Rachael Gacs

Introduction

The #TrustLeaders Wellbeing Steering Group, in partnership with Schools Advisory Service, met for the second time today (4th May). Colleagues reaffirmed the view at the last meeting that the most important focus for the system right now must be on prioritising staff and pupil wellbeing, and that this should define both trust-level leadership and policy making at a national level.

As such, this group established by Forum Strategy provides an opportunity for CEOs to share their concerns and ideas, and discuss the most promising strategies for protecting wellbeing at this time. The group also provides a forum through which CEOs can inform the DfE about the most pressing issues that their schools and trusts are facing, and how policymaking can help promote and support wellbeing across the system.

Today’s discussion

The discussion began with the current pressure being felt by many leaders to begin to prepare and put plans in place for the return of more or all pupils. Speculation about what a return may look like abound in the media and on social media, but no official government announcements have yet been made about the re-opening of schools or the return of pupils. Likewise, no public health guidance has been given yet as to what schools will need to do to ensure staff and pupils can return safely. Bearing this in mind, Michael Pain advised that any plans currently being put together by school leaders should not allude to any public health guidance or direction, until we have firm guidance from public health expertise on how schools will operate, that is based on the very latest science. However, the DfE and Public Health must play their part in ensuring that this guidance is provided in a timely manner, and with enough time for trusts and schools to plan and prepare accordingly. Leaders need to recognise what they can plan for, and what is currently outside of their circle of control, both to minimise anxiety, and to ensure that their time and effort is used wisely.

‘if people are not in the right place in terms of their mental wellbeing (pupils and staff alike) the quality of the learning will not be what it should be.’

Andy Mellor, Director of Wellbeing at Schools Advisory Service, shared his view that we cannot afford to go back into schools and simply go back to an even more aggressively academic curriculum to try to make up for the weeks of learning lost. He maintained that the first priority must be that the wellbeing of staff and pupils is supported. ‘We need to make sure that people are in the right place mentally as far as possible first and foremost, because if people are not in the right place in terms of their mental wellbeing (pupils and staff alike) the quality of the learning will not be what it should be.’ Andy also suggested that a gradual teacher assessment of what pupils have learned since lockdown began may be helpful, in terms of understanding the needs of our pupils, supporting those who have lost the most in terms of learning, and seeking wider support for these pupils where it might be needed.

“the links with Forum Strategy and clear messages re: focussing on what we as CEOs can control / influence, has supported me to concentrate on key areas.”

The CEOs then discussed how important networks have been for their own wellbeing during this time, including help from one another, and from Forum Strategy. Comments included, “having the opportunity to share our views and opinions is important and being reassured that they are being shared with the wider system helps”, and “the links with Forum Strategy and clear messages re: focussing on what we as CEOs can control / influence, has supported me to concentrate on key areas. In particular, the ‘What Next After Covid-19’ seminar was particularly helpful.” The vital role of trustees was also highlighted, and many CEOs felt that the support, the constructive challenge, and the discussions held with trustees had been especially helpful so far during this difficult time.

The CEOs also discussed the importance of supporting staff to work from home in a sustainable way, including providing help to set up home ‘workstations’ and supplying staff with advice and resources to help them to make the adjustment to working from home more easily. They also observed that the current situation had resulted in more teachers from across schools sharing their resources, and agreed that this should be seen as an opportunity and should be harnessed as much as possible moving forward. In the future teachers may now work together much better across their trusts, creating resources collaboratively, and reducing individual teacher workload as a consequence.

The meeting concluded with the following feedback given to the DfE:

  • that the agenda and decisions moving forward must be guided, first and foremost, by wellbeing concerns and scientific advice;
  • that teachers will need a summer break for the sake of their health and wellbeing, and to be ready for the challenges ahead;
  • that we cannot simply return to ‘business as usual’ when schools return, and that staff and pupil wellbeing must take precedence over any form of ‘high stakes’ accountability;
  • that communications and announcements from the DfE must be made in a timely manner, and in a way which allows for adequate planning and preparation time for school and trust leaders;
  • that the PPE provided in schools will be in line with the health advice given, and that the safety measures and guidance provided will be fully implementable for schools;
  • that guidance is given which outlines how trustees should support CEOs in their decision making, and in ensuring the wellbeing of staff and pupils.