Unknown Unknowns

A phrase first coined in the military, VUCA is used to describe leading in a fluid and chaotic environment. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous perfectly captures the current social and education landscape we find ourselves in during this COVID19 period. Whilst we must accept that there are multiple factors that are outside our control and sphere of influence, we know that the time is right for leaders and organisations to consider the impact of this crisis, the big questions that we are grappling with and the green shoots of what could be done to tackle them.

On Thursday 23rd April I had the pleasure of joining an online Think Tank session organised by Tower Hamlets Education Partnership with Sir Kevan Collins, Dame Alison Peacock, Maggie Farrar, Sir Alasdair Macdonald, Tracy Smith and Alison Gawthrope. What follows are some of the observations of the challenges and potential opportunities for school leaders, their schools and the wider system over the coming days, months and years.

It was noted at the outset and conclusion of our call that What has been achieved by schools is nothing less than remarkable’. The leadership and moral purpose demonstrated by schools has cemented their place at the heart of their communities and their role as front-line services.

There have been significant challenges, all of which have been well documented, and the system has grown as a collaborative endeavour with leaders, schools, trusts and other organisations sharing resources and support at a time when it was needed most.

Some of the current challenges

The DfE has been dealing with the immediate challenges in front of them on an hour by hour and day by day basis. The most significant decisions about if, and when, schools may begin to emerge from the current lockdown arrangements are likely to be made by Public Health England and the cabinet. The education sector should not expect too much from the DfE in terms of leadership and therefore it is important that the system uses its collective agency, skills and experience to address some of the bigger challenges.

There is therefore, an even greater need for leadership at a local level with schools working in partnership with other agencies such as public health, social services, the police, and the wider local community including, crucially, parents. There are likely to be higher levels of trust when delivering local solutions. The importance of effective multi-agency working is more important than ever.

There is much anxiety and speculation about when and how schools will emerge from the current restrictions. This has not been helped by ongoing speculation in the media. What we do know is that there is unlikely to be an on/off switch which allows us to return to some pre-COVID normality and it is very likely that some transitional model of partial opening will precede any full return to school life as we once knew it. This obviously raises significant issues, not least:

  • What does social distancing look like in schools? In Vietnam, schools have been redefining what social distancing means for them and how it needs to look and feel like something different from what is happening in wider society.
  • What would be the impact of partial reopening and how could schools manage this process effectively? We know that schools are planning for a multitude of scenarios including half classes, reduced curriculum and different year groups in on different days.
  • How will schools be expected to manage non-structured time such as travel, arrival and departure from school, break and lunch breaks, movement between rooms or buildings and so on?
  • What is the impact on vulnerable students or staff including those living in multi-generational housing or those living with vulnerable relatives? Research has suggested that several generations living under one roof may have accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in Italy.
  • What is, and will continue to be, the impact on the curriculum and learning if students are not in school or for only part of the week? How might the curriculum be sequenced as a result and how do we assess what learning has been consolidated and assess any gaps?

The shift to remote and largely online learning has highlighted many of the inequalities and frustrations that already exist; access for all to technology; appropriate spaces to work in the home; the challenges of developing high-quality, online pedagogy; the curation of the overwhelming number of resources that are available; the blending of traditional in-school teaching with online learning. Research by the Sutton Trust has suggested that as many as two-thirds of British children have not engaged with online learning since the lockdown began. Even countries with more advanced technology and experience of online learning have struggled to make this work during lockdown. Jurisdictions, such as Singapore and South Korea, have reported that student motivation has dropped off, engagement in independent learning has not been sustained beyond the initial few weeks and the quality of learning has deteriorated.

Future Thinking and Challenges

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are so many known unknowns and maybe even more unknown unknowns! Here are just a few…

Accountability 2021 and beyond – It is hard to begin to imagine what the next academic year looks like without some clarity over the issues of examinations, accountability measures and the inspection framework. If these elements continue as they were before we left off, without a more nuanced and in-depth discussion about alternative or adapted models, schools will find themselves under enormous pressure to compensate   for lost time. There are visions of the new Year 6, 11 and 13 students attending before school, lunchtime, after school and weekend and holiday intervention sessions to cover missed content and address the gaps in learning and, not because this is in the best interests of the young person, but because the school will find itself under intense scrutiny to achieve exam passes. If we assume that we are to revert to ‘normal’, the pressure will be straight back on schools and onto students who, through no fault of their own, have missed swathes of learning.

Accountability will still be necessary but thought should be given to the outcomes that schools will be held accountable for and to whom they will be accountable. A moratorium or adaptation of the current inspection regime; a reduced and delayed examination series; removal of accountability measures in 2021 and a hybrid of summative exams and centre assessed grades, are just some of the possible solutions.

The impact on vulnerable and disadvantaged students is likely to be significant. Even some of the more optimistic assessments suggest it could have a negative impact amounting to the equivalent to  six months of learning and that all the good work of the past five – ten years could be undone without some truly innovative thinking. There will likely be a new layer of students who fall into the disadvantaged category as the result of the economic uncertainty and looming recession, further exacerbating this issue.

Options that seem worth exploring are a temporary increase in the Pupil Premium funding; continued research into closing the gap and what works; funded summer schools; the use of graduates who may find their initial employment routes curtailed and the use of volunteers to support learning for these students.

The pace of recovery – School leaders must give thought to the notion of pace. Our response to these challenges cannot be about doing the same or more in less time. It is inconceivable that, in an already packed curriculum with specifications bursting at the seams, there is time to cover missed content in the space of two-three terms. This is not to mention the re-socialisation of students and staff back into the school’s culture, systems and expectations which, if it is to be done properly, will take time and sensitivity.

Trauma – There will very likely be an increased need to address safeguarding issues, support mental health and trauma amongst students and staff. On the issue of trauma, there will a requirement to help students process what has happened but there will also be anticipatory trauma; ‘what if this happens again?’, ‘What happens if my school is in lockdown again during my final year?’, ‘How will I catch up and what have I missed?’ etc. It is not difficult to imagine an increase in attendance issues as some students find it hard to get back into the routine of school life. What seems essential is that we look at these issues through the lens of students and put them at the heart of our decision making.

Blended learning – A new world of blended learning, in which teachers have to be increasingly proficient in online learning and remote support, as well as traditional methods, means there is a need for high-quality professional learning and a research-driven approach to what works. We need to build on the collaboration seen during this crisis, within and between schools, to up-skill colleagues quickly and open a robust, professional dialogue around the pedagogy of this “new normal”.

Teacher training – In September 2020 schools will have NQTs starting who have, maybe, had only one school placement, having taught very few lessons and with a gaping hole in their practical experience. There will be RQTs who have potentially  taught less than two terms in their NQT year. Whilst schools and teachers will be doing their best to develop the professional learning of their staff, we all know that it is a poor substitute for learning on the job, making mistakes, reflecting and refining the craft. Schools will need to consider carefully how they support these colleagues next year, potentially reducing teaching loads and increasing coaching, mentoring and professional learning opportunities. All this against a backdrop of poor funding and staff shortages.


Where there is crisis there is so often innovation, creativity and opportunity. Despite the numerous challenges, there will be much good practice and high-quality leadership emerging all across the country. When Clive Woodward was the coach of the England Rugby team, he wrote that people invariably engage in detailed post-mortems after a poor performance or set of results however, he maintained it was even more important to do this when things had gone well. How do we understand why individual schools and the wider system’s approach to this crisis has worked and how do we capture the learning and maintain momentum? What, then, will be the legacy of this crisis, the things we will want to capture, cherish and build upon?

Core purpose – In the very early days of school closure, leaders and teachers focused on what was most important; namely the well-being and safety of their students and staff and supporting young people to learn despite the challenges. Almost all leaders have redefined their core purpose without the white noise and distraction of external accountability measures. We mustn’t lose this renewed energy around the wider purpose of education versus the narrow focus of schooling.

Collaboration between schools and other agencies has been a notable feature of this crisis. The amount of sharing, goodwill and system leadership has been inspiring and we should find a way to ensure we maintain this momentum long after this crisis is over. School leaders working across the system will find the answers to the stubborn problems that we are facing and, whilst all the answers may not be in any one of our schools, they are almost certainly within the system. There seems no better time to assert our collective agency to shape a school-led system.

Capturing local stories – There is a chance to tell local ‘stories’ about what our schools have been doing and their crucial role within their communities. We must develop our thinking about what we have learned from this experience, capturing case studies about what works, celebrating the positives and the core principles that should shape the future direction of education as we come out of this crisis.

Parents – Many schools have engaged with their communities on multiple platforms like never before, building trust with vulnerable families, supporting key workers, providing food and reassurance. Their communication strategies have been delivered with clarity, compassion and authority. In a world of blended learning, parents who have been involved with home-schooling are likely to be more receptive as partners in learning. We need to reconsider how we support parents with study habits, with the use of technology to support learning and how we provide feedback on who their child is becoming rather than just what they can do. This gives us the opportunity to re-engage parents so that they might play an enhanced role in their child’s education.

Collective responsibility – Whilst there should be resistance against a return to the ‘current’ accountability and inspection framework, there is an opportunity to move to a collective responsibility for the quality of education and outcomes. There is a chance for us to develop a different approach to accountability by accelerating a local, school-to- school, support and challenge model. This has to be rigorous and robust which, in the past, is where this approach has fallen foul, but we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a new way, and if we wait to be told what to do, we abdicate our responsibility for school improvement to external bodies.

Remote working has provided many challenges but there has also been fast learning about what works and how it can be done in a way that allows staff to still feel connected with one another. It may lead to a review of flexible working in schools and to questions such as whether all meetings need to happen face-to-face; how we can apply a blended approach to professional learning and how we can adapt our practices to attract more people into the profession and encourage others to return.

In a VUCA world, leaders must get comfortable with not having all the answers, in making imperfect decisions based on what they know, in finding a safe haven within a greater moral purpose. They must also be more aware than ever of the crucial roles that they and their schools play in their community.

“You can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.” – Kristen Proby