Blog 2015


Democracy: Time for Renewal or Retreat in Educational Leadership

Conference Blog by Susan Young



BELMAS’s annual conference is always that little bit different. This year’s opening day included a private guided tour around Eton College, a music and dance performance by children from a local special school, and some very diverse discussions about education and democracy taking part in a conference centre with the odd BMW on display within it.

The food is good, and the food for discussion even better. There are so many interesting sessions that it’s genuinely hard to decide which door to go through - so what follows is a snapshot of some of the highlights.

This year’s theme, Democracy: Time for renewal or retreat in Educational Leadership, is picked up by BELMAS chair Philip Woods as he opens the conference. What democracy means to leadership of education is really important, he says, and varies between different societies. “In a workshop this morning we’ve been talking about leadership and education in Europe, sharing what democracy means in different contexts. One of the common areas was that democracy is not just about voting or seeking to have your way, it’s about dialogue talking to each other, sharing things and the conflict between different points of view.” The conversation BELMAS council had by email over the idea demonstrated that it was an important issue to think about, debate and discuss,” he said, alluding to the signing of the Magna Carta 800 years before and only 25 miles away from the conference venue at Wokefield Park close to Reading.

Quality control driving education

The day’s keynote speaker was Anastasia de Waal, deputy director of the think tank Civitas, who wanted to talk about what had grabbed her in education during the past eight years and her “modest” research. She wanted to talk about what is valued in education, what is not valued enough, what is over valued - and the impact all that was having. 

What was valued, she said, was quality control, in the form of tests and exams, and the impact was negative. “In my mind the greatest problem in education seems to be round the aim of assessment strategy. Testing is about accountability in theory but the expectation that in itself it will raise standards. There is the reverse effect: it is turning learning into a subsidiary aspect of accountability,” she said, with an emphasis on higher exam results. The argument that the alternative was “a sort of anarchy, that there can’t be accountability without tests… demonstrates how testing and accountability are inextricably tied together and that’s part of the problem.”

“I’d argue that improving results can really correlate with a decline in standards,” she said, adding that the caveat was that testing was not a problem in itself: the point was the severe limitations of testing and its misapplication, that it had been treated as a panacea. 

Some testing had the potential to lead to improvement but it was limited and might include spelling tests, or GCSE students trying to raise their grade: short term and learner rather than teacher focused. There were also teacher-led and valued uses of testing, “being incidental rather than the focus of classroom activity long term, and that it should be one of many tools used both as a gauge of quality and standards to assess how a school is doing and how the pupil is doing …if it becomes central to teaching practice that’s a problem and that’s what happened,” she said, outlining the outcomes: that teaching to the test was applicable in primary, secondary and tertiary education, that the primary curriculum had been shrunk as a result of SATS tests, and was not as stimulating for the pupils. At GCSE, what should be a snapshot of learning had become the sum of learning.

Attempts to mitigate testing, for instance through value added strategies, had been brought back to the same problem by the added definitions of good progress, and this could be particularly pernicious in less affluent areas. 

Examinations were no longer the process of the end of a course or a year: they were now the process itself, she said. Pupil entry for exams could be determined by their likely performance, and Ofsted judgements were allowed to focus on performance data. “This enables them to not have enough funding for a holistic view or real judgments on a wider basis, and means testing is the focal point again, but what we need from inspection is an alternative form of gauge of quality and school effectiveness,” she said.

Her own work had included talking to KS3 teachers about whether SATS scores were good indicators of ability: 90 per cent said they were not, 79 per cent said up to one third had abilities lower than their KS2 results. For primary teachers, this focusing on preparation for SATs rather than the broad curriculum could inflate scores for some pupils, and “dishearten, stressed out and deprofessionalise” them. This was one reason many were leaving the profession, and that it was so difficult to recruit primary heads. At secondary school, this approach was seriously divisive, leading to a two-tier curriculum and a persistent socio-economic gap, with pupils who performed more weakly more likely to be moved to vocationally related courses, and where the grade became more valuable than what was studied on the course. 

The Ebacc, which was supposed to ensure every child got the chance to study core academic subjects, meant disadvantaged students were sometimes not getting the chance to study them at all because they might not get a C. “This really is an extraordinary outcome,” she said.

The question was what is valued in education, and who is the valuer. In theory what was valued was quality, but actually it was higher and higher test results. 

She thought this could b turned round, with political will to give testing an alternative definitions part of “three dimensional” accountability, with randomised, functional testing and inspections changed to become a through investigation of what schools are like to learn in, to teach in and to lead in, focusing on what teachers were learning rather than their performance. The best test of quality was the workforce, she said, which was something every government had side-stepped whilst trying to transform the educational system. Inspection was going to be crucial “although the idea of scrutinising teachers more is not appealing.”

How can universities and schools work together?

After a lively discussion, delegates split into the first presentation sessions. One interesting workshop, led by Vivienne Porritt, London Centre for Leadership in Learning Executive Director, aimed to examine how university/school partnerships could be reshaped. As someone with experience in both camps, she has an interesting take on the subject. “I was a secondary headteacher and when I came to the Institute of Education 10 years ago it was an enormous culture shock to me,” she said, adding that school/university partnerships needed to have an impact, to make a difference for children in the school. “What’s the impact? What’s the purpose?”

To quote Smedley, she said, there were a “litany of barriers to partnership”.

“They are completely different worlds in structure, with varying accountability models and language differences. They might be using the same words but didn’t mean anything the same by some of those words. It took me a long time to figure that out that university colleagues and school colleagues in a room talking about the same things were actually not at times. And there were logistical and financial challenges. 

“The key logistical issues is pace. Schools need to work very quickly… how would you characterise universities’ view of pace? I found it glacial. I can see disadvantages to the pace of school now and benefits to the pace of universities.” Quoting research by her colleague Toby Greany that in such partnerships a shared new culture needed to be created, with all voices heard, equal and valued, she said universities had traditionally had the dominant voice but now schools were in charge there was some really interesting dynamics.

“We have to empower leaders to create a third space: I don’t know about schools that have time and space, and I don't know of universities that do either. so that's a challenge. We’ve got to find the answer or we’re doomed to repeat the litany of barriers to partnerships.”

Free schools and isolation

Elsewhere, Philip Mason of the University of Hertfordshire was talking about the isolation of Free Schools, his research work in progress, based on interviews with founder governors. His emergent findings, he said, were around the nature of disconnections between Free Schools and other stakeholder schools. While the original rationale of “local solutions to local problems… still pootles along on the background” the schools were actually in a contractual relationship with the DfE  and the consequence was that concerns were not local concerns but boxes ticked by the Government. 

Outlining some consequences of this, he said the idea of competition and quasi markets meant there was no benefit in sharing ideas with others if they improved your scores. “You keep those things to yourself… there is a question mark if schools aren't sharing best practice as a matter of course.”

There was a question mark over community engagement if it was a “box to tick rather than being part of the process,” he said. 

“What does this mean for the trajectory of English education, how do we reconceive the broader education system out of something that’s increasingly a collection of individual schools… and the question of sustainability - when schools are increasingly reliant on individuals founding them, and are not simply embedded within the wider community which sustains and support them, what happens when those individuals - charismatic in some cases - start to leave schools?”

Music! Dancing!

Before the next academic session, the whole conference spent some time outside in the sunlight watching a fantastic performance from children from the Avenue School Special Needs Academy, including a bit of Shakespeare, the choir doing Disney favourite Let It Go and then Pharrell Williams’s Happy, where delegates were encouraged to wave smiley faces and dance along. They did - and if you look on Twitter you’ll probably discover the evidence. 

Teacher professionalism

A very interesting session from Raphael Wilkins of the UCL Institute of London on this subject posed some fascinating questions, including about the knowledge based of professional standards, and how and by home judgements will be made. “What is it teachers know? There must continue to be a wide range of views: think of our profession, which has artists and scientists, historians, theologians gymnasts musicians. Think of people who make up teaching profession and its epistemologies. We’re never going to get agreement about what constitutes professional knowledge. There is no one way. 

“There is a particular kind of managerialist, who says experts should find one right way and half a million teachers must be forced to apply that method, that they are operatives who are going to carry out what scientists said is one right way. Apart from epistemological concerns, the constitutional and legal position isn't like that and teachers could never be operatives. They have a  statutory position to make judgments as wise parent would do.”

Black and Ethnic Minority Headteachers

A few doors away, Lauri Johnson, of Boston College and the University of Nottingham (she’s on a year’s Fulbright in the UK) was telling a fascinated room about the early discoveries of her research into how BAME headteachers narrate their roles as leaders, and how  - if at all- their professional identities and leadership practices are shaped by their life experience and the contexts in which they lead. 

Her subjects include “pioneers”, “experienced” and “novice” leaders, some of whom are no longer alive but whose friends, family and colleagues she has interviewed. So there was the first Black head, Clifton “Robbie” Robinson, who arrived in Britain in 1944 as an RAF pilot, got his headship in 1968, and became a community leader, chair of Leicester NUT and later the deputy commissioner of the Commission for Racial Equality. “When the National Front came to his school, he said ‘Get off my playground,’ and he said that when a child feels that somebody loves him then you can start on the 3Rs,” said Dr Johnson. The themes emerging from the stories of pioneers such as Robinson were struggles to get a leadership position, having no role models, having to be twice as good as others, and being community builders and activists.

The experienced group can sometimes come through bespoke programmes. This second generation group had high expectations, aspirations for schools, teachers and their students, and were now often in executive headship positions. A lot of them aspired to something more than headship now.

Finally, the novices were disproportionately expected to take over struggling schools, wanted to provide academic challenge in schools which they might not have had as children, and often had diverse pre-teaching careers.

And finally… the quiz

The fiendish quiz is a staple of BELMAS. Any idea what the shortest name of an engine inherited by British Rail was? Or the name of both ships which took Pilgrim Fathers to the USA? You’re not alone. Nor did most of the delegates…



One of the really interesting things about BELMAS is that there’s a place for anyone who’s researching educational leadership. That means you can have an animated conversation with someone who’s in the earliest stages of research, someone who’s been in academia five years or more, or those who call themselves “pracademics” - practitioners who are involved in research as well. 

Add the international mix into the equation, and for a comparatively small conference, there’s an extraordinary spread of people and interests. Which all goes to explain why the second day of the conference included a Teachmeet session alongside traditional academic sessions, the quickfire five-minute presentations slot, plus three researchers available to talk in the coffee bar alongside a poster explaining their work in a diagram. 

How to be whelmed

The morning started with a cheery session from Professor John Novak of Brock University, who according to Mole Chapman, introducing, has a book chapter about the idea of “whelm”. Yes, whelm. 

“If you are underwhelmed you don't do anything and if you're overwhelmed I believe you don't do much either… I have it on very good authority that John leaves people full of whelm,” she beamed.

John’s style, involving a lot of jokes with an uplifting message, is a pretty good one for 9am on a Saturday morning. He wanted to talk about inviting education - as in, education which invites people to take part. The three criteria were that it had to feel right, to make sense and had to lead to better, more constructive actions. Leaders had to pay attention to the variety of voices in the world including those who speak differently and are difficult to hear. And it was crucial to enjoy the process, and to remember that education and schooling are not the same thing.

“Education is an ideal, something you are reaching for. How do we educate in schools, what are we doing?” It was important to savour life events, not rushing through and do less, in more depth.  

“We are covering material. Our job isn't to cover material - our job is to uncover, discover, recover to get and understanding of what it’s supposed to be about,” he said.

School leaders needed to be leading for educational lives, making experiences better and providing an alternative to capitulation, consumerism and dangerous dogmatism, he said. Should democracy matter? It is an ideal, a sense that everyone matters and the heart of education is that everyone matters, he said. “If we want people to live more educative lives, we need to focus on what democracy means in our group living.” Also within the invitational approach was looking at how others perceived what was happening: “Don't look as people as objects to be manipulated but humans seeking meaning. If a person is doing this, how must the world seem to them?” he asked.

It was possible to be unintentionally disinviting, he said, and it was important to keep on inviting. 

“So what are we inviting people to? Ultimately we want people to lead educational lives,” he said.

Five minutes and counting

The Ignite! session is a good way of concentrating the mind, giving speakers just five minutes to outline their idea, with another couple of minutes for questions. Today’s session included a really eclectic mix of subjects. Krishan Sood of Nottingham Trent University wanted to talk about diversity, citing an example of two teaching assistants in primary schools, one multicultural and one monocultural. The multicultural TA enthuses about “samosas, fantastic cultural events celebrated with the community and parents, embracing different diversities and different student populations, which means I can learn from different people about cultural sensitivities and different languages and at a basic level say hello and reach out to parents. What about SATs?. The leader is adamant it is the highest quality education service so my role as a TA ensures those children access curriculum in whatever shape form or format.” The monocultural TA might say they worked in a white school, didn't pander to cultural sensitivities, ask why she should engage with dances and celebrations? She might say she had enough on her plat and was engaged to support the teaching and learning of youngsters to pass exams and be better citizens. 

“The question is: what is the role of leadership supporting and challenging and advancing the notions of these two adults? How can we ensure a safe environment for safe dialogue to support these issues?”

Hazel Beadle of Chichester University was wondering about social media and the questions it raised, where online comments might be unfair if not untrue, biased, lacking understanding and with some malice. What should educators do about it, when more than ever social media could change the perception of a school even internationally? And in 140 characters, how could inexperienced social media users do this?

There were three questions, she said: how can school leaders distinguish between legitimate concerns, poorly expressed and real cyber bullying? Should leaders be prepared to defend their schools in cyberspace and therefore be expected to develop the skills to do so? And should those outside the school be targeted for saying online what perhaps had already been said privately in the staffroom?

Shailen Popat wanted to talk about how educators and academics could influence policy by working with think tanks: he suggested uses might include as knowledge editors, that they were a visible and invisible influence on legislation, political speeches and more. “Think tanks need to become editors of knowledge. There is far more information than time to process it. We as academics have the opportunity to bring a symbiotic approach to cultural means.”

Traditional academic sessions going on at the same times included Peter Earley of the UCL Institute of Education’s look at External Advisors and headteacher pay, with some interesting detail. Providing recommendations for pay  decisions is among the most challenging roles for governing bodies, even those with well developed performance pay processes, and that challenge was likely to increase as PRP moves across the system. 

Yet with the diminution of Local Authorities, governors had no access to benchmarking data, which would have implications for pay. 

When the earth moves (and how to prepare for it)

One of the most interesting sessions of the day was Tim Goddard’s talk on what he called Organisational Post Traumatic Disorder. As he explained, institutions have disaster plans - but not catastrophe plans, where most of the community’s built structure is heavily impacted, community functions are interrupted and so on. “It’s not necessary to experience it to learn how to react to it,” he said. 

“We need to plan now, before the event. As school leaders we think we operate in relatively stable times, and at these times we need to plan for what might happen.” It was important to not act in isolation, to establish links across organisations to share information, and to decide what you might do if there was an earthquake: would you evacuate the school, what would you do about communicating with parents, how would you replace materials stuck in unsafe buildings. “How are these things planned for, and when you return to normal, what is normal?”

He said it was important to focus on people and be the person who was caring for staff, to reassure about safety, to recognise that the idea of business as usual is contested and to understand that there would be more role overload issues after a catastrophe - a plan was needed before catastrophe hit. “All school systems should have this,” he said, pointing out that there were more and more climatic intensive events, and that many areas were vulnerable, including parts of the UK.

The Pracademic

That’s how Rob Campbell, principal of Impington Village College in Cambridgeshire described himself before going on to outline his research for the first time of the day (he repeated the exercise in five minutes flat during the afternoon’s Teachmeet, and elements of both presentations are in what follows).

His point is that it’s not always comfortable to lead schools and leaders through their managerial accountability may find themselves in “potentially totalitarian practices… I stand before you guilty as charged on helping move some students from grade D to C, performance management for teachers. It’s not always comfortable.” 

In one Ofsted publication, Getting to Good 2012, he quoted the section saying that heads should not be afraid of holding challenging conversations leading to staff leaving schools. “I’m not an expert but that sounds like constructive dismissal. Has this become the norm? Where does this leave the poor head?” he asked.

He had developed the idea of head teachers and “ethical labour” after the research into flight attendants and their “emotional labour”. “Headteachers will have their own values … we may have to suppress these feelings,” he said explaining how he had researched his idea with a group of colleagues known as the Headteachers’ Roundtable - principled principals, he joked. 

Education policy was contradictory and heads might try to subvert that: they were leading with moral purpose, he said. 

He said his research group of heads - the Roundtable - were protecting staff from and filtering national demands. One told him that part of job of head was doing what country needed him to do and that was out of kilter with what he knew was right and that was an ambivalent place to be.

Later, he told the Teachmeet: “I had to suppress my values and principles on some occasions and wondered was it just me with angst over what had to do in school?

“Most enter the profession to make a difference. it is a brilliant job: it is tough, you do it because you want to make a difference. If you take values into job sometimes they are going to clash. “the implications fundamentally that the preparation of aspirant new heads is suspect and it needs to be not a boot camp but something more robust preparing us for doing the job.”

Time for Teachmeet

After lunch and a look at the interesting poster sessions - one of this year’s innovations - more on this tomorrow - it was time for the Teachmeet which is five minute CPD sessions and in this case broadcast live.

An interesting cast of speakers included some, such as Vivienne Porritt, who’d already spoken at BELMAS but were doing so in concentrated form and for a different audience,  many of whom weren’t in the room.  Others included about-to-be-headteacher Chris Hildrew, who interspersed some quotes from England’s chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw (suggesting that deputy heads should have “courage” and “guts” and go for headship) with his own thoughts. “I’ll be a community leader… there will be Ofsted reports on my schools, and the property values of people in my community will depend on me. I’ll have to deliver the highest quality job on slim resources.. can there be any greater honour? I’m stepping into the role with my eyes open with guts and courage and determination and it will be a privilege.”

Ross McGill wanted to talk about why teachers don't research or present- they don’t know how to, have a fear of being judged. At his school 15 teachers are doing research, there are weekly CPD sessions run by staff, and 250 teachers came in the Easter holidays for  a day to engage with research and development. But there are barriers to overcome, he said. 

“If teachers see it makes a difference, they’ll make the time,” said Vic Goddard, head of Passmores Academy in Essex: later, he talked about looking again at his school’s practice after eight years in the job.

Joanna Norton talked about how she was using a specialist lexis, turned into an app, which were giving teenagers the key words they needed to access the curriculum, while Patsy Davies also talked about technology in the form of iPads and how pupils see using them for school work. 

Talking about emotions

Emotions and school leadership were the interesting subject in one of the final sessions. In a wide-ranging session, Michael Redmond talked about research with Irish secondary principals, discussing important areas such as values, emotional self-regulation and the capacity to build trust. Andy Townsend followed with his early findings about emotional support cliques in headteacher networks. Studies of relationships beneficial to heads were few and far between, he said. Among reasons outlined by heads were having a safe space to have a meltdown. 

“It did leave me mulling over a few questions in senior leadership, and what i feel isn’t a particularly optimistic or happy vision of what a senior leader role or working life is,” he said, expressing concerns that in the LA he is examining, the person who is brokering these new relationships is being made redundant. “How do new structures replace that kind of role to support people doing this work?” he asked.

Who got an award?

Presenting the prize for best MIE paper, Linda Hammersley-Fletcher said there were good debates going and more practitioner led editions “and we’re also wanting to get more controversial, trying to get ideas to spark people to shout a bit.” 

Winning paper authors were Pamela Angelle, Helene Arlestig and Katarina Norberg.

Presenting the best EMAL paper, Megan Crawford said there was unanimity about the winner, Ane Turner Johnson, whose paper defined gender exploration of the lived experiences of women HE administrators in sub-Saharan Africa. “We thought it was a spankingly good winner,” she said.

“I received great feedback and it was probably the best experience I’ve had with publishing thus far,” said Ane. 

Presenting the best doctoral thesis, Peter Earley explained that this year there were nine submissions, the largest number ever. The shortlist included four theses, “and the quality this year exceptionally high,  a really good reflection of where we are.” The winner was Maria Kaparou for her thesis on learning centred leadership in two education systems which, he said, was a very good read. 

“What a great honour for an international early career researcher to receive such a prestigious award,” said Maria.

Finally, there were not one but two Distinguished Service Awards, given to Peter Earley and Megan Crawford. 

Presenting Peter’s award, Chris James said: “I find him modest and behind the scenes there’s a lot going on that Peter drives. In Spinal Tap mode Peter gets 11 out of 10: he’s really bright and fantastic to work with.” 

Presenting Megan’s award, Philip Woods said that a wide variety of people had supported her with great enthusiasm for the award. She had worked tirelessly for the public good, as a national leader in governance, had worked on teaching materials in curriculum development work, and had networks all over the world. 

He also talked about her contribution in developing the BELMAS conference as a major international event, and that her networking skills “are nothing short of astonishing and pulls the Society forward.”

Responding, Megan thanked everyone who wrote in to nominate her, describing how it was fantastic to sit down and read the  “life affirming” testimonials on a dark winter’s night. “I don’t know why we don’t do that more. If somebody does something you value, tell them about it.”



The special thing about the BELMAS conference is the extraordinary mix of people (academics from all over the world, at all stages of their careers, working headteachers, consultants and more), plus a set-up which encourages people to debate both current research and wider issues.  In other words, it’s a small enough conference that it’s possible and easy to get to know people fairly quickly, and it’s residential, with social events and meals built into the mix. So, as headteacher Rob Campbell pointed out during the Sunday morning panel session, he’d spent the previous coffee break having an animated discussion about ethics with a couple of other attendees. And the night before had included the annual dinner, with a band and rather a nice terrace to stand and chat on if you didn’t feel like joining in with the dancing.

So by the time the Sunday sessions come, there’s a great conviviality about the event - but plenty of work still going on, with over 20 papers being presented and discussed, as well as the Any Questions panel session. (And, if you’re still reading this blog - thank you - I’d like to remind you that this is purely a snapshot of the event: with usually six sessions going on simultaneously, it’s impossible for one person to cover everything that happens).

Every poster tells a story

Debuting this year, also, were poster presentations, with three pieces of research in very different stages of completion being presented by diagram, with authors available to chat. The three researchers, sitting in the foyer and very close to the coffee machines, found themselves constantly busy and discussing their work. Lyn Crowell, of Texas State University, was presenting her completed doctoral research on coaching, while Bethany Kelly is in the early stages of a fascinating project examining whether some teachers’ personalities make them likelier to become headteachers.

She said: “I looked at 30 headship recruitment packs from different areas and the two most common elements which were the job description and the personal specification … it’s quite interesting for me because what was very telling was that ‘school’ came out top as most frequent word in both and in the person spec experience was the second.

“When I looked at research from 10 years ago, the emphasis had been very much on enthusiastic energetic head. Enthusiasm only appeared on 11 of the 30 documents, energy only appeared five times across all 30 and for me what was quite worrying - particularly as I am quite a fan of Michael Fullan - was that moral only appeared twice on the person specifications and values was only on nine of the documents: it appeared 12 times in total.

“And I kind of thought this is about the person they are looking for, and for 21 of them they’ve not even said anything about the person’s values which I thought quite shocking. When it came to the job description the first word again was school, the third most common word was staff, but the second word - which I think is quite scary - is ensure. That for me that really showed that it’s all about burden of responsibility and felt very much in that football manager territory.”

Spiritual and moral on a Sunday morning….

BELMAS may be a comparatively small conference, but there is a huge variety going on at any one time, to the point where it can be hard to decide which room to dive into: most participants are too polite to chop and change during sessions, but the blogger’s got a bit of an excuse.

Someone with a sense of timing must have decided to put the papers about spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) in schools, and leadership in schools with a religious character, on at 9am on a Sunday morning. Kate Adams of Bishop Grosseteste University had some interesting findings about SMSC, not least that most schools in her study were very honest about how it worked for them, including that they didn’t know what it was most of the time and - in the case of cultural development - didn’t always think they did it well enough. “Schools tended to see honesty as something passed on to children, and they were not afraid to make mistakes either.”
It was about respect and trust as well: leaders knew they could trust staff with the SMSC. “One school said you can’t get a text book on how to do good SMSC: you have to respect staff for ideas … one talked about staff having diverse gifting’s, that they recognised all the contributions and if things went wrong that was OK and they had to be honest and admit that."

It was important to empower staff, and leaders reflecting on SMSC said it was slightly different to other subject: you had to invest yourself in it, and issues might be different to the staff members you're working with. Staff were very cautious about offending someone with different spirituality, or making moral judgements, and people were nervous about communicating in case they offended somebody. “It sits uncomfortably with the performativity agenda: there’s far more to it than a longlist of extracurricular activities that might get you through Ofsted but high quality SMSC moves you beyond that,” she said, adding that nearly a fifth of primary schools, according to Ofsted, didn't have good SMSC.

… or a closer look at equalities

I deliberately missed most of Stephanie Brewer’s presentation on her research looking at leadership in higher education from a disability perspective: we didn’t want anything appearing publicly which might risk identifying the participants and breaching their privacy. But it was too interesting to ignore altogether, so here are a few snippets.

There was a need for culture change in leadership, to make it more compatible with the full inclusion of disabled staff in HE, and to address barriers to that people’s unique contributions were valued. The study found negative stereotypical conceptions of disability, a misconception that leadership and disability were mutually exclusive and incompatible, and inadequate opportunities and support to engage in leadership.

According to Stephanie, the key messages were that “leadership culture was seen as extra responsibility, long hour’s culture, commitment, above and beyond, presenteeism, stress, and additional work. There was a mismatch in what people were able to contribute and what was demanded of them.”

The next paper in the session was Interrupting Whiteness: An Auto-Ethnography of a Black Female Leaders in Higher Education, a presentation by Victoria Showunmi of the Institute of Education. Her subject was the paper she is writing with another Black woman academic about their experiences and views. They had different backgrounds, and identified themselves in significantly different ways.

“We thought, why not start looking at our lives, writing about Black academics? The method is taken from conversations, lengthy conversations, about who we are. It also engages with debates about blackness, some extremely painful and tortuous, going on till 3am,” she said, adding that the paper uses critical race theory (the premise that race and racism is epidemic and permanent in society, and asserts that racism intersects with gender, class, identity and status), whiteness, intersectionality and racial identity.

When it came to perceptions of leadership, she said, Black females would come fourth on a list, below white males, white females and Black males. Describing an “absolutely devastating” career experience, she said: “We are in BELMAS all discussing leadership: if you are Black and home Black, struggling to be accepted as leaders, what does that mean?” To sum up, she had a striking analogy. “You’re invited to come along and play tennis. But you turn up for tennis, and its golf.”

City-wide primary achievement

Linet Arthur and Nigel Fancourt were outlining how their project to work with a number of school leaders to develop world-class leadership, and some of their more surprising findings. One was that when they got secondary heads to work with primary leaders, as coaches, there was some initial opposition. However, further down the line the primary heads were “surprised and encouraged by the results.”

Activity had included regular public seminars after the school day, workshops, action learning sets across schools. Schools had become more research literate, and staff had also increasingly moved between schools. There was some raised attainment, increased engagement with families, more confidence in middle leaders and more collaboration between the schools. What the researchers noted was that the schools participated less in projects that weren’t collaborative (like world-class seminars) and more where they could work together and borrow ideas.

“If you work in one of these schools you’re exhausted by the end of the day - but we were surprised that nobody in the first year showed any interest in having accreditation towards a Master’s.

“They were not interesting in the world-class learning opportunities, and much more interested in how to collaborate and learn from each other’s experiences. One of the action learning sets I facilitated said they wanted to develop learning standards for TAs, and those were conveyed to other schools in the city network: a good example of what happens if schools do network with each other,” she said.

And finally, Elson Szeto presented his study of social justice in two schools in Hong Kong, and the challenges addressed by the principals.

Any Questions? (Quite a few - mostly about the English educational system)

The Any Questions panel session is a cheery way to wind down the conference, giving a chance for a bit of a wider debate at the end of a couple of days of pretty detailed focus on individual research projects. This year’s panel were Christine Wise, now visiting honorary associate professor at the Open University (“and starting to enjoy reading journals because I want to”), David Eddy Spicer, Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, Dee Torrance, Co-Director of Teacher Education Partnerships at Edinburgh University, Cambridgeshire headteacher Rob Campbell, and Paul Miller, Reader in Education at Brunel University.

This year’s questions veered heavily towards accountability, a very particular offshoot of the year’s democracy theme.

The first question asked what can be learned from other educational systems about improving social cohesion through inspection and monitoring. David Eddy Spicer, who had just presented a paper on social cohesion and accountability in low and middle-income countries, and its implications for other parts of the world, said it had led to a very interesting discussion focusing on the differences in understanding multiple accountabilities in terms of regulatory and internal responsibility. “So what is the regulatory response, versus how do you cultivate and work with professionals in a ways that promote internal responsibility? As I see this, the social cohesion aspect relates to that notion of cultivating internal responsibility, which means that the system needs to be responsive to the educators - and that’s part of the interest I see in promoting social cohesion.”

Julia Steward wanted to know how to secure accountability without fear in the UK education system. Dee Torrance had a succinct answer: “The first thing would be to clarify the purpose of education and how education should work in order to address that purpose.”

Rob Campbell, who had “survived as a head for 12 years” in that accountability system, said he thought schools should be accountable. He said he did not feel particular fear, and alluded to Bethany Kelly’s poster on headteachers’ personalities, and also wondered if coaching to diminish fear would be helpful - although, as a competitive athlete, he found some fear helped him run faster.

Paul Miller wondered if accountability without fear was possible or practical, because ‘answerability’ was needed. “I suppose then the issue around fear should really give way to trust but in this command and compliance culture I do not see that fear going away any time soon,” he concluded.

Christine Wise thought it was often forgotten that young people could be fearful of inspection in schools. “I think we do need to be mindful of the fear we put into young people at the very start of their lives about how they are being judged.”

An anonymous question about class management in very large classes drew two answers, one from Christine Wise - who thought it was about ensuring your teaching and learning was applicable to all the children’s needs - and from Opaleye Victoria Olufunmilola of Lagos State University, who supervised students teaching classes of up to a hundred. “You can’t stand in front of your class you do lot of walking round. It gives you more work to do if you don't walk around: you don't know how to organise the children into groups. If you walk around you discover those paying attention, and you sometimes have to use proximity - standing close to some students - to capture their attention. So it’s a lot of work. If you want to teach in such a class its best if you come in and test the students on their knowledge and start on what they know; that makes class more interesting for them.”

It was back to accountability for the next question, which asked to what extent confusion over indicators was leading to “fabrication of results and therefore providing and inaccurate picture of how students were improving, and undermining school leaders’ ability to lead ethically.”

David Eddy Spicer saw this in terms of unintended consequences of accountability and pervasive in every accountability system. Some immediate pressures had been removed when systems had been changed from high-stakes to low stakes accountability “but talking about England I don’t have a vision of how you would move from a high stakes to a lower stakes position - that’s also a current debate in America.”

Rob Campbell first tackled the idea of “fabrication” saying that whether or not things were fabrications, they were manifestations of whatever students were producing and that there would be some distortion however performance was judged. However, it was not inaccurate: it was a version of what they could do. And, he pointed out, he might have one notion of ethical which might be challenged by his community. “I’m therefore not fully convinced if I had full rein to develop an assessment system it would lead to a better one don’t know. Am I an apologist for system I am in? Maybe. I’m paid by the state, I do my work, I find it a confusing contradictory system to work in and am constantly aware of all these aspects of performance and distortions - but I am not sure if you construct a better system seemingly it would lead to any less distortion.”

The next question asked how school and system leaders should position the role of international assessment programmes, and came from David Eddy Spicer's research, presented at BELMAS, into how international assessment are drivers for accountability systems and shaping educational systems.

Dee Torrance thought context needed to be addressed more. “We can take the view we can transfer policies and practice and it will work in other countries and we don't look at the wider contextual and cultural features of the system,” she said, adding that the responsibility was there for educators to challenge proposals that certain systems were better than others without considering the child within the system and their own challenges and opportunities.”

Ron Glatter, apologising for asking “another English-centric question”, was applauded for wanting to know what ought to happen to failing or coasting academies. David Eddy Spicer, smiling broadly, said: “I have a silly answer: we have a policy for you Ron, it’s called Race to the Top and you are welcome to it. There are four turnaround models your failing schools can adopt and we’ll give you money to do it. But we won’t give you contextual knowledge about how it’s done or support to do it. We can guarantee something will happen in the first two years but thereafter you’re on your own.”

Paul Miller said as a public good, investment in education should benefit the system as equally as possible, making all schools improve to the best of their ability.

Rob Campbell said the official response would be to pass such a school on to another academy trust to have a go, but he was concerned that the greater the distance from the community, the greater the disaster. Was there a danger of schools becoming like “pass the parcel?” Yes, he said. “My understanding is that this is happening already.”

Peter Earley wanted to make a contribution from the floor: questions around accountability were coming home to roost and a new assessment paradigm was needed to rethink what was being assessed “which at the moment isn’t what we value but what can be easily measured.”

He said two studies which came out the previous week had shown that some schools in England were little more than exam factories, and that there was a use of gaming strategies to get through inspections successfully. There were, he said, some unintended consequences and he wondered what the panel thought.

Rob Campbell was more optimistic, describing schools as “a reservoir of hope” because they involve children who are largely positive and upbeat. There was, he thought greater sharing by heads becoming, increasingly, “irritants” and “pursuants of policy change” through social media.

There were more groups of heads now prepared to say, no.

Christine Wise thought schools in England were about more than exam results. “What would we would think of the school that had 100 per cent A-Cs but every classroom wall was covered in graffiti and the children sat in class chewing, had their feet on the tables and referred to teachers by their first names? That wouldn’t be called a good school.”

Paul Miller, quoting Scott Eacott’s suggestion that performativity culture had caused head teachers to lose their souls, said a new assessment paradigm was needed so that people working in schools did not feel so pressured.

BELMAS through the eyes of UCEA’s Michelle Young

Traditionally, BELMAS asked somebody to spend a few minutes summing up the conference, and this year Michelle - attending for the fifth time - was chosen.

She started by talking about the UCEA/BELMAS initiative on developing and leading socially just schools. This issue had been raised in many sessions, and developed in many papers which “ended up talking about performativity outcomes which all have very real consequences as the panel just emphasised.”

She quoted Philip Woods’s observation that education shapes what people value in society, and Dee Torrance’s panel suggestion that it was important to think about the purpose of education. “That’s something we should have as a sticky note on our mirror: it’s a critical time for us as shown in many of the discussions.”

It was the responsibility of leaders to implement policies they didn’t believe in, she said, quoting Rob Campbell’s suggestion that heads were required to be wardens as well as inmates within the panopticon. Another issue from a couple of sessions was “the undiscussability of certain critical issues in education, particularly around what counts as British values.”

Many tensions had been highlighted during the conference. “There have been very interesting papers and very interesting sessions. Presenters really embraced the idea of critique, were constructive criticism and it was very healthy to be going about work here. I am leaving this conference this year with a few new ideas and new colleagues - and the opportunity to see a couple of people cut the rug, and it was fun to see colleagues in a different context! I also have a renewed and deeper appreciation for BELMAS colleagues. It’s always wonderful to come to the UK and consider some of the same topics as us, but with a bit of a different take.”

And finally

Megan Crawford, conference chair, announced she’s looking for a successor in her “hugely enjoyable” role and warned “I have a very tactful way of putting people’s arms around their back.”

Next year’s conference - at a venue to be confirmed - will be July 8-10 with a theme of "Unlocking Leadership and Management Potential in Different Contexts".

Susan Young

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Skype: Susanyoungjournalist

Twitter: Susanyoung_

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