Recruitment and retention

Why the DfE’s Covid response is leading me to retire early

The only thing that's briefer as a result of these many briefings is the remainder of my headteacher career, writes Andrew Clowes

The only thing that's briefer as a result of these many briefings is the remainder of my headteacher career, writes Andrew Clowes

20 Dec 2021, 5:00

I was saddened by a recent article in these pages from a trainee teacher, with years of experience creating and running her own business, who was so overwhelmed by workload she decided never to teach. 

Saddened, but not surprised. Nearly half of our headteachers plan to leave within the next five years, and according to Schools Week “experienced and primary heads are the most dissatisfied”.   

That’s me. I am an experienced primary headteacher, and I’m bringing forward my retirement.  

I finished a two-hour ‘briefing’ a little while ago. There is a proliferation of these nowadays, and I don’t mean to disparage advisers and consultants working from home, but schools and their staff deserve humility and grace from those who are Zooming in only in the digital sense. For all the value their presence may or may not have contributed before, a lack of recognition that we are short of staff and managing a surge of need from pupils and their families really raises my hackles.   

Like the others, this ‘briefing’ amounted to a summarising of actions required to make sure we hadn’t missed anything among all the new government guidance. As well we might have. The presentation was comprised of 226 slides covering just this term’s correspondence from DfE and Ofsted (not including the latter’s subject research reviews, more of which are on the way). 

The pandemic is no longer a valid excuse for politicians’ failures

Doubts about the quality of Ofsted’s scholarship with regard to these may be unfair. I wouldn’t know because I simply don’t have the time to attend another ‘briefing’ to find out, let alone read up on the matter myself. The sheer fact is that they exist, and primaries can’t afford to avoid them, under pain of reputational devastation. 

So as well as spinning all the other plates, we are all developing the role of our subject leaders too. I will need to ask our music lead to explain to me what Ofsted are on about when they talk of the “teleological and cyclic concept of temporal organisation in music”, Buddhist interpretations of “human experiences as being part of a recursive understanding of events” or Descartes’ theory on the indivisibility of the mind. I will be particularly interested to find out how this will affect year 2 with their glockenspiels. But I had better choose a good moment for that.

In the meantime, I will focus on processing the information from those 226 slides and their 207 respective hyperlinks for further reading. There’s guidance about assessments: what the tests will look like, how teacher assessment will be moderated and how to apply to become a marker, if I like. There’s guidance on teacher assessment frameworks for key stage 1 and key stage 2, administration of the multiplication tables check and the phonics check. There’s even guidance for parents, which I’d better read because I doubt they’ll bother. 

There’s guidance on reporting arrangements, access arrangements and how I can vary the timetable; how an engagement model is replacing the P scales and how the “D code” is withdrawn, but not for the phonics screening check; and a reminder that league tables won’t be published this year but Ofsted will still use them. 

And all of this hidden amid a plethora of information with no relevance to me at all. It seems the DfE doesn’t have the same burden of differentiation teachers do. And every day the dreaded “notification” email brings more. Today, another 1,200 words and twenty new links, in the middle of which was a reminder to order testing kits for January – with a deadline of under two hours after the email arrived. 

I am constantly reminded of Mark Twain’s quip that he “didn’t have time to write a short letter so he wrote a long one instead”. Except it’s not funny anymore. He understood that good communication is succinct; so should the DfE.   

The distractions are too many. The urgency, too all-encompassing. The lack of care, too wearing. 

And two years in, without an end in sight, the pandemic is no longer a valid excuse for our political paymasters’ failures.

So I’ll be off too. As worried as I am about Covid, the stress of being so comprehensively mis-managed makes me fear most for my health. I’m not sure how easy it will be to find a willing replacement either, and that saddens me most of all.

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One comment

  1. Patrick H

    I completely agree with the thrust of this article. We are, as a sector, being subjected to the most appalling petty-fogging bureaucracy, engineered by people who have no recent direct involvement in schools, either as leaders or class teachers. Ofsted’s curriculum guidance is deeply suspect, as has been shown with their Maths advice earlier this year, and their general tone is unhelpful, unresponsive and deaf to the situation we find ourselves in.

    I would welcome all this guidance if it made the school better. It doesn’t. It gets in the way. What we really do not need is someone telling a boatful of sailors how to row a lifeboat when the ship is actually sinking. Right now, we need our leaders to have the freedom to do what they think is best for their schools without some know-it-all sticking their oar in.

    Just think what DfE leadership could have been: providing schools with the money, equipment and clear guidance to see them through to the end of the Pandemic. Instead, we have had muddle and catastrophic confusion in the first 18 months, followed by weirdly irrelevant policy announcements such as the reading guidance, or Ofsted’s subject documents. None of this is useful right now. It is especially not useful to think of schools as being back to normal because they aren’t. Not even a little bit. Give us a couple of years and we might be there but right now, back off!