I don’t usually fess up to such given that my reader is likely to be a parent so I avoid horse-frightening. However, desperate times and so on. Here’s what we’re dealing with.
The blindingly obvious and unbelievably tedious Covid experience is largely of absence now, rather than illness, and folks having to be off for the regulation 5 days knocks a hole in teaching. Teaching is the heart and root of our endeavour so once that starts to wobble, unhelpful waves are set up (I’m no physicist, I’ve said it before). It was worse, before Christmas, but last week we had eight supply teachers in as well as using every spare ounce of in-house capacity. That’s a lot of children without their familiar adult in front of them, a lot of learning from textbooks. It’s a lot of classroom doors without anyone scanning the corridors and a lot of teachers’ desks in disarray. It’s a lot of seating plans being not quite enforced and a lot of independent learning not being set in the usual way. I’m not saying things have fallen apart, I’m saying that there is more room for the unexpected.
Adventurous souls may love this, encountering the mystery in daily life and so on. We pride ourselves on our creativity and inquisitiveness, our exploration and openness at Tallis, but adolescents need and really value security and structures. They don’t tell you this, of course, because they’re programmed to be risk-takers and to kick against restrictions while they find their feet in the world. It just so happens that the conditions for safe curiosity and happy investigation are optimum when the enfolding arms of the school are absolutely reliable and almost tiresomely predictable. And punctuated by frequent reminders and helpful hassling by tutors and assemblies. I cannot overstate the importance of this undersung aspect of the English school system. I’ve written about tutors before, the family unit of any school, especially important in a big one. We try to double-staff tutor groups to safeguard daily continuity but there are limits. No one is staffed for a pandemic. Without every tutor being in place, messages don’t carry. Troubles are missed. Children bottle things up and then unbottle themselves unusually.
Piling Pelion upon Ossa, we’ve lost assemblies. Yes, we have them online and Heads of Year deliver their brisk and uplifting messages through cameras showing children in tutor rooms sitting neatly and listening quietly, but it’s just not the same. You can’t eyeball a fidgeter through a camera. You can’t calm 270 people into silence and quietly move them to a spotlit room where a communal experience reinforces the ethos and mores of the institution. You can’t laugh with them, and you certainly can’t give them a good old-fashioned piece of your mind when daily routines show signs of wear and tear. Schools miss assemblies when we can’t have them: that’s why we go through all sorts of shoe removal malarkey to do them in PE spaces in exam season, but for two years we’ve hardly been able to have them at all. Three year groups are frankly unfamiliar with the whole concept and the older ones have forgotten. That means that children don’t see the school in session formally, don’t experience the obvious manifestation of the secure boundaries, don’t understand themselves as a valued participant in a community endeavour. They’re left to make sense of their immediate, personal, experience which is harder to interpret when the faces at the front are unfamiliar, even a bit confused themselves, perhaps.
I took part in a survey this week. The new Secretary of State seems keen on finding stuff out, which is a welcome change from his predecessor who didn’t give two hoots. One of the (admittedly fatuous) questions was about the impact of the call for ex- or retired teachers to rally to the colours with their board markers akimbo. What? There has been absolutely no impact. Has anyone seen one, anywhere?*
It wouldn’t have made any difference, except in basic supervision. The thing we’re really up against in secondary can’t be helped by strangers, supply teachers or Sally Slapcabbage. The second problem is, already weighted down by absence. We’re drowning in exams. It's good that the specification reductions have been declared by the exam boards and reasonable that it was done at this point so that most children might have been taught most of the courses. It's unavoidable that people are irritated by the timing or the contents - we live on our wits and we argue with the furniture if there isn’t anyone else around. It’s just that the contingency arrangements for no-exams have to run alongside the arrangements for having exams. That means that we have to have three formally assessed piece of work ready in school, just in case, as well as finishing the courses and getting children who have never taken formal exams ready to do it. In a school with a big sixth form, that’s wall-to-wall examining since early December meaning more lesson disruption followed by endless, endless marking as well as preparation for teaching and now, reorganising schemes of learning to reflect the reduced content. No wonder everyone’s a bit twitchy.
But the mopping up of quotidian flotsam caused by staff absence has to take precedence, so time is concentrated even further and everyone gets a bit more frantic. You can’t lock yourself away to mark or plan if the exam class next door hasn’t got a specialist teacher or the little ones look as though they might behave foolishly. I’m not complaining, just explaining. I wonder, had the PM given any thought to lifting the contingency requirements when he was boldly announcing that we’d be free of all restrictions by the end of Feb so that he didn’t have to apologise to the former DPP? What? Hadn’t thought it through? Really? Hasn’t he got advisors? Oh wait….
*SEND Green Paper, Mr Zahawi?