Leadership in the time of Covid: Six lessons for headteachers

Written by: Yvonne Gandy | Published:

A mixture of optimism and realism can help school leaders navigate their schools through a potentially challenging year ahead. Multi-academy trust CEO Nick Cross talks to Yvonne Gandy about his six key leadership lessons for the coming months

As new school years go this one is something of a landmark. Primary schools up and down the country have welcomed back their pupils, some returning to school for the first time since March and the Covid-19 lockdown.

Making sure that the practical aspects of the return – the bubbles, one-way systems, hygiene routines and timetable and curriculum tweaks – are in place and working effectively is crucial, but leaders and their teams also need to ensure that there is a sense of common endeavour underpinning everything else.

While school leaders need to acknowledge the realities of the current situation they should also seek to provide a positive, supportive energy for their teams and seek to communicate a powerful sense of mutual support and common endeavour.

At King’s Group Academies (KGA), which encompasses five primaries, an all-through school and a secondary in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, CEO Nick Cross says that a mix of realism and optimism will guide the group’s schools through the challenges of the next few months.

Lesson 1: Optimism helps

“I do think we have to go into things optimistically,” Mr Cross told me. “Our best leaders are the ones who have a ‘let’s crack on and do this’ attitude. It is a positive approach but it is not unrealistic – there are challenges that we have to deal with and there will be children who will need more support than others but it needs to come from a positive place.

“As a trust, we also have a responsibility to be positive and emphasise that if any of our schools have problems during this year that we are all there to help and support them. It’s the only way we can be.”

Lesson 2: Tone things down

“Our schools are doing the wellbeing aspect of the welcome back very well, but we need to be careful that we don’t over-emphasise the disruption of the last few months and the changed nature of schooling. Most of our children are returning with few of the cares that adults have about this situation.

“The key will be not to overstate things with these children but to ensure that the additional support is there for children for whom the absence from school has been a real struggle because they may have had to deal with a tense and unhappy home environment. We need to be there most for them.”

Lesson 3: Children are adaptable

“Children do need to make rapid progress. When we had children back after June 1, we could see with the younger children that they had regressed and we needed to focus on English and maths to get them back up. (But) we found that they recovered quite quickly.

“We are having to change the balance of teaching and learning this term – if it means a little bit less art but more English and maths we will need to do that in the short term.

“With our Reception children, we have found that they have adapted to the new classroom layouts really well. They each have their own desk, which pre-lockdown would have seemed a very strange approach. The circumstances require it, but they are in fact really enjoying it.”

Lesson 4: One for all, all for one

“We’re thinking much more now about the sharing of resources and knowledge across our trust. We don’t dictate to each of our schools how they teach English, for example, but there is a lot to be said for schools helping each other out with resources. If those materials already exist elsewhere within the trust it makes sense that schools should share. It cuts work and helps to build links between our schools. This is especially useful when preparing programmes of online work which we may have to switch into at some stage during the year.”

Lesson 5: CPD matters more than ever

CPD has in many ways become more relevant to us since coronavirus hit,” Mr Cross explained. “It is integral to our response to the challenges we face and it brings schools together at a time when we need to be working with each other and supporting each other much more closely.”

The trust will be running CPD sessions across all schools every Wednesday during term-time, including National Professional Qualifications for middle and senior leadership.

This menu of activities includes core training in areas such as safeguarding, behaviour management and coaching and programmes for aspiring curriculum or pastoral leaders. The programmes are delivered face-to-face or online by teachers and leaders from across the trust’s schools.

Mr Cross added: “Through professional development like this, networks of like-minded professionals soon emerge and become a powerful group for creative thinking and sharing of best practice.”

Lesson 6: A leading role for online learning

With the Department for Education (DfE, 2020) guidance now emphasising the need for schools to prepare for a switch to online learning if classes need to be sent home in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak, King’s Group Academies has created a new position of digital learning lead.

Mr Cross explained: “Jo Davis is our new digital learning lead who has been in post since July. Her role will be to lead on the technical and teaching and learning aspects of online learning, making sure that we are ready to switch into an online curriculum quickly and seamlessly as soon as we need to.”

  • Yvonne Gandy is programme director of the National Professional Qualifications at Best Practice Network, which supports Outstanding Leaders Partnership to deliver four NPQ programmes for school leaders. Apply before September 16 at www.bestpracticenet.co.uk or www.outstandingleaders.org

Further information & resources

DfE: Guidance for full opening: Schools, last updated August 28: https://bit.ly/38tdOfd

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