Leadership during Covid-19: Filtering out the noise

Leadership during Covid-19: Filtering out the noise

This article was originally published on Headteacher Update.

Cutting out the background noise and acting only on the facts has been headteacher Richard Middlebrook’s mantra since the coronavirus lockdown started. Yvonne Gandy explains.

There is a time for heads to be “distributed leaders”, giving colleagues the space to lead on their respective areas. But when the fire alarm sounds then there are also times to make clear decisions and deliver instructions in a calm and reassuring way.

That was Richard Middlebrook’s experience when Alsager School in Cheshire went into lockdown at the end of March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m a firm believer in distributed leadership and trusting staff to do their jobs,” he explained. “I have experts on curriculum, pastoral work and assessment data and I’m always guided by their recommendations because they are the experts in those areas. But when the lockdown was announced I realised that I had to be more directive and give people very clear roles.”

And it will be the same approach, he says, when the lockdown is lifted – whenever that will be.

“I think schools will re-open in some form in the summer,” he said. “What form that will take we do not know as yet. It is still not clear how social distancing will be managed in a classroom, for example.”

Those practical questions will have to be solved once the re-opening timetable is clear and the government has issued its instructions.

Until then, Mr Middlebrook and his team are keeping learning ticking along, delivering a full programme of online learning via learning platforms and email, with teachers in regular contact with pupils.

Mr Middlebrook has found the deluge of information about the lockdown to be a major problem. Filtering out the noise and focusing on what staff need to know has been one of his major priorities over the past few weeks and will remain so for the rest of the lockdown.

“One of the issues I have had with government bodies, local authority and the media is the sheer volume of information that has come through. A lot of it has been guesswork and opinion and hasn’t helped schools – 80 per cent of it can be ignored,” he said.

“I’ve been pretty ruthless in filtering it out. I think it is important to focus on actual facts that impact on safeguarding and the health and safety of our staff and pupils.”

He continued: “The problem with this information deluge is that for less experienced leaders they may feel that they have to be across everything that is coming in, as well as constantly scanning Twitter and other social media channels, and the media. I think this might be driven by a fear of missing something important that they may be held accountable for later. That is an understandable reaction, but I think we need to make professional judgement calls and focus on what is most important at the moment: what concrete information is coming in that has a direct impact on pupil and staff health and welfare? The rest is noise.

“There was speculation about assessment and now the focus is on the nature of a return to schooling. My advice to staff has been to ignore the speculation – when we know concrete facts about how this is going to work then we will act on that. Until then we shouldn’t. It is important that we don’t expend time and effort on making arrangements or developing policy based on speculation.”

Mr Middlebrook believes that the current lockdown will leave a lasting legacy for the way his school and the wider trust is run in the future.

“I think people will use online video-conferencing a lot more,” he said. “We are one of 40 Maths Hubs around the country and we cover the whole of Cheshire and the Wirral. I am often on the road to Wirral for a one-hour hub meeting with other heads, but we have decided that we will be using Zoom for this from now on. It will save time, travel costs and help us to become sustainable.”

He also hopes that the lockdown will help to refocus attitudes about the purpose of education.

“I think it will help us all – staff, parents, the wider community – to focus more on what education is about, which is caring and developing young people. For some time, the focus has been on performance measures such as league tables, Ofsted and Progress 8. These are still very important, of course, because a high-performing school and academic results open doors for young people, but I do think that there will be a greater understanding of the role of schools as caring environments and an appreciation that they should promote pupil wellbeing more strongly in the future.”

Yvonne Gandy is programme director of the National Professional Qualifications at Best Practice Network, which supports Outstanding Leaders Partnership to deliver four NPQ programmes for school leaders. NPQ scholarship funding is now available to eligible schools. Apply before May 22 for an autumn 2020 start.