Leading in lockdown
England has been living with COVID-19 since March 2020. School staff have continued to work throughout, providing face to face education for children of ‘key workers’ during three periods of hard lockdown while also offering online learning to children and young people at home. England’s school leaders have had to cope with continuous change on multiple fronts, operating in sustained crisis management mode. The curriculum had to be digitised and teaching moved largely online. The management of people, time and space has been particularly challenging, especially for those working in over-crowded and/or run-down buildings with poor ventilation. Pupils have been routinely placed into class or year level “bubbles”, making it possible for discrete groups to be quarantined if there is an outbreak. Schools must try to regulate movement in corridors and avoid crowded playgrounds to prevent transmission. Masks were mandatory in secondary schools for most of the 2020-2021 school year. In 2021 schools were integrated into local test and trace systems, with routine lateral flow testing administered to both staff and students. Meanwhile, seemingly endless changes in government policy and advice – including heavy handed threats for academies and Local Authorities that sought to adapt to local circumstances – together with huge logistical issues in accessing government commissioned systems for free school meals and laptops for disadvantaged children have all taken up leaders’ time and (emotional) energy.
The need for research
Ever since the first lockdown, in March 2020, NAHT and ASCL have worried that the pandemic might lead to accelerated retirements and further erosion of the already “leaky promotion pipeline” (NAHT, 2021). These concerns became acute after the third lockdown, in early 2021, when both associations reported significant increases in calls to their advice lines, reflecting what they called a ‘sea-change’ in school leaders’ attitudes in the face of prolonged change.
Limited research has assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on school leaders specifically. The National Foundation for Education Research (Walker, Sharp, & Sims, 2020) found the main sources of stress in May 2020 were “opening the school more fully in future” (86%), the “health and well-being of my staff” (76%), and “directives from government” (67%). A TeacherTapp fortnightly survey indicated that levels of “very high work-related anxiety” rose sharply among headteachers each time schools were closed (Allen, Jerrim, & Sims, 2021).
Working in partnership with the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association for HeadTeachers (NAHT) we designed and conducted a survey to quantify the scale of the challenge and to identify areas in which the associations might be able to support leaders more effectively in the months and years ahead.
W e conducted a survey online between 12th April and 10th May 2021. It was distributed to members of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), with a total response of 1,491. The survey forms part of a larger project we are undertaking in partnership with ASCL and NAHT. The next stage involves 60 interviews with primary and secondary headteachers, supported by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account grant.
Respondents were asked a number of demographic questions in relation to their school or college (phase, type, Local Authority location) and themselves (role, age band, years working in education, years working in current school/college, gender). Most figures and findings we report in blog posts show responses from the full sample, but in some figures we show responses from the sub-groups. A technical note: In these figures we use percentages to compare responses from the different sub-groups (e.g. primary versus secondary). This provides a straightforward way of comparing responses between sub-groups, but it does have limitations. The main issue is that the sample size of the sub-groups varies, meaning that confidence levels vary. Most sub-groups are reasonably sized, but some are smaller (e.g. ≤100) and a few are very small (e.g. ≤50). In these cases there is a risk that the small sample size could produce a misleading result, but we felt that, on balance, it was better to include these groups, with this caveat. In charts based on sub-groups we include the number of respondents in each group.
We then interviewed 58 heads who had volunteered through the survey to say more about their experiences.
In November 2021 we secured further funding from The University of Nottingham to down additional interviews with a new set of volunteers – this time assistant and deputy hep the Teacher Tapp panel about their career intentions. The research report can be downloaded from our home page.
We have now received further funding from CAPE. We will re-run our national survey, do firther work on secondary data about retention of school leaders. We will run nine roundtables around the country looking at possible interventions that might address the looming recruitment and retention crisis. The roundtables will be informed by a focused search of the international literatures.
We are very interested in associated research in the UK and in other locations. You can see our working list of relevant research here. This is regularly updated.
Our research conducted in partnership with the Association for School and College Leaders and the National Association of Headteachers