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BELMAS Annual Conference 2017: Day Three


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Author: Susan Young

It’s the final morning of the BELMAS conference and conversations are still in full swing, both around the coffee machines and breakfast tables, and in the seminar and keynote sessions.

While aspiring authors meet the editors of the two BELMAS journals, EMAL and MiE, in the library, there are some lively sessions going on elsewhere.

Examining the academic misery narrative

Sue Shepherd’s session examining how “a new cadre of career track academic managers are colonising university management” was one of the liveliest presentations of the weekend, attracting one of the liveliest reactions of the weekend.

Her opening slide talked of the “woe is me academic misery narrative,” with bullet points about “universities going to hell in a handcart” and managerialism “seeped into every nook and cranny” with a takeover by “managers and managerialism.”

This didn’t match Sue’s own experience: she wanted to critically examine the narrative and explore who were these managers supposedly taking over universities.

So, she did a census of all the pro-Vice Chancellors (PVCs) in England and did semi-structured interviews with 45 Vice-Chancellors and 26 PVCs, finding job advertisements asked for a track record in research excellence and academic credibility was “non-negotiable.” “Some vice-chancellors were very dismissive that a non-academic could be considered,” she said.

Non-academics were not seen as having legitimacy to manage academics, with a “glass wall” – as a PVC, you could move from academia to management, but not the other way round.

Some things had changed: being a PVC was no longer part-time, and it was a job rather than a role, with a career track rather than someone taking it on as a “good citizen.”

She found PVCs might now have different motivations – or be more overt about them. They wanted a seat at the top table and were very happy to describe themselves as managers. They were ambitious, and moving from institution to institution. And there were more of them, sometimes with the new title of provost. “I would argue it isn’t just hierarchical power but expansion,” she said.

Mainstream academics had lost power and authority, but not to professional service managers – the shift was from rank and file academics to a new professional elite. PVC posts are colonised by academics, she said.

The new career track PVCs were divorced from day to day academic activities, and likely to have sacrificed their research career. There was a growing gulf between them and the academic community, and they were increasingly regarded as “suits”. “It can be a very uncomfortable place to be,” she said, concluding: “Given new PVCs are neither functioning academics nor professional managers is this change for the better? is it meaningful to suggest they should be academics?”

Multi-academy trusts – why would they take on failing schools?

This was one of the questions posed by Catherine Simon presenting a research project she’s been carrying out with Chris James. Reasons given included protecting what trusts already had, getting ahead of the game, choices and accessing funding.

One trust had ticked the box to take on a failing school as part of paperwork to become a Training School Alliance, while others felt it was a moral imperative. “One said he thought it was immoral for children to be attending failing schools,” she said.

Schools were attached to MATs in different ways, with the role of sponsor to set the vision, change the culture and work with everyone involved. “Interestingly from the interviews we've had, mention of teaching and learning is minimal. A number said it goes without saying that they’re concerned with teaching and learning, but I wonder why it goes without saying,” she said.

MATs risked their reputation if the arrangement didn’t work out, and also resources and capacity: putting staff into underperforming schools could minimise success in others. There could even be a risk of court cases if a failing school had previously not followed process in some way.

Opportunities included growing leaders of the future through collaboration. Implications included succession planning, internal market of teachers who could be moved round within the MAT depending on its geographical spread. Teachers who wanted to try leadership could do so without risk, being deployed to where they were needed without having to resign.

For Catherine, there were also concerns round the sustainability of the system – she was “yet to be convinced” that successful models of turning schools around could be transferable to different context. She also had questions around their relationship between Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners around how schools were defined as underperforming and brokering, and what you do about persistent underperformance.

“Some schools are being rebrokered 3, 4 5 times. The House of Commons education committee picked up on this. There is concern about the grown of untouchable schools in the system,” she said.

Education in one of the poorest provinces in South Africa

Working without a screen presentation, Felix Marenge of the University of Witwatersrand took us through his PACT projects with schools and principals in Mpumalanga, one of the poorest provinces of South Africa.

The schools face multiple deprivation, and the projects looked at what was challenging the principles, and what caused students to drop out of school. He identified four key factors – poverty (P), the legacy of apartheid (A), issues of the curriculum which in South Africa has changed four times in two decades (C), and teaching and learning issues (T). Together, he calls them PACT.

He believes leadership training and professional development should be crafted round these four issues, and he has now created a PACT framework which is now in its second year. “We think PACT leadership may have relevance in training supporting development of leaders in SA schools,” he said, adding: “Yes, it's important to go to leadership workshops and talk about transformational leadership but if it’s not brought into the context of the PACT it may be missing the point in not providing Principals with the contextual richness of their own environments.”

In South Africa, he said, school leaders are not trained but are teachers who have done well in the classroom.

Fighting for equity-centred educational leadership in the age of Trump

Perhaps the keynote which most resonated with the audience, and sparked the most heartfelt questions and debate was Mark Gooden’s passionate and wide-ranging session on equity-centred educational leadership. Quoting Malcolm X that “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today,” he added the rider that it was also necessary to understand how to successfully navigate a system based on white cultural norms, and remain mentally, physically and spiritually sound.

It was a challenging session.

“If you are a white person and called racist you can debunk it and say you’re not racist…

If you are a person of colour and you complain it's you, not the system,” he said, running through the definition of Woke (being aware, knowing what’s going on in the community).

Social justice leaders “may have taken a long nap during the Obama presidency,” he said – but that was not going to be the case during the Trump presidency, with the “familiar strategy” of people being chosen to run regulatory agencies who are against them. “We need to be aware as leaders and trainers of leaders this is the way of the world right now. How do we build resistance?

“We've got to develop colleagues to be anti-racist leaders… to develop leaders to dismantle racist systems to challenge that which is baked into the system,” he said.

He talked about his experience of designing a programme in Texas for which the final assignment was a racial autobiography. “I was first to talk. Even at the beginning of the session their arms were folded. I began to realise students were very reluctant to engage with a racial biography.”

Students asked if they could do an alternative assignment, or write about the time they visited the church with a black friend. “Resistance came out against me because it was perceived as my assignment. In the US when we talk about racial politics people say, where is the Black or Latino person? In the US, we’re not allowed to talk about race unless defined in No Child Left Behind terms,” he said.

He wondered if he should “chuck the whole assignment.”

“But they wrote really powerful papers… I was in tears listening how much it changed their lives being aware of their whiteness entwined with leadership. It changed who they were and how they thought as leaders and I thought again, we’re on the right track.”

He showed a slide of a white woman, labelled: Is this what you imagine American Resistance looks like? Pointing out that the majority of people coming to principalship programmes are white women, he asked: does this cause cognitive dissonance?

People of colour tended to lead institutions of colour, he said, diminishing their career opportunities. “What if I want to work in a school which is predominantly white? Those kids need to see black role models too. If you want to be a central office leader your chance is improved if you’re a principal at a predominantly white school. No promotion from a black high school – you are exactly where we needed you to be.”

We are all in this together, he said. “We can change the system and we can resist and push against it.”

Conference chair Victoria Showunmi, thanking Mark, said she hoped he had begun an ongoing conversation in BELMAS. Expanding on this later, she talked of Conference exploring leadership through intersectional lines, opening up the conversation “so that it isn’t ‘this is what leadership looks like’. Gender can be a very closed discussion, in many contexts white women.

“We have a high proportion of white women in leadership: we have to open up that conversation to include women of colour. I want to open up that conversation so that it’s not just theoretical: we have the power to engage and change people in our schools.”

“Fascinating, scary, very powerful,” said BELMAS chair Gill Howland.

Final words

Winding up the conference, and thanking Victoria and Richard, Kelly and Rachael, the BELMAS office staff, for all their hard work, she said: “I think we've had some really interesting presentations, really thought-provoking inputs, good discussions, and great workshops. I think all the speakers referred at some point to this fantastic thing: the power of education to transform society. We must never lose sight of that.”

She added that the conference had combined lovely surroundings, great company and new faces. “The old and the new is just wonderful. I’ve had the opportunity to be challenged, reflect on my experience, meet new people and forge new relationships - and I hope new friendships. People commented on the warmth of welcome and genuine friendliness at BELMAS and I hope you are finding that special element."

“The unique feature is the bringing together of research and practice: understanding each other's perspectives gives a greater impact on what we can do for the future.”

Can’t wait to do it all again? The next conference is in Windsor on 6-8 July 2018.

 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 Two >


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