Leading in a crisis

Five independent school heads answer questions on leading during the pandemic, their inspiration and what it takes to lead today

“Do not go hunting a ‘leadership style’. This is nonsense”

David Preston, headteacher at Arnold Lodge School, an independent day school in Leamington Spa, brings a breath of fresh air to the sector. Just four years into headship, he’s dedicated to putting wellbeing first and says it’s OK to get things wrong.

Q. What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?

Independent schools are so varied in their contexts that the skill set that is required to lead them will very much change depending on the school in question. That said, I do think that all independent school heads need to have a deep awareness of their school’s culture, context and community. This isn’t about understanding what’s written in a prospectus but how it feels to be a pupil, parent or staff member in the school.

If the experience on the ground aligns with the values and vision of the school, use this as an anchor for decision-making for the future. If it doesn’t, make the changes necessary so that it does. I also believe leaders need to be reflective, and willing to seek refutation and debate of ideas from all levels within the school.

Q. What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic?

Bizarre! I’ve continued to attend the school site each day and schools are strange places without children. The loss of control, I think, gave the greatest challenge – waiting for government updates and then trying to interpret them to fit our school was a rolling challenge.

Early on I took the decision to communicate often, openly and honestly with the school community. This has meant a lot of writing to parents and more than one retraction as the goalposts have shifted as the pandemic unfolded. I also took the plunge into social media a little more than I would have usually and diversified the medium for my communications to include videos as well.

Q. You’ve said schools should put wellbeing before results as children return; why?

I simply don’t understand schools that approach education in any other way. If we consider other industries, much focus is placed on the wellbeing of employees to help get the best outcomes. If we can strive to ensure children are happy, confident and increasingly resilient then we can set children up to get the best from their education.

It’s from there – and only from there – that we can challenge children to flourish. Pupils chasing grade nine in all subjects are valued at ALS because they work hard, not because of their ability. A pupil who finds academic learning trickier but is working just as hard towards grade five is valued just the same. We don’t expect all children to achieve a grade nine or to be a county standard athlete, but we absolutely expect each child to aspire to be the best within the school values: to be the most honest, the most hardworking and the most kind.

Q. Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?

I was appointed with only a few years senior leadership experience. From that point of view, I have to thank the school directors who gave me the opportunity to not only take on the headship of Arnold Lodge but also the trust, freedom and support to lead the school and to make changes to help the school grow.

In more recent times, it’s only right to thank the colleagues that I work with. I’m fortunate to work with an exceptional senior leadership team who are passionate about the school. The wider school staff team, too, are brilliant. Our teachers, teaching assistants and business team are truly wonderful.

Q. Are there any leaders that inspire you?

When I first began working within senior leadership, I was able to learn from a long-standing deputy head, Andrew Pollard. Andrew had worked at ALS since 1980 and was the epitome of professionalism and dedication. I learned a great deal from Andrew and his calm, sensible approach to leadership helped me throughout those first years learning the role.

Outside of education, I do find a lot of inspiration from leaders in the world of sport. There’s a lot to learn from successful teams (like the All Blacks) on how an approach based on a shared understanding of culture, high expectations and collegiality can create sustained success.

Q. Do you have any advice for people starting their first leadership role?

Do not go hunting a ‘leadership style’. This is nonsense. What works for someone else will not work for you. Be authentic to your values, to yourself and to your school. Read voraciously around leadership and then try new approaches. Keep what works. Reject what doesn’t.

Reflect with your line manager regularly. Seek feedback from everyone around you for growth. Be courageous. Be clear. Apologise if you get it wrong; this shows confidence, not weakness. In your first year or two, you’ll get things wrong. That’s OK. Be confident to ask a colleague if you’re unsure and try to remember to laugh whenever you can.

“I remember asking him, ‘Will it be all right for the school to have a female head?’”

As the first female leader of King Edward’s Witley, Joanna Wright has already made her mark on the long history of this boarding and day school in Surrey. Leading through the pandemic with composure, she is passionate about holistic education.

Q. What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?

Wisdom, integrity, resilience and creativity. This year, perhaps more than any other, all schools have had to be incredibly creative. Coming in new to a school where many things are so well established, I felt that I needed to be really willing to listen and to learn myself.

I want to connect with people so that together we will make better decisions about the vision for the school and for the good of the pupils. Being willing to be a learner without ego or entitlement is important.

Q. What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s been challenging at times, of course, but we have all been co-travelling. My strategy has been: keep calm, hold your nerve and everything will be fine! There have been so many times when we just haven’t known what would happen next. Once we accepted that there weren’t any completely right or wrong answers (and I recognised that it would have been the same if I’d been a head for many years), we worked things out together as a team.

I’ve wanted to communicate and connect well, to give assurance and reassurance wherever I can. We had lots of discussions around the most important things for the pupils, staff and parents. A lot of the work was related to the operational side of the school and as much was about people. We wanted to care by offering clarity, certainty and reassurance. So, if it were a strategy, it would be around people: be compassionate, understanding, reflective and aim to communicate well… and keep a sense of perspective and good humour.

Right at the start of lockdown, we said that the priority was to stay connected with the school community. That has been one of the most important things to help support one another through these uncertain times. There has been a great deal of fun as well as hard work.

Q. Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?

So many people. I’m grateful to everyone who helped appoint me both here and now and all those along my career. I’m hugely thankful to my wonderful family and their willingness to say, “You can do it.” We have a tremendous treasurer (chair of governors) and court (board of governors). The senior team and all staff have been great.

On a personal note I owe much to my father, who died in February. He was a headmaster and I miss being able to talk to him. Right from early childhood he encouraged me to think of others, treating them as I would like to be treated. I was always encouraged to think that it was possible to try to achieve anything – even as the only girl in a family of boys!

Q. How did you start a new chapter for the school with so much history behind it?

It’s about continuing the King Edward’s story. One of the reasons why I wanted to come to this school in particular was because it has this wonderful historical legacy, so you feel very much part of a whole story that’s being told. There was an acting head some time ago who was female. What is lovely is that we’re hoping that her granddaughter is going to come and join us in the school.

The new chapter of adapting to a female head is great – it’s just one tiny part of its great story. I was privileged because the senior deputy headmaster, Stephen Pugh, who’d been here for nearly 30 years, kindly stayed an extra term to see me in before he retired. He had made the decision before I arrived! When I visited, I remember asking him, “Will it be all right for the school to have a female head, because they’re not used to it?” He was emphatic about it being all right. Our house is called ‘Headmaster’s House’ and sometimes I get called the headmaster! It’s an example of it being a very accepting, inclusive and forward-thinking school.

It’s interesting to note that our treasurer is female as well, so in terms of the school’s long history, this probably is a moment to mark. We are excited about being part of the school’s next steps. I hope to keep alive the sound values of the foundation and create a vision for the future that builds on its history in a dynamic way.

Q. Why do you focus on progressive and holistic education?

I think it’s the right thing to do in terms of joined-up education. When we compartmentalise people, let alone young people, we limit the possibilities around them. A holistic approach to education is absolutely the right way to nurture a child.

Most children will flourish in an environment where you take this approach. We talk about academic progress as much as pastoral care; connecting the two is what is really important. I would like all pupils to leave here knowing as much about how they learn as what they have learned. As a parent and headteacher, I do champion the whole-person approach.

“Fun is an antidote for fear and we forget that at our peril”

From learning to dance to Korean pop, to trying his hand at knitting, Chris Wheeler, principal of Monkton Combe School in Bath, endeavours to lead by example when it comes to encouraging pupils to try new things.

Q. What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?

The key for me is adaptability. As schools and school leaders we need to be adaptable but most importantly, we need to teach the children to understand change, be comfortable with it and eventually learn to be leaders of it.

We cannot possibly know what the children of today will go on to do; the world of work is changing far faster than anyone can now predict. This means that understanding themselves, knowing how to build on strengths and address areas for development with clear strategic targets, is vital.

Q. What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic?

As Dickens would have had it, “the best of times and the worst of times”. I have huge sympathy for the school leavers whose final term has been stolen from them, for the hardworking teachers who are balancing a full online timetable with their own complex home lives, for the many of all ages impacted by the virus itself, as well as the consequences of the lockdown.

At the same time, however, never have I seen such a strong sense of community. Pupils have created talent shows and challenges to keep everyone going; tutors have offered high-quality pastoral support to their charges and ensured they learn and benefit from the challenges they are facing; parents have rallied around their schools continuing to pay fees, offering support and working with their children to ensure as little ground as possible is lost. Our alumni and parents of alumni have also been inspired to help and to donate to support the school.

The key strategy for me as a school leader is the same as any other in 2020: keep communicating. With the political sands constantly shifting beneath our feet there is a huge sense of uncertainty and people look to their school leaders to give them answers. Even when you can’t give answers, recognising that and sharing what you can is reassuring and allows schools to serve their communities as beacons of hope.

Q. Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?

As with everything else: the pupils. The energy, hope and optimism of the young people in our care is the thing that drives us all. After an emotional final assembly before we were asked to close schools in March, I overheard one pupil saying, “I know they liked us but I just didn’t know how much.” I cannot thank the pupils enough for keeping going through all the uncertainty and for working so hard in these extraordinary times.

Q. Are there any leaders that inspire you?

I’m impressed by Will Van Der Hart’s work on wellbeing and vulnerability, which has helped me a great deal. Clarissa Farr’s book The Making of Her is also inspiring me at the moment. More widely, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and I try to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ every day.

Q. You communicate with your school community in fun and innovative ways; why?

I think it’s essential. If we are to teach children to be adaptable, we have to be prepared to model that ourselves. I ran a ‘try something new’ series earlier this year which saw me learning to dance to Korean pop, march with the CCF and knit with the sixth form. By the end of the week, pupils were challenging each other to take on new things and the sense of exploration around school was palpable. Fun is an antidote for fear and we forget that at our peril.

Q. Are you able to achieve a work-life balance?

Depends who you ask! I would say yes; my wife on the other hand… I am one of few people who used to be an owl and has become a lark, so I find the hours of 4–6.30am very productive. I have three kids and it’s really important to me, as it is to all of us, that I am a part of their lives so it did break my heart a little when my then five-year-old said, as I put her to bed on the eve of a new term, “It’s been a lovely holiday Daddy and I’ll see you at Easter.” It’s hard to keep a balance but my wife is hugely supportive and we approach things as a team.

HMC work has seen me add further hours to my diary but HMC is an incredible organisation of passionate, inspiring and highly professional heads keen to work together for the good of all; if I can do anything to help harness that and shape it into one direction, I am keen to serve – even if it means a slightly earlier start for me.

“Maybe it makes us a little bit freer to rewrite the rules”

Vicky Bingham, headmistress of South Hampstead High School, says creating a democratic culture at the girls’ school is key to enabling pupils to leave with a sense of personal fulfilment and confidence.

Q. What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?

I think one of the most important things that you need to lead in 2020 is to be grounded. You need to know what your values are and what you think is important in education because there is a wealth of debate out there.

You learn huge amounts from talking to other heads and everybody’s got an idea, but you need to know what you think is important, otherwise you risk being buffeted by the winds of change in educational opinion. You’ve also got to know where you want to take the school, but you’ve got to be adaptable about that. And I think the final thing is you’ve got to be great at recruiting people.

Q. What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic?

This may sound odd, but I’ve been teaching now for nearly 19 years and in a strange way it’s been a professional highlight. I say in a strange way because no head would want to find themselves in this situation. The thing I say to my school is that whilst this is not going to be easy, it’s going to produce lots of creative ideas because it’s forced everybody to adapt very quickly. Everybody has had to pull together and I have been so grateful for the extraordinary energy and agility of the Girls’ Day School Trust family.

I think I’ve also learned to be quite accepting. There were 41 different updates from the Department for Education before we went into half term, so I was left not really knowing what was going to happen. You just have to learn to accept it and find your own way through it.

Q. Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?

All the staff, without a shadow of a doubt. They have absolutely gone the extra mile. I went into school yesterday to check on preparations for the reopening, like signage and hand sanitiser, and I said to the director of finance and operations, “What can I do?” He said, “It’s pretty much nearly been done.” That’s the staff all over, they just do things.

Q. Are there any leaders that inspire you?

I think Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, has led her country during this pandemic with what appears to be dignity and crucially, transparency, and I think that’s what has been at the heart of our success in leading the school through this period.

The thing that people keep saying is thank you for communicating with us. Even if you don’t know what the answer is, you’ve got to communicate with people because that’s the only way you can help them cope with those feelings of uncertainty. I think she’s done that brilliantly and I think there are an awful lot of people who could learn from her.

Q. You set yourself an environmental challenge this year; how did this come about?

It was the girls who inspired me. The sustainability movement in the school really started taking off last year and it is one of our strategic priorities as a school by 2026 to be carbon neutral. Last June, the girls published an edition of the school magazine about throwaway fashion which inspired me to give up buying new clothes. I think this has generated further interest in the topic, but it was the girls who started it. It’s also inspired the younger girls.

While the older girls are interested in the political angle and demonstrations, that’s a big thing for an 11-year-old to understand, but they can understand that they could give up plastic water bottles, for example.

Q. Does leading an all girls’ school make a difference to the way in which you lead?

I think it’s important for me to run a relatively democratic school because the thing I want our students to leave with is a sense of personal fulfilment and confidence. At South Hampstead we are in the business of empowering female leaders. I want to create a democratic culture where the girls feel they can come to me and say, I’d like to run with this idea. I try to make it an open-door culture, rather than a top-down hierarchical structure where they feel they can’t really make change. I am sure there are lots of co-ed and boys’ schools that have a very similar culture.

Girls’ schools are nimble and adaptable to change. Maybe it’s because they don’t have quite so many hundreds of years of tradition or because women haven’t been part of the establishment in the same way for generations – maybe it makes us a little bit freer to rewrite the rules.

“I found myself having to make decisions that went far beyond my remit”

Dr Steffen Sommer, principal of Doha College, has led independent schools around the world from Paris to Switzerland, but the coronavirus pandemic has been his most challenging year yet.

Q. What do you think it takes to lead an independent school in 2020?

To be a leader of a school, one has to have a passion but one also needs to have a vision of what you want to achieve in that school, combined with a very large degree of empathy and an understanding of a school as a living organism, which has a very diverse community in it.

It’s a community of the children, the receivers of the education, and the care that’s provided by the teachers. It consists of the parents, who in an independent school are fee-paying parents, so in a way they’re buying a product, yet it isn’t a car, it is a highly emotionally charged product whereby substantial value is added to their most precious item – their children. That needs to be kept in mind. The community is then even more complex because there are governors to manage and staff.

Q. What has it been like at the helm of a school during the coronavirus pandemic?

I’ve been a head for almost 20 years, and I’ve managed crises of different descriptions, but I think this particular year has been the most challenging. We’ve done really well but under the most adverse circumstances, and in a sequence that I’d never considered possible. This calendar year started at Doha College with the death of a student, so we came back with that trauma which had to be dealt with. This was followed by a decision by the Qatari government to take away some of our rented facilities, then we arrived in March to the coronavirus pandemic.

Managing the pandemic, first and foremost, has been a management of calm. When I was in the army, officers don’t run on deck, even if it’s clear that the ship is sinking. However bad things can get, it’s very important that the head and the head’s immediate team keep cool, calm, composed and make decisions on the facts. I made a comprehensive communications plan and we had a crisis meeting every day at 7am to make sure that everything was clear.

Don’t forget, I’m communicating against a background where the people who are running the country are not always giving you enough information to go on. I found myself having to make decisions that went far beyond my remit, but I had to in order to keep this community running.

Q. Who do you most want to thank for helping you be a school leader?

I have to thank all my staff for doing remote teaching of a phenomenal standard. We’ve been hailed for it by parents and that’s not easy. Also my leadership group I am so appreciative of, for a number of reasons. Firstly, that they have adapted to this new way of teaching so quickly, and secondly, according to my own calculations, every single member of staff works about 15% to 18% more every day now. Teaching online is actually much more personalised and something that would have taken two minutes now takes 20.

Q. Are there any leaders that inspire you?

My biggest role model is Michael Mavor, who was the headmaster of Rugby School at the time when I was there as a teacher. He inspired me most. There were crises there at the time, back in the ’90s, although they were not quite of the nature of the coronavirus. I admired the calm and composed nature in which he managed them. While I never knew how he did it, I drew my own conclusions.

I also think how one crisis is managed can’t easily be copied; the main strands can be taken on board as a good structure to go by, but the concrete detail of that structure really depends on the circumstances of the school and which country you’re in.

Q. What do you like most about international education?

I was always driven by the fact that I’ve got a clear vision of what I think effective education needs to be like for students to thrive and I’ve always been after an opportunity to spread that to as many people as I can. It was only when I arrived abroad that I realised that my reach would be so much wider. From The Hague I moved to The British School of Paris, then Collège Champittet in Switzerland, which was the only school I ever ran that is a bilingual school.

I was appointed because I’m bilingual and that was clearly helpful, but the biggest problem of the school was not the head being bilingual, it was the school being bicultural. It wasn’t that some spoke French and some spoke English, that was easily solved, the problem was that British education works very differently from Swiss-French education. They set different priorities. To square that under one roof was a challenge, but I enjoyed it.

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