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BELMAS Annual Conference 2017: Day One


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Author: Susan Young

Welcome, friendly, fun, thought-inspiring and provoking? Unique in the way it brings together practitioners and researchers? A critical family? Time for intellectual debate and discussion?

These are just some of the words used to describe the BELMAS annual conference in its opening moments.

Welcoming visitors from over 20 countries to the event, held close to Stratford-upon-Avon, new chair Gill Howland and new conference chair Victoria Showunmi praised its unique, friendly style – and promised to listen to members’ voices on how it should develop.

“BELMAS is unique in the way it brings together research and practice and I believe increased dialogue leads to increased understanding and collaborations, with benefits for all, not least students in the classroom,” said Gill, highlighting a new session for practising leaders as well as an opportunity for members to chat with the BELMAS council about how both membership and the conference could develop.

Victoria added: “We want to hear your voice about conference*. When I first came I wondered if would be something I’d stay with but one of the things about BELMAS is that it’s like a critical family, somewhere to engage and feel development and move forward.

“It’s packed this year with really exciting things. It’s important you enjoy yourself and use the time and space for critical discussion – many times you go to conference, there isn’t time for discussion. One of the things we try to do here is have time for talk and intellectual debate.”

Intellectual debate followed rapidly, as keynote speaker Professor Tim Goddard, of the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, took a wide-ranging path through globalisation and education in a world seeing the “rebirth of tribalism, where the politics of difference become exclusionary.”

This runs directly counter to the globalised world in which education leaders work, he said, with schools one of the few societal influences everyone experiences. “It is important that the work of school leaders and those who guide them is informed by critical reflection,” he said, going on to talk about the ways in which globalisation is affecting the world through refugees, media, technology, ideology, and pollutants. All these elements came together in schools, he said, but caught in the crossfire between two political aspirations for topping league tables and that students must acquire excellent competencies although it had not yet been established whether they could be taught together.

Quoting: “The ground from which we see the ground falling out from under us is falling out under us,” he said it was a good time to plan for the future from the small impacts which were currently appearing. “The realities of globalisation need to be incorporated in the programmes we teach,” he said, adding: “We must make changes now to way in which we organise, manage and lead education systems. Children in those systems are going to have to manage what we are leaving for them… BELMAS 2017 is a grand coming together from the world, where we can speak together, share perspectives and agree new alliances. I hope you will take advantage of this and I look forward to being part of the conversation.”

With those words ringing in the ears, it was time for the first of many difficult choices: what sessions to attend when there’s a choice of seven running concurrently, each with up to three elements. If you’re interested in academic leadership, there really is something for everyone, with subjects ranging from women’s career development in Cyprus or the UAE, parental engagement among Jewish families, or the effects of paying governors in Northern Ireland.

Try as I might, I couldn’t be in every session, so here’s highlights of a few, with apologies to those I missed.

E-working – what’s that then?

Hazel Beadle of the University of Chichester took us through one of the tricky bits of her doctoral research, which involving unpicking what the phrase e-working means to those working in education. The answer was that it varied enormously, from the idea that it allowed managers to hide behind their computers, that it might impact upon creativity, or identify more effective ways of working.

There was also an idea that it led to concise working practices, and perhaps leading to things being done at the last minute, she said, suggesting that e-working could be contained as an ‘irrelevance” if it lacked a definition “without wiggle room”.

Unpicking the North-South divide

Next door, Michael Jopling of Northumbria University was outlining his BELMAS-funded research into the supposed North-South educational divide in England, sparked by Sir Michael Wilshaw’s Ofsted report asserting that more than a quarter of secondaries in the North and Midlands were still not good enough. “I thought this is such a crude comparison. What does it mean? Are Ofsted inspections a good enough measure?” he asked.

His findings were early – he had finished looking at some of the data only the afternoon before – but he had thought-provoking thoughts about data, academisation and collaboration between schools.

For starters, he said, primary schools in the north were doing as well as the south, and there were major disparities in pupil funding between regions. “In inner London, the early years attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals is 10 per cent compared with 19 per cent for the north. But if they’ve caught up by the end of primary school there’s something very good going on we’re not talking about,” he said. He quoted Stephen Gorard’s finding that once variables were factored out, there was no difference in GCSE attainment between schools in the North East and other parts of the country. “If you look at Ofsted reports and ratings of schools you don’t get any of this,” he pointed out.

After highlighting interesting quotes from schools in the north-east about ways in which they collaborate and help children to realise aspirations, he concluded that there are three challenges. One is to challenge the idea that there is a north-south divide in school performance with statistical evidence “it’s not proven and needs to be challenged.” The second was to develop more effective measures of progress in the context that North Eastern primaries in particular outperform other parts of England despite historical low funding and high disadvantage. Thirdly, there needed to be more “contextually sensitive approaches to assessing schools and young people’s development drawing on school autonomy and collaboration between and beyond schools.”

Surprises around system leadership (and when SNOW isn’t good)

Can you guess what percentage of school leaders priorities ensuring their school does well in Ofsted inspections? No need to guess. It was one of the more eye-watering graphs provided for us in a session from the London Centre for Leadership in Learning.

Just five per cent of Toby Greany’s respondents “strongly disagreed” with this statement, compared to over 40 per cent who “strongly agreed” and almost as many who “tended to agree.”

A sidebar to the slide added: “A minority of schools consciously resist pressure, but always form a position of relative strength and never outright.”

Accountability was a central driver of school behaviour, he said.

Schools also agreed that there was a “hierarchy” locally, according to popularity with parents and status, based on attainment, Ofsted status and context, and that they had “entrepreneurial and tactical responses” to this, including “strategic truces” which could be broken if a new headteacher came in.

What else did he have to say? That regional schools’ commissioners “spent two-thirds of their time rebrokering academies”. That schools were relatively confident about working with each other to improve and that this was more central than five or ten years ago when local authorities’ response to a need to improve would have been to send people on a course. That multi-academy trusts were sometimes formed to stop an external sponsor from taking over. “Networks are forming shaped by the needs of hierarchy and markets,” he said, adding that partnerships were being shaped by the local history of relationships, the context of the school and the agency of local actors – with some arrangements supporting schools and others more “toxic”.

“There’s the sense of the state stepping back with less control but nevertheless steering at a distance through hierarchy and accountability and how much flexibility there is for front line leaders,” he said.

Trevor Male had more to say about academies and multi-academy trusts, saying he had heard of “manic MATs, mates MATs… some are like Pacman.” There were huge holes in how the MATs provided expertise, he said, revealing the acronym SNOW means Schools No One Wants.

Leaders talked about the chaos of the system, and he quoted one saying that the creation of MATs was "like a train hurtling down the tracks for which are laying the lines just before we arrive."

Trust, leadership and research

A perhaps happier view of school leadership was on offer a few steps away. Jaswinder Dhillon of the University of Worcester was talking about the newest phase of her BELMAS-funded research into stakeholder perceptions of what’s important in school and college leadership. It’s already identified 23 characteristics: now, it’s trying to find out if some of them are more relevant in different settings.

Chris Brown of the University College London Institute of Education, meanwhile, was looking at how to foster more research engagement in school. There are all sorts of helpful things leaders can do, such as freeing up time for teachers – but the most important factor, three times more important than anything else, was creating a climate of trust. (The next two factors were a climate of organisational learning and then quality of interaction). A fascinating diagram showed that in high-research schools teachers were doing a lot more talking to each other, engaging and sharing. “Everybody’s talking to everybody else. In low use schools people are isolated, not talking to each other, with highly centralised people pushing out information,” he observed.

“Trust facilitates organisation that lets research happen in school. Senior leadership want to become leadership informed but unless they create trust it won't happen. If you trust, you’re more likely to take it on. This is about facilitating, making it easier. Organisational learning is important. This is what makes it easier to do,” he concluded.

Talk, intellectual debate – and Mike Bottery’s infamous quiz

The last sessions of the day done, and the focus changed to Victoria’s “intellectual debate and talk” with conversations over dinner and in the bar – with the added challenge of “semi-retired professor” Bottery’s quiz. I can tell you that the winning team was streets ahead with 27 out of a possible 40 points, awarded for successfully answering questions as diverse as the name of Tom Hanks’ basketball in the film Castaway, how many paintings Van Gogh sold in life (a sneaky one, this), the most numerous bird species in the world, the only Olympic sport not revived in modern times, the reason the US went to war against Germany in World War II, and the factor shared by women and two species of whale.


*To share your thoughts on BELMAS conference, tweet @BELMASConf or stick a post-it note on the board at Reception

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

BELMAS Annual Conference: Day Two >
BELMAS Annual Conference: Day Three >


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