On the afternoon of 18th of March the First Minister’s announcement made clear that schools should close from Friday 20th March. This opened an utterly unique chapter for members and for AHDS.
At that point the First Minister said that the clearest information she could offer about schools re-opening was that it would be as soon as was appropriate but that she couldn’t promise a return before the summer break.
The prospect of not being back before summer surprised many people. There was considerable speculation that this was a classic case of expectation management. Under-promise and then over-deliver. The reality, of course, was that no one had any insight into what would happen next and whether an earlier (or later) re-opening might be possible.
This was new territory for all of us and the possibility of schools not being open to pupils (or staff) for 22 weeks was astonishing. It had only been three weeks since the Deputy First Minister had run a big media event at the Wester Hailles education centre focused on a much more conventional education agenda and announcing the OECD review of CfE.
Of course, by the 18th March Covid-19 had been on the horizon for some time. This piece rehearses how the situation unfolded and how AHDS engaged on behalf of members throughout this crisis.
The lead in
On the 11th of February we cancelled a long-planned and heavily subscribed event to be led by Pak Tee Ng. We were concerned that this might be considered overkill as there were only 9 confirmed cases in the UK. Pak Tee lives and works in Singapore where, at that point, there were 45 confirmed cases of C-19, a number that was comparatively large. It had also been identified as the point of origin for the small clusters of cases in France and in the UK.
Other than that, life largely continued as normal for a period. We continued to plan a DHT/PT conference and to get things in place for our Annual Conference in November. A range of meetings and other events ran as normal: School Empowerment strategy groups; meetings about SNSAs and the wider National Improvement Framework; Education Scotland professional learning forums; discussions about the registration of BGE teachers; we ran our annual workload survey and started to process the results; work on a review of job-sizing was about to get underway; we even continued to work with out LEAP partners on plans for exchanges with Australian school leaders this year and next!
In March normal meetings started to be postponed and to be replaced with a C-19 focus. To start with this related to the ‘containment’ approach which quickly changed to ‘continuity’. The first coronavirus death confirmed in Scotland was on 13 March. By then AHDS had already been engaged in discussion about SNCT circulars, sought to clarify Government policy and from 16th March participated in very regular meetings of the CoSLA/Unions Workforce Issues Group (for a long period these were daily meetings as so many issues needed to be shared and addressed). By this time, we had started to see school closures in other countries. The general populous was advised to work from home but schools continued. As awareness and concern increased, growing numbers of parents started to keep pupils at home.
On the 18th of March the number of deaths from C-19 in the UK pushed past 100. 676 infections had been recorded in the previous 24hrs. It was announced that all schools would close (to most pupils) on 20 March.
The first period after that was taken up with engagement to help the new arrangements bed in – terms and conditions issues and protocols around hubs in particular. It was not until the 24th of April that the first meeting of the Deputy First Minister’s C-19 Education Recovery Group (CERG) took place. That seems like a big time-lapse now but at the time there was so much going on that the intensity of what was to come next could not have been run in parallel.
Within a couple of days of the establishment of CERG, nine working groups had been established to work on various elements of the eventual return of schools and were up and running. AHDS had representatives on all working groups. Our representatives were drawn from our National Executive – so, aside from the General Secretary, these were serving school leaders who took on group membership in addition to the stretch and strain of leading their school community during this time.
The nature of the CERG and sub-group meetings was that papers and agendas were often issued very close to the meetings themselves. This meant that for the AHDS National Executive to keep on top of developments, and to properly contribute in all meetings, they met on-line most evenings for several weeks.
On behalf of the whole membership, AHDS wishes to extend sincere thanks to the elected National Executive team for making the time to ensure the voice of our members was heard.
Full time return for all pupils
The possibility of all pupils returning to school full time from 11 August was not discussed at CERG prior to the Government announcement – except as an unlikely scenario to highlight that any change from a 2m social distancing arrangement would require additional planning time and there should not be an expectation that it should be done in the summer break. Indeed, our General Secretary was catching up with one Director of Education at 10pm the night before the announcement and even at that point there was speculation but no certainty about what might be announced.
From the announcement that, subject to continued low prevalence of Coronavirus, schools would open to all pupils full-time on 11 August there was a new stream of work in the various groups and subgroups. Amongst many other things there were three elements that we focussed on. The first was to seek a fixed date on which the decision would be taken about the basis of schools’ return – to allow appropriate planning. The second was to argue for an acceptance that time was needed to plan an prepare for any return (as most schools were, by that stage, set up for 2m social distancing while others had not yet made any changes to their arrangements) – to avoid the assumption that school teams would work through the holidays. The third was to develop revised guidance on the reopening of schools to provide as much clarity about what that reopening might look like and what might be required.
All of these things did come about but, unfortunately, the flexibility with regards to the start date for all pupils was not as fully used as we had hoped and as a result a great many members worked during the holidays to ensure a successful return for their team and their pupils. AHDS surveys showed that while many felt that there was a need for recompense for this additional time worked, a sizable majority felt that in the circumstances they either wanted or needed to do the work and were not concerned about payment or time back.
While all but one of CERG’s workstreams have now been concluded, the 3rd of September saw the 23rd meeting of CERG. The group will continue to meet weekly during the coming period to monitor any changes in infection rates or scientific advice to consider amendment to the guidance for schools. AHDS will continue to be represented and to speak up for the interests of members and your schools. At the time of writing the key issues we have been focussed on have been highlighting the level of strain school leadership teams are under; the need for additional staffing; the need for clearer guidance and processes for situations where pupils or staff develop symptoms consistent with C-19 or are confirmed cases; the need to be realistic about what can be undertaken by school leaders when so much time it taken up with operational activities such as covering classes and monitoring phased start/finish times and breaks.
Messages from members tell a story of a tired profession, with end-of-term type exhaustion kicking in after only a couple of weeks back. The pace and stretch of the start of term has definitely been taking its toll. AHDS will continue to relay these pressures to partners across education and to argue for additional supports and mitigations.