Time and again school leaders have risen to the Covid challenge – but at what cost?

29 Dec 2020, 5:00

pupil wellbeing

There is no doubt as we enter the final turbulent days of 2020 that the parameters that underpin our education sector have been turned on its head.

I was appointed to my first school leadership post in 1995, and for the past 25 years have been a leader and now a developer of leaders and teams.

Throughout my career I had periods of self-doubt, disappointing exam results that I was responsible for, inspections where the inspectors did not understand my schools and the familiar challenge of combining my professional life with the needs of my family. The difference is that my challenges were spread out over two decades.

For many of our current leaders, the perfect storm of 2020 has brought many of these difficult moments together into one very short time scale.

The duty of care – that is the responsibility of trustees and governors – has never been more important

School leadership, and specifically the leadership of people, requires three conditions to thrive: stability, predictability and typicality.

We need stability for our improvement plans to become embedded in our classrooms. Leading change without the bedrock of stability is very hard.

We need a degree of predictability so that the targets we set ourselves are aimed at a fixed point in the future, rather than a moving target that is much harder to hit.

We need typicality so that we can be assured that the starting point of our ambition is realistic to evaluate whether what we set out to achieve has been delivered. The past nine months has seen the very opposite of these three conditions.

Yet today, decision making is often rooted in our best guess as to what needs to happen. Our risk assessments guide us, but we are not routinely equipped to be scientists or medical experts. We rely upon government briefings to help us with this.

This lack of stability and increased unpredictability is what makes this period such a challenge. But it is also what has enabled our school leaders to demonstrate the quality of their leadership as time and time again they find a way through it.

But there is also a personal cost to leading in the current climate and it is by far the hardest to detect. This is the cost to leaders’ own wellbeing and welfare.

Not just the fatigue and tiredness, but the constant state of not knowing what the next challenge will be over the coming 24 hours.

It is easy to talk about resilience and grit, and there are plenty of keynote speakers willing to share their wisdom on this matter, but coping goes beyond this. It starts from recognising that you have a right to be looked after in the same way that you take care of your staff.

The duty of care – that is the responsibility of trustees and governors – has never been more important.

But leaders also have to be self-aware and know when it is time to stop for the day and to look to their family for their love and unconditional support.

We also have to work better together – irrespective of our personal motivations and philosophical beliefs. We must model what leadership in the future could look like for those who follow us. We should be more determined than ever to “speak truth to power” and never forget that no one understands the needs of our children, and the communities we serve than those living and working on the front line.

I began my school leadership journey in 1995. Over the next 25 years it was the best job, and at times the hardest. However, I’ve never led a school in such challenging times like those we have seen since March.

Those of you leading our schools today have my respect and admiration.

As leaders hopefully take the chance to recharge over the Christmas period, let us return to work in January with this quote from Maya Angelou ringing in our ears: “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”

This is the key to the next stage of our journey.



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