Leading a school through COVID-19

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Navigating COVID-19 - Guided by Values, Sustained by Love. Head Teacher Chris Wilson guides us through how a school in Liverpool has moved through the crisis.

‘Unprecedented’ is the word of the moment and yet, as with so many of our words at the moment it utterly fails to define or capture the events we, as human beings, are living through and I, as a Headteacher, am leading through. This crisis has tested our school community but it has also reaffirmed how very proud and privileged I am to be the Headteacher of Alsop High School. In times of real crisis, I have found, the complexity of decision making is stripped away and you are forced to come back to the core of who you are and why you do what you do; your guiding values. Every decision we have made as a school has been guided by the Alsop Way and in particular the crucial belief that we value everyone; students, families, non teaching colleagues and teachers all play a crucial role in helping make Alsop the special place it is. Outlined below are some of the ways we are ensuring the wellbeing and safety of each every child and colleagues is our top priority.

Valuing Young People and their Families

One of the reasons I lead Alsop High School and chose to apply for the headship is because of the challenges our students face but also the resilience with which our young people face them; deprivation, poverty, insecure employment and housing all stalk the hopes and dreams of many of our students and their families but at Alsop High School we all believe everyone can succeed. Students were provided with two weeks of work to begin the shutdown and regular work is provided on Show My Homework so that academic studies can continue as and when students are able. Teachers offer support and feedback but we are also very clear that we recognise this is a new way of working for families and that routines will flex, adapt and change as the impacts of COVID-19 take their toll; we want all students to complete the work set but have taken care to explain we understand the individual context of each family and will overcome any barriers together. Colleagues across our school worked exceptionally hard to prepare this home learning at a time of worry, stress and, in some cases, crisis for themselves and their family, and as always I am indebted to them; photocopying 1500 student work packs required staff to work through their weekends and late into the night at the very point they were feeling the pressure to organise and protect vulnerable relatives and to keep themselves safe if they had underlying health concerns. I hope this blog begins to convey the huge sense of gratitude and appreciation I have for such committed colleagues.

Crucially, the number one priority as the leader of this school is to help our students and families remain connected to our school and to retain the sense of belonging we provide for so many of them. Alsop is a wonderfully vibrant family and we all miss each other deeply so we have attempted to mitigate this. Pleasantly surprised students get a phonecall home to wish them Happy Birthday and these conversations have been a real positive during a difficult time. Form tutors are systematically working through and calling each and every family to remind them we are here for them, we care for them and we love them. Furthermore, these calls serve as an important reminder of the strength we garner from each other and that, when this passes, we will be there for them to pick up the pieces and move forward together. In addition to this students, and colleagues, have remote access to our counselling services as each of us begins to feel the personal impact of this disease.

COVID-19 has been depicted as an indiscriminate virus but that masks the fact that the most vulnerable in society will be impacted more profoundly by the medical, social and economic impacts of this crisis. As our schools were faced with prolonged closures we had 500 families who would normally be entitled to Free School Meals; once again Team Alsop sprang into action to deliver food parcels to each of these families to protect them whilst they transitioned to the service provided by our Local Authority. Furthermore, we secured funding from local organisations to help offer food hampers to some of our most vulnerable families for the foreseeable future. In a similar vein we have supported families with resources around home learning, mental health and bereavement as they face challenges and hardships that are as overwhelming as they are complex.

Our work in this area will be even more crucial upon our return and we will need a collaborative approach across our city to help people adjust to what will be a very different landscape in terms of employment and financial insecurity. As a school we will accelerate plans for adult learning courses offered here at Alsop High School as well as building upon our community work, often centred around our library and annual celebrations.

Valuing Colleagues

Early on in this situation our most vulnerable staff were spoken to and encourage to isolate at home and it was made clear that any provision offered to students following an official closure would be staffed by volunteers. We also recognised the difficulty some of our colleagues who were on supply would face and moved to ensure they had a regular protected income; the same with our colleagues who offer music lessons and counselling services. I have no blueprint for any of the decisions I have made and all I can aspire to is to do the ‘right’ thing by all in our community. If we truly value everyone then as leaders we have to recognise the individuality of their situation and ensure that, whatever role our colleagues play, they are recognised for that contribution. Again, everything we have done with colleagues has been focused on keeping that sense of connection; I miss my Alsop family dearly and the humour and love they fill our school with. We have established an online staff room using Microsoft Teams and colleagues engage on a daily basis sharing news about their families, recipes they are attempting, Netflix recommendations for their Headteacher and conveying wishes of kindness and warmth. We have plans for virtual coffee mornings, online pub quizzes and some staff competitions to help us all keep up to date with all things and all persons Team Alsop. Colleagues speak as teams on a weekly basis and line managers speak to colleagues every other day; it is important to note however that they do so with only two questions in mind:

How are you and your loved ones?

Is there anything we can do to help?

Colleagues are people first and professionals second and whilst we will formalise planning for students returning to school when we have a clear timescale for that, colleagues need to focus on looking after loved ones and navigating their way through what is a deeply worrying time for so many of us. To maintain some normality I have continued with my twice weekly briefings via YouTube and it is amazing (surprising?) how many colleagues have taken the time to email and say how much they value these videos; we have continued with our Team Alsop briefings on a Friday which celebrates colleagues who have gone above and beyond for students and colleagues. Colleagues across the school are also engaging in CPD as and when they feel able to, again to help us all cultivate and direct our professional drive and desire to be doing something meaningful related to our own development. I know my colleagues work tirelessly for the young people we serve and their sheer dedication, often putting themselves at risk to help our most vulnerable students, at this time is what sustains us as a school and a community at this time.

Speaking of colleagues, no headteacher works alone and I have been moved and reassured by the willingness of leaders from across the sector to support me during this time. Incredibly talented, and busy, colleagues have taken the time to offer support, practical resources and a much-needed sympathetic ear at various points in this crisis and I am truly appreciative of them and their kindness.

Valuing the Good in Life

On a personal note, this has been a challenging and exhausting time to be a leader, however the unique circumstances we face have given me time to appreciate the very things I too often take for granted. A beautiful wife and a son I now spend every day with serve as a wonderful reminder of how full and rich my life is. Furthermore, separated from my parents in Yorkshire, whom I miss dearly, I now recognise how important keeping in touch is and I am saddened by the calls or visits I postponed or missed, often because of work. Similarly, organising online meetings with friends I, ordinarily, could go months without seeing speaks to the heart of who I am and encourages me to value the things that truly matter moving forwards.

We will emerge from this crisis but the future will be challenging, potentially heart breaking and undoubtedly difficult. I cannot wait to see the students again and to hear their laughter, their chatter and their stories; I know they will find colleagues who have missed them dearly and we will embrace them with kindness and compassion to help them and, in return, ourselves build our path forwards.

In summary, it is the strength of feeling for my community and my colleagues as well as the love of our family and friends that will has and will sustain me in the weeks and months ahead. Professionally, in a world of unknowns, it is, I believe, our collective moral compass that will help all in education plot the best next steps for our students, families and colleagues alike.

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Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson

Head Teacher of Alsop High School

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