The reality of being a leader during school reopenings

The executive headteacher of the British School in the Netherlands discusses the challenges of reopening for secondary students and why leaders must engage with one another during this tough time

Dan Worth

Leadership

As all nations grapple with the realities of emerging from lockdown and trying to restart normal life, the challenge of reopening school is one of the hardest issues.

Some nations are still to cross this rubicon but in The Netherlands, secondary school pupils have been going back for just over a week.

Paul Topping, the executive headteacher of the British School in the Netherlands, has provided more insight into this process around reopening and how he as a leader has coped during this time of huge upheaval in the latest edition of the Tes international podcast – embedded at the bottom of the page.

“I had butterflies on the first day that we opened I have to be honest – after all this planning, and we went through several models of planning...it’s a bit like starting a new year with a new cohort, that feeling of whether it’ll work, can I make adaptations when I need to; those things really came into play.”

Direct arrows in British School in the Netherlands

Adaptations and a new reality

Despite the nerves, he says that since returning, pupils have adapted well. Once the expectations were made clear to them about adhering to social distancing and following new arrival and departure rules, they have quickly adapted.

"It’s been very positive and as often happens in schools, children are very adaptable.

"Once we had brought them into the school building in a sequenced way and with the adaptations we have made to the school environment, we have found they’ve settled into the new environment very well and managing their own movement around building in ways that keeps operating within expectations."

These adaptations range from the obvious such as smaller class sizes and younger year groups staying within a  set classroom all day, through to less obvious changes such as taping off urinals to keep male pupils apart or providing bike pens where pupils can leave their bikes at a safe distance.

Urinals taped off at The British School in the Netherlands

Furthermore, they have even asked children to come into school in their PE clothing and stay in it throughout the day.

"We don’t have changing facilities that are suitable for large groups of children so we have made the decision that students who have PE must come in in PE clothing and stay in clothing through the day. It’s not ideal, but it gets around that particular problem." 

Support networks

On the podcast, Mr Topping also discusses how this process has impacted on him and on other senior staff as they manage such a delicate and important process

"It’s been a real test of leadership I have to say.

"You read the leadership books and characteristics of leadership around decision making and confidence and honesty and transparency and resilience and empathy and integrity – all of those things have been mashed together in a very condensed period of time."

"It has been very intense as both myself and other senior leaders really have been working since February when the whole thing started to appear across the world and it's been constant since then to be quite honest and they have been long days," he said.

Given this, he outlined the importance of senior leaders in international schools ensuring they turn to the relevant groups and individuals for support where possible to help during this tough time.

"Like most schools, we have a supportive governing body and governors have kept in touch with the situation over time and been very supportive with a listening ear or. words of advice and counsel."

The importance of these support networks also extends to schools communicating with one another on how they are embracing and approaching the challenges during this period to ensure they not only learn from one another but have a chance to share concerns and offload worries

"The professional community of headteachers across the Netherlands...I have been in pretty much, perhaps not daily, but twice/thrice weekly [conversations] with colleague headteachers in international schools and that network has been very important in this period," he said.

"I think the network existed already but it's certainly been reinforced in this time, as has the connections between this school and those in the UK.

"I think there is real solidarity in the profession that means in these kinds of circumstances people stand behind each other and support each other with problems and issues they are having."

Direction arrows outside at The British School in the Netherlands

Exam reform

Mr Topping also raised the issues of whether or nor the exam system that many international schools follow from the UK need to be redrafted in light of this situation.

“There has been a lot of reforms to exams in recent years that have in this particular situation have not helped the process of grading of students. But whether we can unpick those processes, I am not quite sure,” he said.

“I would like to see some kind of review of exams in their entirety coming out of this, whether that will lead to significant changes, I am not so sure, but it would certainly be an interesting discussion to engage in.”

You can listen to the complete interview below on the Tes international podcast or stream it from your preferred streaming service.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes. He tweets @danworth

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