Blog post Part of series: Educational leadership on the threshold of a post-pandemic world
School leadership in a time of Covid: Learning to cope with the system changes
It is indisputable that there are huge costs associated with Covid-19, and part of that has fallen to schools, school trusts (formerly known as multi-academy trusts) and local authorities.
However, this pandemic has arrived at the same time as significant wider system change with the construction of the ‘Middle Tier’ (the decline of the local authorities and the rise of school trusts), and the costs of those to the wider education system. The cumulative impact of these changes is starting to show its true cost; ranging from leadership loss through early retirement, to loss of staff for whom shielding (for themselves or family members) has led to significant lifestyle choices. These often involve stepping back from leadership roles, early retirement or choosing to leave teaching altogether. Critically, as we have progressed through the past academic year, the costs of the ‘legacy cohort’ of teachers who trained during the pandemic (before they were awarded critical worker status) have also become clear, as more support was required for those who had lost out on placement time and were beginning their careers with arguably fewer experienced staff around to support them.
‘The costs of the “legacy cohort” of teachers who trained during the pandemic have also become clear, as more support was required for those who had lost out on placement time and were beginning their careers with arguably fewer experienced staff around to support them.’
Many of this last category of ‘legacy cohort’ have done a brilliant job in really challenging circumstances – from missed teaching practice through to the subsequent lockdowns in their first year of teaching – but in my experience of running an Appropriate Body (being responsible for signing off the newly qualified teacher (NQT) status of teachers in their first year in teaching), some have really struggled with the ever more complex tasks that schools have had to deal with. These issues have been covered in BERA blogs this year, such as vouchers for school meals (Lalli, 2021), and teaching school hubs (Outhwaite, 2021), but the sheer amount of education system change has also compounded the changes for September 2021: from the introduction of the two-year early career teacher (ECT) status replacing the previous NQT status, to the changes to national professional qualifications (NPQs), and the further changes that are on their way with the initial teacher training (ITT) market review.
Schools are highly structured places, and the reasons for school routines are clear: safety; security; familiarity. But with schools becoming testing centres during the pandemic, logistics have been tested to the maximum on a daily basis, often with reduced staffing in place. As a direct result of the additional workload created by the pandemic in schools, there have been some school-centred ITTs, School Direct programmes and university core PGCEs that have struggled to place trainee teachers into schools. School visits and additional programme options, such as Education Placement Options were clearly very problematic when schools were trying to keep movement between bubbles to a minimum. Then there are the other issues that have been well documented in the BERA Blog pages, such as our national obsession with assessment, and the recent rows over funding with the resignation of the catch-up Tsar (see Coughlan & Sellgren, 2021), and mental health and wellbeing. In addition, there is the digital divide, characterised by unequal access to devices and WiFi, and the wide range of provision in schools and trusts – from good to poor – for the relevant support and structures that are required to address these inequalities (Sutton Trust, 2021).
But there remain issues relating to how learning now moves forward: the parallel learning, the closure of bubbles, the issues of in-school support, and the time-consuming nature of providing that for students outside school. These issues are followed by the contested nature of ‘lost learning’ versus life skills; remote learning, developing skills for the future, and the changing landscape for our students as they move on into higher education. The pressure is clearly on for universities to be fully back in person in the autumn term, but as a School Direct provider we are choosing to keep our own Hub sessions online, as our trainee teachers are already in at least three bubbles (home; school; university); and even if these bubbles don’t officially exist now, how many are really safe? Online elements that have been expanded are actually here to stay; we have an opportunity to create a truly lasting legacy in education on many fronts, but that needs to be led and managed effectively so we don’t lose this opportunity and just return to the poorer version of education that we had prior to the pandemic – this requires skilled, flexible, ethical and pragmatic leadership; the best sort of public service leadership (putting others before self-interest) not short-term, populist dictates that don’t begin to understand the complexities of our wide-ranging contexts in education.
‘We have an opportunity to create a truly lasting legacy in education on many fronts, but that needs to be led and managed effectively so we don’t lose this opportunity and just return to the poorer version of education that we had prior to the pandemic.’
This tension between the short termism of responding to crisis and our long-term aspirations for skilled, flexible, ethical and pragmatic leadership exposes important fault lines in England’s fragmented school sector. How recognisable are these tensions to an international readership, and what specific aspects of schooling and policy dictate the shape they take in other policy spaces?
Coughlan, S., & Sellgren, K. (2021, June 2). School catch-up tsar resigns over lack of funding. BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-57335558
Lalli, G. (2021, 21 June). ‘Why can’t I use this voucher?’ The impact of Covid-19 on access and (in)effective support of the school food voucher scheme. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/why-cant-i-use-this-voucher-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-access-and-ineffective-support-of-the-school-food-voucher-scheme
Outhwaite, D. (2021, March 10). England’s teaching school ‘super-hub’ policy: Policy meets practice. BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/englands-teaching-school-super-hub-policy-policy-meets-practice
Sutton Trust. (2021). Remote learning: The digital divide. https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/remote-learning-the-digital-divide/