At the end of a difficult year for schools, a tawdry row has erupted. In response to Greenwich council asking its schools to close this week – ahead of the end of term on Friday and after a 59% rise in local infections within seven days – the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has ordered the London borough to reverse its decision. The council’s leader, Danny Thorpe, said this morning that he has “no choice” but to back down.
After navigating enforced lockdowns, a national exams debacle, and thousands of pages of contradictory guidance and directives from the Department for Education, headteachers seem once again to be “piggy in the middle” as local authorities and central government battle it out.
Williamson issuing threats and legal orders designed to force schools to stay open at any cost is both unnecessary and unwelcome. Let’s be clear, all schools should stay open for all children whenever that is possible, and we don’t need a secretary of state to remind us of that.
In September, headteachers across England ensured that this educational and social imperative was carried out in full. And 99.9% of schools opened, with 92% fully open, and 88% of pupils attending in the first week of term. Not only was this vital for children’s learning, but also for their emotional and mental wellbeing.
While many businesses and other public arenas were told to stay closed in order to minimise the risks to everyone’s health, schools were quite rightly advised to stay open. Our government – which has cut funding for our schools and related childcare services for a decade – spoke of a “moral duty” to keep children in school. Teachers and support staff merely raised an eyebrow, but set about doing the right thing for the children in their care. Notably, parents trusted their schools – that’s why the attendance figures were so high.
In recent months, significant challenges have befallen all sectors of society and, of course, schools have not been immune. In particular, rising levels of infection rates and positive Covid-19 cases have seen pupil attendance in schools decline by approximately 20%. We know that older children especially can transmit the virus, and that they’re in full classrooms for many hours each day. Staff attendance has declined significantly as well. This has placed considerable pressures on schools to carry out their day to day duties. Given Williamson’s blanket diktat on staying open, his department appears oblivious to this reality and has adopted a “carry on regardless” approach.
We know that some UK regions have been severely affected by the pandemic’s second wave, but local spikes should not be underestimated either. My school in Horsham, for example, has had three cases in year 11 alone, which has caused extended periods of isolation to this cohort. We have also lost close to 300 days of staff time as colleagues have been forced to isolate.
Though secondary schools have vastly differing numbers of cases, we are all operating in almost identical ways. Along with every other headteacher in the country, I wake up each day with the goal of keeping my school open and providing the very best learning and care services to as many pupils as is possible.
Before the first bell of the school day rings, I must ensure that it is safe for my school to be open. It is in every headteacher’s DNA to look after the children – for whom we are in loco parentis – as soon as they step across the threshold into school. Then we have the significant responsibility of keeping colleagues safe. The crucial importance of this role should never be underestimated.
If ever I believed that staffing levels or infectious diseases were to place students or staff in danger then I would unflinchingly close my school, for as long as it takes for that risk to pass. I have no doubt that my governing body would support me with this, along with colleagues, pupils and parents. This is because headteachers will always do the right thing for the children and communities that they serve. You do not become a headteacher to take the easy option or to seek out unnecessary time off for students or staff.
Throughout the pandemic, children and their parents have trusted headteachers and their schools to do the “right thing”. At the same time, the government occasionally tells our beleaguered profession that we are doing a grand job. But it seems that, at the first sign of trouble, the education ministers won’t trust us to take informed and professional decisions. Instead, they issue draconian legal challenges.
Whatever rhetoric and political bluster ensues during these days of crisis, headteachers must continue to stay calm and trust their own instincts to ensure that every child and colleague in their care stays safe and well.
We’ll continue to do our utmost to keep schools open. But if the virus takes a grip locally, and it’s no longer safe to do so, we have to be allowed to do whatever’s best for our pupils, staff and the community we serve.
• Jules White is headteacher at Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex