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The school leaders Covid dilemma: ‘With limited power comes great responsibility’ (as Spiderman didn’t quite say)

In normal times, the English education system runs on the principle that schools and school leaders are given the freedom to make and take action and are then held accountable for the impact of their actions. Our Head Teachers are among the most accountable in the world. There are multiple levers – Ofsted, performance tables, RSC / LA intervention powers – all are part of a system which allows judgement to be made and consequences, good and bad, to be felt. Underpinning the system is the fact that the Head Teachers and governors are subject to statutory responsibilities, and in extreme cases, could suffer legal sanctions.

Challenging as this may be, there’s a logic to it – compared to many systems, there is a higher level of school autonomy for school leaders in England. Head Teachers make important decisions about curriculum, staffing and budget that they wouldn’t have the authority to do elsewhere. They can decide the style of pedagogy they will promote, the structure of the day, the behaviour policy and many other things that, in theory, give them the levers to bring about effective change. We may argue about the balance, and there is undoubtedly a heavy accountability pressure, but there is also power and agency.

This delicate balance has been completely upset by the events of the last few weeks. Schools, and Head Teachers in particular, have been given a huge responsibility – the responsibility to begin opening their schools safely to an increasing number of children. They have to decide how to organize their teaching groups, how to deploy staff, how to maintain a safe environment. They need to maintain distance learning for most pupils while staffing a significant increase in face to face teaching.

Ultimately, they have the absolute responsibility to keep their community safe, whilst at the same time opening schools up to greater risk and maintaining a high standard of education. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that they are now potentially making life or death decisions.

The problem is that despite having this accountability, despite bearing the full responsibility if their staff and students walk into a potentially unsafe situation, they have not been given the agency or autonomy to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

They are responding to a bewildering series of government instructions, many delivered at the last minute or contradicting a previous announcement. You will deliver education to these specific year groups, from this date. You will organize your classes in this way. This will be your approach to social distancing, PPE, school meals, First Aid. The diktats come thick and fast, from people who don’t know the school site, the community, the staff profile – all hugely relevant factors. Detailed planning is essential, but plans are often rendered completely redundant when a new 11th-hour announcement turns things upside-down.

Meanwhile, it is very clear that accountability has not gone away. Head Teachers and school governors remain answerable for the consequences of decisions with which they may totally disagree. Unions (quite legitimately) provide challenge to Head Teachers, as the people who carry the formal legal responsibility. It can be tough carrying the can for the impact of our own decisions – it’s really unfair to do it for someone else’s.

The irony is that by following this path, the objectives that the government hope to achieve are actually undermined. By not trusting Heads to make the best decision for their local context, in consultation with staff and local community, they take away their ability to find creative ways of achieving the outcome that everyone wants.

I believe that the objectives are clear and sharted by almost all – to open schools to pupils as soon as it is safe to do so. School leaders recognise the role we play in ensuring that people can return to work, as well as the social and educational imperatives in opening schools more widely. We do not want to frustrate or undermine this ambition. This may involve a gradual process, possibly part-time, with a mix of year groups. It may need groups of schools to share capacity, it may require prioritising certain groups of pupils, or areas of learning. Schools should be required to liaise with their LA in designing their approach, then publish their plans on their website, together with a rationale explaining why they are following this path. That’s how true accountability works.

We need good and clear advice from government, as much relevant information as possible, and as soon as it is available. We need support to procure equipment, we need model policies , checklists and risk assessment – all the things that will inform good planning and implementation. We need government to work closely with stakeholders, including trade unions, local authorities and parents groups That is the support that will help us bring pupils back, not put obstacles in our way.

Then, please let us get on with the job – if we’re to be held to account, then trust us to make the right decisions.

By Dr Heery

I'm the Executive Principal of the White Hills Park Trust, a current Ofsted Lead Inspector, former Head of both primary and secondary schools, and a former LA School Improvement Adviser, as well as being a practising teacher. I am interested in schools and school systems built on generous collaboration, collective responsibility and strong values.

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