It’s been a while since I blogged. It’s been a very odd year, time has taken on an elastic quality. Summer seems like an age away but the days seem to disappear in a blur.

At home, we’ve fallen into a new and very different pattern. I get up and take Hannah to school, usually call and fetch some pastries on the way home for Pete’s second breakfast (the first is often at 5am because he wakes up hungry), and then we proceed to go about our day until it’s time to collect Hannah again. I’m reminded again how short the school day seems when you’re not working it – I realised this on my second maternity leave which coincided with Charlie starting school. The days seemed to fly by in a blur. Yet I know how much is crammed into that day when I’m in school. It’s the same now. This morning I found myself thinking “How can it be Friday again?” on the drive back from school. Time has become elastic.

It’s very odd knowing that school life is going on around me. For the last 3 decades, my life has revolved around school timetables, with the exception of 10 months of MAT leave, there’s never been a time when I haven’t been working in, or with schools. I’m still connected to schools, I’ve been doing some online training sessions and consultations, some writing, looking at SEFs, and some Headteacher Performance Management, but all remotely, in a way that makes me feel somewhat distanced from school life.

What I do know is that Covid is still an issue in many of the schools I work in and with. Meetings have to be cancelled due to staff absence, heads can’t find cover to allow staff time to attend CPD, some have had to return to bubbles, attendance rates are dropping as infections rip through classes. It is not over. What I also know is the impact of the last 20 months has been huge, I speak to teachers and leaders every day who tell me of the challenges many families are facing as a result of covid, loss, grief, stress, poverty, and that’s before we get to the gaps in their learning as a result of 3 National lockdowns.

The other thing I know is that there is a climate of fear. Heads and teachers are hearing from others who have experienced inspection this academic year, who have been told that, “it’s business as usual” and that, “covid is no longer an excuse”, inspectors using the phrase “post- pandemic” when the reality is that we are very much mid- pandemic. There is real anxiety in primary schools. Subject leaders who have a full- time teaching commitment are highly anxious that they will, “let the school down” as they haven’t been able to observe teaching and learning in all classes due to the impact of the pandemic. Budgets have been decimated by Covid, meaning that there are even fewer opportunities to release staff for training, support, and subject leadership time. I know of one school where the head was told that although the curriculum was developing well, too little progress on curriculum had been made in the last 2 years since inspection, and not enough was embedded, therefore the school couldn’t be good. For a head in an area that has had cases significantly above the national average, who had half the staff off sick at the time of inspection, this seems neither helpful nor fair. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. Speak to any Early Years teacher or leader and you’ll find an even greater level of anxiety. A new baseline assessment, mixed messages about tracking, documentation, observation and assessment, a revised framework and new Early Learning Goals. 7 weeks into the term being asked why children aren’t all sitting at tables, and why there aren’t more whole-class activities, even though the new EYFS framework makes it abundantly clear that practitioners should make pedagogical choices based on the needs of the children, it’s no wonder people are anxious.

When you hear of an experienced teacher being observed in EYFS from behind a closed classroom door because Covid cases were high so going into the class was too risky, and being judged to require improvement, you have to wonder what those involved hope to achieve. How do we make things better for children by making the adults who care for them and educate them feel helpless, hopeless, confused, angry, and frustrated, especially after they’ve spent 20 months working their socks off to try to give children the best possible education in the most difficult circumstances?

I’m not against accountability, it’s been my job for most of the last decade to hold leaders and teachers to account in one role or another. But some seem to have lost sight of the fact that schools are staffed and led by human beings, and human beings respond to advice, support, nurture, and care than they do to being told not to make excuses and trying to second guess what a stranger wants to see.  It is possible to hold people to account with humanity, and I would argue that if we want good people to remain in the profession, we absolutely need to do this as a matter of urgency. I have lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who have told me that they can’t carry on like this, that they need to do something else in order to maintain their health and sanity. I can usually persuade people that things aren’t as bad as they seem, but I’m really struggling at the moment. I also know that life is short and precious, and if your work is making you anxious, angry, and upset, it’s likely to mean that life might be even shorter than you think.

When you are given a terminal diagnosis, it makes you reflect on your life. Have you spent it the best way? I can honestly say that I don’t have many regrets at all and neither does Pete, but one of the things we do look back on is the weekends spent doing school work when we could have been out enjoying life, and the evenings when we willed the girls to fall asleep quickly so that we could get on with some work. The sleepless nights over Ofsted and budgets all seem pretty meaningless now in the big scheme of things. Teaching gave us both a lot of joy over the years and it has been wonderful to hear from former pupils who share what an impact Pete had on them, but it wasn’t without its challenges, and that was before the pandemic and the raised expectations of the Ofsted framework, which judges a subject leader in a 2 class primary with no non-contact time and 4 subjects to lead against the same criteria as a subject leader in a huge secondary with a subject-specific degree and a whole department of specialist teachers. I worry that many people are starting to feel the toxicity of the current regime and that our retention crisis is about to get even worse.

It has been forever and only 5 minutes since Pete’s diagnosis. Time has become elastic. Back in July, we were told that Pete had a matter of weeks to live, the wonders of palliative chemotherapy mean that he has defied the odds, but we know he can’t defy them forever and the elastic will eventually snap. In the same way, it really feels like staff working in schools and settings are being stretched to breaking point, we need to speak out, before it’s too late.

12 responses to “Snap!”

  1. Tim Gallagher avatar
    Tim Gallagher

    This blog reminded me of the joys and sacrifices of my four plus decades involved in education. It turns a light on the personal versus professional tension.
    It’s difficult to have influence with the monolith called Ofsted. They seem immovable as do governments who fail to invest in children or their teachers.
    However the more folk read blogs such as this, the message here of work life balance and a cry from the heart for sense and sensibility will permeate and hopefully lead to challenge to what we’ve always done and change in favour of redress.
    You’ve shared and now your readers need to take the message to heart and act on them in whatever way they are able.

  2. Paul Garvey avatar
    Paul Garvey

    Elastic time – so true. I can’t believe it has been so long since I have been in a school. but it has been replaced by work from home. In that time we’ve moved house, but can’t find a forever home to live in! Time really is elastic. I can’t see easily into the future for us and it’s hard to imagine what you and especially Pete is going through. I hope the ‘snap’ never happens, but we all know it must. A super blog post and one that could only be written by a few people.

    Lots of love to you both Paulx

  3. Anne Gladstone avatar
    Anne Gladstone

    Such a great blog Ruth and so very true. I have no idea how you are managing to write like this in your current situation but this blog will be important to many people. Thank you and wishing you, Pete and your family much happiness in the time you have together.

  4. Chris Chivers avatar
    Chris Chivers

    Given my own experience, I could have written in similar vein, Ruth.
    Time is a precious commodity. It’s when faced with limitations within the time that you take a close look at everything that you have fitted in, often at the expense of other things. In the case of teachers and heads, often their families.
    The external fear of the stranger decision is unwarranted in the context of the past two years. This should be a developmental period, not just judgement from people who are external to the day to day needs of those in schools.
    Thoughts are with you and Pete.x

  5. Jo Clarke avatar
    Jo Clarke

    A really good read Ruth, thank you. I agree with so much that you have said. As early years lead/assistant head/full time class teacher/subject lead x 4 in a small school I feel all the things you talk about. Our children are being forgotten in the Covid kaos, these little ones are 3 and 4 years old and their play is based around making face masks in the creative area, playing in their own space and hand washing. There is little time for learning how to be together, for joy and wonder in the world around them and I am tired. I used to be passionate about fighting for these kids and their right to a childhood but my fight has been replaced by fear. Fear of ofsted, fear of not preparing them well enough for the unsuitable ridiculous curriculum of a mixed y1/2 class filled with formal learning. I was full of ambition to lead our school into the future now I just want out of teaching.

  6. Ruth Glover avatar
    Ruth Glover

    A refreshingly honest and pragmatic view in the current climate. I will take the positive messages as a good reminder about advice, support and nurture and put into practice wherever I possibly can.
    Best wishes to you both

  7. Sue Ricketts avatar
    Sue Ricketts

    You have written so eloquently what I’ve been thinking for weeks Ruth. Thank you. I am very worried about staff in our schools at the moment ????

  8. Elaine Bennett avatar
    Elaine Bennett

    Another important read Ruth. Perfectly timed and poignant. Thank you for continuing to speak up and support the sector. I am proud to stand with you. It is time for us to rise up as a sector, to challenge, to be BRAVE (see what I did there) and to start demanding better. Better for ourselves. Our children. Their colleagues. And the families we work with.

    Thank you again.
    Love, solidarity and respect to you as always.

  9. Tamsin Grimmer avatar
    Tamsin Grimmer

    Thank you for this blog Ruth. If ever there was a time for love and understanding in education and inspections it’s now. Thank you for also reminding me that I’m not going to look back and say I wish I spent more time working. I need to make sure I’m practising what I preach at home too. Sending love to you, Pete and the family xx

  10. Michelle avatar

    The problem with our vocation is that it can literally suck the life from you and leave behind a hollow husk. It’s not until you step away that you realise how much it has consumed you, affected your relationships, been the lynch pin of your life.

    Yet life is so much more.

    No career should make you feel suicidal, but headship definitely made me want to jump off a motorway bridge.

    Thankfully, the thought of my daughter meant I didn’t.
    The daughter who was at breakfast club at 7:45 ( often dropped off before it actually opened ) the daughter who was the last collected from after school club, the daughter who spent holidays in school and home life revolves around conversations of leadership and management.

    Luckily, she turned out ok: first class law degree and masters in criminology but I was often so wrapped up in my job to help teach my own child.

    Now I work 4 hours a day. I wish to god I’d been able to do this sooner. I loved my career but it absolutely swallowed me, my time and my energy, my creativity and my social life.

    I wish you healing, positivity and peace: life is so short xx

  11. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    No job should ever make people feel that life isn’t worth living. But, sadly you’re not the only person who has responded this way, I have had a few private messages from people who have told me that they’ve thought about ending it all.
    I’m glad that you found a way forward.

    I urge anyone who is feeling hopeless and helpless and that they can’t go on to seek help and support. Nothing is insurmountable and no job is worth your life. You are so much more than the job and you will find a way forward even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. Please ask for help if you are struggling.

    Please reach out for help if you need it. You matter.

  12. Carol Wallace avatar
    Carol Wallace

    Thank you for such a brilliant blog and so utterly timely. The past two years have ensured we all feel so aware that life is short but in Early Years we have the great joy and privilege of working with children at such an important time in their lives. It is usually enough to help us keep our sense of fun and optimism, especially in class. Not at the moment and I was horrified to find out how many of my fabulous colleagues want to leave. It is terribly tough this year; Ofsted looming, and their ‘unusual’ ideas about reading that I cannot see helping children learn to love to read, one of my passions, a new framework and then mixed messages, children needing time to play and explore their feelings but timetables being squeezed, and so on. None of this worry is comparable to your situation and yet you speak out for us. Thank you. My love and good wishes to you and your amazing family. Carol

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