Trying to earn the trust of communities while feeling untrusted by government is a recipe of sleepless nights, writes Alison Peacock

I have worked within the teaching profession throughout my entire career, but I have never witnessed the levels of supreme professionalism that I am seeing in our schools and colleges right now.

As chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, I am in frequent contact with tens of thousands of teachers and school leaders across England. The issues that I am hearing about are not aimed at point-scoring nor are they motivated by political bias.  The reality in our schools at this moment is that our teachers and school leaders are being placed in an impossible situation.

School leaders following the most recent advice from the government are required not only to maintain ‘bubbles’ of students but to ensure that resources and classrooms are clean, that movement around the building is minimal and that face coverings are worn as appropriate.  All of this while supporting colleagues to adapt their teaching and to minimise contact with each other. As a profession, we thrive on a collegiate approach thus sharing daily responsibility. During the school day, this important contact has often been lost.

Over half feel less trusted by the Government than before lockdown

Recently I wrote to the DfE to express concern about a range of issues emerging in schools that are beyond the control of headteachers. Absence of staff and children due to suspected COVID symptoms is being exacerbated due to a lack of available testing for the virus. Many teachers are spending hours on the phone seeking a testing appointment only to be turned away to call again the next day. A Deputy Headteacher was turned away from a test centre because they were “not considered a key worker”. In another case a newly appointed Deputy Headteacher was forced to run the school on their own as none of their senior colleagues were allowed into the building.

Apart from the obvious difficulty of teachers being required to self-isolate away from school, all this costs the school money. Budgets are tight.

In some cases, we are hearing of classes or entire year groups being sent home for two weeks following advice from local health protection teams.  Our headteachers are following the guidance they have been given but increasingly the consequences of this cause parental disquiet and anger.

I cannot think of a school leader who does not want their pupils to excel. There is a huge expectation on schools to provide the means for every youngster to ‘catch-up’ lost learning whilst also enabling them to rebuild connections and re-establish friendships.  With absolute credit to our young people, they are in the main delighted to be back in school and they are keen to learn. Quiet well-ordered classrooms and corridors are to be found in schools everywhere. Schools are micro-communities and in many, there is genuine joy at being reunited. No headteacher wants to fracture this fragile time by sending classes home.

The consequences of the pandemic on parents and families mean that many people are experiencing anxiety. It has always been the case that headteachers have been the respected member of the community that parents have turned to.  Now, more than ever, our school leaders and teachers are trying their best to offer calm, measured advice. All of this while also battling their own stresses and in some cases suffering lack of sleep and broken nights as they try to solve intractable problems.

Compounding the problem is a belief from our teachers that government does not trust them. Over half feel less trusted by the Government than before the COVID-19 lockdown, according to our survey of 7,000 teachers. It is of no surprise when you consider that our profession’s diligence and creative problem solving is being constantly undermined by unclear and last-minute guidance and a complete failure to consult those experts on the frontline in our schools.

Uncertainty around examination timetables for 2021 and whether the syllabus will be revised needs to be urgently resolved.  I would call upon the government to work with the profession to find a robust workable solution.

Sporadic face-to-face schooling and intense periods of remote learning present huge problems for schools and families. In preparation for this, the DfE needs to increase digital access and resources. Some young people are studying on buses as a means of gaining wireless connection.

Teachers are hard-working professionals. As we engage in the vital business of rebuilding children’s lives, the efficacy and wellbeing of our teachers and school leaders is crucial. As one Primary Headteacher told us: “This government are incredibly lucky that our profession is strong enough to hold up the system – for now. But this is not sustainable and something must change.”