Crisis management: listen and learn from school leaders

5 Jun 2020, 7:21

Announcements to please narrow audiences while washing your hands of the tough choices creates division, says Mary Bousted

School leadership is difficult even in normal times. And these are not normal times. Covid-19 has cut through normal like a knife through butter and left the old certainties of school life flapping in its wake. School leaders have grappled with government bureaucracy as they’ve tried to keep children on free school meals fed.

With their teaching and support staff they’ve kept schools open so that vulnerable children and the children of key workers were cared for. And with their colleagues they’ve worked ceaselessly to support children at home during the lockdown – providing learning support, family counselling, safeguarding and, in many cases, food deliveries.

It has been a heroic effort, done with little or no fanfare. So how is it that leaders and teachers are under such sustained attack in the print and social media? I hesitate nowadays even to open Twitter because of the virulent, nasty attacks by so many enraged people who believe that leaders and teachers lounged about during the lockdown and are now trying to delay a wider opening of schools out of laziness.

All this could have been so different if there had been a national plan

Over the weekend, I found myself defending school staff from such accusations as I argued that teachers should not be required to work throughout the summer holidays to make up for missed time in school. Broadcasters seemed not to want to hear about the double shifts done by teachers – on site and then at home, teaching in person and then preparing home learning materials. This truth was received as special pleading. All that school staff have done in a time of crisis seems, too many times, to have been forgotten.

And now there is a new front on which to attack school leaders. They have become targets for abuse about the decisions they are making about when, and how, to open their schools to more pupils. In one extreme case, a leader’s decision not to bring back year 6 pupils this week has led to parental outrage and governor dissension. Local fury is fanned by continued attacks by some newspapers who like nothing better than to print hate-filled headlines about teacher incompetence and sloth.

All this could have been so different if in England there had been a national plan, worked out with the profession, to get more children back to school. The absence of this fundamental requirement has led to chaos and confusion as school leaders have tried to cope with inconsistent and inadequate government guidance, delivered late, with frequent changes of requirements and advice.

The government’s communications about school openings have been woeful. Local authorities, the employer of thousands of primary schools, received no direct communication from the Department for Education about wider reopening. Parents received no targeted communication from the department and have been left without essential guidance and information as they make the difficult decision about whether or not to send their child back to school.

The National Education Union’s survey of primary schools’ wider opening on June 1 showed a chaotic state of affairs. Forty-four per cent of schools did not open more widely to any of the year groups announced by Boris Johnson on May 10 and a further 21 per cent to fewer year groups.

Local authorities have reasserted their authority. Those with high rates of Covid-19 infection have instructed their primary schools not to open more widely – so in the northwest only 8 per cent and in the northeast 12 per cent of schools followed the government’s instructions.

There is a lesson to be learned by government here. As any headteacher knows, you have to take people along with you. You can’t simply assert and instruct. When the stakes are this high, the teaching profession stands on its own ground, with its own ethical and moral foundations, to do the right thing. It should be supported, not knocked for doing that.

Your thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment

  1. Mark Watson

    I nearly choked on my cornflakes this morning at the unimaginably brazen hypocrisy of this. Yes, by now I realise I should be inured to it, but the sheer gall of it this time is hard to believe.

    Before anyone thinks otherwise, I agree that school leaders and teachers have worked heroically over the past few months and deserve nothing but praise. But to hear Bousted decry those who disagree and make their feelings known about it, and then go on to pile insults and criticism on those people working in Government is staggering in its lack of self-awareness.

    I don’t care if you like Boris and his Tory Government or you were a die-hard Corbynista who can’t stand them. I don’t care if you agree with the Government’s decisions about going into lockdown or coming out of lockdown. I would say that when we get through this and look back with the benefit of hindsight we will be able to identify many decisions the Government got wrong (which by the way will be the case with every single Government across the world).

    But what I can’t stomach is the self-righteous view that they don’t care. As I said you may disagree with their policies and their decisions and even their competence, but I believe that everyone in Government is trying to do the best they can. Bousted rightly says that these are not normal times and school leaders are trying to navigate their way through uncharted waters and make tough decisions. Guess what, take that and multiply it by a hundred and you don’t come close to the unimaginable challenge of trying to govern a nation and a population of 66 million, balancing diametrically conflicting pressures. Education. The economy. Healthcare (mental and physical). Waste. Transport. Crime. The list goes on and on.

    Like I said, they’re not going to get all the decisions right, and that doesn’t mean they should be excused when decisions are wrong. But if Bousted doesn’t think it’s right to lob brickbats at teachers, why does she think it’s perfectly acceptable for her to constantly do the same to Government? She decries making “announcements to please narrow audiences”, but all the NEU does is make announcements to please teachers. I get it’s their function, but stones and glass houses come to mind.

    My favourite bit of this piece was her statement that “Local fury is fanned by continued attacks by some newspapers who like nothing better than to print hate-filled headlines about teacher incompetence and sloth.” Would these be the same papers who print hate-filled headlines about Government policy and academy trusts, and who are helped and encouraged in this endeavour by a steady stream of quotes from Bousted and Courtney?

    And just to end, two questions I would love someone to put to Bousted (not that I’m holding my breath it will be SchoolsWeek). If she truly believes we should be listening and learning from individual school leaders, and supporting them in their decisions, does this mean that she and the NEU will stop having a blanket one-size-fits-all approach to the big questions and instead support and back headteachers who, because they believe it is in the best interests of their individual schools and communities (a) want to reopen their schools, and (b) want to become an academy?