School reopenings: Mental health must be a top priority

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton says that while schools may be reopening, it is mental health that must be given a key focus – for both pupils and staff

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Deep in this age of uncertainty, many of us find ourselves craving certainty, no matter how tenuous, fragile, or contrived it may be. Just let us have some certainty.

So thank you, John Lennon, for some reassurances: ‘Life will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end’.

Then we will see that we have been living through a national emergency in three acts.

Act I

This was the hasty need to close down our schools and colleges in a controlled way.

To scramble to try to get educational resources into the hands of children and families for them to learn at home, and maintain some provision for the children of key workers and those deemed vulnerable.

In this act, we saw schools stepping way beyond providing lessons, homework, and reports, and instead – to our national shame – having to serve as the community epicentre of sourcing food for our poorest families.

Act II

This phase was about managing some form of education provision at home, trying to move beyond the initial emergency-reaction phase to providing the semblance of a curriculum.

And, from where I sit, the teaching profession did its best in circumstances that exposed the disparity of IT provision.

Starkly, we saw how long-term funding cuts had left a huge disparity between schools and trusts that could seamlessly provide an online home curriculum, because it’s something they had managed to invest in, and those that couldn’t.

I hope we’ll look back and see this as a defining moment when we have to put right the growing gap between the digitally rich and digitally poor.

We need to look at what different schools and colleges are able to provide, and how we can help families without broadband, without computer access, without some basic resources for learning at home. It should be a national priority. 

I hope we’ll develop a national strategy on edtech that moves beyond a pick-n-mix of platforms, apps, and websites to some kind of national entitlement, so that every child, from every background, has access to high-quality remote learning that blends with in-school learning.

Act III

We’re now about to begin act III with the wider reopening of schools and colleges.

There’s a lot that lies ahead of us – the arguments over the science, the logistics, the likely response of parents and the wider community.

Many of our children will have lost the sense of a structured day, they will have picked up bits and pieces of information about the pandemic, and they will be frightened.

Some will have seen members of their family become very ill or die from the illness; and some will not have fared well at home, in fractured households.

Their parents too will be scared and uncertain. They will have heard scientific advice being proffered by different groups and individuals, which has felt bewilderingly inconclusive.

The numbers attending will vary widely, with many parents being cautious, and confidence taking time to build.

So, our school communities will be in a state of mind which is a long way from normal. But schools, as we know, are centres of resilience that need to be left alone for their values and routines to weave their magic.

As I’ve said before, let’s let our teachers teach.

Mental health matters

But the first big challenge is to restore a sense of wellbeing.

As teachers well know, it is very difficult to teach a child maths and English, or anything else, if they are upset, anxious, and distracted.

So, our appeal to the commentariat – that great mass of pundits who like to offer suggestions of what schools ‘should be doing’ – is to give our schools some breathing space, before suggesting this, that, or the other wacky wheeze.

And finally, there is our staff, many of whom will be reading this column, who may also be feeling anxious and unsure, having also heard various scientific views, and frequently toxic debate in the media and on social media.

Many have been working flat out since the shutdown in March, providing remote education, and staffing the emergency provision.

They may now feel trepidation, exhaustion, and, simultaneously, a sense of desperately wanting to be back in the classroom supporting the children. 

This will be a difficult mix of emotions and factors to manage.

OK not to feel OK

If you feel conflicted by this unprecedented situation, worried and uncertain about what lies ahead, and how this will all go, that is a very human reaction to an extraordinary circumstance.

There may be some tough cookies out there who will take it all in their stride, or at least give the impression of doing so. But most people will feel like you.

And we know that attending to our own mental wellbeing isn’t a matter of self-indulgence. It’s an essential part of the self-care that will strengthen our profession on behalf of the children we serve.

As act three begins, this is a time for professional generosity, compassion, and kindness.

In public life, we don’t speak enough about the importance of kindness. In these abnormal times, it is more important than ever – kindness to ourselves, and to one another.

And the best places for kindness to prevail – so that the next generation can see its significance – is in our schools and colleges.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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