Expert senior leadership teams have supported one another, but they must now be afforded the space to make decisions without constantly reacting to government, writes Sarah Ray

The past six months have been described as stormy. For trust and school leaders it’s been more like a hurricane. The sense of responsibility and unpredictability has been enormous. Leaders ensured their schools remained open for key workers’ children, whilst concurrently being faced with the need for organisational recalibration.

What we know now is that being part of a team, with a diverse range of experts working together, has been critical.

But there are risks ahead  ̶  September is normally awash with buoyant energy, ardent aspirations and renewed vigour. Worryingly, many school leaders have not had the summer break they deserve.

Significant energy is required now more than ever, as leaders focus on risk management, more guidance, staffing issues, “catching up” and the anxious possibility of lockdown. Headteachers and senior management teams warn they face unsustainable and excessive workloads amid the pandemic and changing policy around school operations.

There is growing talk of fatigue – particularly among those who have felt isolated

Feedback from our members has overwhelmingly indicated that being part of a sustainable and established trust has made the job more viable. Trust CEOs have stressed the importance of colleagues in central teams with diverse expertise in premises, technology, HR, procurement, resource management and communications.

They have been able to draw on these experts in their field, allowing them and headteachers to focus on the key pillars of people, purpose and learning. Access to such proximate expert support has also provided a much-needed “psychological safety net”.

However, for some leaders – particularly those who have felt isolated – there is growing talk of fatigue and even of bringing retirement forward. Demographic trends mean we already face an exodus of experienced leaders in their mid-to-late 50s, so this is a major risk to the system. As a sector we now need a period of stability and consistency, so retaining experienced leaders is vital.

To their enormous credit, trusts and school leaders have largely maintained public confidence throughout. The Edurio Covid-19 Impact Review demonstrated that most stakeholders feel their school has coped well: 87 per cent of staff and 72 per cent of parents reported they were happy with their school’s handling of Covid-19 disruptions.

We work with about 200 academy trusts, and throughout conversations with our member CEOs and COOs we have consistently been struck by their desire to put people – pupils, staff and parents – first. But beneath the calm exterior and now that school premises are open for all, we remain concerned about leaders’ wellbeing.

We’ve learned over the past six months that leaders need to put on their own life jackets first; be surrounded by expert teams (not replicas of themselves); and look outwards to their peers and networks for support and advice with managing change, rather than simply upwards to government.

A vital question for next week’s third National #TrustLeaders conference is: “How do we ensure our leaders, after months of pressure, are energised and inspired, not only to stay, but to ensure our schools and pupils thrive through and beyond this pandemic?”

The prime minister recently spoke of the power of education as a great equaliser and transformer. Rediscovering this depends on purpose and people, not more prescription and instability. We need Ofsted and government to trust leaders with the job of taking stock and planning ahead. They must at all costs avoid a knee-jerk return to high stakes accountability that could exacerbate fatigue.

Leaders now need from the government the trust, stability and freedom to work with their people, to set about shaping a renewed and shared sense of purpose for the next stage. The sector needs to be allowed to spend more time looking outwards to prioritise what our communities require in the medium to long term, and less time looking upwards reacting to government.

This generation of trust and school leaders have risen to the biggest challenge of their careers. The last thing we need is to lose them to exhaustion and fatigue, just when we need them most.

 

Schools Week is the official media partner to the third annual National #TrustLeaders Conference, which takes place on Thursday.