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An end of year message to school leaders from NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman and national secretary Ruth Davies

The following message was sent to NAHT members on Friday 18 December 2020

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary:

More than any other time in recent memory, 2020 is a year that we will want to put behind us. 

The deaths, disruption and damage to livelihoods we have witnessed have left the nation at a low ebb.

At last count, more than 66,000 people’s lives have been claimed by the coronavirus. I offer my sincere condolences to those of you who have lost friends, family and colleagues.

Through all of this turmoil, schools have provided places of calm and relative safety.

Before going any further, I would like to say thank you for what you have done this year.

When you do eventually get home for the holidays, I hope you will reflect on a job well done, even if it has been almost ceaselessly difficult.

Indefensibly, the government has made things harder for you than they should. 

Not only have you been battling Covid, you have been contending with government incompetence on a daily basis.

Whilst you can reflect with pride, ministers should be hanging their heads in shame.

As the government response has fallen apart, you have stepped up. At every turn.

When schools restricted access in March, your ingenuity and determination to find solutions was nothing short of miraculous and set the tone for the school-level response to Covid from then until now.

In stark contrast, the pandemic has seen one government failure after another in a scarcely believable tsunami of ineptitude. The same ineptitude repeated across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

The provision of free schools meals collapsed. You stepped in. 

The laptop schemes failed to deliver. But you managed.

The return to schools for more pupils in England in June was botched. But you made it work somehow.

September arrived, but the promised ‘world-beating’ testing a tracing regime did not. You were left high and dry again.

It was December before we got any clarity at all on arrangements for exams and assessments. 

And then, in the last days of term - when even the most pessimistic of us thought that the government could do no worse - came the legal threats and bullying against schools trying to get by in the face of mass pupil and staff absences.

This week’s demands, that you spend your holidays on call to support ‘Track and Trace’ and planning for mass testing in the first week of term, are simply unacceptable.

Throughout the pandemic, NAHT has been fighting your corner. 

Although we have not always been successful in making the government go as far as they should, where we’ve had the opportunity to influence decisions, we have improved on the proposals that were put to us.

These have felt like marginal gains at times, but we have made significant changes in key areas. Looking back over the year, I am confident that NAHT has had a positive impact.

Where we have not been able to stop or ameliorate government policy, we have rapidly provided advice and guidance for you to follow.

My inbox has been bulging with notes from leaders who tell me how much they have valued their NAHT membership this year. 

We have added nearly five thousand new members to our community in 2020. These are leaders who have been attracted by our principled stance throughout the pandemic and the support and guidance we have been offering. We are stronger together.

I would like to extend a personal note of thanks to every member of NAHT’s staff, our officers and volunteers for the service they have given members. It’s been exemplary.

Clearly there is more to do.

Even though you have been in ‘emergency mode’ since March, the new year will bring many fresh challenges with it.

Please be assured that there will be no let up from NAHT.

Some members have asked why NAHT does not simply say no to government. When we do that, we need to be sure that we protect your positions individually and collectively. Today, in England, we have been able to empower members to do just that in response to the last minute plans for secondary schools. We will do so again when necessary and appropriate. 

We will continue to fight for you. To protect you. To enable you to do the right thing in whatever difficult situations you face.

I am not confident that the government response will get any better in 2021. Their track record does not allow me any optimism.

So, we will continue to challenge them, hopeful that our advice will be heeded, and always prepared to call them out publicly if their proposals are wrong.

Your voice is always important to us. It helps us shape our approach to government.

Your contributions to the surveys and research we conduct are essential and allow us to campaign on the areas that are most critical to you.

I hope you will continue to engage with that activity in 2021.

For this reason, from January, we will be ramping up the engagement we are doing with members. Technology allows me to attend very many more branch meetings than ever before, so I am planning to attend as many as I can, to answer your questions and hear your concerns, but just as importantly to allow you to influence the shape and tone of our actions next year. 

We will also be organising more of the mass Crowdcast events that have proved to be so successful and valuable during the pandemic.

And, of course, our advice teams and policy experts will continue to work round the clock on your behalf.

Throughout the pandemic, school leaders and their teams have achieved remarkable things. 

But the government’s support for your efforts has been so far short of what has been needed, it has pushed many of you close to breaking point. 

Your well-being is critical. Without you, the system comes to a juddering halt. 

You must take some time to switch off during the holidays.

Our advice is that you do not spend time working out how you will implement the latest set of last-minute and ill thought-through demands of government.

Focus on your family.

Thank you again for the astounding levels of commitment you have shown to the children and young people in your care this year.

With best wishes for a peaceful Christmas

Ruth Davies, NAHT National President:

How does one start an end of year message when there is still so much uncertainty ahead of us?

Usually, at this time of year, as school leaders, we are trying to finish off the last items on our never-ending to-do list in order to switch off, even if only for a bit, over Christmas.

In a normal year we’d be glad of the break – maybe feeling a bit battered from a busy term. In a normal year.

About now, we’d be thinking about time with our families, to rest and recharge, to get ready to go at it again in January.

This year, with all that we’ve been through, the holidays are more needed than ever. However, with so much responsibility being dumped at the door of school leaders, it won’t be the break that we were all craving and which is so deserved. 

We have been fighting Covid, in one way or another, for months and months. It has been exhausting, all-consuming and relentless.

Unforgivably, far from clearing away the barriers to our emergency response, our politicians have made things worse. Their inaction and intransigence has added frustration when what we needed was freedom. It has created anger, when what we wanted was honesty and transparency.

Miraculously, even with the government getting in our way, we have kept the school system afloat. At every branch meeting and in every piece of communication I have had with members, I have seen just how willingly, purposefully and successfully school leaders have responded.

We have bailed the government out so many times, I have lost count.

We have been the ones to safeguard the learning and well-being of staff and pupils, not them.

The government does not deserve any credit for what has been achieved in schools this year. You do.

While Covid might make us look back on 2020 as a lost year (and of course it is, in many ways) it is also a year where we have found new reserves of determination and courage that have enabled us to make a real, positive difference for pupils.

It will be impossible to shut down completely over Christmas, and I know you won’t. For one thing, the government has not afforded you that ‘luxury’.

But you must take some time – for yourselves, for your families. 

And while you do, take stock of what you have accomplished. You may have done a string of things this year which you thought were beyond you just a few months ago. Any one of those things might count as a stellar achievement in normal circumstances. 

There will be families and children who may have gone under without you. Remember all that. 

This term proves one thing: your leadership matters.

2021 will require further demonstrations of your commitment and compassion.

Going into the new year without a break will not help anyone.

Rest. Enjoy your family. Be yourself.

Thank you for the amazing work you to. It is my great honour to serve you as President.

Merry Christmas 

First published 19 December 2020