By Helen Jeys, Manchester High School for Girls
As a head still passionate about her teaching subject, I often turn to philosophy to provide me with inspiration — not only for teaching and assemblies — but also my approach to leadership.
Albert Camus, the famous French existentialist philosopher, said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” This quote really reflects the attitude that I, and the rest of my team, have and the one with which we are approaching this new school year.
There have been so many challenges over the last 19 months. However, we are still hugely optimistic about the future and return to school with the knowledge that things will improve. I know the admirable resilience and tenacity demonstrated by our students so far will help ensure that they can continue to flourish in their school environment.
So, cautious but deep-seated optimism is the key here. We have heard so much about the impact of the pandemic on learning, social interactions and even the teenage brain and the pandemic continues to impact both pupils and our staff too.
“I am confident that our students will try their best to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them by the lifting of restrictions.”
Indeed, as far as I am concerned, we forget the dangers of the virus at our peril. We have a duty to do what we can to protect both our students and our staff and, despite the lifting of many restrictions, daily monitoring will be essential if we are to continue working in the hope that our optimism can be sustained.
Nevertheless, we are fortunate that many students are exceptionally resilient. I am confident that they can and will try their best to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them by the lifting of restrictions so that they can do what they should be doing: interacting with friends, enjoying learning and, most importantly, having fun at school. We still want their school years to be the best of all years after all.
Last year, one of my Year 11 students commented that she did not want to be known as someone who made up part of a so-called “Covid generation”. She didn’t want her GCSE achievements to be undermined or for future employers to assume that she hadn’t worked as hard as those who had taken external examinations in previous years.
“I don’t want any student to feel that their achievements over the last few years are any less significant to those achieved pre-2020.”
I agree with her; I don’t want any student to feel that their achievements over the last few years are any less significant to those achieved pre-2020. Our students responded brilliantly to what we asked of them and they deserve their success; we will continue to ensure that our pupils know that their achievements should be celebrated.
Nevertheless, what I do want this year is clarity and consistency. As we support our pupils through the return to school, transition from the primary years, the start of examination courses and preparation for a final year of external examination study, I very much hope that pupils can receive clarity, particularly regarding the exams they will take. And I would like to see that before the year begins to race away from us. This is incredibly important for staff as well as for our pupils.
The Children’s Commissioner has reported that around a quarter of all children felt persistent levels of stress during lockdowns and 41 per cent of children felt more stress about schoolwork and exams during school closures.
The Commissioner’s report quotes a 15 year-old pupil who states that her inability to finish her GCSEs was a “violation” as “she was not in control of her destiny”. This lack of a real sense of security and of control can be hugely damaging to a pupil’s sense of self-worth and wellbeing. These are areas that we will have to address in our own settings for some time to come, I am sure.
“There may well be feelings of real trepidation stepping back onto those school corridors.”
The Mental Health Foundation also reminds us that, for some children, school might not feel like a safe place to be, particularly given the changes to restrictions and especially for those with physical and learning difficulties or with vulnerable family members.
School closures and the summer holidays may have been a time of much happiness and security and there may well be feelings of real trepidation stepping back onto those school corridors. All of this will provide challenges for the months ahead as we work to rebuild our communities without the infamous “bubble”.
So, to all those who work in schools, I hope that everyone approaches the term with the hope of Camus’ “invincible summer” because there is nowhere more positive to be than a school filled with the optimism, excitement and tenacity of young people. I really can’t wait.