The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

“Rising strong”

We have seen a plethora of articles and blogs written over the past few months, regarding all aspects of education. Many have called for fundamental and radical changes to our schooling system in England. I was struck by Russell Hobby’s blog in which he outlines five ways NOT to think about the crisis and its aftermath:

  1. “This will change everything.”
  2. “This proves what I always believed.”
  3. “It’s all or nothing.”
  4. “It works for me.”
  5. “We already know what to do.”

He concludes by saying that the crisis will not automatically transform our world. But if we want a small part of it to be different, we have a unique moment in which to work to make it so.

So, if we choose to avoid the five approaches that Russell encourages us NOT to use, how can we think about what needs to change? I would like to suggest two approaches both underpinned by resilience theory.

“Build Back Better”

We heard our Prime Minister use this phrase recently – it is also being used increasingly in education circles. However, these words were used first by Prime Minister Shinzo of Japan. Opening the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, Prime Minister Shinzo gave a statement in which he said:

“I have visited the disaster-affected areas almost every month since I assumed my position as Prime Minister. I have listened to the voices of the many local people who say, “We want to build a society that is resilient to disasters, and we want to build a hometown that is better than before the earthquake.”

I believe good education and good society advance together. As we rebuild society following the Covid pandemic, school trusts are a core part of the way we repair the social and educational fabric.

Leora Cruddas

Starting from this earnest wishes, Japan is working on the reconstruction from the Great East Japan Earthquake based on the idea of “Build Back Better,” which aims not simply to recover the same situation that existed prior to the disaster, but rather build a society that is more resilient to disasters than before.

So, the principle of “Build Back Better” is to use adversity to create more resilient communities and a more resilient nation. It is being used quite widely to talk about education but possibly in a way that misunderstands the concept – build back better does not mean throwing everything out and starting again. It means building social and structural resilience.

“Rising Strong”

The American research professor Brené Brown coined the term “Rising Strong” as the title of her 2015 book. Rising Strong is a book about resilience – what it takes to get back up. Struggle can be our greatest call to courage. It can be a path to deeper meaning, wisdom and hope.

In their beautiful exemplification of this concept, The Embark Federation, a family of seven schools across Derbyshire, have created a curriculum called Rising Strong. The Embark Federation believe that by working together as a team they can create schools that ‘stand out’ at the heart of their communities. They, like almost all other trusts, have been working to stay connected to families throughout the crisis and have put in place what they call a reconnection and recovery pathway.

So, let us seek to understand how we can build back better – building more resilience so that we rise stronger. I believe we are building on a strong foundation within the English education system that has become evident through the pandemic.

1.Building structural resilience
There is no doubt that groups of schools working together in a single governance structure have shown themselves to be the most resilient of school structures during the lockdown. This is because they were able to leverage their strategic capability and capacity to support the schools in the group, both in terms of curriculum and in terms of the logistics of operational support – estates management, HR and workforce planning. We now need to create the conditions for all schools to be part of a strong and sustainable group.

2.Building curriculum resilience
In recent years, there has been some ground-breaking curricular thinking in England. The most recent ResearchEd book on curriculum makes an important and thoughtful series of contributions to the debate, based on well-researched evidence. However, we still have further to go to ensure that high quality curriculum conversations take place in all corners of our school system. The Black Lives Matter movement has challenged our curriculum constructs and there is certainly more to do to ensure that Black History is woven meaningfully throughout the curriculum.

3.Building resilient governance
There is much in our system of governance that is still misunderstood and needs strengthening. I have said previously that the proposition of governing a maintained school is different to that of governing a trust. After ten years of trust governance, there is still much to learn. The government’s response can feel a little like it is heaping regulatory burdens onto trusts in what might be seen as an over-correction of a very small number of high-profile failures. So we, the sector, need to take hold of the codes that should determine resilient governance. This will be the mark of a mature system.

4.Building resilience in children and young people
Ann Mastin, writing in The American Psychologist in 2001, says that “the study of resilience in development has overturned many negative assumptions and deficit-focused models about children growing up under the threat of disadvantage and adversity. The most surprising conclusion emerging from studies of these children is the ordinariness of resilience.” Her conclusion is that resilience is made of ordinary rather than extraordinary processes. She calls this ‘ordinary magic’. So, let’s make sure that as we welcome back all children as soon as possible to school, we know and understand the evidence-based approaches to improving leadership, curriculum, teaching and behaviour.

5.Building resilient communities
Trusts cannot on their own build resilient communities. But education is a huge part of community resilience. I am certainly not advocating that schools lose their core focus on education. But I am proposing that trusts understand their civic duty to work in partnership with other civic actors to protect the value of the child in society and high-quality education.

I believe good education and good society advance together. As we rebuild society following the Covid pandemic, school trusts are a core part of the way we repair the social and educational fabric. Trusts should be viewed in their localities with pride because they are creating a stronger education community, working with local authorities and other civic partners. Trusts could and should be viewed as important civic institutions in the goal of achieving the good society.

As we work together to rebuild the social and educational fabric of society, let us build back better and rise stronger, not by throwing out all that came before, but by building on the best of our education system.