By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
In this brave new world of supposedly ‘living with Covid’, the latest education attendance figures were published on Tuesday. And they prompted a small flurry of confusion.
First, they showed a slight fall in the number of pupils out of school because of Covid-19. This is good news.
But, secondly, they showed unnervingly that overall school attendance rather than being up (as might be expected) was actually down.
The reason for this apparent contradiction is pretty simple. Absence because of Covid-19 is just one element in overall absence. In the latest statistics it represents 2.2% of pupils, while overall absence is 11.4%.
That begs a question about attendance in general and there is certainly a feeling – supported by anecdotal evidence – that the pandemic appears to have worsened problems of disengagement among some students, as well as stress and anxiety among others.
In other words, there is, it seems, both direct and indirect Covid-related absence.
On top of this is staff absence which also fell slightly in the latest statistics but which we know remains a very significant issue for many schools.
One fifth of schools had more than 15% of their teachers absent last week – a level of disruption that is simply unsustainable.
A lot of this absence is directly caused by Covid-19, but what we don’t know is how much of it is attributable to physical and mental exhaustion driven by the impact of the pandemic and a conspicuous lack of government support.
Certainly, the reality behind the statistics is bleak. Here is one message to ASCL that illustrates just how bleak it is on the frontline, and which is reproduced with the sender’s permission:
"I'm going to try and type this without ranting...
Firstly, staff and pupil absence.
This week, for the first time, I am unable to fully staff school. Yesterday I made the decision to keep Y9 at home for today and they will also be at home tomorrow, along with another year group as my staff absence levels have reached over 30%.
Our attendance has been hovering around 89 -90% for most of the academic year but it is now dipping below 88%.
I have made the difficult decision that I cannot continue in my role and have offered my resignation for next Christmas.
The overwhelming pressure of Ofsted, performance tables, trying to support pupils with complex mental health issues, increasingly needy and challenging parents who see us as either the last frontier for everything or the enemy, unrealistic expectations of accountability and a complete lack of any understanding from a government who have no idea of the real challenges we face as leaders, are all contributing factors to me deciding I cannot go on.
I have worked in my school for 8 years and it will break my heart to leave, but the job has become untenable and I need to put my physical and mental health first. I am tired of working 60-hour weeks, tired of being told we have to do more and I am tired of feeling that no matter what I do, it will never be good enough.
As of yet I have no idea what I am going to do in January 2023, but the relief I feel in knowing I have an end point to what is fast becoming something of a nightmare, is huge.
This academic year has been the hardest I have ever experienced in over 24 years of working in schools. Then there are the last 2 years. I don't think I need to say anything else on that subject. And the government wants to publish performance tables? Seriously? It's the final straw.
I hope that at some point, someone in government will recognise that if we want to retain school leaders, something has to change. And it has to change soon."
Warm words of support are not enough.
I know from my inbox that the message above is likely to chime with many other school and college leaders. It would be nice to think that it might be heard also in the corridors of power.
But I think we have to resign ourselves to the fact that this will not happen. We tell them about the reality of what it is like in our schools and colleges all the time, but they reside in a bubble which feels frustratingly out of touch, and resolutely tone deaf.
In the longer term, we may be able to reset the dial through tireless campaigning, lobbying and pressure. Parents will be our allies in this, who increasingly tell us that they too feel that children and young people in their schools and colleges have been abandoned by the government.
But, I suspect, the best we are going to get from ministers in the short term is a smattering of feel-good platitudes.
They’ll thank you for everything you have done, while insisting on pressing ahead with publishing performance tables, removing free Covid tests, pretending there are no funding pressures, and freezing your pay.
But – frankly - if this results in an exodus of leaders and teachers, as it well might do, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
But there may be one other source of comfort and solace in these difficult times, and it is this – the real and tangible achievements of school and college leaders, and your staff, over the past two years.
You may not have noticed what you have achieved. But we have.
You have risen to a challenge that no generation of leaders and teachers has ever faced before. You have weathered a storm that has been relentless. You have done everything asked of you, however arcane, madcap or out of your comfort zone.
And you have done this not for the government or all those sniping critics on the sidelines or backbenches.
You’ve done what you’ve done for your children and young people, for your staff, you parents, for your community.
And in the process, you have reaffirmed a morally-driven commitment to the optimistic power of education, to the safety and security, the rhythms and reassurance that our schools and colleges provide.
That may not feel like much comfort at the end of a term which has been fraught and, after two years, has been so bruising.
But – even for that headteacher above who has decided that after 24 years in education enough is enough - yours is an incredible achievement. As the Easter break begins, others may not have noticed. But many of us have, and we feel humbled by what we have seen from you.
Enjoy a well-earned break.
is ASCL General Secretary.