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.  

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