This guest blog is by Simon Hill, a co-chair of a Primary School in South London, a parent to two sons in Years 8 and a Year 10, and a freelance consultant and coach.

On Tuesday, I came off a call with the Headteacher in my role as co-chair of governors of a two-form entry primary school with nursery in South London.

Remember when we would ask how everyone was at the start of a meeting? (Perhaps sometimes just out of politeness and as a quick check in). The question “How are you?” has become a much more meaningful and important part of our more regular check-ins with the senior team at school since March 2020. More regular meetings have been one of a number of new ways of working as we adapt to changing advice and levels of restriction.

We are always reminded that good school governance is all about support and challenge. Providing a bit of extra support seems to be essential now. Critical friends can, after all, be kind.

Our call provided an update on the following topics:

  • The challenges of adapting quickly to changing advice.
  • Getting an up-to-date picture of who key workers are so places can be offered to eligible children.
  • Understanding current levels of attendance and measures to improve safety within year group bubbles given that more children are in school than during previous lockdowns.
  • The significant challenge of balancing remote provision for children at home with classroom provision for those in school.
  • Ensuring that more disadvantaged children are getting the support they need to access the curriculum. For some, the barrier to accessing learning isn’t availability of technology, but one of space or language.

And then there is the question of how people are coping – how people are, really. Most of the employers I know, irrespective of the sector they are in, have been prioritising well-being as part of their wider work supporting their people for a while. With Covid-19 and lockdown this has mostly become about supporting and adapting to home working, alongside home schooling for parents.

For schools who have remained open throughout the pandemic as they provide places for vulnerable children as well as those of the widening definition of key-workers, it has been a double- or possibly even a triple-whammy: protecting vulnerable staff, ensuring enough teachers are able to be in school to stay open and safe as well as providing support to children and families in crisis.

The senior team at school have been analysing a survey conducted last term to look at the impact of the current crisis on the children. We’ve already had an overview of this and are looking forward to regular updates. This has been really helpful to us as governors. Pre-Covid, we would normally spend a day each term in school to see what’s going on and to talk to people. Information including this wellbeing survey has been incredibly helpful to us as we seek to keep up-to-date with what is going on in school, and for those working and learning at home.

Children have found the last year challenging in relation to learning, maintaining friendships and keeping positive. The return to school after the first lockdown saw a real change in behaviour towards the end of break times, for example. All of this has a knock-on effect.

What about staff? This is a real challenge. We’ve only had regular contact with the senior leadership team since the first lockdown. We know from talking to them that some staff are very anxious and all staff are very tired. What more can we do that keep asking and keep exploring ways to keep going and adapting?

Here are a few things that we have found useful:

  • Talking about it. Just having the conversation and asking “how are you?” is important.
  • Talking about it regularly is even better. For governors this can be as simple as making sure we check in on every call and at the beginning of every meeting. Having it on the agenda doesn’t necessarily mean having it as a standing agenda item. In fact, I’d argue that asking regularly and authentically “how are you and how can we be most useful?” before starting the formal agenda is more effective. Even more so if repeated at the end of a meeting.
  • It may sound strange but adopting video calls early in 2020 has been really helpful. Seeing the team at school – both the senior leadership team and others for various verbal updates – has given us a much better sense of how people are than is ever possible over the phone.
  • We know that three things make the biggest difference to our wellbeing and our ability to cope in difficult situations: 1. good quality rest and sleep, 2. a healthy diet and 3. exercise. I don’t think we’ll be asking our SLT for a food and sleep diary any time soon but I do know that an update after a weekend, a half-term or the Christmas break has given us an opportunity to check in on things informally.
  • Bigger picture-wise, pre-Covid we included wellbeing as a priority area for the whole school community. Not only does this mean it’s part of our discourse already but also that we have a clear view on what this means for us, what we are looking for and how we know if we are getting there.

Here are some areas for us to build on what we’ve done so far:

  • As well as focusing on the children we need to put some more emphasis on the needs of and difficulties faced by staff.
  • Keep asking how people are. We know from feedback we get that people don’t get tired of being asked and that it creates a space to explore things as they change – for better or for worse.
  • Thinking about wellbeing in the longer-term. For example, a teacher who has experienced anxiety will need ongoing support and that won’t end with the next lifting of restrictions. Similarly, for those who haven’t yet experienced poor mental health or haven’t yet had the opportunity to share it we need to make sure they can get the help they need when they need it too.
  • As a group of governors, we all bring our own skills and experiences and our knowledge of what’s working elsewhere. Looking ahead should mean looking out for things we can adapt and use ourselves, as well as what’s happening in our own school.
  • Keeping an eye on the big priorities and looking at how we can reduce workload and related high levels of stress. This can include things like verbal reports and streamlining meetings.

I was on a call with an HR director recently and he described the possibility that “last year has been a rehearsal for this year.” Whether that’s true or not I suspect that those planning for it to be will be better prepared whatever happens next.

However you are managing at the moment, I hope you have a critical and concerned friend regularly asking how you are. That is an important question we can all ask each other and really listen to the answer.