The image of Gromit frantically laying the tracks to stop the train on which he rides from derailing keeps popping into my mind this week. When the latest DfE guidance dropped into my inbox at about 4pm on Wednesday informing me of what was required for schools from midnight, when the new lockdown would begin, I probably looked quite like Grommet: a silent scream behind the eyes. Actually, my expression was probably more resigned. I have no energy left for frantic.
But this post is not about my frustrations with the DFE, rather it is about the perpetual novelty of running a school right now. Stop me if I stray.
It is easy to misunderstand the dynamics in schools at the moment, and why it is so different to normal. There have been concerning reports about the effect the current situation is having on school leaders, not least the worrying data from @TeacherTapp (below) about teacher burnout.
At this point I should say that this post is not a cry for help! Whenever I mention the pressure headteachers are under I get lots of lovely people on Twitter checking in on me. YOU ARE GOOD PEOPLE – thank you. But I am merely very tired and certainly not in the 37% of my colleagues who are suffering burnout. One of the main the reasons I am not in that bracket is that my school is in a region (for now) of relatively low Covid rates. We have been lucky: and it is luck, not any secret formula for Covid security that we’ve stumbled upon. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for senior leaders and staff in schools which are getting numerous and repeated positive cases and keep having to trace contacts, instruct people to isolate, and send year groups home.
But in all schools, no matter the incidents of Covid, it is just not business as normal. The problem is not that we’re working long hours (that is always the case), nor that there is loads to do (again, bread and butter). So what is it?
To gain an insight into what is happening in schools we need to understand an important feature of how schools operate in more normal times, that is the role played by regularity.
Schools depend heavily on things being the same from one day to another; one year to another. Imagine watching a school from afar on fast forward. Lots of people arrive at a set time, converge into groups in rooms, sit there for a fixed period (except one who stands in front of them and talks more than the others), move when a bell rings, and disperse at the end of the day. You will observe a similar pattern day in, day out. It is as if there are invisible tracks along which these people move.
But these tracks not only determine physical movement. We can observe regularity in the way these people interact, in who they do and don’t converse with, in who speaks first and for longest, in how long engagements last. There are invisible guidelines which determine the way things are done – call it ‘culture’ if you will.
The chain of cause and effect also follow tracks. If a pupil talks over the teacher, they get a warning. Too many warnings and they have to sit in a room after the school day has finished, without talking. If a pupil does poorly in a test, they will be asked to sit it again, or be flagged for additional support. If a senior leader observes a lesson, there will be advice which a teacher is expected to act on. If a meeting of staff is called, those staff will obediently attend and follow the norms of behaviour for such events.
To describe every regularity of a school would fill a series of encyclopedic volumes. My point is that almost everything schools do is regularised. The invisible tracks we follow criss-cross each other like the train lines at Charing Cross.
The regularities of schools exist because they enable people to function in a diverse, complex, potentially chaotic, environment. Cognitive overload is prevented. Precious energy and mental resource can be prioritised to attend to the novel: that which is not expected, uninvited, not preordained. And schools are sparky. Spontaneous events happen which sometimes require immediate attention. A vulnerable pupil breaks down in tears, the fire bell goes off, a van drives through your broadband cable! (If this last one sounds a bit specific, it is because it is still raw)
We disrupt the regularities of schools at our peril. My instinct is to proceed with caution whenever a significant re-writing of a regularity is suggested. We take the time to consider why it may be necessary, consult, map out various options, weigh up the pros and cons, change our minds, attempt to anticipate every consequence, and still often abandon the thought before it is actioned. To an outsider, this may appear like an absurd level of caution and procrastination. But schools are conservative places for a reason: when we disrupt an established regularity there will be unintended consequences, and we never really know whether these will swing in our favour.
How does a pandemic change things?
In schools right now it feels like everything has to be re-written. This is not actually the case: the vast majority of regularities continue to apply. However, the novelty in schools is far greater than anything we have experienced before, and it is relentless. Allow me to illustrate the breadth of this with a list, and the depth with an example.
In the last half term alone (about 7 weeks) we have redefined almost every aspect of our pupils’ experience from the start to the end of each school day: how they travel to school, when they can arrive, what they do when they arrive, how they move around, when they have a break, where they go when they have a break, how they are seated in lessons, how their teachers interact with them, what happens if they misbehave, what happens if they are injured or ill, who they are allowed to be near and speak to, when and how they are allowed to assemble, who teaches them, whether their teacher is even in the room when they are teaching them, how they are supported when they are stuck, how they are counselled, whether they can pursue their interests, how they take a book out of the library, when they are allowed out of school, what trips they can attend… all these tracks have been re-layed, new regularities set.
And the regularities for staff have undergone a similar transformation: the way they engage with physical space, interaction with colleagues, interaction with pupils, how they communicate, how they develop. Teachers who have laid down their own tracks in developing a way of teaching over many years are fundamentally updating their mental model which guides their daily practice, whether it be how to teach without moving from the front of the classroom, how to mark papers which must first be quarantined, or teaching remotely via technologies which were unfamiliar until just months ago. However, adults in schools are not only adjusting their own ways of working, they are charged with re-setting expectations for hundreds of young minds. We know that behaviour is changed through clear expectations, explicit modelling and consistent reinforcement. This is made all the more challenging when the expectations for schools is anything but clear, explicit and consistent.
The leadership task in such circumstances is immense. Let’s take one example: resetting parents’ evenings. At our school, we are determined that as many aspects of our ‘normal’ offer as possible will continue this year. When the question of parents’ evenings came up we knew instantly that this would have to be radically re-thought. It would not be possible to follow the usual model of hundreds of people turning up and mixing. ‘Okay, so do it online’, you may say. Fine. And then reality intervenes to disrupt our simple solution. Firstly, we don’t have the IT infrastructure to deliver this – teachers are not issued with laptops, there are not enough office computers for the teachers who teach a year group to schedule appointments simultaneously, and classroom computers without cameras or microphones. Secondly, what about parents who have similar barriers? Will it be necessary therefore to provide a mixed-offer of online or face-to-face. Thirdly, how do we actually manage the logistics of booking, queuing, late arrivals and appointment duration? And what about whether we have the bandwidth to support multiple video meetings happening simultaneously on the school site? Should teachers run the meetings from home? Do they have the necessary IT and broadband access? What are the safeguarding issues this presents?
None of this is beyond the wit of an effective leadership team (indeed we have overcome these barriers and it is happening next week – wish us luck), but solving such problems takes time, energy and resource. Almost every way you turn there is another regularity that is disrupted. What do we do if we have to send a year group home; we don’t have enough teachers to teach the curriculum; students have to isolate? How do we run detentions without mixing bubbles; allow safe access to the canteen; run governors’ meetings; allow that trip to happen safely; run meetings; CPD? What are the new rules for moving around the school; staggered breaks; cleaning; hand washing? How do we catch up for missed time in school; support those nearing exams; switch seamlessly between in-school and online learning?
Perpetual novelty. Disrupted regularities.
To complicate things further, some regularities have been disrupted more than once. It takes time to adapt to new expectations, and when they change again after a few weeks it creates change fatigue. For example, we adopted a very effective zoning system for break times whereby year groups had their own outside space to go. However, this zoning relied on our school fields being accessible, and when the weather turned the whole model had to be re-thought, resulting in the introduction of staggered breaks, meaning a change in lesson timings, supervision rotas, shift patterns for the catering team, and so on.
To add one final layer of complexity, we then have the last minute proclamations of the DfE and the ambiguous, sometimes contradictory guidance that accompanies these. I know the public servants at the DfE will also be operating under significant pressure and themselves subject to last minute instructions by Ministers, so I will curtail my frustration.
We can’t change the fact that there is a pandemic, but we can help schools meet these challenges. A good start would be providing school with the funding they need. The costs to schools of meeting the challenges of Covid are astronomical and there is no sign that any of these will be supported this academic year. The costs range include numerous miscellaneous expenses (such as the £1,000 I had to pay to buy the additional tools I needed to run virtual parents’ evenings via the booking tool we subscribe to, or the additional text books which can’t be used between bubbles) to the huge staffing costs (including covering the clinically extremely vulnerable and isolating staff). We have also had to invest heavily in upgrading our IT infrastructure to meet the legal requirements of remote learning and equip teachers to deliver our contingency plans. I have yet to calculate and estimate the likely total Covid-related cost this year, but it will be tens of thousands of pounds.
It would also mean a great deal if I believed that Government were taking the time to really understand the complexity of working in schools at the present time. Perhaps they are, but it isn’t coming across that way. Cutting laptop allocations, lack of support for disadvantaged families, delays in the national tutoring scheme, the grading fiasco, and frequent U-turns mean that the ‘thanks’ Gavin Williamson offers sounds rather hollow. And we need some certainty and decisiveness on key issues like examinations. When so much in schools is uncertain, the best Government can offer is certainty: transparency of decisions making, reasonable lead-in times, and clear instruction and advice. But please, no more faux sympathy.
I’ve done it again… politics! Didn’t I tell you to stop me if I steered off course? Some final words on regularities and perpetual novelty.
What we should understand is that running a school is materially different for now. We must turn away from comfort in the status quo and towards discontinuity. This requires a subtly different leadership expertise. You may think of it as drawing on leadership traits such as patience, inner calm, fortitude, perseverance, or courage. But there is a well of knowledge that these traits are drawn from. We should take the time to consider what is known, and what certainty is beyond our reach; what is within our control, and what is beyond our influence; what we particularly value, and what we are willing to let go for now; the tension between who we are, and what others need us to be. Above all, we need to reconsider what our schools have become. They are not the same as they were, although eventually they will become regular again.
But while you are contemplating this, keep laying those tracks.