It’s been a busy term. The Autumn term in school always is, but I think I’m noticing it more this year after taking almost a year to work from home so that I could care for my terminally ill husband. It’s been such a long time since I spent lots of time in schools that at first, I wondered if it was just me and that it was just as busy as this every year, but I was noticing it more after taking some time out of being in school for the first time since my last maternity leave 16 years ago.
I know I probably haven’t helped myself. I’ve found it hard to say “no” or even “not yet” to people who have waited so patiently for a visit. A quick glance through my diary since September reveals I’ve worked with over 300 schools, and over 500 teachers in 23 different LAs since I’ve been back full-time. My new hybrid way of working means I haven’t visited as many schools as I usually do, some of my work is now remote, but since September I’ve visited 45 different schools, some of them a few times. I travel all over the country, so I’ve been from Devon to Sunderland, Kent, and Essex to Wigan and Wirral and many different places in between. So, I think I have a good sense of what’s going on in primary schools, albeit through a very different lens than the people who work in them every day.
I work with a lot of heads, I spend a lot of time supporting heads, and of course, in the Autumn term I advise Governing bodies with Headteacher Performance Management. This involves the headteacher setting aside time to talk about the year that has just passed, and their hopes and challenges for the coming year.
What’s struck me this year is that everyone is working flat out, but they often feel as if they’re running to stand still. Illness is rife, staff battle on through, but it isn’t sustainable. Initiatives that the DFE roll out seemingly without a second thought have a huge impact on primary schools, especially the smaller schools with less staff to spread the workload.
The introduction of accredited phonics schemes is a prime example of this. (Before anyone labels me a phonics denialist, I am a huge fan of phonics, taught phonics to hundreds of children myself, and have advised on accredited schemes). Research into what might suit the school best takes time, then there’s purchasing, training, and implementation, and the constant feeling that this is being done against the ticking clock of an impending Ofsted inspection, and while families and schools are facing a huge financial crisis. Many heads who had made decisions based on the cost of schemes are now discovering the hidden costs of implementing them. “Every week it’s we need £400 for these books, or I need some release time to support x, and I just haven’t got the money to fund it.” Of course, announcing this policy after schools had set their budgets, in the middle of the Covid crisis was hardly conducive to leaders making the best decisions and many seem to be experiencing buyers’ regret.
Communities that never really had the time to recover from covid are feeling the pressure of “catch up” but can’t afford to take up some of the initiatives such as tutoring because the increase in energy costs and staffing costs following the unfunded pay rise has put them into a financial mess.
More than ever before schools are having to step in to support families where other services have disappeared. Lots of schools I visit have whole rooms dedicated to food distribution for their families, and recently a head told me that for the first time ever a member of teaching staff broke down and told them that they were relying on food banks. Things are far from back to normal. Staff are tired and have had little time to catch their breath after working tirelessly through the pandemic, teaching, safeguarding, and often feeding and supporting their communities.
It would be very easy to get depressed by all this, and I’ll confess that I’ve found myself, usually ridiculously optimistic, feeling despair at the situation schools find themselves in. But there’s something about the resilience and determination in schools that gives me hope. Yes, it is getting harder every day, and it does feel like a constant battle against the very people who should be helping and supporting children and families, but crikey do staff step up.
I have been reflecting on all the conversations I’ve had so far this term, and a few things have struck me.
Time is one of the most precious commodities we have. Teachers and leaders know what they want to do, but the challenge is to find the time to make it happen. At the moment schools are being burdened with things that have no positive impact on the day-to-day lives of children but are a huge drain on staff time. The amount of time and mental space many leaders have had to dedicate to the government white paper, which was quietly scrapped last week would have been so much better spent on thinking about teaching and learning. This happens too often in education. Back-of-an-envelope announcements to grab a headline that cause disruption, anxiety, and confusion in the sector when we should be focussing on stability and continuity. If the Government could stop and think before making these announcements, that would make a huge difference.
Ditto the constant announcements and “research reviews” from Ofsted. There are things I like about the 2019 framework, and I was optimistic when we were told that teacher workload would be taken into consideration and schools would not need to do anything different for Ofsted. But the implementation in primary schools tells a different story. I’ve yet to speak to a single primary teacher who says it’s had a positive impact on their workload. The model looks like it would work well in secondary schools where there are subject-specialists, sometimes with whole departments of teachers. But in a primary school where teachers have a full-time teaching commitment and usually several subjects to lead, the workload is untenable and has caused many great teachers (and heads) to decide that they’ve had enough. We need an urgent review of the purpose of Ofsted, as it seems to now be driving curriculum development, rather than inspecting quality in schools. Primary schools are not mini-secondary schools, early years is not mini-primary. It’s time to inspect EY against the EY framework and devise separate frameworks for Special and Primary schools, and those inspecting should be experienced in leading the phase they’re inspecting. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Ofsted could stop writing ideological research reviews and spend the time writing phase-specific frameworks instead. That would help everyone, including children, which is, after all, what it’s all about.
In the meantime, an effective risk assessment process to focus on inspecting schools where there are complaints or safeguarding issues, or those which haven’t had an inspection for more than a decade, and operating a safeguarding check for all other schools would give everyone the breathing space they need to spend time carefully building and crafting and implementing a world-class curriculum. At the moment, everyone feels that everything has to be absolutely perfect, and this is just not possible, but it also leads to anxiety about making tweaks and changing things that aren’t quite right. The high stakes around a “deep dive” lead to a huge amount of fear and people don’t make the best decisions when they’re fearful.
I’m aware I’m shouting into the wind, and all of my musings are pure fantasy. I do like a bit of possibility thinking though, and if anyone from the DFE or Ofsted fancies a chat, I’m always up for that. But in the meantime, in the real world, is there anything we can do?
I’m in performance management mode, I’ve advised on 15 headteacher appraisals so far this term with 3 more to go next week, and setting a target around their own professional development is always the one heads find most challenging. There’s so much to do in a school that sometimes heads feel that it’s indulgent to focus on their own needs. But how would a head respond if a teacher said they didn’t need any professional development? It’s essential that we all make time for our own professional needs so that we can serve the whole community and maintain our professional energy. But CPD can be very costly and time-consuming. Lots of people report that they don’t want to take on some of the free national programmes which are available because they don’t have the time and capacity for the workload involved. I’m aware that I’m probably shooting myself in the foot, as some of my income comes from providing CPD, but I’ve recently been facilitating online book groups, drop-in sessions for schools, clusters, and discussion groups for teachers and leaders, no agenda, not training, just talking, and it’s really made me think and reflect. People tell me they find it so helpful just to talk to fellow professionals and share ideas.
I suggest that people who feel they can’t take on another commitment such as a qualification or course, take the time they would have taken to complete them and use it to visit other schools, meet with fellow leaders, join a professional group, read a book about teaching or leadership, to speak with a coach or mentor or colleague and just take time to think. Block it in the diary as CPD. If they can offer this to their teachers too, all the better. Just because it isn’t an accredited qualification or a course, it doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. In fact, it’s doing the most valuable thing of all, taking time to think and reflect so that strategic decisions are well-informed and will serve the school and community well. I know it’s something that has been sidelined due to all the things currently going on in school, but I also think it’s essential we all make time to do this if we’re not to burn out. (I intend to take my own medicine next term!) If the DFE and Ofsted aren’t currently helping schools with their actions, then leaders and teachers need time to think about how they can help each other and themselves to navigate these difficult times and still come out smiling. There’s nothing selfish about that.