Like swans who look graceful above the surface as they paddle furiously below it, we have had to go on pretending everything is OK throughout another tumultuous year. And as 2021 comes to a close, it’s with an enormous sense of déjà vu. A new Covid variant looms, and the DfE and Ofsted insist everything is back to normal, largely thanks to our wondrous ability to roll with the punches.
And there have been plenty of punches, many of them at the expense of school leaders. Stories are already being written about the global lockdown of 2020, and they make for dramatic reading. But none comes close to accounting for our experience. While wider society is processing those events, we are still living it. We haven’t had the opportunity to pause, let alone reflect, and it seems like many are happy simply to gloss over that.
I’m the headteacher of a very small school. The support around us is best described as patchwork, so everybody has had to play an enormous part this year. Adapting to home learning while continuing to teach ‘live’ lessons is no mean feat. So it’s no exaggeration to say I remain in awe of our staff, children and families, who entered the second ‘unexpected’ lockdown last January with positivity and community spirit.
We’ve all been impressed with the children, above all. We’ve adopted a whole new educational language of bubbles, virus, masks and social distancing, and they’ve just accepted those changes. They’ve smiled. They’ve kept apart. They’ve got very clean hands. And they’ve tried to learn despite navigating a previously unimaginable learning landscape.
Sadly, we seem somehow to have missed this out of our educational rhetoric this year, and it saddens me that the great machine of education grinds on, seemingly without a care for how all this must feel to the children. It began last year when we talked endlessly about them being ‘behind’. This year, it’s all been about ‘catch up’.
A lot of words have been written and spoken about owing it to the children to make sure schools are up to scratch, and the solution it has all led to is to invest time and resources into inspecting them. “It’s for the children,” we are told. But I don’t see that. We and our families are forever changed, some in a much more devastating way than others, yet citing our experience is branded as an excuse.
For us as a small rural school, the year started with zoom art lessons, home delivery of books and materials, a snow activity week, and closing bubbles because of positive cases. We didn’t experience the joy of sharing assemblies until it was warm enough to hold them outside. The ‘return to normal’ after March 8 didn’t exactly go as billed either. We ended the summer term with the disappointment of closing a bubble just as were about to put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But on with the punches we roll, so we reconvened in the holidays to do it.
But we missed more than dates because of the bubble regime. Children missed out on seminal moments, like the responsibilities and kudos that come from being an older child in a village school playground. The best bit of the year for us was when our children were finally able to play together. They rose to the occasion and supported each other when they started mixing with different ages once again.
So my hope for 2022 is that we can learn from them. We’ve been polarised for so long, and what we need to get through this new Covid onslaught is to listen and learn from each other across sectors and pedagogical divides.
As we face up to a likely fourth wave, my biggest wish is that we have a genuine conversation about what learning is and what schools are in 2022.
Because what has got us through the first three is the heart and soul we’ve put into keeping children safe, happy and well. And that isn’t measured in data or, evidently, inspection reports.