February 2021 edition: The Extraordinary Art of Being Ordinary

The Extraordinary Art of Being Ordinary

“May you live in interesting times” is, allegedly, an expression embraced by the English, taken from a Chinese curse. Before the COVID-19 pandemic (henceforth referred to as “these interesting times”), I would have argued strongly that one person’s curse is another’s blessing, and even with the advent of these interesting times, I’m still minded, on balance, to advocate that perspective. After all, with necessity being the mother of all invention, and invention being downright necessary right now, then – cursed or not – our times truly are interesting.

Less than 12 months ago, on Monday 24th February 2020, I was on stage at the New York Stadium, Rotherham, indulging in the art of karaoke with over 500 members of our Trust workforce (don’t ask!). The venue was almost at capacity, so it was an affront to anyone’s definition of social distancing, though that was a phrase that didn’t exist then. Four weeks later and ‘all schools will close their gates on Friday’. Except, they didn’t.

Our Trust has nine special academies and one mainstream primary. We all know how unalike and diverse one school is compared to the next, and our Trust is no different. Through the national lockdowns, all pupils classed as vulnerable have been entitled to an education. For children with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), this is an entitlement enshrined in law on an individual, child by child basis.

Throughout these interesting times, 100% of our families have had an offer in place that they’ve been happy with. In some academies, that’s meant we’ve been above 75% occupancy. In others, we’ve been below 10%.

I don’t have the words to adequately pay testament to the selflessness of so many of our workforce and my admiration for their commitment and passion to maintain the public service we are here to deliver. In settings where pupils have no concept of social distancing, staff have come into work at all points of the pandemic with a smile on their face.

Of course, we’ve had wobbles. Like all organisations, not everybody has been able to continue as normal. However, the vast majority have done just that, which has allowed us to continue to meet family needs. Our biggest challenge has been the absence of routine – so essential for children, and especially our ASC learners. However, we’ve taken pragmatic approaches wherever we can, and we’ve never tried to lay down tablets of stone. Everything has been for ‘two weeks at a time, then we’ll review and change if needed’. And we have.

How have we managed this? Well, we’ve done the obvious thing and followed the advice of a genius. As Einstein suggested, we’ve made everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.

We’ll ask: What do our communities need? How we can realise that? Then we’ll plan, do and review.

Warren Carrett

Personalisation is sometimes claimed as the domain of special schools, but we know it’s the reality of every school in different ways. If we all personalise our approach every day with everyone we work with and for, we find we’re all happier and we save hours that would otherwise be lost to unnecessary conflict and disagreement. Yes, personalisation takes time – but what else that’s worth doing, doesn’t?

I genuinely like to believe it’s because we wanted to, not because we had to, that throughout these interesting times, when things have been so extraordinary, our Heads have actively sought to be as ordinary as possible. That means we haven’t issued decrees. We haven’t made unilateral decisions. We’ve followed the tried and tested formula of: what does the guidance say? How can we apply that? What do our communities need? How can we realise that?

Then we get on and do it. We ask, we don’t tell. We co-produce, we don’t dictate. Remarkably, our staff and our families see consistency in our approach and therefore trust in our intent. More often than not, we agree with one another and – where we don’t – we try to find a mutually agreeable way forward.

Now – I have to acknowledge that this is made all the easier by having a workforce who are so dedicated to their duty that heads don’t have to take options off the table. Then again, I think our heads have reaped what they’ve sown over years of sound management. But I am biased!

Looking forward, we’ll continue to be as ordinary as we can be in these interesting times, which should make our recovery at the other end of all this all the more straightforward and, well, all the more ordinary. We’ll ask: What do our communities need? How we can realise that? Then we’ll plan, do and review.

I’m privileged to lead a civic structure that is made up of civic-minded people. Undoubtedly, that’s been our fair wind. But being ordinary has helped, too. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I apologize for such a long piece - I didn't have time to write a short one.