As executive head of an alternative provision school and two social, emotional and mental health schools (SEMH), I know from experience that the start of a new academic year brings its challenges. Pupils can take time to settle back into school life after the summer break and routines can take time to be established as well as welcoming many new children and all the issues that come with that.
But in my 24-year teaching career, never before have I experienced such a difficult and frankly chaotic start to the school year on a national scale.
Our teaching teams have worked tirelessly over the summer to make sure our schools are as safe as they possibly can be, meeting all government “Covid-safe" guidelines. We have introduced meticulous handwashing, created one-way systems, re-arranged classrooms, and ensured social distancing in some form or other where we can.
There has, understandably, been some anxiety, among teachers, parents, and pupils, yet the overwhelming response from our school communities has been joy and relief to see children back in the classroom. Our Heads of Schools and I have worked hard to provide reassurance and we have been confident that our new measures are robust and in line with all government guidelines. For many families who have children with special needs, the last six months have been an extra struggle, and getting these young people back to school on a full-time basis is much needed.
So, all was looking positive on the first couple of days back at all our schools. Pupils adapted to new routines, with everyone perhaps appreciating school just that little bit more than they did before lockdown.
But on my fourth morning in, I began to get calls from concerned members of staff reporting they had Covid-type symptoms and wanting to know what to do. Following guidelines, heads of school told them that they must stay at home, book a test immediately, and come back to work as soon as they had a negative result.
As any teacher knows, coughs and colds are rife at school, particularly in the Autumn term as we move towards winter. How on earth could we distinguish a typical cold-related cough and a Covid cough? The answer is you can’t so there is no option but to err on the side of caution and tell staff to stay at home until they can access a test and produce a negative result.
Due to the nature of the provision we offer, we require a high staff to pupil ratio. Lose too many staff and the school environment is unsafe. Many of our pupils, particularly those with SEMH needs, will become highly unsettled with a change of teacher – and this can cause huge knock-on effects in terms of behaviour and anxiety.
On paper, we felt we could manage a system of staff having to stay off for a day or two while they got a test and then, with a negative result, could be straight back in the classroom. What I didn’t bank on was my staff being unable to get tested, due to the testing network seemingly imploding and having no choice but to stay off work for the mandatory 14 days. Even those lucky enough to get a test are having to wait several days for the results.
In normal times, we do of course manage staff illness and absence as all schools do, but not on this exceptional scale. Frustratingly, this would be completely avoidable if the testing system was up and running properly, as we were all promised it would be.
Many headteachers across the country have come out this week to say that school closures are inevitable if teaching staff and indeed pupils cannot access tests. This is absolutely true. You cannot run a school with 50 per cent of your staff isolating at home, wondering if their seasonal cough happens to be Covid-19. Indeed, as a headteacher, I would not want to put any of my staff or pupils at unnecessary risk, so there is no alternative but to follow this course of action - despite us having had no confirmed cases at any of our schools so far.
I fear without a major change of direction and shake-up of our testing system, children will again be the ones to suffer as schools have no choice but to revert to home learning. In my mind this cannot happen – there is too much at stake. I can only hope that the government will deliver on its commitment to increase testing capacity quickly and in the meantime, my staff and I will do whatever we can to keep our children in the classroom, where they belong.
Neil Miller is executive headteacher at London South East Academies Trust