Shaken identities – what does UK research on school leadership in the pandemic tell us?

In a previous blog post we explored what can be learned from international literature on school leadership during and after natural disasters. In this post we consider existing research here in the UK on school leadership in the pandemic and some implications which flow from this.

A number of UK studies are tracking the impact of the pandemic – we have brought together a list of all those we are aware of here. Quite understandably, most studies focus on the impact on pupils, and particularly their learning, progress and well-being. Others focus on related issues, such as the nature and implications of online teaching and learning or how the pandemic has affected school budgets. Some studies are tracking schools’ and teachers’ experiences overall. A small number of studies – referenced below – have focused more specifically on leadership, although we are not aware of any that consider how the pandemic is impacting on school leaders’ career plans, the focus of our research.   

Empirical studies show that leading through the crisis has been the opposite of business as usual. Instead, leaders have faced a range of challenges and have needed to adapt and respond in numerous flexible ways:  

  • Policy overload: Fotheringham et al. (2021) show how an ‘avalanche of daily information’ from the national Department for Education (DfE) frequently overwhelmed school and Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) leaders, with 201 policy updates issued by the DfE over a 90-day period, including 11 documents on one single Sunday in April 2020.
  • Schools have struggled to pivot in the context of existing system pressures and issues: Nelson et al. (2021) identify issues for schools stemming from lack of funding, an overcrowded curriculum and an overly tight accountability framework. In a similar vein, Moss et al. (2021) include a range of findings on how primary schools are responding, but conclude that ‘the pandemic reveals just how patchy forms of support have become and how dependent on local connections and charitable giving schools now are’. Similarly, Jopling and Harness (2021) focus on school leaders’ well-being and vulnerability in the pandemic, but conclude that ‘What is more surprising is that leaders interviewed felt that, rather than being overwhelming in itself, the pandemic had had an amplifying effect on the greatest challenges they faced, which remained finance and accountability’.
  • School leaders have needed to prioritise flexible, values-based responses: Beauchamp et al. (2021) interviewed school leaders across the UK in the early stages of the pandemic. They highlight how responding to the challenges required considerable versatility and adaptive leadership. Many heads reported a need to distribute leadership more, as they sought to work flexibly and at speed. At the same time, they had to work hard to maintain a sense of ‘collective “us-ness” and commitment to shared values, which required transformational and values-based leadership backed by strong communications.
  • Shifts in school-community relations: Both Nelson et al (2021) and Moss et al (2021) highlight how the pandemic has driven changes in how school leaders think about and engage with families and their local community,withleaders needing to focus on communication and pastoral care, in particular in the most deprived contexts.
  • MATs have adopted robust, centralised approaches:  Day et al. (2021) studied responses within a sample of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), showing how they adopted robust, centralised approaches to supporting member academies while seeking to ensure collective, efficient and effective approaches to student engagement and learning. 

Beauchamp et al’s (2021) study chimes with the findings from our own research in highlighting how the removal of most of the regular school improvement routines which give structure and purpose to the work of leaders has had a profound impact on their identities and sense of confidence. For example, they quote this interviewee:

“I think from quite a personal point of view quite a large part of my identity is the job that I do, and I feel quite strongly that that identity has been taken away rather which has led to all sorts of levels of anxiety and worry.”

In a similar vein, Harris and Jones (2020) conclude that the pandemic has raised fundamental questions about the kinds of leadership we need in schools. They suggest that ‘unpredictability and uncertainty are now the watchwords of all those leading schools’ and that, as a result, ‘a new chapter in educational leadership is currently being written because of COVID-19… This leadership has no national standards, no guidelines, no stipulations no rubrics, at least not for now’.

It has long been argued that schools, like other organizations, now operate in contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), and that both leaders and the organizations that they lead must therefore become more adaptive – capable of continual change and innovation as well as efficiency and effectiveness. In practice, though, as Joe Hallgarten and his colleagues argue, England’s school system is the opposite of adaptive – rather, it is stuck ‘in improvement mode’, too often characterised by narrow technical and implementation-focused approaches to leadership. The question is whether, as we start to emerge from the pandemic, England’s system can better support its school leaders to lead adaptively to address the recovery challenges we face.

Join the debate:

We will publish the report of findings from our research in late November. Sign up here to attend two free themed webinars at which we will discuss the findings:

24th November – School Leadership in the Pandemic: What can we learn from local and national responses to the crisis?

29th November – School leadership in the pandemic: what can be done to support leaders in role and avert a succession crisis?   

Photo by Colton Sturgeon on Unsplash

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