Caroline Callie, Teach First Achievement Partner
Caroline Caille
Achievement Partner for Programme Delivery

Notes on a pandemic: How to think strategically

Our Achievement Partners (APs) work with school leaders to support their development. As schools reopen, AP Caroline shares her learnings on strategic planning.

When is school leadership not a challenge? Probably never is the easy answer. Adding a pandemic to the mix adds a colossal entry to the list of problems school leaders face in their roles. It’s the challenge that makes the job interesting and I have been impressed by the way leaders have risen to this new, unprecedented challenge over the course of the last year.

The challenges of leading digitally

School leadership is all about relationships. You can be a genius with data and spreadsheets, timetables and policies, but if you’re not a people person you are probably in the wrong job. And this is where COVID-19 has made life particularly difficult. Getting people together, sharing ideas, working through different scenarios as you wait for the next Downing Street briefing, has had to happen virtually.

Just like most of the working population, school staff had never heard of Zoom, Teams or Google Meet before March 2020, but they’re all experts now. While strategic planning probably took a backseat during the first lockdown, which we thought was going to be all over by Easter, it didn’t take leaders long to start planning ahead. Virtual meetings became the norm, so staff meetings, senior leadership meetings and catch-ups all got going very quickly.

There are some positives to this way of working. There’s the opportunity to be flexible with timings. Meetings tend to start and end promptly. Presentations can be recorded and watched at a time to suit. But I expect most meetings will go back to face-to-face as soon as they’re allowed.

A pandemic is never predictable

The biggest challenge to strategic planning is timing. Leaders know exactly what they need to do, and what they want to implement or change - but deciding whether this is the right time to do it is difficult. For example, not knowing how long remote education will go on for makes it hard to review your curriculum. What gets delivered in the classroom is not the same as the remote provision that schools are working so hard to deliver right now, meaning inevitable gaps in learning will start to appear. Schools will need time to assess where each child is in their learning before planning an effective curriculum to meet these needs. It is unlikely to look like the curriculum schools had in place in February 2020.

The virtues and vices of a virtual world

The leaders I have been working with are all very much looking forward to schools getting back to normal, but many have also found that some of their new ways of working will stick. The time saved by virtual assemblies is incredible, so more time in the classroom and less time getting in and out of the school hall makes this something to maintain, at least in part. Leaders have been telling me that relationships with parents are very positive. In some cases, there is a significant increase in contact with parents. Of course, those incidental conversations you have in the Primary playground are gone. But perhaps those “hard to reach” parents will now respond better to texts and emails.

Something that I have become increasingly aware of over the last year is some leaders and teachers’ inability to switch off in a virtual world. Many are now starting to address this, encouraging staff to set up out of hours messages for their emails, and muting WhatsApp work chat notifications. For those leaders shielding at home this is a particularly big problem. They are already feeling guilty (which they shouldn’t) about not being in school and so tend to compensate by being available at all hours. Getting the balance right was a challenge for leaders pre-COVID, so it isn’t really something new, but it has become worse.

Strategic planning means being responsive to change

Working in education is a great career. Being a headteacher is an amazing job. But it has to be manageable. So spending some strategic planning time in making sure that all staff are getting their work life balance right is critical.

This is the time to do it. Schools are re-opening and as far as they can they are trying to get back to normal. School leaders will be having to manage a range of emotions and anxieties among their staff, pupils, and parents. They will be focusing on the logistics of getting everyone back in, managing bubbles, and all the procedures they had in place last September.

But at the same time, they know they have to plan for the next academic year and beyond. Is their carefully planned curriculum still fit for purpose? Will there be any staffing issues? How can we support everyone’s wellbeing? Are we Ofsted ready? Does my SEF make sense after lockdown? There is a real danger that the to do list becomes overwhelming. Managing their own work life balance, prioritising and accepting that the best laid plans can be derailed at any time are all essential requirements of a successful leader.


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