2021 in review

The year a ‘return to normal’ only got further away

If 2020 was hard, 2021 has taken multi-tasking to a new level, writes Evelyn Forde. Yet the people in charge seem to think it's situation normal

If 2020 was hard, 2021 has taken multi-tasking to a new level, writes Evelyn Forde. Yet the people in charge seem to think it's situation normal

12 Dec 2021, 5:00

One usually starts a new year with optimism, excitement and hope because we never know what it will bring. School leaders have had to remain resilient and optimistic for the best part of two years to buoy each other, our staff and students in the face of the madness surrounding us. But how do we review a year that appears to be ending exactly where we started the last one?

In January 2021, after closures we’d been told would not happen happened after all, plans had to be put in place for another reopening while ensuring our online offer was substantial and accessible to all. We wouldn’t see most of our students again for face-to-face lessons until March.

By the time we fully reopened, for some reason all that hard work and all the fine words recognising teachers’ efforts had failed to translate into an increase in school budgets. In February, schools had been told of a funding boost to help get students back on track. But as always the ‘devil is in the detail’, and we quickly realised any increase would soon be eaten up by rising costs. 

As the weather improved, the third wave of Covid was still in full flow and mask wearing remained mandatory until mid-May. But at least we were not back to bubbles, zones and staggered starts, so for the most part our community didn’t see it as an issue. A low threshold, perhaps, but it was grounds enough for our optimism to continue.

Meanwhile, as parents anxiously waited to find out what secondary schools their children would be going to, we found out there was a teacher shortage. And that’s been 2021 in a nutshell. Every positive development happens in the context of a constant onslaught of new and sometimes harrowing negatives, and its’s just as true for young people.

Don’t they know school leaders are busy people?

So June saw the publication of Ofsted’s sobering report on sexual abuse in schools. Our role as school leaders is to protect pupils, so to find this had been happening, in many cases unbeknown to teachers and leadership teams, was deeply upsetting. Like my peers, my leadership team and I quickly got under the skin of the guidance and put in place systems and processes to ensure everyone was treated equally and with respect and dignity.

We did that just as the school year was nearing an end, while our teachers were deep in CAGs and we were also going through the guidance for the government’s recovery plan. And when we looked to the news for reassurance, we learned ministers had decided to ignore their ‘recovery tsar’ and accept his resignation!

August was fraught with CAG results and appeals while school leaders were once more getting ready to welcome our young people back. We hoped this one was to be a ‘return to normal’. And for many of us it did feel like that for a short period. Then Ofsted decided to resume full inspections but ignore the fact we were still edging our way out of a pandemic. 

And this Ofsted theme has continued right through to the end of the year, though things are not normal in any way. The past three months have seen national attendance figures drop while we’ve been busy rolling out a vaccination programme with anti-vaxxers protesting at school gates. Don’t they know school leaders are busy people?

I liken our current situation to being on a paddle board in choppy tidal waters. And if that doesn’t sound as scary as walking a tightrope, just consider the water temperature in December! School leaders are remarkable people, as are teachers and our young people. It perplexes me that those who make decisions about funding and the inspectorate are unable to truly recognise it.

Nearly two years since the pandemic reached our shores, I am looking forward to downing tools for the festive period (if that’s allowed this year). But while I maintain my professional optimism, the truth is that I’m anxious about what 2022 will bring.

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