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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Leadership: how schools can build on their creative, community-based responses to the pandemic

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 April 2021

annawaldl / Pixabay

Peter Earley.

The pandemic has brought schools’ vital role at the heart of their communities into sharp relief, says visiting professor and former Chief HMI Christine Gilbert in the first of a series of Thinkpieces published by the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership (CEL). The paper will be followed by a public online forum on Tuesday 27 April from 5-6-30pm.

Gilbert’s ThinkpieceComing Back Stronger: Leadership Mattersargues that the pandemic provides an excellent opportunity for the education system to build our learning from the crisis into collaborative thinking, planning and action. Schools’ creativity in managing the disruption and complexities of the pandemic provides important lessons. It is now essential for school and other educational leaders to find time for reflection on that learning.

Her Thinkpiece identifies five leadership opportunities for building a stronger future:

  • 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

As regards the first opportunity – Rooting schools at the heart of their communities – she argues that the last year has seen increasing poverty and stress for many families, yet we’ve also witnessed a great deal of community support and solidarity, often leveraged with and through schools. As Gilbert remarks:

‘In many places they became an anchor, providing support and some stability. We saw inspiring examples of schools working closely and practically with families as pressures mounted at home. Leaders understood there was no point in focusing on home learning if children were hungry or subject to the stresses of domestic violence. They became more socially involved in their families’ problems and issues, often acting as brokers with the local council or other agencies. They often influenced local action in response to needs and concerns. Responses to this crisis have highlighted a leadership role for schools in building a more place-based approach across their local community. This role is about making connections, sometimes acting as a convener, but all the time building relationships and trust. A joined-up, collaborative response, integrating access, support and services for those most in need, supports children and families to lead better lives.’

This role is important but schools’ contribution to their local communities goes further. Gilbert argues it involves ‘helping young people develop agency to contribute to their local communities and society. Big issues confront local communities. These require schools, and particularly young people within them, to think holistically in caring for their ‘common home’ and the communities within it’. For Gilbert this entails individual and collective engagement locally, and thinking that leads to action.

Our CEL colleague, Kathryn Riley, in her work on the leadership of place also stresses the importance of young people feeling a sense of belonging in school, of being part of a community where they feel accepted and safe. This positively affects both their approach to learning and their outcomes. It is argued that leaders who are place-makers understand their students and build trust by ‘making meaningful connections to families, and locating the school within the wider archipelago of surrounding communities’.  The pandemic has underlined the importance of these relationships.

Young people need to feel a sense of belonging and pride in their local school and to behave as stewards within their community. They need to feel agency and to have the confidence and will to make a difference. For Gilbert, the community should function ‘as a source of practical support for young people, for example providing safe spaces for digital access, study and learning. It should offer experiential opportunities to learn about the world of work or social action, including volunteering’.

The Thinkpiece says a stronger focus on place and belonging can shape the values of future generations to create a fairer, more inclusive and sustainable society. For Gilbert ‘a key part of leading this learning is exploring how schools can operate creatively beyond their walls, better equipping and empowering young people to become socially responsible change-makers, with ideas and impact in their local communities’

The four other leadership opportunities for building a stronger future, highlighted and discussed by Gilbert, will  each become the focus of future Thinkpieces. Published termly, the next Thinkpiece will focus on the link between research and practice considering the role of leadership and CEL. Thinkpieces are envisaged as a systematic way of regularly providing input into the educational policy and practice conversations, with an emphasis on leadership. Based on CEL research, but drawing on its extensive network of partners and contributors, each Thinkpiece will be followed by a public event attracting an international audience of practitioners, policymakers and the academic community (see details below).  Thinkpieces are research-informed and focus on the pressing global challenges facing educational leaders in a changing world.

Each Thinkpiece will be followed by an online Forum. Our first one  also includes a brief response from another of our Visiting Professors, Sir Kevan Collins, and the Head of CEL, Professor Qing Gu. I look forward to chairing that meeting. You can register here.


In September 2020 the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL) became the UCL Centre for Educational Leadership.



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