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We’ve not been headteachers, but Covid managers

August 13, 2022, 18:10 GMT+1
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  • LAs were late to the party, and where was government recognition for our role in managing the pandemic? asks Undercover Headteacher
We’ve not been headteachers, but Covid managers

There was a time when a headteacher could forge a vision, decide on the direction of the school and build a team of talented staff to take things forward.

For me, that meant making the school the best place to foster well-rounded children who were educationally, emotionally and socially ready for the next steps of life’s journey.

As I begin my retirement I’ve reflected on how, in recent years, the climate has shifted, making the job increasingly challenging.

Keeping children at the heart of the school’s efforts has resulted in working all hours and juggling my standard responsibilities with an ever-expanding ocean of demands.

This includes managing the expectations of parents – a relationship that’s becoming trickier as mental health problems surge in connection with financial struggles.

Complaints often end up on social media instead of being dealt with in the head’s office. You call parents to discuss the problem, only to find they have already moved on – the angry email having helped them get it off their chest! 

Headship can be a lonely and isolating job. Policy changes make us weary, and a lack of support from local authorities leaves us reliant on brainstorming and idea-sharing with other local heads – who are also busy and under pressure.

It doesn’t instill confidence when those above you at LA level either may not have been in education or are educationalists who have failed at school level.

I have known leaders of schools found to require improvement rise to take roles in LA school advisory services. 

Growing levels of need in mainstream schools can put a child in the awful situation of having to fail before an EHCP or alternative provision is provided.

Many local authorities are not hitting the 20-week assessment window and there is a lack of specialist provision as they are inundated with referrals. Outside agencies, such as CAMHS, have a frightening 3-4 year waiting list, leaving children, their families and schools to struggle.

Teacher recruitment is also a growing headache. Where we used to have 30-40 applications, recently we have been lucky to get a handful. Primary schools are suffering an ‘experience drain’ as teachers take early retirement or leave within five years of starting in the profession.

The trepidation of being in the OFSTED window with its non-celebratory framework is a further pressure. It is not a level playing field and the judgement depends on who walks through the door – what is their attitude, approach and do they have the curriculum expertise to inspect the agreed deep dives?

It seems we have gone safeguarding mad again, too. This is, of course, crucial but the stories we hear of inconsistent expectations from inspectors are worrying.

This also means school staff are becoming social workers, counsellors, mental health supporters and parenting experts, despite having no training in these areas. We try our best to be everything to everyone when we just want to do the job we were trained for and enjoy.

Then there’s Covid. For the past two and a half years we have not been heads but Covid managers.

A vast number of parents became key workers overnight, and had letters to prove it. I was taken to task over the Covid guidance by disgruntled families.

We had to acquire PPE and sanitisation, write detailed risk assessments, organise new staff rotas, get everyone up to speed on guidance and then instigate remote learning. LAs were late to the party, leaving heads to make important decisions alone.

And where was the recognition from the government? MP Michael Fabricant even commented during the recent Downing Street parties’ scandal that they were only partying as teachers were doing the same. I wish!

I cannot retire after so many years without mentioning governors, who can and do support schools valiantly. Departing heads always want to leave the school in the best possible hands. But what if governors don’t think through the whole process, or don’t notice which applicant is the best fit for the school?

It is a worry and a minefield, and yet governing bodies receive little support to make such complex decisions. If and when LAs do advise, it can be under the condition of recruiting their chosen candidates. 

Despite all this, I have loved my time as headteacher. When the child is at the centre of what you do, when you have a supportive and wonderful team, it is the best job in the world. I will miss it.

The writer is a headteacher in England.