Dear Mr Zahawi,
I hope this letter finds you well.
Unfortunately, it finds me less than well. It finds me exhausted, feeling inadequate and not really knowing which foot to put forward first.
I understand 1 in 10 teachers were off school last week. In my school it was higher. In some it will have been less, but that really makes little difference. If you take away 10% of any team it ceases to function properly. Reduce doctors or nurses by 10% and it will stretch everything to breaking point. The same with the police, and probably even your own offices and departments. The game of chess involved with finding cover and making sure all children have access to teachers is just part of it, making sure they are getting some teaching that will keep continuity of learning moving forwards is another complication. Supply is impossible to come by. The ‘army’ of volunteers may have helped, but it hasn’t solved the problem. I rang 7 agencies last week. Not one had a teacher they could offer me to help. The system is stretched to the limits. It was stretched to the limits before the most recent wave scything through schools and it has been getting progressively worse over the last few weeks.
What I really want to focus on is making sure that the children in my school can access the work they need to do they can fill in gaps from the last two years. I want us to work together as a team to give them a great school experience but also continue to rebuild them both as learners and people following a disrupted and anxious two years that has left us with problems to solve beyond that of learning and curriculum. I am trying to deal with an increase in children’s anxiety, other mental health issues, speech and language issues like never before in the younger years and increases in SEN. I’m trying to do all this with access to less resources, services less equipped to provide support as they are too stretched themselves. A CAHMs system that can offer me little as they have higher priorities, the same with SEN, Speech and Language for which I can only refer in very specific circumstances. That’s before we get to the fact that I don’t have enough support staff, as I can’t afford more, so can’t give support to everyone that needs it. I must prioritise some children over others who need support that I don’t have capacity to give. This frustrates me, disheartens teachers and support staff and angers parents – understandably.
These are the things I want to focus on. Now though, I am also trying to focus on curriculum documents, preparing subject leaders, writing documents with little purpose for helping children and heavily for providing evidence for an inspectorate that could be due any day. This is not where my, and my team’s, time should currently be directed. At a time of huge stretch, exhaustion, and cumulative fatigue of the last two years we just want to do what we need to do to have the most impact – teach the needs in front of us and this is where our hands are tied the most at the moment. SATs crash towards us and now we hear that rather than just being provided to Ofsted and being used to monitor the effect of Covid they will now partly form the basis of QoE judgements. The pressure on these exams for many schools has just skyrocketed at a time when every individual year 6 has had a different experience of school and Covid, attendance and teacher availability. It’s even less of a level playing field than usual, but it feels like judgements will be made in the same way as before. Schools will be forced into one course of action – narrowing and cramming, the one thing the new EIF was designed to avoid. Is this your view for education? Education is as hard as it has ever been and nothing that is happening is making it an easier – it is contributing to making things harder.
So, what can be done? I don’t want to come across as just offering problems, so some suggestions.
1) Remove the SATs from Ofsted judgements. Allow them to be a true reflection of the impact of Covid if they must be used for this. For your information though, Year 6 are probably one of year groups that will perform best out of all of mine. Key Stage 1 are much more affected – they have much less prior knowledge to fall back on and the time out of nursery and missing Reception has had a profound effect. Please don’t use this as an excuse to test younger children more though.
2) Remove graded inspections. Keep them to safeguarding and developmental visits that will not result in changes of grade, at this time. This will give Ofsted an overall picture of the quality of education, ensure the safety of children but also remove a lot of anxiety and distraction from schools at this time. Schools who wish to have a full inspection to change grade can request one, for example RI schools who feel they have improved. The reports, which would be for internal and Local Authority use only, could be truly focussed on practical and short-term steps to improve provision before a return to full inspections in the future.
3) Increase funding. I’ve run out of Covid catch up money and, guess what? The children haven’t all caught up. With more money I could engage with private therapists, give children more support, increase hours for support staff and make more of a difference for more children.
These three points, especially the third, are not easily achieved, I know. But the right things are not always the easy things. And these are the right things to do. As a school leader I want to do the best for the children and my community. Right now, we are doing the best we can, but I have a nagging feeling that we could be doing more if we were supported more and trusted to do the best for the children we have in our care.
Your government have long been putting off a Public Enquiry into Covid as it is a distraction from the business of government and running the country. Schools are no different – we would like to continue to do our work without the distraction of our equivalent of a Public Enquiry and be allowed to focus on doing what is best and what is right. You do not want to be distracted from your ultimate aims and neither do we.
Education is a tricky beast. It is huge, all-encompassing, and vital but it is also subtle and fragile. Right now, it is possibly at its most fragile. There is a real possibility it will break in a way that cannot be fixed. Excellent people are leaving the profession, and they are not easily replaced. There must be a reason for this. It is not simply age, or coincidence. There is a narrative that cannot be ignored no matter how much you may want to – act now before it is too late and irreparable damage is done to a system that forms the basis of any future economy. Now is the time to show how much this country and government really value education and support it to get through its toughest time in recent history, not to attempt to fracture it and stretch it further than it already is.