There are some weeks in school leadership where, by Friday, Monday feels like a different age. This last week (finishing aptly on Friday 13th March 2020) has been one of them.
We have all gradually noticed the gathering storm. First the far off rumbles of thunder in countries far away. Then the louder claps as the images on the news become those of more familiar European neighbours. It feels like the first few raindrops are starting to fall and there is that smell of ozone in the air which tells you the storm is almost here.
And so like other school leaders I have been listening and waiting. Listening to the news. Reading the daily briefings from Public Health. Listening and waiting.
But with the skies darkening, it feels like this coronavirus outbreak is about to reach our school’s front gates, and like all school leaders, we are thinking about how we will respond and what we must do.
So, as someone who has been a Headteacher for a little while, here are my humble suggestions:
1. Listen to medical professionals not amateur bloggers.
One thing none of us will be short of over the next few months will be the opinions of others who will say with absolute certainty that ‘this’ or ‘that’ should DEFINITELY happen/ not happen.
Unless they are a medical professional whose job it is to think about pandemics, I won’t be listening to the bloggers and opinion writers.
So my first tip is to think carefully to where you get your advice from. Bad ideas can spread quickly when people are panicky so before jumping on that passing band wagon, signing up to that expensive learning platform/ banning (or not banning) this or that, take time to weigh up a particular course of action. Speak to colleagues in your LA/ MAT and try to think strategically not emotionally.
2. Like it or not, you are a community leader and how you behave matters.
At times of crisis, the community looks for leaders to reassure them that everything will be okay. This is a natural human response to a threat.
Like it or not, as this crisis unfolds, we will be looked upon to provide leadership in our communities and, as such, we will be scrutinized for signs of inconsistency.
Now is therefore the time when we must be visible in our communities: outside the gate in the morning, walking the corridors, all the while smiling and saying hello. If we say it’s currently ‘business as usual’ (which it is) then we must convey that to parents, children and staff by our everyday actions. Now is not the time to be passive – we must show our communities that we have matters in hand and will always keep their children safe.
3. Make sure your messages to children are clear and not OTT.
If you’ve not done so already, you and your staff need to agree how you will explain coronavirus to the children. There are many good resources now available but we must all speak with the same message and the same words so that there is no confusion.
At my school we held an assembly several weeks ago on what a virus was and why we needed to cough into elbows, wash hands singing ‘happy birthday’ etc. We talked about how children are not really effected by the virus (which is true) but that some other people get ill and we need to keep them safe.
By now, children will be seeing daily reports on the news and will hear parents (sometimes too close to young ears) discuss their worries and fears. We have seen an increase in children referring themselves to our school counsellor, anxious about what is happening. We need to provide reassurance and maintain normality. We need the coming days to carry on as normal for as long as possible without coronavirus being the sole topic of conversation.
4. Make sure there is a clear message for parents.
Human beings hate uncertainty and will fill the void with opinion or hypothesis. Many Headteachers like myself were told with absolute certainty by many parents (and some staff) that schools in the UK would definitely be closed next week despite no factual information to support this view.
Rather than let rumours grow, agree as an SLT a very clear line on all the key issues which are currently known. For example, we put out a FAQ briefing to parents with questions like ‘Will the school close next week?’ (No), ‘What will happen if a child gets ill at school?’, ‘What should I do if I as a parent get ill?’ etc. This allows the school to communicate clearly what it will currently do (as things change, so too must the messaging).
5. Make sure that your office staff are involved in agreeing the messaging.
Your office staff will deal with the vast majority of parental inquiries and will be particularly attuned to the mood in the community.
When we were agreeing our key messaging last week, it was invaluable having the office staff around the table contributing as they had a clearer understanding about the parents’ fears than anyone else.
Make sure that they are in the loop and are consulted.
6. Show parents your human side.
Parents are scared right now. Chances are your staff are more than a bit rattled too. And all the while we are receiving information from the government which is factual, accurate and clinical.
The temptation is to just parrot this information as it is presented with the ‘we are following government advice’ line. This may be true, but you run the risk of sounding distant and bureaucratic.
Our SLT and office staff agreed that we would instead tell parents that we were ‘keeping their children safe by following the best advice available’. It may seem like a tiny change in wording, but it puts the emphasis back on our first responsibility i.e. keeping children safe in education (something we’ve all heard somewhere before).
Likewise, when talking to anxious parents, I mention my own children and how I would do nothing to put them at risk by taking unnecessary risks in my work. This is not only completely true, but it offers the parent a window into your thinking and (hopefully) reassures them that you are working with the best of intentions.
7. Make sure you are giving staff clear messages.
Your staff, like your parents, will be worried right now. They have found themselves on the front line of a health crisis where they too are expected to be community leaders, addressing concerns from pupils and parents alike.
Staff need clear messages as much as the parents do, which is often difficult in a large school. Through briefings, discussions and memos staff need to know that there is a plan and that leaders have considered looming issues.
It is also important to check in with staff more regularly than usual. They will have their own worries: their own health and that of elderly relatives being high on the list. Try to touch base as often as possible so that they know you are there for them.
8. Plan now for possible closure before the rain starts.
It is possible that at some point in the next three months, UK schools will be asked to close. I don’t personally think that this will happen before Easter but that’s just an opinion.
I currently have only vague thoughts about how I will ensure that 420 primary aged pupils will be able to continue their education at home but this is something I now must consider as a matter of urgency.
So I will meet with my SLT and then staff this week and we will start to come up with a plan. We simply cannot have all those children not receiving an education for a prolonged period so I will look to my colleagues (and twitter) for ideas as to how to keep the show on the road.
But we must all do this now – just in case.
9. Consider safeguarding.
If (and it very much is ‘if’) schools are closed for a prolonged period, vulnerable families will be in a very difficult place. We all know families who we worry about during school holidays. This will be much worse for them.
We therefore need to draw up plans to include ways, where ever possible, to keep them safe from hardship or harm. This may include weekly check ins from our Family Link workers, or using some of the unspent Free School Meal money to buy food vouchers.
Whatever happens, we will need some creative thinking to keep these families from falling through the cracks.
10. We need to look after ourselves.
‘Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.’
Finally, we need to look after ourselves and each other as school leaders. This additional responsibility at time of crisis will hang heavy at times and you need to have people around you in the same boat who you can call up and chat with to keep things in perspective.
Truth be told, none of us have the experience to fully prepare us for what is coming. However, self-care at this time is essential if we are to be there for our schools (not to mention our own families).
And if 13 years in headship has taught me anything it’s that all storms pass.