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BELMAS Annual Conference 2017: Day Two


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Author: Susan Young

There’s a real buzz around the second day of BELMAS, as speakers got to grips with some really knotty questions. Or as Professor Mike Bottery put it in his whirlwind session, “wicked problems” – things which are so complicated that straightforward solutions will tend to lead to guilt and blame.

The morning was packed with goodies, from a thoroughly bracing keynote from University of Derby VC Kathryn Mitchell, through sessions on using collage to research leadership issues, comparisons between teaching of educationalists and medics, an exploration of a new brand of career administrators in UK universities, and what happened when a trust took over schools with a mission to rapidly improve.

There was also the temporary distraction of the final rugby match in the series between the British and Irish Lions and New Zealand – and of course lots of opportunities to debate further over coffee and biscuits.

Kathryn Mitchell delivers a pretty extraordinary speech. A neuropsychologist, she says her belief is how to challenge how people can tap into their possibilities to make their neurons work better, to connect to the best of their ability in her university.

She has taught at institutions including Kings, Rockefeller and Chicago and does not, she says, see any difference between her students and theirs although they may come in with lower grades. “We have them for three years and in that time we can teach them to do something very different with their brain cells,” she said, adding later: “The power of education is why I am a leader. How much you believe the power of education, being truthful to yourself and your team leads to success.”

In her own life, she said she came from a background without much money but with a value on education. It was important to understand individuals without that richness when they arrived in the education system.

After a Wellcome scholarship in the US, she had returned to the UK and spent some teaching at Thames Valley University which was both the most inspirational place she ever worked and the hardest ten years of her life. “To turn it around I had to demonstrate that you have to learn what makes people tick in education, and lead young people to success. Not your staff, your young and older people.”

She continued: “I think you have to absolutely believe in the power of education. You have to absolutely believe education is transformative. I think if you don’t believe education is transformative, that it’s a tick box to getting a qualification it probably becomes quite tiresome and boring and demoralising.

“We don’t have a society that loves learning - that’s our challenge, I think, in the UK. We need to make sure in the UK how we are going to lead people to absolutely love the learning.” That includes, she says, appreciating that there is now a generation that can learn deeply in a digital environment.

Preparing for the Teaching Excellence Framework, she explained how she had asked staff to devise a system for what Derby wanted to deliver to students if it wasn’t a university. “Interestingly we came out with something that looks like TEF. Yes, we would want to give students an outstanding learning experience, embedded curriculum, advance knowledge in an environment which is student friendly and focused, it has to be real value for money, staff would have to be accessible to students. There has to be engagement not just knowledge and transfer through attainments. Lo and behold it reads like TEF,” she says, adding that the day Derby got its gold award she wore a “blingy” gold jacket.

Kathryn is eminently quotable, criticising the way in which performance review systems can be used (“you don’t wait till the end of the year to ask your children to do the dishes”) and concluding: “It’s not rocket science to be a leader. You need energy and drive and confidence and if you don’t get something right be prepared to tell people you got it wrong and what you need to do to get it right, and to understand people who are engaged in education in order to transform their lives. That means it can’t be one-size-fits all, can’t be a tick box and you have to get outside comfort zones to make a difference.”

The sessions that followed were almost unbelievably varied, with a roundtable session for practitioners from all over the world a highlight for those who took part. There were in-depth looks at such diverse subjects as school leadership in Saudi Arabia, relationships supporting headteacher development and the governance of multi-academy trust. Here are just a few highlights from sessions I managed to catch.

Sorting out summer-borns

Jane Flood, a senior teacher at The Oaks CE Federation in Southampton had an interesting story to tell about how her school and its partners created a dramatic improvement in summer-borns writing skills at the end of Reception, by becoming a research-informed institution, aided by Dr Chris Brown of the Institute of Education.

Not only did the children’s achievement improve dramatically, but parents became very involved, Jane is taking her researches further and the Federation has now got all of its teachers involved in research.

Wicked problems for educational leaders

Mike Bottery of the University of Hull wanted to talk about how globalisation has increased the number of those complex, “wicked” problems facing educational leaders.  Unknown unknowns included being destabilised by a school inspection, local population changes, or previously unrecognized interactions. “Silver bullet solutions are not enough in a wicked world,” he said, adding that opting for “tame” solutions, as the Government would wish, means the school leaders is likely to end up with blame and guilt for not achieving the desired result.

“It all adds to pressure on leaders because of the complexity of the role,” he said, adding that the challenge should be “more about throwing birds than throwing stones.” What was needed was more of an ethic of humility rather than certainty, and creation of a inclusive culture for dealing with “wicked” problems.

“The ultimate role of an education leader should be asking the right questions, not finding the right answers… and educating others as to the limits of what can be promised.

“I think governments are as pressured as teachers and leaders. With 24 news they have to deliver results and get them out to the public. They tend to go for something achievable within democratic process. We need to challenge assumptions beneath policy – if we don’t you’re treating problems as if they are tame and can be managed,” he said.

Ever heard of collage as a research tool?

Amanda Roberts of the University of Hertfordshire wanted to show us how it can be used to explore subtleties and express a wider range of thoughts and feelings – sometimes not previously articulated by interviewees – in educational research.

One PhD student had found it useful when researching teachers who were struggling, and gave additional richness and depth to the interviews. It was “a tin opener for discussion,” said Amanda, as interviewees created and talked about what it meant. It was about playing with metaphors and might help researchers see something different about leadership, she said.

But, she asked, did that mean there were there ethical implications?

Words and meanings in a new multi-academy trust

Linda Hammersley-Fletcher was talking about her project with a multi-academy trust whose mission was to take on and turn around schools, giving students an experience which was rich in arts and sports and analogous to a private school experience. There were some tensions in the approach, she found, with one head saying: “I told staff in the very beginning you know everything that I do will be for the good of the children and they’ve got to trust me on this.”

So, how collaborative was the Trust’s approach, she asks, adding that after she wrote her report it had modified the way in which it did things.

A woman’s work is (still) never done

The experience of women leaders was the focus for three presentations in one session.

Kay Fuller and Pontso Moorosi had looked at the intersectionality of gender and race in their stories of black and global majority heritage women leaders. One, Nicola, said she had a “triple whammy” of being young, black and a woman in headship. Her view of school leadership was that it was about creating a team, about the achievement of young people in broad terms, not just academic success, and a culturally responsive curriculum.

Next up, Saeeda Shah took us through some of the research she is carrying out with Victoria Showunmi and David Pedder, investigating the experience of women academics in Pakistan and their progression to leadership.  She has found careers are a side product for women, who have an association with the domestic and are affected by social attitudes and conventions, the discourse of good Muslim women and role internalisation.

The slides told stories in the women’s words of husbands who insisted that they do all the cooking, that they are ill but have no time to see a doctor, and that they have to look happy through all of this.

Finally, Laura Guihen talked about her research in to women deputies and their aspirations – or otherwise – to headship. She was inspired to research this because of women’s under-representation in headships and her concern that this sent “negative messages to young people about opportunities society affords women to lead, and negative messages to young female teachers.”

The women talked about the danger of mental health issues, and the lack of time and burnout they were experiencing. One who did go for a promotion intervidew realised that colleagues had more time to think and prepare, and her job did not allow time for her to progress her career.

Women also talked about survival and how Ofsted could end careers. “I don't want to walk into school one day and realise I don't have a job,” said one.

How does Prevent work in action?

Prevent is a strategy which is designed to stop being being radicalised and drawn into terrorism, and UK schools, colleges and universities have to comply with what it says.

Bob Hindle of the University of Manchester has been investigating how it works in further education colleges, by asking about training, the referral process and how they would react to a fictional case history of a student who has started wearing traditional dress, behaving differently and whose brother is rumoured to have gone to fight in Syria.

He found very different approaches in four colleges.  One was more concerned about whether the student was involved in criminality, and said there needed to be a lot of caution and a lot of corroborating evidence “before that button was pressed” while another said they’d ring the Prevent officer to ask.

“One college said, if we make a referral what happens to that student. There’s a police car outside for them – how does that kid walk back into school? This has to be a last resort, with the evidence very concrete,” he said, adding that ten years ago the college would have started by speaking to the student. He asked: were Prevent co-ordinators giving different advice in different areas of the country?

Awards for papers, awards for people

Saturday night at the Belmas conference is for celebration: a drinks reception, a gala dinner, good conversation and awards.

Presenting the EMAL award for Best Paper, Tony Bush pointed out that it is getting more competitive to even get a paper published in the journal, with a record number of submissions last year (306) and 180 so far this year. It’s also very quick to let authors know, with an average turnaround time of 22.6 days he said. Mark Boylan’s paper on system leadership was, he said, the “clear winner” from the shortlist of four.

The MiE award for best paper went to Simon Dowling, head of English at Colchester Royal Grammar school, while the best thesis winner was Susan Cousin.

The Reflective Practice Award, revived this year, went to Paul Campbell. He wrote about the process of change at the school where he teaches in Barcelona, and according to Colin Russell, chair of the awarding panel, “it had a Mercedes feel to it.”

Finally, former BELMAS chair Megan Crawford gave the citation for the Distinguished Service Award – on film – to Mike Bottery, talking about his generosity with young academics and his commitment to the society.

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 One > 
BELMAS Annual Conference: Day Three >


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