He suggested we talk without flapping ears so we went onto the concourse and leaned on a banister. ‘We’re alone now’ he said, looking at the – perhaps 400 - children swirling fore and aft. I remember laughing out loud and thinking, yes, we are. None of them are paying us the slightest attention and the noise covers everything. It’s part of my repertoire now, of course.
I moved on after a bit and didn’t see him again until the day London got the Olympics. He was the Head by then and we were being briefed by the Specialist Schools Trust at a hotel in Chelsea to which I’d made the trek from Durham. It was nice to talk but he looked shattered. He resigned a couple of years later, the school was academised, knocked down, rebuilt. Story of our times.
When I read of Heads deciding stop, to leave, I often think of the man with the exhausted face I met among the happy car-horn hooting of that July day. As an inexperienced Head of Department he was my go-to guy and if I had any success, it was with his calm and constant support.
It's easy to feel alone as a Headteacher. No matter how friendly the staffroom or how long you’ve been there, decisions stop with you and if things are going wrong, its you that has to find a way to put it right. I work hard to gather good people around me, whose integrity and expertise can sort the trickiest problem. If you don’t have those people to hand, or if you’re in a really small school you can feel desperately isolated.
The man above’s movements coincided with the decline of the Local Authorities. I’d worked with a gifted RE advisor in that authority and moved to a city where there was still a full stable of advisors, and then again to another.But those were in the municipal socialist red wall authorities of the north east where the erosion of local capacity took longer. In my first headship, in a tiny authority, there was still good cover for a new head. When I encountered problems – with staffing, with violence, with an arson attack that wiped out a third of our classrooms overnight – there was someone on the end of the phone less than a mile away who would come and, as it were, talk about Kevin. Indeed, when I encountered my first budget deficit I actually sobbed over the phone and the help I needed was there within half an hour.
I’m not a young or a new head (I say that in case you mistook me for thirty-five) and I don’t know how it feels now. I’m not surprised that the current circumstances make people want to give up. We’re all reeling from the sheer quantity of previously undreamt-of actions that need to be taken. Not just trying to prevent children or staff getting the damn thing, but then what to do once there is a case. Sending children home en masse used to be something that happened once every ten years for a boiler or water failure, once every couple of years for snow if you were holding the north. We’ve done it twice this week.
It's November, so all schools will be looking at their finances, especially those whose budgets run with the calendar year. There is no money promised for Covid, so we are all looking at unsustainable levels of spending. Some Heads of tiny schools have already spent more than their whole budget on the Covid response.
So imagine how beleaguered, lonely and worried heads, new and old, read this on Tuesday 17 November:
The new UK Border Operating Model will apply to all goods entering the UK from 11pm on 31 December 2020. It is important for all schools, FE colleges and local authorities to prepare for potential changes to food supplies so they can minimise the effect on pupils and young people in their care……You should contact any food suppliers before 1 January 2021, to check whether….changes are necessary. These might include:
- • varying the timing and number of deliveries to allow for transport delays
- • being as flexible as possible on delivery times during the day
- • ordering longer shelf life products during this period, such as frozen foods or foods that can be safely stored at room temperature
On the same day a very large child loomed at the door of our office and asked my PA for a mask, please. She was all for packing him off, our office not being a general depot for the disorganised. But he was being pursued by a very determined teacher and when he looked soulfully at me I saw a pleasant and diligent 11-year old with whom I’d whiled away happy hours back in the day and provided the face gear. ‘Bless you, Miss’ he said. I wished God’s blessings on him too but told him to provide his own masks in future. He didn’t need to be alone to be savaged by the wrath who was gaining on him along the corridor. I was glad to help.
The great Irish poet Derek Mahon died in October and you’ll have been waiting for me to quote Everything is Going to be All Right, his best-known poem. Not this week, mateys. Here’s the last verse of his beautiful Day Trip to Donegal which I quote in sympathy with everyone despairing of doing the job right, this year, under these circumstances.
At dawn I was alone far out at sea
without skill or reassurance – nobody
to show me how, no promise of rescue –
cursing my constant failure to take due
forethought for this; contriving vain
overtures to the vindictive wind and rain