Notes from an online panel discussion at the HMC Conference, Monday 5th October 2020
I had the privilege of chairing a panel discussion at this year’s HMC conference in which three leading figures in our sector – a Head, Bursar and Chair of Governors from HMC schools – talked about their experience during the pandemic and what they have learned about themselves and the people they work with. The three panelists were:
- Jesse Elzinga, Headmaster, Sevenoaks School
- Alison Shakespeare, Bursar, The Perse School, Cambridge
- Vicky Tuck, Chair of Governors, Charterhouse
After they had each spoken, Clarissa Farr drew out some of the common threads and shared some additional insights. Clarissa Farr is well known as the former Head of St Paul’s Girls’ School in West London and is now a published author. Clarissa is also the coordinator of the brand new “RSAcademics Coaching Consortium” and, like Vicky Tuck, a Senior Consultant at RSAcademics.
A summary of each speaker’s comments
Jesse shared some of the guidelines and principles that he has followed, both when he was Head of Reading Blue Coat School during the lockdown and since he started as Headmaster of Sevenoaks School in September.
- Stay cool – keep calm – no matter how stressful and challenging the situation, the Head must remain calm and rational; this is reassuring for all those around you who will rely on the Head’s leadership and clear thinking more than ever
- Be well informed and read widely. Know what the experts are saying and use your network to understand novel approaches. At the same time, one must also be open minded, and realise all the best ideas might not come from an expert or the senior team. Listen to “outliers” – be prepared to learn from unexpected sources.
- The pandemic forced Jesse to make decisions quickly, and often based on incomplete and rapidly evolving information. More than once, he then had to reverse a decision and tell everyone he had done so, e.g. “We are opening for Year 10 & 12 on 1 June” – then UK government guidance changed – “We can only open for 25% of these students two weeks later”. That was OK – better to make a timely decision based on the latest information, and then explain clearly why you have to change course in light of new information. Patiently nudge forward and sometimes withdraw and move forward in another direction; people are forgiving when you are navigating in uncharted territory.
- Jesse spent a huge amount of time communicating personally with parents, phoning every one of them that wrote to him. In his conversations he always started by listening so he could better understand their concerns. One head he knew phoned every member of staff during lockdown to check on them – “I wish I had thought to do this” he said afterwards. Some people needed reassurance and others just needed someone to listen to them; this regular communication was so important.
- Kindness: showing kindness to others, demonstrating empathy and honesty…these were hallmarks of Jesse’s approach, even if it meant telling people that he didn’t know the answer either. He has actively encouraged people in both schools to be more forgiving of errors or delays and generally to be as compassionate as possible towards each other. This is a difficult time, and he wants all members of the school community to remember that everyone looked after them with kindness and compassion throughout.
The Perse School is a large, coeducational day school for 3-18 year-olds in the city of Cambridge which, because of its location and parent body, remained open during the lockdown to educate large numbers of key worker children.
The working patterns of the staff who reported into the Bursar and her senior team were disrupted hugely. For example, people in the same team had very different experiences so the usual notion of “a team” had to change. Over 100 people were furloughed for some or all of the lockdown period, some worked from home, while others were working harder than ever in the school or doing different shift patterns compared with normal. The visible importance of people’s roles also changed – for example, the team of cleaning staff, more used to working “after hours” when the school is empty, suddenly found themselves in the spotlight and at the forefront of the school’s response to the pandemic while many others, previously visible to colleagues, had to work from home.
And as the pandemic moved through its different stages, it required different combinations of people to undertake new or different sorts of tasks. There was also the challenge of knowing how best to communicate with staff who were furloughed: how to make them feel connected and valued, as well as making sure they were up to date, ready for their return to work.
So, what are some of the things that Alison has learned from the experience?
- Members of the wider Bursary team have got to know each other better and there is less of a sense of hierarchy. With people’s pets and children appearing on screen at unexpected times, the divide between people’s work persona and their private life has become blurred.
- It is important to remember that the people you lead and manage are individuals with their own issues, concerns and fears about their health. They are not just ‘employees’.
- While all staff need clear messaging and clear direction, this needs to recognise the very different ways in which COVID affected them and their employment situation.
- Having a strong team around you makes a huge difference. It is worth spending time developing that team and developing the horizontal links between teams. This makes the organisation more adaptable and strengthens communication.
I asked Vicky how she saw her own role and that of her fellow Governors during the lockdown. She started by acknowledging that the problems were “far from over”, that this term was “proving very challenging” for school leaders and that much of what she wanted to say therefore remained valid now. For example, she said that her main driver had been to ensure that the Governing Body was adding value, not meddling. In terms of the role of Governors, she reminded us of the 5 S model and how it helped to keep the GB on track.
Providing emotional ballast as well as ensuring the expertise of specific Board members was put to use when needed
Acting as the guardians of the school in a number of ways, including in terms of its values but also, more generally, in terms of safeguarding its future at a time of increased risk
Making sure, for example, that the decision about fees for the summer term was based on evidence and analysis and not rushed through
Although the focus was on dealing with the present and immediate future, keeping an eye on strategic opportunities, for example by exploring how the experience of remote learning may influence future provision
During lockdown might not appear to be the right time to “stretch” and challenge the Head any more than the pandemic itself was already doing, but Vicky and the Head agreed to hold his appraisal during the summer term. It provided affirmation that he was performing superbly during this challenging time, particularly in terms of his inspiring leadership of the people in the school community and it provided a framework for discussing the next phase of his tenure.
Vicky then spent a moment describing how the COVID-19 pandemic had shown the importance of blending mission leadership with people leadership. In Charterhouse’s case, this meant modelling the stated values of responsibility, perseverance, open-mindedness, courage and kindness. Taking this one step further, Vicky noted how the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement led her to reflect on existential questions about the school’s purpose and identity going forward, noting especially the need to develop tolerant and resourceful young people with a global mindset.
Clarissa was asked to summarise what she felt to be the most important lessons for us all, arising from the discussion and to share any other observations she might have. It was a deeply inspiring and insightful summary with which to end the panel discussion. Clarissa made four main points, as follows:
- Everyone had spoken about the need for less monolithic structures and less lengthy processes for evaluating options and making decisions. There had been more cross-disciplinary teamwork and flatter hierarchies. As a consequence, the schools are more agile organisations. While more fluid structures can be challenging to manage, these were valuable developments for the future.
- Linked to this notion was the consistent theme of good ideas coming from unexpected directions. Leaders had needed to be more open to the views of disruptive thinkers, more willing to challenge themselves and be challenged by unusual perspectives and approaches. Again, this was to be welcomed and cherished.
- “No matter how important you are, everyone is the same size in that little square on your screen” was how Clarissa encapsulated her third observation: the importance and power of being yourself, being honest and authentic, saying when you do not have the answers, allowing your personal identity to be seen.
- The pandemic had shown, more keenly and dramatically than anything before, that children are learning to “feel comfortable with the conditional”. For some time, we have been saying to students that something “might” or “could” happen, that there was a “chance” or “possibility” of a particular course, in summary, that the future was uncertain. The pandemic has consolidated for many young people this new type of resilience to uncertainty.
Clarissa finished by observing that much has been written in newspapers and business journals recently about the importance of “humanity” in leadership and how the pandemic had brought this message home to many business leaders. “It has always been at the heart of schools and of school leadership” Clarissa asserted. Perhaps businesses could learn from schools?
Notes written by the Chairman of the panel discussion, Russell Speirs, CEO and Founder, RSAcademics
RSAcademics supports school leaders and governors in a variety of ways. These include:
- Coaching and appraisals for Heads and other members of the senior team through our new Coaching Consortium, comprising experienced and qualified coaches
- Governance reviews and training for governors – led by Durrell Barnes, Head of Governance and Compliance at RSAcademics
- A range of other services to guide business planning, strategy and marketing, school improvement and also fundraising.
For more information, please contact me, Russell Speirs, by email in the first instance: firstname.lastname@example.org or on my mobile +44 7879 607078