Crisis management in schools has been examined and modelled in a variety of ways, and it is possible to identify four discrete stages through which school leaders progressed during the pandemic (McLeod & Dulsky, 2021).
As figure 1 sets out, the initial response was reaction: that is, in the face of an immediate crisis, to take reflexive action that addresses immediate priorities. For many schools during the lockdown periods this was the need to make sure that children were safe and well. This manifested itself in a number of ways, from leaders going to extreme lengths to ensure that families still received free school meals, to regular contact to check on children’s wellbeing. One academy trust of five schools told me that its staff made more than 30,000 phone calls during the lockdown period. In this early stage, schools clearly worked from their fundamental values in order to prioritise their work. The situation quickly moved to one of response, in which school leaders were able to turn their attention to establishing the infrastructure and online resources required for some form of learning at home. This phase of crisis management is limited by resources, and the issue for leaders was how to make sure that the basic resources for children’s learning were in place. Direct government intervention began to increase with some support for resourcing – though this was not without its problems (Staufenberg, 2021).
As time progressed, leaders were able to reflect more; to establish what might be described as deeper learning, in which online teaching was being designed more strategically to try to ensure an improved learning experience. This phase also included more attention towards the social and emotional needs of learners, and heads talked about leading rather than managing the situation (Beauchamp et al., 2021). Finally, as the crisis begins to subside, we find ourselves in a crucial period of return or reset, where a choice has to be made between reverting to everything as it was before the crisis, or resetting the agenda to build something new from all that has passed, including what has been learnt from the crisis itself.
‘As the crisis begins to subside, we find ourselves in a crucial period of return or reset, where a choice has to be made between reverting to everything as it was before the crisis, or resetting the agenda to build something new from all that has passed.’
Two academic years have turned with no published performance tables: the glare of the neoliberal surveillance searchlight has for a time been switched off. While it is unarguable that children’s education has suffered through the pandemic, the commitment and dedication of their staff has been undiminished. It is clear that the driving forces for education professionals are not metrics but morals – a sheer determination to do the right thing for those in their charge (Harris & Jones 2020). Post-pandemic there is the opportunity to reset the accountability agenda that for a quarter of a century has focused on particularly narrow measures of schools’ achievements. The folly of an all-or-nothing final examination has been exposed at system level, and it is time to build measures of attainment that account for children’s progress over time, rather than to risk measuring performance on a single day.
Prior to the pandemic, the tensions between market-driven neoliberalism and the traditional orthodoxy of neoconservatism were most evident in the approach to the curriculum. The pandemic has highlighted the value of a rich curriculum and sadly shown how children suffer when schooling is confined to subject-based teaching only. Post-pandemic there is an opportunity to free up schools to reset the curriculum and develop true breadth and depth in what children learn.
Figure 1: Four discrete stages of crisis managementThe choice between reset or return is not one that can be made solely by school leaders – though some have called for a critical re-evaluation (see for example Carr, 2020). They have demonstrated their ability to truly lead: to make wise decisions under pressure, and to fall back on fundamental values in order to do this. If they are to remain free to do this then the reset or return decision has to be made at system level: politicians and civil servants need to demonstrate learning from the pandemic and not to default to business as usual. The pandemic was and remains a global crisis, and there is no suggestion that responses theorised by English-speaking academics are universal. We are curious and invite insightful reflection on how responses differed in different contexts.
Carr, V. (2020, September 10). Post Covid-19: A ‘brave new world’? BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/post-covid-19-a-brave-new-world
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
Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J. A. (2021). ‘People miss people’: A study of school leadership and management in the four nations of the United Kingdom in the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 49(3), 375–392. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143220987841
McLeod, S., & Dulsky, S. (2021). Resilience, reorientation, and reinvention: School leadership during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Education, 6, 70. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2021.637075
Staufenberg, J. (2021, January 29). Why the government’s £400m laptops roll-out is crashing. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/why-the-governments-400m-laptops-roll-out-is-crashing/