Headteachers may not know when schools will fully re-open. But that hasn’t stopped Stephen Waldron, thinking hard about what life after lockdown might look like.
Little could have prepared headteacher Stephen Waldron for the challenge of responding to the pandemic, of that he is quite clear.
The pandemic has presented schools with a unique and very challenging set of circumstances, from how to teach pupils when they are closed to how to fully reopen them safely.
But a course he did at Ambition Institute prepared him, in some ways, for the challenge of responding to a crisis, he says.
Future Leaders is, and does, what it says on the tin: it prepares ambitious, senior school leaders for the challenge of actually running a school in challenging circumstances.
Those challenges are myriad and complex and few are under any illusion that you can become a great headteacher overnight. That can take years of real-life, hands-on experience.
But one of the key things the Future Leaders programme does, and which Stephen says is helping him as his secondary school in west London prepares to reopen, is to identify the persistent problems all headteachers face and suggest ways of dealing with them.
For example, Stephen, who is Principal at Hewens College, said he “remembers fondly” how staff on the programme helped him build up his personal resilience – one of four types of “knowledge” the course teaches you.
“We were doing some crisis-scenario training. We had to do role play with Ambition staff who were pretending to be aggrieved parents or disengaged staff members in a particular crisis scenario.
“I had to convince them to work with me for the sake of the pupils. It gave me an insight into what type of approach elicited the best response from them and also raised my awareness of how my own perspective and views might shape those conversations. It was invaluable and couldn’t be more topical now.”
"I had to convince them to work with me for the sake of the pupils. It gave me an insight into what type of approach elicited the best response from them and also raised my awareness of how my own perspective and views might shape those conversations. It was invaluable and couldn’t be more topical now."
The programme develops its participants' “mental models”, which can be defined as what people know and how that knowledge is used to guide action.
Types of “knowledge”, according to the programme, are fourfold: formal knowledge, such as an academic qualification; informal, such as what you’ve learned day to day from working in schools; impressionistic, that is, what you know about others and the impressions you’ve formed about them; and self-regulatory, which refers to how we manage ourselves in our job.
For Stephen, although the programme has changed greatly since he did in 2011, it was the learning around this fourth element, self-regulatory knowledge, that he found particularly useful – then and now.
Being resilient will be critical to the successful reopening of schools, he says.
Immediate health and safety concerns aside, teachers will face challenges ranging from a widened learning gap between well-off and poorer pupils to newly-qualified teachers starting their teaching career having missed out on much of the time they’d normally spend in the classroom during training because of the lockdown.
And he is concerned that some people are under the false impression that things will return automatically to how they were before.
He said: “My concern is that some people think of schools like they’re a boiling kettle: we’ve temporarily pulled out the plug, but if we were to switch the power back on, it will go back to boiling as it was before.
“This isn’t the case with the current crisis; months of learning will have been lost.”
"My concern is that some people think of schools like they’re a boiling kettle: we’ve temporarily pulled out the plug, but if we were to switch the power back on, it will go back to boiling as it was before. This isn’t the case with the current crisis; months of learning will have been lost."
His school is in the heart of London and fully reflects its cultural and economic diversity. Of the 410 students, 70% are classed as speaking English as a second language and some entered the country as asylum seekers and now have refugee status.
In March 2019, two months before he joined, it was rated by Ofsted as requiring Improvement.
Since then the staff and pupils have made great progress, he said. “I’m really proud of how far we’ve come in just a year,” he added.
The 53-year-old, who has worked in schools across England and in the United Arab Emirates, said the nature of his job requires him to “always be ready to deal with a crisis”.
Faced with the challenges of making up for lost learning and ensuring other negative impacts of the crisis are mitigated, he sees having his Future Leaders training to fall back on as “invaluable”.