Happy New Year everyone.
I think it’s fair to say that the last couple of the weeks have been some of the most challenging in my career.
I’ve been a school leader for well over 25 years. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I think I also speak on behalf of many of our school and trust leaders.
There have been times when we’ve been busy, times when we’ve been frustrated, times when we can’t always find the solutions. They don’t compare with the last month or so.
So, what’s different?
Firstly is the challenge of interpreting central messages when many of our schools (and most of our children) aren’t specifically mentioned. Local communities have not had the opportunity to make decisions that relate to their specific circumstances. Secondly is the “lateness” of advice/guidance. I think this is particularly pertinent to our children and schools. We always appear to be an afterthought!
There were real examples of both, last week. On the 30th December we were told that the whole of the country would move into Tier 4. We were told, via internal email, that there would be more advice for children with additional needs later in the day. At 6.00pm, a day later – on New Year’s Eve – advice came that both confused and perplexed many professionals and families alike. The government suggested, at this point, that all children with an EHCP should be treated as vulnerable and guaranteed school places. I received a deluge of emails and messages stating that this was not only insulting (many, if not most, of our children are the most loved and valued members of their families – far from vulnerable) but also the blanket term had the potential of causing some special schools to close altogether! Hastily convened phone calls were made and the schools, in our MAT, agreed to meet as soon as was practicable. At the same time, I was hearing all the main unions were particularly concerned about the new variant of the strain (particularly in the south of England) and were preparing to advise all their members (across the country) to invoke section 44 of the Health and Safety Act that, most simply, requires employers to carry our further risk assessments.
Our school leaders used last Friday, Saturday, Sunday and the extra logistics training day on Monday to try and understand which staff we would have available, how we would group children safely and what offer we could safely provide.
On Monday we were hearing rumours of a full national lockdown and potential variances to the previous (released only a few days earlier) advice of which children should be encouraged to attend school. The guidance finally came on Tuesday evening at 8.00pm when the Prime Minister advised that everyone would be safer staying home. Our teams had anticipated this position and had been preparing for what we called our ‘New Schooling 2’ offer. This model accepted that the young people, in all schools, were likely to fall into 3 categories. The first group were those children who would best learn in a face-to-face environment, within school. The second group were children who could learn well and access our virtual/remote offer through use of their iPads. There was also a third group of children whose families had told us they were keeping them off school for their own safety and felt they didn’t need to engage, at this point, in the schooling process. Can I stress that I believe there is never a right or wrong decision here! You will do what you believe is in the best interests of your child. I will totally support your decision, as a parent/carer, to make the best decision for your child. You will NOT be penalised through an attendance mark or be fined for non-attendance.
The vast majority, if not all, of our families, when contacted, have been brilliant. You have understood the wider context and made decisions accordingly. Thank you.
The confused national picture was closing special schools up and down the country. No face to face, no remote learning, no virtual learning. Schools pitched against their communities – school leaders having to explain to families the unexplainable!! We managed to avoid these disasters – local people making sensible decisions about their local communities.
Our schools had got over the first hurdle. Our numbers of children in all categories meant that we could safely offer our New Schooling 2 model. Our staffing solution worked.
That’s where we ended Friday!
So, you might ask, what about the announcement on the last day of last term, regarding the lateral flow tests. Well, we are piloting the tests with a small number of young people and staff next week. We will be in a position to advise in the coming days.
You may have also seen that there is presently a petition circulating suggesting that our front-line staff should be given priority to the vaccination programme. There is a debate in parliament tomorrow (Monday) – let’s see where it takes us. I am continuing to lobby on behalf of our colleagues and I know we have had some success in our Tameside schools. We all want to get back to some type of normality but I’m acutely aware that this mustn’t be at the detriment of other, more at risk, groups.
I going to finish this blog with a huge thanks to all of our school and trust leaders. As you can see from the above, they’ve worked tirelessly on behalf of our children, our families, communities and staff. They’ve made decisions based on principles and values. They’ve remained professional when national guidance was not only confusing but also contradictory. I’d also like to take this opportunity to place on record my thanks to our local authority colleagues, especially from Oldham and Tameside. Many of them were also working hard to try to interpret the guidance. They’ve been superb in trying to wrestle back a sensible local solution and to try and keep everything in proportion. It allows the system to function.
Let’s hope for a couple of weeks of “stability”. We are getting there! Please be patient with us for a few more weeks. I don’t want to offer an absolute timeline as to when we can get to back to some sort of “normality” but it’s getting nearer. The New Schooling Offer 2, the lateral flow tests, the vaccinations. Please stay safe and make sure our children stay protected for a few more weeks.
Exciting times are ahead. We’ve lots to catch up on.
You can find all Graham’s previous updates and blog entries here