The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Business as unusual for school trusts

Life in a school or trust is always busy and full of challenges but a global pandemic has brought new problems for schools to wrestle with.

Over the last fortnight, teachers and school leaders across the country have made a significant and historic contribution to society. In just a few days, schools were re-purposed on a scale unseen before and in the face of huge adversity. Teachers and school leaders, in typical fashion, have been running towards the fray, quickly establishing interim arrangements for important priorities such as safeguarding and the provision of free school meals, as well as making best attempts to keep learning happening wherever possible, in partnership with parents.

We should be proud of the response of the profession and the role our schools and trusts have played as civic institutions, as they are described by CST.

Last week, just five days into this ‘new normal’, I co-hosted a roundtable discussion in which we heard from Leora Cruddas and leaders from across the sector about how others had approached the initial challenges; and considered specifically how we might support vulnerable young people through the challenges that COVID-19 presents. We had a rich discussion, covering lots of the immediate challenges and topics – but already minds were moving beyond this immediate reactive phase and into the medium-term challenge of re-opening and re-building schools.

It is clear now that this period will be one of considerable lost learning for pupils, despite best intentions and efforts to keep some form of curriculum provision happening online. It also seems inevitable that those without the privilege of significant input at home, private tuition or access to technology, are likely to fall even further behind. The disadvantage gap in education has always been a challenge and now COVID-19 has just made it worse.

So – how are we going to close this ever-widening gap? We need to think about the next phase as we prepare for what Mark McCourt recently described as ‘the most important school year in generations’.

It is these ‘next-phase’ questions that were already on the mind of two school trusts where I am a non-executive director (Advantage Schools and Northampton Primary Academy Trust). In our board meetings last week, the executive teams were already starting to think carefully about how to prepare for the curricular and pastoral challenges of eventually re-opening schools.

The curriculum is an explicit priority at both trusts and leaders have invested time and resources in recent years in this area. Alongside a current commitment to keeping some online work available over the summer, they are now prioritising time to ensure that when schools re-open, they do so with teachers who are armed with an even better curriculum and resources in place. After the Easter break, they will be focusing time on curricular planning, resourcing and making painstaking decisions about curriculum content and sequence to adapt for the large chunks of content that pupils will have missed.

The pastoral question is also at the forefront of leaders’ minds in the short-term, as they try to stay in touch with those they consider to be most at risk, whilst also looking forward to some of the uncomfortable challenges that lie ahead. When schools open again pupils will be out of routine and are likely to have forgotten many of the good habits that they had previously developed around attendance and behaviour. This will need significant attention, as will the transition years.

Schools are also rightly concerned about their capacity to deal with bereavement at a larger scale – something that, sadly, pupils and teachers alike may face in the coming weeks and months. I remember as a young headteacher finding bereavement hugely challenging and uncomfortable to deal with, and it is right that we are already thinking about the members of our school community who could find themselves dealing with grief and how we can equip school leaders to deal with this challenge.

It is clear now that this period will be one of considerable lost learning for pupils, despite best intentions and efforts to keep some form of curriculum provision happening online.

Tom Rees

School trustees can play an important role in these months ahead. School leaders will need our support and compassion as they deal with what might be the hardest months of their professional careers. They will also need us to help them talk and think through challenges where a lack of time, incomplete information and high pressure will create sub-optimal conditions for decision making.

Individually, no one has the answers and so it’s important to continue the type of collaborative working we are seeing across the sector at the moment. At Ambition Institute, we’re already working hard to adapt our leadership development programmes so that we can offer the best possible support for headteachers, executive teams and trustees as they grapple with these new challenges.