The pandemic has taken its toll on school leaders, who have frequently been left to fill in the yawning gaps left by a government they no longer trust, says Vic Goddard
Leading a school through a pandemic is hard. What’s been missing for me is the routine. It’s been so disjointed and I’ve never found the “off” button. I’ve felt obliged – from the moment I wake up to the moment I close my eyes – to stay on top of stuff, to read things, to check emails, to respond, because I’m worried and I’m anxious.
I know that I’m trusted by my community; I’m not struggling to take staff with me because they’re with me already. But it’s been the size of the responsibility and also the relentless nature of it that’s been hard to handle.
Then there’s been the government. When you’re in relationship in which trust is broken, it’s tiring. And that’s where we are with the government now. We’re in a relationship in which trust is damaged and it’s not one way: they don’t trust us and we definitely don’t trust them. That means that we’re always on edge.
I constantly worry that I’m not on top of it. I constantly feel that I could be letting somebody down. In the past, if you let somebody down as a school leader, it might mean that they had to work a bit longer or something wasn’t as convenient. But now, when you’re letting somebody down, you’re putting their family at risk.
Covid: The relentless pressure on school leaders
I’m a PE teacher – I’m not a medical professional, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a health and safety expert. But all of a sudden, I’m making health and safety decisions that need to be right. They can’t just be sort-of right, because people are trusting you with their lives. And that feels really different. It’s been that way for a year now.
We announced that we were closing 24 hours before the government announced the first lockdown but, since the moment they did, we’ve never been ahead of the curve. We’ve always been behind it, always chasing information, always chasing clarity.
Our staff trust me and my co-principal because we’ve always been honest. But that puts even more pressure on us to get it right because that trust will go very quickly the moment they see us not putting their point of view across, and not speaking up for them and not considering the impact on their families.
All we could do was to over-communicate, and say, “OK, this is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing it, this is the rationale”. I’ve thrown so much information out to the community to show them the thinking behind why we’ve done something; I feel that’s been missing from national leadership, so have overcompensated locally. I think lots of schools have done that.
I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve not made anybody happy over the past 12 months. Whatever decision I had to take, somebody was going to disagree. And it has been traumatic.
I’ve never had more conversations with people of my age – headteachers in their fifties – saying that they wanted to start working their way out of this. I’ve had pension conversations; for the first time ever, I’ve thought about how I could work part time. And that’s not because any of us are falling out of love with the job, it’s just that you look around and realise that the pressure isn’t going away. Now it’s “you’ve got to catch them up”, but we can’t make 12 months up just like that.
It’s going to take its toll at some point. We just want to be able to do our jobs without worrying about what we haven’t been told. But it’s a relief now to be back in school because that’s the best bit of the job again; I’m not just left with the crap bits.
Vic Goddard is co-principal of Passmores Academy in Harlow, Essex
This article originally appeared in the 19 March 2021 issue under the headline “For the past year, there has been no ‘off’ switch”