The following article comes from Headteacher Chris Foley, who reflects on the return to school.

It’s almost at half term and it has been an interesting half term on every level. Here are some Headteacher reflections, and I hope they help people see the challenges all schools are facing, and allow the public to appreciate the work we’ve been doing.

The Pupils

It has been wonderful to see the young people again, and I think all teachers will feel that (even though they may not always show it). We worked ever so hard during June and July to build the best relationships we could with Year 10, and as they returned as Year 11in September, we felt they really wanted to be in school. The same has been true of all other year groups.

Over the summer break, I was frustrated by the way pupils were portrayed in the media – the idea that they would have forgotten what a school routine was like seemed a nonsense. We’ve found that the vast majority have been loving being back. It has also been interesting to look at the “gaps” that have emerged in their learning during the lockdown. Yes – some pupils are not where we would like them to be , but they know this and most are prepared to do whatever it takes to close or plug them.

Our young people are also switched on to the national picture, particularly the eldest I was asked by a few Year 11 pupils what would happen with their exams following the announcement made in Scotland this week about the cancellation of some Scottish exams. Our young people have an almost boundless capacity to surprise and inspire us as adults. My biggest takeaway from seeing them all is that they should not be underestimated.

The Staff

My staff have been exceptional. I really mean this. We have done the very best that we can to interpret the constant government guidance, not been easy given that we have a relatively old building, built for 600 pupils that now houses close to 1150.

Our planning for return really started in May. We had a number of scenarios based on what was feasible and we did the best we could to share thinking and planning with staff at every possible opportunity. If I am honest (and maybe other Headteachers would concur) staff were more apprehensive about returning to school than pupils. We’ve done the best we can to reassure and support. We’ve also found that staff embrace the challenges we face.

Every Leadership Team dreads hearing that a member of staff needs to isolate, but on the occasions where it has happened, we have had teachers experiment with “beaming in” to lessons so that the pupils don’t miss out. I hope my staff understand that labour intensive routines we have introduced have been developed to minimise the risk of infection.

As we have moved through the term these have continually been amended as needed. We need to look after staff as best we can, and there is a real tension between managing their wellbeing, and trying to run a school as effectively as possible.

New Things

Just this week we have been planning our first online parents evening, if it works well (we are hopeful, but it could be a disaster…) I’m not sure why I would ever go back to an old style where parents actually come on site. We are in the process of discovering a whole new way of working , and there are so many obvious benefits.

Each Tuesday we now have a whole school assembly, where a member of the leadership team or myself is beamed into each classroom. It has never been easier to communicate a whole school message to 1150 or so pupils. We will definitely be keeping this. We have also learnt so much about remote learning. It is frustrating when remote learning “expectations” are made into law, and whilst I see why the Department for Education has chosen to do this, it does not help school leaders. We know now that online “live teaching” works well, and that staff are comfortable doing this. We also know that this provision , and the planning of it is incredibly complex. Schools are grappling with small numbers of pupils isolated in some year groups, or whole year groups isolating. The difference in how provision looks in these two situations is immense. From my perspective we will never be completely happy with our remote learning provision – it will iterative ,and if someone thinks they’ve nailed it I’m not sure I would agree.

In school we have also felt a huge benefit from the Covid routines we have developed. We moved to longer lessons, so now only have three lessons per day. This had had a dramatic impact on school wide culture. Behaviour is better, and the school feels calmer (not that it wasn’t before of course!). We continue to over communicate expectations to pupils and parents and it has made a difference.

The Other Phone Call

The strain on school leaders at the point a pupil or member of staff tests positive is immense. The first time this happens is hard, but it gets easier. We realised that as good as we thought our planning for this eventuality was, it needed to be better, and each time we go through this we get sharper. We now “resolve” a case within three hours, but it is labour intensive.  Where schools are also under pressure is with the news management to parents and the community that there has been a positive case, and like all schools we have had our moment in the sun on the pages of local papers. We’ve been blessed with great support from our local health protection team, for which we are really grateful. There is no point in blaming a school for a positive test or outbreak. Schools are now at the forefront of COVID-19 bad news management, which isn’t realty fair, but so be it.

No Respite

I’m not the type of Headteacher who complains, and I don’t think I make excuses when things are difficult, but there is almost no respite for Headteachers at the moment. We have a core SLT meeting each Sunday at 4 pm to make sure we are prepared for a Monday, and we are on call every day now in case we have a positive case. Headteachers have also had to become community leaders – I spend assembly time stressing the need for everyone in our school community to be socially responsible, and not everyone likes this.

I do hope that when this is over there is some level of recognition of the role played by all schools and all staff in schools.

Chris FoleyHeadteacher of St Monica's RC High School

I do hope that when this is over (but who knows when that will be…) there is some level of recognition of the role played by all schools and all staff in schools. We have had a COVID free week in school this week, and it has allowed us to get back to our core purpose which is trying to give our pupils the very best provision possible.

These are not easy times, but it has been a real privilege to lead my school, and particularly since the start of term. Schools are doing their bit, and then some.

Author Chirs Foley

Author

Chris Foley

Chris is currently Headteacher of St Monica’s RC High School , within the Salford Diocese. He led the school out of Special Measures in December 2019.  He has spent over a decade in Senior Leadership positions, and was previously Headteacher of Holy Family RC and CE College in Heywood, Rochdale.

He was designated as  Local Leader in Education in July 2018.

He blogs on leadership and other school-related matters at On The Bus Education.

Follow Chris on Twitter – @HT_StMonicas