The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges that modern society has faced.
With the amount of uncertainty and potentially difficult choices that have to be taken, it is sometimes easy to lose track of your wellbeing and mental health, as well as those around you. Looking after yourself and your colleagues is a key concern.
It is an especially tough time for headteachers and school leaders who have to deal with an unprecedented situation, one that will probably get worse before it gets better.
Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of Education Support, the only UK charity dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of the entire education workforce, is concerned for school leaders because of the stressful situation they are facing.
She said: “Nobody under tremendous pressure does their best work. I would encourage school leaders to just take a breath and try and take some hours off. Just take a pause to allow themselves to catch up with everything that’s happened.
“Then the task at hand is to think about this in a more sustainable way. And to start to ask ourselves, what is reasonable to expect from staff in this timeframe. It is not reasonable to expect staff to deliver the curriculum through Google classrooms or whatever platform you’re using, it’s not reasonable to expect that the outcomes for children will be as they would have been, or even close to it. And, of course, we have to anticipate the very significant deprivation gap, or the amplification of the current deprivation gap, that is likely to occur over the next three to six months.”
And Sinéad has a plea for headteachers and school leaders to not ask staff to do extensive amounts of additional work or to develop a full term’s worth of curriculum over one week on a learning platform they’ve never used.
Sinéad added: “There’s a handful of schools that have been asking staff to come in and sort out classroom displays or to keep time sheets to explain how they use their time. I think that’s extraordinarily poor leadership in these circumstances.”
She believes that school leaders should ask three questions going forward: What can we do? How are we going to approach this? What’s our strategy?
And it’s not just school staff that are feeling disoriented at this time but the pupils themselves. They have lost their usual routines, contact with their friends, having to deal with a different learning environment and the worry that surrounds them.
Richard Crellin, Policy Manager for The Children’s Society, believes these will be difficult times for children, especially those in Year 6 who will have missed out on traditional end of year activities, such as leaving parties.
He said: “Obviously saying goodbye is important to pupils and the closure that brings to them and to staff. Also they may well be missing out on transition events, like visits to secondary schools they might be heading to in the next academic year, which will cause anxiety.”
Richard’s advice is firstly to talk about the situation but to let the kids guide the conversation: “I think adults often come to it with an agenda. I want to talk about your SATs or how you’re not seeing your friends. The best thing is to try and do it in a more unstructured way by asking ‘what’s going on?’. Try to let them lead the way and really listen to what they have to say rather than inserting your own thoughts and feelings into the process.”
The way daily life has changed will have consequences on children’s wellbeing. The Society, in their own research program, use The Good Childhood Index to measure well-being overall and in relation to ten aspects of life. Home and Family are two of the most important and, obviously, children are spending more time with both.
Richard said: “This may lead to better family relationships as a result for many. But for the most vulnerable and for those coming from homes where there are quite significant issues, they’re not going to be very pleasant at all. We’re very worried about young people who are receiving support from social care.”
The Children’s Society, to help support vulnerable children who are in greater danger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, is launching an emergency appeal. They are asking for donations to help the frontline staff deliver vital care packages to children in need, provide urgent support and advice and arrange an emergency response for children in imminent danger when they are too high risk or scared to do it themselves.
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for Mind,the mental health charity, is also reminding school leaders to reassure their pupils: “You might be concerned about the children that you teach. This will be a worrying and uncertain time for many children and young people, and we’re encouraging all schools to prioritise keeping children safe and supporting their wellbeing.”
And to help in that reassurance, Mind launched a new online guide for children worried about coronavirus. Some of the topics covered include:
What is coronavirus?
What can I do if I am worried about someone else?
What can I do if I am worried about staying indoors with others?
What can I do if I am worried about my health?
How can I cope with staying at home?
Mind also suggests a couple of resources that may be helpful, such as the Mental Health at Work coronavirus toolkit which brings together a selection of helpful online resources to support people at work during this period. ACAS have also produced some coronavirus guidance for employers and employees which covers self-isolation and sick pay, business closure and if someone has to take time off to look after someone.
Stephen also suggests that headteachers and school leaders use Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype or other communication/collaborative working platforms to connect with colleagues and work together. He says it could also be a good idea to use a range of technologies so you’re not always typing or looking at a screen – maybe a telephone or video call.
Above all there will be a mental health and wellbeing cost not only in an education setting but across society as a whole.
Sinéad McBrearty, CEO of the charity Education Support, has a final piece of advice for school leaders and headteachers. She said: “Stay human, focus on the relationship and prioritise care not the curriculum. Let your staff know that there is free counselling and financial support available for people who need it. Also be transparent. We are all going to suffer, I don’t think there will be a person in the country who won’t experience pressure on their own mental health during this time. So I think to accept that, and discuss it, is more helpful than pretending that you’re a super strong leader and it doesn’t affect you.”
Education Support is manning a free helpline with trained counsellors for education staff on 08000 562 561. They are also offering confidential grants service available to current and former education staff who are struggling financially. To find out more go to https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/
If you would like to donate to the The Children’s Society’s emergency appeal then follow this link.
You can find additional help and support for children and parents on Covid-19 here.