'Listen to heads to build back better after pandemic'

'Listen to heads to build back better after pandemic'

With Covid cases rising across the country and teachers told to prepare for more remote learning, life in schools is clearly far from returning to normal.

Now more than ever it is important that the right decisions are made to support staff as they set out to help pupils recover learning lost to the havoc of the pandemic.

For Caroline Derbyshire, the new chair of the Headteachers' Roundtable, which aims to influence education policy at the highest level, the solution lies with listening to school leaders – rather than relying on the instincts of the "amateurs" in government.

Ms Derbyshire, who is executive head of Saffron Walden County High School and CEO of Saffron Academies Trust, will be succeeding former head Stephen Tierney at the helm of the organisation.

In an exclusive interview with Tes, she shares her vision for what the roundtable can achieve for school leaders in the wake of the Covid crisis.

"I think the thing about the Headteachers' Roundtable is that it's very much a think tank, it's a way of bringing heads together who want to help to shape education policy, not because they're part of formal structures of other organisations or associations – we're all members of those organisations too – but this is a more informal platform for that.

"We don't have terms of reference, we don't have the same sort of rules and regulations that bind other groups, so we want to be able to chip our ideas in, talk freely, develop between us, and be listened to.

"And I think from my perspective, heads have earned the right to be listened to. We have the kinds of experience and expertise that government needs, and if it wants to build back better as it says it does, it needs to draw upon the builders and the architects and get their ideas to help to do that. And I think that our particular contribution is really those ideas and those policies."

"We've done what we've had to do, and I think that people have been proud to lead and to be appreciated for the work that we've done.

"But I think what is going to an extreme that is not acceptable is when you start putting additional scrutiny on heads above and beyond what is necessary.

And I think that comes into that whole question of accountability, and the labels that schools get put on and the role of Ofsted. And I think that there's a sense in which that needs to be looked at.

"If you're going to retain good people in education, you need to take off the ridiculous amount of accountability that heads sit with all the time.

"That's the thing that drives headteachers away. It also lays waste to headteachers – good people who end up in jobs in the most challenging schools, they find that they are laid waste to by a punitive system.

"And that's not great for retention either, because those of us who are working in schools that have been successful look at our colleagues and think, well, there but for the grace of God."

"I think being a teacher has been particularly difficult over the last couple of years. If your only experience of being a teacher is to teach during a pandemic, first of all, you've had the joy of online teaching (I say with great irony).

"And then you've had this situation where you've been quite isolated in your classroom, not able to get in and amongst the students in a way that I think that most teachers enjoy doing. So that's going to be an issue.

"I think there is likely to be an exodus of teachers who just think, "this isn't what I expected, how long is this going to go on like this for?". So that's a challenge for us. 

"The thing about retaining teachers is the fact that schools at their best are fun places, students are fantastic to work with, other graduate teaching colleagues are tremendous fun, and if we can emphasise that, and the uplifting nature of the job, that I think, actually, will carry all the rest through. 

"The most important thing is that we put value back into teaching. As a country we're very poor at valuing our teachers and doing so in the way we present teaching as a profession.

"And I think there's an awful lot more that can be done to go back to seeing teaching as something which is a tremendously valuable, worthwhile and highly, highly regarded profession."

"Well, I suppose the thing is, that's a prime example of asking the wrong question, isn't it? So if you ask an expert, what does it take? They will give you an honest answer. And then you might not like the answer, but then you shouldn't have asked the question. That's my feeling about it.

"If I were to have ideas about how to resource recovery from this situation, the first thing I would do is look at per pupil funding, because actually if you put the money into the hands of the heads, they can distribute those resources in a way that is impactful, and they can make a difference.

"And if you constantly build structures and hoops that heads have got to jump through, they will not be able to make the difference and they won't have that power.

"I'll give you a prime example of that, is tuition. The best kind of tuition is headteachers being able to over-appoint staff and build some one-to-one through their over-capacity. And that means everybody's following a shared curriculum that is targeted at the needs of the students, and you can make a difference where it counts.

"However, if what you're having to be told is, "you can spend this amount of money on this company, you're going to be delivering this, you will not be communicating with your staff," it's a fairly pointless exercise and actually a waste of money in my view.

"So I think that for me, resource schools to the max, that's what they're doing in a lot of other countries, give the respect to the school leaders who will know exactly where to put that money and how to invest it in a way that makes a difference to young people, and then provide some really good advice from people like Sir Kevan about what makes a difference. Give us the money but also then give us the research and the advice, we'll do the rest.

I think that there needs to be a longer term investment. We'll have ended up having three to four years potentially of disrupted learning. I can't see this being over any time soon. So we need a long term reinvestment.

"We've had a crisis and it's no good pretending we can just conjure it out of thin air. We need to put resource behind that in order to be able to build back. 

"We're talking about children all the way from Reception to sixth form age, whose education has been interrupted at different points – disrupted, certainly.

"They need a long term, probably a decade of investment to make a difference to them. Otherwise, they'll always be the Covid kids, and that's not acceptable. So it does need to start immediately. And it needs to be sustained.

"The Headteachers' Roundtable started from educationalists who used Twitter a lot. It has evolved since then, but Twitter remains an important way of sharing ideas quickly across the country, and a lot of heads use it and it's really been incredibly valuable, actually, over the last 18 months to keep abreast of everything that's been happening and the speed at which change has been happening.

"It's [also] a way that division can be seeded and I think that's really unfortunate because people have their own views and their own takes on education, and that sometimes gets in the way of headteachers genuinely being able to engage with policy as a group.

"There's a big role for the roundtable to kind of take on there. We don't all share the same perspective on things, some of us fit with one camp and others fit with the others, we've got a variety of political views, etc.

"That's not what it's about. This is not about ideology and it's not about any particular political agenda. It's about doing some proper thinking around the needs of children and education as a space.

"And to use the expertise that we've got to shape policy rather than allow the amateurs in government to come up with plans that they think will be popular, and we've got a role in that, we need to be listened to.