School Leadership and Covid-19: a chance to create a better education system in England for the long-term

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“We have a term to get things right here and create something that will endure when Covid-19 abates: a school system that gets consistently high approval from those leaders on the front line.”

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I have just come off the phone listening to a head in the West Midlands describe her experiences in the last few weeks since the country locked down. ‘Leading in Challenging Circumstances’, a rather conventional academic title, doesn’t do it justice. The combination of confusing government advice compounded by lack of local area decision making has many left heads making key decisions on a daily basis and not sure who has their backs. 

She is resilient, well networked and supported by a strong governing body. But rightly irritated by an officious ‘check-up’ culture from central and local government rather than a ‘check in’ culture to ask supportively how things are going and how can she be helped. She serves a cash–poor community racked by fear as it is near to a temporary hospital and makeshift mortuary being set up to deal with the Covid-19 patients and victims. 

Heads have been asked to take risks by keeping their schools open for the children of key workers whilst simultaneously creating an on-line learning machine, keeping in touch with the most vulnerable children and families. Attention is correctly focussed on the NHS but school leaders (and those in the social care sector) have been left to their own devices with no apparent regard for the physical safety and well-being of school staff.

It is no wonder that in spite of small numbers of children turning up at school, heads reported  exhaustion as they headed to the Easter break. The announcement that the government food voucher scheme would be extended to cover the Easter holidays has been well received but heads have asked why the decision was not made until schools had closed. Many heads had been planning to cover the cost of food vouchers over the holiday period knowing that their children would go hungry as Covid-19 lock down increases families’ dependency on universal credit which is slow train coming. As this head said, ‘I have pupil premium funding. We will use it to feed the children. We can sort out the paperwork afterwards’

School leaders are making those rapid decisions in ethical and mindful ways. Some share their creativity and generosity on social media whist others are ‘head down’ just cracking on. Who is doing ‘safe and well’ checks on those heads who are struggling right now? I always worried about the heads who didn’t turn up to meetings during normal times as it was generally a sign that things were off the boil or they were sitting on problems. Right now, we need to know that they are OK. All 23,000 of them.

There has been some criticism of school leaders’ decisions on staffing, school hubs, expectations of home learning etc. by those not on the front line – in fact from some who have never been on the front line. I am not normally a fan of military-derived leadership material but retired General Colin Powell’s Leadership Primer is apposite here ‘The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise’ School leaders are doing the right thing and all those in the school system should be creating the team around the school, not carping from afar. 

There is some excellent work underway from local authorities, dioceses, professional associations and MATs to ensure that school leaders are supported. However, the lived experience of heads is that it is, so far, inconsistent and patchy. We have a term to get things right here and create something that will endure when Covid-19 abates: a school system that gets consistently high approval from those leaders on the front line. And that almost certainly means gluing the post-2010 system back together again with a functioning middle tier for all schools.

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