How are you? How are you really?

by Keziah Featherstone @keziah70

One of the fundamental responsibilities of any leader is to look after their staff team. Even in relatively normal circumstances that’s difficult; recently it has been a momentous challenge.

I’m the Head of a large secondary school in the Midlands. I have 130 staff – and because we are under a BSF contract I don’t employ the cleaners, caterers or site team. Like most schools the vast majority of the team are female; in addition a significant number are part of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. The staff team span all ages, some have underlying health conditions and many are parents or carers.

In the middle of a global pandemic and an appalling political situation in many countries, managing staff back to work in a sensible and reasonable way is just one part of the jigsaw Heads are navigating. Toss in DfE guidance that changes with the wind, updates from Public Health England and local authorities, as well as regular drops from various scientists and experts and it can feel more than a little overwhelming.

I know that as a secondary school I am lucky.  We have no students back yet and when we do (possibly 15th June) we have plans to keep numbers low and well spread out across our large site. I am not managing whole year groups of young children without enough staff or classrooms to go around. What remains the same, for the smallest or largest school, is managing staff.

Staff are people of course, human even, but I’ve spent enough time on #EduTwitter to know not all schools, or Heads or MATs remember that. Therefore I am sharing what we’ve been doing at my school and across the MAT we are part of. It’s not perfect and hopefully it will help some leaders who feel overwhelmed and don’t have the great central team I’m able to call on, as well as helping professionals not getting a decent deal.

Everyone, without exception, deserves to be treated with respect and compassion and, if you aren't,  I highly recommend you appeal to someone up the chain or take it to your union; this is not a time to be shy.

We have purchased a great deal of PPE that is available for all staff. They have a small brown paper bag of face visor, face mask, apron and gloves. We have spares. We have hand gel and anti-bacc wipes for all rooms and offices. My two bloody awesome VPs, Harprit and Sophia, ran staff training on keeping safe and well, both in a practical sense such as social distancing and looking after their mental health and wellbeing.

We are holding risk assessment meetings with anyone who has identified as being in one or more of these categories:

  • Shielding staff (receipt of NHS letter);
  • Staff living with someone who is Shielding;
  • Clinically vulnerable staff (inc. pregnant staff members);
  • Those living with someone who is clinically vulnerable (so this includes pregnant partners);
  • Black and Asian minority ethnic staff;
  • Staff who use public transport to get to and from school;
  • Those with childcare issues

As many as possible of these we have met face to face (at a distance) because it’s simply more human; the rest we have conducted on the phone. I have a brilliant HR Officer, Carley, but I have been in nearly all the meetings so far.  Ultimately I need to be the one to make a judgement call on reasonable adjustments.

We are completing risk assessment paperwork (see end) which came originally from Sandwell local authority but has been added to by the MAT’s HR Manager Jenny; updating with additional guidance as it is released. The paperwork is signed by employee and employer and saved on SIMs as a record.  Everything is properly recorded as verbal agreements tend to be eroded or forgotten.

Most importantly it has been essential to simply chat with each person, to ask them how they are – how they REALLY are.

Some staff have suffered bereavements, even multiple bereavements and sometimes in heart-breaking lockdown conditions. Some have been in isolation with abusive partners, struggling with mental health or have partners that have been furloughed or laid off. And for those in the BAME community both the added health risk from Covid-19 and the distressing events across the US have compounded to make returning to work overwhelming. All these additional stress factors have to be factored in and that is not possible to do as an algorithm. It has to be done human to human.

It is not always as straight forward as it sounds. For example I simply cannot talk a wonderful 60+ year old from the BAME community who travels on public transport with underlying health conditions making her clinically vulnerable stay at home – she wants to come in. She is happy with the PPE and the social distancing and she simply wants to be at work. Forcing her to remain at home would make her very unhappy.

Where people have caring responsibilities we are being as flexible as possible and erring on the side of generosity; I have never been one to make schools a family unfriendly workspace.

At this time we simply have to look after the people with no exceptions.

Risk 1

Risk 2

 

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