“We became an emergency service”: school leaders’ reflections on the pandemic in the Co-MAP project

Some of the overriding themes from our international literature review across all five countries included public narratives of ‘learning loss’, ‘the digital divide’, and ‘food poverty’ all of which have had significant impacts on the role of schools and their response to social and economic disadvantage for families. Country-specific differences were mostly evident in the forms of advice that were coming from State-level and the communication channels by which this information filtered down to school-based practice. For example, the report from our Greek partners (Computer Technology Institute in Patras and Ellinogermaniki Agogi in Athens) outlines the prominent role of the Ministry of Education for decision-making across all Greek schools, resulting in less opportunities for autonomous decision-making for school leadership teams compared to some of the other countries in the project. In the UK, the report from the Birmingham City University team discussed that although centralised government guidance came through the Department for Education, decision-making ‘on the ground’ varied largely according to individual schools and whether they were part of a larger Academy trust or whether governance was through a local education authority.

Our reports also highlighted differences in what ‘school closures’ looked like in practice. For example, in Greece and Hungary, schools remained fully closed for several months and therefore schools were fully reliant on providing online learning for which, they reported, many of the teachers felt inadequately trained. In other countries, such as the UK and the Netherlands, schools were never fully closed and remained partially open for some students throughout the lockdowns and therefore learning took a hybrid form of online and face-to-face.

Capturing a diversity of schools and voices

In order to gain insights from school leadership teams across the partnership we carried out five interviews per country across a variety of school settings. In the UK, for example, we carried out interviews through our Birmingham Schools of Sanctuary network with three primary schools, one secondary, and one college, all of which had large numbers of children and young people from refugee and newly arrived backgrounds. The Hungarian partner, publishing company Liget Muhely Alapitvany (LMA), carried out their interviews with five schools that had large cohorts of socially and economically disadvantaged students, particularly Roma young people. These were schools that LMA already had a long-established relationship with through another project and as such had developed a trusting relationship. Our Netherlands-based partner, the International Parents Association (IPA), carried out interviews with a cross-section of schools that served families from both economically privileged and more socially disadvantaged backgrounds in diverse locations. This included a primary school in Amsterdam and a secondary school near the German border. IPA also conducted a focus-group style interview with a cohort of 13 primary, secondary, and vocational schools.

As well as capturing perspectives from a diversity of schools across the five countries we made the collective decision to use school leadership as an all-encompassing term comprising not only headteachers but any individuals who were involved in decision-making during the periods of national lockdowns. This means that across the partnership we have gained insights from a wide range of individuals. For example, our German partner, the University of Dresden, conducted interviews with inclusion assistants in schools, special advisors on inclusion, as well as a professor in inclusion at the university.  In the UK, our interviews comprised the voices of headteachers, assistant headteachers, and school/college managers in the areas of special educational needs and disability (SEND), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), learning mentorship, and community outreach.

An insight into some of the lived experiences of school leaders: UK context

In the UK, school leaders talked extensively about their role in meeting gaps in the social welfare needs of families that were not being met by other services during this time. One primary school Headteacher, describing the extent of their changing role, said “we became an emergency service”. This school, and others we interviewed, spoke of carrying out doorstep visits to families they were concerned about from a social services perspective, as well as the need for staff to effectively be on-call 24 hours a day. All the UK schools talked about how much they had learnt regarding food poverty and the varying means by which they provided access to food for families, from using breakfast delivery services, to delivering food themselves, to providing a pop-up food pantry for families to buy food shopping at a reduced price. Another primary school described one of the main issues affecting their long-established school community as supporting them through a bereavement/counselling service due to high numbers of deaths in the community, particularly at the start of the pandemic.  The school’s learning mentor manager spoke of a WhatsApp group the community had set up to report deaths and said that in “one night there were 16 deaths across 2 streets”.

Transitioning to the next phase

Integrally, the insights we have gained from school leadership teams have helped our planning for the next stage of the project, particularly in terms of the need for carefully planned ethical and safeguarding procedures. In the next phase, each partner will carry out collage mapping in two schools per country. Through this creative process, we will work collaboratively with three groups: children and young people, family members and carers, and teachers.  Through this, we aim to capture wider perspectives of formal and informal learning experiences in a visual format and open up a comfortable space for informal and multilingual discussions, led as far as possible by the children and young people. So, watch this space for our future blogs as the next stage of Co-MAP progresses and our sharing of some of the young people’s visual collaborations.