Education chief prepares for ‘business as usual’ in our schools 

Jonathan Lewis education director for cambridgeshire and peterborough

'Children must come back, and we must get normality back into our education system," says Jonathan Lewis (above), director of education for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. - Credit: Archant

Education chief prepares for ‘business as usual’ ahead of schools re-opening fully  

Ok, it was a cheeky question. But I asked it anyway.   

So, Jonathan Lewis, director of education for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, how would you mark your performance throughout the Covid pandemic?  

He smiled.   

“A tough question that – self-evaluation,” he says.   

“What I wanted to do was to lead and be visible and help those in more difficult situations than mine do their jobs well,” he says.   

That included writing dozens of letters, being upfront with the media, and dealing with the challenges of whether schools could open or close.   

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“By being visible I wanted to take the pressure off others,” he says.  

He was all of that, his tally of chairing 18 head teacher meetings via Zoom over 18 months – with at least 300 at each – offers some insight.   

The constant reconciliation of following Government guidelines with local decision making he equates to “being on a rollercoaster” with schools open, closed, and partially open.   

He says: “I hate to think how many different challenges we faced throughout the pandemic.   

“A memory I will hold onto is just after last Christmas and coming into the New Year”.  

That was when confused messages were coming out daily, if not hourly, about whether schools could re-open.  

“I don’t think I ever worked so hard, did so many hours and wrote so many messages to parents during that time as I have ever done,” he says. “It was a really difficult time.”  

Jonathan believes education is the fourth emergency service - “a different context but they have been front line workers at a time when we had some of the highest Covid rates in the country, our schools remained open for children of key workers”.   

Which brings him to “my biggest breakthrough” and that was to get rapid Covid testing for teachers.   

“When none were available, we managed to negotiate with the health service to get it done,” he says.  

“We commandeered a building at short notice to get testing done when there was no infrastructure whatsoever. Just one of many hundreds of problems – some little some not so – we overcame.”  

Keeping schools open for children of key workers “played a role in keeping the health service working.”.  

“Our attendance at schools has been, in a national context, phenomenal,” he says.  

On one occasion Peterborough was top in terms of attendance measurement, and Cambridgeshire regularly featured in the top three from across the country.   

“It shows we made some good decisions,” he says.   

Jonathan believes successes came about through “doing things together and remembering it was about children and young people, not about structures and policies”.   

Jonathan dislikes the term ‘lost generation’ and believes evidence will emerge to show a speedier recovery than some had anticipated.   

“Yes, there are some gaps in children’s learning – and I know this from personal experience having two children at Cambridgeshire schools.   

“But the efforts that have gone in to keep children on board and working and the way they responded, means that going back into school will see that the supposed ‘lost generation’ is a much smaller group than portrayed in the media.”  

He adds: “The focus will be to do everything possible to ensure they are not the ‘lost generation’ - I simply don’t buy into that. But I do agree there is some work to be done with some groups.”  

From September it is business as usual.  

He will meet heads to discuss final arrangements for a full re-opening.   

“It is really important 16- and 17-year-olds get vaccinated and that everyone follows all protective measures,” he says.   

“Listen to what you are being told and follow it and that will keep everyone safe – but we are absolutely ready for September.”  

And he says those parents worried about sending their children back to school need to be aware that they do not have an option.   

“It is vital their children attend and if parents are concerned then please speak to school leaders,” he says. “But children must come back, and we must get normality back into our education system.  

"Please be assured education is safe.”  

And with that he was off –but not before answering the earlier self-assessment question.   

“I’ll settle for ‘good’” he says, confident that a ‘jury’ of some 20,000 who work in education across Cambridgeshire will agree. 


Cllr Goodliffe and Cllr Ayres

Cllr Bryony Goodliffe (right), chair of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Committee. And Cllr Lynne Ayres, Peterborough City Council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education, Skills and the University. - Credit: Archant

View from Cambridgeshire 

Cllr Bryony Goodliffe is chair of Cambridgeshire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Committee.

She said: “I have been very impressed with our response to the COVID pandemic. 

“Being out of education can cause significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, and mental and physical health.  

“It is now right that schools open up and relax their rules, but it is still essential that everyone continues to be sensible and vigilant.  

The pandemic has not gone away, and it is vital that young people all continue to test regularly and get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.” 

 View from Peterborough

Cllr Lynne Ayres is Peterborough City Council’s Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education, Skills and the University.

She said: “Schools and education staff have risen magnificently to the challenges of the pandemic and how we meet those challenges.  

“The closure of schools early on in this pandemic was essential at the time to contain the spread of the virus.

"But we know it caused anxiety and worry for many students, their teachers and families, as well as contributing to widening inequalities.  

“I hope the new term in September will see some sort of return to normality, but young people must continue to test regularly and to get the jab if they are invited to.  

“This is the only way we can be sure that we are doing as much as we can to slow the spread of the virus further as schools and colleges re-open and we approach the winter months.”  

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