GTC Scotland

The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Comhairle Choitcheann Teagaisg na h-Alba

Leadership during a pandemic

Headteachers who took up post during the pandemic reflect on their experiences and leading during a crisis.

 This article appeared on page 24 of Teaching Scotland issue 88. Read the full magazine.

Alison Mitchell, Headteacher at Rosshall Academy, Glasgow, and Headteacher in Residence at the University of Glasgow.

“I have been a headteacher for ten years now and I have always valued the connection in professional learning between the academic and the experiential; the critical engagement with research and policy to improve thinking, understanding and practice of leadership in education. Having been headteacher since the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence, we have worked through many changes, including the ongoing impact of the National Improvement Framework, the autonomy and empowerment discourse and the demands made by the current Covid-19 pandemic, all of which present challenges as well as opportunities for the development of ethical leadership and headteacher/ school identity.

“Leading during the pandemic has brought the most significant period of self-reflection (in my ten years of headship) on the purpose of schools, the nature and value of education, and the complexity and magnitude of educational leadership. In many ways, the context of the pandemic informs every current aspect of strategic leadership and school management. Our community needs us to be at our best and our best now is different to what our best was pre-pandemic – it is more focused, it is more urgent, and it is more intentionally underpinned by care and understanding of the contexts, strengths, barriers and aspirations of each individual in our community. So much of what I have learned as a school leader in the last year is informing my current and future leadership.

“The responsibility to quickly make contextually appropriate decisions that impact the confidence and safety of everyone in the community is relentless. This need to make such decisions can be at odds with the collaborative leadership practices we value in school, as we find ourselves resorting to top-down direction in order to keep our school community safe and learning and to uphold confidence in school processes and our preparedness during the pandemic, if only for each short period until the next updated guidance arrives.

“Leadership through the pandemic is highlighting what we value and what is essential, confirming what does not serve the profession and what needs to change. Future school leaders will be agents of that change for years to come. There is no doubt that the year ahead will be turbulent, but turbulence has always characterised headship. Turbulent times prompt a sharper focus on leadership, creativity, criticality and the importance of community.

“The Into Headship programme aims to prepare aspiring headteachers for the complexities, the demands, the responsibilities and the potential reach of the headteacher role, as strategic, social justice leaders in school communities and through the education profession. It reflects the key changes emerging in the profession, in schools and in school leadership, and supports learning and development of professional identity of future headteachers. It also enables aspiring headteachers to explore what enactment of the Professional Standards for Teachers looks like in practice. The Standard for Headship, as a framework for aspiring and experienced headteachers is ambitious and relevant, reflecting the aspiration towards and enactment of the headship role in today’s Scotland. We recognise the changes to and progress in inclusion, learning and teaching, and leadership through the refreshed Professional Standards, with the increased emphasis on equality and diversity, criticality, political insight, digital literacy, and Learning for Sustainability. Importantly, the professional illustrations of headteachers’ knowledge and understanding, skill and abilities are underpinned by professional values and ethical leadership practice.

“The 2021 publication and formal enactment of the Standards is timely at a period of significant reflection on the role of schools and the nature of education in Scotland. The current volatility in Scottish education, heightened by the pandemic, has underlined the need to maximise school leaders’ determination, courage and creativity, and sharpen the focus on equalities and ethical decision making. It is vital that the voices of school leaders and their communities are heard when decisions are taken about the future of education in Scotland. As we move past the point of necessity for snap decision making at national and local levels, it will be crucial to maintain the values and principles that guided our professional actions and decisions throughout the pandemic. This will require from all of us a clear vision for change and, through enactment of the values and principles underpinning the Professional Standards, the mobilisation of our communities to reimagine and realise an ambitious, socially just future for Scottish education.”

Scott Mowat, previously Depute Head at Gowanbank Primary, is now Headteacher of Clyde Primary, Glasgow

“I started in my first headteacher role in February during lockdown and it was a very quick couple of weeks before the younger children (accounting for about half of the 320 children) came back. Though it was an unnerving time for everyone, it gave me some time to understand and think about the school processes and sit with the leadership team to formulate a plan for moving forward.

“The challenge was not having the normal visualisation of how things work and, as I didn’t know who everyone was, I relied a lot on my leadership team to organise with the phased return. “I completed the Into Headship course at the University of Glasgow. It was a great course for meeting other people who wanted to be headteachers and for refocusing myself in terms of matching my experiences with the academic reading and, vice versa, applying the research to a real context. It allowed time out from school to think and develop some thought-leadership skills. At the time, it wasn’t a requirement as it is now. I wanted to be a headteacher and the course really helped shape my thinking and to challenge it, giving me the confidence to know what good leadership looks like. I have a much deeper understanding of criticality and the importance of that when taking forward new policy and initiatives.

“To begin with, I am building quality, positive relationships with everyone in our school community. I believe that no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship and this applies to our staff team and pupils. Building on this will allow me to look at the systems in place to ensure that we have a highly skilled and effective team for learning and teaching, ensuring that our children receive the highest-quality education built on nurturing relationships. I believe in joining the journey, knowing the journey and then leading the journey.

“I have now joined the school and will take time to know the journey, looking at our next steps and then celebrating our successes. I am bringing experience from my previous school, including an HMIE visit, to leading improvements at Clyde with a good understanding of how to take our school forward.

“I was given some advice by an experienced headteacher prior to starting, who said: ‘Set out your stall.’ For me that is, relationships first, being yourself, aiming high and being clear about expectations. I believe I have done that well in my first weeks as Headteacher.”