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Ask Andy – Blog 7

With wellness our priority, we will see standards rise.

As I write, in the third week of July, schools and their staff are, by and large getting their first break since February, free from the daily challenges of blended learning and managing the implications of a global pandemic. This has been the strangest of times when the freedoms we have hitherto enjoyed have been curtailed to protect each other from the virus.

The loss of the freedoms and autonomy we previously took for granted has given us a sense confinement and not just in terms of staying at home. It has also given us time to question how confined our school system is. The profession has asked just how much autonomy and freedom schools have, when ultimately the success of schools is judged by test outcomes and the validity of these test outcomes is confirmed by the inspection system. When this is combined with an unacceptable impact on staff and pupil mental health which has resulted in the greatest level of demand on pupil mental health services and record numbers of school professionals leaving the profession, a concerned profession is entitled to question the government strategy. It seems that schools can have all the autonomy they want as long as it is filtered through a Westminster inspired system of tests and accountability. Is this really autonomy or small freedoms within wider central control?

However the Covid era has seen a number of stars align to create strong and convincing principles for change.

The education community will always put learners first

Whilst there is a child in the school, professionals will always put the student first. This means that anything that impacts a student’s mental health and wellbeing will be challenged and quite rightly too. That challenge will rightly extend to government policy where it impacts negatively on students.

We will always be changed by Covid

Nobody who has lived through the Covid era will ever forget it. It will be something we will teach about in years to come. Many of us have lost loved ones to this awful virus and its impact is prompting questions about how we previously treated each other and how we view the world and our own mortality. Professionally, we are asking questions about the validity of our old education system and there is a demand for change to learn from this period and make life better for everyone as we emerge. To celebrate life and to allow us to flourish on the back of our humanity. The mantra of “whatever it takes” to get the best test results, set against the impact to our own health and mortality, places a level of importance on testing and accountability that is unacceptable. Good health should always be our priority for staff and learners alike. Without it we can achieve nothing with a good set of test results alone.

Joined up conversations and organisation of change

The “Zoom” era of lockdown has seen huge numbers of school professionals joining together to discuss the future of education and a new normal. Zoom has had a huge impact on these conversations, bringing conversations together rather than being held in private. One such gathering was the #CollectivEd/ Leeds Beckett University event called “Can we be the midwives of our own futures” and Charmaine Roche’s blog summarising the symposium is a warning that if moderate professionals’ views are ignored, those demands can become revolutionary. Education professionals now have a national conversation, a national platform and identity. You can read more by clicking here.

Back to normal and catch up

Where there is a genuine desire for change amongst the profession, it seems that those in power and with authority can’t wait to a return to the old system which we know was flawed. The comfort blanket for them of scheduled tests taking place, data to be able to praise or condemn schools and the notion of a norm that all children can aspire to with “catch up” bolted on, is back to the achievement of a national norm whatever it costs. We need to remember that these norms are not set in stone, God given or infallible and not all learners will be above national average! Just because it is easy to do what we’ve always done doesn’t mean it is right.

Learners should be supported to be the best they can be for its own sake, not the best that they can be so that they are in line with a notional national average.

All of the above are motivators for change; to develop a system which encourages learners to thrive and flourish and for those working in our schools to regain the joy of teaching as a means to improve the whole child and not just their test results. Its what teachers came into the profession to do.

So what are the next steps?

We need to give autonomy to the profession to make the changes to support pupil and staff mental health without those same leaders being penalised through the current accountability system. There are brave leaders out there in schools spending time and resource supporting this agenda but that is time that they haven’t spent driving pupil progress towards higher academic standards. Our system of accountability is not sophisticated enough to take this into account and often the best these schools can attain is a good judgement. Some of these schools are in some of the most deprived areas in the country. The school vision for meeting the learners mental health needs often means sacrificing any hope of recognition by the current accountability structure.

In September what we need most is staff and learners feeling mentally and physically strong to meet the challenges ahead, which was why it was so important to secure a break for these staff who have worked non stop since February. We need schools being given space to develop a wellbeing and mental health support offer which allows staff and pupils to flourish and thrive. The work of Our National Wellbeing Partnership provides the expertise for this to happen but schools still need permission to do the right thing, even if that means slower progress towards national averages. In unique times like these we need unique solutions not a return to the old normal. If we can get staff and learners mentally and physically well, standards will rise in time.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can support your staff and pupils to thrive and really flourish, you can find out more by watching this video here. 

Ask Andy

If you have questions about wellbeing practice, would like to suggest future content for Andy's blogs or if you are having success with wellbeing culture in your school and would like to share your story, please complete the form below.