At the gates of the Newtown testing facility in Powys, Wales, a headteacher stood and wept. Daring not risk infecting staff or pupils, Catriona Stewart had driven for two hours from her home in Cheshire, suffering from a persistent cough she feared was Covid-19. She had spent another two hours searching the internet and this had been the nearest test centre where she could pre-book – but when she arrived on time for her test, there were no more slots.
“I waved my QR booking code but it didn’t make any difference. The man at the gate told me that the tests had been used up by people who turned up without an appointment,” says Stewart, head of the 320-pupil Kingsmead primary in Northwich.
She later managed to get a test – which was negative – nearer home, but she finds it hard to understand why schools were allowed to open without access to testing.
Locating tests continues to cause anxiety to heads across England, and is one of the reasons so many are near breaking point. School leaders are exhausted, Stewart says. “Headteachers are saying how tired they are. It’s non-stop, the amount of vigilance you have to put in to keep everyone safe, help to find tests, work out dates and contacts and wait for results, and even making sure children do not share pencils.”
Heads Up, the support forum for school leaders, has doubled the number of its virtual network calls. James Pope, the former secondary head and director of Inspireducate, which runs the forum, says heads’ jobs have become much tougher, but no extra support has been put in place.
“What we are seeing and hearing are a lot of already very, very tired headteachers – they don’t get a lot of sympathy from politicians,” he says. “Some have not had a break in six months. They are struggling to deal with the specifics of their Covid response, getting the guidance right on top of all the things that normally happen at school. There is deep concern about the sustainability of the amount of energy school leaders are having to put in to the day-to-day management of their schools. I have been hearing about heads giving in their notice from Christmas.”
Last week the government announced a new legal obligation on schools to provide remote education to all children off school because of Covid-19, starting on 22 October. As well as planning and supervising major changes to school buildings and timetables, many heads have taken over responsibility for helping feed local families, and even running after-school clubs – largely abandoned by private operators – that extend the school day for working parents. On top of that they are dealing with conflicting views among parents, with complaints about too much mask wearing – or too little.
Senior leaders report spending up to four hours a day supervising breaks and dinner times, which have been staggered to reduce contact between students. An assistant head at Harrogate Grammar school puts in 16,000 steps a day, says Richard Sheriff, executive head of the school and chairman of the Red Kite learning trust of 13 academies.
Sheriff, this year’s president of the Association of School and College Leaders, says headteachers are on the front line, regularly having to make decisions in the absence of clear, timely government guidance. Guidance, he says, is often issued on a Friday or Sunday evening, after being announced to the media.
“As a humble geography teacher, I don’t feel qualified to suddenly become an expert on bacteriology and virology, knowing what is a safe mask and what is not and when to use them. If someone has symptoms or tests positive you can wait hours, even days, for advice. Yesterday we had someone symptomatic and we phoned the DfE first thing in the morning, who said to expect a phone call back from the health protection service. At 2pm we were still waiting and parents were clamouring to know if they were to keep their children at home,” he says.
Headteachers accept crisis management comes with the job but now it is crisis management 24/7, Sheriff says. “It’s taking over evenings and weekends, and it is a lot to shoulder. You will see some crumble, and others decide to leave a few years earlier than they were going to, and we can’t afford to lose them,” he says.
Amy Harvey, head of St Peter’s junior school in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, says headship has changed beyond recognition. “My job is a kind of hybrid between headteacher, medic, social worker and matriarch. Oh, and delivery driver. During lockdown I had groups organised ringing families or dropping off food.
“It’s wonderful to have the children back,” she says. “But sometimes I feel overwhelmed with self-doubt and anxiety over things such as whether the messages I give parents are clear enough, and the wait when someone is tested. It doesn’t feel as if I ever stop thinking about those aspects that are a completely new part of my job. Not turning off, ever, is very tiring.”
Simon White, head of Egglescliffe school, Stockton-on-Tees is also exhausted and conflicting advice on how to keep students safe does not help. “Heads are getting different advice from different people. A local head with 1,300 students followed government advice but then had a visit from the health and safety executive, who said the measures he had put in place needed to be better, but didn’t offer any solutions,” he says. “Just about every senior leadership team I know is on break and dinner duty from 10.10 in the morning to about 2.15 in the afternoon because students are chunked into different blocks. This is the brand new world of headship, leading our schools and managing Covid alongside.”
Simon Kidwell, head of Hartford Manor primary, in Cheshire, says that while test times have improved, they are still taking too long. “By the time our first case got her results she and her family had been so long in isolation, she was eligible to come back anyway,” he says. “Children are resilient but we have a couple of staff over 70 and I worry about them. We need quick access to tests to make the right decisions.”
Covid-19 is a job in itself, says Rae Snape, head of Milton Road primary in Cambridge. “One of my headteacher colleagues was unblocking toilets last week because her site manager was shattered and had to go home. We don’t want a medal for this but what is hurtful is the view that teachers have not been pulling their weight. It is a team effort by staff to make the children feel safe and restore a sense of normality. It is a shame it is not being appreciated by the government.”
But a little appreciation can go a long way. Robert Morrissey, executive head of St Alphege CE junior school in Solihull, West Midlands, keeps up his spirits by jotting down positive things he sees or hears. “For example, a father picking up his son slowed down and made eye contact with me when I was on gate duty and said: ‘You should be incredibly proud of what you are doing’. It knocked me for six. I was speechless. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the bigger picture.”