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Blog post Part of series: Educational leadership on the threshold of a post-pandemic world

Editorial: Educational leadership on the threshold of a post-pandemic world

Schools, colleges and universities after Covid-19

Azumah Dennis, Senior Lecturer in Education Leadership and Management, The Open University

In July 2021 the UK government declared the Covid-19 pandemic over. After 18 months of lockdown, regulations allowed families and friends to again meet, hug and shake hands.

But while politicians pre-emptively declared the country as post-pandemic, Omicron has made it clear that the virus is still in virulent circulation. Post-pandemic educational leadership emerges from this ambiguity, inviting numerous possibilities. Possibilities that animate the contributors to this BERA Blog special issue, based in England and Scotland, to develop the concept of post-pandemic leadership. In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, the authors compel us to rethink educational leadership. This editorial draws together the perspectives offered, and invites those in other countries to confirm or contradict our perceptions of the shape post-pandemic leadership might assume.

In his blog, Chris Rolph focuses on how the pandemic granted schools two academic years without published performance tables, shattering the policy myth that competition and neoliberal performativity motivate professionals to do their best. Rolph argues that the glaring spotlight of neoliberal surveillance does not, after all, illuminate. School leaders reacted to the immediacy of crisis, driven not by metrics but by morals. With the realisation that Covid-19 would exceed the initial three-week lockdown, leaders managed their response more carefully and a more reflective phase led to the development of strategic infrastructure; amid reaction, response and reflection, management gave way to leadership and with it a realisation that the post-pandemic world would invite either a return to business as usual or an opportunity for a reset, learning from the pandemic to reimagine school accountability.

Lindsay Johnstone proffers a template for this reimagination: accountability based on Appreciative Inquiry. Business-as-usual accountability – that is, aggressive inspection regimes – exacerbated by the pandemic have led some 47 per cent of school leaders to the brink of early retirement. Decades of Ofsted inspection based on a deficit model of inquiry, top-down proscription and career-ending stakes have taken their toll. The pandemic invites the possibility of change.

Change and its possibilities may not be the pivotal concern. The nature and process of change also matters. For decades, the role, place and pace of technology-enhanced learning moved at a glacial pace; but in March 2021, virtually overnight, it became fully embedded. However, as Rolph reminds us, there is a difference between a crisis-driven reaction and a strategic response. Using Puntedura’s (2006) taxonomy of digital learning, Baxter, Jewitt and Floyd map the impact of Covid-19 on school leaders’ management of their digital infrastructure and associated pedagogy. Their research project charts the development of digital pedagogies from a reactive ‘firefighting’ to a post-pandemic strategic reflection in which creativity and innovation flourish.

Beresford-Dey, Howden and Martindale remind us that creative and innovative flourishing are neither natural nor inevitable; they have to be cultivated. Focusing on leadership in higher education (HE), the authors examine the daily challenges of system shock. As frantic HE managers in need of self-care, they made time for autoethnographic peer-to-peer dialogue, using Complexity Leadership Theory as an analytical tool. Enabling leadership emerged as the fulcrum around which all other leadership functions revolve. And while this created tension between leadership-as-aspiration and leadership-as-enactment, their notion of post-pandemic educational leadership highlights emotional labour as a necessary aspect of enabling leadership concerned about the wellbeing of self and others.

There is a shift here. Reimagining post-pandemic leadership requires Janus-like dexterity. The rush to elaborate on the meaning of ‘post-pandemic’ implies a cursory glance at pandemic leadership, lest important lessons risk being lost. Arguing that the pandemic has shifted the tectonic plates of leadership, Kevin Richardson frames pandemic leadership in further education as leaders both ‘learning to distribute’ and ‘learning to listen’. As one of his college principal research participants notes, the pandemic has made them ‘more human, more emotionally intelligent, more reflective’.

Staying within the experience of the pandemic, Azumah Dennis explores how the emergence of ‘unleadership’ underlines this sense of the crisis, and has created space for qualities to flourish that might otherwise have remained unrealised. But Dennis has little interest in the internal disposition of individual leaders. What captures her imagination is a new institutional player in the post-16 professional landscape: #JoyFE. This disparate, amorphous online collective emerged during the pandemic out of the possibility of leaderless leading: that is, leadership driven by affective forces rather than the heteronormative fantasy of the charismatic stalwart. Post-pandemic, #JoyFE’s call for the collective pursuit of an ethical life as an empowered life still resonates.

The resonance between pre- and post-pandemic educational leadership is neatly summarised by Deb Outhwaite, who imagines what each blog in this series ultimately leads to, though what she imagines is both unexpected and unpredictable. If we are to avoid a return to a poorer pre-pandemic version of ourselves, we must harness the exuberance of this post-pandemic moment and its numerous leadership possibilities.


Reference

Puentedura, R. (2006, August 18). Transformation, technology, and education [Presentation]. Strengthening Your District Through Technology workshop, Maine, United States. http://hippasus.com/resources/tte/