School Led Conference 2014

They were told it couldn’t happen, a one form entry primary school organising a regional conference, but Mike Tonge and his team from Prestolee Teaching School pulled it off. Over 300 people from across the North-West participated in an inspiring day at Old Trafford cricket ground’s, The Point.

As keynote speaker, Sir John Jones emphasised that we’re moving from being a “done-to” profession towards Michael Barber’s notion of “informed professionalism”. That was certainly in evidence in the high quality of the presentations, questions and discussion amongst participants. Specialist leaders in education (SLEs) led market place table discussions on vital aspects of improvement giving a flavour of the range of school to school support across the North West.

Participants attended two from a selection of 12 interesting workshops. Julie Bostock and Alison Chapman’s workshop on engaging in initial teacher education celebrated the positive impact on the professional development of school staff from working with high quality trainees, designing their curriculum, and sharing practice between schools. She shared an innovative selection practice: interviewees present a “lesson” of their choice, and pupils are asked for structured feedback. The interview panel asks applicants why and how they chose to present as they did; and for their reflection and self-evaluation.

Tom Bennett, who set up the grassroots researchEd, enthused his group with the notion that schools should appoint a teacher as their “Research Champion”. With modern social media as their ally, the champion could approach some of the best minds in education, and engage colleagues far and wide. While Tom did not recommend that teachers undertake “DIY research”, he urged schools to consider partner arrangements with HE or organisations like EEF – not least, to get them to hear the real voice of schools. The research champion could be a conduit for ideas, promoting research literacy in their school.

Alison Wilkinson reinforced the theme of evidence-based teaching – as the head of research and development for her school’s alliance, she reminded us of Ben Goldacre’s message that there is “a great prize waiting to be claimed”. This prize included better outcomes, professional esteem and autonomy and more effective resistance to ill-informed ideas. Teachers who “know how we know” formed a key body of critical consumers for our practice. They could also be in a better position to influence external researchers’ interests towards real classrooms, pupils, and outcomes.

On another note, Drew Povey engaged us with a stirring presentation about the absolutely transformative effects of leadership. His messages were: don’t re-build what used to exist but re-imagine it, and foster a “growth mindset”. If you focus on people and sign everyone up to the common purpose, then they will take care of processes, and performance will follow. Drew’s final recommendation was to wield the power of transformative leadership, by “walking around”.

John Boyle gave a complementary perspective on leadership, underlining the crucial role of governance. Here too, transformation needs to take place, from the tangled committee mindset of old, into a new model of strategic support and challenge for school heads. This needed to be more sharply focused, and founded on expertise rather than just willingness to participate. John identified some of the issues he has seen in his role as a leader: the need for better self-evaluation, a greater willingness and ability to confront and deal with risk and change (not least, academisation), familiarity with data – and better access to it. One questioner had recently lost four governors and the Chair, and John pointed out the opportunity this can create. The School Governors One Stop Shop is among the resources now available for recruiting from a wider talent pool. He had advertised amongst local business people for the equivalent of a non-executive director.

Reminding us of the demanding and rewarding work that schools need to do, regardless of the latest debates about systems, Angela Holdsworth gave a well-received insight into the ramifications of the new Code for SEND, which now covers the whole age range 0-25. Children, parents and carers are entitled to real participation in decision-making that affects them, and schools also have to consider how joint commissioning and planning to meet children and young people’s needs and aspirations can work in practice. The identification and support of pupils with SEND will require a more graduated approach, and listening to children will be even more important.

In plenary session, we heard powerful messages about the school-led, self-improving system from Vicky Beer. She conveyed the progress, the challenges, and the sheer excitement of the transformation taking place across the North West. Vicky gave us encouraging statistics about the coverage of the teaching schools movement, but on a lighter note she also provided some entertaining but telling cycling-based metaphors to illustrate the variety of perspectives and appetites for the changes taking place. Vicky explained how the Teaching Schools Council itself was transforming from an advisory body into a strong autonomous advocate for school-led ITT, CPD, and leadership. Even with current levels of success and support, the main challenge that still needed to be met was that of the system’s capacity to lead itself. Among current efforts to deal with that, look out for the new North West School Improvement Partnership Board, to be chaired by no less than Estelle Morris.

Paul Smith reminded us that “do nothing” is not an option. The slogan “every school a great school” was now ten years old, but nationally we still have 29% of primary schools not rated as “Good” or better, so we still have more ground to cover. He endorsed the school-led improvement concept by recalling his golfing experience: periodic coaching had been all very well, but his real improvement dated from his decision to play as often as possible with stronger golfers!

A fitting grand finale to the day was provided by a panel, whose distinguished members included Vicky and Paul, with Fergal Roche of The Key, Professor Sam Twistleton of Sheffield Hallam University, and Charlie Taylor of NCTL. The panel were splendidly interrogated by Radio 5 Live’s Andy Crane. Questions ranged from the specific challenges faced here and now by the school-led system, to longer-term concerns about replacing the old directive bureaucracies with new ones. Interesting points emerged relating to the future role of Ofsted, and to the Carter Review of ITT. Responding to a question about the maturity of the new approaches, panellists were clear that school-led systems were already the policy lens of choice, but the task would always continue.

Charlie Taylor’s concluding remarks reminded us how far we have come, into territory unthinkable just ten years ago. DfE used to issue a lot of guidance; teachers used to demand it – this didn’t necessarily fit the wishes of either side. That isn’t what happens now, in a time when system change is more likely to be levered by (for example) an energetic and determined primary headteacher. As Mike Tonge said, “We have to prove that we can do it!”

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