Covid-19: Don’t look to Westminster for leadership

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One legacy of the pandemic will be the resilience shown by schools amid chaotic political leadership – but real threats still lie ahead, including for school finances and staff wellbeing. Pete Henshaw reports


One of the biggest legacies of the Covid-19 pandemic will be the leadership that has been shown by our schools amid the chaotic and confused messages from politicians. However, unless the Department for Education (DfE) acts quickly on funding, schools will be facing some incredibly tough decisions in the coming weeks.

These are two key messages to come from the latest episode of The SecEd Podcast, which focuses on how schools have responded to Covid-19.

The 90-minute discussion features Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), as well as three headteachers: Ben Solly, principal of Uppingham Community College in Rutland, Jodie Hassan, headteacher of St Edward’s Academy in east London, and Darren Lyon, principal of Waterhead Academy in Oldham.

Recorded at the end of last term, it discusses the challenges we have faced since September, schools’ biggest achievements, the lessons learned, and planning for the spring and summer terms.

Key themes include a lack of leadership from Westminster and the chaotic government guidance, staff wellbeing and fatigue, and a lack of support when it comes to funding.


Leadership

When asked about schools’ biggest achievement last term, Mr Barton said: “What we have seen is communities looking to school and college leaders for leadership. We have seen exceptional leadership from them. Having to navigate through chaotic, last-minute decisions.

“We have seen ... people keeping the show on the road at a time when it would have been easier for all of us just to say we are being run by people who are completely incompetent, let’s play into a completely negative narrative.

He said that in England in particular “there is a strong disappointment with the lack of leadership (from Westminster)”.

He added: “There is no generation of school leaders that has had to go through what you have gone through and against such a backdrop of chaos all the time. It’s extraordinary, you’ve just done great work. We’re not through it yet, but I think if we’re looking for leadership in this country, we don’t look to Westminster, we look to what you have been doing in your communities and I just pay tribute to you, it’s fantastic.”


Chaotic guidance

The chaotic and last-minute nature of the government guidance has been one of the hallmarks of the pandemic. Mr Barton feels that this dates back to when prime minister Boris Johnson first promised that primary pupils would go back to school for a month in June, despite the fact that the schools guidance at the time made this impossible.

He said: “You had a sense of competing agendas. Number 10, the Cabinet Office, DfE, Ofqual. And all of that rather unseemly jockeying for position I think has been a distraction from the bigger picture which should be public service on behalf of the nation, clarity and frankly sense-checking (with us) some of the stuff before they put it out.”

Asked about how he has coped with the chaotic nature of the guidance, Mr Solly added: “I think all we can do is focus on making the right decisions for our schools and our young people for the right reasons ... using a moral foundation, your own guiding principles and values for those decisions. If you know you have done that then I think you can sleep at night knowing you have led and managed in the right way, in an ethical way, and in the best interest of your school.

“Just because the government has been appallingly poor at communicating and not really considering the implications for schools and teachers and other staff doesn’t mean that we cannot take the moral high ground and make sure that our decision-making is based on the right things.”

These feelings will have continued this term given the chaotic way in which the government decided to close all schools to the majority of pupils until mid-February – with Boris Johnson making the announcement on Monday, January 4, just a day after insisting on national television that schools were safe.


School funding

Mr Barton re-issued his plea to politicians on school funding, warning that cuts to provision would be inevitable unless action is taken.

He said they were having to explain “in particular to politicians” that “we’re not just talking about bottles of hand-sanitiser here”.

He continued: “If you have 30 members of staff off in a secondary school and you are being told you have got to stay open then you will be fighting against the school next door to get supply teachers in – there is a school in North Yorkshire spending £7,000 a week on supply.”

He said the government had paid “some lip-service” to the issue, referring to the November and December Covid workforce fund, but that this “goes nowhere near the true reimbursement of costs that are going to be needed”. He warned: “What we’re going to see is that schools will simply not be able to continue to function. They will start to have to make redundancies and all the other stuff. All of which was going to be problematic in the next financial year (anyway), but it will start sooner than that unless there is some kind of reimbursement.”

Analysis by ASCL in September found that secondary schools are facing bills of up to £39,000 a term, spending as much as £75 per-pupil on safety measures alone. A significant contributor is enhanced cleaning, which is averaging £13,000 a year. Other costs include supply staff, digital textbooks and additional teaching assistant time.

The DfE pledged to cover costs for schools facing high levels of staff absence during November and December via its so-called Covid workforce fund. However, strict criteria will exclude many schools from applying.


Staff wellbeing

The podcast sounds a warning on staff wellbeing. Ms Hassan summed up the situation, saying that staff fatigue and wellbeing was her “number one key issue”. She added: “This weekend, myself and my leadership team spent Saturday and Sunday tracking and tracing, calling parents, calling teachers. We came in this morning and we had our third case of the week and we started all over again. It is literally non-stop.

“We have staff in schools who have not had a rest since March. We have been working non-stop. And I don’t see that that is going to change. It’s relentless.”

Mr Barton added: “We will have people coming back (in January) not feeling refreshed in the usual way. Our advice is to keep stripping back as much as possible and just focus on the stuff that you really have to do.”

Another legacy of the pandemic, the podcast heard, is likely to be this stripping out of many things that schools do habitually but which may not be essential. Mr Solly explained: “Stripping away as many of the bureaucratic, paperwork-based and meeting-based expectations of teachers and just allowing them to focus on their core purpose of teaching and learning has been a revolutionary step to be honest.

“We will really have to look at our calendar with a critical eye next academic year. We have had an opportunity to declutter the calendar, declutter staff workload – how many of these things are we actually genuinely missing at the moment? I think it’s had a positive impact on staff wellbeing and mental health of our staff.”


Examinations

The podcast discussion took place before the decision to cancel this summer’s examinations, which was confirmed by Michael Gove on Tuesday (January 5). School leaders’ concerns will now centre on what processes are to be put in place for the assessment of students in order to avoid the problems we saw last summer.

Speaking more widely during the podcast, Mr Barton said that a legacy of the pandemic could be a rethinking of England’s obsession with examination papers: “What (the pandemic) has exposed in the English education system is this absolute reliance at GCSE on so many examination papers. (This) is part of what has caused so much havoc (last summer), and that determination that we’re going to run on with exams pretty much as normal this summer feels like it could be another disaster waiting ahead.”

He added: “We have said explicitly that now is not the time to abandon GCSE as a concept this summer, but now is the time to question whether GCSE in its current form at the age of 16, designed in a different era, should continue.”


Saving lives

Concluding the podcast, Ms Hassan reminded us: “What we’re doing now literally is changing people’s lives and saving people’s lives. We have shown exactly what we’re made of and we should have a great national pride in our school staff and our teaching profession.”

Mr Lyon praised the profession’s resilience and moral purpose these past few months, while Mr Solly told listeners: “Focus on the positives, look for opportunities. From a school leadership perspective there are so many things we cannot control ... so if we can focus on leading in the right way, with a moral and ethical foundation, then we’re doing a great job and that’s all we can continue to do.”

  • Find The SecEd Podcast via your streaming service or listen to this episode on the SecEd website at https://bit.ly/2K8OfbH


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