Headteacher of St Wilfrid’s school in Crawley, Michael Ferry delivers his report on what has been happening from his schools perspective:
Following the fiasco which we all experienced when the A Level and GCSE results were announced in August, we moved towards the start of term with excitement at the prospect of reopening schools for all students even if the logistical challenges which this presented were huge. Getting all students back was not the problem; nor was offering a broad and balanced curriculum, but when these two opposing forces collided, it meant that every school was having to juggle and make compromises whilst continuing to adapt to what seemed like (and still does) ever changing guidance.
So here we are, in our 8th week of school since the start of term in September and now in a second national lockdown. Where are we at? I could write an essay on the issues but here’s some of the main ones.
Firstly, let’s raise the issue of Free School Meals (FSM). Since Easter I have spent over £13k on food vouchers for families of St Wilfrid’s whose sons/daughters are eligible for a free school meal! Since the start of the first lockdown, the numbers of students now eligible for FSMs here have increased by over 20% and they continue to rise! The reason is simple, almost 26000 people in Crawley have been furloughed (the highest in west Sussex), with the town seeing the highest increases anywhere in England in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit.
A lack of decisive leadership by the Secretary of State for Education/government ministers meant that the decision to provide vouchers through a national scheme was only confirmed at the last minute before some of the school holidays. A great example was the U turn made by the government after Marcus Rashford joined the campaign which was being fought by teachers, education unions and parents themselves. By this time, I had already ordered the vouchers as you simply can’t leave these things to the last minute.
Then we had the recent vote in parliament whereby all of the MPs for Crawley and the surrounding areas voted to defeat the motion that food vouchers should be provided during school holidays to all families entitled to FSMs. Nationally, a party line was followed and to be very blunt and possibly stereotypical, a large number of privileged, wealthy MPs (average basic salary of an MP as of April 2020 is £82k) voted against providing food for children during the holiday periods. The argument being that a change in Universal Credit will solve the problem and as such vouchers are not needed. To rub salt into the wound, the same week that this vote took place, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and families, Vicky Ford MP, wrote to all Headteachers in England to remind us of the importance of healthy eating: “The government encourages all schools to promote healthy eating and provide healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink and to support children to develop healthy eating habits”.
A recent report from the Education Policy Institute (2020) indicated that the gap in achievement between those students who are supported through the provision of FSMs (and some others) and those who do not receive that support has stopped closing and last year, they predicted that it would take 560 years to close the gap completely. As a LA, there is a clear desire to work with schools to ensure that these disadvantaged students are given every amount of support available and I would estimate that this costs hundreds of thousand of pounds per year, possibly more; but if the children who are being supported aren’t being fed then we may as well whistle into the wind!
As a Headteacher, I can honestly say that as a school, we have done everything we possibly can to ensure that our curriculum remains as broad and balanced as it was pre-pandemic, and that the systems we have put in place to maintain low risk levels regarding virus transmission are robust. We have completely changed the way that we work to ensure that we focus on the health and welfare of all of our students and staff on a daily basis but we cannot do everything. Schools of England have some of the smallest buildings with some of the highest student densities of any country in Europe and because of that, it is extremely difficult to maintain social distancing measures at all times; in fact, it is impossible and as such the guidance recognises that by stating that even if we can only do it for some of the time, there is a Public Health benefit.
Prior to half term, we had received notice that 4 students and 2 staff had received positive test results for COVID-19. These were isolated cases spread out across the school and over a few weeks. All staff and students that were deemed to have been in close contact were told to self-isolate for the required 14-day period and the impact was actually only marginal. However, over the half term period I was inundated with confirmation that further positive results had been received by 16 students and 2 staff. This led me to making the decision to close the school to one year group, Year 13, for the first week back after half term. Subsequently, I now have too many staff absent to be able to open the school to all students from next week. These staff absences are not all related to COVID-19, in fact they are less than the majority but the impact remains the same.
The pandemic is no-one’s fault, but a lack of adequate funding over the last 10 years is. The year on year reductions in terms of real terms value of annual funding coming into education which has taken place in the 7 years of me being a headteacher has meant that I have had to reduce the number of staff in school in order to be able to balance my budget. This has meant that as staff have left, they haven’t been replaced in some areas and as such, the capacity to cope with staff absence has reduced massively. This is the position I am in and as such, from next week I am having to operate a rota system for some year groups as you simply cannot have classes where there is no adult and in the current pandemic situation, I have no opportunity to merge classes together even if I did have the space, which I don’t.
So yes, more learning time in school is being lost and as we look ahead to the Summer of 2021, we are being told by the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Gavin Williamson, that examinations are the “fairest way” to assess young people. He has also previously stated that the purpose of education is to prepare young people for work. He is fundamentally wrong on both counts. The purpose of education is in fact to support parents and carers to develop all children holistically, to make them better human beings and by doing so allow them to have a positive impact on society, to make that society better. Yes, developing skills which will allow them to go into the world of work is part of that, but it is not the primary focus.
Our whole exam system pre-pandemic and the way that grades are allocated is already completely unfair. It is a one size fits all system which only allows a certain number of students to achieve each grade each year; it is not based on merit but on a statistical formula which ensures that every year, 1/3 of all students taking each exam and every exam are unable to gain a level 2 pass (new grade 4+, old grade C+) as the statistical model doesn’t allow for it. So how can a system which is already unfair suddenly become fair in the current circumstances.
Many years ago, I remember reading the poem about the charge of the Light Brigade; “half a league, half a league onward… into the valley of death rode the 600”. The current position of delaying some examinations (and it is only some) until the start of June means that the delayed start gives schools and students roughly 3 weeks to make up for the 14 weeks lost due to being out of school in the last academic year and for any time lost in this current year. Even if students are in school, there is no guarantee that they will be taught by their teacher or indeed a subject specialist given the impact that the pandemic is having on staffing. I can say that for certain given my experiences lately but also because it is happening across all schools in England. So, just as the cavalry of the Light Infantry carried on regardless, knowing full well they would be slaughtered, we are currently “carrying on regardless” towards an examination season which will completely disadvantage many students across the country. This pandemic is not their fault but we currently have a lack of leadership from the Department for Education which simply doesn’t recognise that we need urgent reforms and we need them now. This should have been a priority for the government and we should have known from September but instead, the news of the delays to some exams was reported on a “good day to bury bad news” ie. the day when the new Local Tiered Restrictions was also announced. There is plenty of time left to work with the teaching profession, and we are keen to be involved, to put something in place but we simply cannot wait; we have waited too long already!
So, we start the 2nd national lockdown with higher levels of unemployment which is having a desperate effect upon many families finances and as a government, we are happy that universal credit will solve the problem of starving children; we have had a lack of adequate funding over a sustained 10 year period in education which is making it even harder for schools to cope as we strive to remain open to all, and we continue to look ahead to what is already an unfair assessment system being repeated with a “3 week delay”. Is it any wonder that I remember that poem?
Finally, there has been much press talk about how Christmas will be cancelled; you can’t, the clue is in the name 😊
Elf Day at Crawley College helps raise money for Alzheimer’s society
Staff and students at Crawley College Group joined other colleges across their group including Chichester, Brinsbury, Haywards Heath and Worthing Colleges – as they dressed as elves earlier this month in support of Elf Day, a festive themed fundraising event for Alzheimer’s Society.
The days helped to raise nearly £1,500 for the group’s charity of the year.
Lisa Humphries, Director of Student Services and Pastoral Support for the Chichester College Group, said:
“Everyone out-elved themselves in support of Alzheimer’s Support.
“We were overwhelmed by the support everyone gave us, raising an incredible amount to kick-off our fundraising efforts for our chosen charity of the year.
“The elves really were out in force on all campuses, from making treats to sell to walking many memory miles and attending virtual workshops to find out more about dementia.
“The support our students and staff gave us was phenomenal, especially our student experience team who organised events at all of our colleges.”
The Chichester College Group will be fundraising for Alzheimer’s Society throughout the remainder of the academic year, with more events planned over the coming months/
To donate, please visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ccg2021