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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

Survey results: School leaders’ health and career plans

During the summer term we surveyed almost 1500 school leaders in England about their experiences of the pandemic. Earlier posts reported leaders’ experiences of the pandemic, where they have gone for advice and what has helped them to cope. This post focuses on how the pandemic has impacted on leaders’ career decision making.

Which leaders are planning to leave the profession early?

Two fifths of leaders (40%) say they plan to leave the profession early, that is for reasons other than full retirement, within the next five years (Figure 1).


Figure 1 School leaders’ career intentions (n=1478)*

When these responses are broken down, we see that leaders who have been in the profession the longest (i.e. 26 years or more) are most likely to say they will leave early (Figure 2).


Figure 2: School leaders’ career intentions by length of time in profession (1-5 years n=22; 6-10 years n=57; 11-15 years n=141; 16-20 years n=241; 21-25 years n=372; 26-30 years n=339; 31+ years n=304)**

Leaders in executive headship (46%), headship (46%) and school business roles (39%) are significantly more likely to say they will leave early than either deputy (26%) or assistant heads (20%) (Figure 3).


Figure 3: School leaders’ career intentions by role (Executive Heads n=97;
Headteachers/Principals n=907; Deputy Head n=188; Assistant Head n=116; School Business Leader n=95).

Finally, leaders in primary schools are significantly more likely to say they plan to leave early (46%) than those in secondaries (33%) or all-through schools (26%) (Figure 4).


Figure 4: School leaders’ career intentions by school phase (primary n=806, secondary n=500, all-through n=120)

What part has the pandemic played in leaders’ decision-making?

We asked respondents whether or not the pandemic had been a factor in their decision to either leave the profession early, or to remain. The vast majority of early ‘leavers’ said that the pandemic has been either the main or a contributing factor in their career decision.

The question gave three response options, as follows: i) The pandemic has not influenced my career plans; ii) The pandemic has been one influence on my career plans, alongside other factors; iii) The pandemic has been the main factor in me changing my career plans. The results are shown in Figure 5. They show that early ‘leavers’ are significantly more likely to say that the pandemic has been either the main or a contributing factor in their decision than ‘stayers’.


Figure 5: School leaders’ career intentions and how the pandemic has influenced this (n=1478).

Has leaders’ personal health impacted on their career decisions?

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.

We analysed this finding together with leaders’ career plans (shown above). This revealed a clear association between worse personal health and plans to leave the profession early (Figure 6).


Figure 6: School leaders’ career intentions by change in health score before vs during the pandemic (n=1478).

What, if anything, would persuade more leaders to stay?

Greater trust in the profession – by government – would make the greatest difference in persuading more leaders to stay in the profession for longer (Fig. 7), followed by actions to reduce pressure and workload, and enhanced funding and support for schools and school leaders.


Figure 7: School leaders’ views on factors that would persuade them to stay in the profession for longer (n=1478).

Conclusion

Our first blog post set out overall findings on leaders’ experiences of the pandemic, revealing that almost a quarter describe themselves as ‘sometimes’ or ‘mostly sinking’. Our second blog post showed that less than half (45%) of leaders have felt well supported during the pandemic. Furthermore, trust in the advice and guidance provided by DfE is extremely low, with only 14% of leaders saying they trust it.

This post indicates the consequences – two in five leaders plan to leave the profession early, creating significant risks for school and system performance at a time when the system needs more expertise than ever to address urgent challenges around learning loss and educational inequality.

Of course, it is possible that some leaders who said they would leave when they completed the survey might since have changed their mind and decided to stay, but it would seem unwise to assume this. The results reported here therefore present a wake-up call to government and to school and trust governing bodies.

In the summer term we interviewed 58 headteachers who plan to leave or stay. We will be publishing these results later this term.

Notes on survey results:

Fig 1, in detail – we asked leaders to select the statement that best described their career intentions and plans, with eight possible statements in total (plus ‘Not sure/prefer not to say’ and ‘Other’). Three options involved staying in the profession (stay in current role for foreseeable future, apply for different role in current school/MAT in next year or two, apply for role in different school/MAT in next year or two), while a fourth option involved retirement at normal retirement age. Three options involved leaving the profession early (within the next year, three years or five years) while a fourth involved taking early retirement within five years. Figure 1 shows the results with the responses aggregated.

Fig 2 – Although a high proportion of new entrants (1-5 years) said they planned to leave early, the small size of this group [n=22] means the figures should be interpreted with caution.

Recruiting and retaining headteachers – what do we know?

Why would someone choose to become a headteacher – and what enables a serving head to stay motivated, year after year, even when times are tough? How can heads best be supported to thrive? Finally, what do we know from existing evidence about the recruitment and retention of heads here in England?

These are questions we have been reading and thinking about in the light of our ongoing research into school leaders’ work and well-being during the pandemic. Here we ask four key questions – why do people aspire to school leadership, what helps sustain them in the job, what causes them to leave and what was the situation with the leader supply ‘pipeline” before the pandemic.

Let’s start with the motivation to become a head. During the summer term we interviewed 57 primary and secondary heads and asked them – among other things – why they first chose to become a head. (We will be publishing the full findings from these interviews in the autumn.) The answer invariably started with wanting to make a difference for children – the moral purpose of leadership. Many talked about wanting to pursue their vision for education, or about the pleasure they get from leading a team and watching staff members grow. Many had been inspired and encouraged by headteachers they had worked for in the past, but some had decided to apply because they felt they could do a better job than their predecessor. For some headship was a long-held aspiration, but the majority explained that their interest in becoming a leader had developed more gradually, as they progressed through their career.

Our findings chime with previous work in this area. For example, a recent review for the European Commission argued that motivation for becoming a headteacher reflects a combination of intrinsic factors such as altruism/moral purpose, wanting new challenges, and/or personal ambition, and extrinsic factors, such as increased professional status or income. Critically, of course, motivation must be sustained over time, so that heads continue to invest energy into their role.

Secondly, what enables a serving head to stay motivated over time? Chris Ingate, an experienced secondary headteacher in Hertfordshire, researched this question for his doctorate, tracking some of his case study schools and leaders over several years. His findings were published in two practitioner reports, inspired by the famous Clash song – Should I stay or should I go? (2006) and If I go there will be trouble (2010).

Reviewing the limited existing literature, Ingate suggests that there is ‘an undeniable pattern, with early headship, middle headship and experienced headship all featuring’ in phases over roughly the first 10 years in post. While early headship (1-3 years) might start with a honeymoon period and frequently feels exciting, it is also extremely challenging and can be overwhelming, as the new leader works to establish themselves and to diagnose and address pre-existing issues in the school (research by Peter Earley explored the new head phase in greater depth). For those that continue, middle headship (roughly 3-7 years) is about moving beyond quick fixes to pursue more strategic improvement, including by building relationships and distributing leadership so that the role itself becomes more manageable. Beyond this stage, once experienced heads have been in post for 10 or more years, some observers suggest they can reach a plateau and start wanting to look for new opportunities elsewhere, but Ingate’s longitudinal research shows that this is by no means inevitable. In our work last term we interviewed one head who had been in post for 30 years, who explained ‘I love the job. I’m not fed up at all. I’m not tired’, so we agree!

Heads can be, and often are, supported to thrive over time. Clearly, there are important roles that school governing bodies, academy trusts, local authorities, leadership development providers and national policy makers can play to help grow the next generation and to help existing heads to thrive. Each individual is different, so levels and types of support must be differentiated, but there are many generic approaches that will help – agreeing challenging but achievable goals; demonstrating trust and giving leaders space to make their own decisions; remembering to say thank you and to reward success; ensuring that accountability does not become overwhelming, in particular for heads in deprived contexts; providing structured support from a mentor, coach or counsellor; investing in professional development; encouraging peer networks; taking a pro-active approach to managing workloads and addressing well-being concerns, and so on.

Nevertheless, these forms of support are not always in place and many heads do leave before retirement age. Our previous research highlights why it can be difficult for serving headteachers to remain motivated over time. A complex mix of factors influence individual decision-making, including: workload, lack of work/life balance, accountability pressures, a focus on administration rather than instruction, policy churn, isolation and lack of support, and, in recent years, limited pay progression. A recent study of teachers’ decision-making undertaken by RAND reinforces these points, highlighting that while pay and benefits are important, workload and culture are often more significant factors in retention.

Finally, what do we know about the recruitment and retention situation in England from existing evidence? The picture here does not appear great. Even before the pandemic there were challenges with recruiting and retaining heads. For example, the Department’s own analysis showed that 9% of primary heads and 14% of secondary heads left the state-funded sector between 2015 and 2016, and that retention rates for younger headteachers had declined over a period of years. More recent evidence, collated by Professor John Howson, shows that almost 1,500 primary head teacher vacancies were advertised in 2019-20, and that 28% of these had to be re-advertised. At secondary level, the readvertisement rate was 23%. Worryingly, a recent survey for NAHT indicated that growing numbers of middle and senior leaders are choosing not to apply for headships, while successive analyses by the government’s School Teachers Review Body have highlighted issues with the under-representation of women and BAME groups in headship. According to NfER, headteacher recruitment challenges are most acute for schools in deprived contexts, schools with lower Ofsted gradings, and newly sponsored academies in Multi-Academy Trusts, although earlier research has also highlighted significant issues in other parts of the system, such as small rural schools and faith schools.

The key question is whether this situation has changed as a result of the pandemic, and if so, how. Our next post – due on Friday 17 th September – will share findings from our national survey on how the pandemic has impacted on leaders’ career plans.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Trust and the local school

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. 

Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash

Thinking about trust

65% of the leaders we surveyed reported that they did not trust government advice during the pandemic. We do not know of course how this figure compares with levels of trust before the pandemic or how it might change in future. 

In this post we examine some of the evidence about trust in government and why it matters. 

Emerging evidence about trust

There is some evidence that the British population had low levels of trust in government even before the pandemic. In 2019, the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) showed that only 15% trusted the post Brexit government all the time, while a third (34%) said they almost never trusted them. There is now research which shows that levels of trust in governments worsened during the pandemic. 

The Edelman 2021 Trust Barometer suggests that falling trust in government is a global phenomenon, characterised by an “epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders”. Their survey suggests that only 45% of the UK population now trust the government; but business CEOs, journalists and religious leaders are also regarded with more suspicion than before. The report says that some 53% of the UK population now believe that the government is deliberately trying to mislead them. UK respondents are more likely to trust what is local.  

Transparency International, the global organisation responsible for monitoring corruption, claimed that lack of transparency in procurement and strong evidence of cronyism had dented public confidence at the very time it was most needed.

A meta-study ( Davies et al, 2021) of 18 survey organisations during 2020 states that there were low levels of trust immediately after the 2019 UK election – only 20% of all respondents trusted the government. But these levels rose immediately after the first lockdown in March 2020; the study suggests that this was the first and only time during 2020 that the percentage of respondents who trusted the UK government exceeded those who distrusted it. However, over 2020, levels declined to pre-Covid low levels. 

A survey of some 9000 UK respondents conducted in April 2000 (Enria et al, 2021), shows the same improvement in trust occurring at the start of the lockdown with some 52% of respondents agreeing that the government was making good decisions. However, the research showed significant differences according to location, levels of education and income. The researchers argued that generalised reporting could skew decision-making, and that it was important to continue more granular analysis and intervention. 

Another study to show the early rise of confidence was undertaken by  Parsons and Wiggins (May 2020). They suggest that age and race/ethnicity/gender are also important – in their survey older people had more trust in government than millennials, and young BAME participants have lower levels of trust than their white counterparts.  This UK study adds weight to the argument about the need for finer details in research, as well as the overall picture.

Does lack of trust in government matter?

Yes, trust matters, say researchers. An international study of 23 countries (Han et al, 2020) found that “higher trust in government was significantly associated with higher adoption of health and prosocial behaviours”. (See also Altiparmarkis et al 2021 for similar claims.) But, say researchers, be careful about the evidence you call on.  Devine et al (2020) reviewed early Covid19 research findings related to trust and noted definitional differences, debates and various measurements used. They caution against simple generalisations but also point to the ways in which the pandemic will put key assumptions about trust – namely that it is necessary for effective government – to the test. They conclude that despite these caveats early studies do shed light on a significant association of trust with effective government policy implementation. 

The OECD argues that trust is the basis for the legitimacy of government. Trust enhances well-being and social cohesion, they say, and reduces the need for coercion, thus also reducing inefficient transaction costs. Furthermore, the OECD suggests, trust is necessary for  “the fair and effective functioning of government institutions… may help government to implement long term structural reforms with long term benefits… could improve compliance with rules and regulations.. and could help to increase confidence in the economy” (2013 p. 22).

As Goldfinch, Gault and Talpin (2020) put it, reporting on early increased levels of trust in government during the pandemic in Australia and New Zealand, “trust and confidence are measures of effective government, but they also make government more effective.”

And trust might matter a lot in education in particular. A recent comparative review of education reforms across multiple countries (Ehren and Baxter, 2021) argues persuasively that trust between government and the profession is an essential foundation for success. 

We agree. Our view is that because education systems rely heavily on school leaders to carry out their policies, the government’s failure to address the combination of issues that have led to a lack of leader trust in England seems highly risky.

We haven’t yet located any data on trust which is disaggregated by employment groups so we have no way of knowing if school leaders are typical of other professionals, but our survey indicates that school leaders may now be less likely to trust the government than the population as a whole. We will continue to track relevant Covid 19 studies and report on this blog. We hope that our research, and that of our colleagues in education, will contribute specific information to the overall national picture.

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Survey results: Leaders, support and trust

This is the second post to introduce headline findings from a survey of almost 1500 school leaders, carried out in summer 2021. Here, we delve deeper into the data to look at where leaders felt they got support – and where they didn’t.

How well have leaders felt supported during the pandemic? 

Less than half (45%) of leaders agreed that they had been well supported in their leadership role throughout the pandemic, while one third (33%) actively disagreed (Fig 2.1).

Fig. 2.1: Leaders’ views on how well they have been supported during the pandemic

But did leaders all feel the same regardless of what type of school they were in? In Figure 2.2, below, we break responses down by school type. Leaders in independent schools (55%) and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) (55%) were more likely to agree they had been well supported, while leaders in faith (32%) and Local Authority (LA) maintained schools (38%) were less likely to agree. Headteachers (37%) and executive heads (36%) were the most likely to disagree they had been well supported. 

Fig 2.2: Leaders’ views on how well they have been supported during the pandemic, by school type (LA maintained n=443; Faith – VA & VC n=191; Foundation n=51; SAT n= 192; MAT n=424; Special and AP n=72; Independent n=77).

Support takes various forms. One of the most basic is the provision of timely and helpful advice.

Where have school leaders gone for advice during the pandemic and how have they rated it? 

School leaders drew on a range of sources of advice during the pandemic and found advice from unions and professional associations the most useful and trustworthy. 

Leaders’ views about the advice provided by DfE were overwhelmingly negative (Fig 2.3). More than nine in 10 disagreed (93% – 65% strongly disagreed) that the DfE’s advice had been ‘timely and straightforward.’ 

Fig 2.3: Leaders views on whether the advice and guidance provided by DfE during the pandemic was timely and straightforward 

We also asked leaders whether they had trusted the advice and guidance provided by DfE during the pandemic. Two thirds (65%) disagreed (32% strongly disagreed) (Fig 2.4). 

Fig 2.4: Leaders views on whether they trusted the advice and guidance provided by DfE during the pandemic 

Conclusion: Trust, support and the DfE

Our first post reported the finding that ‘lack of timely resources from DfE’ has been the main source of stress for leaders during the pandemic, alongside the extended nature of change and uncertainty. This post adds important detail.

Nearly all (93%) leaders disagree that the DfE’s advice has been ‘timely and straightforward’ during the pandemic, with two thirds (65%) strongly disagreeing. Furthermore, just 14% say they have trusted the advice and guidance provided by DfE during the pandemic, while two thirds (65%) disagreed and a third (32%) strongly disagreed.

Taken together, these findings not only indicate strongly that the Department’s advice and guidance throughout the pandemic has been inadequate but also that they have contributed to what we will argue over the next few months amounts to a ‘crisis in school leadership.’ 

Our next posts, which will appear fortnightly during the holiday period, discuss these first headline findings further. We will publish further posts on the survey results along with a full report in the autumn, together with an analysis of interviews with primary and secondary heads.


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

Conclusion 

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.