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

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

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.

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