The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Tough times don’t last – tough teams do!

March 2020 will be seen as a watershed moment for education in this country. It was the moment that concerns about public exams, the new inspection framework and staff recruitment were put on hold as leaders faced the true implications of the Coronavirus and COVID-19. My role these days is to support and develop trust leaders rather than be encamped on the front line, but my thoughts are with those leaders who are faced with unprecedented challenges where the implications of not getting it right are that staff and children may not be safe. This is true system leadership at a scale we have never seen before.

Late into the evening of March 19th, the Government published the list of key worker occupations. The expectation was that children of these parents may need to continue to go to school even though schools were deemed to be officially closed. Less than 12 hours later, school leaders had worked out a plan for how they would manage the attendance of an unknown number of children and staff the following Monday. This is risk management on a scale no training programme ever goes near and our leaders were resilient, compassionate, thoughtful, caring and above all else, strategic.

I have seen many examples of how the planning was shared between trusts in a way that made me more confident than ever that collaboration is alive and well. I am sure that when this period has passed, we will see a new model of leadership that cares a bit less about accountability and testing and a bit more about community sustainability and regeneration. For example, one trust shared via social media that they were dividing their staff into three groups. Group A were needed to look after children in school, Group B were on call in case more staff were required and Group C were stood down to look after themselves and their families. The groups are working on a rota so that the risk is shared without compromising the safety of vulnerable children. Not rocket science but try doing this at pace with the eyes of the staff, families and community on you.

On March 20th I spoke with a group of trust and academy leaders that I know well. I wanted them to know I was thinking of them but I also wanted to know what they were experiencing. Here are some of the things they shared with me. If this is not leadership at the sharp end, then show me what is!

“It has been quite a day. I was in ASDA at 6am this morning and was about to buy each of my senior team a bunch of daffodils to thank them for being so great. However, I saw an 18-pack of toilet rolls so bought them one roll of loo paper each. It really is laugh or weep time.”

“I have a very small team of inexperienced heads in the trust and they are getting a real baptism of fire but stepping up to the plate with courage and optimism.”

“Had an events company in our area tonight agree to come in everyday we remain open and set up a gazebo and put on “proper” meals for £3 per head. Their business is collapsing so hopefully they survive and the kids get a decent meal.”

“Had to send home 3 pregnant staff and another who has had cancer treatment as they refused to isolate as they wanted to help. My job is to protect my staff and almost take the decision out of their hands as they care so much”

“Lots of our families do not understand how to use NHS 111 and need support with translating. Many parents have said they cannot afford to self-isolate and I am scared that this will tear apart our community, with poverty and overcrowding rife.”

So, there we have it! A snapshot of the complexities that our schools have faced. There is no leadership cockpit manual to turn to when something on this scale happens. Your cockpit manual is you! Your values allied to your beliefs linked firmly to your professional ability to assess risk, formulate a plan and get a team around you to implement it.

This is risk management on a scale no training programme ever goes near and our leaders were resilient, compassionate, thoughtful, caring and above all else, strategic

Sir David Carter

Yet out of this period of darkness and on-going challenge, I think the education system will emerge stronger and more confident. For a start, children in year groups sitting national tests and exams next academic year will have missed six months of teaching by the summer of 2021. Some staff may not return, and some families will have lost loved ones, and this will need incredibly sensitive handling. It is unprecedented since the end of the Second World War, for children to have had such a long break and the re-integration back into school and the routines we take for granted will be hard for some children to come to terms with. Having experienced this period, I also believe that trustees and governors will feel more empowered to push back against an accountability system that currently may not recognise the leadership qualities I am describing here.

Whatever the future holds, I am sure that we will look back and say it was the moment that the quality of trust and school leaders was recognised and noted for ever. Our communities will owe school leaders a debt of immense gratitude.