Secret diary of a London headteacher: ‘it's now business as normal—no masks, no social distancing, no bubbles'

© PA School funding – Scotland

Monday September 6

As usual on the night before going back in September, I hardly sleep: a combination of worrying I’ll not hear my alarm and all the things swirling around my mind that I need to do. Today is the first of our staff Inset days and I speak about this half term’s pay review. On the one hand, teachers have had it better than most over the last 18 months, with a regular salary. On the other hand, they need to be rewarded for working on the front line. We will do whatever we can to show we appreciate all they have done and are doing.

I make it clear to staff it is now business as normal. No masks, no social distancing, no bubbles, and a return to staff and students eating lunch together. We will be bringing back school trips and making the most of London as our classroom.

I am keen to stress that while it’s important we continue to strengthen teaching, it is more important than ever that we never become an exam factory. Surely the last 18 months have taught us that a young person’s worth is more than the 10 numbers and three or four letters they get when they’re 16 and 18. Our job is to prepare them for life and making the world a better place.

The Department for Education phones to ask about our approach to Covid testing. I explain that we will be giving all our students a test to go home with on their first day back and encouraging them to take it. But policing it and keeping records of the tests is not part of the plan.

© Provided by Evening Standard (Getty Images)

Wednesday September 8

All students back today. We have almost 98 per cent attendance, which shows that school is where they want to be. Some of them have had great summers while others have  had a really tough time – things will inevitably come out over the next few weeks. It underlines again that our intake is truly comprehensive: some of the richest and most privileged young people in the city sitting in class next to some of the poorest and most under privileged.

Whole school assembly goes brilliantly, with students and staff standing shoulder to shoulder.  We’ve missed singing more than anything else over the last 18 months.

Some students are still understandably nervous and wearing masks. That’s fine, as long as they are school-branded masks. The choir due to perform in school tomorrow has been in touch to say that one of their tenors has gone down with Covid, a reminder that the virus is still here.

Thursday September 9

Over 600 parents, students and guests pack into our school hall at 7pm. Many people arrive early and stay well past 11pm. It’s a carnival atmosphere and great to see everyone joining in, singing and dancing to Tom Jones’ Delilah at the end. Covid definitely hasn’t gone away but tonight seems just what the doctor ordered.

Our young people have suffered, but Covid has also made them gutsy, gritty and determined

There will probably be a spike in cases after this but we just have to get on with our lives now and learn to live with the C-word. Our young people have had enough disruption and this is the general consensus, even among the most risk-averse heads that I speak to.  Everyone wants to avoid another lockdown at all costs.

Wednesday September 15

Have afternoon tea with the local bishop and other school heads. The bishop asks us what we’ve learnt over the last 18 months and must keep hold of. For me the answer is twofold. First, resilience. Our young people have suffered with exams and missed so much school, but they’ve been through things that you cannot learn from test tubes and text books. It has made them gutsy, gritty and determined to just get on with it.

Our young people have been through choppy waters and will be better sailors for it. Secondly, the last 18 months have been a reminder that we are not in control and must not pretend or act like we are.

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Goodbye Gavin Williamson. Hello Nadhim Zahawi. The cabinet reshuffle takes place today and I think the final straw for Williamson was surely confusing Maro Itoje with Marcus Rashford last week – it is almost David Brent-esqe. I’d hoped the new education secretary might have been Kemi Badenoch, but am sure Zahawi will rise to the challenge.

I hope he doesn’t take us back to ‘normal’, but instead seizes the day and creates a new, better ‘normal’. He needs to take forward the spirit of the Conservative party’s exciting free school policy and bring new and innovative providers into the education sector. He also needs to ensure examinations take place next summer – this is such an important measure. 

At the same time, the last 18 months has also shown us that exams cannot be the only measure of a young person’s worth. It is why we think our school’s enterprise award is so important as it records all the other things they do.

I hope the new education secretary seizes the day and creates a new, better ‘normal’ for schools

Zahawi needs to think outside the box and measure schools not just on their results, but by the retention rates of their students at university. How many of our pupils go to uni and don’t drop out and finish their degrees? That would show how well we prepare them for the next stage.

Thursday September 16

Send out our updated risk plan today in the light of the news about vaccinations are being offered to all pupils aged 12 to 15. We envisage that the jabs will operate very similarly to other jabs carried out in school – where pupils are taken out of lessons, have the injection, and then return to lessons if they are well enough. Parents will need to consent. The aim will be to cause minimal disruption to lessons.

Very few parents have raised concerns so far, although within no time of me sending out the risk plan, I have already received a letter from a lawyer with notice of my potential liability when it comes to vaccinations for children. I’m not going to give this a second thought. We are just following government guidelines and doing all we can to keep our pupils, families and community safe and our school open. It is a reminder, though, that we have to be on it so that only students whose parents have given consent receive the vaccination.

© Provided by Evening Standard (AP)

I also need to be sympathetic to those who hold different views to me on this and listen to them. We are all experts, it would seem, but the science is by no means unanimous and much of our opinion is based on the newspapers we read, our temperaments, personal circumstances and the experience we have had of this awful disease.

Friday September 17

Today I find out that first vaccinations will happen by half term and we will be given at least a  weeks’ notice. The first residential trip of the year (and pretty much since before the pandemic) also leaves today. Attendance amongst students is still over 97 per cent – six are off with Covid and one member of staff is unconfirmed.

The excitement of the first two weeks is nearly over. Now, we have to dig in for the autumn term. 100 days to Christmas!

A sixth former’s perspective

When we left school for the summer holidays in July, we left behind mandatory masks, social distancing, and the joy of lateral flow tests. This year, we walked in mask-free and were finally allowed to walk within two metres of each other and leave our year-group bubbles. We’ve even had two competitive rugby fixtures. After so long with restrictions, it’s been a relief to be reaching some normality again.

Of course, Covid-19 is still lurking. Some students still wear (school branded!) masks in the corridors to keep safe. As pastoral deputy head boy, I have spoken to the younger students to see how they feel about getting the vaccine in school. Most haven’t really thought about it, other than the fact that it’s time out of class to get an injection. Some are looking forward to it, while there are others whose parents won’t allow them to have it. Many older students have come into school with the triumph of receiving their first or even second dose, proudly parading their vaccine stickers on their phones.

We finally walked in mask-free, were allowed within two metres of each other and left our year group bubbles

This year I plan to sit my A-Levels and apply for university. I am aware that many young people have had an interesting start to university life as a result of the pandemic. Friends who started university last year say it was difficult and nothing like they envisioned it to be, with online learning and being restricted to their room for the majority of the academic year.

The general consensus in school is that we will – hopefully – be able to enjoy university to the full this time next year. But we have to remember the next few months are still uncertain and university and education as a whole could look very different for a while to come. I am also aware that the number of university applicants this year has risen significantly due to Covid, increasing the competition for places. I guess that means I’ll need to work even harder!

Covid still has an effect on school life, but we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. Aside from the stash of lateral flow tests in my cupboard, hopefully, a completely normal school experience is not too far around the corner.

As told to Katie Strick

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