Comment Leadership and Management

Surviving 2021

As another year draws to a close I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of 2021. No doubt this was a demanding and turbulent year, but there were also some wonderful opportunities and moments to celebrate along the way. This is my very personal take on 2021…

My annual review of the year used to be titled “Thank You 20XX” but last year that didn’t quite fit. C19 filled 2020 at almost every turn, and so I opted for the more subdued heading of “Goodbye 2020” – the “and good riddance” was an implied undertone to the choice of title.

Maybe a small and optimistic part of me had hoped that by this time this year I could revert back to saying “thank you” to a positive year that had given so much. 2021 began with glimmers of hope: vaccines were being rolled out, the roadmap out of the pandemic was laid out for us as an “irreversible” route and restrictions that had been so so hard, especially around Christmas, were being talked of as time-limited measures never to return. But it just didn’t fly that way. January had other ideas, and we were bounced back into National Lockdown territory almost from the get-go. It was a precursor for the challenges that still lay ahead and a sharp reality check against the vaccine rollout euphoria. And so, alas, 2021 was really tough – more challenging in my view than 2020. It meant I needed a new title for this year’s review: neither “thank you” nor “goodbye” seemed quite up to the job. I’ve called this review “Surviving 2021” and I dedicate it to key workers everywhere, particularly teachers and school leaders since we’re in the education game. You’ve all risen to the challenges so well and have served your families, children and communities with a humbling professionalism and a relentless duty of care that has required personal sacrifice, long hours and often amazing responses which will be logged forever as the unseen jobs of the unsung heroes that you are. Here is my personal review of a year we just had to survive…

January

The school term was only one day old when the Isle of Man was plunged back into lockdown – the second national lockdown on our Manx shores. Unlike the first lockdown in March 2020, when everything was unprecedented and unplanned, this time I was ready and so were my schools. We were able to switch to our remote learning plan overnight and everything kicked in. Months of self-training, planning and preparation had led to this – and whilst it was far far from easy (in fact it was the most demanding and challenging period of my working life: but ultimately was a “project” that delivered and is now probably the achievement of which I am most proud in my career) it was a fantastic response from my federation. My staff were amazing – incredible actually – and the response from the pupils and their parents was humbling.

I don’t intend this review of 2021 to be a platform for rehashing everything I’ve already said about lockdown 2.0 and the response to it from my schools, but I will point those interested towards my earlier blogs about this period, which can be read here:

FIVE Tricks To Take YOUR Remote Lessons To The Next Level

How To Run A Virtual Parents Evening

Community Growth From COVID19

Later in the year my Federation were the proud recipients of the Excellence Award for Remote Primary Education – and no one was more proud of my team for their success.

Winners of the 2021 Education And Training Award: Excellence Award for Remote Primary Education Tuition Services

February

In February months and months – years in fact – of campaigning against the proposed Education Bill came to a head. The Isle of Man Department of Education had been pushing to introduce a new Education Act that was, in my view, deeply flawed. A dispute between Government and the NAHT about the way the bill had been drawn up, the extent to which consultation with stakeholders, including school leaders, had been conducted, and the content of the bill had rumbled on for some time ⬇️

Isle of Man education overhaul to face further scrutiny

NAHT IOM had campaigned hard for the bill to be withdrawn. A bill which included proposals to send headteachers to prison and subject them to personal fines of up to £10k amongst other draconian measures which amounted to a power grab for the civil servants in the Department over the autonomy of parents and school leaders at the chalk face was never going to progress through the Manx Parliament without a fight, and in February – after a final push of lobbying from NAHT members – I was sat in the public gallery in our Parliament to hear the then Education Minister formally withdraw the Bill.

My tweet sent moments after listening to the statement in the House of Keys on February 9th 2021

It was a massive moment and coming just months after winning our pay dispute with the Department of Education which resulted in ministerial change and job losses at the very top of the organisation, it was clearly another recognition from Government that things hadn’t been right in the Manx education world and wouldn’t be solved with a controversial Bill.

Education Bill Withdrawn – Explainer

February also saw my term of office as Isle of Man NAHT President come to an end. It was a honour to have been elected President by my peers – little did I know back in 2018 when I first took up the position that I would be serving as President through an industrial dispute with industrial action, campaigning against the legislature juggernaut of Government bringing forward a new Education Bill, and supporting members through the challenges of COVID19. I am proud of my contribution, but most of all, I am proud of the Manx NAHT members who make our union what it is. Strength and solidarity to all of them.

Standing down as President of NAHT IOM

Although I’d assumed I would be retreating into the shadows, the NAHT IOM AGM saw me nominated, seconded and voted in as Branch Secretary so my work in the union continues. No rest for the wicked. The good news is that with regime change in the Department of Education, a settled dispute and the removal of the Education Bill debacle, the seas are now much calmer and the future for Education in the Isle of Man is much brighter.

March

By March the Isle of Man had returned to its second lockdown of the year. This time it was really difficult as all schools had to close completely, even to vulnerable and key-worker children.

It was time dust down the remote learning plans again and to try and re-motivate my staff team and pupils for another period of lockdown. I was interviewed for BBC news which can be seen here ⬇️

My interview on BBC North West Tonight in response to the news that all children, including vulnerable and key worker children, would have to stay away from schools.

Once again my federation did a great job – yes, obviously I’m biased. But look at what we did. We ran hundreds of live lessons. We produced hundreds of recorded videos and placed hundreds of phone calls with our families, including interactive telephone SEN support for those children who would usually have interventions.

Our stats cards kept our school community up-to-date with details of how our remote learning package was delivering to families and children throughout the lockdown

We also ran extra-curricula clubs online and a range of live assemblies. Although we’d hoped it would be an in-person experience, C19 kept having other ideas, so towards the end of March we welcomed the one and only @GrandadWheels to the Federation for a virtual assembly which was attended by over 300 people tuning in from their homes.

Virtual Assembly with Grandad Wheels

Away from the stresses and strains of lockdown I enjoyed attending the World Education Summit – online this year – and learned a lot from the sessions with @hywel_roberts @learnimperative @AlisonMPeacock @dylanwiliam @GuyClaxton @john_hattie and @shirleyclarke_

Listening in to Hywel Roberts at the World Education Summit in March 2021

I also threw my hat in the ring in the election for a North West representative on the NAHT National Executive. I was one of three candidates standing against two excellent people, Keith Wright and @ceotlflp. My campaign was as good as I could manage against the backdrop of lockdown and included a video manifesto to push out over social media:

I also took part in a hustings for members, an idea put forward by @simonkidwell at the NW meeting, which was run over Zoom and chaired by @donnygirl22. It was a great experience, and the first time that NAHT had run a virtual hustings for a seat on the National Executive. Members posed some challenging questions, and you can see how I got on here:

In the end, despite my best efforts, I lost the election, well beaten by both other candidates who pulled in hundreds of votes against my 41. I extend my best wishes to both Dan and eventual winner Keith, they are both exceptional people and I know Keith will be doing great stuff now he is in post.

Later in March I was invited to join the @CymruNAHT Conference by @lindseyruthd. It was an honour to speak about the recent work of NAHT in the Isle of Man, and to talk to the then Welsh Minister for Education @Kirsty_Williams

I was also doing some preliminary research into models for appraisal on behalf of the @NAHT_IsleOfMan who were working with the Isle of Man Department of Education Partnership Forum on replacing the outdated appraisal policy with something altogether more modern, fit for purpose and effective. I was very grateful to @kateowbridge for giving of her time to meet with me on Zoom for an hour or so to talk through the excellent approach she has developed with her schools. Twitter has been so good to me in terms of opening up these connections with experienced practitioners who are so generous with their offers to share good practice – and Kate is one of the best.

April

April heralded the return to school following the conclusion of lockdown 3.0 – the second lockdown of 2021. Lockdown 3.0 was tough on everyone – it felt more challenging, I think, because we were mentally drained and after the euphoria which followed the end of lockdown 2.0, the news we would have to do it again was very demoralising. It meant motivating everyone to embrace remote learning was more difficult, but somehow we did it. To celebrate the fact we were able to go back to school I set the wheels in motion for balloon archways to be installed at both of my schools. It was a simple gesture but showed our pupils how much we’d missed them and how much everyone was looking forward to getting back to some degree of normality. We featured on BBC news on the first day back, the second time we’d been on the TV this year:

Laxey School featuring on BBC North West Tonight with our balloon archway to welcome pupils back following the conclusion of Lockdown 3.0

I was delighted to welcome new members of teaching staff into my Federation in April ready for the start of the Summer Term. Recruitment had been made more challenging – and a somewhat protracted process – by C19 and the lockdowns so it felt like a really positive moment to finally unveil our new appointments. C19 has really helped move along innovations such as using live webinars to communicate with parents, and we used this approach to introduce our new recruits to our parent-base:

Meet Our New Teachers Webinar

The other big innovation we moved to during April was the introduction of online parents’ evenings. Like our award-winning remote learning package, my staff and I devised and practiced a model for remote parents’ evenings – including online booking – and we ran these to great success. I’ve blogged about how we did it here ⬇️

How To Run A Virtual Parents Evening With Zoom

April ended for me with my first vaccination dose against C19. I had AstraZeneca and luckily, I had absolutely no side effects. Bonus 🤩

June

An exceptional moment of 2021 for my federation was being shortlisted for Primary School of the Year through the TES Awards. I was so pleased for my incredible staff team, supportive parents and hard-working pupils. It was a tough category alongside #Twitter acquaintances @misterunwin and @Lea_Forest_HT C19 put paid to any chances of a physical ceremony and the awards evening was held online. The staff gathered together to watch the ceremony, and although we didn’t win (the excellent @StAloysiusFed were deservedly awarded the crown) it was a fantastic moment to put our little federation from the Isle of Man on the map.

The one and only @RogersHistory asked me to feature as guest on his morning radio show on @TTRadio2021 radio and we covered a range of educational issues which was very enjoyable. I also had the chance to review @StRonansPS1 in Northern Ireland for their Inclusion Quality Mark through @IQMAward. We conducted the assessment remotely due to all the C19 restrictions and it was a remarkable school which was deservedly deemed worthy of IQM Flagship Status.

St Ronan’s Primary in Northern Ireland celebrate their Flagship Status

I also enjoyed welcoming @MsFindlater the new headteacher of @RGS_IOM to the federation for a visit – pupils from both of my schools transition to Ramsey Grammar School at the end of Y6 so it’s always important to build strong links.

Welcoming Sarah Findlater to Laxey School in June 2021

Away from the world of education, the other love of my life, Tottenham Hotspur, were searching for a new manager; a search which seemed to take forever. At one point @deputygrocott and I contemplated throwing our names in the ring as a management dreamteam combo, but eventually Spurs plumped for Nuno. I still think Jamie and I would have done a better job.

July

July saw the Laxey/Dhoon Federation feature on @teacherhugradio radio show Spotlight with the excellent @ArkinstallNikki. I was really proud of my School Council pupils who were interviewed as part of the show; they did an incredible job! The whole show can be listened to here ⬇️

Laxey School and Dhoon School to Feature on Teacher Hug Radio

It was wonderful to link up for the day, remotely, with @CNicholson_Edu and his colleagues at @N_O_P_A as part of the Inclusion Quality Mark family. The NOPA team do a tremendous job and their remote learning package is undoubtedly world class. This school is a genuine inspiration to me and I am so fortunate to know it.

The end of term in July was a personal moment of significance. As I waved my Year 6s out of the door for the final time, I came to realise that they were the first cohort that I had seen all the way through their primary education as headteacher. C19 meant that for the first time ever we held out Leavers’ Assemblies outside, but the weather was glorious and we gave the children a magical send off. I admit to a tear in the eye.

Laxey School Y6 Leavers’ Assembly – held outside as part off the C19 mitigation plan

I also became fully vaccinated with a second shot of AstraZeneca – the vaccine roll out was going great guns in the Isle of Man. Again, no side effects 🤩

August

A well earned summer break began with absolutely fantastic weather in the Isle of Man – the beaches of Kirk Michael were just the place to begin a period of winding down.

A tranquil relax in the Manx sea on a gloriously hot summer day – just what the doctor ordered after a challenging academic year

Dhoon and Laxey Federation were also crowned Winners of the Excellence Award for Remote Primary Education Tuition Services by @Corp_Vision – a fantastic honour.

I became acquainted with the #FYFlamingoF hashtag in August with @TeacherPaul1978 explaining the concept to me and offering to tag me in which he has done ever since. It’s a wonderful community to be part of and certainly is a positive thread on a Friday timeline.

One of my two Heads of School and I had spoken to local media reporters (Gef Isle of Man) about the preparations our federation of schools had been undertaking over the summer. Obviously we get to take some time off when the schools are closed, but one common misconception is that teachers have six weeks off. It just isn’t feasible to imagine taking that amount of time off as Head, and I spent a lot of time in school over the summer as did my leadership team. We had building work going on, classroom move-arounds to prepare, deliveries and resources arriving and needing to be set up… and on top of all of that we needed strategic planning meetings to arrange timetabling for the new year, school improvement priorities, and this year we needed to think about C19 and the mitigation plan and risk assessment that would need to be in place and widely shared before we could let the children back. I spoke to Gef about the C19 considerations we had been planning for, and my Head of School talked about the steps we’d taken to ensure that our new starters would be given the best possible beginning to their primary school careers.

Gef article

My interview with Sam Turton from Gef The Mongoose

September

The Isle of Man General Election dominated September. Members of school leaders’ union NAHT Isle of Man published a manifesto for education ahead of the election and campaigned throughout the election period, encouraging candidates to “pledge” their support for our key priorities which were centred around:

  1. Meeting the needs of all children
  2. Wellbeing
  3. Funding
  4. Recruitment and retention of education staff

You can read the full manifesto here ⬇️

Our Schools. Their Future. Your Choice.

In the week prior to the General Election, the NAHT ran a series of Education hustings across four constituencies. It was a pleasure to welcome a delegation over to the Island to support the hustings including General Secretary @PaulWhiteman6, National Secretary @rob_kelsall, National President Tim Bowen, Northern Ireland President @drgrahamgault and officers @laurawflynn and @jasonferraby. It was the first time in an age that I had been able to welcome visitors to Manx shores because of C19 and the timing couldn’t have been better to coincide with the Manx Parliamentary Elections. I had the honour of chairing the Ramsey Constituency Hustings, with other local committee members chairing the others over four consecutive evenings. The hustings were a great success and each can be watched here:

Onchan Hustings – 13th September 2021

Arbory, Castletown and Malew Hustings – 14th September 2021

Douglas East Hustings – 15th September 2021

Ramsey Hustings – 16th September 2021

The General Election results can be seen here – there were some big results on the night including former Education Minister Graham Cregeen losing his seat. Mr Cregeen had been the Minister during the industrial dispute and the Minister who moved to bring forward the doomed Education Bill.

October

By October a new Government was in place and @VOTEJulieEdge had been appointed the new Education Minister. I welcomed Julie’s appointment and wish her all the best in what is surely the best brief in the cabinet:

My tweet to congratulate incoming Minister for Education Julie Edge MHK on her appointment to the role

Back at school my Federation took part in the Isle of Man’s first ever Active Travel Week coordinated by Breeshey Harkin. We welcomed cyclist and Olympic Gold Medalist @Petekennaugh into school to speak the children.

We also took advantage of the fact visitors could now come to the IOM following the months and months of C19 travel restrictions. Author @authorPJMurray spent two days in the Federation entertaining and inspiring children with his latest book Poppy Warrior.

The relaxation in travel restrictions also offered me the chance to leave the Island for the first time in almost two years as I joined a Manx delegation of NAHT members in London for the Officials and Policy Conference.

The UK Secretary of State @nadhimzahawi was visiting conference and I was selected to attend a private session so that I could highlight the recent, failed, education bill in the Isle of Man and ask how he intends to ensure good governance in the IOM so that any future attempt to legislate in this area does not include the draconian and backward clauses that meant it was simply not fit for purpose. We have developed good links with Westminster politicians during the industrial dispute, and we remain keen to keep them sighted on what happens in the Isle of Man.

I was a little embarrassed when a pre-record I’d been asked to do was played out to a full conference room. It seemed to go down alright though, and was well received. I just wasn’t quite prepared for seeing my face on such a big screen! The Isle of Man delegation was invited to stand and we accepted a round of applause on behalf of our members for their hard work, sacrifices and commitment during the recent industrial dispute. Although the dispute ended a little while ago now, this was the first chance for Conference to recognise the achievement of our members. The Isle of Man branch is proud to be a part of NAHT – our own branch has exisited for over 50 years to represent Manx teachers on Manx issues. The expertise and wider support of the national union in helping progress a Manx voice for Manx matters is amazing and shows the power of nations working together.

My pre-record for Conference which was played out at Conference

I took the chance to join colleagues on Westminster bridge as part of the campaign to #FundOurChiuldrensFutures. I tweeted that this national campaign rings true for the IOM too, and it’s a message we’ll be bringing back to the Isle of Man to really push in 2022.

But best of all the Conference was a real opportunity to see and connect again with valued colleagues such as @Jimnich1 and @andymellor64

November

Our embrace of being able to get people over to the Isle of Man continued in November with the arrival of the amazing @RockKidzUK.

RockKidz visiting the Laxey / Dhoon Federation – pictured here with me and my daughter Gracie

I first encountered RockKidz through a @chrisdysonHT tweet way back in Lockdown #1. We looked at some of their online resources, took part in a free lockdown trial with their content, and spoke over the phone a couple of times. I knew they’d be great for us in the Isle of Man – I hadn’t seen anything like it before: resilience, well-being, PSHE, anti-bullying, positive self-esteem… all powerful messages brought to life through the medium of high energy dance and rock music.

You can see my interview with local news platform Gef here:

I knew they’d be good, but seriously, RockKidz were lighting up everyone’s life. Apart from the great addition to our usual curriculum offer, the by-product of smiles on faces and a lifted morale around the school were the bonuses you can only dream of as a senior school-leader dealing with the C19 mitigation’s, C19 anxieties and winter illnesses/staff absences that had been the hall mark of this term. They’re already booked in to return in 2022 and Chris has threatened to join them – hoping we can make that happen.

RockKidz confirm they will be back next year…. maybe with Chris Dyson… watch this space

An easing of travel restrictions saw @steveefcd from @Rahmqvistuk visit the Island in November. It’s always good to catch up, and I purchased some heap filter air purifiers from him to boost the in-school mitigations against C19 spread.

Both schools were also assessed for Inclusion Quality Mark Status during November and I’m so proud that Laxey was able to retain Centre of Excellence status and Dhoon retained Flagship Status. You can read our independent and external report here ⬇️

Centre of Excellence Report

December

December saw me representing NAHT in pay talks with the employer. When the industrial dispute in the Isle of Man ended in 2020 part of the settlement included a reopener clause for pay talks if certain conditions were met. The trade unions triggered this clause when the Isle of Man inflation figure for June was revealed and the STRB recommendations were considered by the UK Secretary of State in relation to the STPCD pay award.

Industrial dispute settlement which included a re-opener clause for pay talks

The usual Christmas flurry of events dominated the school diary; only with the advent of Omicron, mitigations were beginning to increase. It was a ChristMASK across both schools, but thank goodness we managed to do our usual concerts and fairs, even if it all looked a little bit different this year.

Having started 2021 unvaccinated, by mid December I was triple jabbed receiving my booster shot on the first day of the Christmas holidays. As I sit here and write, I can’t help but reflect on the achievements and success of the vaccination program: a personal thank you and congratulations to all involved.

My tweet from the vaccination hub whilst waiting for my booster jab

2021 also brought some personal highs and lows. The work we did around remote learning is one of the achievements I am most proud to have been involved in during my career. But the year also saw my failure in my NAHT election attempt and personal disappointment with missed job opportunities. Such is the rich tapestry of life I guess. A real roller coaster. From the pessimism of two lockdowns, to the optimism of vaccination and the lifting of travel restrictions, we’ve ended the year back in a state of uncertainty thanks to the rise of the Omicron variant. It means we enter 2022 not quite sure what to expect.

I hope 2022 brings stability; I hope it brings safety; I hope it brings the pandemic to some sort of conclusion; and I hope it brings a sense of returning normality. Hope is a powerful tool and it is one of the best we have right now.

I’ve certainly started planning for a bright 2022: we have @Blandpoet booked to come over as well as RockKidz and one or two other possibilities now the pipe line. I’m sure, also, that #EduTwitter will continue to bring strong connections, big inspiration and quality discussion. I’ve always found it to be a hugely positive experience. Some of the hashtag communities I’ve enjoyed dipping in and out of this year include #TinyVoiceTalks #FFBWednesday #FYFlamingoF #PrimaryRocks and #ShareStuffSunday

Whenever I write something that name checks a lot of people I am always concerned that I will have forgotten to give a mention to absolutely everyone who deserves one. So please do not be offended if I’ve omitted your name by mistake – as you can see, 2021 has been a very busy year, but rest assured, if our paths crossed – even virtually- you certainly added to the rich melting pot of ideas and inspiration that helps shape my thinking and my schools.

I dedicate this blog to all the teachers and headteachers working in schools in the Isle of Man and throughout the UK – what a year you’ve had. And I know you’re not through it yet. You are all heroes to me.

So, see you next year, fingers crossed!

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