Catch Up, Not Patch Up

So much out there about catch up at the moment, and rightly so. Some children have missed everything, some have missed a lot and some have missed most of what they should have covered over the second half of this year. We’ve been asked to prioritise catch up in Reading and Maths and Phonics and we should. These are key skills that we need to get right. However, it also says in the guidance it should be done through other curriculum activities. It says that the vast majority of pupils should access the full curriculum.

So what to do about it? Well, we are not narrowing our curriculum. We get out positive outcomes by giving children the chance to apply their learning in other subjects, not by teaching more of it. When teaching Year 6 I never did extra Maths and English sessions for SATs and I won’t be telling teachers to do so in their year groups to help kids catch up. My view is, that for the majority of children, there isn’t a huge rush. The older they are at Primary, the less time you have, but Year 3s have four years to make up the lost time before they leave the school, not four weeks when you get back. Give them space to use their knowledge – this is where they really learn. They’ll learn more from this than in a extra technical SPAG lesson in an afternoon, and you’ll be able to feedback the same points to help them improve.

A rush to just pick up where children left off is flawed, in my opinion. Well stay where we always start – the basics in the core subjects – eg place value and four operations. If there’s gaps, we’ll plug it, if they need extra teaching on it we’ll do it. Same in English. We won’t be teaching objectives in the first 6 weeks just because they haven’t covered them. all this will led to is patch up learning, not catch up. Teachers will inevitably race through the old objectives as they know they’ve got this years to fit in as well. In turn we end up with superficial learning where they haven’t really learned it as it’s been raced through. After that, when you come back to build on it with the objectives for this year, you’re building on quicksand.

Our approach will be different. We won’t be catching up in the first month. We’ll be assessing and identifying. Most children will catch up just fine with the classroom offering you are giving them. They’ll take on board new content and get to where they need to by the end of the year. Some won’t. Those fall into two camps – those that need a group boost once a week for a short session just to go over something they haven’t quite got, and those that need more intensive, prolonged support. The last group is where our catch up money goes.

We won’t be racing through objectives. We’ll be waiting until they come round in our normal curriculum, and at that point we’ll teach the extra content. Doing speech punctuation? That’s the time to drop back to the objectives missed from last year and catch them up, and keep the learning together and ordered. You might be able to get through more in a similar time frame – but if you just front load the old stuff to September, you definitely won’t.

The key to this catch up is about embedding the new content – the same as we always do. We just might need to take a few steps back when we start off. We might not. That’s for you’re assessment to figure out. My view is teach it, and teach it well. Make sure they know it, and they’ve truly caught up not just been given a sticking plaster to say you’ve ticked off the objective from last year. This catch up has got to stand up to their learning for the rest of their education – do it once and do it right. There is no need to rush it – take the time to get it right, make sure they’re moving forward and can build on it next year and every year onwards. Proper catch up, not just patched up.

Teaching Year 6? Congratulations!

For me, Year 6 is the best year to teach in Key Stage 2. I taught for 6 very happy years in Year 6, across 2 schools. I loved every minute of it, and I think it is a unique experience when it comes to teaching at primary. Can you always but your finger on why? No, but there is just something about it that makes it special, exciting and that little bit different. I was recently asked for tips of teaching in Year 6, so here we go. 

Fundamentally, it is no different

Good teaching is good teaching. For the vast majority of the year and for the vast majority of the subjects what you need to do is no different to what you would do in another year group. Find out what they need to know, find out what they do know and plan the best way to help them acquire that knowledge. Assess whether they’ve got it and move them forward accordingly. There is no special Year 6 formula that makes them learn more, or less, or differently. Stick to what you’ve done that has been good classroom practice before and you won’t go far wrong. 

Relationships are still key

Any effective teacher will be able to build relationships with those in their class. I’ve said before, and stand by, that a teacher with perfect practice and no relationships will get poorer outcomes than a weaker teacher who can really get to know those children and make them feel valued in that class. In a setting such as Year 6, of course there can be pressure on outcomes (more on that later) and good relationships will help you out much more as you get closer to the first half of the summer term. They are going through a lot of changes in Year 6, and it can lurch from one anxiety point to another. I work in a selective county and they go from 11+ test, to results, to applying for schools, to finding out schools, to SATs to transition. Chuck in hormones kicking in as well and it can be a really up and down year for an individual. It’s a stressful time for them and they need a teacher who understands that and can help them get through it. For some of them, it’ll all be a breeze, for others it will be much tougher. They need a teacher they can talk to, who they trust and who can be honest with them. 

The relationships are different, slightly. They are that bit older, they can understand some of the sarcasm a little more, they give you a little more of that banter back, but when you set up the right atmosphere in your classroom this can add to the joy of it rather than turning into a problem. Mostly, they get the line of when it’s time to work hard and when they can enjoy a bit of back and forth with you. It’s a lot of fun. Their increasing maturity means they think deeper, they respond in different ways to questions and conversations can take unexpected and deep turns. This is true in a lot of year groups, but I found it more prevalent in Year 6 and was a reason I enjoyed it so much. 

They are still children though

Sometimes we expect way too much from our older children. They are the biggest, the most mature, they take on the roles and responsibilities like prefects and buddies and we trust them with tasks we might not in the younger years. However, the fact that they are still just ten and eleven-year-old children is always driven home to me on two occasions during the year. First, residential. When they unpack and the toughest kids, or the ones that seem mature beyond their years dig out their teddy and give it pride of place on their bed once they’ve made it. Secondly at the end of their leavers show. Often they look at the clock at the end of it and turn and say something like “Wow, its half past eight, it’s so late!”. They are still small, thy are still just kids with kid’s emotions. They aren’t scary and big. They’ll have tantrums, they’ll act strangely. We can’t expect them to act like mini adults just because they are the oldest, because they won’t, they can’t. Accept and embrace the childlike qualities in them – it won’t be long before they are entering a teenage world when they may feel like they can’t act like that anymore. Give them one last chance to be a child. 

You alone aren’t responsible for their outcomes

This is an important wellbeing one. The outcomes of Year 6 are a collective effort, not a solo performance by you. The results are the product of their time at the school, not their time in your class. Fortunately, the days of Year 6 teachers being the stars who can make magnificent progress with them and can take them from WTS to GDS in three months seem to be fading. It’s too much for one person. You can’t move mountains with every child. Yes, it may happen – they often to make good progress in Year 6, but you can only do what you can do. The weight of the school isn’t on your shoulders. If they come to you having had 6 years of poor teaching previously, you aren’t going to be able to turn that around by yourself. Accept that and be OK with it. If you’re in an atmosphere where that is put on you, maybe look to get out. It’s isn’t helpful and can make a stressful time even worse. 

You make the memories they take with them

This is why I love Year 6. When they look back at primary school, they often cite their leaving celebrations and residentials as some of their best times. You get to be part of that, and you get to share in their excitement and fun as well. There are milestones in Year 6 they don’t get in other year groups and you celebrate them with them. Amazing. 

It’s not all about the SATs

In my time teaching Year 6 I never taught an extra Maths or English lesson in a week. We did the daily sessions and that was it. Even in the run up to SATs. They need a varied curriculum. Why should they be denied it because they have exams coming up? They love finding out about foundation topics just as much as any other year group. They still need to be creative and express themselves, don’t take that away from them! I know the pressure can be tough, but there is fine line getting them there and pushing them so hard they go past the point of caring. Some of my favourite lessons have been exploring Science or World War II with Year 6. They are entitled to a full primary experience. Give it to them and reap the rewards. They can practice their skills, transfer their knowledge and learn more about how to learn. This will prepare them much better for the next stage of their education than drilling them for tests. Preparing them to move on is a huge part of what you do in Year 6 – they need to leave feeling confident and prepared. GDS across the board won’t be what does that. Prepare them to be good people, confident in what is special about them, not in their ability to pass a test. 

But we can’t ignore them

I fronted up with my Year 6’s early on. Yes, we’ve got to do them, yes they might be a pain, but together we’re going to make it as painless and stress free as we can. I played the together card strongly – it’s not just them. They’re taking the test, and I expected them to work hard, but it was up to me to get them ready for it. I went through a very specific timeframe to get them ready. I always likened it to the Olympics. An athlete has four years to peak at just the right time. It’s the same for those kids. Go to early and they’ve gone past the point of being ready and they are fed up and resent doing them, go to late and they aren’t quite ready. As I have said, I never taught extra English or Maths sessions, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t do anything. After Feb half term we gave them CGP books and asked them to do a double page a week, to start going over some topics. Nothing huge, it took about 15 minutes a week for them to do it. No pressure, that was all. We carried on teaching lessons as normal up until Easter. Post Easter, we went into revision mode. We’d finished the curriculum and they had normally 3-4 weeks. Still no extra whole class lessons – some TA support in the afternoons for those who needed a push, but nothing more than 20 minutes in one session and no more than twice a week. In the time between Easter and sitting the SATs we revised hard. Each couple of days was based around a topic and we went through things. Some we spent a day on, some longer. We supported it with Testbase packs based around the topic we were doing. They worked collaboratively though them, we played them as competitive games in teams, they spotted errors in completed tasks, and then we changed up topics. They didn’t need huge amounts of revision – the homework and good solid teaching helped them be ready. When we got one week out they had one final call for things they wanted to cover, and we went over those. I always used to give them a KS3 level 4-6 paper too. It was an amazing confidence boost for almost all of them! 

I found this got them ready, they knew what to expect, they’d seen the types of questions that would come up, they knew the process, but we hadn’t been drilling since November as I have seen some schools do. I always found they handled it amazingly well and I think it is because as a school and Year 6 team we didn’t overwork them. We didn’t make it bigger than it needed to be. They don’t need to know the school’s reputation hangs on their SATs results. Why would they? We made it very clear they just had to be able to go in on that morning and try their best. I could never ask any more of them than that. I told them, I’d be proud of their efforts, not their results. 

The last half term is not winding down. But it’s amazing. 

So much to fit in, tiring, but great. Leaver’s plays, leavers assemblies, residentials all the best weeks of the year. It’s a time to relax and enjoy they time they have left. They still need structure and they still need to learn, but I always felt a different dynamic about that period. There is time to get into transition properly to prepare them, to get into their worries and really unpack it with them. There is time to enjoy spending time with them and preparing them to move on. Of course, the last day is sad, they cry, and they say they don’t want to go. But they are ready – and that’s down the work you’ve done over the year. 

If I could teach a year group again I would choose Year 6 every time. Don’t be scared of them, embrace it for the opportunities and good times it offers. It’s a special time for them and to be part of it with them is a privilege. 

Home Learning Survey

Over the last few days I ran a short survey on how home learning had been working out for teachers and what had been provided. Here are the results:

Have you provided work for your students during partial closure? (2895 votes)

Yes – 99% No – 1%

Have you provided ‘live teaching’ during lockdown? (2888 votes)

Yes – 12% No – 88%

If not, why not (main reason)? (2496 votes)

Lack of tech at child’s home – 38%

Safeguarding concerns – 38%

Not suitable for age group – 21%

Lack of tech at teacher home – 3%

What has been your average return rate of work been during lockdown? (2769 votes)

100 – 75% – 10%

75 – 50% – 30%

25 – 50% – 38%

0 – 25% – 22%

What has been the biggest barrier to returning of work? (I realise this may be hard to generalise) (2569 votes)

Lack of tech at home – 19%

Availability of support – 20%

Lack of willingness – 38%

Both parents working from home – 23%

How effective do you think your provision has been? (2764 votes)

Very effective – 18%

Somewhat effective – 71%

Somewhat ineffective – 10%

Very ineffective – 1%

How much feedback have you given? (2658 votes)

Detailed daily – 21%

Generalised daily – 29%

Generalised weekly – 16%

Work acknowledged – 34%

How effective do you think your feedback has been? (2628 votes)

Very effective – 5%

Somewhat effective – 56%

Somewhat ineffective – 28%

Very ineffective – 11%

Do you think what you have offered has been the best you could have given the circumstances? (2772 votes)

Yes – 91%

No – 9%

No idea what any of that means, but it was interesting all the same!

I’m Tired

Maybe it’s Friday talking, but today I’ve had enough.

School opening gone well, kids happy, staff happy and the problem solving aspect of organising everything was, whisper it, an enjoyable logistical challenge. I should be pleased with our team effort, and reflecting that our carefully thought through plans have stood up to the scrutiny of 60 children. And I am, in a way. It’s just hard to focus on that right now.

I was pleased to hear schools weren’t reopening further, it just wasn’t practical in any way with the current guidelines. Until the capacity issue reared it’s head. Instead of clarity we now have vague, blurred lines that will be different for every school. Rather than being giving clarity, we received uncertainty once again. Now I’ve got parents falling over themselves to try and get their child back into school. They aren’t eligible, but they just thought they’d ask. They’re offering to make cleaning committees, rotas, pay for hiring other spaces, put up gazebos anything to get us open. They don’t know the half of it. If only space was the problem. Now we are under pressure to open further. Not just from parents but from well meaning governors too.

Of course I want to see more children in, but I can’t see a way to do it. Then we get onto provision for the other year groups. It’s worse than it was before as the teachers are teaching. That’s not fair on them. Now we’re trying to work how we can improve that teach the other groups at the same time, it’s not a straightforward task. Can we use more tech? Can we audio stream what’s happening in school. Engagement has dropped hugely. What we are offering isn’t working, so we need to find something different. Endless emails and discussions over how to do it. No real ways forward.

Then we start talking about September and what that might look like and start planning for that. And what we might do in a second wave if we lock down again. Will we provide something different to before? We probably should now we know how it all might work. More planning, more meetings, more guidance.

Life as a head is relentless at the best of times, but it’s another level at the moment. It’s coming from every angle, and we aren’t getting support from the organisation there to lead us – the DFE response has been poor – muddled, woolly and generally unhelpful. Tonight I’m just tired of it all.

I’m tired of solving one problem to be faced with another that solving it has created.

I’m tired of having to put my own spin on everything and deciding my own interpretation.

I’m tired of feeling like the blind leading the blind.

I’m tired of thinking about it all.

I’m tired.

But Monday is another day. It’ll come quickly, and it’ll bring more problems. Hopefully it’ll bring some answers too. Until then I’ll wait for the next piece of guidance.

Day One – A Head’s Eye View

So today we welcomed back around 50 of our children to school. Year R, 1 and 6, plus a handful of other key workers from other year groups. Guess what? It was great. Here is a little blow by blow account of the day:

7:30am – onsite to open up. Windows, doors and everything that could be flung open, flung open. Finished putting up the last little bit if signage that I didn’t get done last week.

8:00am – More staff starting to arrive. It was brilliant to see people again. We haven’t had more than three on site at a time for ten weeks to it was lovely to see faces again, albeit from doorways and across halls.

8:15am – First child arrives. A little early, but mum said he was so excited he wouldn’t wait any longer at home. How amazing is that?

8:30am – Staggered start begins. I was anticipating a rush, and quite a long queue, but all very civilised, arriving at well spaced intervals. Smiles from every single person as they came down the path, parents and children. A quick squirt of hand sanitiser and they were in. Parents appreciative, kids happy. Kids skipped into class.

9:00am – Walk round for socially distanced check-in with each class. Everyone settled, already getting on with tasks and taking it all in their stride. Tidied some stuff away to the stores.

10:00am – Stupidly began the DfE form. Nightmare. Found the wording ambigous, and it probably won’t match our attendance register. Ho hum.

10:30 – Caught up with office staff about somethings we need to chase regarding refunds for cancelled trips etc.

11:00am – Lunch arrived, sorted into class groups and delivered. Great buzz around the school. Their working at desks that are separated, sure, but they are happy and their learning.

12:00pm – Started and hour and half of lunch duty. Kids played beautifully and did their best to distance from each other, even down to Year R. Amazing to her them laughing and joking again.

1:30pm – recorded audiobook chapters for those chidlren still not atending.

2:30pm – staggered collection begins and miraculously goes as smoothly as the pick up. Kids exhausted. Not just tired – absolutely knackered.

3:15pm – Staff debrief on day one. All happy, routines and plans had worked. Do it all again tomorrow.

So, all in all, a really successful day. It reminded me why we do what we do. It’s easy to get hung up on planning, paperwork, targets, assessment but today was just about the joy on the faces of those children who returned to school. They were so happy to be back. The messages of support from parents were appreciated, but their smiles made my day. They couldn’t wait to be back. That’s why we do it. That’s why we put up with the crap we do. The road will get bumpier, and there will be things we needed to change. I know the novelty will wear off and the kids will push it, but for now it felt like being a teacher again.

I know we’ve been working throughout, but nothing is like the magic of a classroom and helping kids learn. Home school has got nothing on classrooms. I thought I’d got used to the idea of working at home, and that I might enjoy it and make it part of the new normal. After today’s reminders – not a chance. School is where we belong, it’s where the kids belong and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Leadership in Lockdown

So, the confirmation that the government intend for schools to re-open to more pupils on Monday seemed like an apt time to write this blog. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently about life during lockdown, and how so many of things I have done have been completely alien. The old saying ‘you couldn’t make it up…’ has never been more uttered. Everything about education and what it is supposed to be about has been turned onto its head in the last two weeks, and indeed since lockdown began. But then I started thinking back, to everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve done over the last 3 months, and I’m not sure it has. 

It seems like an absolute age ago that everything started. I remember speaking on the phone to a governor about how we were just two weeks behind Italy. If I’m completely honest, I don’t recall much of early March. It seems to be a bit of blur, but I do remember starting planning what our provision would look like. This reflection is what got me thinking about how, actually, education hadn’t been turned on its head after all. Although crazily busy and hectic the main thing we were considering was how to provide an effective education for the children that attend our school. That’s what we do every day. Sure, it would look different, but the key question was about how we could get the best learning out of the resources we had available to us. That is exactly what we have all been trained to do. That’s why we teach. The circumstances were different, but the priorities were the same. Remembering that helped us set up our provision. Don’t look at what others are doing – do what works for us and our pupils.

It’s amazing how quickly we fall into a routine. Working from home became a new normal, and I have to say I have enjoyed it. Seeing family more often was great. I’ll be honest – there was a lull section in the middle weeks where my workload was not so intense, and my hours were considerably less. I blogged about returning to normal (https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/04/11/we-must-not-go-back-to-normal/) and I think we need to make sure we make time for ourselves during all of this, and when it is finished. Many of us have enjoyed time with family, why should we give that up?

Community was a really important part of what I tried to do as well. People say my school has a great community feel, and they put it down to the fact we are a small village school. First of all, we aren’t that small – we are 170ish. Secondly, our catchment means that we aren’t built into a village where everyone knows everyone else. Community in a school is not where you are – it’s what you make it. It needs building through trusting relationships, through respecting and valuing everyone within your community and being humble enough to admit your faults. You can get a close community feel in a big school and be devoid of one in a tiny one. Community is built around your shared values, not the number of people you have in the space. To build that I have done daily videos for the children, read them audiobooks every day and kept achievement assembly going with our usual Mathletics and TTRS certificates. We’ve had challenges, games to play, looked at values played around with teddies. It’s been great. More than that, though, it’s kept us together. The teachers have been checking in with kids. It would be so easy to feel lost and cut off from a school at this time, it was important to us that we kept our community together. We’ll carry all that on when we re-open too. It will be so easy for the school to split in two now. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen. 

Communication has also been key. I’ve noticed a real shift in my communications with parents. The purpose of them has shifted. Usually we are imparting information or decisions and the letters we send can be a little soulless, or just factual. The necessity of the situation has meant that as well as pastorally supporting the children, our parents have needed it more than ever as well. We made the decision early one that we wouldn’t be chasing for work to be completed. All of my early letters were reassuring parent’s that they were doing a good job, that whatever they could do would help their child – and they need not feel guilty. To be honest, I felt strange giving out this advice. I don’t know their situations, and goodness knows I needed to follow my own advice when it came to home-school. Imposter syndrome was a big one for me there. My parents are largely professionals, high powered execs and the like, who was I to be giving them advice? This was an opportunity to be alongside them more than ever though, and this in turn built the sense of community. Admitting I was struggling too, telling them they weren’t letting their children down, encouraging them to keep their kids safe first before thinking about schoolwork. Despite having a good relationship with the parents at my school, these letters have taken on a much more personal aspect to them, revealing parts of my own personality to them that I otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s a positive shift. Kindness isn’t weakness – it’s strength and showing more of it is no bad thing. 

Re-opening has been by far the most stressful time of the whole experience, and the most time-consuming. The guidance has been hit and miss. Some of it was very useful, some of it poorly timed, some contradictory and some just useless. The updates have caused stress to many. I’m fortunate my initial plan has remained largely unchanged. The weight of making potentially life-saving decisions looms large though. We nearly all set up and my levels of exhaustion are probably higher than they have been at any point during the process, unfortunately at exactly the time we need to kick on and welcome pupils back. We have been put in that position by the muddled messages we have been receiving rom various outlets. Do I feel let down? Yes. Do it once and do it right. I wrote an alternative piece of DfE guidance (https://secretheadteacher.org/2020/05/25/guidance-on-schools-opening-on-1st-june/) and who wouldn’t have wanted to receive such an acknowledgement from the DfE? In the same way I have shown more of myself to the parents via communications, could the DfE have not done something similar? It would have made such a difference. 

I’ve written this before, but we won’t know whether the decisions we have made have been the right ones until all of this is done and dusted. All we can do is make them with the best interests of our community at heart. I said at the beginning that actually, what we have been doing over the last 10 weeks isn’t that different from what we do every day. We have been trying to give them the best education we can, with the resources we have, and we have been trying to keep them safe. Those two things have not changed, and they won’t whether they are at home, ore at school. Whatever you, or your school, has decided has been done for the right reasons, and with those two things in mind. Schools and leaders have been placed in impossible positions and been forced to make impossible decisions, ones they weren’t trained for and ones they didn’t sign up for. However, people have been brave and made them. They’ve wrestled with them, lost sleep over them, changed them, regretted them but ultimately done what they thought was right and no-one can ask any more than that, and no-one should. 

Leadership during lockdown? It’s been tough. I wouldn’t want to go through it again. Despite the difficulties though, it has reaffirmed everything I thought. When people are put at the heart of leadership, when community is central when we accept we don’t know everything and lean into others for help and support – that’s when we are at our best. Partial school closures, lockdown and reopening has not beaten us, it has made us come together and when we boil it down – we haven’t done much different from the usual – we’ve looked out for the people in our care. Every member of a school community wants to put that first – and we’ve done it brilliantly. We’ve now got communities to rebuild. Now we move on to Leadership after lockdown, but I don’t think that needs to look much different – put people at its heart and you can’t go far wrong. 

Guidance On Schools Opening on 1st June

Last updated 25 May 2020

Information for Schools

We are asking schools to re-open their doors and welcome back children in nursery, Year R, 1 and 6 from the 1st June 2020.

Before moving onto practicalities, let us first thank each and everyone of you for all you have done so far. By making provision available for those critical to the COVID-19 response you have eased the burden on parents who have countless other worries at this time. This has been invaluable to the countries efforts to fight this pandemic and here at the DfE and in the wider government we will ensure that moving forwards the profession is valued for the important role it does. This has been highlighted by the countless messages we have received at the DfE praising the dedication and professionalism of staff across the country and in all types of setting. We are sure you have received such messages and suggest you treasure and value them as evidence of the excellent job you have done in this time.

We thank you for your efforts as an educational body as you re-wrote what provision should look like in these unprecedented times and have ensured that, despite ongoing and persistent difficulties with ordering systems, the neediest families in our communities have continued to receive support and provision for school meals. The efforts many of you have gone to achieve this are nothing short of miraculous.

Where guidance can often be based solely on technical aspects we, here at the DfE, wish to commend you on the level of importance you have attached to children’s well-being at this time, with many of you going above and beyond your normal working practices to ensure that children’s safety and mental health is being ensured.

We are fully aware of the level of extra work that new guidance has placed upon you, at every level of school life. The extra work, responsibility and decisions you are having to make are unusual and alien to your job role. You focus on improving children’s and families education and lives – not on how best to save them. Throughout this time we recognise that the guidance has been overlong, changed too often and therefore not helped the planning process you have had to undertake. We realise this has been more of a hinderance than a help and apologise for this. We respect those of you who have taken decisions in the best interest of your school community and will support any decision you have taken to protect the children in your care.

This bank holiday, we would encourage you to take time for yourself. We realise you are still planning for re-opening, but your mental health is important too. You have given everything for this profession and your children over the last three months and we realise that a burned out teacher is not a functional one. We can confirm that no new guidance will be forthcoming for the duration of this half term* and commend you on everything you have done so far to prepare for opening. Take this time to rest and refresh. Your plans will be meticulous already and you will have considered everything you can to keep your staff and pupils safe. Now keep yourself safe and rest. See your families, go outdoors and leave your work alone. We are well aware that things will get busier again once pupils return and plans are made for introducing more pupils. Rest now, so you have energy for later.

This final section of guidance is statutory and must be applied today.

Information for Parents and Carers

Your schools have been incredible during this time. Please heed the following guidance:

Support your school and it’s staff. Show them you value them and encourage and praise them.

If you have an issue with the group your child has been placed in, do not raise this with school unless you are concerned for their safety. The groups have been carefully considered, taking into account a number of factors. They have been done to the benefit of as many children as possible.

Your child school will be doing their best. They will have written comprehensive risk assessments and plans for all eventualities. Some incidents may occur which could not have been foreseen. Appreciate this when bringing them to your schools attention.

Despite all prepared plans, schools are still working with children. If your child did not wash their hands effectively at every juncture during the day, the teacher cannot be held solely responsible for this.

Respect the decision your school makes if they send your child home. They are not doing it to reduce numbers, they are doing it to safeguard everyone in their care.

By following this guidance we hope you can ensure a safe and smooth return to school for everyone involved.

*wish I could guarantee this.

Leading From the Back

Lead by example! Show the way! Be the figurehead!

All very plausible and worthwhile I’m sure but is it always the best way forward? There are times when, as a leader, you need to be front and centre and be making the critical decisions but equally, and maybe more often, front and centre is precisely the place you don’t need to be.

What is the purpose of a leader? It’s not telling people what to do and when, it’s not endlessly scrutinising and making people feel inadequate and untrusted, it’s about enabling. A good leader doesn’t drag people along on their mission; they set the direction and then use the best tools they have available to make their way to where they want to go.


But how do you make that happen? I rarely tell the staff we are going to do something and enforce it. We talk, discuss, engage and consult with each other. Why wouldn’t we? Who is going to be driving it forward? To an extent, it’s me, but to a far greater extent, it’s them. I’m not necessarily the one who is having to walk into a classroom and make it happen. I’m not the one who may have to spend the extra time working on it. I could be that figurehead, set the way with clear, precise protocols and action plans but if people aren’t going to go along with it, then it’ll fall flat on its face, every single time. Instead, if as an SLT we want to start something new we talk about it. For example, I’ll start by explaining what I think it needs to change; then I’ll explain why I think it needs to change, then I’ll present a few models I’ve looked at and give a direction I think might be worth exploring further. After that, the floor is open. We are transparent and honest. If someone says it isn’t going to work, we explore why and find an alternative that will. Now, we have a team of people who have been involved in making the decision and it shaping the way it’s going to look for them. Instantly invested in it and prepared to give it a go because we have planned it together. It’s be done with them rather than to them.

Trusting people with responsibility brings out the best in them, most of the time. I don’t need to be the one running the show every time. At one of my previous schools, the headteacher would run every information evening. The new starters evening? A one hour talk from the HT and 5 seconds from the EYFS staff. Writing evening? English lead sat down for the vast majority. Why? Who has the expertise in his situation? Sure, the head may know, but why appoint people to these roles if you aren’t going to trust them to do the job properly? Instead, I say very little on these evenings apart from ‘hello’ and ‘thanks for coming’. Why would I need to say more? I trust my staff, we’ve been through the content they will be amazing.

I don’t need to be the one at the front of everything. When things go well, and people write in with praise, my first response is that it had very little to do with me. I wasn’t the one that delivered it. I helped us work out the process and put it down in writing, but it wasn’t me in the classroom, working with the children and making it happen. Every leader should recognise this. I hate the term superhead; they would be nowhere without their staff team. It makes it seem like one person can go in and turn everything around by enforcing their will. Rubbish, absolute rubbish.

Change and moving forward isn’t built on one person telling everyone what to do; change is built on working together with everyone involved and invested in what is happening. When this happens, improvement is so much more sustainable. The head that I took over from kept everything in her head and micromanaged every aspect. This meant people just depended on her to do everything for them and took no responsibility for what they were doing – they just waited to be told what to do. We’ve changed that culture – we work together and everyone takes responsibility for what is going on. Now, if I leave my school, it is in a much better place for sustaining the work we have done as a team as people have been enabled to be part of that change. They know and have developed the steps that have been taken to get there and understand how and why we took them.

The best way to lead from the front? Lead from the back. Empower, enable, trust and work with people. Encourage people to step forward and take responsibility and let them take the lead. The job of every leader is to help people be the best they can be and do their job as well as they can. Much more effective to do that from behind people than blindly walking in front of them.

A Guide to School Finance

We always hear about how schools are underfunded and that cuts have to be made. Twitter abounds with the tales of experienced, upper pay scale teachers find themselves unemployable due to the fact they simply cost too much. Adverts have started to appear asking for applicants that are just M1 – 3. Decisions may be made about contracts and appointments based on salaries rather than teaching skills. Headteachers and business managers across the land are telling staff they can’t buy anything as there isn’t any money. Sometmes I have teachers who roll their eyes when I say it comes down to budget, or that we can’t have this or that or they tell me I only ever talk about the budget (not true by the way!). It is a major part of a headteacher’s job at the moment, and while day to day it may not impact on actions taken during a given day, but it is never far away from waking, and sleeping thoughts. With that in mind, here is my guide to what finance in schools is really like and how it works.

A few things to clarify though:

1) This is based on my experience with my local authority and my school. Every school is different.

2) I am not an academy, their finance systems are different, and funding slightly too.

3) I am by no means an expert on this, but I know enough to get the job done!

4) This is primary focussed.

5) I am bound to forget something.

6) I’d be lost without my school business manager

So, here are a few of the headlines and basics:

The Financial Year

The financial year for LA schools runs the same as the tax year, April to April. This can make things difficult when it comes to setting a budget as you don’t know which staff will still be there in September and who you will be able to recruit. It also means that a lot of schools have a ban on ordering from Feb half term onwards as the end of the financial year is coming. This can cause resource issues!

Income

School income comes from the DfE in the main. This is split up into various pots of money. Their funding formula can be found at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/728273/National_funding_formula_policy_document_-2019_to_2020-_BRANDED.pdf)

The main part of the budget is made up of AWPU (Age Weighted Pupil Unit). This is why it is so important to have full schools. More pupils, more money. A pupil leaves, so does their funding for the next academic year (and possible even some of it for the current year). This is worth £2,747 per pupil at primary. Other income which pupils may be eligible for includes Pupil Premium (£1320/pupil), low prior attainment (£1,022/pupil), EAL (£515/pupil). There is then also funding based on the deprivation factor of the school. This is banded based on the proportion of children who live in a low income household.

A school also recieves a lump sum of £110,000 per year and a devolved formula capital grant (DFCG) which has to be spent on building work or ICT hardware.

As well as this there are other grants that are given:

  • Sports Premium – £16,000 + £10 per pupil
  • Infant Free School Meals – £2.30 per day, per KS1 pupil
  • Teacher pay and pension – these are top up grants to cover recent rises in pay and pension contributions.
  • SEN Top up – this is extra funding to cover the hours of support detailed on the EHCP. Schools have to fund the first 13 hours themselves and then get funded for the rest.

Most of this is ring-fenced and can only be spent on certain things – for example the Sports Premium funding. Reports have to be published on how this money has been spent. Many of these are based around pupils on census day (the government count done twice a year). If you get an influx of pupils joing you after that, you will only get 7/12s of the money for them.

After this schools can then generate their own income to top up their funding. This will include PTA fundraising, parental contributions, money from lettings, income from taking on student teachers and applying for external grants (eg lottery funding).

All of this gives you your starting point for setting the budget. As a guide, my school has around 165 pupils, low FSM and low deprivation. Our PTA raise a lot of money (around £25k a year). Our total income for 2019/20 was £740,000. I have set a deficit budget for the last year.

Expenditure

This is where it starts to get fun. Trying to afford everything you need in the money you’ve got.

Let’s start with staffing. This is by far the biggest spend a school has. My budget at the moment runs this at about 92% of income, which is too high and the reason for my deficit. I have no option – I have classroom capacity of 24. I could be a school of 30 in each class and have to spend no more money of teachers, and I would get at least an extra £110,000 in my budget (I realise support staff costs may go up). This would solve my budget problems, but I can’t fit any more children in. The thing to rememebr about staffing is that teacher salaries go up each year, so it needs to planned into the budget for pay scale point rises. Also, the expenditure of a teacher salary is not just the wage. The school also has to pay National Insurance and Pension contributions. Pension contributions by the school for teachers are 23%. It means that employing a teacher at M6 doesn’t just have a salary implication of £35k it is north of £40k. Thanks to @clemcoady for the chart below:

This applies for every teacher, so the budget soon gets used up. Once you add in the on-costs for support staff (TAs, office staff, caretakers, midday supervisors, cleaning staff) as well, it can soon spiral and become a very large part of your budget spent.

This is why upper pay scale teachers become expensive. A starting salary of £40k soon pushes an actual cost of £50k to the school. The quality of the person needs to be balanced against the cost. Swapping a U1 for an NQT is a significant saving for schools and is part of the reason that many schools do it.

All of these people need insuring as well. This can also become very expensive. Insurance to cover sickness is the main one, but also maternity leave and other absences. What you add into this cover changes the price hugely. If you want to add stress as a coverable part of the policy, the price rockets. Maternity leave cover changes significantly based on the age of the people you are covering. We can only afford to cover people who would need a supply if they were off – eg teachers only.

There are other staff related costs too – office staff are entitled to a paid eye test, they may claim transport and other personal expenses (not all do, but it is an entitlement). DBS checks need paying for, as do placing advertisments (£150 per ad in my LA). Each of these are small costs, but soon add up.

Another large area of expenditure is buy back from the local authority. Academies can choose their suppliers, so can shop around, but LA schools are less able to do this. We have to buy back, HR servives, finance services, school management system and support (SIMS), emploement benefits (eg occupational health), legal support. This can cost per pupil as well. This are essential servies that you are forced into buying from one provider.

Energy is also the same. Gas and electricity take up a large amount of spend. Buildings and maintanance need a chunk of money set aside as well. Grounds maintaince (eg lawn moving and site maintainence) also comes into it. Photocopier’s are usually on lease so there is a monthly cost as well as a per copy cost. Colour copies are can be 4p per sheet. Soon mounts up. School meals needs to be paid for, as do school trips, but these are usually recoverable costs. Everything that we have, has to be paid for. The money very quickly drains away, and notice that we’ve not actually got onto provision for any of the children yet.

Finally we get onto resources. Books, glue sticks, ICT rescources and equipment. These are essentials, but by the time we have budgeted for all the above there is very little money left for them. We give all of our PTA money towards things like this – buying pencils and sharpeners and glue. There was a time this was saved for luxury items. Espresso, Mathletics, the website all come with annual costs picked up by our PTA in reality.

It all means that money is tight everywhere. When something goes wrong there isn’t money in the bank to fix it. One of the screens in a classroom broke this year. Where do I find £1500 to replace it? It’s so hard. Spending on one unexpected thing takes money away from something else. It’s an impossible balance, and one that unfortunately often doesn’t have the children at it’s heart.

My LA come and meet with me because we have a deficit. They agree I’m not overspending, and that I can’t get more pupils. What am I supposed to do? I cant get more money in and can’t spend less? Getting out of deficit becomes very difficult. Part of the problem is that it is imaginary money. It’s isn’t like running your own bank account (although for academies I believe it is more like this).

Accountability

My governors get budget monitoring reports 6 times a year. They review and question how and why decisions have been made. Contracts and spends over a certain amount have to be run by them. They are there to ensure the school is being financially repsonsible and not leaving beyond it’s means without good reason. They need a firm understanding of school finance, and from what I have heard it is very different from commercial systems. They can be amazing though. Different eyes, experiences and points of view become very helpful indeed. Forecasts and reviews have to be submitted to the LA every quarter so they can make sure we aren’t on course to have a nasty surprise at the end of the year.

To sum up…

Budgets are hard. They are numbers on a page and some see them just as that. They don;t think of the stories attached to it. The finance team in my LA are not educationalists – they just see the numbers. I have a fierce fight between what is best for the children and what we can afford weekly. I try to never compromise on the standards the chidlren get in the classoom. If they drop, pupils numbers drop and we have even less money. Best teachers, best support we can get adn then cut everything else. I’m reaching the point where I may not be able to this though.

Much like the NHS, schools are underfunded and don;t have enough to do their basic job. I write about why here (https://secretheadteacher.org/2019/07/26/paying-lip-service/). We just don’t have enough to make the difference we know we can at times. It’s hard, it can keep me awake, and I don’t think I have the answers.

How do you define your purpose?

Where do we find our purpose? Why, when we are toddlers, do we dream of working? We didn’t need to work, our lives were filled with problems that working would not solve yet we still had the idea of ‘When I grow up…’. Is it because we need purpose in our lives? Is it built into us and our humanity? The urge to have a job as a toddler is to give ourselves an ultimate purpose, that goal to aim for, even though we could never articulate that. Do toddlers follow the examples they are given – where they see their parents’ purpose lying?

So what happens when that purpose is taken away from us, just like it might have been now? Do we crumble or are we able to find something new? Maybe this comes down to how we define ourselves. If we define ourselves by our job, by money or by our hobbies then when these are gone it can leave a gaping hole. If teaching is how you define your worth in yourself, then if this is ripped away, as it has been now, then it could be a massive struggle. Of course, we have so many more aspects to our lives that give us worth – but we don’t always see them.

Now, after this maybe we redefine how we value ourselves and where we place our worth. Is it now in family and making time? Is it taking up a new hobby? Has our purpose shifted? Should our purpose shift? If it does then perhaps the purpose we thought we had becomes a means to end, serving a new purpose, rather than the be all and end all we were treating it as?

Repurposing our lives has not, and will not be easy. But in doing this and redefining where we place our worth and self identification perhaps we will be ultimately happier and find life more purposeful. It’s always a balance, one we won’t always get right. Maybe though, now is the time to tip the scales one way rather than the other.