Coronavirus: 'I am not ashamed to admit that I am worried'

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Community response: Uppingham Community College in Rutland was forced to close its doors to the majority of pupils because of acute staff shortages

Before the official coronavirus shutdown, Uppingham Community College was forced to close its doors because of acute staff shortages. A heartfelt letter written at 3am by principal Ben Solly explained the decision and led to a wave of support from the school community...

Well, this wasn’t on the NPQH! I have heard several headteachers say something similar over recent days as we all attempt to navigate our way through unchartered waters. These are indeed challenging and unprecedented times for all society.

As headteachers we hold the responsibility of guiding and supporting our school communities. Young people, parents, school staff and governors all look to us for strong leadership, direction and understanding.

I often think that the demands of headship are so varied, so far-reaching, that many people do not fully understand the pressure and responsibility that comes with leading a school.

However, we all know what we are signing up for when we take the job. We know that we are entering a professional realm where we become highly accountable for large groups of people, their development, their achievement and their safety.

Recently, these responsibilities have never been so fiercely tested and I have been amazed at the incredible leadership I have seen demonstrated by colleagues up and down the country. I was once told that the true test of leadership is how effectively a leader can deal with a crisis; never before will headteachers have dealt with such complex ramifications as those posed to us by coronavirus.

I am in my sixth year as a headteacher and I am now in my third year as principal of Uppingham Community College, an 11 to 16 secondary school in Rutland. I feel as though I have accrued enough experience to know what I am doing, but still early enough in my headship career to understand what it feels like to be a new head.

I have dealt with some extremely complex situations during these six years but nothing on this scale. I am sure all headteachers across the country, maybe even the world, will be able to empathise with that.

At the time of writing, we have just gone into a national lockdown and everything feels completely surreal. The school is like a ghost town, with a skeleton staff in place to supervise the small number of students whose parents are key workers.

A colleague said to me this morning, it feels like a dream or just a really bad B movie. I’m not sure anyone really knows how to deal with this; we are all just using our common sense, our intuition and our gut feelings to help us find the right path to take.

Over the course of the past week I have had to make so many key decisions, often with not a great deal of time for deep thought or consideration. This has been challenging, but making these important calls is a critical aspect of headship.

The biggest decision, the one that hurt the most to make, was partially closing our school before the main announcement for all schools to close was made by the government.

The prime minister had, the night before, introduced the measure of a 14-day isolation period and the details of the medical conditions which were most vulnerable to this virus were published. This completely decimated our staffing levels overnight and throughout the following day at school. With staff numbers dwindling, I had to make the call to partially close the school, opening only to years 10 and 11 the following day, along with any key stage 3 students who couldn’t remain at home.

It was, without question, the biggest decision I’ve had to make as a head and it certainly wasn’t easy. However, the enormity of the situation didn’t really hit me until I woke up in the middle of the night with cramp. I couldn’t get back to sleep and my mind was whirring. I wanted to write a letter to our school community – this is what I wrote:

Open letter to the UCC community

I normally start my communications to staff with ‘Dear Team UCC’. This letter, however is addressed to everyone associated with our school; staff, students, parents, governors. We are all ‘Team UCC’ and never have I felt that this was more important than right now.

I write this at 3am on Wednesday 17th March 2020. 2020 – the year we should be celebrating our centenary as a school, but in fact we have something quite different on our hands. A milestone in our lives not many of us would have predicted, but one we need to face together.

It’s 3am, I can’t sleep and I’ve got a million thoughts in my head. I am normally a pretty good sleeper, but I woke up an hour ago with cramp in my foot – it was momentarily very uncomfortable and once I’d finished hopping around the bedroom, I got back into bed and had ‘a moment’. I think the enormity of what we dealt with yesterday as a school community finally dawned on me, along with what might lie ahead. I needed a cuddle from my wife, I shed a few quiet tears and reflected on yesterday at UCC and what it meant. I’m not ashamed in any way to share that with you, maybe years ago I might have been, but I’ve learned that if I am to lead this school in the best way possible I have to be myself. That means being honest, transparent and prepared to share my vulnerabilities with those who I feel so privileged to lead. At the start of my headship career I might have considered this to be a weakness but I now know that it is probably my greatest strength. It is hard being a headteacher, but I think it is the best job in the world and I love leading this school.

Taking the decision to partially close was extremely difficult. However I know with 100% certainty it was the right call at the right time; our staffing levels had become so severely depleted overnight and during the day it became clear that we could not safely continue to educate all our students in the same way we normally would do. It was a pragmatic and necessary call to make and thankfully I have a brilliant team who provide support, challenge, advice and guidance that enable us as a school to make key decisions like this. The staff yesterday were truly magnificent.

However, I am not ashamed to admit that I am worried. I am worried about the health and well-being of our staff, our students and all our families. I am worried about how we will all adapt to a very different way of living over the next few months and the impact this will have on us all. I am worried about our most vulnerable students; the young people for whom school is the safest environment for them, whose home lives are chaotic, unpredictable and sometimes unsafe. We have plans to support these students during a period of closure, and I dearly hope we are able to support them throughout the challenges ahead.

But I am also optimistic and hopeful. Our school community has shown resilience, solidarity, positivity and a fantastic team spirit throughout this week. I know we will need that more than ever over the coming months. I bang on about our core values everyday but this is where we need to demonstrate them the most - especially kindness. Sometimes a crisis can bring out the worst in people; my challenge to our school community is for all of us to collectively ensure this brings out the best in us. Be kind. Genuinely kind. Support those in need wherever you can, look after your loved ones and show kindness to everyone around you. I am sure you will feel better for it.

My coach, John Rowe, who works with many leaders at UCC, has helped me understand the importance of bringing myself to my role as principal. It cannot be an act, a showcase, an alternative persona adopted for each school day. Leadership has to be authentic, genuine. I used to think I had to compartmentalise aspects of my life to be the best possible headteacher, to cope with the pressure. I’ve learned that this is deeply unhelpful and unhealthy. The pressure is a privilege, one I embrace each day and one which I meet by ensuring key decisions are made with our core values at the foundation. I know I have to ‘be present’ and be myself in all aspects of my role. I genuinely embrace the responsibility of guiding our wonderful school; it is a huge honour to lead our brilliant staff and our amazing young people on a daily basis.

I don’t know what the future will hold over the coming weeks and months, I don’t think anyone does. But I do know that our school has an important role to play in supporting our young people during a period of uncertainty.

I’ve recently stolen a phrase from the GB Athletics coach Tony Minichello, ‘normalise don’t traumatise’; I think this is really pertinent right now. If we accept that the world is unpredictable and often chaotic, then we can make key decisions from a position of being ‘tension free’ and with clarity of thought. This is how we will approach the key decisions that lie ahead for us as a school community. Decisions will be made with the best interest of our staff and students at heart, and from a tension free position. Your children will need you to help them normalise what lies ahead, not create a trauma out of it.

I also have been thinking about a fantastically simple but critical mantra I picked up from listening to the explorer and broadcaster Monty Halls – ‘choose your attitude’. When the chips are down and we are faced with a crisis, often the only thing we can control is our response, our attitude. This will be important for us going forward, by choosing to be positive, optimistic and full of hope, this will help us overcome our forthcoming challenges.

Like you, I have many questions. I want to know how the government will support young people taking examinations this summer. I want to know about how schools can remain open while at the same time we are expected to be exercising social distancing and mass gatherings. I want to know that people in our communities will be looked after and have the necessary resources. This uncertainty is unsettling for everyone, especially young people. I have no doubt it is amplified considerably for them. They need the adults in their lives to provide them with reassurance, calmness and stability. Talk to your kids, use the resources online to help them understand what is happening and what we can all do.

Times like these put everything in perspective; for me it really shines a light on the things that are most important in life. Being happy, safe and with the ones you love. I know I need to phone my parents more than I do – I think the coming months will provide us all with the opportunities to communicate more with the people we hold dearest.

I am sure I will need to send out regular communications over the forthcoming weeks and months, probably several throughout the course of today. None of them are likely to be as long, rambling and as personal as this. Indeed, I expect that they will need to be functional, pragmatic and full of information. However, I feel that it was important to share my current thoughts with you. After all, you entrust us to keep your children, the most precious people in your lives, safe every day and therefore you should know and hopefully be reassured that we always will make key decisions about our school in a decisive, measured and sensible manner and always in the best interest of our students and staff.

I am gutted we had to partially close UCC from today onwards. I am genuinely sorry for the difficulty this will be causing some families. I am also disappointed that at some point in the near future we will probably have to fully close for a sustained period, whether that is a directive from the government or through a lack of staffing. We will do our best in whatever circumstances we face and we will work together collectively as Team UCC to support and guide our young people through these uncertain times.

Thank you all so much for your kind messages of support and thanks over the past few days. This means a huge amount to the staff.

Yours faithfully
Ben Solly

I have no doubt that writing to my school community was the single most important action I have taken as a headteacher. At a time of great uncertainty and worry, students, parents, staff and governors were able to see that I did not have all the answers. They were able to see my vulnerabilities, my worries, my concerns. They were able to see me as a human being who was going through the same rollercoaster of emotions that they all were; but they were able to see that I would make important decisions that were always in the best interest of the young people we serve.

I think this letter has built trust between me and our school community; this was always there, but I think the bond has unquestionably strengthened. I think that when the world returns to some form of normality and we are able to re-open our school, there will be a wonderful opportunity to collectively build an even greater school; this is the shining light at the end of the tunnel for me right now.

I received an overwhelming response to this letter; hundreds of emails from parents and staff, several spontaneous rounds of applause from year 11 the following day and a level of community support I have never experienced before. It has made a big difference to me and I feel as though I have evolved and grown as a leader and as a person because of this experience.

In a period of unprecedented challenge, I have drawn strength from those around me. From my family, in particular my wife and son, who are supportive, loving and understanding. From my headteacher colleagues, who are experiencing the same situations that I am and who offer sage and timely advice. From my UCC colleagues who are truly superb and who I am so very proud to lead. And from my “headteacher role model”, Geoff Barton, who leads ASCL so magnificently and who has provided school leaders with an unrivalled quality of guidance, reassurance and support in recent weeks. Geoff always seems to have a quote for every situation and three this week have resonated strongly with me:

  • Sir John Dunford: “Leadership is 10 per cent doing things and 90 per cent explaining why you’ve done them.”
  • Vladimir Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt: “We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

None of us know how this will all pan out; we are certainly living in uncertain times. However, our school communities need us now, more than ever, to provide them with the calm reassurance that we will get through this and once we make it to the other side we will return to our schools happier, more understanding and more empathetic human beings.

  • Ben Solly is principal of Uppingham Community College, an 11 to 16 secondary school in Rutland.


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