Gerry Robinson opens her lockdown diary to record the past week with year 10 poetry still echoing in her mind

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Shelley’s Ozymandias has been the soundtrack to the week in our AP schools as our Year 10 students embarked on their poetry unit for GCSE English Literature. Our ever-insightful students immediately drew parallels with Trump and the US Capitol riots. They analysed the poem in depth, before taking on the challenge of learning it by heart. No mean feat for anyone and, with the pervasive perception of low expectations in AP, one that many would dismiss as impossible.

There’s relevance closer to home, too. The majority of our students are on site because they are identified as ‘vulnerable’ and, at the end of yet another week of chaos, confusion and “cold command” from the DfE, Shelley’s warning about arrogant, incompetent leadership resonates loudly with their teachers.

Having recently made the move from head of a mainstream school to the executive head of a network of AP schools and services, the absence of AP from so many discussions has been eye-opening. Given all the hand-wringing about the educational performance of vulnerable students throughout the pandemic, the lack of consideration for the AP sector in decision-making is deeply ironic. Worse, it reinforces the idea that these young people’s lives don’t matter as much as their mainstream peers.

Truly, low expectations start at the very top. As a sector, we had to lobby the DfE for specific guidance about what lockdown meant for our provisions. In the end, guidance was not provided until after the term had started and has changed three times since.

Truly, low expectations start at the very top

In spite of that, with excellent support from the local authority, we’ve navigated our way through and set up on-site testing centres. Students desperately hope for a negative result each time so that they can continue attending. Some would struggle to access remote learning. For those who are particularly socially vulnerable, not being in school each day poses myriad risks. For some, self-isolation could be hugely damaging, even if they are asymptomatic.

Unsurprisingly given the rate of transmission locally, we had a positive test result this week. Luckily, this was on Monday, and the student, who is asymptomatic, only came into contact with one adult. DfE guidance is that the staff member can continue to attend, taking a daily lateral flow test, but it was last Friday that Schools Week reported serious questions about the strategy. We decided that the risk was too high. We’re educators, not virologists, but in the absence of clear guidance from government, we have to make decisions that we hope are right for our communities.

Speaking of our community, Shelley’s phrase “the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed” sprung to mind as images of pitiful food parcels emerged on Tuesday. It turns out they were suggested by the DfE after lobbying from catering companies. In contrast, we spent the week preparing nutritious hot meals, delivering supermarket vouchers and restocking our foodbank. We’ve been overwhelmed by the generous donations from local charities and faith groups. One parent I spoke to, who has no recourse to public funds, expressed gratitude for this support, not just for having enough to ensure her family doesn’t go hungry, but for being spared the humiliation of not being trusted to choose the food herself.

So vouchers are back, and there are no conditions on schools using local providers. Good, but we won’t begin to make sense of the latest guidance around public exams until next week at least. You won’t blame us for being reluctant to put too much in place at this ‘early’ stage, given the government’s track record of U-turns. For the moment, we’ll continue to focus on nurturing and inspiring our incredible young people and making the decisions that are right for them.

And if Ofsted decides to get in touch in the midst of all this, great. They can listen in on our students proudly reciting Shelley’s words and demonstrating just how much their education really means to them, and us.

Look upon our works, ye Mighty, and hope!