No one goes into school leadership for an easy life. The irreconcilable demands of government, Ofsted, financial constraints and (whisper it) parents are familiar seas for us, if sometimes choppy ones. Usually we can chart a course by fixing our eyes on children’s best interests; that can even be a more reliable guide than anything else, if we have the courage to rely on it.
In a few days’ time however, headteachers face a decision where even those best interests are up for debate. We are asked to step up, living symbols of society’s return towards normality, by reopening our schools. Are we, our pupils and our colleagues, the green shoots of recovery or canaries in the coalmine? It depends who you ask.
The government is confident it is safe, although it won’t confirm so until three days before. It issued a new piece of guidance for schools every day for a week and as the advice evolved, many early plans had to be abandoned, hours of work and worry wasted. The expectations were still changing on working day five of the 10 between announcement and opening.
Teacher unions are far from that confidence, although they express their reservations with varying degrees of menace. Schools whose more considered plans had made it as far as the weekend saw them thrown into doubt by the threat of there not being enough teachers both able to work and willing to act against union advice.
And then the rest: unions are supported in their doubts by no less a body than the BMA; Steve Chalke, leader of the Oasis academy chain, brands reluctance to open a middle-class luxury; Michael Gove, whose innovations when Education Secretary still cast a shadow for some in the profession, suggests that to question opening is to shirk one’s professional duty. Despite support from many parents and governing bodies, there is a risk this could turn nasty.
Examples are traded of countries that have returned successfully, or that have ruled returning out, of R (infection rate) numbers rising and falling, while social media turns the resulting snowstorm of pressures into a blizzard. And the days tick by.
Small wonder that schools who ask parents whether their children are coming back get a mixed response. Parents want to know what the plans are before they decide — if it’s too odd or unsafe, maybe better to keep them at home? Schools, meanwhile, need to know how many children are coming so we can plan.
The issues are human and practical: how many desks will fit into a classroom (nearer eight than 15, if we are to maintain social distancing)? Can we manage without staff at home with their own children or worried about family who are vulnerable? Can we sustain the quality of online teaching if we need to divert resources to open?
Should we provide PPE beyond the recommendations to reassure the adults, or will that only scare the children? How late can we leave it to confirm the plans? The one area of consensus is that this is a long-term challenge and not a matter of a couple of months.
The Prime Minister trusts the common sense of the British people to make complex lockdown guidance work. If only the professionalism of school leaders were afforded the same trust. Schools will reopen — and they will do so with our enthusiastic hard work and support; we have the experience and determination to make it so.
But allow us to fine-tune the process and it can happen with calm, practical cheerfulness – exactly the attitude we will see modelled by the children when they return.
Patrick Moriarty is headteacher of JCoSS and Yvonne Baron headteacher of Etz Chaim