I have never been prouder to work in education than now

Extraordinary examples of schools showing civic leadership in the coronavirus crisis are appearing all the time

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The deep social changes that have happened in the last week to limit the spread of Covid-19 are unprecedented in our lifetime. The civic role of schools and trusts, which I’ve been talking about for the last few months, has suddenly come to the fore in ways that I could never have expected.

We can now be in no doubt that schools and trusts are civic structures. They are taking their place alongside other civic structures to organise a local response. The civic leadership we have seen from schools and trusts in the last week has been extraordinary and widespread.

Mass school closures could have had the effect of collapsing the NHS leading to a substantial civic crisis on top of a public health emergency. Mass closure of schools would have a huge impact on the response and would mean that many parents – frontline workers essential to the Covid-19 response – could not work. The impact of this would have been huge.

Instead, from Monday morning, we saw schools opening their doors to the children of key workers essential to the Covid-19 response, and to the most vulnerable children and young people who are safest in an educational setting. 

The principle that we are all working to is that if children can stay safely at home, they should, to limit the chance of the virus spreading. The government is asking parents to keep their children at home, wherever possible – schools will remain open only for those children who absolutely need to attend. And this message appears to have got through successfully.

The government has rightly said those who work in and with our schools rightly take their place next to our NHS staff and other critical workers as central to our efforts in battling this virus.

School and trust leaders around the country are taking the lead in supporting families through this difficult time. They are making efforts to meet the unprecedented challenges.

In CST’s Civic Trusts’ Framework document, we outlined five principles for maximising civic impact. We’re revisiting these now, in these extraordinary circumstances in the midst of the national and global pandemic, and have reduced them to three. 

1. Civic work has the most impact when it is delivered in partnership with other civic actors

This seems really important at this moment of national crisis. Schools and trusts will need to be working closely with local authorities – and with each other. There will be areas of disagreement – this dialogue is crucial to working out the best way to keep people safe. We are all working at break-neck speed.

The only way we will get this right is to follow the best medical and scientific evidence. We cannot do what we have always done, and as contrary to our instincts as it seems, we will now need to ensure that the best evidence determines our plans and the local response. 

I have suggested that our work to set up local hubs should follow two main principles:

• The principle of ‘continuity of care’ for the most vulnerable is paramount. We cannot have a situation where already frightened children are now being asked to be cared for by adults with whom they have no relationship.  

• The equally important principle of keeping children and adults safe through physical distancing. Hubs cannot and must not have the effect of creating greater physical proximity in the form of larger gatherings.

2. It should be designed around local circumstances

Local circumstances will differ. Context matters hugely at the moment. We will be working in complex environments where collaboration is vital to the national effort. Trust leaders will be working with local authorities as civic partners to co-ordinate local provision.

3. The response should be appropriate to the scale and the strengths of the school or trust

Trusts are perhaps the most resilient of school structures. Larger trusts with the capacity to build system resilience are already stepping up to do so. Local authorities should be using the resilience of trusts as part of their local co-ordination. 

There will, of course, be a "new normal" at some point – a point at which we can take stock. And of course, there will be an end to the pandemic.

For now, we are seeing new and extraordinary forms of civic leadership emerge in our time of greatest need. I have never been more proud to serve in education than I am at this moment.

Leora Cruddas is the chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts

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