As the whole world heads towards the unknown, never before have schools, colleges and universities needed to be so adaptable.
We are working within a system where the goalposts are moving on an hourly basis and we are all operating in unchartered territory. We are very much aware of our civic duty, which includes continuity of learning and support for our students, yet we also need to balance this with the health and wellbeing of our staff.
On Monday, in line with the government directives, we opened all the campuses and schools within our education group to accommodate our many learners with education, health and care plans (EHCPs), those with social workers and those children whose parents are key workers.
However, as the week has progressed, the pressure that this extraordinary situation is putting on our whole organisation including staff, students and their families – has become very clear. We are caught between wanting and needing to look after our most vulnerable students, while having a duty of care to our staff and doing our best not to expose them to potentially dangerous situations.
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Now that the government has strengthened restrictions on people’s movements even further and advised everyone to stay at home (unless absolutely essential), we have reached a critical point. My college vice-principals and school headteachers have taken the decision to tell the majority of their staff not to come in. Instead, they are taking take care of the few children who are in school themselves, along with members of their management teams.
Without any protective clothing and equipment, it’s no wonder that staff are anxious about the potential harm they may come to by still coming into work. I don’t blame them. However, without permission from the government to close fully, we find ourselves in a difficult position. My staff are utterly committed to the children they look after, yet they also have their own health and that of their families to think of.
Some of our staff have also had to deal with difficult parents this week – those who are unwilling to look after their own children and want them to be in school regardless of the strong government message advising against this. Again, this is adding to the high stress levels that our staff are already under.
The local authorities have the responsibility to create emergency hubs in the event of school/college closures and we are currently in discussions about one of our campuses becoming a hub for provision across two boroughs. This is complex work, involving inter-borough planning, but will ensure that the most vulnerable children can be cared for. It also means the majority of our staff will now be able to work from home as advised, delivering online and digital learning out of harm’s way.
We very much welcome being part of this local authority emergency planning across our three boroughs, reflecting the role we play in the community.
The challenges of the situation we are facing are endless – and this includes the volume of communications we are all dealing with. Countless WhatsApp groups, Zoom meetings, triple my usual email traffic…it goes on. Principals are reaching out to one another for support and the Association of Colleges has been proactive in terms of setting up networks.
But for me, the crucial thing as we continue to move forward at pace is to concentrate on our local communities. We must focus on our civic role, which is becoming increasingly more important and working with our local authorities, who are all demonstrating impressive leadership.
We continue to support staff who are facing their own personal dilemmas and difficult choices. Like every organisation, we have colleagues on the front line, as well as in isolation and in hospital. This situation is likely to worsen before it gets better – yet there will be an end to this global pandemic and we must focus on that.
We have been absolutely blown away by the commitment staff are continuing to demonstrate for their students and the organisation. Out of every crisis will eventually come some good and I am extremely proud of my dedicated colleagues. This includes the launch of our FE Foodbank Friday, which has seen staff donating many much-needed items to local foodbanks this week.
I am sure this sense of community is being replicated at schools and colleges across the country. If we have learnt anything about ourselves this week, it’s that education is full of amazing people who are constantly trying to do their best for others. The time may have come for us to look after those closest to us, but there is no doubt that we will continue to care for staff, students and wider communities.
Sam Parrett OBE is chief executive and group principal at London South East Education Group.