Unprecedented…. a word that like many of us I am sure, I had hardly heard used until recently. Indeed, we all find ourselves in unprecedented times and one that certainly wasn’t even mentioned (along with the words ‘global pandemic’!) at the time I agreed to take on Chair of our board two years ago. Yet here we all are, trying to navigate our way through unprecedented times. Undertaking strategic conversations and supporting decisions around things I certainly would not have believed until only recently, all united in our passionate concern about our children in our schools, our staff and our communities.
And this time is so incredibly difficult for us all. For our school leaders, the way they are leading is simply remarkable. As both a governor and trustee, I have heard directly from schools in how difficult it has been and continues to be, how the day to day changes frequently and the way they work has been turned upside down. Importantly I have also heard how colleagues have, both as a team and as a school community are supporting one another during this crisis.
On the Key’s podcast this week, Professor Barry Carpenter was interviewed. I have had the absolute privilege of working with Barry on numerous occasions, and to hear him speak so knowledgeably, and compassionately about the profession was incredibly moving. Barry warmly talks about how teaching has a lot of emotional leadership attached to it, and how teachers simply cannot deliver teaching today without reaching for their humanity. I would suggest the same is also true for us all who sit on governing boards.
The past few weeks we have rapidly changed the way we work in order to provide the very best support and compassionate leadership to our schools. We have held meetings virtually (oh my- the ‘test’ ones were interesting!) and from my own perspective, our board have all responded so incredibly well to grappling with new technologies and also adapting to the way meetings needed to be run. I have spoken at length with senior leaders, providing what I hope has been support- whether that be watching the daily updates on BBC when they were coming thick and fast around pending school closures together, to hearing and discussing the considered approaches which placed the well being of pupils and staff at the heart of every decision subsequently made.
Laura McInerney in the Guardian wrote an incredible piece today which highlighted the role schools have in their communities. ‘Within two days’, she writes,
‘Head Teachers went from running an ordinary school, to organising a virtual school, a childcare centre and a food delivery service. They had two days to turn it around. Education was never the sole focus of schools, and its a shame it has taken a pandemic to prove it’.
What Laura also raised in her article was how the well being of school leaders is ‘no one’s main concern’. I would challenge this. As Chair, the well being of our senior leaders is my main concern, a concern that is shared across our whole board. As trustees we have found ourselves over the past few weeks inputting and heartbreakingly signing off on bereavement policies, in readiness for the tragedy of some of our community possibly not coming back. We have held virtual meetings where, through our conversations we have been visibly brought to tears together, but in spite of all this we have also stepped up, leading and strengthening our faith in one another, our decisions and being there when it matters.
In the podcast, Barry discusses the importance of compassionate leadership, and how this is a key construct to leadership. It is this compassion that fundamentally informs judgement based around the ethos of our MAT.
So, the question is, how do we create cultures where schools can deliver compassionate care, cultures of compassion? Well, in order to nurture cultures of compassion, I would suggest we are all responsible for culture. Every interaction by every individual every day, shapes or nurtures our culture within the MAT. As leaders, we collectively play an important role, and never more so than during these times of crisis. What we are paying attention to as governors, and what we are prioritising is demonstrating what is valued within our schools. The full implications of school closures can wait until we return to some sort of normality.
We need to ensure that collectively as leaders we embody compassion in our leadership, and that also means in our behaviours. We know that teaching is a relationship-based profession, and that this time away from pupils is so incredibly hard. We recognise as governors that our staff know each of their children’s strengths, their motivations, their areas to develop and their friendship groups. They know those families who need the extra help and encouragement and as governors we collectively and compassionately thank them all for the efforts they are going to, to ensure they are supported.
Barry highlights that if we consider our children of today, they are dealing fundamentally with loss through this pandemic. Loss of routine, loss of structure, loss of friendships (my children frequently share the highlight of their day is the daily lunchtime virtual chats with their classmates) and loss of opportunity (particularly at our secondary schools who are battling with the examinations process dramatically being turned upside down). For our children with SEND this can also be magnified and I know governor colleagues, and SEND link governors are asking those fundamental questions around support and provision. As a Chair I know our conversations with leaders also begin with those of safeguarding- how are we supporting our vulnerable pupils? How are we checking in on pupils who are staying at home? What is the take up of free school meals?
A fantastic resource that I looked up immediately after the podcast episode was that of the Book beyond Words series. Beyond Words is a charity that provides books and training to support young people who find pictures easier to understand than words. The resources empower people through pictures, and there are some brilliant free resources that can be downloaded to support children through the coronavirus pandemic. I thoroughly recommend you check these out and look at how they can be used during and post this crisis, not just for children with SEND, but as an informative tool to support all.
As governors we all recognise that at the moment business is not ‘as usual’ . I am sure all our discussions are focused around three main areas; safeguarding as mentioned above, along with health and safety (social distance measures, first aid, cleaning, protection for our children and staff) and well being. I have to say, I am so incredibly proud to be Chair of our governing board. We have seen governors calling around closed establishments securing hand santizer, others just offering support to one another, looking after the well being of those governing, and those of our staff and asking fundamental questions such as ‘what support does our Head Teacher and staff need, how are staff adapting to working remotely?. I have introduced weekly updates to the board to ensure they are able to review these updates with the impact of the ‘closure’ on issues related to their link role or committee in the forthcoming weeks and months.
I want to finish this blog with this. As someone in governance, I want to say to all schools is that I think what you all do ordinarily on a day to day basis is amazing, but I also know what you are doing right now is so incredibly brave, because you are helping to keep others safe by supporting their children and you are ensuring our future. Thank you to you, and all those who are working tirelessly in governance to support you. The NGA recently launched their ‘Visible Governance’ campaign, and never has there been a more important time for us to step up in governance, and support our senior leaders as we continue to face these unprecedented times.
Stay safe x
Key links that you may find helpful….
- The Key Podcast- Key Voices #55
- Books Beyond Words https://booksbeyondwords.co.uk/
- Professor Barry Carpenter https://barrycarpentereducation.com/about/
Key Questions for school governors to ask:
- How is our Head Teacher doing? What support does he/she need?
- How is our school making sure vulnerable pupils are kept safe?
- How are we checking on pupils who are staying at home?
- Do staff have any concerns around pupils that may not be classed specifically as ‘vulnerable’
- Do all staff have the resources to work from home? What support do they need?
- How is our Chair communicating with us as governors?