In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the witches exacerbate divisions, push ambition through brute force, hierarchy and power; their interventions end in the wicked destruction of leadership potential and human lives. In this blog we draw on a famous line from the ‘Scottish play’ – ‘Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. Double, double toil and trouble’ – as a metaphor to problematise the dominant discourse surrounding school leadership and think through the pressures facing headteachers and the trouble brewing for the school system as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The current market for school leadership products is a crowded space overflowing with resources offering simple, accessible and decontextualised solutions to the challenges of headship. Much of this is sold on the basis of increasing efficacy and improving tangible outcomes, intensifying the dependency on numerical data (see Ozga, 2009) and of prioritising what is measurable. In normal times, this is open to legitimate question. In the current circumstances, the means by which we hold school leaders to account have been rendered obsolete as, for example, last summer’s exams fiasco and the current planned disruption to examinations in England in summer 2021 demonstrate (see Gibbons, 2021). Covid-19 has changed schooling and school leadership hugely, with some headteachers reporting that their role is currently more about logistics and organisational management than education.
Covid-19 has further intensified (see Gunter, 2011) identity changes from educational professionals to ‘bubble’ managers. The shift is away from pedagogy, curriculum and assessment towards the organisational conditions in which teaching and learning happen when all members of the school community and beyond are rendered vulnerable to illness and death. The UK government has provided guidance for schools about how to sustain ‘bubbles’ to prevent Covid-19 transmission, and vignettes by professionals outlining how they have done it effectively. However, the rationality of risk assessment and the use of functional command-and-control technologies is not new. Public services in England have been rendered insecure certainly from 1988 when schools were turned into businesses (see Gunter, 2018). Bubbles are a new form of segregation between and within schools. The profession is used to the menacing threat of endemic failure in managing the separation of children, but Covid-19 generates extreme complexities regarding the impact of austerity and accumulated exhaustion (EAGLE, 2020). We knew before Covid-19 that school leadership is constituted of myths, as highlighted in this BERA Blog post. Covid-19 has once more made the case for educative leadership (see Gunter & Courtney, 2020).
‘What is actually required are effective management skills to enable headteachers to respond immediately to complex government regulatory demands, and inspirational leadership skills to maintain morale.’
For headteachers and their staff, Covid-19’s challenges are unprecedented, with widespread reports of unsustainable workload, increased stress and decreasing morale as raised in this Schools North East Blog post, with headteachers reaching breaking point (Lightfoot, 2020). Headteachers are working on the frontline, toiling to ensure within-school safety while responding to ever-changing components of regulation. Indeed, as schools reopened to all students on 8 March, those in the secondary sector now face the ‘mammoth task’ of regularly testing all pupils for Covid-19 again. What is actually required are effective management skills to enable headteachers to respond immediately to complex government regulatory demands, and inspirational leadership skills to maintain morale. Present toiling operates against funding shortfalls, increasing staff absence and parental pressure. Available ‘leadership’ products illuminate the superficiality and uselessness of the leadership models that continue to dominate the popular discourse, and they fail to address headteachers’ current travails (Harris & Jones, 2020). School life has fractured, inequalities have grown, and children have missed out (Pensiero, Kelly, & Bokhove, 2020), while headteachers’ work is diminished, reduced to logistics and incessant labouring against the backdrop of pandemic fatigue.
Trouble is brewing for a field of educational leadership. As we emerge from Covid-19 into a new epoch of climate catastrophe, racial injustice and divisive national inequality, educational leaders must focus increasingly on addressing these troubling realities (Gardner-McTaggart, 2020), and less on meeting and recording arbitrary performance metrics. Dominant leadership discourse promotes the self-serving myth of top-down leadership. It deploys magical, unevidenced thinking to promote the belief that our nation’s publicly funded schools, colleges and nurseries are best run effectively and efficiently, according to private interests and corporatised dispositions. As witnessed by the rise of the so-called chumocracy in Britain, it is unclear how such isolated spheres of private thinking will tackle our nation’s troubles together, nor how policymakers’ interventions in education will benefit teachers and teacher leaders. These interventions often concern elitist, ‘golden-age’ features such as terminal exams or, earlier, grammar schools. Mostly, policymakers are more comfortable as flâneurs, looking detachedly onto a purposively depoliticised landscape for whose misshapen form they can claim plausible deniability. No policy destination exists beyond fictional nirvana: the journey is the political objective. Our children and the teaching profession deserve better; they require a collective, political strategy incorporating a reconceptualised and reinvigorated educational leadership to address the trouble that is brewing. The next normal, the post-pandemic school, will need to repudiate and discard outdated leadership practices and develop new, more appropriate and inspiring ones which are in sync with the everyday social realities of schools and education in general.
Emergency Advisory Group for Learning and Education [EAGLE] (2020). Schools in England: A safe return in September? Retrieved from https://eagleresearchgroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/How-can-schools-reopen-safely.pdf
Gardner-McTaggart, A. (2020). Educational leadership and global crises: Reimagining planetary futures through social practice. International Journal of Leadership in Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603124.2020.1811900
Gibbons, A. (2021, January 4). GCSE and A-level 2021 exams won’t happen ‘as normal’. Tes. Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-gcse-and-level-2021-exams-wont-happen-normal
Gunter, H. M. (2011). Leadership and the reform of education. Bristol: Policy Press.
Gunter, H. M. (2018). The politics of public education: Reform ideas and issues. Bristol: Policy Press.
Gunter, H. M., & Courtney, S. J. (2018). A new public educative leadership? Management in Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/0892020620942506
Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2020). COVID 19: School leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 243–247. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2020.1811479
Lightfoot, L. (2020, October 3). Near breaking point: Headteachers worn down by ‘non-stop Covid crisis’. Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/03/near-breaking-point-headteachers-worn-down-by-non-stop-covid-crisis
Ozga, J. (2009). Governing education through data in England: From regulation to self‐evaluation. Journal of Education Policy, 24(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930902733121
Pensiero, N., Kelly, A., & Bokhove, C. (2020). Learning inequalities during the Covid-19 pandemic: how families cope with home-schooling. University of Southampton. Retrieved from https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/442619/