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Crisis management: the art of the possible

The function of policy is to set out parameters within which operational delivery can reasonably be managed, sanctioned and supported.

This week’s government announcements and DfE guidance have provoked something of a crisis for education, as a result of putting political gestures ahead of democratic process – and more problematically, ahead of any meaningful reality check.

Pundits, bloggers and voices of reason are actively examining the detail of the proposals and broadly achieving agreement on the defects and risks within the Prime Minister’s improvised scenario for economic re-opening.

School leaders – even the most resilient – are struggling to grapple with the stress of addressing guidance for schools that is frankly unworkable; the devil is in the detail – operational detail of course should not generally be any business of policy-makers.

Unions are understandably angered at the lack of consultation with them over the health and well-being issues for members at every level of school staffing. A rare consensus and unity has resulted in a TUC statement (here) which responds in measured terms to the government, but also exposes the serious risk of a confrontation at a time when cooperation is needed.

Parents – and children of course – are bemused, confused and concerned.

The central issue is simple: the decision making on school provision in this situation should be collective and local, rather than directive and central.

In broad terms, the DfE approach, prioritising early years and younger children, is seriously flawed in terms of manageability and in terms of pedagogy. It is absurd to compare with the situation in Denmark, where school begins at a later stage and there is evidence of a much diminished experience. The BBC report describes a very different situation there.

So here is a suggested guide to crisis management – a crisis not of our making, but one in which we share responsibility for offering solutions.

The earlier blog ‘Opening up a can of worms’, written in response to DfE announcements includes some advice which we hope will be helpful. This piece adds to those headlines for planning with specific patterns for gradual school provision change-management over the next three months.

While it may seem prescriptive, the aim is to offer professional food for thought. We would want to encourage all of our schools to show leadership by making judgements appropriate to your own learning community.

Principle 1: uniformity is not appropriate or possible

A single pattern of transition from current arrangements is simply unrealistic, just as the interim measures for online learning and work to support vulnerable children has inevitably been uneven.

Principle 2: empower rather than disable leadership

The school system we know is based on arrangements for governance at local (maintained sector) or group level (academy trusts).

The government must accept that these bodies take responsibility seriously. Governing Boards must be given full delegated responsibilty for developing a change-management plan to set out how they propose to transition from the current crisis arrangements to a wider provision, where it is possible and safe to do so.

Principle 3: identify and share best practice

Ofsted has been a sleeping giant during these last two months. Now there is an opportunity for the inspectorate to identify positive models of education provision across different phases and in different contexts.

By taking a lead in sharing these case studies, Ofsted will demonstrate its original core purpose of supporting school improvement and educational quality and will contribute to the education landscape for the future.

Principle 4: recognise learner development needs

The misguided focus on early years has thrown everyone, being driven by economic return-to-work priorities rather than educational need.

The key age groups are those rapidly advancing towards significant points of learning transition: this should be the driving consideration which links with the need to recognise how best to use constrained capacity and identify arrangements at local level to use this to best effect.

Principle 5: develop collective capacity & cooperation

It is simply bizarre to suggest that major national effort goes into the tail end of a school year in disarray. Instead, look forward and identify key groups and the capacity which will best support their next stage of learning.

Alternative models need to be considered, for example:

  • Year 6: advance pupils to Year 7 transition in secondary settings.
  • Year 10: provide structured GCSE briefings and supervised work plans
  • Year 12/13: arrange a mix of online seminars and individual tutorials

These three groups of pupils could well provide the key to progressively unlocking further provision in carefully managed stages over the next 3-4 months. This also factors in some flexibility and the opportunity to monitor the impact in terms of learning gain and the balance of risks in terms of health.

For secondary schools, this engages use of accommodation which is otherwise held back from going into service; the age and maturity of some of their students can serve to highlight the model for young citizens of 2020.

For primary schools, the transfer of Y6 would create the opportunity to work on a similar cascade process for Y5<Y6 induction before the summer.

Infant schools or early years/KS1 settings are particularly hard pressed by the inappropriate pressure on them to resume teaching in the next few weeks. By freeing them from the YR, Y1 imposition, they should be able to work on planning which uses the same principles: simple induction for a new intake in September, working in small groups for short sessions, which offer both a more caring experience and the practicality of preparing the setting in terms of safety and hygiene during changeover.

This will involve local partnerships between primary, secondary and SEND provisions, that may require some negotiated flexibility of staffing – also offering valuable cross-phase professional partnership and development. Inevitably, arrangements will almost certainly need to be staggered or phased in groupings or cohorts which can safely be provided for.

Beyond suggesting this as an alternative set of priorities within a more explicitly devolved DfE strategy, we would reiterate that any version of provision is for schools to determine at local level. Some will have good argument that this model is also flawed in various ways; equally, there may be some situations where the judgement is that early years re-integration of greater numbers is both desirable and possible. It is for you to decide.

Principle 6: underwrite school funding deficits this year

Head teachers, Governors and learning communities have put their heart and soul into supporting society as we all face the challenges of the CoVid19 pandemic.

In addition, they are part of the wider community, which has seen personal bereavement – the loss of friends and family. They are not immune to the strains seen in the health service, where their fellow professionals have gone over and above the call of duty, with completely inadequate support.

Schools deserve to be given the same considerations as the government has extended to the business community, with grants, furlough funding and other systems to ensure there is something left at the end of this episode.

Treat schools no less favourably: underwrite school in-year deficits for 2020, placing a cap on the total amount or percentage, if necessary. Providing this reassurance will go a long way to supporting a more constructive and successful approach to change management.

The art of the possible, not the art of political gesture

It is time to think ahead: schools are places of routine, security and consistency and crisis management is not what we want to do.

Leadership at national level has shown a failure of collective ability, leading to crisis management, a divided and polarised society and ushering in a model of brash directives and bravura diktat, as if there were no choice.

We need to face an uncertain future with a return to a collective leadership: the education service and the education profession are in a good place to demonstrate that we still have the confidence to do things differently.

Over to you.

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