Let’s Go Easy on the C-Word

There’s a game played amongst the cousins in my family called “Uncle Frank Bingo”. Frank is a good bloke but you know that there are certain people, themes and events that will always feature in any conversation or anecdote he relays. The cousins take it in turns to each fill their card with five or so tried and tested names, places or phrases and the first one to tick off all theirs can claim a prize from the rest of the family.

As sure as the word treacherous will suddenly pepper any communication around snow days, so we now have a whole raft of new vocabulary to trot out in these unprecedented times – there’s one to get us going. I would also offer: covid, coronavirus, bubble, PPE, social-distancing, furlough (who had ever used this word in conversation before?), government guidelines, hand washing / sanitisation, one-way system, infection control, hygiene, isolation, quarantine, endemic / epidemic / pandemic (are you sure you know the difference between these three?), asymptomatic, super-spreader, outbreak, transmission, cluster (a great prefix for the way many of us feel this is all being handled), zoom, new normal, catch-up, vaccine and, probably my new favourite, moonshot!

So what have you been talking about at school so far this term and do you think the staff have started playing “Covid Bingo” in your remote staff meetings yet?

Needless to say and joking aside, this is a serious business, which has made a significant impact on almost every aspect of everyday life for the last 6 months and will have left many families in our school communities facing a range of challenges including anxiety, depression, loneliness, loss of livelihood, poverty, ill-health and bereavement. As leaders in education, we are called to take all this on and support those we are responsible for to overcome these challenges. But in order to do this, we must raise people’s sights from the mess of the pandemic and help them to look towards the light of a future that we are charged with helping them to create.

Napolean referred to leaders as “dealers in hope” and this is the mantle we are privileged to take on. If we are to lead our school communities towards a brighter future, we can’t afford to spend too much time focusing on the things that might stop us from getting there. If you’re looking for a practical start with this, why not try banning the c-word? It’s the same approach as I know many of you take with Ofsted; if a school spends all its energies obsessing about how to run according to the Ofsted framework, it tends not to do the best by the children, let alone the staff! So, don’t mention the o-word.

Don’t get me wrong, if you know Ofsted are due in the next day, you have a briefing that focuses on Ofsted and at the start of this term, you will have done well not to mention Covid at all. However, now we’re a few weeks in and we have our new systems and contingency plans in place, isn’t it time to talk about the sort of issues we would usually be focussing on a the start of the new academic year.

I know some people will disagree with this but I don’t think it’s good enough for the children currently in our schools if we are merely aiming to “just get through this year” or “get things back to some sort of normality”. Surely it should still be our ambition for each of our schools to be in a better place at the end of this year than they were at the start (or perhaps, than at the start of lockdown).

Covid will of course, necessarily take up some of or time and energy but what practical systems can we put in place to ensure that this is all dealt with efficiently and effectively by a small group of people so that the majority can focus on the important business of teaching and looking after the children?

One you’ve sorted that out, you might want to give some consideration to these reflections for leaders who are still determined to improve their schools and hence the futures of their children this year, despite the current challenges:

  • What have I been spending most of my time thinking and talking about so far this term?
  • Have I taken the time to share the values and vision of the school with everyone at the start of this school year? If not, when might I start?
  • What will success look like for our school this year?
  • What will I do to win the hearts and minds of our school community this term?
  • What opportunities are provided by the current situation that our school could take advantage of for the good of the children?
  • Which aspects of our school should we focus on improving this year?
  • How will we get the balance right between looking after and challenging people this year?
  • How will we develop staff to do a better job this year?
  • How will we keep things simple this year and ensure that we “keep the main thing, the main thing”?
  • How will we make people feel this year?

In times of crisis, leaders slow things down and ensure that they continue to focus on the bigger picture and the longer term strategic objectives. Whilst they might not go as far as instigating a “clap for the Headteacher”, the children and staff in our schools will be grateful and well-served if we can stick to these aspirations. So, let’s go easy on our use of the c-word (and other current vernacular) and enjoy another great year doing the job we love. I wish you all every success.

James Kibble, Executive Headteach at Salesian School, and Deputy CEO of Xavier Catholic Education Trust

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