Even before the coronavirus crisis, Woodside High School has been a frontline mental health, housing and social support service for years.
Staff have made phone calls to housing associations on behalf of families, taken students to hospital, held their hands and advocated for them, provided families with mentoring and family support, legal research and guidance, bought them food, clothes, shoes, school bags, stationery and sanitary products.
Now, instead of being a foodbank-voucher supplier, we have become a foodbank ourselves. I have had to ask my staff if they can buy food and essentials for our families. And, as stressed and anxious as they are, they have leapt to help, plundering their own cupboards because there are not enough products on the shelves to buy.
It may sound overly dramatic to say that we are a frontline service, but that is the truth. Because you cannot – absolutely cannot – walk away from a scared, hungry and desperate child looking at you asking for help.
The coronavirus emergency
Our students are not abstract numbers or statistics to us. They are our students – our precious students – and we are truly scared for them.
This afternoon, in the midst of this global pandemic, I received the news that one of our Year 11 students had been stabbed in the local area. Only moments later, a Year 10 student disclosed that she had been thrown out of home and had nowhere to stay.
I was dealing with all of this, while also collapsing timetables in order to cover for 30 teachers – a number that is growing every day. Heads are trying to navigate all the uncertainty and make the best decisions possible for their communities.
But I am not a virologist or a public health specialist. I am a geography teacher by trade. Little did I know, when I did my teacher training, that I would also end up being so involved in providing wider public services.
Making decisions that could risk people's lives
Schools are already at breaking point. We are being put under enormous strain, and I am being asked by the 1,200 students in my charge, the 200-plus members of staff I have responsibility for and our wider community members to make decisions that could risk people’s lives.
Heads are finding themselves in the position of having to weigh up the danger and risk to highly vulnerable students and families, who would undoubtedly be in a genuinely desperate situation if the school were to close, with the responsibility we have to our staff and community broadly, risking the spread of the pandemic further.
Covid-19 is a society issue, not just a health issue. Schools provide so much more than teaching.
Years of austerity measures and funding cuts have already turned schools into spaces that provide mental health support, childcare, social care, housing support and financial support. Shutting schools will have a huge impact on the most vulnerable in society.
I have been asked many times this week whether I think schools should shut. I don’t think it’s a fair question. If I had the choice, I would go back in time and ensure that public services were properly invested in: mental health support, social services, housing.
Sadly, I cannot go back in time, however much I wish I could. So we continue firefighting, responding to the crisis of the moment, whether that is a global pandemic or an 11-year-old who has just told me he is being abused.
Selflessly putting the needs of children first
The staff at Woodside High School are genuinely remarkable, doing far more than I have a right to expect.
Right now, not only are they suppressing their fears for their own safety and the welfare of their loved ones, but they are also selflessly putting the needs of our children first. They are trying to calm worried children, to create engaging learning resources, to keep spirits up across the school and, oh yes, to teach amazing lessons.
I sent out an email at 8pm last night asking staff if they could consider buying food for our own foodbank. By 7am this morning, my office was full. We are all just trying to do the best we can, because walking away from the students who need us simply isn’t an option.
But we need help. Help from those in power, help in the form of emergency funding to cover crisis interventions we have had to implement (the cost of emergency cover teachers for one).
We looked into how much it would cost to provide text and workbooks for one year group in just English, maths and science: £15,000. We don’t have that kind of money.
Short and long term, we need money. Not just a temporary injection of funds to calm public fear and anger, but a long-term, meaningful investment in public services across the board.
People are already dying, not just of Covid-19, but from social injustice.
Gerry Robinson is headteacher of Woodside High School in North London