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

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