5 lockdown shifts that can change the way we run schools

How the current crisis has created opportunities for powerful new approaches

Oli de Botton Headteacher, School 21

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Schools are not known for their pace of change. Between the tyranny of the timetable and the short recruitment window, major shifts are often limited to the first half of the summer term (right about now actually). But over the past few weeks schools have become hyper dynamic. During one weekend in March they split into two (onsite and virtual) and developed a host of new functions: voucher delivery, community builder, public information provider.

Schools are alive with change. And despite the grimness of the situation, there is a bolt of energy coursing through the virtual corridors.  Three things are accelerating fast:

  1. Decision making
  2. Leadership growth
  3. The desire to make the school as good as it can be when our community comes back together

So in some senses schools have more capacity to change now than they did before. Gone are the school improvement plans, reviews and SEFs, now the impetus to develop is being powered by an external crisis and a renewed sense of purpose. This is leading to five big shifts that should be hardwired in by the time we’re back:

Leadership is moving from control to trust.

The trust-control paradigm is a classic dilemma for Headteachers. Monitor too much and you quash autonomy; leave everyone alone and you get inconsistency. Either way staff leave. But in this situation there are no online learning walks or deep dives. And yet ‘accountability’ comes through transparency. Curriculums are online for all to see, parents are tuning in and asking questions. Standards might well be higher.

Schools are shifting their orientation from children to families.

I’m sure the best leaders had this insight before, but it is now clearer than ever that the context in which a child learns shapes their chances of success. Digital divides, food poverty, newly vulnerable parents who may have lost their jobs are all on the agenda at SLT meetings. As the crisis continues schools will need to be more socially engaged not less.

Output matters more than input (or learning is more important than teaching.)

Again this has always been true but when you are judging success but what children are actually producing, rather than how they might respond in class, there is a change of mindset. The often derided process of project based learning, with its emphasis on end products, is making a comeback. And if beautiful work becomes the currency in the virtual world, it will be hard to shake it when classrooms are full.

Individual planning is moving to team curation.

The days of individuals planning lessons for their class alone must be gone. In the virtual world teachers are working in teams to both produce high quality resources and curate the brilliant resources that are already out there. This blended approach is not only good for workload but must increase the quality of what is being offered.

A new wave of entrepreneurial leaders is emerging.

My experience at School 21 has been one of leaders, teachers and support stepping up and making things happen. Whether it’s crowdfunder initiatives, virtual classrooms, letter translation, onsite schooling. Much of this happened without anyone being asked. I am sure this has been replicated across the system and if sustained will be an incredible dynamic that can power schools forward.

At times of crisis leaders often reach for cliche to describe what’s going on. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ etc. But perhaps the best phrase is Hemmingway’s reference about bankruptcy happening ‘slowly then all at once’. This situation is accelerating change. The challenge for leaders is whether they can harness it for long term transformation.

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