'Government has put school leaders in the firing line'

School leaders are under unsustainable pressure at the moment. The government needs to take action now, says James Bowen

James Bowen

Mental health and wellbeing: School leaders are under unsustainable pressure amid the coronavirus crisis, warns James Bowen

The list of qualities required to be a successful school leader is a long one. However, right at the top of that list would surely be: resilience, a thick skin and boundless energy.

It is fair to say that, over the past six months, each of these leadership traits has been tested to its limits. 

The pressure on school leaders since March has been immense. Not only have they had to interpret and implement ever-changing government guidance, but they have also had to act as the focal point in their school communities. 

In times of great uncertainty, people look to their leaders for direction and reassurance. Virtually overnight, leaders were expected to become experts in virology: to provide clarity and coherence when everything around them was uncertain and unclear.   

Coronavirus: School leaders left without support

Against this backdrop, too often government has simply stepped back and expected school leaders to step into the firing line without the information or support they have deserved

The eleventh-hour announcement on face coverings just before schools returned serves as a perfect example. Rather than providing clarity, the government obfuscated and passed the responsibility over to school leaders. This placed them in an invidious position. School leaders’ expertise lies in the field of education, and yet they were suddenly expected to know enough about the efficacy of face coverings to determine whether or not they should be mandating them in their schools, and to field the inevitable myriad questions that followed.

Despite the fact that school leaders spent a significant proportion of the summer preparing for a full reopening, the first few weeks of the new term have provided no let-up in the pressure that they’ve found themselves under. 

The complete and obvious failure of the national test and trace infrastructure is already putting these leaders in an impossible position, where they have pupils and staff with Covid-like symptoms having to wait days to find out whether or not it is actually a positive case

On top of this, school leaders are trying to support members of their community who understandably have a wide range of different views about how they should be responding. 

One thing is very clear when it comes to Covid-19: everyone has a view and no one is indifferent. 

One of the certainties of leadership is that you can’t please all the people all the time, but this term that has come into sharper focus than ever, as leaders try to navigate an environment where some feel they are being over-cautious, while others are equally adamant that they are not being cautious enough.

Fears for school leaders' wellbeing

A quick scroll through social media gives you a sense of the pressure school leaders are under at the moment. I was struck by one recent tweet from a headteacher, who said his job was now basically just “dealing with Covid”. Another questioned whether this pace was sustainable. 

Given the situation they are facing, I think we should be genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of school leaders. At NAHT, we have already seen a worrying increase in the number of members getting in touch to ask about leaving the profession early. 

Perhaps some of the pressure leaders are facing at the moment is unavoidable, and maybe even inevitable given the national crisis that we find ourselves in the middle of.

However, there are a number of things the government could easily do to begin to slightly relieve just a little of the pressure school leaders are under – to allow them to focus on the immediate and enormous task in hand.  

How the government could help

Of course, the most obvious thing the government needs to do is to quickly address the issue of Covid-19 testing. The whole return-to-school plan was predicated on there being an effective testing system in place – it is now obvious to all that we currently do not have such a system. The government should not underestimate the pressure the testing chaos is putting school leaders under. 

While fixing the national Covid testing system is a task that goes beyond the Department for Education, there are a number of things the department could do relatively quickly. For example, the DfE could quickly confirm that there will be no performance tables next year. We are only a few weeks into the new term, and it is already quite obvious that school-to-school comparisons or league tables based on data from this year would be entirely meaningless.

Furthermore, it should stop talking about a full return to inspection in the spring term. Given the experience of the past few weeks, the suggestion that inspectors should be going into schools and grading them against the standard inspection framework in January is increasingly losing credibility. Do they really think that curriculum deep-dives will be helpful – or even possible – this winter?  

Government could also start taking the wellbeing of school leaders more seriously. At the very least, that would mean a commitment to no more late-night or weekend publications of school guidance, and perhaps an attempt to give at least a few hours’ notice of major policy changes, so that leaders don’t find themselves trying to field questions from parents without access to the detailed guidance that underpins such changes.

In reality, even these measures will probably not in themselves be enough, and we cannot wait for government to act. Now, more than ever, we need everyone in schools to look out for each other; to have each other’s backs. This will go for school leaders, too, who will need to look out for colleagues who might be going through a particularly hard time.

There is a centuries-old quote that feels more relevant today than it has ever been, and it is one we should perhaps all keep in mind: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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