Let me begin by saying that the last 6 months has been an undoubtedly difficult time. What has occurred has not been seen in 100 years and difficult decisions have had to be made – life changing decisions, unenviable decisions and often impossible decisions. I understand that and very few people would want to be in a government position at this time.
However, this isn’t about decisions, on the whole. Closing schools was, in my opinion, the right decision as was reopening them. What this is about is everything that has gone alongside your decision. When I say ‘your’, this is not an individual attack as I am well aware that you alone do not make the Department for Education policy single handed, in much the same way that I don’t decide the content of the lessons that the teachers in my school will deliver on a day to day basis. However – when something goes wrong it is my neck on the line and you, as leader of the department are in the same situation.
The word unprecedented had been correctly, although over, used. However, in unprecedented times you need the most precedented of characteristics – honesty, humility and transparency. This is where my angst lies. These seem to have been missing in abundance over the last few months. A few examples:
Firstly we were told there is no set date for schools to return – then in a radio interview you stated it had always been the plan to reopen on 1st June. Second we were given guidance that social distancing was required in classrooms where possible. Schools followed this to the letter and separated tables. The DFE Twitter account retweeted pictures of classrooms for all ages set out in this way, the Prime Minister visited classrooms set out in this way. The message was very clear this was approved of. Then a blog post says it is unnecessary. Yes, by the letter of the guidance this may have been true but the content of the post was very much in contradiction of what had been publicly endorsed. A gentler approach would have been appreciated rather than ‘You’ve got this wrong, and it’s not our fault, you didn’t read the guidance properly.’. Then we had Free Schools Meals and the issues surrounding the issuing of this, but also the availability of these to the most disadvantaged during the most difficult of times.
Over this time I have seen the profession I love pilloried in the press, time and time again. This has come from many different angles and for a host of different reasons. We have been thanked – in the broadest terms, but we have not been defended. There has been no impassioned and detailed rebuttal from government at some of the spurious lies that have been circulated about teachers and the profession during this time. In my opinion, the unions response, at times, may have seemed obstructive – but this is their job. Keeping members safe is what they do. At a time when Parliament was not meeting, children and teachers were supposed to do so? I believe Jacob Rees-Mogg made a very similar comment. Teachers were not front line workers. Our level of risk was not the same as some. But no other profession received such vitriol for the work they did during the course of lockdown. When a staunch defender was needed – none came.
Then of course, the guidance itself. In parts, this was useful, helpful and gave a structure to work too. I appreciated it. I did not appreciate the number of revisions and updates. This made it unworkable. This was not an unforeseen circumstance. With every update (without changes highlighted, adding to workload) came a review of thousands of words of documents. It became a folly, it added stress, and the timing of these updates was often at short notice and late in the day. A lot of the content of these were things school leaders could see would need addressing a long way off, yet guidance was received late and was open to such interpretation that in places it became useless. It was not helpful for leaders or parents. These parents assumed we had foresight of information released to the press. Many were stunned that we found out information at the same time as them. It could easily make us look uninformed and unprepared through no fault of our own. Again, this is before we get on to leaks of documents and policy days before they become official – causing more stress and worry for parents and school staff.
Up to this point, the majority of these shortcomings affected school staff. We worked through them and did the best we could and the provision we made for the children enabled learning. We welcomed them back where we could and we settled them in to new routines. Then came the exam results. Now isn’t just leaders and teachers being affected – now it’s the children themselves. For all the talk of appeals (which themselves have been the subject of u-turns and climb downs) the level of emotional stress placed on this students has been huge. When I collected my results I underachieved because I didn’t work hard enough. That’s was one me. This time underachievement is on an algorithm and that’s too much to take. There may have been no good way to sort qualifications – and was argued this was the best solution. It is clear it is not. It showed shortsightedness and a lack of trust in teachers. But then we come back to transparency again. All of this comes to light just hours before results are released and then gets reviewed in the light of a public backlash. If there was faith in this system at a Department level then surely decision needs to be stuck with? And if there isn’t then why is an apology not forthcoming? If I get it wrong – I say so. I don’t just make the changes – I front up to it and admit my mistakes and in my opinion this garners a greater level of respect.
So, we come back to leadership. Humility, honesty and transparency. I have seen little of these attributes during this time. Admittedly, this not an affliction solely borne by the Department for Education, it has been widespread. I am adamant that a leader needs trust to work properly and what has happened over the last 6 months has eroded this trust from the profession to nearly zero. I work in a Local Authority school. I understand that I should do what I am told by the DFE because ultimately they set the rules and this is what I will always try to do. However, it’s getting harder and harder to justify, defend and respect given recent events.
It won’t change what happens in my school. We will still give everything for the children, do what’s best for them and put them first. On a national level, there is unrest. On a local level, little will change. On a personal level – I feel unsupported, and have had my faith and trust eroded. As we go into a new school year, full of unknowns and uncertainty I know where I can go for my support, and unfortunately it is not the branch of government designed to do exactly that.