NDTi - Courageous leadership in difficult times
The National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi) has been running the SEND Leadership programme for the past five years. Funded by the DfE, the programme forms part of the support provided following 2014 Children’s Act SEND reforms.
The programme is an opportunity for strategic leaders across the education, health and care sectors to work together to explore their own journeys, leadership skills and the role of leadership in change management, as well as spending time looking at leading edge practice across the sector. Participation in pairs is encouraged so that applicants can work together on a project of their choice throughout the duration of the programme.
The 2019/20 programme ended abruptly in the middle of the final module, because of the Coronavirus Pandemic. We had been having a very positive residential event when it became clear that the Government was about to announce lockdown. I remember chatting with my colleagues before dinner and collectively deciding to finish early. I remember an overwhelming sense of responsibility and fear for the weeks ahead. We shared our thoughts over dinner and participants responded with both relief and some sadness at not getting to see out the final day. Some left that morning as they had been called back to their areas to begin emergency planning. We finished just after lunch, did a quick round of evaluation, and then dispersed back to our own local areas with a sense of anxiety and trepidation, uncertain as to how things would unfold.
Four weeks into lockdown we set up a series of online sessions to give the Leadership programme participants the opportunity to catch up. We didn’t know how these would be received but wanted to give people a chance to reconnect and share their experiences, plus we wanted to know that people had managed to stay well, especially given that for most of us the residential was our last experience of being in a group setting before restrictions came in. One of the participants had, indeed, been ill and spent time in hospital and shared that she had felt very scared during this time.
For the whole facilitation team what struck us was the commitment and creativity that these leaders were demonstrating. We talked about people feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of both trying to support families in their local areas alongside needing to look after their own families and loved ones, young and old. People had taken on different roles to plug gaps in their areas; one Designated Medical Officer (DMO) had even been out delivering PPE to families so that they could continue to have care and support at home.
We also discussed concerns and challenges – some participants reported a significant increase in both requests for Education Health and Care assessments and in tribunals as they moved online. There was concern about making decisions the consequences of which were hard to predict, such as creating Education, Health and Care plans virtually and carrying out online reviews. Some were also worried about a lack of therapists due to a number of them self-isolating and shielding, about the initial push for those in the DMO and DCO roles to move into front line work, and about school staff continuing to provide teaching for vulnerable children and those of key workers without proper PPE.
Reflecting on the Leadership course, people shared their experiences of feeling listened to, and how they felt safe to show their vulnerabilities and be honest with each other. Some had been going through particularly tricky times in their work and personal lives and felt supported and valued by the group. We also talked about what we have learnt through this time of lockdown – that professionals can work together putting differences aside to ensure families continue to be supported with limited resources, but that this has put an enormous strain on us all both financially and emotionally.
We also talked about how this has, perhaps paradoxically, provided new opportunities for children, young people and family voices to be louder, with young people attending meetings who would never have previously engaged, on their terms and in their homes using their equipment to support them. Young people with autism and anxiety finding it so much easier to engage in their reviews online than it usually is sitting around a table with a large group of professionals, for instance.
People shared that developing online human contact has been vital in keeping them emotionally well and able to be the courageous leaders needed at this time. The evolution of informal virtual “water cooler conversations” with staff, quizzes and evening glasses of wine catch-ups have all helped to keep their teams intact and supported so that they can continue to do their work. The Leadership programme group has decided to “meet” every 3 weeks whist lockdown remains, continuing to talk, reflect, share experiences, and to support each other as best we can.
I hope that we can take positives from this dreadful situation and learn from them. That young people continue to have a voice and families feel like equal partners in designing support that works for them. Finally, and perhaps a bit selfishly, that my colleagues and I don’t have to get on trains at 5.00 in the morning to travel across the country when an online meeting would do!
For further information about the SEND Leadership programme and other programmes run by NDTi please contact:
Julie Pointer, Children and young people lead
National Development Team for Inclusion (NDTi)
firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 07860776701