‘I am deeply scared for so many children’: diary of a headteacher in lockdown | Education
This is my tenth year as a headteacher, mostly in challenging schools, and I have seen a lot of things. Staff and student deaths. Fires, floods, students with weapons. I’ve had threats from the English Defence League. But there have always been support teams behind me with advice. This crisis is different.
In the past week we have had to tell distraught and fearful year 11 and year 13 students that there will be no exams this summer – without a plan for what will happen instead. We had a partial shutdown as people self-isolated. Now we have the school lockdown that is not a lockdown – it is a guessing game of how many students will come in. We’ve gone from 1,500 students to five. Who knows about next week, or the week after?
Monday: the coughing teachers at my door
My school is in an area in which few doctors live, but we have nurses, binmen, transport workers. We’ve hastily cobbled together numbers we can expect, plus all the children with additional needs and an education and health care plan (EHCP) or who have a social worker. We have planned for about 100 children. Just 21 arrive. We attempt to get them logged on to Hegarty Maths, a popular website. But the rest of the country is trying to do the same, and our school internet cannot cope. We move to the library instead.
Of our nearly 100 staff, about 70% come in. We all try to keep a distance. After a couple of hours of planning, we send most home, but not everyone wants to go.
Some teachers have stood at my office door coughing, asking: “What shall I do?” It is as if they are frozen into helplessless and only the headteacher can authorise their illness. I send them home.
Today I am trying to arrange how the children entitled to free school meals will eat over the coming weeks. Many come from families struggling for food and I am so worried about them – the children who normally eat proper food only in school. I am ensuring the building is deep-cleaned and figuring out which staff need to self-isolate for seven days, for 14 days, or even indefinitely.
When I get home I sleep for three hours on the sofa, dribbling and unable to respond to my own daughter. She has done nothing educational today at home with her dad, unless you count TikTok. If I can’t enforce a decent education for my own daughter, what hope have I for the rest?
Tuesday: one happy boy
Today even fewer children come in – just nine. They are happy enough and are enjoying the activities. One of our most vulnerable year 7 students, who had been managing only two hours a day after a long period of school-refusing, did the whole of yesterday, does the whole of today, and I actually see him smiling. For him, this could be the best thing that has happened.
I attempt to Skype with my senior team. After an hour of technological frustration we return to sending one another memes on WhatsApp; at least we can still make one another laugh. These are the people who will get me through, an incredibly dedicated group of professionals who, even when working at home, understand one another and the concept of relentless optimism. Knowing those you rely on most have got your back is a godsend.
Wednesday: buying £20 of electricity for families
Today we have just five children. Once I’ve welcomed them, sent the attendance information off to both the Department for Education and the local authority (they are battling it out as to who needs this information) and checked in with the skeleton crew, there is time to breathe.
Today a number of us are phoning vulnerable families – checking they have enough to eat, are coping with the lockdown, that they still have gas and electricity. Yesterday one of my team visited a home to put £20 on the family’s PayPoint card, paying for electricity to keep them going for a few days. She also bought them food basics such as bread and milk. I know colleagues in more affluent schools who have parents emailing for university-level extension tasks. Here the calls are about food vouchers. The coronavirus has made the societal differences across the country more glaring.
Thursday: I go to Tesco for meal vouchers
The vouchers we have sent to families with children eligible for free school meals have arrived in some homes but not others, probably owing to a disrupted postal service. We posted them to avoid having hundreds of parents turning up at school, but we are inundated with calls from those who have not yet had them.
At least three have moved without telling the school, several want a set of vouchers per parent as “we share custody”, and one mum has moved into an emergency refuge.
It feels as if we are trying to solve all of society’s ills. In the end, I go to Tesco myself and buy as many vouchers as I can put on my own credit card, inviting the neediest in, one at a time, to collect.
Friday: I shut my blinds and have a cry
Today we have 12 children and I am expecting the numbers to rise as soon as those who went into 14-day isolations start to come out. Some parents call to say they can’t cope and they want to send their children back in for respite. It is difficult trying to explain that we can’t do this. Every child in school needs adult supervision and every member of staff I ask to come in is another I’m putting at risk. The majority of the children we are supervising have special needs and respond best to their regular teaching assistants, most of whom are more mature women. It is a vicious catch-22.
I’m exhausted and miserable and deeply scared for so many children. The ones on the edges of gang life, at risk of exploitation, in unsafe homes, and with little food in the cupboard. I shut my blinds, hide in the corner, have a cry and then pull myself together.
One of our most vulnerable children, who is in foster care, has created a PowerPoint about happiness and he wants to share it with me. It’s touching. When we have the bandwidth, I’ll share it with the whole staff.