The week when everything changed in education


It’s hard to find chinks of light in one of the darkest periods in living memory.

But just as schools were frantically trying to cope with the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, an email landed in my inbox on Thursday.

It revealed that Stoke-on-Trent officially has one of the best teachers in the world.

Nicola Whiston, who works at Ormiston Horizon Academy in Chell, is one of 50 people to be shortlisted for this year’s Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize.

If I tell you the prize includes $1 million, you’ll understand why it’s come to be known as the biggest teaching award on the planet. The winner doesn’t actually pocket that cash themselves, but they get to nominate an education project to benefit from it.

Nicola Whiston, from Ormiston Horizon Academy, has been shortlisted for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize

Understandably, Nicola was a little overwhelmed by the announcement. To be honest, so was I.

It’s the kind of story that would have been front page news in other times. And although coronavirus knocked the story off page one, it made me realise that we should all celebrate the moments that cheer us up.

Nicola is one of thousands of teachers across our patch, who are working their socks off to keep education running amid national chaos and despair.

I talked to a few other teachers last week, who shared a determination to do what’s right for young people.

Many of them also gave up their weekend to ensure everything was in place for the new arrangements starting on Monday.

There were schools organising last-minute Year 11 leavers’ assemblies, sorting out food vouchers, setting up study packs for pupils to use at home. You name it, they did it.

They didn’t want pupils to miss out on the experiences we normally take for granted.

I’ve been an education journalist for more than 20 years and I’ve never known a week like the last one. Day after day, there was a new development affecting schools, colleges and universities.


The Government has been forced to react to fast-moving circumstances. And inevitably, some of the decisions could have been handled better.

We all sensed the announcement was imminent about school closures. But it took days to tease out the details of how things would work.

How would GCSE and A-level students get their qualifications? Would young people still be expected to follow the national curriculum at home?

Would parents have to teach them? And what if families couldn’t work from home – who would look after the pupils?

One moment, we were told all schools would be closing. The next we found out many schools would actually be staying open, albeit with just a minority of students staying on site.

The Government promised to release a list of key workers, whose children could still attend school as their jobs were critical to keeping the country moving.

The list was published a day late and contained twice as many categories as schools were expecting.

Many heads were tearing their hair out, fearing they would have to prioritise who got the places and turn others away.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson later had to clarify that pupils should stay at home if at all possible, even if one of their parents was a key worker.

There were also teachers having sleepless nights about their most vulnerable pupils. The ones who might not show up on an official list, who were in danger of slipping through the net if left to cope at home.

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In the days leading up to the announcement on school closures, Ofsted also added to the confusion and anguish by suggesting some inspections would still go ahead. There was a teacher meltdown on Twitter before all routine inspections were put on hold.

Yes, we could all have done things better. But we are where we are and now we need to pull together to get through this.

As Nicola’s success has shown us, we have some of the best teachers around.





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