The year in primary: A challenging one – but I’ve had worse

13 Dec 2020, 5:00

The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people. In the spirit of Christmas, Kate Owbridge presents the best

Stressful. Unexpected. Extraordinary. And not even the worst year I have ever had as a school leader.

Why not? In my worst year as a head, the thing that nearly destroyed me was that feeling of being alone, entirely on my own with my troubles. But Covid? We have been in it together from day one. From the frustration at the Edenred debacle to the challenges of managing staff wellbeing at a distance, every school in the land has been in the same situation.

Who knew when we were tucking into last year’s Christmas dinner that we’d be “Zooming” through the year? Of course there are downsides to this. I’ve really missed the networking with my headteacher colleagues and sneaking a quick coffee together before a meeting. But I have saved hundreds of miles in driving across the county and I don’t have to sit in a freezing cold golf club to be in the schools’ funding forum meeting any more. For some county meetings I’d like to see much more of this in the future, where business is the most important issue of the day. Online meetings (including those for parents) increase attendance and often make proceedings far more efficient.

Closer to home – and haven’t we all been a lot closer to home? – I tear up when I think about the past year at my school. My staff have worked their butts off to make things right for our children. They say a change is as good as a rest. Well, not this change, I fear. Staff are all struggling. They’ve worked around our restrictions and managed the disruption really well (and they were in a good position to start with because we had already dealt with a whole raft of teacher workload issues) but the past year has really made us focus on what matters most.

The opportunity is now, when none of us are in the regular swing of things, for changes to be implemented

If you have to strip back to the bare essentials, what is the most important thing? Learning and teaching. Simple. I would have hoped the powers that be would re-evaluate in the same way for schools and our education system. Is it right, for example, that adults can be awarded lifelong qualifications graded by teacher assessments while 11-year-olds do formal tests? And given Nick Gibb himself has finally admitted they actually make no difference to the children to boot? The opportunity is now, when none of us are in the regular swing of things, for changes to be implemented. What is really important for our 11-year-olds, seven-year-olds and four-year-olds? Sadly, it has been a year of wasted opportunities in that regard.

Like everyone else, I suppose, I have been too busy concentrating my efforts on interpreting my ‘orders’ and making things right in my school and other local schools we work with to agitate much for it. And the country’s leaders will always be criticised no matter what they do, so let’s leave that for another time and place.

At the start of the pandemic, someone told me we would see the best and the worst in people. They were right. So in the spirit of Christmas, I want to focus on the best. Our community, for example, who have wasted no opportunity to make the best of their school and to support it. Our attendance figures are evidence enough of their trust in us.

Across the country, we’ve seen new communities emerge across towns and counties, among school staffs and parents. We’ve seen people going the extra miles. We’ve seen people get involved who might not have otherwise. And we’ve seen and heard for ourselves how people – from Marcus Rashford to the neighbour we’d never met – rallied in whatever way they could to help our most vulnerable children.

Growing that sense of community, that understanding of our responsibilities to our neighbours and friends and what it means to be a citizen – as a nation, we’ve done that well. And schools have been the beating heart of that effort.

It’s what we teach our children. It’s what we think is important. And it warms my heart.

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