Following the emergence of the COVID19 situation, Forum Strategy has been supporting and consulting CEOs of academy trusts nationwide, helping them to respond to the crisis, support one another, and prepare for what comes next.

One of our main concerns, once the dust begins to settle a little, is the health and wellbeing of our CEO members and their staff teams in the months ahead. We have therefore established – in partnership with Schools Advisory Service (SAS) – a steering group which will meet online and fortnightly throughout the summer term to seek the views and feedback from our CEOs and their trusts on the particular pressures and anxieties they face, and how they are responding (see https://www.forumstrategy.org/trustleaders-wellbeing-steering-group-summer-2020/ for further details and the list of the Wellbeing Steering Group members).

The first online meeting of the #TrustLeaders Wellbeing Steering Group was held today (21 April) and we were delighted to welcome our CEO members to the session; and to thank them once again for volunteering to be part of this vital work during such challenging and uncertain times.

We were grateful to be able to hear from Andy Mellor, National Wellbeing Director at Schools Advisory Service, about the SAS vision for establishing school and academy trust staff health and wellbeing support as a core offer.

The Group also welcomed Dominic Siwoku and Robert Jackson from the Department for Education’s Staff Wellbeing Team. The team has been running a project on education staff wellbeing since spring 2019; and is currently looking at how best to support leader and staff wellbeing through the current crisis. Dominic clarified that DfE officials were attending in listening mode, and were keen to gather insight to inform policy making at this challenging time.

Our CEO, Michael Pain, reminded colleagues of the main themes emerging from discussions with our CEO members during the series of online meetings held immediately following the school closure announcement – summarised below:

  • Trust Leaders:
    • Responding to the volume of guidance and legislation; ambiguity in some areas
    • The concern (and weight of responsibility) around ‘re-opening’
    • Managing teams and operations remotely
    • The safeguarding of staff and pupils in school
  • Teaching and other staff:
    • PPE
    • Remote working – isolation and uncertainty
    • Workload in terms of developing new materials
    • Balancing childcare with work (if working at home)
    • Managing bereavements or family illness

What academy trusts can do (to support staff wellbeing)

Forum’s Resources Manager, Rachael Gacs, has spent the last few weeks speaking with trust leaders from academy trusts of different sizes and in different regions, to highlight the many ways trusts are supporting the wellbeing of their school leaders and staff during this time. Some of the key themes emerging from these conversations are summarised below:

  • Several trusts have been using a rota system to ensure staff cover during the current period – and this has been run on a voluntary basis in order to protect those staff who are themselves vulnerable to coronavirus due to other health issues, or who live with family members who are vulnerable.
  • These rota systems have also been used to ensure every member of staff was able to take some time off over the Easter break (when schools were required to be open for the most vulnerable children and those of key workers).
  • Many trusts have reported being in a strong position to lessen the workload burden for their schools during the current situation, by enabling the sharing of resources and supporting teachers to get to grips with remote working/learning.
  • Whilst trusts acknowledge that some teachers will want to continue to take the opportunity to undertake CPD at this time; they are making it clear that this is no way an expectation, given other pressures.
  • Trusts have also been quick to acknowledge that many teachers are trying to balance their remote teaching commitments with their own childcare or other family commitments; and have been supporting staff by both allowing greater flexibility within the school day and providing hints and tips on how to structure their day.
  • There is concern amongst trust leaders about the impact on teachers, who are used to the interaction, structure and routines of the school day – in particular for those teachers who live alone.
  • Some trusts have been producing and circulating regular wellbeing newsletters, including hints and tips on maintaining work/life balance; whilst others have been organising regular online social activities for staff, in order to maintain social connections.

Steering Group members discussed these themes and highlighted some other ways in which their trusts were supporting the health and wellbeing of leaders and staff:

  • Simply being part of a larger organisation is clearly having huge benefits for headteachers in individual trust schools – so many are commenting that they are thankful and wouldn’t have known where to turn at the present time without the support of their trust.
  • CEOs are often taking on a support role for their school leaders; but also ensuring linked support from school governing boards and the trust board.
  • Some trusts have recognised that asking for ‘volunteers’ risks the same people always stepping up – so have worked on the expectation that everyone is on the rota to come into school, unless pregnant or have an underlying health condition.
  • Trusts have seen a trend towards headteachers wanting much more ‘top-down’ decision-making within the trust; seeking reassurance that the right decisions are being made – ‘safety in numbers’.
  • Some trusts are circulating regular communications to parents – taking the burden off schools and ensuring parents are clear about the key decisions and principles that decisions are based on and that they are in the best interests of communities.
  • Guidance (for staff and parents) on distance learning has also been developed by some trusts, to provide helpful pointers rather than being prescriptive.
  • In the absence of face-to-face discussion opportunities, some trusts are using surveys to help headteachers make sense of how and why trust-wide operations might look and seem different at the present time.
  • There is a general feeling amongst trusts that following the current crisis, things will definitely not go back to how they were – which is providing helpful questions as to how things might be done differently (and better!) in the medium- to long-term.

What the DfE can do (to support wellbeing across the school sector)

Steering Group members highlighted some other ways in which the Department for Education could best support the health and wellbeing of school leaders and staff:

  • The education sector needs real clarity about how, not necessarily when, schools will be re-opened. Clear direction and guidance are needed here to stop schools wasting time trying to plan for it and to ensure a co-ordinated approach.
  • Any transition back to ‘normal’ school must be carefully planned – and that includes clarity regarding accountability frameworks, e.g. using KS2 as a measure for P8 will be very problematic for the Y7 cohort for 2020-21 and 2021-22.
  • Trust leaders welcomed yesterday’s clarification from the Department regarding what data collections were being suspended or deferred – and wonder if this might demonstrate which could be abandoned totally to support ongoing workload and wellbeing work.
  • With schools having remained open over the Easter holidays, many school leaders have been unable to have any sort of break, When the transition to re-opening begins, it would be helpful for the Department to be mindful in supporting schools and trusts to enable leaders and teachers to take a break – otherwise we are really risking their health and wellbeing.
  • Trust leaders would welcome support from the Department in managing parental expectations through this crisis. Whilst it has been helpful that the Department hasn’t been prescriptive with the sector regarding the pupil ‘offer’ from trusts and schools; there needs to be clarity that schools and teachers are still working full time.
  • When the ‘return’ to school arrives, there needs to be clarity from the Department regarding the challenge of social distancing in a school setting; as well as clarity regarding whether PPE will be issued (both now and moving to re-opening) and the potential impact on staffing levels of the longer-term requirement to shield staff with underlying health issues.
  • Trust leaders have concerns regarding the timing and clarity of announcements and guidance coming from the Department – as leaders are filling in the gaps between announcements being made and the relevant guidance being produced. This is having huge knock-on impacts on staff workload and wellbeing – not least in relation to both the FSM vouchers announcement and the more recent digital devices announcement.

Reflections from Schools Advisory Service and Department for Education

In response to these wide-ranging discussions Andy Mellor (from SAS) reflected that this pandemic is likely to leave a legacy of serious mental ill-health, for both adults and children. Priority mental health and wellbeing must therefore be a priority for at least the next 12 months. The teaching profession is traditionally not good at looking after itself, but this must change moving forward, with a core focus on health and wellbeing and with central support from the Department for Education. As a nation, we can’t afford to have a second wave of coronavirus; nor can we afford to push back staff into schools when it is not safe.

Dominic Siwoku reflected that it had been really helpful to listen to the input from trust leaders, and that this would inform DfE’s work to support school staff wellbeing both during the current crisis and in recovery. He confirmed that he would feed back all the issues that had been raised to the Department’s policy teams, and noted the following in particular

  • Clarity and timing of DfE announcements and guidance.
  • The long-term plan for accountability across the system.
  • Issues with re-integrating children after a long time absent from ‘normal’ school.
  • Guidance regarding social distancing and PPE in schools prior to re-opening.
  • Putting wellbeing at the centre of the Department’s work with schools.

The group will next meet on 4th May.