'We're all weary from weariness...but there is hope'

Although this half-term has been bleak and relentless, teachers are focusing on their moral purpose, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: This half-term in schools has been bleak and relentless - but a sense of moral purpose is giving teachers strength, says Geoff Barton

I’m about to use a phrase that my teenage self would never have imagined my older self using. I can visualise young Geoffrey wincing in embarrassed disbelief.

Here goes. 

In the words of Barry Manilow (yes, that’s it): “Looks like we made it.

Or, more strictly, it looks like you made it.

Because, after the sudden closure of schools and colleges way back in March, as well as debacles over free school meal vouchers and laptops for disadvantaged pupils, summer-term teaching for priority pupils, blended learning, not to mention the A-level fiasco, the GCSE fiasco, those endless hours of risk assessments, bubble creation, on-hold phone calls to public health officials….after all that and more, you’ve made it.

If you work in a school, in a college, in a pupil-referral unit, or in any other kind of educational institution, you may just have arrived at a half-term holiday at the end of weeks like no other weeks, the like of which nothing prepared you for, with the prospect now perhaps of a bit of time off.

Coronavirus: The personal cost to teachers

So, first things first: well done.

Because, as we know, leadership often comes at a personal cost, with the art of public confidence masking private doubt. As Harold Wilson taught us: "Courage is the art of being the only one who knows you're scared to death." 

And I know from many of the emails I receive each day from members of my union, ASCL, that these have been weeks of anxiety and frustration, of exhaustion and sometimes despair. Of feeling scared to death.

Most evenings these days I spend an hour or so reading emails like this one:

“I am about to enter my fifth year of headship. I am driven by a moral purpose to improve the life chances of young people. I am working 16-hour days. I have the stamina for that and the work ethic, so I am not complaining about that. What needs to be done needs to be done. I have a lot to give and I love my job, but I have just about had enough. I left work on Friday thinking: enough is enough. I am close to saying – that's it.” 

There are dozens, indeed hundreds, of messages like that, many of them bleaker and starker.

The frustrations these correspondents outline are legion and recurring: dealing with the anxieties of staff, pupils and parents; not knowing what will happen around examinations next summer or Ofsted inspections from January; whether the burgeoning costs of Covid cover will be reimbursed; and the inconsistency of responses from the test-and-trace helpline, which swerve from the helpful to the hapless. 

Everyone's exhausted

Thus the staff in our schools – teachers, leaders and all other staff – are weary from weariness, and battered by the pervasive collective anxiety of a fractious nation.

That’s why we all need to grab some kind of break if we can.

And yet, and yet… 

Amid so many messages of gloom, I am increasingly noticing something else. 

Everyone who contacts me feels guilty for offloading: this isn’t what they would normally do, they remind me. They know that leadership is tough, that we suppress those inner butterflies beneath our outward displays of confidence. They know that in leadership you often win few friends but stick to your principles. They know the loneliness and insecurity. 

But in their messages they also increasingly mentioning the moral purpose of the job they are doing, the reason they stepped from their previous role into senior leadership, stumbling across reasons to be cheerful: the funny comments of children, the extraordinary and understated adaptability of teachers, the underlying mission of an older generation doing its best to help a younger generation navigate a way through all this.

All of which should give us a welcome half-term glimmer of optimism. 

A renewed sense of social mission

Young people across our schools and colleges are generally doing us proud, exuding resilience, mostly laughing and smiling with the buoyancy of youth, perhaps even appreciating education more than in the past.

Our teachers and other staff are tangibly making these most abnormal of times feel as normal as they can be.

And our leaders are exuding a form of community leadership, of grindingly resilient leadership, of optimistic leadership that is in woefully short supply elsewhere, especially on the national stage

This half-term, we’ll perhaps be able to regroup and look to the bigger picture, reflecting on what we’ve learned about our education system from the Covid crisis, and how we make it better, with a renewed sense of social mission. 

It’s time to create schools and colleges that work for everyone, that recognise the importance of head, hand and heart. It’s time to dismantle the inherent snobbery of a curriculum offer that too often marginalises people helping people, or people making things. It’s time, also, to focus on the forgotten third, those young people who, after 12 years of education, are let down by a byzantine qualification system that denies them the dignity of achievement.

And through that process, schools and colleges will be playing their part, in a form of educational renewal, so interwoven with a much-needed renewal of our wider communities.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks puts it: “We need to remember that societies are strong when they care for the weak. They are rich when they care for the poor. And they are invulnerable when they care for the vulnerable. When we restore social covenant, we defeat politics of anger and recreate politics of hope.” 

So, it looks like you made it. Try to grab something of a half-term break. Then let’s build a more ambitious Covid legacy for our children and young people, wherever they live and whatever their background. 

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

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