Dear Mr Clowes, this is my response to Gavin Williams suggestions that we should complain to Ofsted. Dear Mr William’s, the school my grandchildren attend has done a remarkable job during this 'unprecedented ' time (I know you like this word). They have made sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do and have been clear and concise. (Unlike the government). Can you please inform me which department I can get in touch with to complain about your total inability to come up with a plan in 10 months, and yet expect schools to do it in a few hours. Mr Clowes you and the staff and the children should be very proud of yourselves Just keep doing what you do. Thankyou xxx"