That was the year, that was.
This time last year I was putting the finishing touches to a research proposal which I intended to submit so that I could complete my studies at CREC (the Centre for Research In Early Childhood) because I know how to party on New Year's Eve. I’d completed the annual ritual of putting all my diary dates on the new calendar and wondering how I was possibly going to fit everything in, and I was excited for the year ahead. Little did I know what lay in store.
January and February passed by in a blur, with the usual combination of school improvement work, speaking at conferences, training, and a couple of BrewEds; the legendary BrewEd Wakey, where I spoke about the new ELGs and tried (and failed miserably) to get a table for 35 in an Indian restaurant on the busiest Saturday night ever in Wakefield, and the week after BrewEdEY in Blackpool, where I talked about professional respect, won a book in the raffle and called to see my in-laws on the way home.
Half term came and went, deadlines were met, and I ping-ponged around the country traveling everywhere from Guernsey to Cheshire. There was talk on the news about a virus, but it all seemed very distant and not really anything to worry about.
As March began the conversation turned to the virus, some of the students at CREC couldn’t attend our final face to face seminars, because they were unable to leave Italy, but we were still talking about our research projects and confident that we would be able to get into schools and complete them. By the second week in March, the virus was becoming a growing concern. Waiting to take to the stage at the Kent Early Years conference, the sound engineer told me that he’d just seen the news and the BBC were talking about a national lockdown. When I got off the stage there were several missed calls, my work in the South West the next day was cancelled, the school I was due to visit had a live Covid case and was closed for a deep clean. I headed home instead. I contacted all the places I was due to go to the following week. Derby City Council still wanted me to go ahead, my school in Leicester couldn’t the school in Preston wanted to, Hull and Cheshire were waiting to see.
By Monday night it became apparent that the situation was deteriorating. My husband took the decision to travel with me the following day and use the opportunity to visit his parents who lived near to the school I was working in. “We probably won’t be able to visit for a while”, a wise move as it turned out. After work I went to my in-laws to have a quick cuppa and catch up, it felt odd not to hug them and I felt rude keeping my distance, but I had just spent the day in a school and I didn’t want to put them at risk. On the way home, we listened to the radio as Rishi Sunak announced the Furlough scheme and that 63 people had died from the virus today. It felt surreal. The following day the education secretary spoke in the house of commons, “After schools close their gates on Friday afternoon, they will remain closed until further notice, except for the children of key workers”.
Cue a flurry of phone calls and activity – who was a key worker? What happened to children with additional needs? What about safeguarding? What needed to happen for children at home?
The days immediately after the announcement went by in a blur. Although I wasn’t officially working, I was trying to support the heads I work with to make sense of the guidance which was being issued. There were lots of decisions that needed to be made hastily. The networks and connections that I’ve been lucky to make over the last few years were invaluable. I was working with heads in Kent, Cheshire, Sunderland, Swindon, Cumbria, and London, trying to piece together advice and support to help them make informed decisions. I was asked to write an article for @famly about supporting young children in the pandemic How Should Parents Approach the EYFS at Home? | Famly and was contacted by Nic Ponsford (@NicolePonsford), someone who I’ve only ever met online, and she suggested putting together something for parents struggling with younger children at home, I was introduced to the world of zoom, I’d heard of it but never really understood the allure of video conferencing, but I joined in with a zoom call and as a result EYFS home was born. Maureen Hunt (@HuntEarlyYears) who I had met in real life before, but hadn’t really got to know properly and I worked with Nic on the content, and Nic worked with Andy Goff (@andygoff) on the technical side of things and uploading all our work. The days were filled with zoom calls, writing ideas, filming activities and uploading them, and contacting people in the EY community to broaden the range of activities we could offer.
It occurred to me that a lot of focus was on the practicalities of dealing with a pandemic, but that people’s well being and the social aspects of being in school weren’t really being catered for, and I had the idea that I could offer a virtual staffroom, a safe space to venture into, with no agenda, where everyone was welcome to have a chat, just like the real thing, for 45 minutes every day.
So, I tweeted about the idea, and set up the first virtual staffroom on the 23rd March. You can read about it here Tales from the staffroom! | Assure Education and here A Valediction: So long, and thanks for all the fun. | Assure Education The staffroom became a regular part of my daily routine and gave me something to stop for in between the calls and webinars. Those first few days whizzed by in a blur. I was also invited to join in with a Coronacast, an idea that my friend SimonKidwell (@SimonKidwell) had set up with his colleague Dan Thomas (@ceotflp) to support headteachers in Cheshire. It was great to see so many familiar faces in the room and discuss the issues schools were facing and potential solutions.
At the end of March, I was told that one of my contracts, a source of a considerable part of my income, was being terminated with immediate effect. Although it made little difference in the short term, because if I wasn’t able to go into school I wasn’t receiving any income, this still felt like a blow. I worried about my ability to pay the mortgage and support my family. At the beginning of the lockdown I had thought that I would be without work for a month or two, which is less than ideal but manageable, As the child of someone who grew up in poverty, I have always erred on the side of caution and stashed a bit of cash away for a rainy day, but now I didn’t know how long the rainy day would last for, or what I would do when the clouds finally cleared. My family, the crew in the staffroom and the people I’ve worked with over the last 7 years were brilliant. They were supportive and kind, acknowledging that I had every right to be upset, but telling me not to be worried and that things would work out.
April came and on the 1st (my birthday) the staffroom crew came with drinks and banners and sang happy birthday to me, the following day we did the same for staffroom stalwart (he’s never missed a day) @SimonDavies, that week I was contacted by a publisher who asked me if I was interested in writing a rationale for an EY curriculum. Had this happened any sooner, I would have probably declined, thinking I didn’t have the capacity to do it. But in this brave new world, I was able to say yes and so a new and exciting chapter began for me. Meanwhile, I was joining in with the coronacasts which were now a daily occurrence and becoming more of a national event, alongside staffroom which continued to grow. My sister contracted covid, which was a worry and she was quite ill for a while but did eventually recover, which was a huge relief. It was very difficult not being able to visit her and offer support as she was over a hundred miles away.
The constantly changing guidance and shifting landscapes kept me busy. I spent my time trying to support leaders and teachers to keep up to date. I wrote blogs, I did online interviews and podcasts, I held online consultations, and took phone calls. I tried not to worry too much about the future but to live in the moment. The weather was glorious, and I did something that I haven’t had the capacity to do for years, I started to garden again. I planted vegetable seeds and cleared a space to grow them, I went on walks around the nature reserve which I’m lucky to live a 5-minute walk from. The days were full-on and busy, writing and filming for EYFS Home, coronacasts, calls, articles, podcasts, interviews, online consultations, writing the curriculum model, staffroom. It was nothing like as busy as being in school, and I really felt for my colleagues trying to make sense of it all, but at least I was keeping occupied and busy and it felt like I was helping in some way.
May came around and the government announced the wider opening of schools, guidance was piecemeal, patchy, and often contradictory or plain unworkable. I threw myself into trying to make sense of it. My sister put me in touch with some renowned experts in occupational health, and I liaised with virologists and health and safety experts. I worked with my friend and colleague @JanDubiel to write blogs and put together some supporting webinars to help people to explore ideas and consider what things might look like for our youngest children. I asked the wonderful Nick Sharratt to make some posters to help children remember to wash their hands, and he kindly obliged assure.education/storage/downloads/wash poster colour.pdf. Staffroom continued to run and I applied for new roles in the hope that after the summer schools would return to normal. I was lucky to secure interviews and two new roles and started to feel like things might be ok. The garden began to bloom and blossom and things started to feel more hopeful.
When June came, I wondered if staffroom would be needed, with everyone back in school and managing blended learning, but uptake was still good and everyone said that it was a welcome part of their daily routine. Some people were clinically vulnerable and working from home, so it was a lifeline, others weren’t able to work at the moment and staffroom offered a focal point to the day. I began to get requests for online training and gradually some paid work began again, which was a relief. The proposal for the curriculum was approved and I was commissioned to undertake some further work. My daughter secured a place at a new school, following the take over of our local school by an academy chain with some questionable ethics. This was a huge relief for us although it caused her some anxiety, naturally. Things seemed to be a bit more positive and the outlook seemed to improve nationally. We weren’t out of the woods yet, but as long as we were sensible, it seemed things would get better.
July was a blur of online work. The daily coroncast reduced to twice weekly, then weekly. Staffroom continued every day, the new ELGs were released and people started to consider what that would mean for them and their school. Many schools were worried about transition and there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to provide training, so I eventually found myself filming myself presenting on topics such as the new ELGs, Enabling environments in a covid world, transition, and starting school. By the time the end of term came around, I was ready for a rest! We ended staffroom with a party and the crew very generously sent me flowers, a wonderful gin hamper, and an engraved glass to say thank you.
In the summer we were able to go out again, but we didn’t go far, we were still wary so held off on a holiday. We visited friends in a socially distanced way. A few friends visited but stayed in a hotel rather than at rather than at home. I worked on the curriculum and prepared for returning to work. I had been allocated a new patch to work on, with 34 schools to support. It looked like face to face work might be possible, but we were advised to wait until October if we could.
In September my youngest started her new school, after much anxiety due to not being able to have a transition visit, she quickly settled in and made friends. Work started to feel a bit more normal, mostly online but with some school visits. I started to build relationships with the new schools and team I was working in, although most of the work was virtual.
By October half term it was becoming apparent that things were not going as well as we’d hoped with regard to controlling the virus. Some schools were having to close bubbles fairly regularly, and in some areas, the virus was having a huge impact on schools’ ability to stay open. With so many staff shielding it became clear that more measures were needed.
In November we went back into lockdown, the visits I had planned couldn’t take place, but schools remained open, I continued to work virtually, and led lots of training, virtual visits, and online coaching sessions. I was also asked to work on a project designing activities to accompany a series of children’s books. Another thing that would probably not have happened if it hadn’t been for the covid crisis. New work started to come in, people who had accessed my online training requested in-school support and the diary started to fill up. I veered between anxiety and hope about the future but remained optimistic.
So here we are in December, what a month it has been. Once again schools and settings find themselves at the centre of the battlefield. Some authorities have been threatened with legal action for trying to close schools early in order to prevent the virus from spreading and protect families. Two days before the end of the year the secretary of state gave a muddled statement which led to much confusion and schools are now trying to make sense of more hastily written guidance once again. Some schools return on Monday, many do not and are now trying to put together plans to support children and families.
Heads, teachers, support staff and EY staff are once again trying to do the best they can, in the most challenging circumstances possible to provide education, care, stability, hope, and safety for their communities and to keep safe themselves. The headlines about mass testing in schools, laptops, school meal vouchers, the army, catch up funding and additional support belie the reality of what’s happening on the ground. I find myself trawling guidance, offering support, and wondering what the next few weeks will bring.
There is the hope of a vaccine, but we have to get through these next few weeks first and they are going to be tough. A whole year has passed since I wrote my research proposal and in it I feel I’ve lived a thousand surreal lifetimes. I had to postpone the research, but I do hope to pick it up when I can and complete my studies. Who knows, my final thesis might be on leadership in times of crisis, a study of the education community during the global pandemic.
What I do know is we are all stronger than we think and can face most things with the support of friends, family, and colleagues. This year has shown me that I can adapt and change, and it’s shown me who I want to have on my team when the proverbial hits the fan. I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with the EY staff, the teachers, the support staff, the heads, and the governors who stepped up when the education secretary was found wanting because they have stood up for their communities when they were most needed and they stood with me when the going got tough.
I know I am relatively lucky, I haven't lost anyone that I am close to, due to this wretched disease, friends have not been as fortunate. Covid has robbed us of so much, and it is important to acknowledge that, but it has also given me things that money can not buy. Resilience, opportunities, time to reflect, time to be with my family, powerful connections, and amazing friendships. The list of people who have supported me through this year is just too long, but I am grateful to each and every one of you. I would not have got through the year without you, and I will not forget who stood with me when the going got tough. I am a very lucky lady.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a year, but the companions I’ve ridden it with have been the best of the best.
Here’s to 2021