Tough Times do not last for ever-Tough teams do

Last weekend I was teaching the MBA in Executive Educational Management that I lead for the National College of Education and the University of Buckingham. The group is a diverse mix of MAT CEO, diocesan leaders of education, senior leaders in local authority and leaders of teaching school alliances. What became apparent as the weekend developed was the range of challenges and issues that were starting to circulate. Five days later, it feels like those challenges have exploded on to a new level and I wanted to share some reflections of how stunning our cadre of school and trust leaders have been.


Over the past ten days, social media has been a vibrant communication channel between leaders across the length and breadth of the country. The messages colleagues have put out have been inspiring, humbling and at times upsetting. I have been a school leader since 1995 and can remember as a head and CEO having to manage difficult moments in school such as 9/11 or the death of a staff member or pupil, but nothing I reflect on is as challenging as the scale of what we are facing at the moment.


Yet our leaders are stepping up! They are providing the compassion, guidance and support that their communities need and rely upon. They are sharing their strategies and ideas on-line and are behaving as true system leaders. As I sat to write this at 8 30am this morning, I see that Sir Steve Lancashire has made available on twitter all of the key planning documents that Reach 2 have developed for anyone who wants help to access. If you read my earlier blog about civic leadership this is it in action.


In normal times, and who knows if the future will be about a “new normal”, leaders were preoccupied with accountability and monitoring. The past week has been about food vouchers, vulnerable staff and families and a blurring of the lines between life at home as a parent and partner and life as a professional. Collaboration is alive and well and perhaps when this period has passed, we will see a new model of leadership that cares a bit less about accountability and testing and a bit more about community sustainability and regeneration.


Last evening, I sent a direct message on twitter to seven trust and school leaders who I regard as friends. Some are former colleagues and some I have met on my travels. I also care about them and wanted to check in with them to see how they are coping personally as they shoulder this responsibility at this moment in time. Here are some of the things they shared with me. If this is not leadership at its very best, then show me what is!


“Thanks David. It has been quite a day. I was in ASDA at 6am this morning and was about to buy each of my senior team a bunch of daffodils to thank them for being so great. However, I saw an 18-pack toilet roll so bought them one roll of loo paper each. It really is laugh or weep time.”


“I have a very small team of inexperienced heads in the trust and they are getting a real baptism of fire but stepping up to the plate with courage and optimism. It is a bizarre mix of the apocalyptic and the mundane.”


“Really appreciate you checking in. We have taken the decision to close on Friday for two weeks but will be open for key worker children. I will be telling staff tomorrow morning as I want them to understand that we are thinking of them. I feel better for taking the decision already. We have our shopping vouchers in envelopes ready to send and learning materials sorted for a month.”


“Had an events company in our area tonight agree to come every day we remain open and set up a gazebo and put on “proper” meals for £3 per head. Their business is collapsing so hopefully they survive and the kids get a decent meal.”


“The final piece in our jigsaw puzzle tonight is to have asked staff to volunteer for a two-hour slot to work with vulnerable children. Was overwhelmed but not surprised, by the response. Had to send home 3 pregnant staff and another who has had cancer treatment as they refused to isolate as they wanted to help. My job is to protect my staff and almost take the decision out of their hands as they care so much-and put themselves at risk.”


“We have decided to make BACS payments to FSM families as many live quite a distance from school and rural public transport could grind to a halt. They can then use their local shops.”


“We are sending funds direct to families as well. They can buy more with cash than vouchers and feed their families efficiently. These groups know how to make their money stretch and we should do what we can to make it easier for them. It might cause problems with financial audit down the line but I really don’t care!”


“8 out of 9 schools in the trust are still going to be open tomorrow but it really is a day at a time. Currently working out the logistics of providing meals from one school kitchen for all communities as the schools are so close.”


“Lots of our families do not understand how to use NHS 111 and need support with translating. Many parents have said they cannot afford to self-isolate and I am scared that this will tear apart our community, with poverty and overcrowding rife. Heads have been bloody amazing.”


So, there is it! A two-hour snapshot from last evening of what every leader across the country is dealing with. When you take on a leadership position in the education sector, and probably most public sectors, there is no cockpit manual to turn to when something on this scale happens. Your cockpit manual is you! Your values, your beliefs and your sensitivity chip linked firmly to your professional ability to assess risk, formulate a plan and get a team around you to implement it.


In this “worst of times” period we may look back in the future and say it was the watershed moment in the history of school leadership where the true value of our profession was recognised and noted for ever.


Sir David Carter

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