It’s been a while since I blogged. It’s been a very odd year, time has taken on an elastic quality. Summer seems like an age away but the days seem to disappear in a blur.
At home, we’ve fallen into a new and very different pattern. I get up and take Hannah to school, usually call and fetch some pastries on the way home for Pete’s second breakfast (the first is often at 5am because he wakes up hungry), and then we proceed to go about our day until it’s time to collect Hannah again. I’m reminded again how short the school day seems when you’re not working it – I realised this on my second maternity leave which coincided with Charlie starting school. The days seemed to fly by in a blur. Yet I know how much is crammed into that day when I’m in school. It’s the same now. This morning I found myself thinking “How can it be Friday again?” on the drive back from school. Time has become elastic.
It’s very odd knowing that school life is going on around me. For the last 3 decades, my life has revolved around school timetables, with the exception of 10 months of MAT leave, there’s never been a time when I haven’t been working in, or with schools. I’m still connected to schools, I’ve been doing some online training sessions and consultations, some writing, looking at SEFs, and some Headteacher Performance Management, but all remotely, in a way that makes me feel somewhat distanced from school life.
What I do know is that Covid is still an issue in many of the schools I work in and with. Meetings have to be cancelled due to staff absence, heads can’t find cover to allow staff time to attend CPD, some have had to return to bubbles, attendance rates are dropping as infections rip through classes. It is not over. What I also know is the impact of the last 20 months has been huge, I speak to teachers and leaders every day who tell me of the challenges many families are facing as a result of covid, loss, grief, stress, poverty, and that’s before we get to the gaps in their learning as a result of 3 National lockdowns.
The other thing I know is that there is a climate of fear. Heads and teachers are hearing from others who have experienced inspection this academic year, who have been told that, “it’s business as usual” and that, “covid is no longer an excuse”, inspectors using the phrase “post- pandemic” when the reality is that we are very much mid- pandemic. There is real anxiety in primary schools. Subject leaders who have a full- time teaching commitment are highly anxious that they will, “let the school down” as they haven’t been able to observe teaching and learning in all classes due to the impact of the pandemic. Budgets have been decimated by Covid, meaning that there are even fewer opportunities to release staff for training, support, and subject leadership time. I know of one school where the head was told that although the curriculum was developing well, too little progress on curriculum had been made in the last 2 years since inspection, and not enough was embedded, therefore the school couldn’t be good. For a head in an area that has had cases significantly above the national average, who had half the staff off sick at the time of inspection, this seems neither helpful nor fair. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. Speak to any Early Years teacher or leader and you’ll find an even greater level of anxiety. A new baseline assessment, mixed messages about tracking, documentation, observation and assessment, a revised framework and new Early Learning Goals. 7 weeks into the term being asked why children aren’t all sitting at tables, and why there aren’t more whole-class activities, even though the new EYFS framework makes it abundantly clear that practitioners should make pedagogical choices based on the needs of the children, it’s no wonder people are anxious.
When you hear of an experienced teacher being observed in EYFS from behind a closed classroom door because Covid cases were high so going into the class was too risky, and being judged to require improvement, you have to wonder what those involved hope to achieve. How do we make things better for children by making the adults who care for them and educate them feel helpless, hopeless, confused, angry, and frustrated, especially after they’ve spent 20 months working their socks off to try to give children the best possible education in the most difficult circumstances?
I’m not against accountability, it’s been my job for most of the last decade to hold leaders and teachers to account in one role or another. But some seem to have lost sight of the fact that schools are staffed and led by human beings, and human beings respond to advice, support, nurture, and care than they do to being told not to make excuses and trying to second guess what a stranger wants to see. It is possible to hold people to account with humanity, and I would argue that if we want good people to remain in the profession, we absolutely need to do this as a matter of urgency. I have lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who have told me that they can’t carry on like this, that they need to do something else in order to maintain their health and sanity. I can usually persuade people that things aren’t as bad as they seem, but I’m really struggling at the moment. I also know that life is short and precious, and if your work is making you anxious, angry, and upset, it’s likely to mean that life might be even shorter than you think.
When you are given a terminal diagnosis, it makes you reflect on your life. Have you spent it the best way? I can honestly say that I don’t have many regrets at all and neither does Pete, but one of the things we do look back on is the weekends spent doing school work when we could have been out enjoying life, and the evenings when we willed the girls to fall asleep quickly so that we could get on with some work. The sleepless nights over Ofsted and budgets all seem pretty meaningless now in the big scheme of things. Teaching gave us both a lot of joy over the years and it has been wonderful to hear from former pupils who share what an impact Pete had on them, but it wasn’t without its challenges, and that was before the pandemic and the raised expectations of the Ofsted framework, which judges a subject leader in a 2 class primary with no non-contact time and 4 subjects to lead against the same criteria as a subject leader in a huge secondary with a subject-specific degree and a whole department of specialist teachers. I worry that many people are starting to feel the toxicity of the current regime and that our retention crisis is about to get even worse.
It has been forever and only 5 minutes since Pete’s diagnosis. Time has become elastic. Back in July, we were told that Pete had a matter of weeks to live, the wonders of palliative chemotherapy mean that he has defied the odds, but we know he can’t defy them forever and the elastic will eventually snap. In the same way, it really feels like staff working in schools and settings are being stretched to breaking point, we need to speak out, before it’s too late.