2021 in review

The year getting into ‘good trouble’ became necessary

Hanging onto our optimism as the virus rips through our special schools is hard, writes Frances Akinde, but we must be the change we want to see more than ever

Hanging onto our optimism as the virus rips through our special schools is hard, writes Frances Akinde, but we must be the change we want to see more than ever

13 Dec 2021, 5:00

Rivermead’s primary designation is autism and associated difficulties. As I write this, we are dealing with an outbreak of 20 positive Covid cases in our main school. Like every special school, our offer is complex. And like them, the virus has ripped through us.

Our learners are exempt from wearing masks. And because they have speech and language needs and disabilities, our staff also find wearing them in the classroom challenging. Our learners struggle with rules around proximity too, and several require intimate care. In addition, our space is very limited. We occupy an old infant school, and we are the only special school in Medway that has not been earmarked for rebuilding or expansion. Leaky roofs, unexpected heating bills and inadequate ventilation are daily struggles.

Staffing challenges and budget constrains almost go without saying, but what we will remember 2021 for at Rivermead is the loss of one of our year 11 students from SADS. The impact on our school community has been indescribable. For the sake of all our other students, however, we have had to keep finding the ‘sunshine moments’ among these grim realities, and my staff have truly earned the title of ‘superheroes’.

There was our whole-school beach trip to Margate, with our own reserved carriage, our summer barbecue, our Christmas concert and charity days. There were awards and accolades too, but most importantly our learners have continued to make small steps every single day. We have learners who have not been to school for years due to anxiety, but who are now attending and enjoying school. Nothing brings me more joy than that, and I feel humble to be part of their educational journey. 

Like every special school, the virus has ripped through us

Still, I am fortunate that my trust has made wellbeing a genuine priority. All leaders receive coaching from the trust and I also started private coaching with the Academy of Women’s Leadership this year. The truth is that I could not have got through these 12 months without the support of the Rivermead inclusive trust team, my coach (ex-Paralympian, Liz Wright) and the NAHT. When the ever-constant challenges could have worn me down, I have grown in confidence and resilience instead. 

So this year, I took the opportunity to fight for something I care deeply about. During the summer, I joined the NAHT’s Leaders for Race Equality network. It was a massive relief simply to find a group of and for leaders like me, who genuinely understand the microaggressions we face every single day. But through it I also got to ask our new secretary of state for education a question.  

He’d been in post mere weeks, and still had the attention of the national media upon him, when I put to him that in nearly every room I enter, I am the only leader who looks like me. (This is even truer in special education!) Around only 0.2 per cent of headteachers are black and female. So I asked Mr Zahawi – our first non-white secretary of state – what he was committing to do to remove barriers and increase diversity at leadership level.

It is the same question I ask when I get the opportunity to meet anyone who has the power to make changes. I have asked Gavin Williamson and Amanda Spielman the same thing and, sadly, Zahawi’s answer was the same standard one I’ve heard time and time again. But it has sparked a conversation, increased awareness and will ultimately hopefully start a change.  

So my lesson learned this year is to hang on to my optimism. As Georgia Congressman John Lewis has said: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair […] Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

I am looking forward to 2022 and getting into as much “good trouble, necessary trouble” as I have to in order to tackle educational inequalities and ensure my learners, colleagues and peers receive their equitable right.



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