Swan Upping, Children Downing?

Tuesday July 19, 2016

It's the first Monday of the summer holidays and schools are brilliant places to work when there are no children.

It’s easy; arrive at nine instead of half seven; chat with colleagues; have some lunch; do emails without interruption; have a brew; write some plans quietly at your desk; go home at five instead of half seven.  All very lovely, calm and relatively easy. A nine to five job that is productive and fairly stress free.

As a headteacher I like to work in the first week of the holidays. This is a time to clear my in-box, catch up with work I put off in the hectic last week of term and make plans for September. I meet leisurely with my leadership team and clear away all the piles of paper on my desk that have plagued me for months. This is bliss compared to the normal school week. Today I only had 10 e-mails rather than the usual 150. All this can be done with the prospect of a few weeks holiday abroad and a bit more work later in the summer holidays.

The down side to what I describe as work bliss is what is happening right now to the pupils of my school. The relative calm of the school today made me reflect on Friday afternoon and home time for the children. Life for the children in an SEMH special school is challenging. It is one of extremes and unpredictability. To many of the children, school offers security, stability and consistency. It provides safety, sanctuary and love. It is the place where they are valued, cared for and even fed properly. On Friday we said goodbye to many of these children for seven weeks. Some of them cried. They told the staff they wanted to stay in school. They didn't want to be at home for seven weeks. The anxiety and sadness was tangible.

At Springwell we run a summer school. We can’t provide it for everyone as this would bankrupt us but we are selective and try to offer time to those who we feel need it most. This gives us the chance to ‘look after’ the children over the holidays and give them a much better experience than they possibly would receive otherwise. This is done without any additional funding. We squeeze our budget to provide three days per week of activities to enrich and enhance the summer holidays. We can check that the children are ok, that they are safe, we can help those families who need us and provide additional support through the long weeks of the summer holiday. Sporting activities, day trips to the seaside, craft, bowling, art, music...  Does this sound familiar to anyone? Yes, we do summer in loco parentis. We try to do what ‘reasonable parents’ would do with their children during the holidays.

On my way to school this morning I was listening lazily to the radio and I picked up on a report about something I’d never heard of before. Apparently today, and the next four days, are Swan Upping on the Thames. I heard how a flotilla of boats works its way down the river. Led by Her Majesty’s Swan Master, the uniformed officials check that all the swans are fit and healthy. This is done on behalf of the Queen and a grateful nation clearly worried about its swans. 

Now, I am a lover of nature and the outdoors. I enjoy the environment and I value it greatly. However, I am concerned about national priorities. I am also worried about who pays for Swan Upping and do consider if this money could be used more effectively elsewhere in the system. In the days of government cuts to public services, where social care is being stripped back and family support is being stretched like never before, why are we spending money checking that swans are ok?  Nobody seems to be making sure all our children are safe, looked after, and healthy. I also haven’t noticed if the swans on the River Dearne in Barnsley are being checked on or is this just another element of the north south divide? A postcode lottery for swans!

Swans are magnificent creatures. They are an icon of our countryside, our rivers, our waterways and our nobility.  I am more than happy with tradition and ceremony. I just don’t get how we can live in a society where children live in abject poverty, are exposed to neglect and lack of care, yet still think it's ok to spend what I guess is thousands of pounds on a ceremony to look after swans.

It seems to me like Swan Upping means more children downing. As I often see on Twitter: #justsaying



Dave Whitaker is Executive Principal at Springwell Special Academy. He's a strong proponent of employing 'unconditional positive regard' to unlock children's potential and has contributed to the Second Big Book of Independent Thinking.


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