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

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.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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.