There is no such thing as an easy pandemic. Every corner of society is exposed; each one of us battling our own problems. For headteachers in England, those problems are multiplied by the anxieties of the 8.7 million children for whom they are responsible.
The past month has been brutal for school leaders, and we all need to act cautiously if we don’t want thousands of teachers to be yet another casualty of this virus.
It took just nine minutes for the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to change everything. In less time than it takes to hard-boil an egg, Williamson last month told parliament that schools would “close until further notice”, that national exams were cancelled, that schools would continue caring for vulnerable children, and children of keyworkers – even during the Easter holidays – and that all pupils on free meals would continue to be fed.
Headteachers went from running an ordinary school to organising a virtual school, a childcare centre and a food delivery service. They had two days to turn it around. Education was never the sole focus of schools, and it’s a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove it.
Ten years ago, heads may have found it easier. Under Labour, education was managed by a large and well-funded Department for Children, Schools and Families – a title the Conservatives mocked for its length, and which some, such as the then education secretary, Michael Gove, disliked because it suggested schools should focus on child welfare. He wanted to get back to concentrating on discipline and academic rigour, the sort of words that get booming rounds of applause from rightwing audiences.
Hence, Gove’s first act on becoming education secretary, was to change the name back to the Department for Education, and then to set fire to almost every initiative related to children’s wellbeing.
For a decade, headteachers have felt every budget cut to children’s services, and endured every slice to the cash pot for psychologists, nurses, or a school police officer. They have felt every hour they have had to spend coordinating help for a child after Children’s Trusts were disbanded. “Don’t worry,” they were told, “it’s not your job.”
Except, of course, it was. Cancel schools, and look: who is there for children with protection orders? Who is feeding the vulnerable? Who is writing mass bereavement policies to explain to year 4 why their teacher isn’t coming back? Who is (virtually) sitting with the sobbing kid whose GCSEs have been cancelled?
Teachers. Gove may have taken the words “families” off the wall and decimated budgets, leaving little in the pot for welfare, but schools never gave up on helping. In families’ hour of most desperate need – when the government failed to quickly deliver its national food voucher scheme, when its promise of online resources was slow and limited – school leaders stepped in to make these things happen.
Of course, heads are well-paid professionals with prized job security, and 12 million parents have now taken on the burden of home-schooling alongside trying to keep or find a job. Amid these difficulties, the wellbeing of school leaders is no one’s main concern. But survey data shows a third of heads are working longer hours than before (they already did 60-hour weeks), most are still regularly attending school, and alcohol use is creeping up as a coping mechanism. Let us also remember the average age of a headteacher is 50, meaning many are at higher risk if infected with Covid-19.
Talking to school leaders, many are at the edge of their nerves. Some will leave, more will stay – and those who do will likely find a new zeal for fighting back.
To get ahead, the government should make two moves. First, it must accept that schools cannot return to a situation where slashed budgets mean leaders scrimp on soap and mental health services are impenetrable. Austerity has had its day.
Second, ministers must resist pressures to whimsically bounce schools back into service. Anyone who thinks proper social distancing can be done in a full (or even half full) school has either never met a child, or been in a school. A properly planned and clearly communicated return is the least everyone is owed.
Finally, I would implore everyone, parents, governors, the entire public, to go easy on schools. They cannot be perfect at this time. Children will be upset about cancelled exams. Not every school can stay open for Easter. One may have sent home a whizzy digital learning package, another may have sent textbooks and a wish of good luck. When the world changes in nine minutes, it rarely changes equally. No one is having an easy pandemic. Let’s hope it is over soon.