Keeping ahead of the curve: Leadership during the coronavirus

Keeping ahead of the curve: Leadership during the coronavirus

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As Headteacher of one of the largest schools in Europe, The British School in the Netherlands, Paul Topping has seen the sudden impact that coronavirus has had on education for students in the Netherlands first-hand. Here he gives us an insight into how schools have had to totally change their ways of working in just a few weeks, to be ready to open their doors to many of their students.

Your instinct as a headteacher is to keep the school running, come what may. Bad weather, winter flu and burst boilers – we have contingency plans in place and always remain open for learning.

Coronavirus, however, brought a new perspective to decision-making around school closure. As any leader in business or education would no doubt testify, the pandemic took most of us by surprise and we watched as whole countries were shut down by the contagion.

In retrospect, the speed of change in circumstances was alarming. On Tuesday, 10 March, I was welcoming a Headteacher from a school in Cairo to a swimming gala in our locality. Three days later, a letter was being distributed from my desk to parents and staff with news that our school would close, until further notice.

Managing mental health and supporting children in their final exam years

The school shutdown has been a particularly difficult time for those in their final exam years. Not only have they had their exams cancelled but they are unable to celebrate many of the rites of passage that we all associate with leaving school (for example, graduations and proms). We know that all of these sudden changes have had an impact on the mental health of our students, and our school counselling service has been arranging appointments on Microsoft Teams with children that may need them.

In terms of events, we are determined to do all we can to make this year feel special for them, despite the external circumstances. We are running two virtual end-of-year assemblies for Year 11 and Year 13, for example, and running a leaving party (at a safe distance!).

How does a large international school plan for students’ return, with just a few weeks’ notice?

The planning for a return to school has been a complex and time-consuming endeavour. Secondary schools are simply not set up for education at 1,5m distance and so a fundamental redesign of how classrooms and social spaces operate has been essential.

BSN Classroom Corona

We have had to reconsider and replan every element of a student’s day, from their arrival to their departure, to ensure that safe distancing could be maintained at all times. In a busy secondary school, with over 1.100 students usually moving between corridors and classrooms up to six times a day, this meant completely reshaping the timetable and flow of the building.

Having considered the capacity of rooms in our building, we know that most classroom spaces can accommodate up to 11 students, which is around half of our average class size. We have redesigned the timetable in a way that would allow half the school population to return on one day and the other half the next day. We’ve also staggered arrival and departure times so we don’t have all students arriving at the same time. Sadly, we can no longer allow parents on site for safety reasons.

We’ve had to look at areas which people may not think of - for instance taping up bike stands so students can’t park close to each other and marking queueing areas outside of toilets. We were in a fortunate position to be able to welcome most of our students back in on June 3 due to the large facilities that we have. I can imagine in a smaller school the whole situation is even more challenging.


The biggest challenge

In my 15 years of headship, the coronavirus has been without a doubt the biggest challenge and I suspect many leaders would say the same. Clear, assured messaging to all parties has been essential through the pandemic.

Alexander Graham Bell, the great inventor, scientist, and engineer, whose work in communication was a triumph, would have been proud of us. One of his most famous messages was that before anything else, “preparation is the key to success.”

Please contact the British School in The Netherlands for availability and options for your child.

Paul Topping


Paul Topping

Paul is currently Executive Headteacher at the British School in The Netherlands, in The Hague. He joined the school in 2017. The BSN is a multi-campus school with 2500 students...

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