Covid has shown independent schools just how nimble they can be
Independent schools' ability to move fast and decisively has worked to their advantage in the pandemic, writes IAPS chief executive Chris King
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, lives have been lost and people have suffered both economically and emotionally for an extended period. So, in writing about the potential positives of the pandemic for school leadership, I would never wish to underplay Covid’s devastating impact. However, necessity, as they say, has been the mother of invention — or at least positive intervention.
Let me explain.
The speed with which lockdown and school closure was imposed on us left education leaders reeling in the first few days after they were told to close their doors to pupils.The senior team at IAPS immediately began responding to calls for guidance on what heads and schools should be doing. In truth, many were not seeking a steer so much as wanting to be told what they must do and how best they should do it.
It was interesting to note, in early March and for some time after, a good number of heads defaulted to the DfE helpline, only to find they often received unclear, invariably incomplete and sometimes contradictory guidance. From an early stage, IAPS stressed that what came from the government was just “guidance” and what we could offer was similarly designed for senior leaders to take and apply to their own setting and circumstances.
"A few felt they could not act, wanting advice to be definitive."
It was fascinating to see how some heads got it straight away. Some had a clear idea of what they wanted to do and perhaps only sense-checked with us that they were not going to fall foul of the school inspectorate or indeed the new Coronavirus Act. It was also true that a few felt they could not act, wanted advice to be definitive and to cross-check with multiple sources before gaining confidence to take action.
In recent years schools had set up working groups, governor/staff planning groups and education committees with the intention of considering the merits and demerits, possibilities and pitfalls of offering online learning.
In the early spring, schools found that, out of necessity, they had to progress their plans at such a rate they advanced further in two weeks than they had in the previous two years. Zoom, Teams and Google Meet were terms which became instantly recognised and widely understood and, from a faltering start, schools built confidence in staff, pupils and, crucially, for future economic stability, in parents.
Heads and senior leaders were taking swift, decisive decisions on how to progress this. Even when they found if things didn’t quite work out the first time, they could make changes equally swiftly without the need for lengthy preliminary consultations, so long as the right decisions were being taken.
IAPS is now moving towards 100 editions of our newsletter, “Headlines”, offering advice on how to manage schools in the time of Covid-19. In these newsletters and in our virtual meetings with heads we have been stressing the fact that as independent school heads they have the ability to act decisively in the best interests of their pupils and school community without waiting to be told what to do by government or indeed a teaching union.
"There is great joy in knowing you have the authority to act boldly."
The great debate as the summer term went past was this: could prep and junior schools in IAPS’ membership reopen to multiple year groups? Our advice was very clear, that they could under a robust risk assessment, with the acceptance of their insurers and following clear communication to parents.
We didn’t tell them what the right answer was for their setting and some had been so successful with delivering the whole curriculum online they decided to stay closed and continue with that. For some it was right to open and they did so with great success and without any case of coronavirus being reported from any IAPS school. Unsurprisingly, confidence grew in the staff and parent body and schools are in a stronger position as they reopen in September for the term ahead.
I believe they are also better placed because many independent school heads have a new well-placed confidence in their ability to act as their school title says “independently”. There is great responsibility in being the head of an independent school but there is great joy in knowing you have the authority to act boldly, positively, nimbly in the best interests of the school community.
Some heads knew this already but some have either been reminded it is so and are refreshed. Others have only really just discovered it and will be better leaders as a result.
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