I am writing this on the day that legal requirements designed to slow the spread of Covid-19 cease in Scotland. We are now going to rely on common sense and consideration. That should go well, given how much of both appears to be going the rounds in our current world. Of course, in other parts of the UK, commonly known as England, the pandemic is over, slain by Boris the Vaccinator, a stranger to truth but the nemesis of disease. So, it seems like an odd day to be announcing that we won’t be going ahead with the Portobello Learning Festival for 2022, but that is what we are doing.
If anyone is wondering why we are swimming against the tide of optimism, here is the explanation.
The impact of Covid-19 is still with us. Schools are faced with continuing attendance problems. Pupil absences have continued to be high and that places a huge stress on schools. High levels of absence undermine continuity in learning. They make the whole idea of progression a lottery. How do you build on what you have done if the class that you did it with is significantly different from the class that you are attempting the development with?
High levels of pupil absence are demanding in so many other ways. Recording, checking, attempting to support the children and young people affected are significant tasks and add to the workload in schools.
Many schools are also experiencing high levels of staff absence and no one should be surprised at that.
I often think that staff steel themselves for crises and the pandemic certainly has been a crisis.
People have gone above and beyond, and they are tired. We see this in more normal years. I often ask audiences of teachers how many of them have been ill during holidays and the question never fails to elicit a copious show of hands. It is as if they give all that they can in term time and then collapse as soon as term finishes. I liken it to Sebastian Coe’s comments that, as an elite athlete, he never seemed to get ill during competition or training, but he did during recovery.
There also seems to be plenty of evidence that working in schools now is more demanding than ever. Many young people are exhibiting real difficulties with their mental health. Disruption, lack of contact, anxiety, the absence of routine, the removal of support, despite our best efforts, have all taken a toll. Several have suffered bereavement. Vaccination may counter the virus, but it doesn’t counter all the impacts that it has brought.
Staff absence can also have a frightening domino effect. Classes have to be covered, pupils have to be supported, days become more unpredictable, demanding and stressful and workload becomes even more unsustainable. For those attending the effect may be that they become the next absentees.
Added to all these ongoing pressures, we have continuing uncertainty in other ways. Secondary teachers in Scottish schools are experiencing high levels of anxiety about this year’s SQA exams. Even a brief visit to EduTwitter is likely to lead you to real unease about the coming diet.
Perhaps all of this means that we should be pulling out all the stops to make Porty 2022 happen. People need something to look forward to. We have a brilliant range of contributors. We are convinced that we could have a great day. We even think that we might manage to sell a few tickets and we would love to see colleagues, share tales and laugh and learn, but…….
And there is a massive “but”.
Asking people to come out on a Saturday is always a thought and that is more true this year than any year in which we have run the event.
Organising an event like the Portobello Learning Festival makes huge demands on a school and, rightly, Portobello High School want to invest their energies in making sure that they address the needs of their students. I think that is absolutely the right decision for this year.
I am also very proud of Porty. It has only happened twice, and it already feels like an institution. We have had incredible presentations, DJ sessions, Blue Rose Code and a range of workshops that would bear comparison with better funded, nationally sponsored events. All of us who are involved want to maintain that standard and not risk it.
We are hoping to run an online event, perhaps even a hybrid one, so look out for that. It will be a marker that we will be back!