Being a Head Teacher in a Pandemic

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Owner and Founder of Sophia’s Diary, Andrea Krase, interviews Martin Lavelle (Head Teacher at Southgate School)

Being a parent in a pandemic is one of the hardest jobs in the world. In addition to keeping our children safe, we helped to educate them this year, in addition to being cautious about their wellbeing too.

Can you imagine the huge responsibility a head teacher has in this current climate? How do they ensure students are safe? Are they concerned about how their education will be impacted in this stressful climate? How about staff? There is great pressure to look after them too, as they also have their own families.

Our Founder Andrea Krase, interviewed Martin Lavelle to find out how he is managing at Southgate School; one of the largest schools in the borough with over 1600 students.

 Hi Martin. How have you found running a school in the first term during a pandemic?

I can honestly say that, in line with many of my colleagues, this has been the most challenging year of my working life. I think that this is due to the following reasons (I list for clarity):

  • the ongoing uncertainty,
  • the managing of learning when we were shut,
  • the introduction of new systems of working to engage with students who were stuck at home for 5 months (some of whom were dealing with the most challenging of circumstances),
  • telling Year 11 and 13 students that the exams they had worked so hard for, were to be cancelled and that they wouldn’t even have a proper end of school day or party
  • Writing and re-writing and updating risks assessments
  • Trying to manage the governments constant changes of direction and the fiasco over last summer’s exams
  • Managing the fallout whenever a student tests positive – fortunately on very rare occasions
  • Covering for staff who have to self-isolate
  • Ensuring that staff feel supported through this difficult, pressurised time.
  • Maintaining standards in student’s education and outcomes

Be in no doubt that colleagues who work in schools, be they teachers or support staff, are front line workers with all the incumbent pressures that this entails.

What changes been made to the day to day running of the school to ensure students and staff are safe?

I think most parents understand that their child’s school will have detailed risk assessments for most COVID related contingency’s in place. I doubt that. We are doing much that is different from other schools but, as ever, it is in the enforcing and consistency of application of the risk reduction measures, that differences may be found.

We have a one-way system, hand-gel dispensers, zoned areas for different year groups to meet in at the start of the day and a staggered finish at the end of the day. Staff and students must wear masks in public areas such as corridors and some who are particularly high-risk, wear these in lessons as well.

At the time of writing, across Enfield there are 60 live cases in 30 schools with 74 schools having had cases since September. We managed to avoid any until October half term, since which time we have had three positive cases that have resulted in groups of students being sent home to self-isolate. We have seating plans for all lessons online, but managing the identification of who needs to go home and communicating this to parents, carers and staff, is a very drawn out process that takes several hours to complete.

In a time where venues are closed and households cannot mix, School is one of the only places students are allowed to physically attend. Do they appreciated being present more, and has this had a positive impact on friendships and academically too?

Students across the school have expressed how much they appreciate being in school where they can socialise and catch up with their friends and teachers. Essentially the whole of September was a delightful time to be back in school. I think everyone was so pleased to be back socialising and into routines, that the atmosphere was incredibly positive.

Students have expressed that they prefer learning in class where their teacher is there to support them and they can share their ideas with friends, which relates to my point above, that online learning may go a very long way to providing good learning experiences, but it is simply not the same as being back in school.

The feedback we have had from parents is that they are relieved that their children are back in school and not constantly looking at a screen or on their phones!

Academically, staff have expressed that students have settled back into their learning well and engagement in learning is high. I think many students saw what happened to Years 11 and 13 and appreciate just how important and yet how fragile, their schooldays truly are.

We are hugely moving to a virtual world with so many tasks and experiences, such as, trips being moved online. Have students complained about the lack of in person experiences?

I’m not convinced that teaching – and learning – can ever be quite as effective or efficient as when done with the teacher on hand to guide, support, check whatever is being written or to pick up the sometimes silent signals, that a student is struggling. Yet it is fair to say that students have by and large, embraced the opportunities that remote teaching (which is to say face to face time online with a teacher) can provide and we have even started live streaming some lessons as a pilot to students who are having to remain at home.

Clearly, the genie is out of the bottle with regards to remote teaching and online learning. What has really impressed me is the speed with which staff have engaged with new technological challenges and the exciting work that is being done by so many of them.

What advice would you give to Year 13 or Year 11 students that feel that they will not progress to their desired pathway next year?

Students should bear in mind that exam boards are aware of the disruption to learning and are making adjustments to account for this when preparing papers and awarding grades next summer. It sounds trite, but do the best you can with what you have/know now and try not to worry about next summer. Many things may well change between now and then which could make your current worries irrelevant. Try to focus on learning and developing your knowledge as a person, not a teenager who needs to pass an exam.

Universities and colleges are aware of the unique challenges faced by students due to sit their exams next summer and will be looking for ways to ensure that you end up on the right courses. They may well pay closer attention to your personal statements and references than grades this year as these reflect your character and willingness to learn/contribute to the community.

If you are in Year 11 and hoping to study Level 3 courses, you are in a good position as your teachers know your capabilities and will be consulted about the possibility of studying their subject in the Sixth Form at Southgate School. It is our goal that we help all students make the appropriate next steps along their chosen pathway and will do all we can to guide and support you.

On behalf of the team at Sophia’s Diary and all parents, we would like to thank every single Education Professional for their hard work since the pandemic