There is no better time to put forward a positive vision of the future of schools than amid this crisis, writes Nick Brook

Since the NAHT’s new commission first met to discuss the question “how can we better support schools to improve?”, the world of education has changed in ways we could scarcely have imagined. Schools have redesigned themselves, some many times over, and with no end in sight they are simply focused right now on keeping classes open and education going, one day at a time.

Given these circumstances, some may well question why we would choose this moment to publish a major report on the future of school improvement. Having spoken to many school leaders over recent months I am absolutely convinced that there is in fact no better time to talk about a positive vision for the future.

First, the crisis has presented an opportunity for change. Education reform is like trying to change the wheels on a car while it hurtles along the road. This year, the car has ground to a halt. There will be few opportunities like this in our lifetime to fix the car and start off in a new direction.

Second, the crisis has shown in no uncertain terms why change is necessary. It has focused attention on the role of schools in society. It has demonstrated the value of place-based leadership and the place of values-based leadership. It has reaffirmed the importance of supporting students’ wellbeing as well as their academic progress and highlighted that schools are not islands and cannot be treated or measured as such.

Going back to the old normal is as unpalatable as the new normal is

Third, the crisis has laid bare a system that is ill-equipped to support its schools and school leaders. Ever-changing guidance from a department that has consistently been two steps behind the profession and unable or unwilling to listen has only made school leaders’ work harder and left many despairing.

But most importantly, the crisis has made the need for action urgent. I cannot think of a time when school leaders have been under quite so much pressure. They have had to show courage, determination and optimism for their teams, staff and communities, but in recent months I have become increasingly concerned by the number of colleagues saying they are intending to leave the profession once they’ve guided their schools through the pandemic. Worse, the lack of direction has led some to question how on earth they can maintain this even that long.

In a survey conducted by NAHT last month, almost half of respondents said they intended to leave school leadership sooner than planned as a consequence of the crisis. But this overriding sense of exhaustion goes much deeper than the demands of responding to the pandemic; it has compounded dissatisfaction with what was present before the crisis hit. The direction they were facing as school leaders was not necessarily where their moral compass was pointing. Going back to the old normal, with all its old faultlines, is as unpalatable to them as this new normal is to all of us.

To get out of this quagmire, school professionals need hope, and that hope must be based on belief that a better education system is not only possible, but coming. Government must give those who are wavering a compelling reason to stay, and the way things were is not it. School leaders need to know there is a better future ahead – whether that is in terms of how they are supported, how they are held to account or how the government treats them.

So this is precisely the moment to be thinking about the future of education, and it is absolutely right that the profession steps forward to frame that debate. This week’s publication of the NAHT School Improvement Commission’s findings does precisely that. The report sets out a long-term vision for school improvement based on valuing and investing in teachers and leaders, genuine, deep collaboration between schools and proper support for those serving the most disadvantaged communities.

Once again, the profession is two steps ahead of the department. They’ve shown a better education system is possible. Now the question is: when is it coming?