Grinding Out the Miles: leading in this next phase of school lockdown.

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This will be a summer term that we will never forget.

Two years ago I wrote a blog on leading in the ultra-busy Terms 5-6. It mused on the all the stuff which traditionally fills our summer terms and feels very important.

Until it suddenly isn’t.

Because this summer term is not like any other that we have seen before or will likely see again. Should we avoid personal or family tragedy (sadly not the case for all), then this summer will be one which we never forget. 

So having written about summers’ past, and more recently about planning and starting the lockdown, here are my thoughts on what we as school leaders should consider as the lockdown wears on.

1. Run the mile you are in.

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For fun, I like to run Ultramarathons, which are typically (for me) between 50 miles and 100km long, taking anything between 9 and 16 hours dependant on the terrain.

The first few miles are easy: you’re fresh and ready.

The next few miles are exciting: they are harder but the adrenaline is pumping and you’re up for the challenge.

The rest of the miles (about another 8 hours of running): alternate between manic confidence, pain and utter despair.

Trying to visualise running another 30 miles when you’ve already exhausted is soul destroying.

So as an Ultra-runner you don’t: you just run the mile you’re in. You never project backwards to what has been before. You never think about the miles you have ahead of you. Instead you put one foot in front of the other and run the mile you’re in. At some point it will be over, but that point is not right now and therefore you don’t think about it.

And so, I believe, this is how we must think about the lockdown and provision in our schools. With so much uncertain, we must control the things we can control and let go of worrying about the things we can’t.

At some point this will end. But that point is not now. So we must run the mile we’re in.

2. Plans for budget setting might need to change.

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Most of us are currently preparing to finalise our budgets. I suspect a lot of us (although not all) will have a little more money to play with this coming financial year as (prior to all this) it looked like school budgets were finally on the up after a decade of under-funding.

But I have a nagging feeling that this may not last in the way which was promised before the crisis. Currently the government is spending over 1 BILLION POUNDS A DAY propping up the economy and we will all be paying this back for years to come.

So I may need to leave a little more in reserve than I had planned when it looked like year-on-year increases were guaranteed.

Likewise, whilst I can’t know the exact additional provision which is needed once my school is allowed children again, it is clear that my SDP will need to look different than my four year strategic plan initially suggested. I don’t yet know how I’ll plug the gaping holes in children’s knowledge and skills left by months of missed school. Nor do I know the psychological scars that will need treating in staff, parents and children alike. What I do know is that, even when schools are operating ‘normally’, things will not be normal and we will need to work very hard to get the children back to the place (emotionally and academically) that they once were.

So put some money aside in your budget for this – £10,000 would not be an unreasonable figure (although I suspect it will end up costing far more).

3. Revisit your safeguarding processes.

My school’s safeguarding arrangements for this crisis were drawn up in about an hour. More guidance has since been published and our Closure Safeguarding document was completed within a week. 

However I think most of us would describe this safeguarding situation as ‘less than ideal’.

So now is the time to run checks on all the safeguarding processes which we hurriedly put in place before Easter. Ideally get someone from outside your school to audit your processes (ideally your Trust or LA) and learn from what others are doing in their settings. It is almost certain that we will all have gaps in these systems and we must do all we can to make them as robust as possible and our children as safe as possible.

4. Show leadership and hope in your community

“It sounds like you’ve become the defacto community vicar!”, observed my Mum, herself a retired primary school teacher. This isn’t a bad analogy for how my work has changed over the last month. 

Now more than ever we have been called upon to become the voice of continuity and normality in what can seem  a strange and frightening new world. It has always been the case that we as Heads made the weather in our individual schools, but now we have to conjure this trick in the wider community. Videoed assemblies, story times, the weekly newsletter etc might seem unimportant to a school without children attending, but I believe that the positivity we exude and the sense of continuity which we have the power to create, can have an enormous impact on our families well-being. Indeed, small things can have a big impact. Our staff have taken to videoing daily bedtime stories. This week a parent confided to a staff member that, during a particular low point, they all sat on the bed and watched one of these stories. They said the sound of a familiar voice reading to them soothed not only their children, but the grown ups as well.

Now more than ever we must be visible within our communities. So keep videoing those assemblies, keep recording bedtime stories. Be that soothing voice in your community.

5. Get innovating with methods of CPD.

It appears that my staff are starting to get into a place where they have enough headspace to think not only of the essential work linked to home schooling (which is taking everyone a lot longer then the hour a day that we originally set aside for this) but to start thinking about how to develop themselves during the lockdown.

Lots of universities and organisations have made their courses available for free and there has been a spontaneous uptake in staff choosing to take these online courses. Indeed, I think this has been more powerful and successful because staff have chosen to do this and haven’t been directed to do so.

Some CPD has been made an expectation: we provided a book on the principles of instruction for each of the staff to read prior to the lockdown, and to make reflection notes to discuss when we can finally all meet again. However, even here staff have often asked if the school would pay for extra books that they are keen to read (something which we’re very happy to do) and we have decided that a personal study budget might be worth costing, so such things can perhaps be part of our CPD offer going forward.

We have also had to think creatively how to complete CPD which was planned before the lockdown. Suddenly Webinars, Video conferences and ‘Google Hangouts’ are now a thing! We are currently re-designing our curriculum and my staff and Lighting Up Learning are holding virtual planning sessions and training events in a way which is probably more efficient than the face to face events of the past.

Crisis drives innovation and we must look at what new learning will come out of this situation which may prove to be better than the traditional approaches which we have used in the past.

6. Look for talent.

Something else which has struck me during this extraordinary closure, is noticing talent and innovation in places where (to my shame) I had previously missed.

My Staff have all surprised me with the depth and speed of innovation and creativity as they grapple to provide learning remotely.

I can only conclude that the reason that this talent hasn’t been visible to me in the passed is because I have stifled it. Not deliberately. But in a headlong rush to implement the next thing, I have missed the blossoming talent which I am now seeing when people are left to get on with a project unhindered by a headteacher hovering over their shoulder.

This is not to say that staff can do what they like – each has clear projects to work on which fit the school’s strategic goals. But giving people the space to develop ideas has unlocked previously hidden leadership talent. And this is something I must nurture and develop more deliberately when this is all over.

7. Talk to your governors – and agree their role.

I am lucky enough to have very supportive governors who consider my well-being alongside their role as critical friend.

However, I have heard some horror stories from fellow Heads who, alongside trying to manage a crisis on a scale which is unprecedented, are having to manage governors who seem blissfully unaware of the workload and heavy burden which this responsibly brings.

Governors may feel unsure themselves about their role during this time and this may lead them to overcompensate and make demands which are unreasonable.

We have agreed a weekly zoom meeting between myself and the Chair to keep him in the loop about the current situation, along with some essential video meetings with the finance committee and full governing body to agree the budget. I will not be writing Headteachers’ reports against the OFSTED headings like I usually do, although I will be updating policies etc where I have the time to do so.

By agreeing what we and the governors will and won’t do during this extraordinary period will manage expectations for both parties and make communication clearer.

8. Consider HR issues, including scenarios linked to the crisis.

As well as budget setting, this is traditionally the season where HR and recruitment are priorities.

We will all be considering how to appoint new teachers and support staff when we can’t see them teach, or even have them sat in the same room! For me, the key here is local intelligence (recommendations from local schools about student teachers etc); a very rigorous reference process which includes a conversation with the headteacher providing it; and as much info as possible that can be gleaned about the candidate’s outcomes and attitude. And having a great attitude to teaching is going to be key when we eventually start to rebuild.

In addition to this, we must plan for scenarios when may or may not happen. It is possible that all those staff who are currently socially shielding may have to keep themselves isolated for many months to come. If this is the case then schools may have to go back to full opening without a number of key staff. Although this isn’t yet clear, we all need to think about how we will cover these absences if we need to.

9. Buy whoever is sorting out the Free School Meal Vouchers a big bottle of wine.

Because anyone who has tried to use the Edenred website deserves a knighthood.

10. Don’t try to run these miles alone.

A wise person once said “Everyone gets the luxury of having an opinion, but only the leader carries the burden of having to make the decision.”

This has never been more true than it is now.

Many of the decisions which we have to make (not least linked to safeguarding and which children should be allowed to come into school) have required the wisdom of Solomon. We are constantly in uncharted territory having to make the best decisions we can with the limited information available to us.

If we aren’t careful and don’t take steps to make sure that we stay networked with our colleague headteachers, this could be a very lonely time.

So whether it be zoom meetings or a phone call, keep in touch with others in the same boat. Indeed, if you are lucky enough to be well connected, think about others who might not be and give them a call.

Nobody needs to do this on their own.

So there is it. This will one day be over. But today is not that day.

Ultramarathon runners call it ‘relentless forward progress’ – the act of willing one step in front of the other until the distance is covered.

So for now we will grind out those miles. Not looking forward to a future which is unknown and not looking back on the road behind us. We will live in the moment. We will enjoy the sun shining and those small daily joys.

And one day this will all be over. And we will feel proud of the difference we have made.

One thought on “Grinding Out the Miles: leading in this next phase of school lockdown.

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