Stronger Together: Hey with Zion headteacher reflects on an academic year like no other

Published by Andrew Clowes on July 7th 2021, 6:02am

As the academic year draws to its close, for UK schools it is a period of reviewing pupil progress and attainment, and importantly a time of self-reflection for leadership teams within these institutions. Writing for The Leaders Council, Andrew Clowes, headteacher of Hey with Zion Primary School in Oldham, discusses how primary schools have responded to the Covid-19 challenge over this academic year, the impact it has had on education, the importance of ethical leadership, and what the future is likely to bring as England looks ahead to the lifting of all remaining social restrictions on July 19.

In schools it is a time for writing reports, looking back on the year, and giving our summary judgements of the achievements of pupils. The younger the child, the more effusive the report is the norm in my experience.

It is also a bit like New Year’s Eve for others. It is a time for self-reflection, a time to review what we have done and how we have done it; and what our next steps will be.

The next step is the easy bit. We will not be waiting for government guidance about how to manage the return to school: that is not expected until the end of August/early September when the government will know more about the state of the virus spread. It will be at that point when we are best guessing what the future will bring.

Assuming Covid will still constitute a health risk and infection rates will be high but hospitalisation rates low, with vaccination even more widely rolled out, my school expects to operate still with bubbles, extra ventilation, extra hand sanitiser and hand washing, masks for adults in corridors, no mass gatherings such as in assemblies, children facing the front in class and all of those sorts of things. Hopefully, however, there will be some relaxing of restrictions on inter-school sport and [please, for us all!] an end to the mass exodus of pupils to imposed isolation periods on account of one other child testing positive, often not even feeling very poorly.

But how have we done as leaders this year? I think we can all have a moment’s reflection on this and consider how we have matched up to our goals and our vision.

How have we measured up in the pandemic? Did we keep calm and carry on? What kind of role models were we? Did we keep people safe, and did we treat people well? Have we had a positive impact?

In schools there is much talk of “catching up” on lost learning from the lockdown, usually concerning GCSEs or, in primary schools, English and Maths. I have heard not a word, though, about the impact of school closures on the moral guidance schools give. However, it is significant: we do not do assemblies and PSHE lessons for no reason, we do them because they help to unite the school community so that our pupils recognise that schools are indeed a community and that secondly, the children will grow up with a shared set of values.

Primary schools are particularly interested in this. There are a lot more church primary schools than secondary schools but - whether a school is faith-based or not - the values of treating one another well are pretty much universally agreed as being desirable. My own school’s student council, consisting of pupils aged ten and eleven, came up this week with their own set of core values which we shall adopt for all in September: living life to the full, respectfulness, thankfulness, kindness, forgiveness, and charity.

This might seem twee to some, but it matters greatly if we are to develop ethical leaders for the future.

Great leaders in the past have been role models to others. King Charles II could have fled London in the Great Fire of 1666 but instead he joined in with the firefighters and helped by passing buckets of water; Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius did not flee Rome in a period of plague, he stayed and gave away riches to help and reassure the people, and to pay for the funerals of their loved ones; Mother Teresa did not live in comfort and help the poor from a distance, she joined in with their material poverty and gave them spiritual wealth. These leaders showed by their deeds that they really were in it together, that there was not one rule for the rest and a different one for them.

Times of crisis can bring certain issues into sharper focus and there have been some high-profile examples recently of leaders really not coming close to this standard. We are all flawed, but I ask you to consider: is it really possible to be a good leader but not a good person? I think not, unless the goal itself is unworthy.

For me, in my little school in my small northern town of Oldham, I have had our staff and children revisiting our “vision statement”, reminding ourselves of our organisational goal, and the children have selected and can articulate what our core values are to be. We have been revisiting the ethical basis of what we do.

In these unusually frustrating and uncertain times, reminding ourselves of why we do what we do and how we choose to do it provides an anchor for the decision making we undertake. It makes the decisions of middle leaders more compatible with the organisational goal and helps us do things better. We become stronger together, like Aesop’s bundle of sticks.

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Andrew Clowes
Headteacher at Hey With Zion Primary School
July 7th 2021, 6:02am

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