Back to school: heads share their hopes and fears

As the autumn term begins, five independent school heads discuss their hopes and concerns for the upcoming year

As schools return for the new academic year – without bubbles, face masks or social distancing – IE speaks to five independent school heads about how they are feeling about the upcoming year.

‘Now is the time to be bold’

With logistics for this term more straightforward, Jon Gray, headmaster at York House School in Croxley Green, says schools have an opportunity to get back to normal.

“Our approach at York House is to achieve every ounce of normality that we can from the first day back in September. If we keep lots of restrictions and reductions in place with a ‘wait and see’ approach, the likelihood is they will probably remain there until the summer term next year, particularly as the winter will not make the situation easier.

“So now is the time to be bold, to get school assemblies running again, to widen the offering of co-curricular activities and clubs once more and to schedule sporting events and arts/drama performances with family attendance.

“The remarkable success of the vaccination programme in this country puts us in a positive position to be bolder and to help our children put all of the ill-effects of the pandemic in the rear-view mirror.”

‘Discussions about vaccinating pupils are causing anxiety’

Helen Jeys, headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls, says she hopes students can flourish this year and take part in every opportunity available to them. However, she fears the uncertainty that lays ahead.

“My fear is that – even with the lifting of restrictions – we don’t know what to expect and this lack of accurate foresight can make decision making pretty difficult,” she says.

“Furthermore, the ongoing discussions about vaccinating young people are causing, I am sure, anxiety for both pupils and parents. I also fear that young people, who are taking external examinations in the summer of 2022, will feel that they are living through another year of uncertainty.

“I am an unashamed optimist, nevertheless, and I believe in the resilience and tenacity of young people. I am optimistic that my ‘hopes’ will be realised and that swift, firm and well-reasoned judgements will avoid my fears becoming a reality.

“Nevertheless, in Linda Mcmahon’s definition of ‘optimism’, she reminds us that, ‘A leader has to look optimistically at what is ahead while not ignoring the challenges that must be overcome.’  Let’s hope, this year, that there are fewer challenges and more opportunities to focus on what students need to enable them to thrive.”

Pupils at York House School exploring the outdoors


‘This term means so much more’

For Ben Evans, headmaster at Windlesham House School in West Sussex, the new academic year has “never before been so welcome”.

“A new year always brings opportunity, excitement and adventure but for school communities everywhere, this new term will also mean so much more. It will be a chance to make up for lost time, missed opportunities and to recapture the special nature of our schools,” Evans says.

“There is of course, every possibility that the return of schools will lead to an increase of Covid cases which will impact our ‘return to normality’. Whilst the regulations on isolation have been relaxed, any Covid cases will impact on the ability for schools to operate normal staffing levels and general anxiety of pupils, parents and staff.

“It is clear that some schools are considering reintroducing bubbles and other precautions which were in place last year. Given the probability that the autumn/winter months will allow the virus to spread, this could become reality in all schools again. However, we will approach the new year with positivity and determination, ensuring that all pupils are in school, learning and enjoying school life.”

‘Pupils have shown resilience and courage’

Carol Chandler-Thompson, headteacher at Blackheath High School GDST in London, says she is optimistic about the year ahead.

“I am sure there will be challenges along the way, but the resilience and courage every pupil has shown over the past year and a half has left me feeling confident that they are well-capable of rising to these challenges,” she says.

“They will take the skills they learned throughout the pandemic with them through this year and beyond, invaluable skills that can’t be taught in the classroom. I hope it will help stand them in good stead for the future.

“My concerns for this year are largely around the potential for more disruption. Whilst we have been able to adapt the way we teach very effectively as and when it has been needed, I am a strong believer that routine and consistency are important to young people’s development, and we’ve worked hard to create an optimal school environment for our girls. I am concerned they could face more disruption, but I’m hopeful they won’t.”

‘We are ready to adapt’

Henry Price, headmaster at Oakham School in Rutland, says they are working hard to minimise risk and disruption, but they are ready to adapt if necessary.

“We are delighted to have pupils back on campus and we are very pleased to be building on a successful summer term and resuming lessons and other activities face to face,” says Price.

“If required, we are ready to adapt to adjusted timetables and other measures within the school and whilst we do hope that our excellent distanced learning offering will no longer be needed, we are confident that we can implement this should things change.

“I will be urging our pupils to treasure the important sense of connection of being back in the school community, as well as reminding them of the positive contribution they can make and encouraging them to show care and courage in all they do.”

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