BELMAS Annual Conference 2016 - Day Three


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Author: Susan Young

It’s a bit of an in-joke at BELMAS that presenters or chairs of the 9am Sunday sessions must have fallen foul of the organisers in some way. But there’s still a good turnout for the 11 strands, with subjects varying from principals’ decision-making in Australian, Finnish and Jamaican schools, a day in the life of new heads in Chile, and the annual session with the editors of the two BELMAS journals on how to get published (the bad news is it’s getting harder).

At a time when the English education system’s accountability regime is leading to football-manager syndrome for heads whose schools fail to meet expectations, two sessions seemed particularly timely.

What happens to heads who lose their jobs?

Mark Gibson, himself “in secondary schools for 30 years”, talked about his interest in what happens to headteachers after they lose their job. His interest was originally sparked by a friend’s experience, and he wondered if a leadership role could now be a “stopping point rather than a stepping stone” in a career. And a literature review, which portrayed headship as the zenith of a career “doesn’t seem to be what I’m seeing… it doesn’t fit with the 20th century model.”

“When they’ve lost that post, what are they doing? What happens to them?” he asked, going on to muse about how skills might be used in post leadership roles, and the fate of professional self efficiency, self-esteem, and how the heads felt about their ability.

“In all these situations they’ve had a very traumatic experience: are they still going to believe in themselves or not?”

Lack of centrally-collected information and compromise agreements are making it difficult for Mark to find interviewees - and when he does, many are too concerned about the legal ramifications to talk to him. So far he has interviewed four former principals, all in their mid to early 40s. The immediate effect was a big loss of self-esteem: the individuals lost agency, talked about their powerlessness. All of them had health issues, he said, and at least one found herself “in the stocks” when the school went into special measures.

What assistance could they call on? What post-leadership paths were there? he asked.

From the audience, Bethany Kelly suggested that part of the difficulty could be that teaching was seen as a vocation, with a real problem of not having an identity outside school.

And what happens to schools trying to recruit a new head?

Following on, Chris James talked about problematic aspects of primary school headteacher recruitment and selection in England emerging from a research project.

It could, he said, be one of the most important activities a governing body undertakes. “It is a high-stakes moment - appointing the wrong person can cause serious difficulties for a very long time with bad consequences for the school. It can take a long time. And the governing body may go through a lot of palaver but very little predicts future performance of the head,” he said.

Noting that there was very little reported research on this, he said a governing body could be generally brilliant “but this is very different from scrutinising accounts. This lands on your lap… You would think there would be more guidance but there is no explicit reference for governing boards,” he said.

In a swift trot through recruitment procedures, Chris pointed out problematic areas at almost every step of the way, around every phase of the appointment, adding that it could be a particularly demanding responsibility for the chair. Other general issues included the expense and complexity of the process, including the writing of the job spec, and pitfalls around support.

Time and timing could cause particular problems, as could issues around the current head - suppose they were terminally ill, for instance?  What if an applicant was already on the governing body? Who decides who gets the job? What if the chair’s preferred candidate isn’t picked?

“The picture I’m trying to build here is that there are difficult, thorny, nitty gritty decisions to be made any one of which can trip whole thing up…. I am trying to paint a pathway along which there are numerous tripping points,” he said, saying that he was intrigued as to why there was so little research. He added: “Despite the picture I've painted numerous governing bodies do this very effectively.”

Another coffee break, another chance for the delegates to catch up, discuss the papers they’ve heard, and have another look at the research posters, where subjects include barriers for women principals in Cyprus primaries and professional aspirations for female deputy heads in the UK - and it’s back into the final presentations.

Neil Gilbridge’s exploration of adult ego development in school leaders draws a bit of a crowd keen to see how the work has come on since Chris James and Ian Potter first introduced it at a BELMAS conference in Stratford a couple of years ago. There’s also a lot of interest in a session on women leading in education across the Commonwealth, and interesting discussions around how leaders can influence four types of diversity, and perceptions of mentoring newly-posted teachers in Kenya by principals.

An insight into South African school boards… and the lives of school business managers in England

In a parallel session, Vitallis Chikoko had some fascinating insights into the effects on schools of decentralisation, geography and school governing boards, quoting school principals who had found themselves up against powerful boards who in some cases wanted to give posts to relatives or people from a different area. He quoted one principal who said. “The chair said I should be grateful that I was offered this post despite that I came from the south. He kept on saying it was not easy for them I was principal here.”

There were issues of regionalism, influence and decentralisation, he said, concluding: “This is a small scale study but South African public schooling is at a confluence, and the goings-on can make or break the school. There seems to be a need to redefine roles, who must hire teachers and school governance. Does decentralisation work? There seems to be a need to rethink composition of school governing boards,” he said.

Paul Armstrong is also looking at the effects of change, on English school business managers and their professional identity. He was, he said, interested in the idea of different status between groups and how that played out.

“They are third space professionals… there’s a notion of blended professionals. Traditional boundaries are blurred. It raises interesting questions about who works in our schools - I don't see a clear binary between teaching staff and support staff. It’s been clearer in the past. And in multi-academy trusts, CEOs are not necessarily trained teachers and there’s a re-emergence of discussions on whether we might have a business manager or finance officer heading a school,” he said.

This was a role without a career path, into which individuals fell and often part time. There was a real issue around succession planning, and others around qualifications and salaries. Though they were on the SLT there were still issues around other members of staff not understanding the role, and they were increasingly having to employ business practices in academies and MATs. In the latter, they often had to keep budget aside to help struggling schools or bring in new ones.

“My concern is that the system is moving ahead and they're not sure what their role will be in the brave new world of MATs and no local authorities,” he said. “Most will adapt and be fine but some might be left behind.”

After a lively debate of both papers, chair Helen Gunter concluded: “Schools are sites of national activities. What I've taken away is how people are handling national shifts - and that they aren't all dysfunctional is amazing.”

New board members, new vice-chair

Just before the final keynote, we learn that Ruth McGinity, Deb Outhwaite and Ian Potter have been voted on to the board. And there’s a huge cheer at the news that Edinburgh primary head and doctoral student Rehana Shanks - who’s sitting in the back row with Douglas, her 19-week-old son - has been voted vice-chair of the association.

Trainspotting, social justice and parents as assets

The final keynote is a bit different. Fiercely practical and personal, it’s delivered by Scottish primary head, Sheila Laing, who has lived and worked among some of the most deprived families in the UK, with a very distinctive, socially-just approach to schools and community.

She talks of the Scottish government’s priority to close the attainment gap, musing that the actions perhaps don't match the rhetoric. She shows photos of how she started out, moving into West Pilton (“where Trainspotting was filmed - where they’re filming the new Trainspotting now”) in a boarded-up flat, to start a Christian centre.

“From my neighbours I learned what prejudice and discrimination felt like…I saw how groups were disempowered by poverty, gender, race,” she said, explaining that the postcode lowered the chance of a job and made insurance unaffordable. People might have two or three jobs, and no time to see their children, be unable to get fresh food, and live in damp housing. “Economic arrangements impact on every family at a macro and micro level daily. Culturally society looks down on you. I become headteacher there later,” she said, adding that the complexity of injustice she saw changed her life and set her on the path of becoming a headteacher passionate about social justice.

As a social justice leader, she explained, she challenges the status quo, supports groups and builds community support individuals. She works at the macro, micro and mess level. She’s done work on social literacy, and can use power for equality and to give a sense of belonging. At a personal level, she said, she could recognise individuals when life was tough, build social capital and opportunities. And she could teach citizenship to the children.

She views parents as assets, not deficits, and says: “I’ve learned to go, to be, to watch, to learn, then work with the assets and challenge the deficits. To imbue the assets with energy, status and resources.” She also believes in celebrating community success, and telling its story to a wider community.

The room is rapt as she talks about three of the four schools she has led. There was the school merger that the community didn’t want, which she built on the principles respect, nurture, learn, agreed with the staff and parents.

They nurtured children for learning, providing water in the morning when they understood children were thirsty, got them running to wake them up, supported, curled and listened to them. There was a family support teacher to support parents learning, and the children learned about the world beyond Pilton with a focus on Buddhism.  The children learned about Aung San Suu Kyi, spoke at conferences, sold orange ribbons, became justice-oriented citizens - and raised their attainment.

Sheila talks of a subsequent school, where neither parents nor staff had a voice, and her move to “a lovely wee school” where working with the staff was supplemented by working with parents to understand their needs. Attendance rose in the week before Christmas after the school made it clear no presents for teachers should be given: there is a lunch club in July for families who cannot afford to feed their children in the summer holiday. Dads come in for special play days and for Father’s Day, and a project called DadsWork was extended for a further three years after one father, himself with many health problems, campaigned to save it. “He got power, used it, changed lives: that's the power of being a social justice leader,” she said.

Inspired, challenged, stimulated?

Gill Howland, new BELMAS chair, sums up a common BELMAS experience  with her final words, as she apologises to the many people to whom she’d said hello - but never managed the promised follow-up chat because there was so much going on.

She added: “I feel privileged to be part of BELMAS and honoured to be chair. I think BELMAS is really special. Everybody's contribution is valued - it doesn’t matter what stage of your career you’re at, everybody has something valuable to contribute.

“BELMAS brings together ideas, research and practice to improve education through developing leadership and management and I think that gives unique potential to make a massive difference to education and social justice. I would like to see more bringing practice and research together,” she said, adding that the international dimension was absolutely vital and it was wonderful to have colleagues and friends from across the globe.

She concluded: “I’ve personally learned a lot: in my 30-plus years of education leadership development my experience is that leadership can be challenging, elating, inspiring, deadly serious and a lot of fun.”

Secondary headteacher Holly Hartley, who had attended and presented at the conference for the first time, was also impressed. “It was excellent, really eye-opening. It made me look at my practice in a totally different way and made me really reflect. It’s really made a difference.”

Interested? Intrigued? Why not come to BELMAS next year?

The conference will be at the Ettington Chase hotel, Stratford-upon-Avon, from July 7-9.

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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