Constructing a new reality: leadership lessons from other times of crisis

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By Dr Madeleine Findon, Lecturer in Educational Leadership 
School of Education, University of Birmingham

“…society must ensure that educational leaders are supported to be crisis-responsive by providing the preparation, resources and support they need to ensure their settings survive, then thrive as we construct the new reality together.”

The longer the lockdown lasts, the further away a return to “normal” seems. Educational routines have been upended: every day for schools, colleges and nurseries up and down the country feels like a step into uncharted territory. Even if we reopen these settings this side of the summer break, we have no way of knowing what the reality that emerges from the rubble will be like.

Our closest comparator, the Spanish Flu pandemic was too far back to be of use in helping us to make sense of this crisis. But if we cast the net a bit wider, there are some recent examples of research into educational leadership from periods of conflict, natural disaster etc. that can provide us with some useful insights.

Hurricane Harvey 2017

Research into the experiences and actions of public school superintendents in relation to the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Texas coast in 2017. This storm displaced thousands of students, caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage to school buildings and precipitated an enormous school funding gap. In spite of the difference of circumstances, the research noted several themes that may sound familiar, including the surreal nature of crisis impact and unrealistic expectations for schools to be able to resume “normal operations”. The Texas Education Agency was felt to be out of touch with the crisis on the ground by focusing on meeting time requirements and making up lost days at a point when superintendents were still surveying the damage around them. Similar narratives around getting back to normal and making up for lost time seem to be a regular topic for commentators in the UK media, such as the suggestions made by the former Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw on Newsnight recently.

Kenyan Political Conflict 2007

A case study in a community school in Kenya, where conflict-affected children made up much of the school population. The school was particularly successful in retaining these pupils, who were highly vulnerable to exclusion, and the study looked at the leadership practices that had enabled this. The study highlighted the fact that inequalities impact children’s post-crisis education, inequalities that may have been exacerbated by the crisis itself. For example, internally displaced children in Kenya often struggle with daily survival and trauma, affecting their ability to learn and achieve. Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, has stated that the success UK schools have had in reducing the impact of poverty on attainment may now be undone by school closures. Concerningly, yet more children may now fall into poverty given the recent rise in unemployment figures recorded by the Office for National Statistics. The Kenyan school considered inclusive practices as fundamental to ensuring children’s recovery. Children returning to UK schools may be dealing with hunger, parental stress, fear of illness or the loss of loved ones, and be similarly in need of sensitive support and understanding of individual needs and challenges.

The two articles raise the following points for leadership both during and after a crisis:

Adaptability is essential and a trifecta of critical thinking skills, life experiences and learning are necessary to inform such decision-making;
Collaboration with wider networks and participatory leadership practices within schools are beneficial in terms leveraging the voices of those on the ground, finding creative responses and alleviating the pressure on individual leaders;
Local structures and concerns have significant impacts on leadership decisions for ensuring that crisis-responsive education works for the learners in each setting;
Consideration of the affective domain must form a part of crisis response: keeping spirits up during the crisis and dealing with the emotional impacts in the aftermath.

I hear these points echoed in so many of my recent conversations with leaders from schools and nurseries: these lessons validate the decisions so many of our leaders are already making. If history shows that education enables a society to rebuild itself after disaster, society must ensure that educational leaders are supported to be crisis-responsive by providing the preparation, resources and support they need to ensure their settings survive, then thrive as we construct the new reality together.

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