Leading in extraordinary times | paradigm shifting

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” (C.S. Lewis)

We are coping, working and leading in extraordinary times. We are in the midst of a high magnitude, low frequency event; a global pandemic that has significantly shunted and disrupted life as we know it. An event that is more disruptive to education than any other in our living (working) memory. Considering how we lead in this pandemic era and in a post pandemic world provides a framework for us to seize opportunities and to imagine how education could be. (the pandemic, at the very least, demonstrates that anything is possible).

Under times of stress we are conditioned to focus on surviving and coping; our horizon is near, our perspective is narrow. Whilst this is a necessary phase of crisis management if we step back and look into the future we can start to take control, rationalise and address the challenges and prepare to exploit the opportunities that this hiatus to normal provides, so that we increase the chance of an extraordinary destiny.

Hiatus: a pause or break in continuity in a sequence or activity.

If we name it, perhaps we can manage it. … and as educators we must manage it; children and communities rely on us to make sense of this hiatus and to lead beyond it, into a post pandemic world. Indeed the way schools have responded to the pandemic has elevated their role as a civic actor; there has never been a greater opportunity to rethink, evolve and establish an education system, led by and developed by our sector.


Situational Awareness

The following diagram provides a representation of the pre-pandemic phase, the pandemic and the post pandemic world; providing a framework for discussion and greater situational awareness.

The framework identifies how we moved from sensing the change that might be caused by the pandemic to the reality of the high magnitude event; an external shunt to the system that forced educators into crisis management. The traumatic change, in mid-March, closed schools across the country with educators leading from one hour to the next. This then shifted to a period of stabilisation, in the present pandemic era. A new normal, characterised by distance learning under lock-down.

At some point in the future, in a post pandemic future, we will prepare to re-join normal. This is where educators will need to show strong and deliberate leadership that addresses, among other issues, significant challenges related to societal and cultural cohesion and the urgent need to address the hiatus in the education of disadvantaged children as well as key year groups, 5, 10 and 12. The flip side is a significant opportunity, using this hiatus in normal to trigger a new paradigm; perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to understand how education could be. A release from our organisational (sector) blindness.


“Something very beautiful happens to people when their world has fallen apart: a humility, a nobility, a higher intelligence emerges at just the point when our knees hit the floor.” Marianne Williamson


Paradigm shifting | our system has been externally shunted

As humans we live by accepted norms; cultural, societal and educational; taken together these create the present paradigm; one which has been thrown into chaos. How we see the world and perhaps what is possible has shifted..

Paradigm shift: a time when the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about something changes completely. 

The following diagram, which represents the same time span as above, identifies the former paradigm, the new temporary paradigm during the present pandemic era and the new paradigm that will establish in the post-pandemic world.

Whilst we have shifted into the pandemic era we necessarily play a finite game where the immediacy of the situation necessitates coping, supporting and crisis management. As we stabilise in the pandemic era we need to extend our time horizon and think with a more infinite mindset necessary to plan for and realise what we can build as the next educational paradigm. (influenced by Sinek, 2020)

This requires us as a sector and educationalists to have a purposeful awareness of the opportunities that can shape education in the new world. This requires us to seed and occupy an Innovation space, created and stimulated by the hiatus and the paradigm shift forced by the global pandemic… a unique opportunity to seize.


Our challenge | pandemic, post pandemic and beyond

The following is some initial thinking in broad terms (and far from exhaustive) of the challenges and opportunities we have a sector in these three phases…

Within the pandemic era

  • Secure provision, defined by distance learning, that is sequenced, efficient, consistent and accessible and one that has (at least a sense of) human interaction and narrative. To maintain our curriculum, learning and a sense of normality to our children.
  • Understand the impact of distance learning on disadvantaged children; an urgent concern, one that could have an irreversible legacy. (if there was ever a strategy to further disadvantage disadvantaged children then distance learning would be it.)
  • Supporting and maintaining societal cohesion; acting with community agencies to support families in these challenging times.
  • Supporting and maintaining contact with our most vulnerable children and families and those that become so.

Preparing for a post-pandemic world

  • Planning and preparing for children to re-join their education. A pastoral and curricular challenge.
  • Planning specifically to rationalise and empower children, particularly those in Years 5, 10 and 12 to experience a curriculum and assessment structure that does not compound the hiatus in their education.
  • Planning specifically to support disadvantaged children; deliberately and rigorously seeking to tackle the growing disadvantaged gap, which will be exasperated, not supported by distance learning; a challenge that will be measured in years not months.

Paradigm shifting into a new education era

  • Understanding what we need from the national assessment and examination structure. Not just for Year 5, 10 and 12 in 2021 (whose gap and random curriculum coverage is already undermining the fairness of 2021 exams and assessment, particularly if you are disadvantaged), but in the long term. There has never been a better opportunity to rationalise this structure and understand how we could better prepare all children for adulthood and to be economically and personally successful.
  • Building on the role of schools, academies and Trusts as community partners; how far does this pandemic re-shape and re-articulate the position of schools and Trusts at the heart of their communities?
  • Capitalising on the role of parents and families as co-partners in educating their children; building on the deep investments being made by parents/carers in their child’s education.
  • Re-imagining the role of technology in supporting learning in and beyond school. We are already seeing a significant jump in the use of technology; a foothold in the virtual space that will not recede.
  • Deeply considering and understanding the key/leveraging curricular elements that enable children to transition to adulthood (or secondary, or Post-16); something that is required in the planning of Year 5, 10 and 12 , 2020-21 curriculum.
  • Exploiting the depth of altruism and support between Trusts and the wider sector evident through this crisis, to build a self-supporting, self-improving system.
  • The future of school inspection in a post-pandemic world; and the opposite opportunity to build sector-led quality assurance, based around a greater understanding of what matters. What does education look like with limited performance tables and a hiatus in curriculum continuity?

“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.” Og Mandino


Into the Innovation Space | Don’t go into hibernation

So from adversity may come opportunity, perhaps one that is rich enough to bring significant good from the present struggle. One that may transform education and support our children to thrive in this uncertain world.

So go into the innovation space, avoid hibernation and dare to dream of an education system at the heart of the community, working in deep partnerships and focusing on the right things for our children and the future generations.

This hiatus may well be the jolt to the system that allows educationalists and the sector to create a new paradigm; one that will better serve our young people… but only if we seek it.


Dr Daniel Nicholls

29 March 2020

Middle Leadership | CLF Conference

It is probably true that Middle Leadership is the key role in an Academy for driving improvement. At its best it inspires children and staff to bring new light to what might be, improves quality of teaching, champions an enabling curriculum, drives up outcomes to deliver improved life chances for all (including the team members).

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It is also probably true that Middle Leadership is most effective when those concerned can be considered to be true experts in their field, when they lead by example with an ethic of excellence, and when they act in concert with their senior colleagues, supporting whole school improvement through highly effective day to day management…owning their curriculum, championing knowledge and learning, actively improving teaching and being clinical about improving outcomes.


Which begs the question: what are the key elements of middle leadership that makes the difference? The following What ifs… are inspired by the strong middle leadership that exist across the Federation.


What if middle leaders consistently created a culture within their team where risks could be taken and individual talents recognised, without losing the ability to challenge, to support, to direct and to critique? …a culture that creates the conditions where team members inspire and are inspired by their colleagues.

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What if middle leaders were respected and trusted in equal measure, so that their team members knew beyond all doubt that they would be receiving the best possible coaching and support to achieve outstanding outcomes through effective lessons? …where middle leaders are the champion of their team and subject/area.

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What if middle leaders were the first people in the organisation to offer feedback to their staff members, and the first to offer coaching to ensure the craft of teaching was honed and nurtured for each individual in their team? They are the agents of change who shift the quality of teaching.

What if middle leaders fully understood the crucial nature of their role in an Ofsted inspection, where the question on the Inspector’s lips might be ‘how is teaching more effective because of what this leader knows about achievement in this school?’

What if middle leaders championed the one chance that children have. Understanding the deep moral purpose that exists and generating urgency so that all children fulfil and reach their potential…taking seriously the need to reverse accumulated disadvantage for our disadvantaged children.

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What if Middle Leaders understood that the key strategy for accelerating a child’s progress and enhancing life chances was the consistent delivery of quality first teaching every lesson, every day.

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What if middle leaders secured delivery of key elements of the signature pedagogy; where a depth of knowledge, an ethos of excellence, along with teaching that stretches and challenges, that questions to unlock understanding and delivers effective feedback, accelerates learning?

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What if Middle Leaders were champions of their curriculum; understanding the need to develop a layered/spiralled curriculum that explores and revisits areas to depth and assesses knowledge, skills and understanding against age related expectations?

What if Middle Leaders were champions of their subject and pedagogy? Understanding the need to ensure a depth of knowledge inspires, understands the key concepts and mis-concepts and how pedagogy can be applied to accelerate knowledge, skills and understanding?

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What if middle leaders knew about the performance of different student groups not only over the course of the year, but building on previous years in the same school, charting their progress and matching it to departmental interventions and foci over time? …targeting those children that fall behind and accelerating progress to close gaps in attainment.

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What if middle leaders walked the line between the ‘statesman-like’ approach of the senior leader and that of a supportive family member to those in their team? …supporting and challenging improvements in performance overtime, both deliberately and compassionately.

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What if middle leaders prepared each meeting as they might a lesson, taking into account the learning experience for their colleagues, their diverse needs, the best way to structure the experience, to have seamless transitions, and a judicious mix of action, discussion, reflection, and imparting of information?

What if middle leaders had the confidence and competence to highlight areas of strength and weakness within the course of a school year or term, without waiting for external validation but seeking to collaborate with others to improve at an accelerated rate?

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What if middle leaders sought to achieve a discernible difference in areas that they identify for improvement?

What if middle leaders were at once confident enough to deal with emerging issues, and humble enough to ask for perspective, support, even validation from their senior colleagues?

What if middle leaders understood that they start to become organisationally blind after six weeks? What if because of this understanding middle leaders connected and collaborated deeply within and beyond their own Academy?

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What if middle leaders were able to ask for feedback not only from their line managers but from their own team and from their peers, knowing that feedback enables growth?


Maybe then individual subjects would develop at a fast pace, with outcomes for all students exceeding national expectations, and reducing achievement gaps between groups.

Maybe then teaching, our core business, would be consistently outstanding within each department and across each school. Set within an owned and inspiring curriculum.

Maybe then a generation of leaders would emerge that would have impact and influence well beyond their role.

…and Maybe then we would have the deepest job satisfaction, knowing we have performed unusually well and that our students are the real winners.

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Sally Apps and Dan Nicholls

October 2015