I remember when I was a young Head of Faculty handing a letter into the office manager for typing. She looked at it and then at me over the top of her glasses and said “This isn’t what you want; what is the problem you are trying to solve?” I told her. “Right then, let’s keep it simple and address that one, shall we?” She rewrote my letter. It was short and superb and did the trick.
I have often found that when I am trying to solve a problem I get it muddled up with other issues. This is particularly true when under pressure and when the problem I’m solving appears to be just a small part of a bigger issue. I guess all school timetablers will recognise this! I have often been guilty of trying to fit the annoying bit at the margins into the boxes to make ‘the whole’ neater and easier to operate. Similarly I have on occasions tried to make parents and families use systems that suit what we already easily provide rather than change our provision, because I haven’t taken time to analyse the problem. It inevitably causes more problems in the medium and long term.
Privately Headteachers are very, very angry at the moment – not because they don’t wish to serve at this time of national crisis, but because it makes little sense. Frustrations include being expected to place themselves, their staff and families at risk for an unpredictable small amount of children of key workers; expectations of providing for ‘vulnerable children’ and their placement out of stable environment and social distancing rules, when they would not normally be in school anyway during holiday periods; being told they don’t need PPE when dealing with children who require personal care etc etc. This list goes on and on and some of the instances are quite harrowing.
I am in the fortunate position of not being operationally responsible for anything other than my own family currently and it has given me the space others don’t have to reflect. I have concluded that the problems and frustrations school leaders are encountering are largely because no-one in government took time to properly analyse the problem they wanted solving. There was a mental leap from ‘children of key workers need looking after’ and ‘children at risk need checking on’ to ‘well, we can keep schools open for that’. Because we have schools and they can do this; it is what we know and it appears simple. However, when we leap to the simple solution without really analysing what is needed we cause many problems, and this is where we are at now. Maybe it is time to look at what the problems are that we are trying to solve and begin to adjust the provision to them.
For what it is worth, this is how I see it:
NECESSITY: Social distancing means schools must close.
* Key workers need childcare during the crisis.
* Children at risk need regular ‘eyes on’.
* Families of children with complex needs require support
* Families in poverty need support feeding their children
Each of these problems requires a response, but not simply ‘schools will stay open’, because each of them requires a different response. Giving key workers the childcare they require during a time of increasing and longer shifts is not best solved by keeping schools open; surely a designated, safe facility near each hospital is a more practical solution? Collaborative planning for such facilities from LAs and MATs will deliver results here. Children ‘at risk’ require professional ‘eyes on’ and this is not best done by them being required to attend school; they are the least likely to be sent in anyway! This is a problem that requires a social care response. Feeding the hungry is not simply a matter of FSM – this requires a co-ordinated response from govt for longer than the duration of the crisis, and the mess and confusion over the recent FSM logistics has highlighted this. Support for families of children with complex needs is not best addressed by putting school staff and families at risk through demanding schools stay open; this requires health, social care and education looking at what support families need to operate during this time of social distancing which minimises the risk to everybody.
A wise experienced headteacher said to me privately “This is the wider problem of schools being the prop for all the other under-funded services”. That is probably true, but we won’t sensibly address any problems unless we actually understand what they are, disentangle them and develop safe solutions which are fit for purpose.
Headteachers and all their staff are heroes at the moment. We need to keep them safe and we need to enable them to plan for addressing the educational priorities.
Has there been any comparison of how the different educational governance structures within the UK have affected implementation? As a simple example, I know schools in some areas were issued with key worker listings that were divided into three different categories, so LAs could start by providing for frontline NHS workers, and once that was sorted out move on to the next category. Some jurisdictions set up area hubs very quickly. In other places, it seems individual schools were given a long list and expected to cope with it tby themselves.
Now, let’s hear Gavin Williamson speak up for schools! He been very silent…