Ghost College

Harold Wilson said that a week is a long time in politics, but a week in the unnerving world of COVID-19 is surely longer.  Even the name, COVID-19 has an air of the futuristic, and a scientific feel to it and if we were not all living through this global pandemic, we would surely feel like we were in some far-fetched science fiction novel.

It wasn’t that long ago - 14 March in fact - that I was driving back from a very enjoyable and engaging ASCL Annual Conference, feeling optimistic and invigorated but also mindful of what might be in store in the days ahead.  ASCL President Rachel Warwick’s powerful opening speech kindled a sense of optimism and enthusiasm and her rallying call for an even greater commitment to the need for better diversity within this most noble of professions was greeted with rapturous applause.  A week later and our profession is having to dig deeper than at any point in our history to play our part in this unfolding crisis that may well leave our country, and indeed the whole world, in a very different place to the one  we are currently preparing to leave behind.

Pulling together 
As I headed into work on Monday (16 March), it was clear that things were going to move very rapidly.  The numbers of staff and students going into self-isolation increased as the week went on and by Wednesday it was clear to me that I would have to enforce a partial closure if a national one wasn’t forthcoming.

In tandem with declining student and staff numbers, however, came that ever-increasing sense of community spirit.  At St. Dominic’s our mission is central to our College – we commit to educate academically, spiritually and pastorally and certainly in the last week, the pastoral support for our students has been second to none.  I have to commend my staff for pulling together and going above and beyond for all the students and indeed their parents and the wider community of Harrow on the Hill.

The bombshell announcement of the cancellation of all national examinations sent an earthquake and tsunami rolling through every school and college in the country.  The ramifications of such a decision are yet to be clearly determined but given the position that our country and world currently finds itself in, I believe that cancelling this summer’s series was a difficult but necessary decision in order to try to curb the spread of this dangerous virus.

Uncertainty prevails 
The emails flooded in on Wednesday night and I worked through to the early hours answering communications from distressed, worried and anxious students.  I did my best to help them, as did the rest of my SLT, but in these uncertain times there was little we could say that would make the situation better.  The methodology for us working out the grades the students will be awarded this summer is yet to be defined, although information from the DfE and awarding bodies is due imminently.  I am hoping it will be water-tight and clear, but I somehow feel that it will be almost impossible to achieve universal parity across the country and perhaps, for this year, we have to accept this.

By Friday 20 March we were closing; I ordered 50 pizzas from our local take-away and invited in those Year 13s well enough to be with us for an impromptu 45-minute farewell.  About 300 of them came along – we gathered in our College chapel, suitably distanced from each other, we prayed, we laughed, we cried and we reflected on the situation that we all find ourselves in.  Never in my career did I ever imagine I would be leading such a gathering!

College shutdown
And so we are now locked down, shut, closed until further notice. How unreal is that statement?  Closed until further notice!   My college community is now ‘online’ and we will continue to educate our Year 12s to the very best of our ability until this crisis passes us by.   And when the crisis has passed us by – what then?  A new world order for everyone I hope.  We need it desperately as our world and the beautiful planet we live on is struggling and crying out for us to do things differently.  That requires a global, political and personal shift. 

At a micro-level, I hope that we will see a change in the world of education too.   We need it – whilst the vast majority of us absolutely love what we do and will never cut corners for the students we lead, we are increasingly overwhelmed by a system that demands more and more each year, that has been changed,  reformed and tinkered with by different political parties for the last 40 or so years and is placing pressures on students and staff that are themselves unprecedented.  

Once this is over, and it will be, we need to stop and reflect, think carefully about what really are the essentials and strip out all those things that are not truly necessary to the future generations of our young people. We must prioritise their wellbeing, the notion of their work/life balance and the preservation of the planet upon which they will live and work in equal measure.

Andrew Parkin is Principal of St Dominic’s Sixth Form College, Harrow on the Hill, and a member of ASCL Council.
Posted: 06/04/2020 11:57:54