Headteachers 'feel like they are in the trenches'

'Horrendous' changing government advice has compounded the pressures of the coronavirus crisis, say school leaders

Catherine Lough

Coronavirus: Headteachers 'feel like they are in the trenches', warn school leaders

Headteachers have warned that they feel as though they are "in the trenches" and that Ofsted grades and school league tables are pitting schools against one another.

That was the view of the Headteachers' Roundtable group of school leaders at a recent meeting that discussed the demands of their jobs during the coronavirus outbreak.

Responses from school leaders about what needed to change focused "overwhelmingly" on accountability systems.

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Ros McMullen, a founding member of the Headteachers' Roundtable, told Tes: "A lot of heads are feeling exhausted. They feel very much on the front line, and they don't necessarily have all the support networks that they would like in an ideal world to have around them.

Coronavirus: The pressure on school leaders

"A lot of people haven't had a February half-term, they haven't had an Easter holiday, they haven't had a May half-term because they have been working, planning, supporting all the way through that."

Asked by the group about what needed to be stopped, what needed to change and what heads needed to start doing, one school leader said: “Ofsted grades and league tables simply pit local schools against each other when we should be collaborating for the common good.

“They create a system of competition, selection, and segregation. All children, all schools and all staff (including leaders) should be valued. If we are to tackle inequality, these key aspects need to be stopped.”

A large number of responses also focused on the exams system and the impact of high-stakes testing on staff and pupils.

“No other profession is judged in this way – it’s insulting, demoralising and exhausting for all involved, including the children," one head reported.

Inconsistent government guidance during the coronavirus outbreak had added to pressures, the heads said.

We need constant DfE updates stopped – each one is a sign that the original document was not well written or poorly planned. Each one costs schools time, which affects wellbeing and has a monetary value," one headteacher said.

"Each change that takes a school one hour costs the system 8,000 working days better spent on educating children.”

Many school leaders also commented that schools were expected to plug the gaps for wider societal issues. Many heads were aware of how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, schools have become the last available resource for families who are struggling. 

One head commented that schools had become a "sticking plaster" for society, adding: "How can it be that the closure of schools has led to so many social problems? The social care sector needs some serious investment and this would enable schools to get back to focusing much more on teaching and learning.”

Ms McMullen said the expectations put on headteachers in the face of "all this horrendous changing advice from government has really been an enormous strain on heads".

One chief executive of an academy trust had planned how to reopen primary schools and found their plans derailed after the government announced that pupils could not be brought back by rotas, she said.

"For a long time heads have been aware of cuts to other services, but this crisis has really, really brought that into very sharp focus," Ms McMullen added. "There is real, genuine concern now about how we are going to support children, some of whom will have been quite traumatised."

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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