Only A Crisis Can Produce Real Change

Headteacher Shonogh Pilgrim misses lockdown and has some bitter-sweet reflections about the return to a less-than-great ‘normal'.

I recently joined an online event hosted by the RSA where public philosopher Roman Krznaric talked about his new book, The Good Ancestor; How to think long term in a short-term world. I was attracted to the event for a number of reasons but mainly because I love a good book talk and because I’m increasingly concerned about the obsession with quick fixes that I see in the education sector.

In some respects, that is a whole other conversation and perhaps one we can have at another time. While I found listening to the ideas presented and the conversations that developed interesting, it was a quote that Roman shared that really resonated that evening. The quote was from the economist Milton Friedman and is one that was new to me (though I suspect well known to many) and served to help me make sense of how I have experienced the pandemic and lockdown. Friedman says ‘Only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.

That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’.

It would be very true to say that as a leader I constantly have lots of ‘ideas lying around’ and that the opportunities presented by our current, very real, crisis have become the opportunity for change that I’ve been waiting for. It would also be true to say that having tasted how it could be if the changes became ‘politically possible’ rather than something you can do only as a consequence of the normal order being disrupted, I am very reluctant to let go of the changes and sleep walk back to a way of working that, in my opinion, wasn’t working.


While I don’t begrudge that for a moment, I do feel concerned that in the day to day business of keeping everyone safe I’ve lost the opportunity to really think, and make sure that we hold on to everything that was good about our lockdown experience. And there were so many things that were good! Our students, staff and parents came together more closely as a community than I have ever witnessed before, despite them each being confined to their own homes.

The sense of unity we experienced was breathtaking and I’m certain it happened because when all of the noise of life was removed the sound of love and care was louder. The noise is back; everyone is busy trying to make things work as best they can, to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible, to meet the same standards we had before. We’re all back on the treadmills of our old exam system, our old accountability measures, our old assumption that being in school is best for everyone. I see it happening and I feel incredibly sad because I don’t believe that what we had before lockdown was so great.

During lockdown I saw many of our students thrive. I saw them grab the agency we had been wanting them to have with both hands and really engage with learning because they knew it mattered to them. After all, they still had personal goals to meet and a lockdown couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of that. I saw them show up in google meets and engage in new ways with their teachers, new voices being heard because  they were much more comfortable sharing their ideas virtually than in the high-stakes environment of a classroom.

I also saw them find their rhythm; plan their day, work really hard in the mornings to liberate the time to do things they loved in the afternoon, engage with their parents and siblings in new activities, join online events to learn about things they didn’t even know existed before, be incredibly sad at times but know that they would be ok because the adults around them knew that too. I saw a community thrive in the face of adversity.

And then in September I saw them come back into school; excited to see each other and to see their teachers. One of the things I love about our school is that our students love to talk and they know that we hear them. And so over the days and weeks, we talked to them and we heard a real mixture of reflections from them on the lockdown period. It’s absolutely clear to me that some of them are very glad that they are back but others miss lockdown as much as I do!

They loved the flexibility of learning at home and would really like to be able to do that as part of their week. Perhaps that shouldn’t really be a surprise given the generational shifts we are seeing in approaches to working lives and the rising desire for flexible working. The really sad part is that their right to be educated seems to be a barrier to their desire to learn in ways that suit them best. And so the challenge is laid down for me as their headteacher, the person responsible for how the system works for them. What are the (as Sir Tim Brighouse terms them) gaps in the hedges that I can exploit on their behalf? How can I work the system to enable each child to have what they need?

Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to do that; if lockdown had helped us to take the ideas that were lying around, apply them to make things work in the crisis, realise that they worked for more than a crisis and allow them to shape the system so that it remained changed not just for the duration of the pandemic but forever, because the new way was actually better suited to our changing world and the people who inhabit it. For my part, I’ll keep nudging forward for the students in my care. I wonder how many of you agree and would seek to join me.