The school I run has lost five staff due to Covid test delays. This can't go on | Jules White

When I signed up for headship a dozen or so years ago I had a bold vision of leading a cruise-liner school to exciting educational destinations. Yes, there would be the occasional storm along the way, but I’d be on hand to steer a course through to calm waters.

In recent times though, I feel like someone who’s been put in charge of the Titanic; desperately trying to safely navigate 1,500 pupils and 180 staff past a giant coronavirus-inspired iceberg. The challenges are nobody’s fault, but along the way I wouldn’t have minded some occasional support from the ship’s owners.

Since March, my political bosses have constantly “talked the talk” – promising laptops for disadvantaged pupils, additional funding to cover the costs of Covid-19 and hi-tech solutions for “live” home learning. The reality, however, has been a relentless battle to keep the ship afloat. And all thisagainst a background of ever-changing and contradictory directives from the Department for Education, failed and delayed initiatives, and topped off with an absurd exams fiasco where everyone was to blame apart from rigid and inflexible ministers themselves.

Alongside this, like so many other school leaders around the country, I spent the summer preparing for risk assessments, “bubbles” and staggered starts in order to fulfil the sensible ambition of getting every child back to school. I am proud that my school, along with so many others, has delivered. On the first day back, we recorded pupils’ attendance at 97% – with every colleague present to teach and support our students, too.

I assumed the government would have put in place the conditions for schools to continue to function properly. I didn’t need or expect “moonshots” or even “world-beating” mechanisms – just a test-and-trace system that allowed teachers to teach and students to learn.

Just two weeks into a new term, my own bubble has been well and truly burst.

Yesterday, for example, I had four members of staff out of school as they, or isolating family members, waited either for a Covid test or for its results. Another colleague is out for 14 days – not because they are ill, but because they are isolating and adhering to government guidance.

The critical point is that, with an efficient testing system, colleagues who are highly likely to return a negative test could return to work within 24-48 hours rather than languishing at home.

The knock-on effects are considerable. Most importantly, students who have already lost so much learning time are being deprived of specialist teachers or teaching assistants to help them catch up. Critically, the ability of Year 11 students to prepare for GCSEs, which are just eight months away, is being severely compromised.

Being quite a large school, we are just about coping, but many smaller schools are increasingly under pressure. The spectre of rolling partial school closures as a result of staff shortages is drawing ever closer.

It doesn’t take a “moonshot” genius to work out that if we have already got problems now, two weeks after restarting, then a term of winter coughs and colds will inevitably make matters worse. Far worse.

Without rapid and reliable testing, which prioritises staff and schoolchildren, the whole system will grind to a halt as teachers and pupils are forced to stay at home awaiting test results for themselves and/or household members. And if more than one pupil in a “bubble” eventually tests positive then whole year-groups may have to stay home.

The negative effects of further school closures on children’s academic progress and emotional wellbeing will be colossal, while the wider impact on families and our economy could be catastrophic.

At a time of crisis, it is important not to be unfairly blaming those in charge, but headteachers up and down the country feel we have been badly let down by our political masters. There is a lack of decisive planning and communication from the Department for Education. Rarely are we contacted for our professional thoughts and advice. We are, however, frequently promised support that doesn’t fully materialise.

On Wednesday I woke up to the news that schools will be prioritised for testing, and a new hotline will be in place to help us better serve our staff and pupils. I will try to remain relentlessly optimistic – yet I retain a sinking feeling that I will be bailing out the in-rushing water from my ship for a long time to come.

• Jules White is headteacher at Tanbridge House school in Horsham, West Sussex


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