2023 in review

2023 in review: We look after more and more, but who looks after us?

Becky Black reflects on a year when long-term disruption by RAAC resulted in a short pause from Ofsted. A parable for the education system as a whole?

Becky Black reflects on a year when long-term disruption by RAAC resulted in a short pause from Ofsted. A parable for the education system as a whole?

17 Dec 2023, 5:00

I have led St Andrew’s for four years. I taught here, became SENCO, deputy and eventually took on headship just a few months before Covid hit. Hand on heart, 2023 has been the most heart-breaking and frustrating year I’ve ever known.  

Our school vision is ‘Every child is loved and known, every child shines’. At the end of a grueling 12 months, I feel I should change that to ‘Everyone is loved and known, everyone shines’. 2023 has asked so much of my staff: more responsibility, flexibility, problem-solving, grit and determination than ever before. We are still standing, still laughing and still doing the best we can for our children and their families – but how much more can be asked of us?

With our time in the Ofsted ‘window’ approaching, we began the year optimistic about post-Covid recovery. I don’t measure our performance solely by SATS scores, but also how ‘secondary-ready’ our children are: their behaviours, attitudes and resilience. All of these were travelling in the right direction as 2023 dawned.

It wasn’t without challenge. A growing number of children with high needs are warmly welcomed here, but poor DfE resources and vanishing support from the wider SEND team and educational psychologists make teaching and support staff’s roles increasingly difficult. There are all those who should but can’t rely on an over-stretched social care system too. Fighting their corner has become a weekly occurrence.

To be blunt, all of the DfE’s priorities for the first part of the year felt like a sideshow – bar one.

Suspecting we were in another ‘window’ due to when the school was built, we were assessed for RAAC in May and June – by the LA and the DfE respectively. Both declared our building safe.

Our ducks, so perfectly in a row, were blown out of the water

Then, on a sunny Wednesday in August (because the work never ends), our lives turned upside down. I’d been in meetings about fundraising for our swimming pool refurbishment and about replacing our condemned demountable. I was getting ahead of myself with our SDP when my site manager showed me a box of broken concrete blocks from above our ceiling tiles.

A phone call, email and visit from the DfE later, St Andrew’s itself was condemned. Our ducks, so perfectly in a row, had been blown out of the water. A whole new level of challenge began, but there was at least some reprieve: our inspection window would be moved to account for the disruption.

A good thing too. Within a week, we had set up school in a wedding venue, turning ceremony rooms and ball rooms into classrooms, busing children to and from the site and team-teaching whole year groups. Every Thursday evening, we took the school down and put the wedding venue back up. Every Monday morning, we reversed the process.

Eight weeks later, we have adapted to another new environment: relocatable classrooms, outdoor toilets and a much-reduced playground. We are still awaiting our temporary hall, intervention spaces and capacity to provide hot meals. 

Buildings (old, temporary and remediation works) now take up 90 per cent of my working week. But the impact on pupils is worse. By the time we get any catch-up funding, it is likely that our most disadvantaged learners will have lost 50 per cent of their school year.

Yet as far as Ofsted is concerned, the disruption is over. SIAMS have deferred inspection until September, but we are back in the Ofsted window. Perhaps last week’s coroner’s report on the death of Ruth Perry will be enough to cause a rethink. In the meantime, counselling helps – but it should not be this way. The primary education family collectively aches for her family, friends and school community. It also chills us all; we have all had moments when the job was too much.

When Ofsted comes, we’ll be ready. But it’s clear we need a new way to assess the impact of schools in 2024. I do my job because I love it, but this year has made me stop and reflect: who is looking after us?

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