For the last three decades, my life has revolved around school timetables, so now I am not directly working within a school it is odd to know school life is continuing without me. With the exception of ten months of maternity 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 school self-evaluations, and some head teacher performance management, but all remotely, in a way that makes me feel somewhat distanced from school life.
The pandemic knock-on effect
What I do know is that Covid-19 is still an issue in many of the schools I work in and with. Meetings have to be cancelled due to staff absence; head teachers can’t find cover to allow staff time to attend their continued professional development; 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 that 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 children’s learning as a result of three national lockdowns.
The other thing I know is that there is a climate of fear. Heads and their staff are hearing from those who have experienced inspection this academic year that, ‘it’s business as usual’ and ‘covid is no longer an excuse’ are frequent. Inspectors seem to be using the phrase ‘post-pandemic’ when the reality is that we are very much still mid-pandemic.
Inspection anxiety in schools
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 two years since inspection, and not enough was embedded, therefore the school couldn’t be good.
For a head teacher in an area that has had covid cases significantly above the national average, where half the staff were off sick at the time of the 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. At just seven weeks into the new term, teachers are being asked why children aren’t all sitting at tables, and why there aren’t more whole-class activities, even though the new early years foundation stage (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.
Human nature: how are teachers coping?
I have to wonder what those involved hoped to achieve when they observed an experienced early years teacher from behind a closed classroom door (as covid cases were so high that going into the class was deemed risky) and concluded that they required improvement. 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? This is especially hurtful after they have spent the past 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 much better to advice, support, and nurture, than they do to being told not to make excuses whilst trying to second-guess what a stranger wants to see.
It is possible to hold people to account with humanity, and I’d 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. 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.
A personal reflection
When reflecting on our lives, most people ask themselves the same question: have I spent it in the best way possible? As former teachers, one of the things my partner and I look back on is the weekends we spent doing schoolwork when we could have been out enjoying life. The sleepless nights we had over Ofsted and budgets are perhaps meaningless now in the big scheme of things.
Teaching gave us both a lot of joy over the years, but it wasn’t without its challenges, and that was before the pandemic and the raised expectations of the Ofsted framework. A framework that currently, and unfairly, uses the same criteria to judge a primary school subject leader – who has no non-contact time and four subjects to lead – against a subject leader, with a subject-specific degree, in a huge secondary school with a whole department of specialist teachers behind them. 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.
In the same way as many people have felt in their personal lives recently, 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.