June 19, 2024



My past often informs my present.

Just 52 years ago I was a van boy delivering sausages in County Kilburn. A shopkeeper offered us a cup of tea and Bill, the salesman/driver refused, grumpily, saying what he wanted was a decent wage.

Our prime Minister thanked the NHS for his life. We all clap and bang saucepans at 8 pm on Thursdays to show gratitude for so many poorly paid, terribly resourced, outrageously protected NHS workers. More than 30 doctors, nurses and other NHS workers have died during this UK Coronavirus crisis.

Before this pandemic I spoke with a foodbank organiser who claimed two nurses amongst the needy relying on handouts. The thanks and applause are easy.

Charities have donated thousands of meals for NHS staff and millions of pounds raised by ordinary people. Shops have donated uniforms, schools have given the kids’ goggles and flimsy plastic gloves and there are hundreds of thousands of good citizens trying to help. But when it’s over, and austerity returns, make NHS workers the last to suffer: Pay them better, don’t charge for car parking, public transport or canteen food. Just treat them a little more like we do the PM, who must now regret how disgracefully he voted down their pay rise.

Some people are saying that we will be more decent human beings after this virus passes, that we will appreciate that the key workers have shown that public service, community and humanity raises us above penny-pinching, materialism and is morally good. Will this include our cloistered decision makers or are they, like premier league footballers still clinging to their own privileged rights? MPs get subsidised food, housing and transport and are picking up a £10,000 supplement to cover the cost of working from home. Will the NHS workers usurp the fat cats in government priorities?

Terribly, the Health Minister, the Wayne Rooney of sensitive soundbite, has doubted the cause of death of NHS workers. He says some might have contracted the fatal disease outside their places of work.

Dreadfully, Matt Hancock, has also accused doctors and nurses of wasting protective clothing, masks and gloves, urging them to “use no more and no less” than they clinically require. I know of an A&E doctor who celebrated the arrival of his mask on April 2nd.

Some sort of perverse Brexit thinking, or plain incompetence, meant the UK failed 3 times to take part in the 1.5 billion euro scheme to protect against Covid-19 (Guardian 13-04-2020) despite obvious life-threatening shortages. Home Secretary Priti Patel sulked, “I’m sorry if people feel there have been PPE failings,” after the deaths of frontline NHS staff. (The Sun 11-04-2020)

The government got the pandemic preparation wrong: fess up, apologise and put it right.

Moving On

The Department for Education have requested that I write my own obituary.

Being amongst the oldest headteachers, even after a life drug and alcohol free, healthy eating and sensible exercise, I’m more likely than most of my staff to struggle with the infection.

I have other staff more at risk: teachers, site and admin.

Because the economy is going to struggle, because millions will be out of work, because we face years of economic depression the DfE suggests we can reduce these effects if the schools open again soon. The Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty says, “schools were not dangerous for children during the pandemic.” Allegedly almost half the cabinet want us to open now for all kids. They believe that we can protect staff and students by enforcing social distancing measures.

Keep the kids two metres apart in classrooms, on corridors and at lunchtime. Really?

Also, make sure we have enough hot water and soap and sanitisers. Oops, we haven’t.

The DfE (Department for Education) view is that we could welcome back the kids, teach them in tiny groups – a classroom of 8 would still compromise the “safe distancing” measure – and somehow entertain the others. Class size of 30 is common in our schools but bureaucrats think we can drop that to 8. PE lessons, science experiments and any sort of group work impossible, lunchtimes staggered across most of the day, half the parents keeping their kids at home. What would be the point?

Do they really confuse child care with teaching?

There was a time when DfE people were seconded to spend a few days in schools to see the reality and be able to sensibly advise ministers. Given that there are around 4,000 employees at the DfE send us a couple and they can childcare some classes of 8 .

Allegedly we will not need protective clothing, nor testing and if we get ill, we should be sent home.

As headteacher, I have a duty of care to the staff and I share this with the governors. Will I be willing to send staff into dangerous rooms full of kids who routinely sneeze, cough and don’t wash their hands enough? I work to improve the lives and careers of teachers and students; even though teachers have an intimate relationship with infections I never planned to make life or death choices.

Is a dead teacher expendable?

I wonder how many older teachers will now pack it in earlier than planned? This week, in a survey of 7,732 teachers, 22% doubt they will be teaching in 3 years time. (source the excellent Teacher Tapp 11-04-2020)

The government admit to having failed to reach their teacher training target in each of these years: 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.- no gaps.

The DfE forecasts an increase of 14.7% rise in student numbers by 2027. (Schoolsweek 28-11-2019)

Maybe we need to keep the teachers we have rather than say they are really child minders of the 10.2 million kids in our schools and a few (hundred?) dead ones will have little effect.

At least 10% of my teachers will not be at work if we are sent back in the next month: cv infected, family at home cv infected, high risk, just plain sick. That in itself means around 100 classes a week to be covered. And then you have to triple the number of most “supervised gatherings “ because we have to reduce class size to 8. Over 250 classes covered in each week of social distancing. Teachers covering (teaching more hours) leads to sickness and absence and more covers, and sickness….and very bored, increasingly disruptive children not learning. Cover is nearly always an unacceptable alternative.

Will the kids walk to school, in single file, not breakfast from Asda, not travel in our bus of 50 kids, not be driven by parents?

The economic and social costs of shutdown are profound and deepening every day. If I cannot keep the kids safe, the staff safe, myself safe, I’m not going to open the school. My chair of governors reads my blogs: what you going to tell me to do, Bob? Are you good at obituaries?

Now, on to our role as exam factories.

Year 6 teachers, junior heads, parents and children did not sit SATs this year. They will not be able to tell secondary school teachers what a subordinate adverbial clause of reason looks like (because they didn’t sit the SATs exams {for example})

Like the junior school heads with whom I’ve spoken, I’d abolish the endless repetition of SATs. Replace with everyone doing CATs in a day – you can’t prepare, can’t revise and, many schools do them anyway.

Then Year 6 kids can do some Drama, Art, Music, PE, talking, playing, working with peers; develop social behaviours, share inspiring literature and teach about the wonders of our world, encourage thoughts feelings and the development of resilient individuals.

Wouldn’t that be OK?

Teachers are going to be trusted to say what Year11 and Year 13 students would have achieved if they had sat numerous, intense, GCSE and A Level exams. Teachers already predict final outcomes all the time. We know what the kids have done, how much they understand and know. We are continually assessing their work and abilities. Internal reporting, assessment and moderation is a continual process.

Speed writing what you can remember from a packed curriculum, constantly revised, is not a reliable measure of ability and competence.

Or do we need exams because teachers, apparently, are not trusted?

In the days of 100% coursework in English I had to participate, and endure, lengthy moderation meetings where all 7 of us would argue over ½% points, having marked our own, then each other’s classes’ work, rank-ordered and justified the outcomes. They were tough sessions and the grades more accurately reflected what a child could achieve than 3 two hour exams. Alongside the 20 or so other sudden death, all or nothing, stressful, crammed exams. It seems to me that very little employment measures workers in such a fashion.

Teachers teach to the tests: all year, in Year 6, 10, 11, 12 and 13, at the cost of educating. Yes we do.

My school spends almost £150,000 a year on exam entries and invigilation., an accelerating, costly rush into exam terrorism.

In August 2020, Year 11 and 13 students will get grades.

Just for the doubters: schools will predict outcomes for each student in every subject and present a rank order for each subject. Ofqual will then look at the school’s previous results. They will also look at the students’ previous scores – the dreaded SATs at age 11 and will award grades in line with last year’s results.

And if that methodology is valid and properly applied, there should be very, very little difference between what the student is awarded and what they deserved.

We have a chance now for teachers to show they can be trusted: the results are not being published, there will be no league tables, no use of data by Ofsted inspectors. This is a real chance to accurately record the students’ achievements.

Once we locked down, one boy scoring level 2s and 3s in every subject, partly because he has never been bothered, emailed his teachers to say. “I was just about to start working so can you change my predicted 3 to a 7 which I feel I would easily surpass.”

Universities already dent the validity of A Level exam grades by awarding places to 25% of my students on predicted grades alone.

If we are closed for more than a few more weeks, or if the disruption last to September, Year 10 and 12 students should be judged on their classwork and predicted grades in 2021. It will be impossible to set full exams for kids who missed a term’s work.

When the students do return they should all start proper lessons as classes, with their teachers, working as students and not as child-minded children. Children will not just slip back into the required way of working. The routines will have to be recreated and we will need to help them develop lost learning and behaviour.

The gap between rich and poor is widening. The gap between those who manage to do the work set and those whose parents settled for a quieter life will be huge. The work we set has not been done at all (by 30% in my school) properly (by 30%) or with the teacher help required to make progress by who knows how many. The lockdown has been lost learning time for perhaps 75% of our children and particularly for the disadvantaged.

Only 3% of children had done all the work set according to the 6,000 teachers on Teacher Tapp a week ago. Only 22% had done more than half the work set. Kids need to be with their teachers.

My 9 year old granddaughter – angelic in school – was under her bed stropping within 40 minutes on day one of her lockdown timetable.

Not all households have a computer for each child. Not every child has academic parents able to help with schoolwork. Many parents are fully engaged, working from home and for many busy people it’s easier to let the kids play computer games – especially when the kids say they have completed the work set.

Overcrowding, homelessness, dysfunction in families forced together for unnatural periods of time, more children witnessing drug and alcohol abuse alongside a 120% rise in incidents of domestic violence (Refuge Press Release 09-04-2020). The removal of normal, physical childhood will mean that more kids will not be ready for school straight away and we will have to start anew.

We can have the chance to restart, to offer a more relevant curriculum, modelling desired behaviour, building up student workload, getting them fit, helping them develop relationships outside the family home and believing in themselves.

At all ages, it’s going to be tougher than ever when we open again and society needs motivated, respected, healthy teachers to help build for social cohesion and reclaim economic growth and prosperity.

We can do some good here.

Dennis O’Sullivan (Headteacher)

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