Has there ever been a harder time to be a leader?
Well, in the field I know best – education – the answer is, emphatically, no.
The last major crisis that interrupted education to this scale was the Second World War, which wreaked far greater devastation overall than Covid has.
This ongoing "war at home", though, has the potential to have a longer-term impact on how we educate our young people and how we lead school communities.
Flashback to March 2020: Educators' extraordinary initial responses to Covid
A general or a conductor? The art of school leadership
It feels very much like we are currently existing in a bit of a "middle place" between the early months of true crisis, when there was a bit of a "Blitz spirit", and a true ending to the pandemic – if indeed an ending is even possible.
So, how does it feel to be a leader in these times of flux?
Pretty discombobulating, I imagine.
This academic year was meant to be better – easier than last year, at least – yet school leaders are faced with a bewildering array of operational challenges.
On top of fighting the escalating fires a pandemic brings, school leaders are also faced with leading a war on two fronts as expectations from politicians, government bodies and parents grow exponentially.
School leaders are routinely being told to get back to "business as usual" and face incredulous questioning on why there has been such an impact on academic attainment, or why a nebulous schedule of extracurricular activities can’t immediately resume.
I can only imagine that the lips of leaders are bitten down to the muscle.
Part of the frustration for school leaders is that if you haven’t existed within the altered state of the current school system then you don’t have a full grasp of the complexities and extraordinary strains that are inherent in even keeping schools open and safe during an unrelenting pandemic.
From the outside looking in, it must seem confusing that so much of life has gone back to relative normality, and yet such tight restrictions and pressures constrain and constrict our schools. Those on the inside and the outside often look at our school system from very different stances.
So, what can be done to bring some cohesion back to our views of what we should expect of our schools – and how best can we support our schools and school leaders?
1. Building coalition
The best thing that leaders can do for themselves and for their school communities at this time is, in my view, to actively seek to build coalition: a coalition of understanding, shared expectations and mutual empathy.
Only by explicitly (and repeatedly) sharing with the wider community the opportunities and challenges leaders and schools are currently facing will leaders build greater understanding and empathy outside the school gates.
This is extra work in the short term but will pay dividends by reducing tensions and bringing greater clarity, dispersing some of the fog of war produced by this ongoing crisis.
2. Communicating the ‘cans and cannots’
One simple arrow school leaders have in their quiver is to communicate in simple terms what their school can and cannot do in these current circumstances.
In any crisis, especially one that has rumbled on for 18 months, people crave clarity from their leaders.
People may well disagree with your published list of "cans and cannots", but at least there are shared expectations and a starting point for constructive dialogue as you strive to expand that coalition mentioned above.
3. Simplify, simplify, simplify
I have heard simplification described as one of the key skills of the 21st century, and I would concur.
Leaders in education must be the "head of simplification" for their school. I would argue this should be a permanent, tenured position in any well-functioning organisation, but it is an especially vital role in the current crisis.
Simplifying the priorities, expectations and operations – as far as is possible and practicable within their control – would make life on the front line easier for leaders and, crucially, for those they lead.
4. Don’t drink the sea
Part of this crucial process of simplification is limiting the scope of our ambitions to meet the moment, which is understandable – but don’t try to "drink the sea".
It is tempting to imagine that we can return to pre-pandemic ways of working and set aspirational goals for ourselves, our learners and our organisations. However, overly optimistic improvement planning is counterproductive at this time and risks derailing the core business schools are already straining to deliver.
Delivering the most relevant curriculum offer and highest quality learning, teaching and assessment practices must be the priorities of our schools as we head into an uncertain winter.
5. Defining your surge capacity
The notion of a "surge capacity" is deeply understood and embedded in many systems across the globe, where it is not seen as a sign of weakness or organisational failure but, rather, as a planning tool that protects systems and, ultimately, people.
Yet, this notion is far from familiar in the field of education.
Why? Is it because education is a statutory service and an entitlement?
Perhaps, but access to free healthcare is a right that is highly cherished across the UK and other countries with nationalised healthcare systems, so why do we have surge capacity in our beloved NHS but not in our education system?
This winter may be the time for leaders at all levels in education to define the surge capacity for their schools, their services and, crucially, for themselves.
Leaders across the system also have a role in having this discussion in public and in a transparent way, so that decision makers at national level are informed of the needs of those on the front line of education services and feel pressure to take action.
6. Taming the flux
None of these inner or outer conflicts is easy for school leaders – and great challenges still lie ahead while they do their best to win the daily operational and strategic battles, which are intensifying in this dizzying time of flux.
So, as they prepare for the unavoidable challenges ahead, school leaders must do all they can to tame the flux for themselves and their communities this winter.
And those of us on the outside looking in must play our part, too, working in coalition to defeat the seemingly indefatigable enemy of Covid, to achieve the best possible education for all our learners this winter.
Kevin Brack is a senior teaching fellow in educational leadership and a former primary school headteacher, based in Scotland.
This piece was originally published as a post on his blog.