During the pandemic, the initial bump in levels of public trust in the national government rapidly fell away. However, it seems that trust at the local level may have actually increased and been maintained. A study commissioned by the British Academy (March 2021) reported that
Through December to January, 60% of the UK population continued to doubt the UK government’s competence in tackling the pandemic. Only 25-27% thought the government was competent. In contrast, only 24-28% thought their local councils lacked competence and 43-38% believed they were competent. By March 2021 when 30% of the population had been vaccinated and a timetable announced for unlocking, 54% still doubted the government’s competence whereas only 21% doubted their local councils’ competence. (p.4)
The BA study also examined public perceptions of social unity and division at both the national and local levels. The report states that people see more division at national than the local level. The increased level of unity and cohesion at the local level is important, the report says, as social cohesion is an important driver of national growth and stability. In a separate report, the British Academy argues that building a more cohesive society means focusing, capitalising on and building up from local structures. It says
We must also look closely at the critical role of communities in rebuilding trust and cohesion after the crisis, ensuring the right infrastructure is in place to strengthen trust both within and between different groups and communities, which in turn builds social capital and underpins wider recovery demands for greater economic productivity and resilience. (p.8)
The British Academy follows a long line of sociological and political research which suggests that civic institutions have a key role to play in building the bonds which are the basis of trust and social cohesion ( e.g. Bandari and Yosanobu, 2009; Gannon and Roberts 2020; Muringani et al, 2021). Social institutions are integral to growing “bonding” (local), “bridging” (local to national) and “linking”(norms of respect and recognition) capitals; all three are important in the production and reproduction of the high levels of trust needed for national recovery (Fuzer et al, 2020). The local cannot be ignored; nor can it be seen as the only site that matters.
Schools are important local civic institutions. They connect children and their families socially through both formal and informal practices. They are also variously important in local economies through their employment and purchasing practices. And through educational networks, they can strengthen place based provision as well as cconnect different parts of the region and the country together.
There is already a literature on schools and social capital (e.g. Dika and Singh, 2002; Flint, 2011; Murray et al, 2020). During the pandemic there has been some social capital related research which examines the trust that parents have in their children’s school. In the USA, an Ed Week Research Centre survey suggested that just over half of the parent body thought that schools would keep their children safe, and only 20% thought the reverse. Parental feelings of trust in their school varied with race, ethnicity, education levels and political affiliation being important differentiators. Black parents in particular had less faith in their children’s school.
In England, ParentPing conducted a large survey investigating parents’ views on schooling during lockdown. Parent Ping concluded that
Parents think schools did a great job (but this didn’t really affect how successful parents thought home learning had been). Some families found it harder than others (but not a lot). Families were challenged when they didn’t have enough access to laptops etc., when it was difficult to combine home learning with other commitments, and when they didn’t understand the work set by schools.
While this lockdown research on schooling does not directly address how trust in local schools is linked to questions of wider local trust, it does broadly support the view that schools are one of the social assets in communities which can support post-pandemic social rebuilding.
The Brookings Institute in the US argues that “powered up” local schools could be the centre of local learning “eco-systems”. While the Brookings agenda for change may not suit everyone, their case for inclusive and equitable local schools as a significant component of recovery sits well with the British Academy vision of civic renewal based in both national and local institutions.
The research on parents and their local schools does suggest that there are good grounds for thinking that schools could be an integral part of a post-pandemic public policy agenda. However, as we have noted, trust and thus bridging and linking capitals between school leaders and the national government have been weakened during the pandemic. Any agenda for change thus needs to take not only the local but also the national into account.
And in order for a social capital based renewal agenda involving schools to actually work, school leaders need to be personally and professionally in a position to take on new challenges. But are they?
In our next holiday post, we examine some of the pre-pandemic research on school leaders’ work and their recruitment and retention. This next post paves the way for a further report from our survey on school leaders’ career intentions.