Talking heads: West Leeds headteachers speak of lockdown frustrations


Words: Jo Fiddes

Additional reporting: John Baron

“The education of children is being lost in the fog of parental complaints.”  That’s the stark analysis on the current position in schools, from Pete McQuillen-Strong – head teacher of Holy Family Primary School in Armley.
This, and other frustrations, came out loud and clear at West Leeds MP Rachel Reeves’ most recent online Head Teacher Round Table event.

These termly meetings are an opportunity for school leaders to discuss with each other and the MP, how ministerial decisions on education matters are working out “on the ground.”

Here’s what they are saying…..

The Government’s decision to close schools

“The message that most children should stay at home hasn’t been communicated clearly,” said Paula Head of Cobden Primary School. “Bosses and parents are ringing us up and we are faced with a high level of disgruntlement and even aggression.

“It’s understandable as people have to work to put food on the table, but it does mean that during this “lockdown” we have a much higher occupancy. It would be useful for the government to have included some specific information, such as a limit on “bubble” sizes, rather than the very woolly guidance we are all trying to work with. Against this backdrop conversations with parents are extremely challenging.”

This was a view shared by all – in some schools, the majority of children are attending school as they fall into the “vulnerable” category, usually because they don’t have laptops at home. Pete McQuillen-Strong added:

“Even though the Covid data is worse, this feels very different to the first lockdown, when most children were at home. It’s very confusing – and possible Covid transmission in school settings is a real worry for us.”

It’s understandable that heads are worried – Government data, recently analysed by the National Education Union (NEU), shows that on average the rate of COVID infection is 1.9 times higher amongst primary and secondary teachers than the general population.

It is 2 times higher for special school teachers. For teaching assistants and other staff, the rate of COVID infection is three times higher in primary schools and almost seven times higher in special schools.

Teacher wellbeing and workload 

Heads have a duty of care for both pupils and staff, and this was clearly preying on the minds of the school leaders. Sarah Griggs, head at Valley View Community Primary School said:

“Teachers are trying to teach pupils in front of them, as well as preparing online lessons for those at home – it has dramatically increased their workload, and I worry about burn out and their mental health almost as much as I worry about Covid.

“All this at a time when they are also worrying about their own health and that of their own families.”

Sarah added that she wished the Government would give school leaders more credit for being skilled professionals:

“We know that teachers have the skills to help children catch up when this is all over, and currently we should perhaps be prioritising doing all we can to reduce the spread of the virus.”

Heads felt that vaccinations for school staff would mean schools could open fully more quickly – as well as helping everyone feel safer.

Ms Reeves has recently written to Nadhim Zahawi MP, the Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Covid-19 Vaccine Deployment, asking him to consider prioritising teachers and school staff for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Thoughts on current Education Secretary

Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, was singled out for much criticism over his suggestion that parents should report schools to Ofsted if they felt that the online learning provision was not good enough.

“It is really infuriating finding out how you’re going to do your job through press releases and national announcements as we have no time to prepare. The guidance from the DfE came out 3 days after the lockdown announcement which isn’t good enough when we’re trying to field questions from staff and parents.”
Referring to the Education Secretary, Mr Carr added:

“His remarks were made the day before actual expectations for online learning were even published, and just two days after leaders found out they would now be expected to provide remote education.

“As school leaders we are united in our desire to address educational and social disadvantage. We have a moral purpose and have therefore taken on, without question, the new challenges the pandemic has presented. Schools now operate as food banks, social care providers, COVID testing centres, counselling hubs, and childminding services. We are doing more with less; every day. We need additional funds and support, not threats to report us to Ofsted.”

Labour Shadow minister for Schools Wes Streeting attended the meeting and is planning a visit to West Leeds to meet the heads in person as soon as circumstances allow. He thanked the heads for their contributions and raised a smile when he reminded them that Gavin Williamson’s “report schools to Ofsted” advice had actually backfired – Ofsted was deluged with over 5,000 e-mails praising the work that schools are doing.

Schools should re-open ‘as soon as possible’ – Government

Schools in England will reopen “as soon as possible”, Schools Minister Nick Gibb told the Commons today. He said:

“We are acutely aware of the damage to children’s education and development – particularly to the most disadvantaged pupils by being away from school and of the increased burdens placed on parents.”

He said that throughout the pandemic “the government has been clear that education is a national priority”.

“We had worked hard to keep all schools, colleges and universities fully open but scientific advice we received in January meant we had no choice but to close schools and colleges to all but vulnerable children and the children of critical workers.”

He said remote learning was no substitute for face-to-face-learning said there would be an announcement in the next few days and that two weeks would be given.


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