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

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.