'Just talking to teachers'
Leading from the front 23rd May 2020
'I'm just going to have to sit this one out on the touchline with a note from matron…while you young bloods link arms and go together for the glorious final scrum down’
Leadership in times of crisis portrayed above by General Melchett in the popular BBC comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. Melchett expecting things of his troops that he is unable or more likely unwilling to do himself, he will do anything to avoid being in the firing line he's so far back in his comfortable mansion he is very unlikely to see any action during the conflict . Obviously, this is parody and comedy there is of course tacit reality in the quote and the situation.
Our teachers are public servants. During the current crisis they have stepped up to another level, contending with the complex demands of home schooling, providing online learning and coming into schools to help deliver lessons to our most vulnerable and key worker students.
This week’s blog is a tribute to the senior leaders up and down the country who have led from the front during this pandemic. They are not ensconced in a comfortable office far away from the frontline, directing operations-expecting the troops to go over the top into unknown and uncertain risks.
Our Headteachers and Senior Leaders have been battered and buffeted by the contrasting and contradictory narratives emerging from the DfE. They have shielded and protected both metaphorically and literally their staff and pupils, thinking last of their own safety and wellbeing.
Headteachers have diversified their already impressive skill set and job descriptions to include the following (alongside brilliant non-teaching staff)
• Site supervisors- Headteachers are now responsible for opening and closing the building and those windows that they used to blame everybody else for keeping open! They test fire alarms flush toilets, lock doors and ensure that every surface is clean.
• Office staff -Headteachers on are routinely fielding calls from parents regarding online learning, free school meals and when the dates for reopening will be confirmed! They are also checking on the welfare of staff and pupils and liaising with governing bodies.
• Teachers - of course lots of Headteachers still do this on a daily basis but due to the rising numbers of students going back into school covering learning is also becoming a bit of a challenge ,so Headteachers and senior leaders are stepping in to cover lessons.
• Technology experts -without being unkind Headteachers and senior leaders are often in the more mature end of the profession. The use of technology to this point has been minimal usually they are discouraging its use rather than promoting it! Headteacher's have now had to become Bill Gates-like in their understanding of Google classrooms, YouTube, BBC bitesize, zoom, teams and the myriad of other online sites.
• Recruitment officers And HR experts - Headteachers are now conducting interviews using the aforementioned technology and ensuring that safer recruitment policies continue under the current lockdown restrictions. They are also ensuring that they changed their zoom pub quiz team name before conducting any of these interviews!
• Alan Turing style Code Breakers - Headteachers are now having to become codebreaking experts to decipher and navigate the Government's free school meals scheme, laptop provision for disadvantaged students, the baffling deployment of 4G routers. They also have to provide multiple copies of attendance reporting to the DfE to local authority and to other providers.
Headteachers are also people (this may come as a shock to some readers). They face the same agonising decisions that the rest of the country does. They may have elderly parents that they cannot see, many worried about the rising death toll in care homes and unable to visit. They may have partners who are juggling working from home with the demands of running a house and the associated childcare. They may have illness within the family (whether Covid related or otherwise) and as public servants their adherence to the rules is part of their covenant with the community.
Contrast if you will Headteachers service, their steadfast adoption of whatever rule or directive comes their way (with whatever notice provided), their stoicism and public duty with the unprincipled and self- serving Orwellian dystopia of the country’s leadership.
I am proud to serve with outstanding leaders up and down the country who through these challenging times (and correct General Melchett)
‘get out on the pitch, link arms with their fellow teachers and go together ‘
Enjoy your well -deserved half term teachers, leaders and Headteachers everywhere
The haves and have-nots of
In these uncertain times in education, most schools have understandably moved to remote online learning . How do our most disadvantaged pupils fare in this new reality?
Following the cessation of normal schooling on the appropriate Friday 13th March , schools have been naturally migrating to online learning . School's have of course remained open to support the most vulnerable and the children of key workers but how have our most disadvantaged fared in the first few weeks of this new reality? (Disadvantaged students are NOT a homogenous group but the term helps describe the context- I am not seeking to stereotype)
The following article is a reflection of my own experience and that of colleagues and friends working in a town where the numbers of disadvantaged students is statistically much higher than the national average . I am not in any way seeking to apportion any blame or point any fingers , merely to highlight the plight of these students and their families .
Online learning needs electricity and devices
This may sound obvious and trite but at times of great economic difficulty and all members of households being at home , the surge in demand for electricity is huge . Power companies are doing their part and credit to them for freezing bills and keeping the supply flowing . Disadvantaged students living in privately rented houses and flats are not always seeing these leniencies being applied . (This is not to criticise the landlords who will have their own issues) . The pounds in the meter are being stretched through the increased load on cooking, washing and heating not to mention television to provide a window into the world outside. From conversations with network managers , it is common for households (particularly disadvantaged ones) to not have a computer with a keyboard in the house, let alone a printer . Many households do all their online activities through the ubiquitous mobile phone which is inherently unsuitable for navigating many of the websites suggested. Even when schools have supplied packs, some households are unable to provide the stationary needed to complete the tasks (pens,paper etc)
Online learning needs the internet
Many disadvantaged pupils live in houses that do not have a broadband connection and some that do may have intermittent service due to difficulties in paying the bills. It is of course welcome news that internet providers are not cutting off customers at this time of great need but when household budgets are tight (even before a national crisis) broadband is often a luxury that has to go . I have heard of numerous households not able to be reconnected as they had fallen behind in previous months , thinking with a couple of good months under their belts , they could get it back. There is also the challenge of pay monthly data plans on mobile phones . One of the big challenges of 'lockdown' is keeping in touch with relatives and friends . For the better off households with unlimited calls and 'all you can eat' data this is not as much of a challenge . When less advantaged housholds reach the data cap, that is the end . The call to grandma or the school work , it's understandable which one is not a priority
This is a pandemic and there may be illness in the house
Many disadvantaged students may live in smaller houses with more people . If there is illness in the house , this will understandably be the priority . Isolating and caring the family member may put strain on the sleeping arrangements , not to mention the working spaces for students at home. There may also be caring responsibility placed on the child to care for or occupy younger siblings . It is again entirely understandable why schooling may be less of a priority
One look on the internet and you will see any number of activities going on in spacious gardens and roomy outside spaces . This may not be the reality for some disadvantaged students who are confined to the house for the duration of the day . Many home-schooling plans involve an exercise aspect which is more difficult inside (Joe Wickes excepting) . There is also the need for breaks and to let off steam which are much easier when space is available .
Access to a teacher or resources
One of the biggest movements in education in recent times has been towards a 'Knowledge Rich' curriculum . This move has been welcomed by many and the re-professionalisation of teachers as educators and not merely facilitators has engendered a sea change in how we educate our children . I am aware of the gross over-simplification of my next point , but I will make it none the less, advantaged students will have access to (usually) more educated parents who will now be at home for prolonged periods. This will allow more advantaged students to push further ahead . From personal experience, I have spent hours with my children working through complex maths problems , unpicking key grammar in extended writing pieces and occasionally even getting some KS1 Science correct! This may not be the reality for some of our disadvantaged pupils who will undoubtedly have supportive parents , some who will be able to assist with the complexities for the work . Some however will be struggling to access the work , with little knowledgeable support and precious few resources to assist them . This then potentially means a widening of the gap or merely activities given to occupy students rather than for any discernible benefit .
Access to pastoral support
Pastoral support is arguably just as important , if not more so at this time . Families not just students need support , whether that is sign positing to agencies or an awareness of help and support that is out there . It could also be support for mental health, financial issues or even health care. We have set up 'phone banks' of SLT and pastoral staff as I know many schools have where we check in regularly with families to ensure that we continue to provide support. Again , advantaged families may know where to access support and have large networks but equally they may be experiencing hardships . We have heard of many self-employed parents who having been accustomed to a certain way of life are now finding it hard to adjust and find the right support . Successful small business owners needing signposting to Universal Credit for example, so checking in regularly withiut burning out staff is very important
So what I hear you ask? Firstly I must pay tribute to all of my amazing colleagues in the teaching profession for everything you are all doing to support all our students and families at this difficult time. This article as outlined at the start is merely to draw attention and raise awareness , the ripples of this pandemic will be felt for years to come particularly to those directly affected but also to the education system as a whole . Things will never be the same again .
Stay safe and God bless the public services.
The Us and Them of Lockdown
The Us and Them of Lockdown
The narrative around Lockdown has seen many twists in its enforcement. From the initial positivity of Joe Wickes workouts, Spring cleans, family board games and online learning to the current bewilderment of ‘celebrating’ a Bank Holiday that most definitely isn’t.
What struck me from an educator’s viewpoint as referenced in last week’s blog is that there are very different experiences of the current status quo. There also seem to be very different perceptions and levels of understanding about what lockdown looks like in different households.
The misplaced commentaries coming from certain online platforms and media outlets serve up war comparisons. These are exemplified in Facebook posts proclaiming that your great grandparent’s generation had to travel across the world, face death on a daily basis and all you have to do is stay at home watching Netflix. Well intentioned as this maybe, it does not tell the full story.
Readers will no doubt be aware of the quote above, taken from ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ by George Orwell. The quote refers to Orwell from a train catching the eye of a 25-year-old woman who is grovelling in the dirt, poking a stick up a waste pipe. Orwell skilfully addresses the notion that it isn’t the same for the disadvantaged, they know no better. They blindly accept their lot and their place in the world, like a caged tiger. In the fractious debate around lockdown, we must be careful not to fall into assumptions built purely on our own experiences.
More affluent families will in general be adapting to the current situation with the cushion that comes with regular income, food, shelter and outside space. They will then (possibly naturally) lead them to see the world through the prism of their own experience. This leads to many difficult and dangerous misconceptions, some of which I have seen on social media this week:
- • Who takes their 3 kids shopping, do they not know they’re putting them at risk?
- • The parks are full, people having picnics and playing. They should all be arrested! Close the parks NOW!!
- • Police called to attend house party’s – these idiots are going to infect us all!
- OFSTED need to regulate home learning - disadvantaged kids are being let down
If like Orwell we could catch the eye of the single parent, taking their 3 children under 10 to the local Tesco, we may register that they have no choice and be more empathetic. Their elderly mother is self-isolating, no longer able to support with childcare for fear of transmission and in dire need of supplies to keep her going. There is no petrol in the car as feeding the children all day has cut into the budget, the free school meals vouchers are being clutched tightly as they meander through the aisles meeting disapproving, mistrustful glances as they go. The part-time cleaning job has been furloughed as the school is no longer open, the school continues to pay the company, but the benefit isn’t felt where it is needed most. This is quite the opposite of the unknowing, irresponsible parent painted by the Facebook update. The post attracting the vitriol of the fortunate, twitching behind the fitted blinds of suburbia.
The parks unless I am sadly mistaken, were partly built with the function of providing the working poor somewhere to visit and exercise mainly on the only day they weren’t working. I fully understand that the Government policies as they are built on the back of the best available Science should be adhered to, particularly around social distancing. Again, if you could catch the eye of the father with 2 children in tow appearing to flout the rules by throwing a ball to the twins on the grass, you may see the deeply ingrained lines of exhaustion. Whilst the more affluent children are outdoors throughout this pandemic, ensconced within the safety net of gardens well stocked with trampolines and football goals, this family are in their 2-bedroom flat in a tower block in the city centre. The girls are indoors 23 hours a day, rattling round the small living space whilst mum attempts to keep her fledgling business running from home. Again, we are mistaken if we think that this is all they are used to.
The last point is included not to in any way defend the flouting of the rules, but it is a signpost to the continued demonising of the working class. For more affluent and comfortable families, the end of the lockdown may see a return to a life of lunch dates, cinema visits, nights out, travel and eventually possibly foreign holidays. There is light at the end of the tunnel, once they are through this there is an exciting reality to return to, so a little sacrifice now is worth it for a long-term gain. The more disadvantaged in society are continuing to work, be they shop workers, bus drivers, health care workers and delivery drivers. They are putting themselves in harm’s way every day to feed their families and serve their communities. This is seen as a risk, but one which society needs. Again, catch the eye of the bin man who has worked all week and visited every house in his community and is enjoying a drink with his workmates on a Friday at their house. It’s not right, it’s against the guidance but seen through his eyes and not yours, its more understandable. You can appreciate the fatalism of his actions. There is not definitely a great future to look forward to once this is all over, life is happening now.
The latest intervention from Lord Adonis is well intentioned. I have no doubt he has a great social conscience and has demonstrated this with his years of service in the Labour movement. However , again if he could catch the eye of the teacher that has chosen to work with the most disadvantaged in society , he would realise that they may not all be providing live lessons but they are improving life chances . From my conversations with teachers, those serving the most disadvantaged are on the phone throughout the 'working' day. They are checking the safety of their pupils , liasing with SLT , providing FSM . They are also signposting to services , talking to families and making sure they know that school is open if they need it . They are preparing work packs, often going out to the post office to deliver them to the pupils with computers or internet. They are often doing this whilst trying to home-school , many teachers living themselves in more modest surroundings , often without the support networks previously available to them. No teacher chooses to become a teacher for money or the holidays as the lazy caricature suggests , still fewer choose to work in areas of high disadvantage . This is a true vocation, proven more than ever during this current situation. To suggest more punitive action via inspection and a culture of 'shopping' schools not providing online lessons shows how detached Lord Adonis has become . Harsher accountability will serve to drive away teachers from the very communities that need them and further disadvantage pupils . I would suggest a phone call with a school leader rather than a tweet may be the best way to avoid conjecture.
It is the same for ‘them’ as it would be for ‘us’. The more disadvantaged are bearing the brunt not just of the work but of the difficulties associated with the current situation. The disproportionate death rate and the inequality of provision bears witness to the unfairness of our society , we are mistaken if we think the disadvantaged do not realise this.
We need greater understanding of the world as it is, not just as we see it and a fundamental redress of the balance.
Wake me up when talk of September ends 9th May 2020
Schools should not be reopened until September. This seems to be the consensus of opinion amongst teachers and parents, if not leading voices in politics and the media. We have seen opinions from the exalted Lord Adonis, conjecture from the celebrated Headteacher Chris Dyson and the deliberate drip drip of government leaks. Any discussion of schools reopening (note: we are not closed or I’m doing something wrong setting off for work) is met with immediate objections from teachers and Unions. The exceptions mainly focus on the safety of teachers and school staff, the very real concerns of parents for their children’s health alongside the obvious difficulty of maintaining social distancing and PPE availability.
The purpose of this blog is not to question these very real concerns, ones with which I entirely empathise but merely to ask:
Why will this be different in September?
Without wishing to give readers a lesson in History, a quick google search provides the History of schools opening in September. School was not compulsory until 1880, at this time children worked in fields and factories like their parents. In the winter months, there was less work for the children to do so going to school and being absent from work for part of the day was acceptable. As Spring sprung around this time of the year, everyone was needed to do their part, fruit picking livestock care and harvesting. The younger children would help in the home while older children took on the physical work. In Autumn as the activities wound down, it was time for the children to attend school. As a nation we are wedded to the idea that school starts in September and finishes in July. we arrange our lives around these traditional parameters, and we seem to have given September almost a mythical status, a panacea where everything will return to what we considered normal.
So, will anything realistically has changed with regard to the very real concerns addressed earlier? The short answer would appear to be ‘not really’. The passage of 3 months may see a reduction in infection rate, an improved track and trace policy and a more relaxed lockdown. We will still have to address the concerns that are present now. In addition to this, there are the very real concerns around teacher and pupil mental health.
A criticism, maybe legitimate of the Government is that in the month before Covid-19 took its hold on the country, they failed to prepare. As a profession we need to continue to adjust to the new normal. There is amazing work going on up and down the country, teachers are delivering online learning, resources are being prepared at breakneck speed and teachers are going above and beyond the call of duty to safeguard their pupils. There is also a piece of work to be done (I am sure it has begun) to prepare for what school will look like moving forwards. There are classrooms to redesign, corridors to adapt, washing stations to be created. There are routines to be created and communicated, curriculum to be adapted and PPE to be sourced.
What can be done is what teachers do best, create a forensic plan to ensure the safety of all the school family whilst serving the community and the Country. We do ourselves a disservice engaging in twitter speculation, dispensing rhetoric, whipping up anti-teacher sentiments and creating anxiety. We need to be calm, ordered, informed and systematic. Clinging to the thought that schools will start as usual in September is not helpful, they can’t and they won’t.
We need to prepare for the day when we do ‘reopen’ rather than speculate on the date.