Recovery? School leaders need it as much as their students

26 Mar 2021, 5:00

Leaders have a chance to rest and reflect over Easter. Ministers should do the same and come up with a plan to support them better, writes Ruth Davies

Challenging. Exhausting. Stressful. The School Leadership Supply Crisis report published today reveals these are the top three words school leaders use to describe their experience of the past year.

The churn of the pandemic has left many leaders contemplating an earlier finish to their careers than they first thought. And SLT members looking at the toll it has taken on leaders are thinking twice about whether running a school is really what they want to do after all.

This is a critical moment. There is a real risk that the school leadership supply pipeline is going to run dry. We need government action to safeguard the wellbeing of leaders across the sector.

Of course, we can take some responsibility for ourselves too. We have been in crisis mode for twelve months and we have now entered recovery mode. We should not move from one to the other without taking a proper chance to take stock of all that we’ve done this year.

Hopefully, the Easter break will provide that necessary reflection time for most of us. Because the truth is that the very serious situations we’ve been battling all year have masked phenomenal achievements.

We musn’t let imposter syndrome get the better of us

Challenging. Exhausting. Stressful. Yes, but we have found a solution for every challenge. We have had the resilience to keep going through the daily sense of exhaustion. And we have been equal to every stressful situation. We didn’t go under.

It’s natural as a leader to look back and focus on what you got wrong. We are a self-critical bunch. But we musn’t let imposter syndrome get the better of us. We must be honest enough to recognise that we’ve got a lot right during this annus horribilis.

Sure, sometimes it has felt like constantly bailing out water from our boats. But our boats are still afloat. We can point to land on the horizon, giving hope to the staff and young people we work with.

With that in mind, coming through Covid should encourage leaders to feel more confident in their abilities. You’re justified in thinking that way. So take a moment to chalk it all up. Chances are, you’ve done six impossible things before breakfast every day. Probably without even realising it, you’ve delivered a career’s worth of achievements in a year. Say it: You’ve normalised being brilliant.

The truth is, we’ll need that positivity. Recovery is going to be every bit as challenging as lockdown. Our experiences this year tell us the government will come up short again in the support it provides us. So we’ll have to do it ourselves. Again. Present company excepted, we know the media will have its knives sharpened again for schools. So we’ll be going about our work in the full glare of the spotlight.

And there will be fresh challenges. It would be very surprising indeed if we didn’t see yet more centralised decision making from government. Leadership by diktat is their style. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that their guidance has been so consistently poor and of so little use to us during the pandemic. We see the irony even if they don’t.

In fact, among the most striking findings of the School Leadership Supply Crisis report is that almost three-quarters of school leaders say the government’s constantly changing guidance was their biggest challenge of the pandemic. Just think what the system could have achieved for young people if we had had the backing of ministers and the funding to match.

So yes, the coming year will be full of more challenges, exhaustion and stress. But the positive message is that schools have demonstrated time and time again that they are quicker and better at finding solutions to knotty conundrums than Whitehall. Or Cardiff or Stormont, for that matter.

As you pause over Easter, please reflect on that. You’ve come so far, and when you start again in April it should be with the full confidence that you can go further still for the young people in your care.

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