BELMAS Annual Conference 2016 - Day Two


 Share this post
 twitter circle color-256facebook circle color-512linkedin circle color-512google circle color-512

Author: Susan Young

If you’ve only got a day for the BELMAS conference and want to pack as much in as possible, then Saturday is the one to choose.

It’s not relaxing, but it’s certainly thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating, as well as sociable and celebratory. Forget any thoughts of an early night - the conference dinner and various prize-givings will see to that. But it is fun, apart from the dilemma of which sessions to attend - with eight going on simultaneously at any one time, there is always the fear of missing out and lots of talk at coffee breaks of what you missed.

The conference theme of context got a good workout in the two keynotes speeches of the day, from Stephan Huber and Philip Hallinger.

Keynote 1: school leaders and health

Stephan, Head of the Institute for the Management and Economics of Education at the University of Teacher Education in Zug, Switzerland, joked that he’s our wake-up speaker for the day. He had large-scale research to talk about on the subject of school leaders and health, arising from major projects and regular experience of working with schools in Switzerland and Germany, and notes, almost as an aside, that health is always a problem in schools “of low quality”, along with job satisfaction and stress.

In general, school leaders liked teaching, promoting co-operation, and talking about good practice, he said. Stressful activities varied a little by country but in general centred on implementing school reforms, and writing reports for education authorities, and meetings to resolve teacher conflict. Anything to do with admin was stressful, he said, as was anything to do with quality assurance.

16 per cent of his sample were highly stressed, while the remainder were split between being moderately or a little stressed. It turned out, however, that the highly stressed leaders experienced every school activity as more of a strain than their colleagues and the conditioning factors in this were being female or longer in the job.

“We have no courses about health, being healthy in yourself or for the staff or the children and I would say it’s very important to select people who can deal with complexity… I would  emphasise stress resistance is very important to look at in leadership,” he said.

It was important for leadership to reduce strain and stress in a school, and support groups and individuals - but it was also about working conditions and the political agenda, he said.

Recommendations? Stephan thought there needed to be more time for principalship in turnaround schools, and for teaching staff to be helped to understand more about self management and self-regulation. He concluded with thoughts on the Professional Reflection through Feedback and Coaching project, which had changed many senior leaders’ minds about whether or not they wanted to become a principal, and through reflection and coaching had helped them.

Why are women under-represented in educational leadership?

This was just one of the fascinating morning sessions on offer, ranging from middle leadership in the UK education sector, the rise of the “edu-Twitterati” (Twitter users influencing schools to take up particular improvement ideas),  and several sessions on system leadership and the self-improving system.

The session on women leaders started with some facts: 74 per cent of the teaching workforce are female. In primaries, 85 per cent are female but only 71 per cent are heads. In secondaries, 62 per cent of the workforce are female but just 36 per cent area heads. And they are often paid less - starkly, £1,600 for primary heads.

In a packed seminar room, which included students from Passmores School in Essex (at BELMAS for the day as part of a senior leader’s research project), Vivienne Porritt of the UCL Institute of Education described how she had co-founded the organisation WomenEd out of a Twitter discussion on International Women’s Day, with the original idea that it might be good for tea and cake swiftly overtaken by bigger and bigger meetings all over the country.

“The basic focus for us is that a leadership journey for most men in education is straightforward but for women it’s all over the place. A colleague said it looked like a Slinky toy. We don’t want to change that, but to empower them to lead,” she said.

The organisation had given women leaders a voice in education, with 6.5k Twitter followers, blogs in a safe online community and12 regional networks and leaders in other countries.

She pointed out that if headship reflected the workforce there would be 1,739 more women heads, which might help the headship recruitment crisis. The problem was worse in higher education, where there were 22 per cent of female professors, 45 per cent of academic staff and 63 per cent in professional roles - of whom 82 per cent were clerical staff.

“How do we empower women to bring this change about?” she asked.

Discussions were wide-ranging: the gender pay gap could be manipulated simply by removing women from low paid jobs, for instance, while Suzanne Culshaw talked about the rigidity of school leadership structures which often made it hard for women to job-share a role.

And new roles are going to men, said Vivienne: the majority of new school CEOs were men. “We are not marginalised groups, we are 50 per cent,” she said.

… and it’s not easy for men either

Christine Callender and Paul Miller were presenting their early findings on BME male leaders, another under-represented group.

One participant, a head of a school, had the opportunity toward elsewhere and was given a new contract “under certain conditions” which troubled him. “Someone in a sense is being kept on by school who find something about his leadership valuable although there is hesitancy about whether he is capable,” she said.

Another leader coined a word, Stragum, to mean that in order to survive he had to go beyond being strategic but had to be ahead of the game, to not go to any meeting unprepared for what might be thrown at him.

“Conclusions are that they had a less than smooth ride to leaders - it’s taken a long time and they've moved around a lot,” said Christine, saying that they seemed to think they had to prove more.

It seemed to matter less once heads had proved themselves, and once they had external validation, perhaps from Ofsted. Then, they could do no wrong.

Paul Miller of Brunel added that the journey to headship was fraught and problematic with little feedback on why progress wasn't being made. It was crucial to have an ally, ideally a white ally.

“It’s not even a glass ceiling. More of a titanium one,” concluded Christine.

Preparing future school leaders

Similar themes were addressed by Ann Kendrick of Cumbria University in her exploration of the value to middle leaders of the National College of Teaching and Leadership courses for women and BME staff. The research looked at perceived barriers to leadership including confidence, level of desire to become a leader, and the vision for leadership, and while confidence was among factors which did improve, there were systemic issues for women, including the burden of parental responsibility.

The different groups wanted different things, with more shadowing for the would-be secondary leaders.

Keynote 2: it’s all about context

Philip Hallinger of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, brought an entirely different perspective to the conference theme of contexts. It arose from a lecture he gave in Hong Kong on successful school leadership which prompted the question from one local principal: how do these findings apply to leading learning at my school?

“There remain many gaps in our knowledge about how leadership practices are adapted to achieve results in different school contexts. I believe this is going to be one of the key areas for our field as we move forward to define how those leadership practices should be refined for different contexts,” he said, pointing out that research itself comes from a very small group of contexts - primarily English-speaking nations.

Proving the point, he tells us to close our eyes and think of a school. It rapidly becomes apparent that with scholars from all over the world in the room, everyone is visualising something slightly different.

The first context is the institution. There is the school district, and there are goals, which could be set in schools, the district, or the ministry of education.

For instance, he said, Thai education was meant to foster virtue, competence and happiness “and you will find very few principals in Thailand value learning outcomes above that.”

There is a political context - in Thailand, principals have dual accountability to the Communist party and the ministry of education. And so he continued, with a series of comparative tables and photos showing how dramatically context can vary. “We can't really understand what works in terms of leadership unless we include the context,” he said, adding: “Where does our knowledge base come from?” Research, too, was from narrow contexts with the vast majority looking at English speaking societies, although the proportion had changed during the past 20 years and he believed the majority would be from outside the Anglo-US context in ten years time.

There would be other implications for research, he said, with qualitative studies contextualised and in depth very important, with theory development. There was also a need for multi-country comparative studies. “Cross cultural comparative work is going to be essential to get traction on context,” he said, adding that there needed to be a better job on leadership training to put learning in context, and provide video scenarios to let people see different contexts.

And, finally, he mentioned the importance of craft knowledge. “Research can offer guidelines not specific prescriptions. So there is some level of abstraction we can reach - not only context, but each leader is different. A leader is a person in a specific context. In terms of practice we want to become more sensitive to context and use craft knowledge: we talk about the art and science of leadership. Research can give guidelines  and then we use knowledge and skill to apply it in a particular context,” he said.

There’s a lot more executive headteachers - but what are they?

Keynote over, and it was time for the last research presentations of the day. As always, there was a huge variety of subjects, ranging from David Eddy-Spicer’s thoughts of integrating improvement research into the professional doctorate for leaders in education, through school improvement in Turkey, to creating leadership spaces in a university student-staff partnership. There was also some fascinating Free School research.

A major bit of research on executive head teachers, a collaboration between the National Governors Association, the NFER and the Future Leaders Trust, has just been released. Pippa Lord explained that executive headteachers were increasingly prevalent, with at least 620 now in post, that it was a new role, and the Department for Education has said they require a new and different mix of skills.

The key messages, she said, were that there would be at least 3,200 more by 2022 if retirement rates and schools forming groups continued as expected.

The research had found the EHTs were distinctive, with higher levels of strategic thinking with a strong capacity to look outwards. They had a moral purpose to make an impact on heads. However, it was hard to tell how many schools each EHT was responsible for, and some were not appearing in school data at all.

Tom Fellows of the NGA talked about some of the reasons for having EHTs: to create school to school consistency and collaboration, to be outward facing, strategic thinking and to provide coaching and staff development. Some were employed to turn a school around and could be interim appointments, on secondment, or a leader of a MAT or federation. Partnership executive heads tended to be home grown.

Governance structures were often complex and unclear, he said, and there were issues with blurred accountability on MAT boards. Sometimes the EHT was reporting to multiple governing boards and had to sign multiple contracts or had performance managed twice. “What if they came to different conclusions?” he asked.

The role was often locally evolving, and “the job description didn't always reflect the role - if it had a job description in the first place,” he said.

“We feel more clarity is needed at a national level around the true scale and purpose of EHTs, a profession-led defining. And we need clarity around the role and pay,” he said.

AGM, Awards and dinner

BELMAS is such a friendly event that when Professor Ron Glatter reminds everyone that the AGM is in the Shooting Lodge (the hotel has a range of rooms named around country matters) he can joke about it.

Though the presentation sessions end earlier on a Saturday, there’s business to do. First the AGM, where Gill Howland succeeds Professor Philip Woods as Chair of BELMAS. Then there’s the wine reception and prizes for members. And finally there’s the dinner, and the Distinguished Service Awards.

There’s a nice bit of synchronicity in these. For a start, there are two recipients of the Best Doctoral Thesis prize, for the first time ever. Winners are Sue Shepherd and Steven Courtney. He is at conference to collect his prize in person, and spends time praising his supervisor, Professor Helen Gunter.

Half an hour later, and Helen Gunter is receiving an award herself - the Distinguished Service Award - with a citation from Steven.

Unusually, there are also two Distinguished Service Awards. The second is for Professor Jacky Lumby, nominated by Professor Marianne Coleman. “BELMAS is a community and it gave me a start in HE, created opportunities to collaborate with colleagues…it gave me what I needed,” she said. Professor Gunter was also delighted, talking about how much she had learned from doctoral students and thanking her partner Barry “who deserves an award,” she said.

Other prizes were Best EMAL Paper, for Daniel Keller and Best MiE Paper, for Izhar Oplatka and Chris James.

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

Industry Twitter