The Covid-19 pandemic has put headteachers “under tremendous pressure to manage the daily challenges”, the president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) said as she paid tribute to the “generosity and selflessness” displayed by school leaders during the crisis.
GSA president Jane Prescott was speaking to journalists ahead of the GSA annual conference, which runs from 16-17 November.
Drawing a comparison with those world leaders “many have deemed successful in coping with the Covid crisis”, Prescott said they offered the sorts of leadership “in which good headteachers excel”. Those school leaders, like the leaders astride the world stage, “embody empathy and collaborative working, and yet have made tough, considered decisions for long-term gain rather than immediate acclaim,” she said.
“I think we’ve been climbing to a level of leadership that no headteacher ever thought that they were going to find themselves in,” the headmistress of Portsmouth High School added.
Prescott drew parallels between headteachers and several female world leaders, like Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg, who answered questions from children about the pandemic. “That’s what headteachers do. We speak directly to our pupils, to find out their opinion, to reassure them and to answer their questions as best as we can.”
She also paid tribute to the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, who introduced “decisive” measures that avoided a full lockdown, and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Arden who “checked in” with the public via social media.
The role of these female leaders, who challenge gender stereotypes, should be related in “our girls’ schools”, Prescott continued. “Our schools and their leaders – both men and women – are not afraid to embrace the empathy and interpersonal and collaborative skills some may typically associate with women. They acknowledge the strength in those qualities. At the same time, girls’ schools create environments in which young women can practice and become confident in considered risk-taking.”
I’d like to see a more measured approach to exams. A three-week extension to the exams to compensate for three months out of the classroom isn’t significant enough – Jane Prescott
The GSA president said teachers were glad to see students return to classrooms this September. “The prolonged absence is why so many children have been so negatively impacted and why so many returned so eagerly. We are always, as headteachers, reminded of what we get wrong, but at the beginning of the autumn term, thousands of children reminded us of what we do right. They couldn’t wait to get back to school and be amongst the shared experience and the classroom energy that drives learning.”
Rising mental health issues “concern us all” but it was wrong to characterise today’s school-age pupils as a “snowflake generation”, Prescott said. “The overwhelming majority of students I see have coped admirably with the rollercoaster of cancelled examinations and what we have seen in many schools is an ability to adapt and change as the fluctuating health and safety rules dictate.”
The chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), Sally-Anne Huang, who serves as high master of St Paul’s School, similarly confronted the media moniker in her annual conference address this year.
On public examinations next year
Prescott was asked her opinion on the future of GCSE and A-level exams during the pandemic just days after the Welsh education minister Kirsty Williams announced that children would not sit exams, but externally set classroom assessments.
On GCSEs next year, the GSA president said: “I think we ought to look at doing something similar to what we did this year, with a massive advantage of time, which we didn’t have last year. We keep talking about things being unprecedented, but we have now got the example and experience of last summer, so we should build on that.”
“Long term, I think it needs revisiting to look at its usefulness and whether it is still appropriate for our society today now that children stay in school or train until they’re 18,” she added.
On A-levels next year, the GSA president said the government needed to make fair decisions because university places depended on the validity of results. “I would suggest that there is a limit to the content, to the number of papers, so that we have a something that is formally recognised, but that is then added to a centre-assessed grade… to end up with an official grade.”
On the Department for Education
After her speech on leadership, Prescott was asked to review the leadership of the Department for Education (DfE) during the pandemic.
“It has been challenging, and it’s very easy to be critical. And I would hate to stand on my pedestal and dictate what others should or shouldn’t have done. Certainly, last summer it was difficult for everyone. And I think the Department of Education tried to fathom their way through it.
“What I’d like to see from them now is a commitment to what happens next summer because then we have time to put things in place. I’d like to see a more measured approach to exams. A three-week extension to the exams to compensate for three months out of the classroom isn’t significant enough. I think that they must listen to headteachers across the sector to come up with a fair outcome.”
Prescott said guidance on next year’s exams “cannot come soon enough”.