What now? Working out the shutdown

If you want to play it safe all the time, go join an insurance company (The Martian)

Ten days ago the storm was forecast but was somehow still distant… theoretical. Ten days ago we could stroll around to a mates house; go to the pub.

And ten days ago our children could go to school as usual. 

Then each day brought a louder thunder clap as we learned that schools would be (mainly) closed and all exams cancelled. OFSTED had already bowed out and all of a sudden, all of the things that we as school leaders spent our time worrying about turned out not to be as indispensable as we thought.

This was mildly irritating to my Year 6’s (who insisted on finishing their practice SATs papers last week after the news that SATs had been cancelled). It was more devastating to those doing GCSEs and A-Levels (like my son and daughter) who suddenly had a pivotal moment in their academic career suspended or cancelled.

And for all this to happen took… one week.  

They say a week is a long time in politics. Now it is a long time for all of us, with the crisis unfolding around us at a head-spinning pace.

So what do we as school leaders do now? Well, as last week (I know – it was only last week when I wrote a now quaintly old-fashioned blog!) I have no more insight than all of you. But for what it’s worth, and for those new leaders, this is what has worked for us so far.

1. Accept that the cavalry aren’t coming.

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In the 60’s film Zulu, starring Michael Caine (a true story about the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879), on seeing the cavalry run away at the sight of 4000 accomplished Zulu warriors, leaving just 150 soldiers alone, a private turns to his Sargent and says:

“Why us Sir, why us?”

To which is Sargent calmly replies “Because we’re here lad. Nobody else – just us”.

At a time of crisis, many of us may look to some higher authority to solve all our problems for us. We assume that there is a file in a government office marked ‘What to do if there’s pandemic and we have to close all the schools’. 

There isn’t.

We have to accept that information from on-high may be infrequent, sketchy and often not fully-formed. And whilst we might get some information from our LA (or MAT) they are often as much on the back foot as the rest of us.

So don’t wait for someone to solve the problem – get solving it yourself.

2. Work the problems – one at a time.

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You and I can’t solve all the problems caused by the sudden closure of our school as a result of Covid-19. But the danger is that we feel so overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the inter-linked problems that we freeze and do nothing.

This is where (as Matt Damon put it in The Martian) we have to ‘work the problem’.

Take each problem at a time, starting with the most pressing: 

  1. Safeguarding.
  2. Remote learning.
  3. Free School Meals.
  4. Easter School.

Then tackle one problem at a time. Aim to solve or partially resolve each problem before moving on to the next.

3. In a crisis, a good plan is better than a perfect plan.

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These last two weeks, we have had to get used to coming up with significant changes to how we run pretty much everything in our schools.

Things that would ordinarily require a working group, six months, several governors meetings and a nice bit of clip art for the cover of a folder are being planned and enacted in 30 minutes flat. Indeed, our entire home-learning plan was devised by myself, my Deputy and my Assistant Head in about an hour (although we did have just about enough time to hold a staff meeting on it to thrash out any glitches before the close-down arrive).

Is it the world’s best plan for home learning? Possibly not. Will it keep children learning until we have a better plan? Yes.

If you wait until the your plan is perfect then the crisis will deepen and you’ll have more problems which require more plans. Sometimes it needs to be the best plan available at the time – and that has to be good enough.

4. Sort out your safeguarding. 

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One plan which can’t wait is the one for how we keep our children safe during this closure.

Whilst this lock-down will be difficult for those of us lucky enough to live in a house with a garden and enough rooms and a partner to support us, it could be very dangerous for a child living in a one bedroom flat with a mentally ill single parent. 

Sadly, many of our children live in accommodation which is unsuitable or with parents who cannot cope (many not ‘meeting threshold’ for Social Care involvement). 

Unless we have a plan to call these parents regularly then things could go wrong for their children very quickly once the added pressure of confinement and financial worries or illness are added.

And it is not just the vulnerable families which we know about who we must consider. It is also all the other families who may face mental illness or hardship for the first time.

So our first job is to keep ‘eyes on’ our most vulnerable families through regular phone conversations, and close contact with everyone else, either through an email from the teacher every couple of days and/ or a phone call.

We have to assume all our children could be at risk and make sure that there is enough communication in place for us to know that they are safe. 

5. Be there for your staff.

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This week has been quite a traumatic readjustment for us all – and also for your staff. The sight of 40 shell-shocked kids leaving 40 shell-shocked parents on Monday as we started our emergency provision for Essential Workers was both strange and disturbing.

My staff (like yours) have been amazing and have risen to the challenge in a way I couldn’t have asked them to. 

However, behind the smiles and the ‘bantz’, you can see the bewilderment behind your staff’s eyes. They didn’t ever expect to have to do the things that they are doing to support families even a fortnight ago.

So it may feel that you aren’t ‘being strategic’ or ‘focusing on the bigger picture’ – initially at least – but that’s okay. Walking and talking is what has been most needed this week: walking around the building, talking to staff – encouraging them, listening to them and showing them an oasis of calm.

Initially, this is as important as the strategic work that will come later.

7. Communicate normality.

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What pupils (and parents) crave right now is a dose of normality. So at this (abnormal) time we must make things feel as normal as possible.

So a big part of our communication with parents this week has been around communicating some sense of continuity and normality.

Our teachers have all been videoing explanations, tutorials, bedtimes stories, via their school website based TV channels. Indeed, there is even a Headteachers’ channel!

There will be a newsletter on Friday (full of home learning which the children have sent in from home) and even a Celebration Assembly (again, on the Headteacher channel).

This isn’t just ‘nice’ – it’s important that the children and parents understand that we are still here for them and that the community of our school is strong (even when dispersed and isolated). 

8. Be clear on your expectations for both pupils and staff

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In my last blog I discussed the importance of clear communication and this is still the case. However, so too is setting expectations from the outset.

We have been very explicit what we expect children to be doing in terms of home learning each day and week and teachers will be following this up as we cannot let our most vulnerable children sit at home and do nothing for (possibly) months.

Likewise I, as a Headteacher, need to make sure that the staff have direction and shape to their home-working and therefore expectations regarding the length of time which staff should be working and the tasks they need to complete have been agreed (luckily we did this at a staff meeting before closure). This will save us a lot of awkward conversations later had these expectations not been clear. 

9. Ring your staff every week.

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Just as your children and their families may struggle during this lockdown, so too might your staff: either personally or professionally with the new reality of home-working.

We have agreed that myself and my senior team will ring all staff at least once a week (unless they are due to be in school supporting the children who are attending). This serves two purposes: both to check how they are coping with the stress of the current situation and to provide some care and support; but also to provide some support with home working.

For example, during my phone calls today I discovered that the email communications with parents were taking most of the allotted home-working time, and were sometimes difficult.  But by having these conversations we managed to come up with solutions. 

Indeed, I also discovered (through one of my NQTs) that it was possible for staff to remotely collaborate on a document ‘live online’ (cue eye roll from any under 30’s). But we could then share this with others, solving another logistical problem.

So call your staff – to both talk and listen.

10. Use your networks.

VideoNot only has this crisis thrown an avalanche of logistical, pedagogical and pastoral problems at us, all at once, but it has also robbed us of the ability to meet with others to solve them as a group.

So we have to ‘work the problem’ again and find a way to tap into the hive mind of our colleague Heads.

Today I had one of the most life-affirming Headteachers’ meetings of my career. Not in a room but all on a tiny screen. I know to business folk video conferencing is a ‘thing’, but in primary education we rarely (well, never) find the need. So today was a bit of a departure (using Zoom BTW). 

So today we met online (see above) and talked through all the problems we are facing and the solutions we had so far found. By the end of the meeting we had a viable food voucher scheme for our FSM children, had agreed Easter School cover across our group and cherry-picked the best bits of our home-learning strategies.

And best of all we were able to support each other. And above all else, we will very much need to support each other over the coming weeks. 

But problem solving is what we do – so let’s problem solve the shit out of this!

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