Headteachers know about risk assessments. Our ‘elf and safety culture dates back decades, but certainly ratcheted up around the time I became a headteacher in 2002. Tragic incidents, particularly the Dunblane atrocity, led to fences, keypads, lanyards, buzzers and lockdown drills (no, lockdown meant something different then). On balance, this was undoubtedly a good thing, proportionate and sensible. Our pupils are safer now in school as a result.
For school trips, especially international ones, senior staff will go through a risk assessment procedure, working hard to eliminate unnecessary risk, whilst crucially acknowledging that there will be some smaller, but manageable risk. In completing the procedure, it allows relevant staff to be cognisant of those smaller risks, and therefore well-prepared. It teaches you about balance, weighing up the benefits to the pupils of the activity against the potential risks of going ahead.
But as we begin 2022 in Omicron panic, have we got the balance right? On Tuesday, I read two related articles, both arguing that we haven’t.
In The Times, Alice Thomson argued that the excessive protections around care homes, extra-strict in light of the earlier death toll, had led to greater risk in terms of loneliness, mental and physical decline, and quality of life. My family has first-hand experience of this, such has been the horrible impact of dementia on my Dad. The number of occasions he has been deprived of touch, a kiss, hearing his children’s voice in his ear, are so numerous it makes me cry just thinking about it.
One of his children, my brother Eddie, wrote the second article in the Scottish Daily Mail. In it, he reflects on the peroration from Daniel Barenboim on New Year’s Day when at a concert he was conducting, he urged the audience to return, arguing that a world deprived of live music robbed it of its soul, and the companionship it gives. Eddie warns against the normalisation of a ‘can’t do’ culture, where people become almost programmed into inaction, in a permanent state of incarceration. In this state, people are not prepared to accept any risk whatsoever.
Before Christmas, I was faced with one of these risk assessment dilemmas. Should we do live performances to parents or not? On the one hand, I believe that the Nativity Play is a rite of passage, a central date in the rhythm of a primary school, and crucially a superb experience for the children. Performing it to a video camera is just rubbish. On the other hand, Omicron was beginning its menacing rise, and I did not want to unnecessarily give it a helping hand.
It was a tough one, and I thought long and hard. In the end, we went ahead, with reduced audience sizes and all the mitigations that we are all now familiar with. Parents were respectful and 95% of them wore face masks. With the doors open, they kept their coats on. And they were wonderful occasions, made all the more special because we’d missed them last year. I was one of a handful of headteachers to make that decision, virtually all the others deciding the risk was too great. I respect their decision, but I think they were wrong – the balance of risk was in favour of the school nativities.
Too often in this pandemic, leaders have waited for others to lead the way, or have expected others to tell them what to do. Some have been worth waiting for, notably the officer in our local authority who has been brilliant. But most have not been at the races, most tellingly the DfE throughout 2020 and most of 2021.
My point is that leaders cannot leave decision-making until there is virtually no risk whatsoever, or worse still avoid taking decisions altogether. They cannot wait endlessly debating the pros and cons. This rather ponderous, outsourced leadership is I think a by-product of our scientific age, where we have to wait until we have ‘the evidence’ before we can plan a way forward. Scour #edutwitter and you’ll find it full of evidence-based research from which to make a risk-free decision. As everyone else is awaiting the same evidence, we risk (there’s that word again) ending up with clones as leaders and facsimiles for schools. It was happening before the pandemic, and it’s only going to be more acute now.
The thing is, leadership is about taking risks. Not the reckless, gung-ho foolishness that reeks of self-importance and attention-seeking. But nailing your colours to the mast, and explaining your decisions clearly, yes. Going out on a limb for what you believe. As the saying goes, courage is the midway point between cowardice and recklessness.
So back to the pandemic. Well, I truly believe the risks are now low. Do we jeopardise the normal rhythm of school, the assemblies and singing, the performing and visiting, the travelling and mixing together? We can’t keep compromising these essential parts of education and formation. On the other side of the risk assessment ledger, we have a weakening virus that leaves most people with a sore throat and a day or two off work, at worst.
My assessment of this particular risk suggests the former trumps the latter.