Survey results: School leaders’ experiences

This is the first of a series of posts which introduce headline findings from a survey of almost 1500 school leaders. The survey was carried out in summer 2021 by researchers from Nottingham and Oxford in partnership with ASCL and NAHT. For background information about the study see our research page.

What were school leaders’ experiences of the pandemic? 

Most leaders have coped with the pandemic. Fewer than one in 20 (4%) say they have been ‘mostly sinking’ (Fig. 1.1).  Just over a third (35%) say they have thrived to some extent, but that leaves almost two thirds who have not been thriving. Just over two fifths (42%) say they have been ‘mostly surviving’, while almost a quarter (23%) have been sometimes or mostly sinking.

Figure 1.1: Leaders’ overall experience of the pandemic

School leaders reported that their personal health was worse during the pandemic. Nearly nine in 10 (88%) respondents rated their health as either ‘good’ or ‘very good’ in ‘normal’ circumstances, but this declined to just over half (53%) during the pandemic. Leaders who reported that their health became worse during the pandemic were more likely to report they were sinking (31% vs. 13%).

The top factors that made leading during the pandemic difficult were: lack of timely resources from the Department for Education (DfE) (69%); constant change and uncertainty (69%); lack of straightforward resources from DfE (46%); and worrying about the health of children and/or staff (42%) (Fig. 1.2). 

Fig 1.2: Factors that made leading during the pandemic difficult 

The most important factors that helped leaders personally to cope during the pandemic were (Fig 1.3): collaboration and problem solving with colleagues at my school (75%), my personal values and beliefs (48%), my school’s positive ethos / culture (40%), feeling trusted to get on and make the right decisions (33%) and collaboration and problem solving with leaders outside my school (27%).

There were some clear differences by role: for example, executive heads (42%) and heads (35%) valued collaboration with external leaders more highly than deputy (5%) and assistant (4%) heads.

Fig 1.3: Factors that helped leaders to cope during the pandemic   

What about leaders’ schools – how did they fare?

School leaders were more positive about how their schools fared during the pandemic (Fig 1.4). Almost three fifths (57%) stated that their school had been ‘sometimes’ or ‘mostly’ thriving.  

  Fig 1.4: Overall findings on school/college experience of the pandemic

Almost two thirds (63%) of primary leaders agreed that local schools collaborated well during the pandemic, while just over half of secondary (52%) and all-through (56%) leaders agreed.

The most pressing concerns for school leaders once schools reopened in March 2021 were (Fig 1.5): pupil learning/progress (42%); preparing for renewed Ofsted inspections (33%); changes to national assessment / exams (28%); re-establishing school routines and culture (27%); lack of resources/funding (27%); and mental health issues of students (27%).   

Fig 1.5: Main challenges once schools reopened in March 2021


No one will be surprised that many school leaders struggled during the pandemic, they have faced a battery of changes any one of which would have been a major challenge in ‘normal’ times. However, the fact that almost a quarter describe themselves as ‘sometimes’ or ‘mostly sinking’ is clearly a concern. Similarly, the fact that ‘lack of timely resources from DfE’ has been the main source of stress, alongside the extended change and uncertainty, offers a wake-up call. 

Our next instalment will focus on where have school leaders gone for advice and what has helped them to cope. 

Author: pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK

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