One of the things we have learnt during these difficult times has been that life finds a way. Despite the emerging impact of coronavirus, CEOs have continued to model to the world (politicians included) how to lead in a crisis. Despite a continued backdrop of mistrust, anxiety, and uncertainty, they have demonstrated remarkable constraint and resolve throughout lockdown.
We have seen lots written about the impact of Covid19, not just on the situation as it currently stands, but also in terms of what the future educational landscape might look like. Attempts at trying to distil this have been made valiantly at Forum, reminding leaders of the need to focus only on those things that you can control or have influence on. It is timely, and welcome advice, but for CEOs who operate mainly in a world of ‘objective, strategy, and tactic’, it can cause anxiety and tension. Strategic plans and longer-term objectives have understandably been cast aside as the priority has been entirely on tactical day-to-day matters. Reluctantly, reactive leadership has taken centre stage, and CEOs have had to adapt and be nimble in their response.
Despite the crisis, CEOs still need to look ahead and seek ways of taking back control of the strategic agenda. We need to ensure sector-wide responsibility. Our collective impact as a profession is always greater than the impact of any organisation or group of individuals. This calls for responsible leadership, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The recent #UnitingVoices EdLeadCollective on Twitter is a promising example of what can be achieved where there is a collective will to change the educational landscape. This is a global issue, and not just restricted to the UK. In a recent survey in the US for example, almost two-thirds of parents said that schools should now rethink what education should look like. They do not want to go back to what it was like before. They are right.
The timely release of Steve Munby’s paper for the Centre for Strategic Education, highlights the need for a ‘new paradigm’, urging leaders to become expert at responding ‘consistently and effectively to the persistent problems faced within a role.’ In a post-Covid world, these problems will be many and not just restricted to one school. Here are four to start with, that I believe will dominate our thinking over the coming months:
- Community engagement: There is a compelling need for schools to become outward facing with strong community leadership. One welcome outcome of the lockdown has been the elevation of the school to the heart of the community. CEOs need to capitalise on this, particularly when meeting the needs of our most vulnerable pupils. According to the EEF, the negative impact of school closures has reversed the progress made on narrowing the attainment gap. CEOs need to work collectively across the sector to urgently address this.
- Intelligent accountability: If ever there were a need for a national moratorium on the role of Ofsted, then it is now. Of course, standards, benchmarks and testing etc. are important, but none of these will feature anywhere near the top of the agenda for schools. Not for a long while. The focus entirely must be on rebooting the system, ensuring that communities are well-served by schools that measure only what they value. As a sector – parents included - we need to articulate and define this, and then build a low-stakes regulatory system around it.
- Collaboration and impact: There are no longer any doubts that schools can operate in isolation. We have seen some remarkable and inspiring stories of cross-school collaboration, with teachers and leaders sharing resources (staff included) never seen before. There seems to be a genuine appetite for this, and so we must build on it. CEOs need to explore how across their system (both within and beyond their trust) they can encourage this further. We need to ensure genuine strategic alignment across the sector.
- Wellbeing and mental health: Evidence from surveys in the commercial sector have suggested that 40% of staff have not been asked about their wellbeing during the lockdown. If we accept that one of the key domains of a successful leader is to build relationships, then mental health and wellbeing are key. Anxiety levels are likely to be exceptionally high post-lockdown. CEOs need to develop a system-wide strategy that addresses this. In order to achieve this, school leaders need continually to take the pulse of their organisation, demonstrating supportive listening, and above all, being consistent and open.
As challenging as the current circumstances have been, the wise leaders will be the ones who use this time for re-evaluating and thinking ahead to a new future. CEOs have shown much restraint these past few months, leading with great compassion, openness, and integrity, all during a time of great uncertainty. A new landscape will emerge in a post-Covid world, and it is up to us as a profession to create it.
This post originally appeared as a blog post on the Forum Strategy website in May 2020.