The following article comes from Headteacher Mark Chatley, who shares his experience of leading his school through a pandemic.

In February, leaders across the country – and in fact the world – all brought with them different levels of skill, expertise and experience. Whether these made you a good communicator, problem-solver or visionary, when 20th March came along, it was a complete leveller. Regardless of what had come before, all leaders were suddenly plunged onto a level playing field. Never before had any of us had to deal with the complexities and ever-changing nature of a global pandemic and a new virus. We all suddenly had the same feeling as the child in the class experiencing fractions for the first time! What do we do? How do we do it? Where can I go for help?

As leaders, we were faced with something we had not experienced. There is much written about the importance of transferable skills, or generic/domain general skills. Whilst these are important, perhaps even more important is the Domain Specific Knowledge. Until you have had to deal with a specific challenge, you are unlikely to be able to solve the problem as well as you may like. This isn’t your fault! As Matthew Evans says, “Leaders don’t bring skills to the task, they develop fluid execution through repeated application of domain-specific knowledge”[1] (pg 37). In the case of the pandemic, there was no domain specific knowledge for us to draw on – we were all learning and experiencing it in real time which posed many problems.

In order to draw on expertise, networking has never been more important. In different areas of the country and with different local authorities came different experiences. Talking to and asking advice of leaders in different circumstances helped to provide some of that domain specific knowledge needed to make informed decisions. Accessing information from a wide range of sources is invaluable and helps you to feel more confident in what actions need to be taken. There are too many examples of this to mention, but if you haven’t already, then Simon Kidwell and Dan Thomas’ Coronacasts which have run (and continue to) weekly since the start of the pandemic have been great sources of knowledge and information, including regular slots from Dr Matt Butler who has been involved in fighting the virus on the front line. It has highlighted that knowledge really is power.

Now we are nearly eight months through, and having experienced full lockdown, partial opening and full opening of schools, what have I learnt about leadership in a pandemic? Here goes:

1. Be honest

Since the start of lockdown, we took the approach at my school to be honest with each other and the community. If we didn’t know, we said we don’t know. If we made a mistake, we said sorry. These simple things have gone a long way in building long-standing trust in our decisions so that when we do share information, all stakeholders believe and follow what we say.

2. Only worry about what you can control

Risk assessments, plans, advice and guidance. There is so much to think about and so much to plan for. However, you have to accept that however good your plan and however robust your risk assessments, you will always be victim to the human factor. There is nothing you can do about what happens outside of your school. It’s important not to allow this to take up any of your thinking space.

3. Over communicate

More information is better than less. Hearing something twice is better than not hearing it all. All stakeholders like to know what is going on – even if there is no news to tell! Engage all stakeholders with your communication so that they feel connected with you and the decisions you make.

4. Keep networks open and share

There is so much to do that collaboration is more important than ever. Whether it be a risk assessment template, a track changes document of the latest DfE guidance (which is somehow outside of their ability!) or a teaching and learning resource, if you can share it or borrow it, then do it! If you can save someone five minutes, or relieve a bit of cognitive pressure then it will be gratefully received. Similarly, don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to!

5. Build a strong team and delegate

You can’t do everything! Make sure you share out the workload with your team and be clear about the areas of responsibility. Ideally, as has happened in my school, you want the team to step in and step up to take the load off when there is an update or risk assessment to be written.

6. Always keep the main thing the main thing!

Since September, the role of leaders in my school has been to remove or find ways around the barriers to learning to allow the teachers to do what they do best – teach! The less they are worried about or focused on COVID related issues, the better they will teach the children. This has to be the focus of leaders if any ‘catch-up’ is to be successful.

7. Be kind and have a laugh

Times are tough – patience can be tested and anxieties can be high. It is more important now than ever to be kind to each other. It doesn’t take much, but makes the world of difference. It’s also important to remember that we are in a great job and work with fantastic individuals. For many, the laugh in the staff room, the joke in the playground or the conversation across a socially distanced classroom is what makes the day for people.

8. Take time for you!

Leadership in a pandemic is a full-time job! It has extended even further with the test and trace where now you need to be on call every hour of every day, ready to take action if the dreaded email hits the inbox. In times like these, your own wellbeing as a leader is paramount. You can’t pour from an empty cup and so if you are to work effectively, you need to make sure you are in the right space both physically and mentally to do so. Build in time for you to ‘switch off’ and do things that are not school related.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. We have been through a period of tough times and there are undoubtedly more ahead. However, if the last eight months have shown us anything, it is that schools and the people that work in them are incredibly important and the work that they do positively impacts whole communities. In the coming months, leadership will be tested again, but one thing is clear – we will continue to rise to the challenge together.

[1] Evans, M (2019) Leaders with Substance: An Antidote to Leadership Genericism in Schools pg 37, John Catt Publisher


Mark Chatley

I’m a Headteacher at Palace Wood Primary School in Maidstone, Kent and have been since September 2015.

I have a passion for reading and researching to find new, different or better ways to improve the chances for the children at the school, and I do my best to instil the same with my staff. I’ve enjoyed my journey so far and am happy to still be learning.

I’ve tried to capture my thoughts through my blogs at Learning Headteacher.

Follow Mark on Twitter – @MrMChatley

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