Coronavirus - coping with the 'new normal' in schools

With our best-laid plans put on hold during the past few months, Helen Burge reflects on how to cope with the 'new normal'

If you've ever played the card game Uno you will know that it is a game of ups and downs, with wild cards that change the flow of the game and require you to adjust your strategy in a split second. This strategy may become irrelevant for a couple of rounds and then - quite by chance - emerge as the winning strategy a couple of rounds later.

We played Uno on our first family ski holiday last Christmas. The holiday had required lots of planning and a considerable change of mindset: we had to adjust to be a family of four again (having sent eldest son off to uni in September), and we had to forego the usual festive food in favour of frozen homemade favourites that could be easily prepared at our rented apartment. At that time, we were blissfully unaware that we were going to be forced into another situation of unknowns three months later - just this time with no snow or stunning mountain vistas!

New rules and wild cards

Our inconsequential games of Uno recently resurfaced as a strange parallel to my work - as a school operations manager - since the beginning of March, when Covid-19 turned our lives upside-down. The pace over these past few months has been intense, with new rules or wild cards being dealt to schools every day during the government's evening briefings. A significant one, of course, was Wednesday 18 March, when it was announced that schools were closing.

We learnt the rules of this new game, such as who was eligible to attend the keyworker childcare provision. We learnt how the rules should be communicated, and tried to understand what the cards in our hand actually meant, and when we should use them. There was even a completely bonkers separate game of Uno dedicated just to Free School Meals vouchers...

During this period, our colleagues in maintained schools were also still trying to complete year end and put budgets for the new financial year on their system - hats off to you guys!


There is no denying that we've all had to change the way we work and the way we approach challenges - thinking creatively and innovatively and turning strategy quickly into operational implementation. I'm sure I've gained a few more grey hairs; I know I've comfort eaten, and the ice cubes have been clinking in my G&T more frequently than usual.

I also know that #SBLTwitter really came into its own - sharing ideas, news, strategies, plans, risk assessments and, of course, dealing with the emotional impact of the global pandemic. We've been encouraging each other on how to adjust to working from home, switch off from work and be creative in finding alternative things to do during lockdown.

Start with why

So here is my suggestion: if you've not read Simon Sinek's book Start with Why or watched his TED talk, do find the time. To summarise, Sinek states that great leaders inspire everyone to take action by putting Why (the purpose) before How (the process), or What (the product). As schools rapidly transitioned to childcare for key workers, we've ensured the Why of our schools and academies continues, even though the How and the What have been transformed (with families home-schooling through teacher-created online learning or packs of work).

I think this presents a perfect opportunity to look at the Why, How and What for school income generation. Let's face it, lettings and car-boot sales have probably dried up, so now we can use this time to reflect and think more strategically. There will be budgets in 2019/20 not fully spent, so how can they be put to even better use in 2020/21? You could argue it is likely that we will experience another pandemic in our lifetime, so what should we be doing differently now to protect our schools, but also the business models of our suppliers? Some supplier relationships have been strained to say the least, while others have really blossomed.

Forward planning

Plans for 2019/20 maintenance works and improvement plans are likely to be on hold for a bit. Soon, I hope, we will turn our attention to bringing everything back to relative normality. This will take some planning, and the process will be in stark contrast to the abrupt halt in March. Some schools will need to order new science goggles to replace those donated to local hospitals, caterers will need to restock kitchens, and maintenance teams will have to complete extensive checks across school buildings and grounds. Just as my family organised our skiing holiday (which seems like a lifetime ago now!), we will have the luxury of time to plan and implement. We will be able to consider our options, consult widely with interested stakeholders, make the necessary adjustments and hopefully have a fixed target date.

Review and reflect

In the meantime, why not review the Why, How and What of your Covid-19 strategy and the lessons you can draw from it. Has the preparation for converting your school to a childcare provision for keyworkers highlighted strengths you didn't realise you had? Do you want to use those skills more now? Could this mean a different role for you in the future? Has it exposed any weaknesses in your skills? Perhaps it has inspired you to apply for ISBL Fellowship?

Review yourself against the ISBL Professional Standards. How are you going to try and close any skills gaps? Is there any online CPD you could access during the lockdown for you or your team? What will you ask for when you next have an appraisal?

Give yourself time to reflect when you have the capacity to make considered choices - during your daily walk, perhaps? And if you've never played Uno, perhaps you've got some time now to learn... after all, we've all learnt how to expect the unexpected!


About our expert

Helen Burge is deputy chief operations officer at The Priory Learning Trust, Somerset, and a founder member of the Somerset School Business Leaders group.


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