This is not the start to the new year that any of us teachers in England had hoped for: increasing Omicron case numbers and ongoing uncertainty about how this will play out have created a nervous start for us all.
As someone responsible for 350 staff working across three schools in south Oxfordshire I continue to be extremely concerned for their health, safety and wellbeing. As someone responsible for 2,700 children and young people I continue to prioritise their entitlement to an education. School leaders have spent the past 21 months of the pandemic balancing these two concerns.
The greatest risk to schools remaining fully open this term is the absence of staff who have to self-isolate because of contracting the virus. Many schools were up against it at the end of last term, forced to combine classes and to use an increasing number of cover staff and supply teachers (if they could find them) to keep classes running and year groups open. I am extremely doubtful that sufficient numbers of retired teachers will return to the profession this term to create the number of extra staff who may be needed.
What more can be done to support schools and colleges? Quite a lot, actually. The government should provide ventilation units, free of cost, to all settings that need them: the 7,000 announced on Sunday will not be enough.
Schools and colleges should be reimbursed for the additional sums they are spending on supply teachers, as well as other Covid-related costs, from already strained budgets.
Ofsted should automatically agree to requests to defer inspections this term as school and college leaders are focused, quite rightly, on managing a crisis situation.
Parents and families should ensure their children and young people test twice a week at home, without fail – and we need plentiful supplies of lateral flow tests to distribute to our families to enable them to do this.
Exam results tables should be removed again this summer: schools up and down the country have been differently affected by the pandemic at different times, and this will continue to be the case. It’s not fair or appropriate to pretend that we have worked on a level playing field this year.
School and college leaders have shown great leadership throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so. We prioritised keeping our schools open for our most vulnerable children and the children of key workers: our three schools have not been closed at any point during the national lockdowns. We pivoted from remote education to mass testing to managing the process of centre-assessed grades. We continue to be agile and responsive to a fast-changing situation, communicating well and regularly with our staff, students and families, providing reassurance and grounded optimism.
There has been much talk about “a lost generation” of children, victims of the Covid pandemic. I refuse to believe that any generation should or will be “lost”. Instead of indulging in hyperbole, perhaps those with the power to make decisions could throw themselves behind those of us on the frontline working to keep young people in school, to maintain their entitlement to an education, to protect their health and wellbeing and to open doors to their futures. There is surely no more compelling call to arms, no more important investment in our future than this.