Licence to swab: School leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic

Simon Uttley writes of the challenges faced by school leaders during the pandemic.

Ever since my mum first sewed that 50m swimming badge onto my trunks at age nine, I have been a martyr for a medal. Little wonder then that I would make education and the celebration of achievement my life, ending up living the dream of running three 11–18 Catholic comprehensive secondary schools for the past 16 years. And loving it. Though I doubt that nine-year-old me could have ever dreamt that his – ostensibly – grown-up version would, on a quieter than usual New Year’s Day in 2021, be found downloading not one but six certificates, proudly recognising not his readiness to teach better, not his ability to lead his school more effectively, but to perform lateral flow tests! School-based Covid tests.

Simon Uttley – licensed to swab. Would nine-year-old me have dared to dream that in my 50s I’d be a certified tester? Well of course not, because that was not a language my nine-year-old self knew, and for me language – specifically the way language has been put to use throughout this pandemic – offers a lens through which I at least can reflect on my experience as a leader running a school akin to the old fairground attraction where you had to negotiate a range of obstacles while the ground beneath your feet was moving. For me there can be little more profoundly satisfying – and deeply privileged vocation – than being able to help in the formation of young people, whether understood as a civic responsibility, a human right or, as in the Catholic school, through the language of faith, the sacraments, Catholic social teaching and the school as an ecclesial community. But our sector, as with so many others, has had to dig deep during this last year. As we pass 100,000 deaths and Downing Street briefings try to tell our story in bar charts, it is always the personal experience that cuts home – people we have known and loved – husbands, wives, grandparents, best friends, and young people too on occasion. I recall the first teacher to be afflicted, the first member of support staff – my friend’s dad. And even with my own mild symptoms that led to my quarantining, it focuses the mind. Experience can be the most brutal of teachers – and experience comes in many forms. Covid-19 has caused huge disruption to our economy and our society; families struggling to keep hold of jobs, parents agonising over whether to send their children into schools, teaching staff concerned about vulnerability. Yet, at least in the state system, we have had relative job security unlike friends and neighbours in other sectors.

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