Conference blog


It has been the year of the British Educational Management and Administration Society’s 40th birthday, and the organisation celebrated middle age in style at its annual conference, held in Scotland on the weekend of July 12-14.

Record attendance (over 180 delegates from all over the world) meant that the main conference hotel didn’t have space for everyone, and rooms at a second had to be booked. A higher proportion than ever before were practitioners — mostly members of school leadership teams, often studying for MAs or doctorates.

Such was the liveliness of the conference that at one point on Saturday afternoon it trended on Twitter — and an innovative TeachMeet session, being streamed and tweeted live to an audience around the UK and the world — was so busy that Twitter refused to accept any more submissions for a few minutes.

This was one of this year’s innovations, brought in by conference chair Dr Megan Crawford. Other popular sessions included an Ignite! morning, where presenters had just five minutes to outline their argument or their research, and round tables, where attendees had the chance for a full discussion and consideration of research findings or methods.

The challenging, yet accessible nature of the weekend was set by the first keynote speaker, Professor Carol Campbell of OISE in Ontario. Though she’s currently associate professor for leadership and educational change in Canada, Campbell is a native of Scotland whose career includes stints as policy advisor to the London Challenge and the Bristol Education Partnership Board.

Professor Campbell had chosen to talk about whole system education leadership, based partly on research and partly on her personal and professional experience. She recalled working in Bristol, after the city’s education was found to have serious weaknesses, and debating how to make the  public partnership approach work.

“What struck me was how do you support an entire city and an entire city education system? That kept me awake at night. I travelled to Bristol with someone from the Department for Education and asked what my role was, and he said challenge and support. That was the extent of it. I thought: what do we know about how to lead in systems?”

Since then, Campbell said, she had worked with the London Challenge and 60,000 teachers, and Ontario, with over a million students, and come to the idea of a shared leadership responsibility, system leadership, which was empowering for all involved.

There were three important aspects: teachers, heads and everyone in schools and beyond;  the importance of district, local authorities and governments; “and the interconnection between and among both for vision, goals, policies and practice,” she said.

What is whole system education leadership, she asked, describing leadership at every level from national to pupil. “How do we understand all of these within an education system? The truth is we know very little about leadership capacities of government leaders. We know a lot about school leaders and know a lot about school district leadership.”

Professor Campbell was interested in the practices of whole system education leadership, continuing that her time working with government had led her to observe that there was “no clear career trajectory or training programme, no Masters in being a civil servant and yet these are people managing large organisations, and some of their decisions can have major consequences. It’s easy to be cynical,” she said, going on to talk how the first attempts to move government into education strategy and implementation had come with PISA and the literacy and numeracy strategies in England.

She talked about Ontario, and its small number of key priorities for improving educational equity, including having small number of key priorities, resolute leadership/staying on message,  collective capacity of  teachers, headteachers and local authority staff. Strategies had to be precise but not prescriptive, with no scripted lessons and intelligent accountability. “All means all,” she said.

Ontario’s goals were increased achievement, closing the gaps and public confidence, and there had been significant improvement. While there were critiques of whole system leadership, Professor Campbell’s concerns were that there were “a lot of shoulds” in the literature. “I can be idealist but I am really empirical. What are current leadership practices which support system leadership, how can we  how support current and more importantly, future leaders and do this work in way which is ethically and morally appropriate?” she asked. What made the difference between an expert flambe and an unintended fire, she asked.

Again, she returned to the theme of very senior leadership, such as career civil servants, and how compared with the huge body of literature on school leadership not very much had been done on them. “I would say it does matter, managing education systems, influencing what happens in schools, that know very little about their leadership capacities.”

Did government leaders need to be able to call on the personal leadership resources known to be important in other areas of education, such as cognitive resources, social resources, and psychological resources? “Do we need government leaders who do these things, with the social resource of managing, working,and thinking with emotions and how do we take this forward? How do we bring together the idea of public service leadership in a way that supports system improvement for all students. We know very little about this. We know about government leaders leading government but how do they lead across system, across parents and teachers, with wider public. There is no literature or empirical base. We want to develop shared leadership so it is important.”

Professor Campbell said it was important to support teacher leaders. She discussed Ontario’s learning and leadership project which had encouraged teachers to undertake their own research projects, training them in leadership and other skills to do so, with a requirement that they publish and share their learning.  This had been a very valuable form of teacher learning, and an genuine opportunity to share practice.

The second keynote session was from Alison Peacock, who took over Wroxham Primary school when it was failing, and took an unconventional route to raising standards which swiftly earned Outstanding rankings from Ofsted and more recently a Teaching School designation.

Grouping by ability, she believes, holds children back, and she’s no believer in labelling children either. “When I first went to Wroxham it was in the bottom set, labelled by the system as failing,” she said. “When i was interviewed I was asked where are you going to take this school, and I said it’s going to be a happy learning community. Happy is really important,” she said. “In England we’re guilty of being very deterministic, with a low culture of expectation and you have to do something to escape.

“I believe in working in a team in a classroom, a school and ultimately as a system. That’s where you make a difference. When you collaborate you do things you can’t do on your own.” Wouldn’t it be good to say couldn’t we have an alternative improvement system wanting the best for every child and teacher, she said, adding that: “It’s idealistic but I don’t mind that. The reason our school improved so quickly because of these things.”

On her first day in school, Ms Peacock had met everyone and listened to what they had to say. She discovered long-standing problems for teachers, which were easy to fix. “There is not sense of democracy in English school, power comes from the accountability regime of Ofsted and school leaders are terrified of Ofsted,” she said.

“We have whole school democracy. Children and adults meet and talk about how things working,” she said, describing how the school had refused to label children. Teachers wanted to create an alternative to the target-setting culture, said Ms Peacock, recalling how the school had agreed to take part in a research project shortly before being rated as outstanding by Ofsted.

Talking about giving children “the opportunity to surprise us,” Ms Peacock said useful dispositions were persistence (keeping on keeping on)and stability (the things that really matter), generosity (why might they need to behave like that?) and empathy.

“What happens when we label children is it affects our thinking. In our school children choose their own challenges, we offer a range of choices in lessons and say this is more difficult than this, if you want to consolidate try this. Children are very skilled at making good choices and this led to very high attainment and kept inspectors away. working in system trying to subvert it,” said Ms Peacock.

She also explained learning review days, where the children create PowerPoints of what they do well and where they need a bit more help, which they present in the head’s office with parents present. Reports are done in the same way, with no grades except when required in years 2 and 6.

“Educational research is at the heart of what I feel is important. Standing on the shoulders of giants I know it is important to let children play.”

“If we believe in people it enables us to have the strength to be more responsive to learning. Our culture is a sense of the art of the possible. If we can’t do it, we can’t do it yet.”

The research presented during the conference covered an enormous variety of subjects. Professor Richard Hatcher, for instance, posed a question as to whether local authorities in England could exercise educational leadership, discussing the drawn-out creation of a new partnership body in one LA where officials had been reluctant to create a system with “preconditions” but schools had wanted to understand what they were signing up for.

Suddenly, things had got moving after more than a year (so Dr Hatcher had still been finishing his paper on the train) in what he thought was typical of what was happening in many local authorities. It was, he thought, useful to situate this in local governance theory and policy, with the situation moving from government to governance.

It also raised interesting questions: “Leadership by whom and leadership for what? Leadership by headteachers acting collectively… raises fundamental questions about local democracy,” he said.

A symposium on turning round low-performing schools drew examples from all over the world, including Sweden and Shanghai, while a themed collection of papers looked principal preparation in different nations.

Malcolm Groves led a workship session on leading community engagement, asking whether it was the key to future sustainable school improvement, whilst Canadian academic Charles Webber led a session with Cambridge’s Megan Crawford on the logistics of research when the team are based in two separate countries.

Dr Anthony Thorpe explained his thoughts about the imagery of leading beyond the organisation, suggesting analogies between schools and prisons, circles and silos. “It’s interesting to see what images are at work, and how they might be enriching or inhibiting,” he said. Participant Adrian Jarvis said schools and institutions were being closed off not by social control but child protection: “You cannot work in the same county as a child without being CRB checked,” he commented. Dr Thorpe agreed that this led to a language of prison rather than emancipation. Doctoral student Patricia Davis said she worked in a private school: she suggested that the image of the school might be quite different for its owners to that held by the staff and students.

Winding the conference up, new chair Professor Philip Woods said it was clear that we had to grapple with complexity and different players in the system, new kinds of alliance and partnerships. It was important to recognise the role of school governors in research, and we needed to think about parents in educational communities.

Professor Woods said it was important to recognise different players in the educational system, consider how business influenced policy and leadership systems and think how they need to be part of conversations and research. He also talked about engaging more with those working and researching health and social services and management more generally, as a two-way process.

It was important to understand policy as well as organisations and networks, he said. “You can’t understand leadership without policy.” He talked about wanting the preserve the energy for pupils to learn, mentioning the picture of Alison Peacock’s approach (in her keynote speech) of a school which created an environment for everyone to be positive and open and sharing. “You can see that things can be differently done in different policy contexts,” he said.

Professor Woods stressed the importance of listening, of listening to what students had to say, of really listening to people, and how that raised issues of social justice.

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