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

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.