'We've got difficult decisions, with no right answers'

Heads are having to make tough judgement calls in response to coronavirus - with unclear guidance, says Michael Tidd

Coronavirus: School headteachers are faced with tough choices, says Michael Tidd

As I drove to work on Friday morning, I found myself thinking, "This is why you hear of so many headteachers having heart attacks."

The job has stresses, just as any job in a school does, but the real moments of anxiety are when difficult decisions have to made, often quickly, often with no right answers, and often with significant consequences for staff or pupils.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a patch on the life-or-death decisions made in some other professions, I’m sure.

But, on Friday morning, heads were left to make decisions about which children should be entitled to join the risky social mix in school and which should be left at home. It was inevitable that someone somewhere wouldn’t be happy with the outcomes.  

The past week or two has been filled with such decisions. Strangely, the worries of a fortnight ago seem to pale in comparison to this weekend’s. And so I fear it will be the same again when we look back in a couple of weeks’ time. 

Coronavirus: Growing pressure on headteachers

When we returned after half-term, my big worries were about queues for the sinks at lunchtime. Then it was dealing with the complaints that children’s hands were sore because they were washing too much, or that our soap was too abrasive, or that alcohol gel was a hazard – lest a Year 6 pupil suddenly down a half-pint of the stuff.

This week, the decisions were about how to make sure that vulnerable staff weren’t put in a position where their lives – or those of their loved ones – were at risk.

It was about which parents were genuinely in need of last-resort childcare while they put their own lives on the line to battle against coronavirus, and which were just hoping not to have to look after their own children.

And, among it all, are the very real stories of the trials that parents will face. Families who cannot afford to give up the vital day shift as a cleaner or delivering parcels on a zero-hours contract.

All weighed up against the need to minimise the number of people we have circulating in a school, to prevent the further spread of a virus that will affect our nation in the long term.

Contradictory messages

None of it is helped by unclear guidance from government, contradictory messages from the prime minister, simplistic arguments on breakfast television and the ongoing need to keep running a school all the while. And all of it out of date by the time the whole thing comes into play.

The decisions that schools, teachers and leaders made on Friday – at the end of a long week – were made in a completely different time from the one in which we find ourselves now. 

On Thursday night, Boris Johnson was telling us that the tide would be turned within 12 weeks; by Sunday evening pubs and clubs had been forcibly closed. 

On Friday, schools were given a long list of pupils to admit, which seemed to include those of bank cashiers and call-centre operators; by Saturday night, the education secretary was advising as many people as possible to keep their children at home.

The one saving grace of the whole thing has been school staff. Near enough every headteacher I’ve spoken to has said the same things: "I’ve hardly had any sleep." "I’m anxious about my decisions." "I’ve had to deal with some upset parents – but my staff have been amazing." 

Thank goodness for the army of teachers, TAs, office and premises staff, all keen to do their bit. Headteachers – and the nation – owe them our thanks.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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