Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has talked to head teachers about how he has coped with the personal pressure over his often-criticised handling of schools in the pandemic.
“Not every day has been brilliant,” he told a head teachers’ online conference.
He said that his “supportive family” and getting a puppy had helped him.
“A combination of a family and dogs are probably the things that keep you sane,” said Mr Williamson.
“One thing about pets is that they’re always going to be pleased to see you,” he told the annual conference of the ASCL head teachers’ union.
“I think leadership, as for so many head teachers, has sometimes been quite an incredibly challenging experience and often a very lonely experience,” said Mr Williamson.
The education secretary has faced tough criticism over problems such as last year’s exams, prompting calls for his resignation and speculation about being reshuffled out of his post.
ASCL’s president Richard Sheriff said mental health had become a bigger concern.
He asked the education secretary: “How have you managed your own wellbeing over the past year, because you must have had some pretty tough days in the office to try and recover from?”
Mr Williamson said the “thing that’s made the biggest difference” had been his family – “having them around, having them to talk to”.
“And probably like a lot of families, we seemed to have made an investment in a puppy,” he told head teachers.
‘Pillow talk’ is DfE
Mr Sheriff, a head teacher in North Yorkshire, said school leaders recognised the intense pressures of decision making during the pandemic, including for politicians.
“There are leaders who have led before Covid – and then there are leaders who have led through Covid, who have had an experience that no one else could understand,” said the ASCL president.
But Mr Williamson said he also faced questions about the education department at home from his wife, who is a teaching assistant.
“I obviously get quite a bit of lobbying,” he said. “You know our pillow talk is maybe a little bit different.
“She’s always highlighting various issues where maybe the Department for Education hasn’t always got it perfect all the time.”
The education secretary paid tribute to how schools and teachers had responded to the “unprecedented demands” created by the pandemic.
“Everyone in this country has a far greater and deeper appreciation of the teaching profession,” he told the conference.
GCSEs not being scrapped
The pandemic has led to the cancellation of written exams this year, for the second year in a row, and Mr Williamson was asked whether there would be changes to the exam system in the future, such as scrapping GCSEs.
Mr Williamson ruled out any removal of the exams, saying: “We’re absolutely going to be keeping GCSEs.”
He said many students changed school or college at the age of 16 and it was “really important that we have something that captures their attainment and their progress so far”.
“We’re certainly not looking at getting rid of age 16 assessment, so I think GCSE is going to be there for an awful lot longer.”