Yorkshire headteacher Pepe Di’Iasio on how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected education

For Pepe Di’Iasio, the past 18 months have presented an unprecedented challenge which has been mirrored for every member of the teaching profession across the country.

Pepe Di’Iasio with students

But Mr Di’Iasio admits that while the impact of Covid-19 has been profound on the teaching profession, it is the hidden trauma that has affected students which creates the greatest concern.

He told The Yorkshire Post that from a teenager’s perspective, the coronavirus pandemic “has been centred around anxiety, and loneliness because they’ve been in all on their own”, adding: “It’s been a major trauma for them.”

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With months of disrupted learning caused by the repeated lockdowns, the arrival of the new academic year has presented new challenges with the return to classrooms full-time.

Mr Di’Iasio, who is the headteacher of the “truly comprehensive” Wales High School, near Rotherham, is also the vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and has been tasked with attempting to improve education for students and teachers across the country.

Between the lockdowns, the wave of pings from the NHS app meaning staff and pupils alike have had to self-isolate and classroom bubbles bursting with pupils displaying signs of Covid-19, students have missed months of face-to-face tuition with their teachers and peers since March last year.

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Meanwhile, educators have had to adapt to a hybrid way of working, combining virtual lessons with some in-person time for the children of key-workers.

More recently, teachers have had to ensure that pupils who are forced to stay home by the virus still have access to resources and lessons while their classmates continue with maths, English and history in classrooms.

When Mr Di’Iasio spoke to The Yorkshire Post earlier this week, he revealed that he had about 60 students and “half a dozen” staff remaining at home having tested positive for Covid-19.

“It’s the most we’ve ever had off,” he says. “There are more students off now with Covid than there ever were at the return to schools during lockdown. We are still living with Covid and having to manage Covid.”

When asked if he is worried about the numbers peaking as life seemingly returns to some degree of normality, he adds: “It concerns me in that I wouldn’t want any child to be poorly in any way shape or form.

“I’m reassured by the data from the scientists that told me that students don’t suffer too adversely. But inevitably there are some people that get hit harder by Covid than others.

“What you want is the school to be healthy, to be part of a community that is looking after each other looking forward and not worried about who’s going to get Covid next.”

Despite the continued absences, Mr Di’Iasio believes his pupils are “really happy to be back” because they have had “enough of being isolated, and just wanted to be back and gain some sense of normality and all that goes with school”.

He adds: “I think we’re all, we’re all conscious that we want to keep grandma safe or be safe within our own family or community so we’re all following all of the protocols we should be. But I think what we’d really like to have is to have Covid behind us, clearly it’s not yet.

“I heard a quote from one of our sixth formers last week that the pandemic for them has been centred around anxiety, and loneliness because they’ve been in all on their own.

“So they haven’t worried about Covid necessarily, but they have worried about being isolated and being alone. That’s been a major trauma for them in the past 18 months.”

Mr Di’Iasio has spent the past two weeks splitting his time between his school and political party conferences in his role with the ASCL - the second part of his job being a reflection of a long-held desire to try and “make a difference”.

Following the departure of the controversial Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary and the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi, Mr Di’Iasio sees the opportunity for the new incumbent to look at new policies.

With rumours that an early election could be called in 2023, he admits those policies are “probably going to need to land quite quickly and be pre-formed”.

Mr Di’Iasio says: “We’ve been really anxious to make sure that we share our schools’ blueprint with them so we’ve got a blueprint which has got a number of policies that we think are appropriate to help improve schools.

“Our schools need some certainty in the coming months and years, and we wanted to make sure we share that with the new team.”

With the challenge of his dual roles, Mr Di’Iasio maintains that his desire to help emerged from his childhood.

“I think ever since I was young, I’ve always wanted to have some sort of responsibility,” he says. “When I was playing sport I would want to be the captain of the team and try and influence strategy. I’m intrigued and excited by it, by being able to make a difference.”

And he is confident he can marry the demands of the political sphere with his work dedicated to the classroom.

He adds: “The students are brilliant. They’re like the most exciting and interesting part of the job. All the policy changes, they’re what I have to get involved with as a headteacher, but they’re not the fun bits. They’re not the interesting bits at all to be honest.”

Yorkshire has been at the heart of Pepe Di’Iasio’s time in teaching.

He began his career in education in Doncaster before moving as a deputy headteacher to a secondary school in Sheffield.

He has also worked as an executive headteacher for two high schools and more recently has been the assistant director of education for Rotherham Borough Council. His current role as the headteacher at Wales High School in Rotherham means he is overseeing the education for pupils aged between 11 and 19.

Mr Di’Iasio was formerly the chairman of the equality, inclusion and ethics committee for the Association of School and College Leaders. He will become the organisation’s president for 2021-22.