BELMAS Blog

BELMAS Annual Conference 2016 - Day One

09.07.16

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Author: Susan Young

All over the world, academics and practitioners are thinking about, writing about and striving to improve the quality of academic leadership for the benefit of staff, students and the wider community.

This weekend sees 160 of those thinkers and doers from 22 countries joining together in the peaceful surroundings of a Cheshire country hotel to divulge and debate what they've been working on, and to consider the insights of three very different keynote speakers.

The BELMAS international conference is a bit different, welcoming as it does both practising school and college leaders alongside researcher at every stage of their careers. Small enough to be friendly, that friendliness doesn’t preclude rigorous academic debate at the end of the sessions and over the social events.

This year’s conference has a fascinating mix of research. One keynote speaker, Stephan Huber, will be presenting a fascinating bit of longitudinal research on school leaders, the strains of the job and their health. Philip Hallinger will talk about speeding up the development of a global knowledge base in school leadership and management: while some practices are generally thought to be associated with effective school leadership and management, there’s not much yet in the way of theory on how this should be adapted or refined for different contexts. And in the third keynote Scottish headteacher Sheila Laing will talk about social exclusion and her experience of leading schools to empower students and their communities.

The papers and workshop sessions also span a huge variety of subjects large and small. Research to be presented into UK matters looks at governance, system leadership, encouraging leadership through research, and the use of social media and much more. The fate of women as school leaders is also the subject of a workshop and several papers, while another session looks specifically at men. And of course there are papers specifically looking at the effects of English education policy: system leadership, free schools, and more. 

International papers span some fascinating subjects, including the different ways in which school leaders are trained in five different countries, and how at-risk students are supported in different nations.

Opening the conference, BELMAS chair Professor Philip Woods mused on the year’s theme, that of unlocking leadership and management potential in different contexts and how that is “not just an issue for senior leaders but for all those who can and do exercise creativity, innovation and agency to make things happen.”

School leaders’ stories - and their significance

One of the first afternoon’s many highlights was a session from the International School Leadership Development Network which, as Gosport head teacher Ian Potter explained, has for the past four years worked to “capture, and learn from the contexts of school leaders.” The result from years of headteacher interviews, centring on social justice leadership and high-needs schools all over the world is a “rich database” and offering theorising and findings which might be of use to school leaders in other contexts.

The session provided mini-sagas on school leaders from all over the world. We learned about Canadian principal Jamie, working in a rural high school where children struggle with addiction, anxiety, sex education, SATs testing, lack of dentistry and often hunger - but it was adopting a son with Asperger syndrome which led her to social justice. “It shouldn’t matter what students start with, but what they become,” she said.

There was Beverley, rural Jamaican principal in a school with no electricity but what “pupils lack in material resources they make up for in resilience. In the face of all the have-nots they have those things, internal things, spurring them on,” said Dr Paul Miller, adding that underpinning it all is the government policy saying that every child can learn, every child must learn. Beverley told him: “Our students are poor but our commitment to them is rich. We know that education is the only way out for many of them.” Pam Angelle of the University of Tennessee told a story of a 1st year principal and former baseball coach who took up his job with enthusiasm and theory, ready to change the culture of his school and passionate about marginalised children. “This leadership story doesn’t have a happy ending,” she warned. Three years later, she returned and found “a pessimist, somebody overwhelmed by work, not supported by community because he was an outsider.” No teachers had turned up for his book club, policy did not allow him to make the decisions he needed to make, and teachers told him their job was to prepare pupils for tests, not “be their mothers.”

“Politics weighted him down, didn't allow him to be social justice leader he wanted to be,” she concluded. What could have helped? “Knowing the community before you go into it: enthusiasm and passion doesn’t necessarily win people over.”

Ken Jones, looking at Welsh heads, talked about the high number of policies to close the attainment gap, and he thought schools there would reject “performativity” policies. Interviewing three heads of schools in deprived areas, he expected them to say: this is what the Government wants but this is what we’re doing, but instead, they said it’s ideological in the right direction.

Lee Flood, also of the University of Tennessee, had looked at the traits and characteristics of effective leaders in five countries, and discovered five concepts in common. There were “innate qualities” including being honest and able to communicate and leadership actions which meant looking like leaders, engaging stakeholders, being honest with teachers. There was instructional leadership “which has really taken hold in a global way, that leaders are expected to have their boots on the ground and know what’s going on”, the business of education and how leaders went about that, and their experiences, whether acquired by personality or training. These outlooks were similar in the countries he studied, despite very different contexts and outlook.

How strategic are school governors?

This was the question asked by Jacqueline Baxter of the Open University of governors, at a time when “English education is about doing more with less.” She wanted to find out how they understood strategy, what beliefs they had. “Strategy was articulated by smart targets and key performance indicators in a very narrow way,” she said.

In multi-academy trusts, she said governors appeared to be unaware of any mission statements, unlike in US charter schools, and comments showed that in areas of high deprivation she investigated governors said awareness of catchment area was a very important part of the strategy. “The local was very important - and you’ve obviously got a much better chance of getting local knowledge than where it is more geographically spread,” she said.

“The other thing that strongly came through was that governors seemed confident of making strategy if they had tangible figures,” she said, going on to explain that Pupil Premium money was a good example of ways in which they felt confident. “Some thought they were not equipped for strategy, it was too big to consider, it was the responsibility of the head teacher to form that strategy and the idea of innovating it seemed quite alien to them… it was almost a feeling that the strategy was out of their grasp. That was even the case with people doing strategy on a daily basis in their day job: educational strategy was something different. They didn’t seem to have the knowledge to cope with strategising.”

Why? Dr Baxter suggests that the high levels of accountability in English schools had made many organisations risk averse, and that governing bodies might talk about vision but it was that of the headteacher. They were more confident monitoring than innovating.

Research in schools

Two fascinating presentations talked about the value of research in schools, either with staff doing this for themselves or in creating an evidence-informed ethos.

Linda Hammersley-Fletcher of Manchester Metropolitan University and Vanessa McManus of Gatley Primary School, talked about the huge value brought to a teaching school cluster, and in particular the fantastic CPD it provided to staff. “People get talking about research, it makes them much more confident, what should they think about next? Their thinking is shifting and it’s exciting,” said Dr Hammersley-Fletcher, adding: “They didn't originally see themselves as teacher leaders. Gradually, over the year they started to take pride in this. It was noticeable, that growth.” For Vanessa MacManus, research and evidence gives schools justification to Ofsted for taking risks in improvement.

Chris Brown of UCL talked about the benefits of evidence use in schools, as shown by research, and said that school leaders are vital in the process.

“They have the vision for research, provide resource, structure, time and space. Then you also need school leaders to be walking the talk, mentoring and coaching. You want them as part of connecting research to practice, that they know it's important and what needs to happen. The biggest thing is an enquiry habit of mind,” he said, going on to talk about the importance of learning conversations and the creation of a culture of trust and enquiry, which when done well improved both teachers’ practice and student outcomes.

He warned that you can’t “cut and paste” research into school: it needs a theory of action and a support system. However, creating an evidence-informed school was a low cost resource. It needed a promotion of the use of research, and the use of mentoring and monitoring to increase learning conversations in schools. “It’s about transformational leadership: you need to promote the vision then show people how you want them to do it,” he said.

Research, research, research

BELMAS has nine Research Interest Groups (RIGs) covering a variety of areas ranging from critical educational policy and leadership studies, through structural reform to parental engagement and doctoral research. The Rigs, says BELMAS research co-ordinator Kay Fuller, are to help BELMAS achieve its aims and all members are encouraged to join one or more.

So one of the afternoon sessions included a swift run through of the nine. Here’s a few of the highlights (and if you’re outside the UK, they do try to run sessions with a Skype link if possible):

  • Critical educational Policy and Leadership Studies: “We have a social justice agenda quite a bit of time, about  research and activism. We’re concerned with thnking how to get out of library and out there in terms of impacting and developing ideas within the education system,” explains convenor Helen Gunter.
  • Doctoral Research group: “It brought me out of my metaphorical library and into into so many topics I needed for my research to progress with the quality of the presentations and the level of the conversation that arose out of them and I think it would be well worth more students and doctoral writers attending,” said doctoral student Laura Chapman.
  • Gender and leadership group: “We want to work on gender and leadership through an intersectional lens; It looks at women of colour and other aspects of gender. It blends both academic and community engagement. That's where we’re starting from,” said convenor Victoria Showunmi.
  • Governance and Governing: “We seek to be highly inclusive, encourage researchers to share ideas. This is what I've found this is what it's opening up, if you're researching or practising that can be very helpful and helps us come up with sharp ideas. What do we really want to know?” asks member Chris James.
  • Parental Engagement and School Improvement: “This is a baby RIG but we have ideas about where we want to take it and there is a groundswell of interest. Over half our doctoral students at one seminar wanted to research around this. I think it is under-theorised,” says Janet Goodall, convenor.
  • Post-16 Leadership and management: “This is a new network, with a mix of staff, teachers, managers leaders and research students,” said Alan Floyd.
  • Race and leadership: “We wanted to move beyond black and white boundaries conversation and to look at ideas such as if the school demographic doesn't represent who you are. We are aiming towards a more inclusive discourse and to encourage partnerships which may not happen currently,” Christine Callendar, convenor.
  • Structural reform: “In England what’s current on a Tuesday may no longer be current on a Wednesday. This dynamics are very important, and we’re trying to identify the kinds of research going on as they’re not always known especially if they’re doctoral students,” says Tim Simkins, convenor.

I’ll be blogging the rest of the conference here, so do come back - and why not join the conversation on Twitter at #BELMAS2016?

Susan is a freelance education journalist who works with BELMAS to publicise the conference and our other activities. She tweets at @SusanYoung_.

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