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. With the nation in the middle of the Autumn lockdown Clowes is open on the issues that headteachers have faced from dealing with the government response to the anxieties of staff.
Firstly, the government will be applauded by many for recognising how important it is for schools to remain open. We have learned that, generally, the younger the person the less the risk to their health of coronavirus and that schools do not constitute large risk to most children on account of the virus.
We have also learned how damaging to children’s mental wellbeing it can be to be away from school and all it entails for a protracted period. It is self-evident that prolonged absence from school will also damage the educational and therefore future economic prospects of many children. We shall be relying in the future on this generation of school children to pay the bills incurred by managing the pandemic response, so they need to be looked after now to enable them to do that successfully in the future.
Secondly, the government can be commended for making very clear to schools that remote learning in the event of isolation/ closure of a bubble had to improve from what was on offer during the Spring. The pressure to improve will have helped motivate some schools, and the support of online learning from the National Oak Academy was also beneficial. The provision of hardware to support this was also welcome, although there is consternation among those schools who applied later that much reduced provision is appearing to be made available now than was the case very recently.
There will be quibbles and disagreement about choices made. To pay or not to pay for free school meals during the holidays, for example. A clear, consistent message with reasons articulated would have avoided a sense that this government bends to pressure.
It is important to listen and be open to changing one’s mind in the light of new information but what new information was available, beyond social media pressure? Was the original thought process rushed? We elected a government, not a footballer, to drive policy changes.
Another perception is that when the announcement was made of impending lockdown on 31st October, a better approach may have been to require the new restrictions not to start on 5th November, but as soon as possible with a final deadline of 5th November. I understand that some businesses need to have some notice, but not all need that time. This could have avoided the “New Tier’s Eve” style partying which can only have spread the virus some more.
My town of Oldham has suffered worse than most in this period. Current infection rates are around three times the national average. It has been the case in this town that primary schools have been able to function quite normally for the children, and the level of absenteeism through isolation and bubble closures has not been too damaging as the “bubbles” have been single classes, therefore only occasional to individuals.
There is an issue in this town of increasing numbers of children electing home education. As the town has not been geared up for these numbers, it is a challenge to ensure those children are being appropriately educated at home. I suggest a slightly softer line from the government regarding mandatory attendance right now. There are children who themselves are not at risk living with family members who consider themselves very vulnerable indeed and scared to send their children to school. In these cases, if the threat to fine for non-attendance is to be met with withdrawal from the education system through fear of death to the family member, then the question needs to be asked: is the child better at home until a safer period arrives, with remote learning provided by the school, or at home without remote learning from the school? The answer to me is obvious, but there will be a mix of headteachers’ responses to this.
I do not want to sound critical of the government. They are trying their best in awfully difficult circumstances which constantly change, and they are being buffeted by pressures from various interests and frequently quite a confrontational tone from television interviewers.
I believe they are trying, as we all must, just to do the right thing as it appears to us at the time in the light of the information we have. In work and in society we need kindness now.
In schools, in many respects we are very lucky. Besides having a job which for many school staff is a privilege and a part of their identity, we are not subject to furloughs and we are not widely worried for our employment.
We are stretched though.
We have the same personal anxieties about the virus that everybody else has, and we are affected when we hear that children we teach and their families have contracted it. School staff are generally sensitive and caring people. We have the same anxieties about our own families as other people do and we know that in primary schools there is little social distancing possible within the youngest age ranges.
We know that children in our schools do very probably have the virus but are asymptomatic and we have a greater chance than many that we shall take it home to our own families.
We are also short of staff as the school is open fully but we are usually working at a staffing level of around 70-75%: there are a small number of staff shielding at home and their work has to be done anyway. School staff too have childcare issues if their own young children are sent home from school with a “bubble closure.” When one of our own classes has to close due to a positive test, there are usually several staff involved: the teacher, the midday supervisor and any teaching assistants who support children with special needs. The budget does not provide for supply teaching staff to the level of what is currently required.
For school leaders there has been no “off time” for months: we are constantly on call, weekends and holidays, to respond to positive test results to arrange staffing switches and arrange with Public Health swift isolation of people and families as appropriate.
This is entirely necessary and there are times when the responsibility of office outweighs personal need for down time, every leader knows that, but schools could do with some kind treatment right now.
An early announcement to suspend SATs, might be a good place to start.