School leadership: Starting afresh in 2022/23?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With summer over and batteries hopefully recharged after a gruelling two years, how are schools and their leaders approaching the academic year ahead? Suzanne O’Connell spoke to four headteachers to find out

After more than two years of Covid-19, the message from the government seems to be that it is time to put it all behind us.

Despite pupil and staff absences remaining high until the end of the summer term, operational guidance has been withdrawn from the government’s website and the big drive now is to make sure that attendance is back on track (see the front page).

But can schools really be expected to put it behind them so quickly? After all, Covid has caused more than two years of incredible disruption and as all those working in schools know, it has not gone away.

A fresh start?

It is clear that school leaders were feeling the strain even more acutely than usual in July. Ritu Aulakh, headteacher of Hounslow Heath Junior School in London, described herself and staff as feeling exhausted: “I was here every day during lockdown but we had reduced numbers in school and we didn’t have the events that usually take quite a toll on us. This year, however, we were covering most of what we would do usually and it has taken it out of all of us.”

Joe Roberts, executive headteacher of Drake and Morice Town Primary Academies in Devon, reports similar strains on staff:

“Many are finding it tough, particularly ones working with challenging groups. Last year was the first full year we have taught for two years and while we have enjoyed the return to more normal working, everyone is tired.”

School leaders and their staff might have been feeling exhausted, but schools are generally optimistic about the term to come.

Emma Meadus is headteacher at Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate: “I am seeing 2022/23 as an opportunity to really start being strategic again. I feel like I was still being very reactive and operational last year, responding to outbreaks, staffing difficulties, mental health needs and SEND waiting lists.”

Mr Roberts, meanwhile, is looking towards this academic year as an opportunity to bring attendance back on track: “I am hoping for a clear start to the year in terms of pupil and staff absence. Pupil attendance has been a major issue and our attendance figures were down across both schools last year, undoubtedly lowering attainment.”

The legacy continues

No matter how optimistic and refreshed headteachers might feel after the summer break there will still be a legacy to contend with for the majority. The impact on attainment is one that Anthony David, executive headteacher of St Paul’s CE Primary School and Monken Hadley CE Primary School in Middlesex, is concerned about: “Key stage 2 standards have probably been most robust but not so key stage 1, notably writing. I suspect it will take a couple of years before we see a return to pre-key stage 1 levels.”

For Ms Aulakh, pre-pandemic highs have taken a hit: “Our children are still catching up. We are in line with the national average but not as good as we were before the pandemic.

“Last year it was a battle to support children getting their stamina back for learning – particularly the year 3s. We’ve had to work hard on attendance, concentration and uniform and a return to the rigorous approach we’ve had before ... (This) September we will be hitting the ground running.”

Prioritising core knowledge and skills is still on the agenda for Mr Roberts: “Pupils still have gaps in their knowledge and we will continue to focus on the important areas. I think this approach is also reflected in the DfE’s view.”

Not all school procedures will be back to “normal” as such. Most people have amended what they do in the light of new systems they adopted successfully during the Covid years.

This is the positive side to the legacy as Ms Aulakh points out: “We have changed some ways of working, for example travel through the school is smoother now as we have adopted a one-way system. We’re also cautious about large gatherings and we have discovered some better ways of doing things. Children now do their class assemblies for their year groups rather than performing twice to the whole school.”

Retention and recruitment

Many schools, like other places of work, have seen a change in outlook and expectation from some of their staff. Recruitment and retention has been an issue for Mr David whose schools have experienced a 45% staff turnover: “Typically our staff don’t leave – it is rare for even one new member of staff to join. Recruitment has taken a long time. We have ended up with the staff we wanted but usually I have any recruitment wrapped up by the end of March. This year it wasn’t until mid-June that both schools were fully staffed for September.”

Ms Meadus recognises some of the reasons why her staff have taken the option of leaving the profession: “Resilience is at an all-time low. I have lost good, experienced and newer staff this year to exhaustion and frustration at the system. For example, not enough support for children with SEND, SEMH and difficulties with attendance.”

Staff have also been difficult to replace: “I’ve had to recruit at all levels – cleaners, teaching assistants, teachers and office staff. Recruitment is a nightmare and I am using very costly supply as I continue to run adverts to find suitable candidates.”

Where staff have the opportunity to retire, Mr Roberts has seen them take the option: “Many of the older staff are reviewing their plans and are looking to retire early or reduce their commitment, citing work/life balance as being the main driver.”

Across trusts he recognises that some posts in particular have been hard to fill. He explained: “We are struggling to recruit teaching assistants and higher level teaching assistants and finding senior and aspirant leaders is very hard. Many trusts are offering good retention packages to keep hold of their senior leaders as finding good quality candidates is very difficult.”

Only Ms Aulakh has found this not to be a particular problem for her school: “We have been very lucky and don’t appear to have suffered from the resignation of staff members that I know some schools have experienced. Most of our staff stay on with many of our middle leaders having started here as NQTs.”

Financial issues

All the schools recognised the impact of inflation on both their finances and the pockets of their parents. With an underspend,

Ms Aulakh was lucky but she is concerned that some of this has had to be used to prop up the main budget: “This kind of money should be used for projects. It isn’t a sustainable way forward for us. There’s definitely been a noticeable rise in the cost of our fuel bills which we’ve only been able to cope with due to this underspend.”

Rising costs have been eating away at school budgets. Mr David refers to the obvious differences such as food bills and fuel prices but also to more subtle impacts such as the rising cost of paper.

Ms Meadus explained that some of these increases are having to be passed on to parents: “We have food price increases that we have no choice but to pass on. Rising utility bills for the school are being met from reserves instead of re-investing in buildings and grounds. I need a new playground and outdoor play equipment but that will have to wait as I need to heat the school.”

Mr Roberts is also seeing an impact on the school budget: “Everything is costing more – energy costs have risen up to three-fold with gas alone approaching £30,000 in contrast to £12,000 last year.”

Of particular concern is the impact on parents and families as they too struggle with rising energy and food costs. Ms Meadus explained: “The rising cost of living will have an impact on family relationships and safeguarding. We saw how the stress of the pandemic created rising domestic violence rates. I am worried about this happening again and about children not having winter coats, shoes and enough to eat. I am already planning ways the school can support with food banks and clothing swaps.”

Concerns are expressed by Mr Roberts who recognises the impact on staff: “I think many parents and staff will struggle with the general rise in the cost of everyday items. The food bank referrals will increase as will our use of charities. Anecdotally we are seeing more issues in the community from parental disputes and anti-social behaviour.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022: This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is will be available soon via

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