Reconnecting to the real purpose of school

Why we will need a different kind of leadership in the post-Covid world

Visiting Professor, University College London and Chair of the Teaching Awards Trust.

These are four personal and inter-connected reflections about how we might use the opportunity of the Covid-19 crisis to build an even better education system

1. Rethinking the purpose of school

Is it time to think again about what schools are for?   There is, indeed, some great on-line learning going on in homes throughout the land and we can perhaps learn from the very best of that on-line learning and use of technology when this is all over.  But we are really missing schools.  We miss schools not just for the chance for students to learn again through a well-taught face-to-face curriculum but also for all the other hugely positive aspects of school life.  Schools are so much more than organisations that exist to enable young people to pass examinations and tests, important though these are.   Schools connect us to a community of people.   For many young people they also provide a feeling of safety and security that perhaps they don’t get at home, a sense of order and expectations that may be lacking elsewhere.  For some students it may be the only place where they have a positive and valued relationship with a significant adult or a chance to spend time with a friend who likes them and values them.   Schools help us to explore possibilities – not just in classrooms with teachers – but in all other kinds of social interaction that take place during the school day.  They connect us with people who are not like us as well as with those who are like us -encouraging us to embrace diversity and to explore identity.   We miss schools for the humour, for the interaction, for the sense of belonging.   And of course, this applies to staff as well as to the young people.   My hope is that in the coming months and years we will have a new and deeper discussion about the purpose of schools, their value,  their place in our lives and the crucial role that schools play in our society.

2. Greater collaboration between schools

Can we have a renewed focus on working together in the interests of all children?

Twenty years ago, relatively well-resourced and well-run local authorities would have excelled during a lockdown like this. They would have been seeking out vulnerable children and providing targeted support, bringing police, social workers, local charities and schools together in the interests of children, co-ordinating hubs for support, providing advice to schools on health and safety and employment issues, developing agreed ways of working across a local area or local community, addressing the needs of families and their children in a joined-up way, etc, etc. This is still happening in some places, but many local authorities have struggled to do this now, mainly due to lack of resources and capacity. But it has been great to see some of the best multi-academy trusts step up to provide this kind of support, working collaboratively with the local authority and with other trusts. The lesson, surely, is that schools that are isolated cannot easily function well in times of crisis and that there is great power and potential in collaboration at local level. When we come out of lock-down we need to recommit to the idea that schools are not isolated units but are part of a wider community. In a speech in 2006, I defined system leaders as “a new kind of leader who wants to work beyond their school, and with more than one school at a time, to benefit the whole system. They have a strong sense of moral purpose which says that every child matters, irrespective of which school they attend”. My hope is that, as a result of this crisis, we will see even more system leaders – irrespective of the kind of school or trust they work for.

3. Collective responsibility instead of top down accountability

Can we have a renewed focus on collective responsibility rather than on top-down accountability?   For some time now I have been concerned about the top-down nature of our current high stakes accountability system.  It is fed by Ofsted and by the use of school performance tables and is used to make very significant judgements about the future of schools and the future of school leaders.  But, as a result of the pandemic, school performance tables and school inspection are unlikely for the next 12 months.   How is the system going to respond to this?   Are we going to take a collective sigh of relief that the pressure is off, with the result that complacency seeps in and, after a year’s break, there is a call for even greater top-down high stakes accountability?  Or will the profession use this time to create something even better?  Now is the time to focus not on top-down accountability but on our collective responsibility as educators to do well for our children and our community.  Not in a complacent or cosy way but in a robust way -setting out what we want to try to achieve, welcoming challenge, and then being willing to be held to account by the communities that we serve.

4. The need for “servant leadership”

Can we have an even greater focus on “servant leadership”?  Our leadership context over the next few months and years has changed significantly as a result of the pandemic.  We will be faced with austerity, unemployment, uncertainty, fear, bereavements and the impact of lockdown on the mental health of children and adults.  Servant leaders ask themselves not, “what kind of leader do I want to be?” but “what kind of leadership is wanted of me?”  None of us were taught how to lead in a pandemic and it isn’t on any leadership development program. There is no manual or operational procedure.  But what we can do is to think ourselves into our new context and the changing needs of our school communities and try to be the leaders that they need us to be.

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