Lockdown diary. The 2020 ‘holidays’

10 Jan 2021, 5:00

The lockdown diary is back and this term’s first instalment catalogues the cluster-farce that led to its announcement

Christmas is the season of joy, goodwill and merriment, but the 2020 version definitely did not live up to expectations, thanks in no small part to the Department for Education. Like many senior leaders in schools up and down the country, I barely felt like it was a holiday at all.

The bane of the first few days for me was contact tracing. I arrived home after breaking up on 18 December to the news that a student had tested positive, followed by a couple of hours checking seating plans and phoning parents to inform them that their child must go into self-isolation. The same thing happened again the following day, so it seemed almost fitting to be told that my own daughter would also have to self-isolate over Christmas as a result of a positive case in her primary school bubble.

The contact tracing continued for the first few days of the holiday, but new issues emerged as well. I was increasingly concerned about the lateral flow testing programme, for which schools were being asked by the DfE to prepare over Christmas. Evidence was emerging about the lack of sensitivity of the tests, and it seemed very risky to allow close contacts of positive cases to remain in school on the strength of a negative result. No adequate answers emerged from a DfE webinar which I attended on 23 December, but I was somewhat reassured by the insistence that testing was optional for schools. Predictably enough, the Secretary of State for Education reneged on this commitment and made the programme compulsory a week or so later.

The real nadir came on 31 December when I realised that I’d forgotten to take out the bins

After a brief respite on Christmas Day itself, I tried to tackle the large backlog of work I needed to do. There was no peace, however, because on 30 December, after the usual leaks, Gavin Williamson confirmed a further delay to the full opening of schools in January, albeit with very little clarity. He suggested teachers should not provide remote learning for non-exam year groups in the first week of term, which seemed crazy when we’d already made plans to cater for these students. Two conflicting sets of guidance from the DfE that evening didn’t help matters. After much deliberation, my colleagues and I revised our plans and wrote emails to staff and parents to update them. I woke the following morning to a third version of the DfE guidance – different again – and we had to tweak our communications once more.

The real nadir came on the morning of 31 December when I realised too late that, distracted by Gavin Williamson’s incoherence the previous evening, I’d forgotten to take out the bins. I am not proud of the fact, but I did shout a bit at this point and made my daughter cry. Sadly Gavin Williamson did not take up my suggestion on Twitter that he should collect them, and the holiday did not get better either. I ended up carrying most of my backlog of work into the new term and worrying about the impact of potential primary school closures on my family. These closures were duly confirmed by the Prime Minister on 5 January. Well, at least plans to roll out a testing regime are now on the back burner.

Covid has had a devastating impact on society. It has cruelly taken many thousands of people from us, so my disappointing school holiday is trivial in comparison. But there is a serious point. Through insensitivity, indecision and incompetence, our political masters have forced school leaders to change tack frequently, undermined their decisions and left them stressed and exhausted at the start of a crucial term. With many hazards to navigate in the weeks and months ahead, young people will be depending on us and need us to be at our best. The cluster-farce of Christmas 2020 has done serious damage and will have impact.

On a lighter note, I did eventually manage to get rid of my bin bags at the delightful St Albans Household Waste Recycling Centre. At least one thing is right with the world.

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