Leading schools in impoverished communities during a pandemic

Schools  have always been concerned with making sure that all pupils can learn the important “stuff” – stuff that allows meaningful life choices. Schools are concerned to support pupils to belong to the school community. Schools have always been concerned with pupils’ physical, social and emotional well-being and with the relationships established with parents and carers. So school leaders make sure that their organisation and distribution of resources – teacher expertise, space and time, materials and kit – allow all pupils to learn and to be, become and belong.

But the two years of pandemic schooling have both heightened – and changed – these concerns. The research we conducted in 2021 evidenced these changes. 

Senior leaders quickly adapted their pedagogies, communication practices, routines and operations to the new pandemic demands. Schools maintained a strong focus on teaching and learning but also extended their efforts to support health and welfare. Many schools started breakfast programmes, lent or gave pupils books and equipment and provided advice and counselling. However, schools serving the poorest communities in the country already did these things long before the pandemic hit. 

Over the last two years schools in highly disadvantaged neighbourhoods have taken on more welfare work than ever. The communities they serve are now poorer and many families experience severe food insecurity and difficulties in finding secure employment. The most recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation paints a grim picture of increased hardship and makes depressing predictions for the immediate future. 

There seems little prospect of reversing the trends since around 2012/13 of rising child poverty (which rose by four percentage points to almost a third of children by 2019/20) … Larger families and single-parent families have particularly high poverty rates at almost half for both single-parent families and for families containing three or more children. We are likely to see individuals in Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Black families continuing to have higher poverty rates (over 40% for individuals in households headed by someone of each of these ethnicities) … Most worryingly, our latest data showed a big rise in destitution with more than a million households (containing 2.4 million people, including 550,000 children) experiencing destitution in 2019, a rise of 35% since 2017, with modelling suggesting further increases during the pandemic. 

School leaders in locations that have been hardest hit by the pandemic have done whatever they could  – started food and clothing banks, advocated for families with government agencies and stretched their budgets to give pupils whatever technology and school supplies were needed. But they need more from government. 

During our first webinar we heard from one primary school headteacher about what increased poverty in pandemic times meant for her and her school.  

We were agile. We demonstrated strong leadership.

But you felt as if your feet were in concrete. 

I can’t multifocus. I can’t even watch a trite film with a happy ending. I’m twitchy. 

I can’t afford to not comply but I feel completely rebellious.

I can see that we should be proud of what we did. But I don’t feel it.

We got rid of all the teddies, we pulled all our displays down.

We had to ask our children intrusive questions – do you have a table at home you can work on?

I found a Mum crying outside the school gate in the morning…

What most schools did for families during the pandemic we were doing before.  

We’ve extended that even further. We are doing welfare work because nobody else is. 

But I’ve lost contact with some families. There’s a loss of trust. It takes a lot to rebuild that. 

I don’t need tutors. I need support services for families. 

The government was beyond disdain. 

They need greater understanding of what our families need. 

Commentators at our webinar agreed that the current schools pandemic policy had taken little account of the ways in which schools in the most disadvantaged locations had become “one-stop shops”. Schools had maintained their focus on teaching and learning but also provided community public services when other over-extended agencies could not. As the head above notes, tutoring services may be useful, but are hardly all that is needed. 

The second phase of our project will continue to investigate the impact of the pandemic in schools, deepening the evidence about and understanding of the varied experiences and needs of different leaders and different schools. We are particularly focused on how long the committed staff leading schools in impoverished areas can maintain their current levels of care and effort.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Author: pat thomson

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

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