The key is to come back stronger

The new normal can be an improved version of what we once knew, but opportunities must first be identified.

Slowly and we hope, surely, as restrictions introduced to control the spread of COVID-19 are being lifted, confidence is returning to the teaching profession. We are all aware that things will never be the same as before, but we expect that the new normal might look closer to the pre-COVID normal than our recent experience.  Our previous global update described how our international community had adapted to the changing playing field, modifying future practice by drawing on their experience of lockdown. In this post Christine Gilbert, CBE, Visiting Professor, UCL Centre for Educational Leadership and ex Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills from 2006 to 2011, offers her thoughts on the situation.

In a recently published work titled Coming back stronger: leadership matters, Christine expands on one of our current themes, namely the importance of reflecting on and learning from homeschooling. The article is the first in a series commissioned by Professor Qing Gu, the director of the centre.

Christine says: “This is an opportunity for schools to come back stronger by building on the learning into collaborative thinking, planning and action. If leaders find time to lead this learning, keeping focus on ‘professional and pedagogical matters (Early, 2021) the benefits could be immense.”

She identifies five leadership opportunities for building a stronger future and suggests they could be used to shape the conversations we are all having about what the new normal might look like. The five areas are:

  • Rooting schools at the heart of their communities
  • Tackling growing inequalities
  • Harnessing the power of technology
  • Preparing children better for life and learning
  • Strengthening capacity through collaboration.

In presenting these opportunities, Christine draws on the latest research and her own experience of working with a school collaborative learning community in London. Much of her observations correspond with our recent postings.

Sir Jon Coles, CEO of United Learning in England and Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Western Quebec School Board in Quebec recorded how the critical wider role which schools played in the community had been made explicit during the lockdown and we reported on Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign for the extension of school meals for disadvantaged students into the holiday period.

Lesley Stag, ex Senior Adviser, Department of Education in Jersey explained how schools helped fill the educational gap for students requiring additional support.

Simon Thompson, Deputy Headteacher / Dirpwy Bennaeth, Cardiff High School / Ysgol Uwchradd Caerdydd in Wales / Cymru told of the methods they were using to maintain contact with their most vulnerable students who without the daily school attendance were beginning to slip under the safety radar.

Simon Thompson (Cardiff) and George Singfield, Secretary General and Director of Corporate Affairs at the Western Quebec School Board have described how they had adapted technology to support learning. In Simon’s case through providing a blended learning platform for their students in Cardiff and George in the creation of the WQSB’s virtual school.

Providing programmes to improve our students’ wellbeing has been a universal theme from Dubai to Stockholm – a response to the growing awareness of diversity.

At the start of the pandemic, many of us thought that the quality of collaboration would be curtailed by the lack of human contact, and in many respects it has.  However, building trust has been essential to building engagement and this has meant that the timeliness and openness of communication from those who lead the system to those who work in it has been considerably enhanced, which bodes well for the future.

You can Christine’s the full report at UCL, Centre for Educational Leadership, think piece: Coming back stronger: leadership matters.’

I consider it a great privilege to have worked for and with Christine.  As Chief Inspector of Schools, she brought to the role not only an insider’s understanding of how schools work effectively, but also how a local authority or in our Canadian colleagues’ language, a School Board could consistently provide an excellent education for all students.  From 1997 to 2006 Christine was Director of Education for Tower Hamlets Local Education Authority.

The LEA serves a significantly disadvantaged area of the City of London; it has six nurseries, 70 primary, 17 secondary and seven special schools. In 2018, 137 languages were spoken with 54% speaking Bengali and 27% English. 36% of students are eligible for free school meals compared to 16%  in London and 13% nationally. During her tenure, the school system provided for its students an education which ranked them far higher than their more advantageous peers. The foundations she laid then were built upon with the result that these high standards have been maintained for more than 25 years.

Working with members of her team, which included our colleague Peter Mathews, she broadened the scope of inspection, embraced the concept of value added which considered prior attainment, social disadvantage, gender, and ethnicity and recognised the role that school-to-school work played in school improvement.

Though failure to meet minimum standards was still publicly reported and action to improve rigorously pursued, those of us leading schools at the time recognised that the OFSTED framework provided a clear link between teaching and learning, leadership, and performance.  In the Framework, these were presented in progressions that provide schools which used then a set of reliable signposts to determine answers to the key questions in school improvement:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Where are we now?
  • What should we do next?

It underpinned much of what we did to create upwards convergence across the school systems we worked with.  We used the framework to identify best practice and share it across our growing London and later City Challenge networks and to create a set of programmes to help schools to progress from one OFSTED grade to another.

We used OFSTED grades as part of our accreditation criteria for Teaching Schools, National Support Schools and National Leaders of Education (they all had to be rated as ‘outstanding’ by OFSTED).  Their report on how schools worked effectively in disadvantaged areas, written by Professor Peter Mathews OBE, increased our understanding of this critical element of system-wide school improvement and the report they published in 2010 on London Challenge contributed much to validating our work.

Still extremely active in numerous roles, at a personal level Christine has always been extremely supportive of our work.  Acting as a mentor, encouraging us and when necessary, guiding us through the political maze that we can sometimes find ourselves in.

We hope you have found this report on Christine Gilbert which featured her think piece inspiring.

Take care and stay safe.


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