"In times of crisis, leadership is so important"

Posted on: 19 Mar 2020
Posted by: Gareth Doodes

Gareth Doodes, head of Dover College, reflects on the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on his school.

In my ten years of headship, I have never known a period as stressful as the last two weeks.

It started at the end of half term when the Italian crisis was beginning to become apparent and my management team made a decision to quarantine three pupils returning from Milan. The pupils’ agents railed against our decision but soon went quiet as Italy begun to unravel.

As time passed, we had to consider various scenarios. What will happen to pupils from the Far East who have exams in May, but would need quarantine upon return to their home country and then quarantine upon their return to us? Pupils who show symptoms who have guardians, but the guardians refuse to home them? Isolation areas in the school? A never-ending list of scenarios that needed decisions.

The school took some quick, significant decisions. We cancelled all matches with other schools and banned anyone from outside the school coming to concerts or events. We set up new systems of entry into the school requiring delivery drivers to sanitise themselves and minimise contact with staff and pupils. The parental response, to date, has been in complete support.

An invitation for boarders to stay with us over Easter led to 30 pupils planning to hunker down in Dover. We asked staff to volunteer to help and the response was amazing.

But what about us Heads who are dealing with this?

I am a member of a WhatsApp group called The Heads Support Group - 30 colleagues from schools around the world who share ideas, jokes, policies, and decisions made. In the last two weeks has never been busier. Everyone feels tired, emotionally drained, and challenged. However, the forum reminds us that we are not alone.

In times of crisis, leadership is so important, and the collective leadership of management teams is vital. Moreover, it is in times of unprecedented crisis when the great British Dunkirk spirit kicks in that you realise just how important relationships are in senior teams when you make significant decisions that can affect people’s lives.

It is also a time when you value the support you are given. My PA, Jane, is the finest, hardest working, most brilliant person I’ve ever worked with. She has been amazing during these hard times.

Our SMT meeting yesterday (the third in three days) is the first I have ever attended where we had the conference room TV on and BBC News playing in the background. It was like a scene from film; all of us were reacting to events in real time, hanging on every word of the Prime Minister’s statement as we checked which scenario we may need to follow, or how we were to manage the next stage of the national outbreak to protect our school community.

My wife knows when I’m stressed as I self-medicate with numerous packets of Wotsits and glasses of dry white wine. After getting home, often not before 9pm, I’ve opened the iPad and tried to turn off by watching classic episode of Porridge and Dad’s Army. For a brief moment each morning as I open my eyes, for about 1/8 of a second, the challenge we all face is for a moment forgotten. As my daughter kicks me having jumped on the bed, reality kicks in; I walk into school having waded through the empty Wotsit packets littering the kitchen and think to myself: ‘what the hell will happen today?’

It is a privilege to do this job, but Heads out there are feeling it. We love this job because we all love people – our staff, our pupils, our pupils’ parents and all those linked to our schools. But we’re stressed by this because of the magnitude of the decisions we’re making, and the responsibilities resting heavily on our shoulders.

About Gareth Doodes

Gareth Doodes is head of Dover College.