A new era

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 116 | Autumn Term 2 2020

Professor Alma Harris from Swansea University highlights the emerging insights about school leadership within the Covid-19 educational landscape.

In just a matter of months, Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on life as we know it and, in particular, it has severely disrupted schooling all over the world. In many cases, it has redefined learning as a remote, screen-based activity, limiting most learners to online teacher support. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), approximately 1.6 billion young people have been out of school during this crisis. And for those schools that have opened in different parts of the world, the virus has presented significant challenges for education leaders to ensure a safe environment for all within them. 

However, despite these challenges and the current lack of research on how school leaders are responding to the pandemic, there are some emerging insights about leadership within this unprecedented educational landscape. Myself and my colleague Dr Michelle Jones, also from Swansea University, have published an article, ‘COVID-19 – School leadership in disruptive times’ (see https://bit.ly/2HY29fS) that provides, in detail, seven points for consideration and, possibly, in due course, empirical attention. 

Below is a summary of the points: 

  1. School leadership practices have changed substantially due to the pandemic and, as a result, school leadership has shifted on its axis and may not return to the way that it was for quite some time, if ever. Even so, the principles of good leadership still remain, such as having a clear vision, developing others, managing people and building capacity. The importance of context-responsive leadership has also been highlighted, implying that there has been a shift in school leadership practices because of the pandemic. 

  2. The pandemic has highlighted the need for new school leadership preparation and training programmes. Previous programmes developed before the crisis are now most likely irrelevant and not fit-for-purpose. Simply re-configuring or re-badging earlier programmes is therefore not an option. New programmes that fully and sufficiently encompass leadership skills, practices and actions suited to the current, and potentially ongoing, situation are now required. 

  3. School leaders need to take care of their own health and wellbeing and see that as a top priority. Leading a school through the challenges and changes that a pandemic brings with it requires school leaders who put their own self-care first so that they can then help others. Increasingly, leaders are managing the emotional responses of others to this crisis, including anxiety, frustration, loss and anger. 

  4. School leaders will increasingly need to be technologically savvy and well informed. The pandemic has generated huge commercial opportunism with pressures to buy technological solutions to modern-day problems. School leaders will need to think carefully about the digital products they choose and ensure they strike a good balance between technology and pedagogy in their school.

  5. Crisis management and change management are now considered essential skills of school leaders. Operating and running a school effectively in times of crises requires more than routine problem solving or the occasional firefighting. The pandemic has meant that school leaders now need to be engaged in constant crisis and change management with the support and backup of all staff. The rapid speed of change in this pandemic has been unprecedented, requiring a high level of trust from leaders towards staff, to ensure that any issues are addressed collectively.

  6. School leaders need to forge stronger and closer links with their school communities if they are to deal with the many issues that Covid-19 has generated, in particular to help the vulnerable, marginalised or isolated young people in their care.

  7. Distributed leadership has become the default leadership position in this crisis, requiring school leaders to connect, share, learn and network their way through any issues. Effective school leadership is now much more connected, collaborative, creative and responsive. Most school leaders will be running on empty given the countless challenges that the pandemic has created for them, so distributed leadership is necessary for them to survive.

New emerging leadership

It is clear that we are entering a new era in school leadership, one that will perhaps take over and overshadow all that has previously been written on the subject before. Prior to Covid-19, school leadership operated in a different context, within known parameters, with clear patterns and rhythms to the school year, with set terms and holidays, with clear lines of accountability and with a clear set of rules for exams, INSET days and, even, snow days. This health crisis has completely changed all that was before and unpredictability and uncertainly are now the new norm.

A new form of school leadership has emerged without any leadership standards, preparation or development programmes, inspection framework, key performance indicators (KPIs) or benchmarks. No precedents have yet been set for this new leadership and nor are their any blueprints to help leaders through the turbulence of this current pandemic.

We do not currently know what the full impact, effects and consequences of opening schools in the current pandemic will be but, in this time of turmoil where quick solutions are required in a fast-changing world, the priority must be the wellbeing of leaders, teachers, learners, parents and all stakeholders involved in the reopening of school life.

Leading a school in disruptive times means being able to navigate a different course, to create new pathways through the disruption. School leaders on this journey are defined by their determination, their hope and their unshakable belief that whatever happens, whatever the cost, whatever the scale of the challenge, they will continue to do everything in their power to safeguard the learning of all young people.

Further reading

Read Alma Harris & Michelle Jones’ 2020 publication; COVID-19 – School leadership in disruptive times, School Leadership & Management, here: https://bit.ly/2HY29fS

Professor Alma Harris
Deputy Head of School at the Swansea University School of Education

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