By Colin Diamond
Enforced distance learning has highlighted need for strong leaders through Covid-19 crisis
School leaders in the Middle East are facing a perfect storm. The combined effects of the Covid-19 Black Swan event are hitting the economy, education, health and society simultaneously. In the middle of the storm, school leaders have responded brilliantly using their full professional repertoire of skills and knowledge.
Migrating to an online learning system overnight brought its own challenges, however keeping learning going is much harder.
Teaching at home creates a new social dynamic and school leaders will set the culture and expectations. Guiding parents to aim for the right balance of learning, dealing with children’s anxieties, and knowing when to cut the slack and make space, is essential.
Meanwhile, school leaders are devising new ways to moderate staff workload and foster wellbeing. Teachers are social creatures and ‘people people’ who are accustomed to full-on contact at school.
Leadership can be lonely and school leaders are highly exposed right now. When I visit schools anywhere in the world my final question to the head is usually ‘who looks after you?’
Very few leaders are able to say confidently that they have a strong support network in place. They habitually look out for everyone else but not necessarily themselves, which drains the emotional bank account.
Plus, they may be experiencing unrealistic pressure from governors and owners to keep the school performing educationally and financially.
At times of crisis knowing that someone ‘has your back’ is crucial as everyday high-level decisions are being made by the head on the front line. All leaders are imperfect and will make mistakes if they fly solo and don’t make the most of their senior teams.
Mentors are invaluable and networking essential. School leaders need that check-in routine just like their teachers do.
The role of government regulators is key here to moderate the education system and introduce flexibility on any policies that could produce pinch points for school leaders and governors.
In Dubai the KHDA responded quickly, adapting policies in recognition of the Covid-19 situation whilst gathering a treasure trove of online materials and guidance.
It’s too early to predict the long-term outcomes of Covid-19. We know that the symbiosis between the economy and education will continue and schools in the Middle East are at the sharp interface.
Demand for school places has dropped already. Indications are that distance learning and blended learning models are here to stay with much improved technology.
The search is on for an education system that is both efficient and effective: in other words, one which continues the vital social functions of school but builds in learning for the 21st century and is affordable. Covid-19 has accelerated this thinking already.
An optimistic take on the long-term can be summarised in one word: henosis. This is the ancient Greek word for ‘oneness’ or ‘unity’.
The economist F. A. Hayek argued that forms of collaboration that emerge spontaneously from society are the strongest in the long-term. We are seeing support networks and new kinds of modus operandi springing up across the education sector. Inventiveness is blended with compassion and driven by vocation.
The Middle East school system will emerge stronger, tempered by events, with new ways of working for the decade ahead.
Colin Diamond CBE Professor of Education Leadership, University of Birmingham Dubai