'There is a growing air of militancy in our schools'

School leaders are frustrated at their lack of freedom – mass disobedience will be hard to contain, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: School leaders are frustrated at their lack of power to make decisions about moving to online learning just before the Christmas holidays, says Geoff Barton

If you’re a trust leader, a headteacher or a governor, you’d be forgiven for ending this week asking a pretty fundamental question about your role: who knows best how to run your school?

The question was crystallised in a decision made by colleagues at the Focus Trust, who this week found themselves on the receiving end of the government’s insistence that schools must relentlessly plough on to the end of term, no matter how grim the circumstances.

The trust had planned to close its 15 schools in the North West of England and West Yorkshire a week early for Christmas, because of concerns of rising coronavirus cases in the community it serves. The aim was to safeguard staff and pupils and protect precious family time together over Christmas.

But the Department for Education waved away the supposed autonomy, which was a founding principle of academisation, and reached for the big stick of its powers under the Coronavirus Act to force the trust to back down and stay open until 18 December.

Coronavirus: School leaders left powerless

Lest anyone was still in any doubt about the government’s position, this display of muscle-flexing was followed up by a stern statement in the government’s new winter Covid plan, forbidding schools from closing early and parents from withdrawing their children.

All of this was delivered without any apparent understanding of the bleak reality of what is actually happening in schools, even though this is all too apparent in the Department for Education’s own statistics. Attendance fell to 83 per cent last week. Nearly three-quarters of secondaries and 29 per cent of primaries had to send children home to self-isolate. One in 10 children was at home, rather than in school.

Those are the statistics. But the detail of what this means on the ground is vividly and starkly filled in by many of the messages we receive at ASCL from school leaders. Here’s a sample.

Telling staff and pupils that Christmas is cancelled

  • “Many schools, like my own, are scheduled to close for the holiday on Friday 18 December. Many headteachers, myself most certainly included, have become accustomed to spending a proportion of their week and their weekends in implementing the consequences of the positive Covid-19 test results that continue to arrive. Many of us, surely, would be entirely unsurprised if that last week and the first weekend of the Christmas holiday were no different. We would, in practical terms, devote part of that time to identifying close contacts and instructing them to begin 14 days of self-isolation. This is exactly what I did 84 times last week and 85 times the week before that. Were I to do this on 19 and 20 December – or indeed at any point in the last week of term – I would be issuing notices to ruin a multitude of family Christmases."
  • “As it currently stands, we will almost certainly be telling some families that their child needs to isolate for 14 days, and this will include Christmas. The really interesting thing is whether families will adhere to that – I suspect some will not, and so we will have infections spreading wider as a consequence.”
  • “We currently have over 400 students self-isolating: all of Year 10 and 11, two classes of Year 9, several other students and three members of staff. This is not atypical of how our term has been so far. Already students and staff are anxious, and when SLT go into classrooms they know it is to deliver the news that they need to go home and self-isolate for 14 days.  How can we be expected to do this in the last week of term? Given the national plans to save Christmas, I could be in a position of telling more than 400 people that, in fact, their Christmas or family plans over the holiday are cancelled.”
  • “On a day when there has been much written about households joining for Christmas, I know many of my staff, students and their families are worried that they will miss out on this opportunity as a result of having to isolate if they are identified as a close contact in school. Being told to isolate at any time is challenging for students, staff and their families. We believe that doing it over the Christmas period, and eliminating the opportunity to see loved ones, would be especially difficult.”
  • "My deputy head and I spent five hours on Sunday dealing with the fallout of contact tracing for three positive cases (90 students). Not to mention some of the abuse we had to endure at the end of a phone. I cannot imagine having to do this over the holidays. And what about our staff? Yesterday I had to tell three staff members to self-isolate, because the positive case had been in the front row, less than two metres away. They, too, are terrified of infecting vulnerable family members, many of whom they have not seen in a long time.”

A growing air of frustrated militancy

Ministers should take note of the strength of feeling here. Schools have gone above and beyond the call of duty to fulfil the government’s commitment of full reopening. And they have done so despite spiralling infection rates and serious shortcomings in the Covid testing system and public health advice they were promised.

The least the government can now do is to take seriously the concerns of school leaders, and allow them the flexibility to move to full or partial online learning during the last week of term if they feel that is necessary, on the basis of their knowledge of the circumstances they face. 

Similarly, if moving planned training days from the spring term to the last week of term would help teachers to plan better for the spike in infections we anticipate in January, then, again, shouldn’t that be a decision for leaders to make with their governors?

After all, ministers and civil servants do not possess such local knowledge. They are at least one step removed from the reality of what the situation is for those who actually work in schools. They should have more respect for the views of staff on the frontline. And their words either of support or condemnation from Whitehall and its regional outposts increasingly won’t cut it. 

Our education system was once celebrated by ministers for its unprecedented freedom, faith in local leaders and principled autonomy. We give those qualities up at our peril. 

Officials and ministers in their distant offices need to heed the warning signs. There is a growing air of frustrated militancy. And mass disobedience will be hard to contain.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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