Could an army of volunteers help our schools through the pandemic?

My handwriting is notoriously poor. For the last half century, I have blamed my parents’ decision to move home. I was parachuted into a new school where everyone had already mastered joined-up writing. Agraphia has been the long-term legacy and I’m now rather ashamed to admit that I never did anything about it.

We all probably place a higher value on joined-up thinking: thinking about problems in an intelligent way, a way that considers interrelated possibilities and opportunities with an economical and efficient outcome as the result.

As an historian, I have at times observed that governments are not particularly good at joined-up thinking. Policy too frequently has unintended consequences and opportunities for efficiency are often missed. Perhaps this is because government is inherently complex, grappling with enormous and serious issues; maybe it is because departments too easily operate in silos with cabinets simply too busy to take an overview, or perhaps some governments are just not very good.

Whatever the case, I have often found in schools that the best joined-up thinking comes from members of staff and pupils, who see the big picture precisely because they are a part of it. That is why good heads always encourage the sharing of ideas. Nothing should be off the table as all ideas merit consideration. Indeed, thinking through even an impractical idea can lead to an unexpectedly positive outcome.

So, here goes...

I think there is universal acceptance that our schools have rarely been under more pressure. Coping with COVID is no mere sideshow, but a full-time occupation as we review almost every aspect of school life and plan for myriad scenarios of disruption. Teachers face the challenge of working in a new environment, in secondary schools often outside their usual classrooms and departmental areas. Staff need to plan for the possibility of lockdown, self-isolation and the return of remote teaching whilst assessing and addressing any educational deficit that has already resulted from COVID. There’s a great deal to do.

Meanwhile, in other sectors of the economy, people face the awful prospect of continuing furlough, moving to part-time working or even unemployment. Our economy is shedding productive capacity at precisely the time when it is most needed.

The struggle against Coronavirus is sometimes compared to a war. In wartime, we would mobilise and utilise the entire productive capacity of our country, not lay it off.

So, I wonder whether a bit of joined-up thinking might help? Rather than shedding or setting capacity aside, why not extend the idea of the volunteer army that was willing to support the NHS and the vulnerable over the summer, by encouraging school volunteering? Wealthy schools are already looking to recruit staff to ease the pressure on teachers, so why not encourage, incentivise or at least allow those whose employment has been compromised by COVID to volunteer in schools.

This doesn’t need to be an enormously complex or bureaucratic process and even small numbers could make a difference. Jobs to be done would reflect the skills of the volunteers but could include everything from routine school duties to running extra-curricular clubs and societies. Graduates might assist in the production of teaching materials or even, with direction, share the burden of marking and assessment. At a more basic level, cleaning equipment and sanitising premises has become part of the routine for many primary and secondary teachers and I am sure help would be welcome.

At our most recent joint meeting with ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders), the leaders of independent school heads’ associations agreed that supporting colleagues through this unprecedented time was a priority. What we needed was practical suggestions that could help. So, there you are: something to consider.

The boat has sadly long since sailed on my inadequate calligraphy, but it’s not too late to engage in a little joined-up thinking.

Written by Dr Simon Hyde, HMC General Secretary