10 November 2021
The pandemic blurred all boundaries.
Some of this was good. To start with we thought it was a great equaliser – anyone could catch COVID. But it wasn’t democratic – some people had a party, will speak freely of enjoying it – without a commute, children at home, salaries coming in. Others were cooped up in flats, redundant, filing their way to the foodbank. For those in work in key worker roles, the blurring between professional and private was complete. For those in education especially so.
In March 2020 when every day we asked, “will we lockdown today?”, as Head I held almost daily briefings with staff, I wrote frequently to parents and governors. Since the February, we had held our own daily Cobra meetings. By day we were trouble-shooters, forecasters. We listened to parents in industries where they were already using platforms for connection. Rapid appointments of staff were made as the usual tragedy of chronic illness hit us alongside the fear of someone catching Covid. One such day we appointed an Acting Head of Department and a newly created role Head of Technology for Learning – I told both of their roles as they stood in what felt like my revolving office door. No time for slow discussion.
School leaders are used to responding and planning: indeed, we regularly rehearse and execute critical incidents. Crisis communication is something we are drilled for. In those adrenalin-filled days we wondered how many people would die. We talked about it because we had to face every taboo. By night we slept like people in those stories of medieval times when the pestilence was evident in villages, with uneasy dreams and feeling like soothsayers woke too early with fresh thoughts of what needed doing. With no notice, no advance planning, we planned to move everything we could of a 3-18 year olds school online.
The nation ran out of toilet rolls. On the last day of school we spoke to all the students in their classes. We had stopped assemblies, fixtures, large gatherings. Pupils left with whatever equipment or plans they had been able to muster. We said farewell to parents we normally saw on a daily basis. Many were already feeling the pinch at work. Others we didn’t see again for months. Teaching staff were working out what tools of their trade they needed. As they left, they passed my office, wheeling white boards, office chairs, sundry other items in a macabre comedy, which was completed when we gave them a loo roll as they left. It was funny at the time. We still had no idea what we were really facing.
The Easter holidays were too brightly sunny, a backdrop of sirens wailing and endless DfE documents which we sifted for must, should or might. We became experts in arcane aspects of risk assessments and public health.
We switched to online learning. On a daily basis we adjusted – some year groups had more than others of live teaching. Some had too little, some too much. We created new timetables, a Games afternoon for rest from screens. Even then we knew we needed some respite. Somehow that time to stop never came because there was always something new to decide, to manage, to hear, arbitrate, mend, heal, redress, address.
We put sheets up as backgrounds in bedrooms or found white walls for our online existence. But the qualms as we switched on each day, selected the right browser or platform were not cowardly jitters. They were a reality of inviting our students, parents and governors into our homes in a way previously unimagined. Even in boarding schools, where communities live together all the time, essential boundaries are maintained. Now we reached through the screens to families telling us of illness, death, of ICU phone calls with kindly nurses they couldn’t hear through masks. WhatsApp Groups took on a new life – sometimes it was the equivalent of a casserole kindly meant, sometimes it was less kind. Parents had new insights into how teachers teach and how their children learn. Some of the wider societal commentary was well meant. Some less so.
As Heads we leapt from one platform to another, accountable in a new way to society at large as Black Lives Matters and then Everyone’s Invited swept the nation with righteous anger. As Headteachers we are figureheads – and everyone sees in us a different figure. And so we became Headteacher, supply teacher, key worker provider, mother, father, counsellor, arbiter, judge, sifter of clear lines through DfE memos which came through like Harry Potter letters piercing every means of communication. Like those portraits of Hogwarts’ Headteachers in a time of crisis, we moved in and out of Zoom calls, and science fiction became reality.
Now we are back in schools and we need to keep looking into space and creating a future which is defined by human connection, creativity and ethical leadership. We need to create a space for listening and thinking and to do so in a rather less helter-skelter manner. Heads need to hear what students and children are saying with fresh ears, rejoicing that we live in a time when we ask children to speak, and worry when they don’t. The haunting question of the NSPCC helps us if we allow it, ‘What stops children talking to adults? What stops adults listening?’
It would be good for us to have time to become prophets again. Prophets in the Old Testament were not fortune tellers. They read the signs of the times. Our curriculum needs urgent consideration as does our exam system – how we look after teachers, how we address the crucial matters of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in a meaningful way, all of these need time and vision.
As Headteachers we need time and space to reflect on what we did, to allow ourselves to pause and be glad that we had a chance to make a difference and also to recognise that, as figureheads, we are not responsible for everything, even though it might feel that way. Burnout is close for many or has been just about headed off because of inspirational charities like Head Space – https://www.myheadspace.org.uk/ or Education Support https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/ whose offer of supervision I took up in the Summer. Just in time, as it turned out, as I had all the symptoms of burnout. It has made me careful and even more grateful for the amazing people I work with. Headteachers have the desire to constantly seek improvements, it is in their DNA, but we also urgently need a prevailing culture which affirms all we have done and will do with open hearts for the sake of the children and the adults in our communities. We must look after people, change the narrative to one of kindness and respect. We need to tell the stories of what we have done and, like those medieval people, be glad when the fever has passed.
Mrs S Raffray, Headteacher, St Augustine’s Priory
Chair of The Society of Heads