A year in the life of a school

Week 3: Absences Make The Heart Go Faster

In the third of an ongoing series of blogs for the 2021-2022 academic year, Executive Headteacher Max Kelly captures his week working in primary schools in the Isle of Man. As the year goes on he hopes his blogs will paint a picture of a “Year In The Life Of A School”….

Monday 20th September

Over the weekend I take a call from one of my Heads of School. Positive for C19. I knew we’d get cases within our school community once we came back after the summer – and this was our first in our third week back. I knew this meant that the week ahead was going to be extra busy – you always feel the effect of being a man down, but when it’s your deputy the impact is even more pronounced. 

In addition to our C19 absence, my EYFS teacher was also absent today, so I messaged the team to say “good luck” and to encourage them to look out for one another and all pull together. They will do this anyway – they’re a great bunch of really professional and dedicated colleagues and need no such encouragement from me to make sure all hands are on deck. 

It’s a busy start when I get in. I make a few tweaks to where some of our support staff will be deployed for the day and head outside to meet and greet parents and pupils. After that I pull up our risk assessment for C19 and check that the mitigations we’ve listed for when we have a confirmed case are being followed. I send a memo round to the staff encouraging them to test via LFD twice weekly, and ideally before the joint-federation staff meeting on Wednesday. I also encourage the staff to wear a face covering for the staff meeting as we’ll be bringing everyone together into one room, and even though we have a big space and the windows / doors will be open, the extra precautions of a pre-meet test and the wearing of a face covering seem sensible. 

By mid-morning one of my teachers has taken a downhill trip to the valley of illness and I decide to send them home. As they leave they book themselves in for a PCR test via 111. It means another round of moving staff around and requesting people give up their PPA to help with cover (obviously PPA will be repaid later in the week – I’m very fortunate to have a staff team who really do pull together and will act flexibly to help meet the needs of the children.)

At lunchtime I don my jacket and head outside to do some lunchtime duty. Lunchtime is always a very busy period of the day, and we take the decision to get as many children as we can to eat outside as part of our C19 mitigations. It’s dry and the temperature is pleasant, but unfortunately there are lots of late-summer wasps around and it makes for a difficult time. After lunch I ask our administrator to call pest control and see if someone can come down and give us some advice. 

I spend some time contacting supply teachers in the afternoon to arrange for cover for my teacher who has gone home unwell – I only choose from a select few people that I’ve personally vetted and know fit in with our school and our ethos, and I’m pleased when someone confirms their availability for the morning. 

Its certainly been a whirlwind start to the week. 

A busy start to the week – a week that would be plagued with staff absences across both sites.

Tuesday 21st September

Still with three members of staff absent at Laxey, the situation develops at my other school, with the caretaker calling in unavailable. It’s an extra staffing headache, particularly as we need to be extra vigilant about keeping school sites clean and safe in these challenging C19 times. I speak to my absent Head of School who reports that they’re feeling truly horrendous and the virus is very powerful. 

As the children start coming inside, I am needed to support a young pupil who is upset at saying goodbye to their dad. It’s a common enough thing to happen on playgrounds up and down the country, but it can be distressing for the parents as well as the child. We calm the situation down and agree to give dad a call later in the morning to reassure him that his child is absolutely fine. 

After the commotion of everyone coming inside, I’m just sitting down in my room when I get a message to come and support the class which is lining up for the bus to go for their swimming lesson as a child has refused to get onboard. We are an inclusive school, and recognise that sometimes children can find challenges in what they are asked to do and sometimes respond in a way that requires sensitivity and calm. I spot the child and know that they are safe, so I ask the teacher to continue on to the bus with the rest of the class and go swimming. I spend some time chatting to the pupil and help bring them back around. We agree that it would be great to go swimming, so we jump in my car and head off to catch up with the bus. By the time we get to the pool, the reset button has been hit for the child and the class, and everything picks up as normal. 

Now that I’m at the pool, unexpected though my visit is, I decide to stick around for an hour or so. We have group after group from both my schools coming down on a pretty swift timetable for the rest of the morning – so I roll up my sleeves, stick my trainers on and take some of the lessons. It’s a really lovely opportunity to do some real teaching and work with the children; and it’s an opportunity I take… although I must confess that teaching swimming is not my strong point!

Back to school to learn that my ill teacher won’t be returning tomorrow as they are still too poorly, though their PCR result is negative,  so its time to look at the logistics of cover and supply again. 

Mid-afternoon and I leave Laxey School and head up to Dhoon School. After a quick walk around the classrooms, it’s into a staff meeting to discuss a couple of upcoming events. We have traditionally run a fundraiser just before the October half-term – a mhelliah, cheilidh, or scarecrow festival. This year we decide to organize a beetle drive; hopefully it will generate some funds for the school but will also provide a welcome social opportunity for the school community to come together. We also make our first mention of the C word – Christmas. We’re a little way off having to come up with our detailed plans for our annual Christmas concerts, but we knock around some ideas about what we think it will look like and agree on a whole-school play / production. This will be different to the last couple of years which have been concert style performances of choirs, musicians, folk group and narrators. Two teachers agree to “team-direct” and I’m happy that we have a direction of travel in the bag. 

Wednesday 22nd September

I’m overjoyed to see my EYFS teacher return to duty today. My Head of School seems to be getting worse everytime I speak to them, so it’s a welcome relief to be able to bring someone back into the team. I’m asked to observe a child who has been struggling to come into Reception class each morning, so I go and hang about discreetly, chatting to parents and watching the children go in. Afterwards I make a couple of suggestions to the teacher which I hope will help. 

We are without our caretaker at Dhoon again today, and there is a potential problem with locking up the building at the end of the day because the Dhoon staff will be travelling to Laxey just after the 3.30pm bell to attend our Federation staff meeting. I head up to Dhoon to see what sort of plan we can come up with. 

Back at Laxey and the pest control team arrive to talk to me about our wasp problem. It’s a really useful discussion and I’m given a few useful hints and tips for managing the situation. The good news is, the problem should go away all by itself in the next week or two as nature takes its own course. 

As headteacher it is important to spend time in classrooms, talking to pupils, experiencing the lessons, helping with learning and chatting to teachers and support staff. I’ve marked out a good section of my day to do this in both sites, and it’s just gorgeous to see such joy in the schools. The children are happy and engaged. The teachers are delivering well planned and well pitched lessons. The atmosphere is great. I also spend some time in the dining room at lunch; we use this as a time to really develop manners, social skills and conversation skills as well as feed the children, and it’s heartening to see my pupils growing in independence and maturity. 

Our staff meeting is an introduction to the chat facility in Microsoft Teams. We’ve been using WhatsApp as a school for social chit chat, but because it has greater immediacy and reach than email, I’m aware that it is starting to be used for some work related comms too. Teams is a more appropriate channel for this, and is quickly becoming the communication tool of default across Isle of Man Government, so I’ve invited GTS (Government Technology Services) into school to deliver the training and help make sure that everyone can log in and find their way around the platform. Some staff choose to wear a face covering for the meeting, and we hand-santize before entering our ventilated room – this is our C19 mitigation plan in action. 

Staff meeting with the Laxey / Dhoon Federation full team to discuss the use of MS Teams as an internal communication tool

You can read more in my ultimate guide to staff meetings available here.

Thursday 23rd September

Its General Election Day in the Isle of Man and I stop at the polling station on the way to work to vote. As branch secretary of the NAHT in the Isle of Man I have been involved in working with our branch and national officers in writing a manifesto for education. We’ve asked all candidates in the election to read our manifesto and pledge to work with NAHT to bring it to life over the course of the next parliament. We’ve also run a series of education-focussed hustings in some of the constituencies across the Island and you can read about those here

I tweet to remind people to “get out and make your voice heard.” I’m looking forward to following the results tonight. 

The school playground is its usual busy melting pot of pupils and parents in the morning and I am pleased that some of our ideas for helping our reluctant starter appear to have been successful. Our ill teacher is recovered and I’m relieved to have them back in school; but today my school administrator cannot come in. It’s definitely been one of those weeks!

I have to turn my attention today to my report for the Governing Body who meet next week, and the agenda pack will need to be circulated tomorrow, ahead of the weekend. There has been some interesting dialogue on #EduTwitter about the format and content of reports for Governing Bodies, and I’ve been trying the “School on a Page” idea – a brief overview with infographics which acts as a prompt for discussion, rather than a long narrative which I simply sit and read out. There is also a shed load of paperwork and admin that I need to catch up on – everything from accident forms to invoices, so I spend some time getting on top of all of that. 

Before heading home to follow the General Election I speak to Cam from RockKidz. RockKidz is a fantastic group of musicians who have developed an approach to music and PSHE through rock. I came across their work on Twitter and opened up some conversations with them. Both sides are keen to get an Isle of Man visit booked in, and we discuss what that might look like. Watch this space as they say!

It’s a late night for me as I choose to stay up and follow the election which I do by watching some local coverage, listening to our local radio station and keeping up with social updates. The usual mix of shocks, surprises and stories unfolds across the night. By morning, a new-look House of Keys is formed and a new Government is about to take charge… 

Read the election results here.

Friday 24th September

Another day, another staff absence. One of the team who work with a child with complex needs cals in sick. It means that my day begins with some last minute staff logistics to make sure we are covered, especially over lunchtime. Its all hands on deck, and I rota myself in to do some of the cover, though its mainly my excellent (and magnificently understanding) staff team who help provide the solutions we need.

Last night offered some seismic changes in Manx politics and that is the chat with some of the staff during the morning. Four ministers lost their seat in the election, including former education minister Graham Cregeen who was in charge during most of the recent industrial dispute in the Isle of Man. He was eventually moved from that position by the Chief Minister and now finds himself out of the House of Keys after the electorate delivered a resounding verdict on his time in office.

The public also returned a House with a record number of women – 10 in all – which is brilliant to see.

At playtime I head outside to cover a duty and its lovely to see the children interacting so positively.

Both schools have been busy recruiting their new pupil school councils for the year ahead, and this afternoon the big announcements are made to the children and parents. It feels timely to introduce our new school council on the day the Isle of Man’s general election results are sinking in. Pupil voice is a really significant part of my schools – I really believe in it. My schools are part of the IQM family and both take part in Investors in Children. Including children in dialogue about their school, their learning, their ambitions for the future… this is how to engage, inspire and develop dispositions like responsibility, leadership and compassion.

You can see the Dhoon School School Council website here.

The teachers have written information guides for the parents outlining the planned curriculum for this term. After proof-reading them they go for printing and are sent home with the children. Its vital to keep parents appraised of the school curriculum, and we give some additional ideas as to how parents can support their child’s learning at home.

Somehow I manage to spend time in both schools, but it has been tricky this week to divide my time evenly because of the staff absences. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well its true – I can’t bloody wait for everyone to be back! It’s been a rollercoaster ride this week, and as far as I can see the absences have simply increased my blood pressure and made the heart go faster!

It’s also been pleasing to note that our mitigation plan has stood firm – we haven’t had any more positive cases confirmed in the school community since the weekend, and when I got that call last weekend I had been bracing myself for a little ripple of C19 to make itself known. We’ll take that as a win.

Another week done and dusted – and I’m looking forward to the weekend. They say it is always beer-o-clock somewhere in the world. In Max’s world, that time is now.

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