Coronavirus: Leadership in lockdown (Swansea)

Olchfa School, Swansea

Headteacher Hugh Davies reflects on the dramatic changes his school has experienced since the coronavirus outbreak forced everyone to think and act differently. 

These are strange and worrying times for sure. All of the things we have prioritised, or been forced to prioritise, in the past as school and college leaders have been thrown into sharp relief as we now grapple with the things that really matter: health, wellbeing, relationships, life itself.  

Life at Olchfa  has changed dramatically and quickly. I’ve never before felt such a strong sense of community, of connectedness, of purpose.  Yet all of it, for now at least, is happening at a distance. I  am only connected to my community remotely, for now.

I guess the priority has been to give clear direction and to reassure staff, pupils and parents along the way.  Regular, honest and empathetic communication has been the key.  There are some things that people have a right to know, especially when it relates to their own health and risk.  There are other things from which it is better to shield them.  This is not about hiding things.  It is about not burdening people with things that might never happen anyway. 

We are now operating an emergency childcare setting that is running successfully so far. Uptake is modest at the moment and staff are shielded from risk as much as is possible via a two-week rota and all of the usual measures around social distancing and deep cleaning.  This might change as we move forward.  Demand might increase and my staff are aware of that.  We will cross that bridge when it comes. 

As for learning, pupils have access to Google Classroom and are offered work, activities and feedback within a weekly timetable, by year group.  The expectation is that they will do about three hours of work a day.  We know, of course, that take up will be hugely variable and is influenced by all sorts of things including the level of support that pupils get at home and their connectivity capacity.

These are big issues and we all know that government is grappling with them.  Put bluntly, unless we are really careful here, the most motivated and supported learners will forge ahead and the more vulnerable will be left behind.  The way we are tackling it here is to ensure that, apart from Years 10 and 12, the ‘work’ we set for pupils is not linked to any form of syllabus content, but rather to their development as learners.  

A new way of learning
Teachers engage regularly and freely with learners but, for now, we have not gone too far down the road of direct online teaching in the form of webinars and the like. That might change. 

Some form tutors have taken to conducting a daily remote form session.  This seems to be working well where it has happened, although we have not made it a requirement so far.  I am thinking it might be a good idea for all.  We will see.  

Teachers have been told, clearly, that we expect them to be devoting about three hours a day to their direct interface with pupils and with learning.  This seems reasonable.  They also participate in running the childcare setting.  In many cases, they also have the business of looking after their own children as they do so.

Government would be wise, in my view, not to expect too much more of them.  Mental health and wellbeing is a fragile thing at a time like this and it is vital not to push staff over the edge.  It has been a real comfort to me that ASCL is supporting leaders resolutely here in resisting demands that are unrealistic or push staff too far, whilst at the same time supporting the broad aims outlined by government.

All of our staff here have been advised to be open to the idea that the very things that pupils might need to learn at this time are linked to the ‘threat’ itself: their worries, their perceptions, their idea of the world moving forward and their appreciation of how humanity has dealt over time with the disasters that have been thrown in its path.

Leading examples
One world leader who has attracted almost universal praise at this time has been Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. Her leadership ‘style’ has been analysed by academics specialising in leadership and management.  There are three essential components, apparently.  The first one is decisive and clear direction.  The second is transparency and integrity.  The third is empathy.  And so, she decided what New Zealand had to do, communicated that directly and honestly to the whole population and, crucially, showed empathy at every stage for what it would actually mean for peoples’ lives, given their own contexts, fears and uncertainties.

Subliminally, at least, I think I’ve been trying to do the same thing.  Let’s face it, in the end, the job of headship is to decide, based on all the available information, what the right and ethical thing is to do. When we have decided what that is, and in the full knowledge that new information or events might dictate a different approach a little way further along the line, then we communicate that, honestly and openly to our staff.  They will thank us for our candour, trust me.  Leadership is not about invincibility or having all the answers; it is about weighing and assessing options and deciding the best way forward.  Finally, always remember that there are people more frightened than you, or less. People more knowledgeable than you, or less.  People more resilient than you, or less.  Show all of them that you stand with them and empathise with what they may be feeling.  Who knows what their personal back story might be?

We’re into the fifth week of this now.  It seems like an age.  I feel exhausted some of the time, frightened at other times, challenged most of the time.  However, I do know what my role is, now more than ever: to try to provide clarity, direction, support and empathy at this most difficult of times.

Hugh Davies is Headteacher at Olchfa School, Swansea and Vice President of ASCL Cymru.
Posted: 22/04/2020 10:38:20