Coronavirus: Meet the head putting retirement on hold

In March, after 16 years leading a Glasgow secondary, Ian Anderson was winding down to retirement – but coronavirus put paid to that

Ian Anderson

Coronavirus: Meet the head putting his retirement on hold

It is a word that, when used as frequently it has been in the context of our current circumstances, is tellingly and chillingly accurate. That word is, of course, “unprecedented”.

The decision to close every school in the country with effect from Friday 20 March brought home the full force of what “unprecedented” really means. In our schools, we had indeed never seen anything like this.

Burst pipes, boiler failure – snow days, even. All have closed schools in the past, but never before had we all left our schools on that Friday afternoon without knowing at all when we would return. The thought that it might not be until after the still-distant summer holidays had the power to baffle and shock.


Background: Scotland's schools to close this week

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Standing outside our school at the end of that particular Friday, as I always try to do in order to see the students off, I detected no excitement or jubilation at the prospect of a possible five-month break from school. Rather, as they all left, they seemed to me to be pensive and subdued.

Not long before the closure of our schools was announced, I had submitted the relevant paperwork that would allow me to retire at the end of June, after 16 years as headteacher. As a result, I had envisaged something like a three-month period between the announcement of my retirement and my own final day in school.

This would be a period in which I might make the psychological adjustment in relation to what I knew would be one of the most significant transitions in my life. However, the news of country-wide school closures provided only two days’ notice and a whole new context and set of priorities snapped into focus.

We brought forward the date of our annual leavers’ assembly and I spoke to all S6 students on the Thursday before closure, surprising myself at the power of the emotions I was feeling when I mentioned my 16 years in post and the fact that, given the circumstances, I might not see them again.

I held assemblies with all of the other year groups on the Friday and even took an impromptu staff meeting during the lunch break to thank them for all of their efforts and to try to brief them about expectations during the period of school closure. Some of them asked questions about what lay ahead and, again, the full force of “unprecedented” made itself felt.

If I had had those three months, I might have been better able fully to place in context the many experiences of those 16 years – from all the day-to-day stuff that characterises the role of a headteacher to all the other special events and happenings that make school life so rich.

However, any sadness I might feel at the effect that the closure of schools has had upon the experience of all staff who are due to retire in June is insignificant in comparison with the sadness I feel for those others who were about to experience their own significant transition.

First, P7 pupils have lost their final summer term, when what is a time of trepidation and excitement is marked by events and ceremonies specifically designed to commemorate this important rite of passage. Second, the hastily arranged leavers’ assembly at which I spoke to our S6 students on the Thursday before closure was the only means by which we were able to mark this equally significant transition. It is a matter of regret that we could not have done more, although everyone is fully aware and supportive of the reasons why it has to be this way.

Once the period of closure had begun, I started a vlog in an attempt to keep in touch with the school community through a series of light-hearted episodes called Keep The Flame Burning, a reference to the school’s motto since its inception in 1875: Alere Flammam (Feed the Flame).

In my 16 years as headteacher, my main focus has been on the building of something that might reasonably warrant the description of “community”. I realise that there can be a lot of lip-service paid to this sort of thing and that the creation of a genuine school community often remains an aspiration rather than a reality.

However, while our school – one of the most diverse secondaries in Scotland – is far from perfect,  I believe that it is characterised by the existence of a network of inclusive, positive relationships among those who work and learn there.

I realised at once that, even in the context of a closed school, I needed to try to do via YouTube a version of what I might find myself doing as I walked around the corridors or visited the classrooms and learning spaces of our school. It is also an attempt to reinforce that concept of a community based on a conviction that laughter is sometimes the best medicine.

Finally, a twist in the tale. As soon as the scale and impact of the pandemic became clear, I offered to postpone my retirement. In light of the fact that it would no longer be possible to hold any recruitment interviews, I have been asked if I will postpone until the October holidays and I have accepted. All being well – and I mean that literally – I’ll get the chance to welcome our new intake students and to see all of the other students and staff who make up our school community.

Unprecedented, indeed.

Ian Anderson is the headteacher of Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow

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