Resilience, collaboration and the practice of ‘ordinary magic’

It’s time we embraced a civic approach to working together

CEO, Confederation of School Trusts

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some thoughts with Confederation of School Trusts (CST) members about how we might respond to the challenge of lockdown.

I reflected that resilience theory may help us. Resilience is a characteristic of all living systems. Living systems are purposeful, complex and adaptive. In resilience theory, systems operate at many different scales—ranging from individual cells, to higher organisms, to sophisticated communities, to entire ecosystems.

So, the thing that’s I’d keep – that schools have always done – is our capacity to build resilience. By this I mean the resilience of our children and young people, families, schools and communities.

I cited Ann Mastin, writing in The American Psychologist in 2001: “the study of resilience in development has overturned many negative assumptions and deficit-focused models about children growing up under the threat of disadvantage and adversity. The most surprising conclusion emerging from studies of these children is the ordinariness of resilience.” Her conclusion is that resilience is made of ordinary rather than extraordinary processes. She calls this ‘ordinary magic.’

Things to keep - the practice of ordinary magic

A question I posed to colleagues is how do we practice ‘ordinary magic’ in these extraordinary times? My response is that we harness the ‘ordinary magic’ of schools – strong, purposeful teaching; a planned curriculum; powerful welfare and pastoral systems.

As Russell Hobby says in his blog, it is very unlikely that everything will change. I think it is also undesirable.

We don’t need to layer complexity onto schools in the post-lockdown period. The important thing in some ways is to keep doing what we have always done – making good, thoughtful decisions in the messy complexity of life. The ‘ordinary magic’ of schools practiced in extraordinary times.

I’d also want to keep the new ways that we’re developing to build resilience during this period. Specifically, I’d want to keep the power of collaboration as a way of building system resilience. We’ve seen extraordinary feats of collaboration to set up the Oak National Academy and Starline.

Things to get rid of – what magic ring/s must we destroy?

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins must take a journey across Middle-earth, and throw the ring of the dark lord Suaron into the volcano at Mount Doom. What are the things that mesmerised us prior to the lockdown that we now see as largely irrelevant? What shibboleths do we need to get rid of?

I would suggest that we want to rid ourselves of the shibboleths of isolationism, distrust, fracture.

Sir Michael Barber reminds us in his blog about how the foundation for the 1944 Education Act was built in 1940, when London was being bombed almost every night, when France had been over-run by the Nazis, and when Hitler was planning an invasion of Britain. A new school system was designed for after the war. He invites us to find the time to build a better education system for the future.

We have seen during the lockdown the resilience of school trusts – groups of schools working together. They have been able to organise, deploy staff, deal with the infrastructure issues like estates and the policy framework to enable leaders to focus on what matters most. Over the next decade, we should work towards building a coherent and resilient system in which all schools are a part of a strong and sustainable group in a single governance structure.

And we need to embrace a civic approach to working together. School trusts are new civic structures. We have seen the very best of the system during lockdown where local government, schools and trusts have worked together not in a dependency relationship, but in civic partnership.

Things I miss – the mundane magic of human contact

Finally, the things I miss from pre-lockdown is the mundane magic of human contact. We have all learned to work via Zoom and Teams and Skype. This has been extraordinarily powerful. But I miss human contact.

One of the protective factors for personal resilience is our social connections. We have not lost these through the lockdown. In many cases, we have found ways to strengthen these through everyday acts of kindness, developing a common symbolic language – the rainbows of hope – and being part of our communities through, for example, clapping for the NHS. We have developed new ways of expressing the common good.

But I look forward to a time when we will meet again.

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