Why middle leaders are the unsung heroes during Covid

Pastoral and curriculum leaders have been keeping the education ship afloat during the pandemic, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Covid and schools: Middle leaders deserve our appreciation, says Yvonne Williams

To say that the past 15 months have been a testing time is an understatement. Throughout the pandemic, tribute has, quite rightly, been paid to heads for their unceasing efforts to keep schools running after every government U-turn and revelation of last-minute guidance. 

Teachers and support staff have more than played their part.

But the missing link that no one seems to have noticed is the middle management layer: the pastoral and curriculum leaders who have been keeping the education ship on course, whatever the challenges.

I will always remember being told that the senior leadership has the vision and the middle leaders deliver it. If, according to an oft-used analogy, they are in charge of the engine room, then they have more than fulfilled their job description. 

Middle leaders: Keeping school engines running during Covid

From the first lockdown onwards, subject leaders have maintained a ship with two engines, which run sometimes separately but more often concurrently. The first is the one that operates in the steady state: monitoring, leading teaching and learning – and all the resourcing that goes with it. 

There are engine updates every five years or so, when the government – for reasons best known to itself – decides that a qualifications overhaul is needed. It often seems that the engine has just settled down when a new model is underway. The masters in safer harbours are a quixotic lot, whose thinking goes in election cycles or whirlpools.

The second engine has often run alongside the first during 2020-2021. Entering largely uncharted waters, subject heads have steered their departments through the vicissitudes of online teaching, checking to see how it is all going and making adaptations to the schemes of work along the way.

What is so inspirational is their ongoing vision and capacity for discussion online, beyond their own classrooms and schools. During the recent lockdown, there was constant innovation, experimentation and evaluation of what worked and what didn’t, on EduTwitter and in education articles for Tes.

Much of this would have wavered without the intervention and support of heads of year, who were often instrumental in sustaining the more fragile students, phoning home and keeping in touch with parents and carers. 

The sheer number of pastoral emails and records needing to be kept has been a daunting task throughout. But these communication lines have been the necessary support for teachers and pupils, keeping the education engines going even in the harshest of times, especially as the most recent wave of infections was running so high.

Monitoring, lesson observations, book scrutinies – all still had to take place to serve the accountability framework. If anyone thought that teachers could be left to educate their charges in the pandemic without interference, they were mistaken. Ofsted was back on the scene and the tension rising. Middle leaders have had to keep auxiliary engine power in reserve for unannounced visits from the inspectorate.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: A difficult juggling act

There has been no let-up in the summer term. After last year’s centre-assessed grades controversy, the government made changes to this year’s qualifications, now dubbed teacher-assessed grades – TAGs. 

In advance of creating mini-exams and non-examined assessments, heads of department have had to contribute to the centre policy document with details of their processes and procedures. Some of the questions from exam boards have seemed designed for complete novices. The whole process seems intended to fend off opportunistic challenges or even legal processes should candidates wish to appeal – and limit exam board work, too. 

The production of assessment materials and evidence has been left to subject leaders to organise, so that all their students have the right combination of assignments to achieve the grade of which they are capable. It’s all been much more demanding this year, because Covid has affected individual students in different ways: some have missed more work than others.

For subject heads, it’s been a difficult juggling act, as they have had to balance support for students with maintaining objectivity of judgement when all the pieces roll in. Their job has been more than complicated by the expressed and unexpressed anxiety of parents and students. The timescale has been tighter than anything encountered before, and overcomplicated by the nature of quality assurance demanded by the exam boards. 

Yet all this time-consuming, nit-picking work – the lists of completed assignments all neatly cross-referenced to assessment objectives for each student, the carefully annotated marked pieces with reasons for final judgements included – will mostly lie unscrutinised as exam boards are allowed to sample, rather than check every candidate’s work. 

The contrast between the wide-ranging, all-embracing work and complex judgements undertaken by subject heads to enable TAGs to go ahead and the limited sampling conducted by exam boards really couldn’t be starker.

Perhaps what is most impressive of all is the fact that, even while steering a course through TAGs and online learning, coping with bubbles collapsing and being engulfed by parental emails, heads of department have kept the other aspects of their role ticking over. They have run school exams and open-day events either online or in person, marketed the school as they would do normally and fulfilled their pastoral role.

Some subject leaders will sail on beyond the exam season. Last summer, when some schools were expected to keep the curriculum afloat in the doldrums beyond centre-assessed grades, it was often the middle leaders who had the ingenuity and depth of subject expertise to stretch students beyond the repetition of the exam specifications, and to prepare them for the next stage. Exciting new courses were created: new schemes and materials were stored online ready to be used again. 

Pitched into the pandemic, middle leaders have shown their mettle, steering a steady course through constant shifts in government “guidance”. Their workload and responsibilities have often been buckling, yet still they have found deeper reserves to lift their subjects out of the doldrums and leave a lasting pedagogical legacy. 

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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