Thousands of headteachers have written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, accusing the government of repeatedly failing to listen or collaborate as schools prepare to reopen to millions of children across England.
In what appears to be a damaging breakdown in relations, headteachers say they are facing some of the most significant challenges of their professional lives but feel they are “working in isolation”, unsupported by the government.
School leaders, who are still picking up the pieces after the recent exams fiasco, say their confidence in government has been “significantly knocked”. They are calling for urgent changes to current ways of working to help ensure a safe return to school.
The intervention by the Worth Less? lobbying group, which represents thousands of headteachers across 75 local authorities from Cumbria to Cornwall, came as Boris Johnson said it was a “moral duty” to get children back into education after five months of absence.
The prime minister, who was criticised for keeping a low profile as the A-levels fiasco unfolded, insisted that the risk of contracting coronavirus in school was low and that it was damaging for children to stay out of education for any longer.
The success of the prime minister’s campaign will, however, depend on headteachers, who say they are not listened to and are not trusted by the government. Instead of meaningful collaboration, the letter says school leaders are at the mercy of ever shifting policy directives and “myriad changes”.
“In a time of unprecedented challenge, we need some clarity and purpose,” said Jules White, head of Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex, and the leader of Worth Less?, which cut its campaigning teeth on school funding and organised a headteachers’ march on Downing Street to press for more money.
White said: “The majority of heads feel let down by the Department for Education and indeed Ofqual [the exams regulator in England]. Whilst we support the government’s aspirations to get every child back to school safely, heads require more than just vague words to deliver effectively for every child.”
School leaders who signed up to the letter described recent events as “farcical” and variously expressed anger, frustration and anxiety about how the government has handled the response to Covid on schools and plans for reopening in September.
Their letter is also disparaging about assumptions that, once opened, schools will be able to carry on as before. “The pandemic has already created far-reaching problems for many children,” the letter states. “The notion that schools will find a ‘new normal’ that allows provision to simply carry on as before is unhelpful in the extreme. New priorities have emerged and they will need to be tackled quickly and effectively.”
As the clock ticks down to the start of the academic year, the letter lists a series of headteachers’ pressing concerns, including fears about whether there will be sufficient resources to support children’s mental health.
Worth Less? is also concerned about unrealistic expectations for next year’s exams. The government and Ofqual have made a number of modest changes to GCSEs and A-levels due to be taken in 2021, but teachers say they do not go nearly far enough and would like a radical rethink.
Headteachers have also expressed fears about the lack of contingency planning for short-term school closures and local lockdowns in response to infection outbreaks. Downing Street admitted on Monday that schools could be forced to close again if stricter local lockdown measures are needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and teachers must prepare remote learning for pupils.
“The complexity of the challenges that lie ahead must not … be underestimated,” the letter states, “and if children and their families are to be most effectively served, urgent improvements to current ways of working are required.
“As headteachers face some of the most important challenges of our professional lives, all too often we feel that we are working in isolation from government rather than in harmony with our political masters.
“Collaboration, consultation and partnership have felt in short supply and this caused immense frustration as time, energy and resources have been wasted by headteachers as we respond to shifting policy directives and myriad changes.”
Pupils in England and Wales are due to return to schools from next week, following Northern Ireland, where children began the new term on Monday, and Scotland, where pupils have been back at school for a fortnight. In one Dundee special school, 17 teachers and two pupils tested positive for Covid.
The DfE has been contacted for comment.
Source: The Guardian