'Opening schools was a herculean effort but keeping them open is harder'
David James reflects on the difficulties staff have faced during the Covid crisis - and how it has brought people together
Never have schools been under such scrutiny. Teachers and students have had the full glare of the country’s media on them during the recent, seemingly unending, examinations debacle. Our schools have come to symbolise the confusion that so much of society has been thrown into since the national lockdown in March.
And rather than this focus lessening in intensity it seems to have continued as the country watches, nervously, to see if we are able to stay open over the winter: if we do then many will see that as a sign that the worst of Covid-19 is over and that normality is beginning to return. But if significant numbers are forced to close, then the questions for everybody will be more searching than ever before.
So, being a teacher during this time of profound change is uniquely difficult. But spare a thought, if you can, for those - like me - who switched schools during this period. In my former role, as deputy head academic, I worked every day from lockdown to the start of this new academic year: CAGs, rankings, appeals, university entries, a new vocabulary dominated my day.
These academic terms and concerns then soon began to merge into another semantic field involving reopening, shaping my new role as deputy head: year-group bubbles, staggered departures, fogging, hybrid teaching, rotas. And at one point, like many school leaders moving positions, the expectations and demands of both schools overlapped.
"Managers could say, without fear of being criticised, that we were making it up as we went along."
Keeping a balance during such a time was difficult: the old certainties had dissolved, but new patterns of behaviour and routines had yet to emerge. In many ways it felt that school leaders had to work within their own parameters, using their own reference points because government advice continued to change so often. I would imagine that, for the first time ever, senior managers were able to say, in all honesty and without fear of being criticised, that, daily (and almost hourly) we were making it up as we went along. Now, that can be liberating at times, but when the stakes are so high the temptation is to pause, to wait, to consult with others, while all the time knowing that unless decisions are made other decisions cannot happen. The pressure builds.
There are, of course, so many similarities across schools that it made sense to talk to others who were facing their own difficulties. Within our sector there are schools working within very different contexts: boarding schools, for example, have faced logistical challenges that are at times almost impossible to get around: social distancing, keeping children in their year groups, such things are demanding enough, but try doing that in a house of 60 adolescents. And then factor in the cleaning involved, the scale of the catering required to feed hundreds of children three times a day, and it’s little wonder that independent school staff will feel exhausted before September dawned. Opening such schools was a herculean effort; keeping them open is even harder.
I moved from a boarding school to a day school during this time and stepped out of one series of complex issues into another. There were many similarities: the one-way systems in corridors, the ubiquitous cleaning equipment, the boxed-in teachers’ areas in every classroom, the facemasks everywhere. But there were significant differences as well: boarding schools keep their children on site for long periods of time, which results in their own complexities, but also restricts outside contact. Day schools have to cope with a more mobile staff and student population, often arriving on coaches, tube, train, car, bike, and foot. Retaining “bubbles” and social distancing under such circumstances is almost impossible.
"Independent schools may emerge as stronger, more unified places to work, play, and grow."
But it’s our duty to carry on, and it is a relief - to all - that we are able to do so, and to teach, to talk about things other than coronavirus. I have never seen students so genuinely and profoundly happy to be back in the classroom. And in many ways common rooms, support staff and senior management teams have been brought even closer together during this pandemic: we have always relied on each other, and the best schools work as one team with a shared vision.
But there is in both schools I have moved across a profound commitment to supporting our students and their families, but also a deep desire to work for each other, to keep the schools we love open come what may.
Nobody would have wished for this period, and when the virus departs us it will leave society bruised, and more brittle. But for independent schools, those small communities in themselves, they may, paradoxically, eventually emerge as stronger, more unified places, to work, play, and grow. We have to believe so, because schools are the natural springs of optimism, and hope.
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