The #LockdownLeadership series is a collection of anonymous blogs about leadership during these uncertain times. Share your leadership journeys: confessions… conversations… celebrations… challenges… Reflect on your moments of: courage… compassion… clarity… craziness… Email 500 words to email@example.com to be shared in this safe space.
The pandemic really has shattered the illusion that reliable people and stable systems are in place to make the right decisions. The self-imposed chaos of Brexit was the first time the curtain was torn back and the world witnessed our Peers, MPs and public school boys squabbling about who started it, how to stop it, and who was going to deliver it. Today we fight a contagion that threatens the lives of our people, the education of our children, and the health of our economy. The only clear thing is every week we discover another underestimated factor or new complication amongst the muddle of obstacles standing in the way of getting Britain back on track.
In a way it’s refreshing that we can no longer pretend there are experts are in control. We are in this together, each doing the best we can to support one another. I’m heartened that individual Head teachers have challenged government goals for Primary school return dates; not because I believe the dates are wrong (how would I know what’s right for a school I don’t know, in an area I know nothing about?), because I believe Head teachers, parents and we teachers should hold ourselves accountable for the responsibility we carry and the responsibility we give away.
I have seen good leaders make bad decisions because one lone blade of grass cannot resist the force of the wind. The 2008 recession followed by a swathe of retirement age Head teachers leaving the profession made it easy for the downward spiral within education. While drastically and continually slashing school funds, Tories claimed they could ‘raise standards’ in education. Ofsted school ratings got tougher, exams got harder, school targets became higher and more complex: shaping the capitalist vision of education that would … make Britain great again?
Experienced teachers acknowledged and tutted at the duplicitous rhetoric around ‘raising standards’ for all children and the political motivations behind wanting to ‘compete in a global job market’. We teachers know that smashing fragile children against square, baccalaureate-shaped holes isn’t fair, there’s no evidence of raised standards – only increased mental health problems for students and teachers alike.
Throughout these changes, good school leaders did their best to protect students and shield staff, while self-serving, ambitious leaders embraced the challenges to raise their professional profiles, whatever the cost. These were dark days because no one and no group was strong enough to challenge the government, Ofsted or Michael Gove. We did complain, we took part in consultations, but no one really believed we could challenge the momentum of wheels in motion.
The pandemic has altered this sense of powerlessness by highlighting the importance of the differences between school communities and by introducing the incredible risk of life and death. Leaders cannot be bullied, bribed or browbeaten out of this fact. Where you live, your race, your medical history, are just some of the crucial components of the decisions we must each make for ourselves today.
Schools are the reflection of the communities they serve. Newham has been worst hit by the pandemic so far and this maybe because of it’s largely BAME community. Many earn less than the average wage for London, many are housed by the council, coping with shared facilities and frequent moves. Maybe more households in Newham have extended families and greater links to international hotspots for the virus? Maybe some of these households include people who worked through the lockdown and continue to, regardless of underlying illnesses and whether they could use PPE because their wages were not protected if they didn’t show up to work?
My Newham Head teacher created space for staff to prepare home learning resources ahead of the lockdown by limiting student admission in the last two days before schools were closed. Quite a few other schools did the same because they did not have the permission or autonomy to close their schools. It would have been impossible to prepare for teaching in lockdown and accommodate students lessons safely without the school leader taking action. Given that my school has since lost two members of staff to the pandemic, I wish that choice had been in our hands rather than anyone else’s, especially not those of the Brexit Cowboys. Yet, these decisions have shown that given the seriousness of the pandemic, some leaders were willing to challenge government and borough guidance because they believe it was in the best interests of their staff and students. It sounds a simple and logical enough move, but it could spell so much more for school leadership teams if this is the start of schools saying no to harmful government decisions. Crossing swords now, when public confidence in political leadership has already fallen so low will ensure a bitter battle ahead, with political careers and, indeed, lives hanging in the balance.
In an altogether different borough, the worst example of school leadership (the school has recently fallen from Outstanding to Good in Ofsted ratings) has made its most recent, disastrous move. The Ofsted trained Head teacher has asked at least one subject to reduce over 80 estimated GCSE grades by a whole grade. Why? Because the existing GCSE ALPs rating for the subject might cast doubt on the estimated GCSE grades they’re submitting. There is no suggestion that the subject has made a mistake in their estimations, only that lower estimated grades better reflect the grade range expected by the DfE. This isn’t leadership, it’s gaming by leaders who have prioritised maintaining national measures to assure their grip on their slipping position in national ranking hierarchy.
Not all leaders are worthy of their positions. While other school leaders have been moved by the heavy responsibility to protect the communities they serve. There’s no guide or expert better informed than they about the needs of their students. Their subjectivity and direct knowledge of the local area is critical when weighing up the risks of calling students and staff back to school. It might mean some schools open before others, but that’s ok, as long as those most informed and most invested in the school make the decision.
Perhaps this is a watershed moment for all school leaders? Maybe school leadership teams who have focused more on their students than national targets and examination grade curves will seize the power to share their decisions with their communities about when and how to open their schools? And going forward, seize the power to decide the best provision of education for the communities they serve.