WOW: Leading a primary school through lockdown

WOW: Leading a primary school through lockdown

This article was originally published on Headteacher Update.

Leading a primary school through the lockdown has had its fair share of challenges for executive principal Sophie Murfin. She speaks to Yvonne Gandy about how this period has triggered changes that will continue when normal service eventually resumes

School leaders are an optimistic, forward-thinking lot who tend to see the positive in even the most challenging situations.

Sophie Murfin, executive principal at the Wise Owl Trust, is one of them. She leads a growing multi-academy trust formed in 2012 which is currently made up of three primary academies, each serving very disadvantaged neighbourhoods in east Manchester.

When the pandemic lockdown hit in late March, “the rug was pulled from beneath our feet”.

“It’s been a very challenging time, but it has also been a very rewarding and optimistic time,” Ms Murfin explained. “We’ve worked together to cope with these massive changes, and it will change some aspects of what we do in the future.”

The trust had developed its own WOW – Wise Owl Wellbeing – strategy (see further information) before the lockdown, which focuses on building children’s minds, bodies and character.

  • Under minds, it looks at issues such as mental health, including Mental Health First Aiders, self-regulation and mindfulness.
  • Under body, it looks at nutrition, basic first aid, the changing body, health and prevention, body image and peer pressure, and drugs, smoking and alcohol.
  • Under character, it looks at how key skills are incorporated into the curriculum and school life, including resilience, empathy, self-awareness, positivity, excellence, communication, teamwork,

Like many, Ms Murfin believes that wellbeing will be an even greater priority for children – and staff – as her schools gradually return to normal.

“We’ve always had a big focus on the wellbeing of our staff and children,” she said. “During the lockdown, we bought a mindfulness programme that all of our staff can take part in on a weekly basis online. It’s entirely optional but it has had good take-up and the feedback has been really good.”

This mindfulness programme will also form part of a recovery curriculum for the children devised by the Wise Owl team. As well as supporting children to make up any lost time in core subjects, the curriculum will also help them focus on their wellbeing and understand their feelings about the upheaval they are experiencing.

The drastic changes wrought by the pandemic has also led Ms Murfin to reflect on the pace of her own working life, and how technology can play a part in saving time.

“I usually run around at about 130 miles per hour but I’ve realised that you do not need to do everything straight away and that there are some tasks that can wait until tomorrow – as long as you act on the priorities and urgent matters first,” she explained.

“We’ve used Zoom a lot in the past few months to the point that I feel like I have Zoom fatigue, but we have found it to be useful and it will have its place in our schools for the foreseeable future.

“It’s made us think about technology as a working tool in a serious way for the first time. Video-conferencing will give us back some time, especially for things like senior leadership team meetings, because we simply don’t need to make as many journeys between our school sites. It also means that it does not really matter where our HR and finance back office colleagues work – they don’t have to be in a central office anymore because they can work flexibly.”

Networking is also set to play a more prominent role in the future working of the trust. Ms Murfin has for some time been a regular attendee at district heads meetings and wants networking like this to be a more prominent part of her leadership life from now on.

“As a leader, you do often feel out on your own and the pressure has been particularly acute for many senior leaders in the last few months. That’s why being part of these wider networks is just so important,” she says.

“We need to speak to other leaders from outside our schools and trusts who can give us different perspectives on shared challenges – someone who understands the trials and tribulations you are going through.

“It’s been an opportunity to discuss a lot of the key problems we all face during these difficult times. Ensuring that we co-ordinate our re-openings has been one of the main issues that we’ve discussed.”

With most staff members working from home, Ms Murfin says that communications have been a major concern: “We spent a lot of time before the pandemic focusing on our communication as a team, moving away from relying so much on email and increasing the amount of face-to-face contact because it was valuable for team morale and the quality of our interactions.

“That, of course, changed with the shutdown, but it has made me think carefully about how we communicate in these circumstances. When you are face-to-face with a colleague it’s easier to read body language and the subtle messages this conveys: so we’ve had to be more thoughtful about what we say and how we say it so the real meaning of what we say is communicated.”

That approach seems to have worked for Ms Murfin and her colleagues: “In a way, we have actually got to know each other that little bit better since the lockdown,” she added.

“Colleagues see each other in their homes on video calls and I think that this helps them appreciate that everyone has their own lives with their own pressures. I think they appreciate each other that little bit more.”

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 still available to eligible schools – apply before July 24 for an autumn 2020 start.