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Does the school system have long Covid?

We are currently finalising the report for the second phase of our Leading in Lockdown research. Integral to this stage of the research were interviews with 42 Assistant and Deputy Headteachers in primary and secondary schools. We asked them about their experiences of the pandemic and how it has impacted on their workload, well-being and career aspirations. 

One of the key framings for the report came from these interviews – the sense of the pandemic changing over time, with the demands on schools and school leaders also changing. We now understand the pandemic as having three distinct phases: 

Phase one – March to August 2020 – included the first national lockdown, the tentative reopening of schools in the summer term, and the exams fiasco in August that year. The main challenges in this period included providing home learning, delivering food, and ensuring pupil welfare and safeguarding, while also providing support for staff at a time of fear and uncertainty.

Phase two – the 2020-21 academic year – was described as even more difficult. The logistics of opening schools safely was a significant challenge, due to the need for social distancing, masks, sanitised spaces, mass Covid tests, Track and Trace, pupil bubbles and so on. The pressure to focus on education and ‘catch up’ increased through this phase, and leaders oversaw a changing mix of classroom based and online learning. In secondary schools, national exams were cancelled again, so leaders were required to oversee the production of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs). This was a huge logistical task, made more difficult by the fact that few believed it was fair to pupils or schools. As schools moved through this second phase, the sense of staff coming together – an initial ‘blitz’ spirit – began to wear thin, not helped by negative media headlines about the work of schools. Continuing high levels of parental, pupil and staff anxiety required a significant focus on communication and pastoral support.

Phase three – September 2021 to spring 2022 – has seen schools open continuously, while England saw the progressive removal of all Covid-related restrictions despite a surge in infections in early 2022. No interviewees agreed that schools were back to ‘normal’ in this phase, but views were evenly split on how the situation compared with earlier phases: around a third thought things were better; a third thought they were worse; while a third thought their work was equally challenging, but in different ways. Among the first group, this reflected the removal of most Covid-related requirements and the resulting ability to refocus on educational improvement. Among the second and third groups, this reflected three main challenges: first, Covid-related issues required continual attention, in particular due to very high rates of staff sickness and absence coupled with limited access to supply teacher cover, making it hard to move beyond crisis management; second, with the return of Ofsted inspections and national exams, interviewees felt under pressure, coupled with frustration that the realities of Covid had not been acknowledged nationally; third, addressing the long-run impact of Covid, including variable learning gaps and a tidal wave of pupil well-being and mental health concerns.

Because this third phase has not ended, we have come to the view that the school system has long Covid. According to our interviewees, this situation is largely unrecognised by politicians and system leaders whose talk of “back to normal” belies the situation in most schools. 

The report of this second phase of the research will be launched in early June.

A free webinar on the 9th June at 1600 BST will be chaired by Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers. Dr Tony Breslin, Director, Breslin Public Policy Limited; Alistair Goodhead, Assistant Headteacher, King Edward IV School, Lichfield and Claire Evans, Headteacher, Eaton Valley Primary School, West Bromwich will respond to the report and our presentation. You can find the information and link to the booking here.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

What do we know about the current school leadership labour market? 

We are currently finalising the report for the second phase of our Leading in Lockdown research, due for launch in early June.

Our project partners, the NAHT, released figures provided by the DfE based on the School Workforce Census (SWC) this week. These show that the number of headteachers under 50 who left the profession within five years of their appointment rose in the second half of the last decade, to 37% of secondary heads and 25% of primary heads. The findings have been covered widely in the media (see here, here, and here) and are discussed by Professor John Howson here.   

One strand of our research has involved working with John Howson and TeachVac to track the number of senior school leadership posts advertised in England in the first four months of 2022 (generally the busiest period for recruitment), comparing these to the equivalent period in the previous two years. These findings show that much higher numbers of school leaders are choosing to either move job or leave the profession in 2022.

Sharp rises in leadership vacancies in 2022 

The first chart below shows total adverts for head teachers between January and April over the three-year period. In primary, there has been a sharp increase in the number of head teacher posts advertised this year compared to both 2020 and 2021, increasing by more than a third between 2021 and 2022. In secondary, the situation has been more volatile, but is higher in 2022 (n=261) than in either 2021 (n=169) or 2020 (n=209).

Figure 1: Head teacher job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

The next two charts show the equivalent figures for assistant and deputy posts, for primary (Fig. 2) and then secondary (Fig. 3) schools.  The number of primary posts increased, by 80% since 2020 in the case of assistant heads. Similarly, in secondary, the number of posts advertised has increased sharply each year, by 75% over two years in the case of assistant heads.  

Figure 2: Primary Assistant and Deputy Head job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

Figure 3: Secondary Assistant and Deputy Head job adverts in England between January-April by year. Source: TeachVac.

Challenges in tracking change

It is challenging to track the English school leadership labour market ‘live’, especially after such a turbulent period, so these findings do have some caveats.

Firstly, the fact that a leadership post is advertised does not mean that the previous incumbent has retired or left the profession. Many adverts will reflect leaders moving job, to another school, so it is likely that some the increase in 2022 simply reflects an increase in the number of such moves after the lockdown had largely put them on hold.

TeachVac’s ability to monitor adverts and re-adverts for schools across England provides a good indication of changes in the labour market, but there are challenges in tracking job adverts comprehensively over time, for example because some schools and trusts choose not to advertise posts externally and because the number of schools – and therefore posts – changes as a result of changes in pupil demographics.

In addition to these practical challenges, the volatility of the school leadership labour market over the past two years makes it difficult to assess whether any recent changes are significant or not. For example, in most years, the three-month window between January and the end of March is the busiest period for advertising headteacher jobs. Around half of all jobs advertised in any given year tend to appear in this period. However, the pandemic has impacted on advertising patterns in both phases and the proportion of annual adverts in the January to March window was smaller in 2021 than in most ‘normal’ years. This volatility makes it harder to compare patterns over time.

A wider pandemic picture

These figures chime with the findings in our first Leading in Lockdown research report, published last November, which identified the huge pressures school leaders have faced during the pandemic and how this has impacted on their workloads, well-being and career plans. In the report we included comments from several head teacher interviewees who said they wanted to see their school through the lockdown period before leaving.

Our forthcoming report includes findings from a second national survey, undertaken by Teacher Tapp, as well as interviews with 42 assistant and deputy heads, carried out in early 2022. This provides a far more comprehensive picture of how the pandemic is impacting on leadership than we are aware of elsewhere.  

Leading in Lockdown – next steps for the research

Last November we published a report based on findings from the first stage of our research into how the pandemic has impacted on school leaders’ work, well-being and career intentions. In this post we share two posters which highlight some of the headline findings from that report. In addition, we outline the second phase of the research, which we are currently undertaking, with a view to publishing findings later in the spring.

Project posters

The two posters are shown below, with the option to download the poster with results if you want to share them more widely.

The first poster simply raises awareness of this website and of the research report. The use of post-it notes for ‘home’ and ‘work’, each of which includes a long list of ‘to do’ items, seeks to highlight the range of pressures that leaders have been under and the challenging decisions they have had to make during the pandem

The second poster draws out some headline findings from the research – the main high and main low for leaders, the impact on their well-being and career intentions, and the kinds of changes that might persuade them to stay in the profession. It includes the finding from the national survey carried out last summer that two fifths of leaders (40%) say they plan to leave the profession – for reasons other than full retirement – within the next five years.

We hope that you might want to use these posters to raise awareness of the research findings and to spark discussion about what can be done to support leaders more effectively, at both policy and practice levels, and how we can best equip the next generation to step up to headship.

We will be running a workshop on this theme at the ASCL conference, in Birmingham, on 11th March. We have applied for funding to undertake a wider consultation, in partnership with ASCL and NAHT, around how to enhance local support and succession planning for leadership, which will take place over the summer if we are successful. 

Next steps for the research

Building on the report published last November, we are currently undertaking further research into how the pandemic has impacted on school leaders work, well-being and career intentions. 

In this phase we:

  • are interviewing Assistant and Deputy Headteachers in primary and secondary schools to understand their experiences of leading in the pandemic, including how it has impacted on their career plans
  • have commissioned Teacher Tapp to survey teachers and leaders on their experiences of the pandemic as well as how it has impacted on perceptions of headship
  • are analysing national datasets, for example on job advertisements with Professor John Howson, to assess whether the pandemic appears to be impacting on the headteacher labour market. 

Please do let us know if you have any questions about, or comments on, the research.  Subscribe to this blog if you would like to receive notifications of new posts, including when we publish the new research findings, by email.

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

Succession planning for headteachers – could local solutions still work?   

In this post we ask how succession planning for headteachers in England could be improved; so that every school is able to recruit and retain a high quality headteacher, and the overall headteacher pool becomes more diverse and representative? 

At the end of November we held an online seminar on this topic, at which we shared the finding from our Leading in Lockdown research report that two in five school leaders in England plan to leave the profession early within the next five years. The report highlights that this picture remains fluid: our interviews with headteachers found that the vast majority are struggling with their workload and well-being as a result of the pandemic, but while some have made a firm decision to leave others could be persuaded to stay if national and local conditions were to improve.        

The report’s findings build on our previous blog post, in which we looked at the existing evidence on recruiting and retaining headteachers. This highlighted that even before the pandemic there were challenges with recruiting and retaining heads, but also that school governing bodies, trusts and wider policy makers can provide individual and systemic support to help grow the leadership pipeline and sustain leaders in role.

A recording of the seminar, which was chaired by Sara Ford from ASCL, and included panel responses to the research from Karen Giles (Executive Headteacher), Emma Knights (CEO, National Governance Association), and Steve Munby (former CEO, National College for School Leadership) is available here.  

Steve Munby reflected on how the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) worked to address a significant succession planning crisis between 2006-2011, when large numbers of baby-boomer generation headteachers were approaching retirement. At that time, each of England’s 21,000 or so governing bodies was responsible for recruiting and retaining its own headteacher, although Local Authorities, dioceses and others played supporting roles. Many governing bodies lacked the skills to do this well, and there were incentives baked into the system for schools to hoard and compete for talent. Addressing shared strategic priorities, for example to diversify leadership, was particularly difficult in such a devolved system. Furthermore, different schools face different contextual challenges: for example, developing and recruiting heads for small, rural faith schools is very different to doing so in large, urban secondary schools. For all these reasons, the College adopted a ‘local solutions’ approach, seeking to bring schools and other stakeholders together in each area of the country to collaborate on growing and retaining heads. These local partnerships received funding and support and could tap into a national framework of leadership development programmes, including the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which was made mandatory for all new heads. An independent evaluation by Professor Tony Bush found this approach was broadly successful in staving off the crisis.

The panel discussed how equivalent strategic succession planning priorities might be addressed today, for example if large numbers of leaders do decide to leave as a result of the pandemic? 

The panellists agreed that many of the core issues pre-date the pandemic, so there was support for the recommendations in the report around rethinking the role of accountability and support for schools. Headteachers consistently report that accountability pressures, bureaucracy, workloads, insufficient funding and wider austerity can all combine to make the job challenging. Potential future headteachers can be put off by these pressures, although when they actually take on the role they often come to see its positive aspects, such as the ability to make a greater difference to more children. To address this, Karen Giles described how she has created associate headteacher roles, which enable talented leaders to step up and take on greater responsibility for whole-school leadership, but within a supported framework, with an expectation that their next step will be full headship. The challenge is knowing when to push them on – ‘when are you going to move out and get your own flat? That kind of analogy!’  

The panellists also agreed that the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for heads. However, the evidence on how it is impacting is sometimes contradictory, so it is hard to assess the long-term impact. For example, annual surveys of governing bodies by the NGA indicate that the number who are finding it very difficult to recruit high quality candidates has actually fallen over the last five years, to 30% in 2021. Despite this decline, Emma Knights explained that recruiting and developing leaders is one of the top three priorities for governing boards this year.       

There was agreement that some Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have high quality HR expertise and approaches to developing talent across multiple schools. For example, one of us researched MAT and federation approaches as part of a wider study, finding that many school groups place a high priority on talent spotting and development. One MAT Chief Executive described ‘incessant conversations’ with and about the trust’s future leaders, aimed at ensuring that anyone with ‘itchy feet’ is given new opportunities before they apply for jobs elsewhere. Most trusts and federations also run or access development programmes for middle and senior leaders, sometimes with a focus on preparing future principals.

However, the panel recognised that the fragmented nature of the English school system means it is hard to see where responsibility and capacity for strategic succession planning now lies. We now have multiple players – MATs, Teaching School Hubs, Regional Schools Commissioners, National Leaders of Education, local authorities, dioceses and, of course, individual schools and their governing bodies.  As one participant reminded us, there are still many thousands of schools that are not in a trust or federation.

The government is now seeking to implement a tighter national framework for teacher and leadership development. The Early Career Framework and revised National Professional Qualifications (NPQs) for leadership aim to create a ‘golden thread’ which all schools and teachers can access via the new Teaching School Hubs. Clearly, the hope is that the new NPQs will enable a pipeline of future leaders to be identified and developed, but this is by no means a given. The new NPQ framework focuses on a largely technical and ‘domain-specific’ model of leadership, with limited emphasis on the kinds of strategic, organisational and values-based leadership that successive systematic and meta-reviews (for example, here, here and here) have found to be essential for successful senior leadership in schools.  The new version of NPQH does not include a placement project in another school, meaning that opportunities for experiential learning, network development and systemic knowledge-sharing will be lost. These issues raise the risk that the new NPQ framework might have limited impact on headteacher recruitment and retention, especially if it operates within a system that remains locally fragmented.

So what might be done?  Steve Munby argued that ‘local solutions has got to be the way forward, not a national top-down solution’.  However, Emma Knights highlighted that the government’s forthcoming white paper seems to be heading in a different direction, aiming to encourage all schools to join a MAT, which could make place-based approaches more challenging.  She argued that the answer lies in culture change, in particular in terms of how governing boards work with school leaders to provide challenge, support and development.  The panellists agreed that although there has been progress in some areas that could make headship more manageable, such as flexible working and job-shares, there is more to do to learn from good HR practices in other sectors.  Finally, it was suggested that we need to look for new, potentially disruptive, examples of how schools and school groups can work to rethink leadership for a post-Covid world.     

Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash

leaders’ work before lockdown

The pandemic brought significant changes to schools in England and elsewhere – school leaders were shifting learning online, inventing and managing new organisational routines, and keeping staff and students safe when face to face teaching resumed. We’ve been researching these changes. In difficult times, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s remained constant through the various lockdown phases, and what hasn’t.

In order to get a sense of what went before lockdown, we began our interviews with 58 serving school leaders by asking them about why they chose to do the job, and what they most liked about it.

Our interviewees chose to become a head because they wanted to make a difference (35/58). Secondary heads more often mentioned the autonomy to make their own decisions to do what they felt would have an impact. Just under half of respondents (23), evenly spread across the four groups, were driven by the belief they could do a good job and a better one than either their predecessor or, if they were deputy head in the school, someone new coming in who did not know the school as well. ‘Working with children’ was a main driver for primary headteachers (11/27), also mentioned by a small number (4) of secondary headteachers. ‘Developing other professionals’ was a secondary motivation, cited by a small number of primary and smaller number of secondary teachers.

When you come into education, it’s not a job, it’s a vocation… You’ve got to know that it’s not a nine to five job. ( primary head, leaver)

Not surprisingly then, the biggest reward of the job was making a difference to young people’s lives (38/58); working with children (11 times by primary heads, 4 in secondary); and developing other professionals. The pleasure of building and working in a strong team was also frequently mentioned:

It’s just a lovely working environment, isn’t it? It’s not like any other- it’s vibrant, it’s jolly, it’s full of chatter. It’s very people facing – you’ve got your staff, you’ve got your parents. Then you’ve got the children and I’m very interested in how young children learn. ( primary head leaver)

There’s nothing better than seeing a smiling child and when I have spent an hour in front of the screen or I’ve been doing necessary paperwork, I will always make time at breaks and lunch times to go out and have a conversation with children. ( secondary head stayer)

Several interviewees reflected on headship as an extremely busy and fulfilling role, reflecting the nature of life in schools, but also one that is relatively predictable, with an established annual cycle and set of routines and relationships geared towards school development and children’s learning. 

Any leader, but a school leader in particular, by 10 o’clock in the morning you have your first cup of tea, and you’ve explained, you’ve persuaded, you’ve calmed, you’ve bridged, you have solved a little absence crisis. You’ve knitted everything together. ( primary head leaver).

Leader’s motivations did not waver during lockdown. All our interviewees shared a strong sense of duty, borne from the commitment to education, that schooling as an important public service must continue. If anything it was even more important to them that schools were run well and teachers and students did as well as possible.

Interviewees also told us about their key challenges pre pandemic.

Addressing ‘disadvantage’ was the most frequently mentioned challenge (20/58), more often by leaders who intended to leave the profession (14/27).  

A combination of factors made it increasingly challenging for schools to support disadvantaged children. Securing pupil progress, closing attainment gaps and reaching expected targets were often described as increasingly difficult. Interviewees in areas of high socioeconomic disadvantage reported severe reductions in the external support available from wider services in recent years, including health and welfare, with worrying shortages of speech therapists and psychologists. However, reductions to CAMHS and other services were mentioned by headteachers from more affluent as well as disadvantaged areas. The increasing complexity of SEND needs was cited by leavers more often than stayers, as was the increase in safeguarding issues.

Possibly the thing that will finally drive me out is the austerity. There’s an increase in safeguarding [over] the last 6 to 8 years, particularly, the normalisation of domestic abuse and the lessening of support from other agencies, be it care services and health services, is incredible. That’s really changed, and schools haven’t got the capacity to do it and I’m not sure whether I’ve got the mental capacity to keep doing that anymore. PHLThe support that we require from things ( primary head leaver)

The support that we require from things like CAMHS, from alternative education provision and that sort of thing has diminished so spectacularly over the last decade, to now being beyond crisis point. (secondary head leaver)

Evidence suggests that the pandemic heightened economic divides. Far from losing sight of economic and social challenges, and the need to close learning gaps, redressing disadvantage remained a very high priority for school leaders during the pandemic.

The accountability system was also cited as a key challenge for headship pre-pandemic. Eighteen respondents described Ofsted as a source of stress, even outside of inspections, due to the need to respond to the outcome or prepare and wait for the next visit.

The worst part of my career to date, including the entire 16-17 months of the pandemic, was the two-day Ofsted inspection that we had in 2019 and I really, seriously felt like jacking it in at that point, even though we were graded Good… They showed no appreciation of our context. ( secondary head leaver)

Halting inspection visits during the first year of lockdown did provide some relief to schools. Inspection has of course been reinstated, despite the levels of infection still in schools, and we might assume that it has once again become a source of stress.

Eighteen interviewees mentioned reducing school budgets as presenting a range of challenges, including in relation to staffing, resources and maintenance of buildings. Nine primary school leaders cited reducing numbers as a factor, while two secondary leavers explained that reducing pupil numbers was caused by expansion of other local schools or restructuring.

Being a school within a trust where they didn’t have enough money and had to make the redundancies. 49 people lost their jobs and it wasn’t really their fault and I took over a school where I couldn’t understand why it was happening – people in the present had to suffer the consequences of the people in the past so that that will always go down as the worst part of all of my years teaching.  ( secondary head stayer)

Financial pressures continued during lockdown.

Finally, HR issues, including teacher recruitment and retention, capability, and sickness was seen as a ‘normal’ but often unwelcome part of a headteacher’s role. These concerns were exacerbated by lockdown conditions, and we have yet to see a reckoning of the impact of the lockdown period on teacher and leader supply and retention.

if you want to find out more about how pre-pandemic rewards and pressures changed during lockdown please see our two background reports and the full research report – launched today 24th November.

Photo by Sandie Clarke on Unsplash

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

How does it feel to lead a school during the pandemic?

The research we conducted towards the end of the last school year showed that school leaders were exhausted. While some wanted to leave, others were hopeful that this current school year would be better. Leaders we interviewed hoped that they would be able devote less time to dealing with crises, and spend more time on thinking strategically about dealing with students’ disrupted learning. Sadly, this is not yet the case.

Last week the Times Educational Supplement reported that “nearly three out of four headteachers have seen a colleague cry”. NAHT President Tim Bowen commented that people had been brought to their lowest point by the pandemic. Wales online had a similar report – “We are on our knees” say headteachers as they struggle with Covid chaos”. This story was echoed on social media. Vic Goddard, the head made famous by the Educating Essex television series, tweeted “I am on the ropes. Guard up. Just taking a beating with nothing to throw back, We have staff very seriously ill in hospital and have lost others to Covid and still we get tone deaf responses from our political leaders”.

As researchers, we want to try represent the intensity of feelings that were conveyed during our interviews with school leaders. We have therefore been doing some creative work with transcripts. In addition to the more usual coding and thematising, we have used an approach similar to that used to develop verbatim theatre. We have been making narrative prose poems that we hope capture not only what individual heads told us, but also how.

Here is a section of one prose poem in advance of publication.

You tend to forget how terrifying it was. 

When it was starting to rip through the population and 

you literally didn’t know whether or not 

you were going to survive the experience.

But you had to convey a sense of competence and confidence. 

The “Don’t worry I’ve got this you can do your job because I’ve got your back”.

The workload was just punishing. 

Absolutely punishing.

Learning a vast array of completely new skills 

in a frighteningly short period of time. 

Working beyond insane hours.

It’s hard to overstate how much harder the DfE made an incredibly challenging experience.

So over-directive and not trusting.

Having to go through colossal amounts of instructions. 

Bewildering stuff with precious little guidance other than 

You just do it. 

Here is a model we found somewhere. 

Just get it done.

It was an experience. A bruising experience.

We’re out of the choppiest waters, but 

I no longer have the reserves within me to be able to continue.

I know plenty of other school leaders who’ve fared differently, 

and I admire them. 

I don’t know how they did it.

The thought of having to go through another Ofsted inspection 

fills me with horror. 

I think I would struggle 

to get out of bed 

and come into school 

and not be sick. 

I started saying to colleagues, 

“I prefer to leave school vertically rather than horizontally”.

It’s pretty black humour.

I’ve got no reserves left in me at this point. 

There will be several prose poems in our final report, due in November.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Leading school recovery

We have begun thinking about the implications of the research we have been doing on school leaders’ work and wellbeing. One of the resources we have consulted are the literatures on leading during and after natural disasters.

Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and fires are not directly analogous to the pandemic as they tend to be short-lived and catastrophic. This is not our current situation, which is a very extended period of difficulty with peaks of crisis. However, there may be some lessons to be drawn for thinking about the recovery period. We have therefore been going to published research to see what might be instructive. Other UK researchers have also been looking at this literature – Sinead Harney and Gemma Moss have looked at disaster recovery in New Orleans and elsewhere in terms of impact on student learning – we are looking at it in terms of impact on schools and school leadership.

We are particularly interested in the literatures about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The devastation caused by ferocious winds and flooding wiped out an enormous swathe of the city, and its schools. It was an opportunity for the newly named Recovery School District  to completely rethink its school provision. Their solution was a new mix of public and private via the introduction of charter schools – schools funded by the taxpayer but operated by private organisations. Some 60% of schools in the district are now charter schools, making it something like the mix of academy, free and local authority schools that now exists in England. 

One study ( Beabout, 2014) which looked at post-Katrina school leaders in New Orleans (n=10, interviewed over 3 years) noted the considerable autonomy this new configuration of schools afforded. However, despite significant local differences, there were common principles that underpinned the post disaster change processes the leaders used:

Collaboration – the importance of establishing meaningful collaborative practices within the school after the disruption – distributed responsibilities and devolved decision-making were key to rebuilding staff cohesion and commitment to their common endeavour. There was an inevitable tension between the need to get going quickly and meet re-imposed accountability and the necessarily slower pace of addressing wellbeing and morale. 

Community connections – school leaders in the study saw connections with parents and community organisations as an essential part of rebuilding community, accessing expertise and support, (re)generating a positive school reputation and ensuring local solutions for local needs. 

Generating public support – linked to the need for re-establishing strong local bonds was a need to address the poor reputation of pre-hurricane urban schools. This required collective political action on school boards and in the state legislature, as well as in media.

Meeting student needs – because of the terrible damage done to homes and health, school leaders saw the non-academic needs of their students as crucial. Addressing trauma and regaining a sense of belonging and wellbeing were seen as vital accompaniments to improvements in learning.

Setting goals and meeting them – the leaders in the study had very different approaches to planning, but all paid serious attention to the management of staff, time, space and resources. Getting the infrastructure working to support other aspects of change was a key part of leaders’ work.

Improving instruction – the post-hurricane period created an opportunity to revisit previously taken for granted teaching and learning practices, to support and resource carefully staged and supported instructional innovation. 

Much of this particular study resonates with the results of our research. English school leaders told us about the importance of within school collaboration, the benefits of community connections, the need to address wider public support for schooling, particularly from the very top, and the importance of attending to the whole student – their emotional, social, physical, aesthetic and intellectual development.

As English schools have not been closed, as was the case in New Orleans, the heads in our study had not stopped being concerned about management of resources or instruction. But they were looking forward to a time when they could spend more of their time focused on learning, and less on the continued reinvention of everyday managerial requirements. 

However, the question in England is what systemic support leaders need in order to move most effectively into the recovery phase.

Our full results will be published in late November. Stay tuned! 

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Australian school leaders’ pandemic experiences

Australians have had a very different Covid-19 experience from those of us living in the UK. Until recently, rates of infection were kept low through a combination of restricted entry and quarantine, an effective track and trace system, internal border controls and extensive periods of lockdown. Melbourne has had the longest sustained period of lockdown in the world. Australian schools have offered various combinations of face to face and remote learning, depending on how the state was faring.

How have Australian school leaders coped? Recent Australian research give us some insights. Unlike our own research and that conducted in other jurisdictions, Australian researchers have been able to compare the current situation with continuous pre-pandemic data. The Australian Principal Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey has been running for over a decade. It has consistently shown that Australian principals have complex jobs characterised by heavy workloads and considerable pressures and demands. Many Australian principals are at risk of suffering from adverse health conditions resulting from their work.

Professor Phil Riley and his colleagues have been able to identify changes in key aspects of school leaders’ work arising from the pandemic. They have recently reported on data from 2020, the first year of the pandemic. They found that:

  • The quantity of work expected of leaders declined. Leaders were still working at very high speeds, but for slightly fewer hours – from an average of 55.2 hours per week in 2019, to 54.5 hours per week in 2020. Some however still worked more than this (up to 69 hours). This is still a long working week, despite the small decrease.
  • The stress caused by workload did not decrease. Leaders still reported workload as the most significant stressor.
  • Jobs were less predictable in 2020 than before. Leaders were less likely to receive important information at the right time.
  • School leaders felt they were treated less fairly by their employers than before the pandemic. Trust and good relations between employees at the school level had however improved slightly.
  • School leaders reported higher levels of support from their immediate supervisor, and less family-work conflict.
  • Symptoms of burnout and depression were slightly higher than in 2019.
  • Leaders reported being more committed to the job than before.

The researchers’ conclusion is that “while Australian school leaders’ work environments remain very challenging and they continue to suffer from adverse health and wellbeing outcomes, the Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly reduced some of the usual pressures and hardships of the school leadership role.”

We note three things about this report. Firstly, some similarities. Our research also showed significant problems with late information, declining levels of trust in the system but greater levels of local trust. Secondly, the differences are important reminders that school leaders’ experiences vary over time, but also in different places. When we compare our data with this Australian study, we are struck by how much more leaders in England appear to be impacted by events and demands. Thirdly, in research terms, we can see the value of having stable longitudinal data which shows how workload and wellbeing change over time, not only in response to external events, but also to policy changes.

We are monitoring other international research and are compiling a list of relevant studies. We hope our study will contribute to national understandings of the impact of the pandemic on school leaders and their work, as well as this wider international picture.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash