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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


The next five years: 10 challenges for school leaders

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 May 2015

Robert Hill.
A new government with fresh enthusiasm for pushing its policies further is not the only challenge that school leaders face over the next five years. The aging teaching population, the rise in pupil numbers and the implacable forward march of technology would have substantial impacts under any government. In this blog, the first of two based on my lecture for the London Centre for Leadership in Learning today, 19 May, I describe 10 challenges facing school leaders over the next five years. It’s a pretty formidable list.

  1. The rise in pupil numbers. By 2020 there will be 650,000 more pupils in the school system than there are today as the pupil bulge continues in the primary sector and starts to feed through into secondary schools. Finding (and funding) the extra forms of entry and commissioning new schools will be hard enough for local authorities but will be made harder because of the fragmented nature of the planning process. 250,000 of the new places are to come via the 500 free schools that the Conservatives have promised – although this implies that free schools would only be approved in locations where places are needed. In addition their manifesto also said that all good schools (including free schools and grammar schools) would be allowed to expand. Stitching together these elements to ensure every child has a place is going to be demanding unless local authorities are given a say in the establishment and expansion of free schools and popular schools.


The freedom to make decisions about teaching assistants is nothing new, but now school leaders have the means to unlock their potential

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 February 2015

Rob Webster
Over the last five years, schools in England have been granted an unprecedented level of freedom. An increasing number of state schools now decide for themselves which children are admitted, the curriculum they follow, who to appoint to teach it, and how much they will be paid.
The professional architecture governing teachers’ qualifications and training, performance management, promotion, pay, contracts and conditions of work has been loosened in ways that will already be familiar to the 369,700 teaching assistants (TAs) employed in English schools.
There has never been agreement on entry qualifications for TAs, consistently applied professional standards, or a national (more…)

Middle leaders as catalysts for change in schools: an active, collaborative process

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 9 December 2014

Chris Brown and Louise Stoll
Over recent years, there’s been greater awareness in England of the important role middle leaders – people such as department heads, key stage leaders or pastoral leaders – can play in school improvement. Middle leaders are the key link between teachers and a school’s senior leaders. As such, they are well positioned to offer support and challenge to teachers and lead their learning both within their own school and across partner schools.
How successful they are at this, in an evidence-hungry policy environment, will depend at least partly on their capacity to engage with and share knowledge about high quality research and practice and track its impact on learning and teaching. In short, middle leaders have the potential to be catalysts for evidence-informed change.
We had the opportunity to explore this issue in a year-long R&D project, funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) (more…)

Conflicts of interest in academy schools are symptoms of a wider malaise

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 September 2014

Toby Greany
This post is co-published with The Conversation
As part of its ongoing inquiry into academies and free schools, the Education Select Committee recently published a report that it had commissioned from Jean Scott and me on conflicts of interest in academies.
We found that real and perceived conflicts of interest are common in academy trusts. These range from instances where individuals benefit personally or via their companies from their position in an academy trust, through to more intangible conflicts that do not directly involve money. (more…)

How headteachers are maximising the impact of teaching assistants and getting results

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 5 September 2014

Rob Webster
Recent Government data reveal the rise and rise of teaching assistants. Headcount figures show there are more TAs working in English state-funded primary schools than teachers: 257,300 vs. 242,300. In secondary schools, there are 70,700 TAs to 257,300 teachers.
While these numbers reflect the part-time nature of the role, they strengthen the case for professionalising these valued members of the school workforce.
This year, our SENJIT@IOE team worked with 26 schools in the inaugural Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, supporting them through a process of rethinking and reforming their use of TAs. MITA is based on the principles and processes set out in our book of the same name, which in turn is based on findings from an extensive research programme.
Through MITA, we present a case for more effective uses of TAs, which schools apply and develop in their own setting. The programme gives school leaders and SENCos dedicated opportunities to think, reflect, discuss and plan, with sessions at the IOE and consultancy visits from an expert MITA Facilitator from the SENJIT team.
Our evaluation of the two-term project, based on feedback from participating schools, found that despite starting from different points, all schools made progress towards understanding and addressing the complex issues of rethinking the TA role and raising their profile in school.
Participants told us one of MITA’s strengths is the way it is structured around a robust evidence-informed framework for decision-making and action, based on empirical research. The framework helped participants appreciate the need for the deep structural changes that the research has revealed is essential if TAs are to have a lasting and meaningful impact on pupil outcomes.
MITA helped school leaders think more broadly about the issues relating to TA deployment, preparedness and their interactions with pupils (the MITA trinity!). Whilst schools identify training for TAs as an area of attention, on its own, it is no sliver bullet. For example, schools recognised that the need for change in relation to improving provision for pupils with SEN extended beyond TAs to improving teachers’ practice.
Indeed, the new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice proved a powerful additional catalyst for change. This is no coincidence; one of MITA’s key aims is, as the Code supports, to encourage schools to develop a role for TAs that begins to break away from what is often called the ‘Velcro’ model of support for pupils with high-level SEN, and which our research has revealed to have unintended consequences.
Instead, MITA schools have been exploring the enormous potential of using TAs to help all pupils develop the essential skills underpinning learning, such as the ability to self-scaffold and ask themselves the questions that help them to get better at getting better at learning.
The broader point here is that understanding why pupils targeted for TA support are negatively affected by the very intervention designed to help them, and how to reverse this situation, is essential if school leaders are to ensure TAs’ contribution to school life seriously counts.
This conclusion is hardly unique. A raft of research attests to why headteachers must drive – not dodge – school workforce issues. So a particularly encouraging outcome of the MITA programme from our point of view (as researchers and course providers) is the way in which headteachers have engaged and committed to doing something positive and potentially transformative for their TA workforce.
The effort is paying off too, as schools began to see the benefits of addressing the key challenge of defining the role, purpose and contribution of TAs within their school.
Given the Government says it has “no plans or any powers” to address issues of TA employment, it is encouraging to see schools seizing the initiative and using the freedoms they have been given to set the agenda. It is still early days, but empowering headteachers in this way might potentially have an even greater payoff.
No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as the UK in its use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the Government’s aim of keeping pace with international education systems, TAs’ contribution will be essential. The prize awaiting the UK, then, is to become a world leader in this area.
MITA courses begin at the IOE on 17th November 2014 and 23rd January 2015. To register, email r.webster@ioe.ac.uk.
Visit www.maximisingTAs.co.uk or the SENJIT website. Follow us on Twitter @maximisingTAs.

School leadership in China: party lines and personalised curriculum pathways

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 November 2013

Toby Greany
I lived in China for two years in the early ‘90s working in a teacher training university in Wuhan. I loved my time there, but life was challenging in many ways.  I would be surrounded by fascinated crowds everywhere I went and was often followed by jeering shouts.
So it was amazing to land in Shanghai last month and find a city transformed.  What impressed me was not just the overhead freeways or the world’s fastest train: it was the fact that people no longer spat in the street or smoked indoors or shouted at me as I went past. These changes signalled a deeper transformation than any number of breathtaking skyscrapers.
So what about education: how had that changed?
When I taught in China 20 years ago, I used to try and persuade my students not to get up at 6 am to read the dictionary. At the time I felt it epitomised their propensity to work hard at the wrong things. Their conception of learning was undoubtedly a traditional one: it took me about six months to get them to accept that I wasn’t going to give up on group work activities in class, so they might as well get on and talk to each other instead of waiting for me to start teaching again.
Some things hadn’t changed much when I visited Shanghai. On my second day I led two three hour workshops for head teachers in different districts. I couldn’t imagine talking for 3 hours solid and was sure that experienced heads would have plenty to say, so had planned in various group discussion activities.  The silence after I outlined the first paired discussion was deafening – I was taken straight back to my first class 20 years ago! My solution was to tell them about the no-hands-up approach to formative assessment and then stuff the microphone into someone’s hand: to my relief they were perfectly happy to talk at length in front of the group.
When I talked about leadership and leadership development, it seemed at first as if the concepts just didn’t translate. Head teachers there are appointed and moved between schools by the district. Every Senior Leadership Team includes a Party Secretary, who is separate to the head teacher and who appears to call the shots on matters of policy. As a result, the idea that they might spot and develop talent, form strategic partnerships or take courageous decisions to address underperformance all seemed alien at first.
Yet, as the first session developed, something interesting began to happen. In an opening sequence I asked what the heads thought were the characteristics of an effective leader.  One man stood up and gave what was described to me later as a ‘politically correct’ answer. It turned out he was not a head but an ex-army man now working for the district, I suspect as a party official. To paraphrase his answer, it was along the lines of: an effective leader does what the Party instructs and works for the greater good of China.
At the time though I was confused: as he finished each sentence the other heads in the room burst out laughing. I was relying on consecutive translation, so had to wait to find out what was so funny, yet as the sentences were translated they seemed boringly innocuous.  What was going on? Surely he was losing face being laughed at in this way, and surely the laughter signalled an irreverent acknowledgement that real leadership was considerably more complex than the official view?
From that point on the real conversation began, and continued over lunch, then dinner and subsequent days. One head talked about how she tackled weak teachers; another how she spots and develops talent; another how he developed personalised curriculum pathways and built links with German universities; and another how she has implemented co-operative learning strategies in her school. I sat with a Director of Education discussing school to school support and knowledge management approaches for sharing effective practice between schools.
They discussed their concerns and challenges as well. How to expand education for all and secure equity at vast scale? How to manage the massive internal migration of rural workers to the cities? How to develop creativity and avoid the stringent gaocou (university entrance exam) dominating the entire system with an overly fact-based version of learning?
Of course, these were mostly Shanghai-based practitioners I was talking to and everyone kept reminding me that Shanghai isn’t representative. Nevertheless, just as I was impressed by the deeper changes in the wider city, I was equally impressed by the subtle changes in the schools and classrooms I saw from the China I knew 20 years ago.
Did the ex-army man lose face in that opening dialogue? I don’t really know.  My sense is that the Chinese are more likely to laugh because they are embarrassed than because they want to mock someone. So perhaps they were more embarrassed than irreverent; but surely, underneath that embarrassment, must have been a deeper acknowledgement that such an answer misrepresents the complexities of the real world of leadership?

Why learning stand-up comedy is no joke

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 October 2013

Louise Stoll
Have you heard the one about the professor who did a stand-up comedy course? Well, if you haven’t before, you have now. And if you’re thinking, “why would anyone in their right mind do that?” that’s just what I was wondering after the first two weeks of my seven-week course earlier this year.
Why take on this challenge? Am I about to leave the ivory tower for a life in the comedy clubs? Anyone who saw me perform my final showcase will be overjoyed to hear that’s not my motivation. I just became increasingly concerned that when accountability stakes are high, or educational policies steer educators towards prescriptive teaching programmes, like a specific literacy approach, many teachers respond by playing it safe and relying on others to tell them what to do.
Around the world, many governments recognize that it’s essential for children graduating from school to be creative and adaptable. But, if teachers don’t have the opportunity to be creative, how can anyone expect them to light that spark in their students?
That’s why my colleagues and I started working on creative leadership with teams of school leaders. We explored and studied different ways the leaders could support their colleagues in coming up with and trying out new strategies to tackle difficult problems inside and outside the classroom. We learned that this involves taking risks, for them and for the teachers, as they were pushed out of their comfort zones. Some of the leaders and teachers resisted making changes to the way they carried out their work, finding every excuse to leave things the way they were. The risk just seemed too great.
That’s where the comedy course came in. I wanted to feel what it was like to try something totally different, something that didn’t feel “same old, same old”, that would seriously challenge me. It was really hard. Those comedians who make it all look so easy when they make us laugh actually put a huge amount of time and effort into practising and refining their jokes. My classmates (a retired police officer, an airport driver, a solicitor, a waiter, a documentary film maker, and a prison officer, among others) and I spent hours between the sessions thinking up and developing material, trying it out on willing – and sometimes less willing – friends and family members, then tweaking it or if necessary, ditching it and coming up with something new. Turning up the next week without having put in the effort just wasn’t an option if we wanted to stand up in front of our tutor and peers without feeling completely foolish. Luckily, being in this together, we quickly became a supportive group.
Experts take practising extremely seriously – all 10,000 hours of it, as Anders Ericsson reminded us. In The Expert Learner, to be published at the start of 2014, my colleague Gordon Stobart argues that we can learn many lessons from experts like Mozart, David Beckham and the Williams sisters. He argues that we should be applying this to learning in schools – both students’ learning and teachers’. Practise needs to be more purposeful, focusing on specific elements. He’s not saying that every one of them will become experts, but that learners, however old we are, can improve.
Being a better teacher, leader, parent, policy maker isn’t something that just happens. You have to be open to new ideas and try experiences that push you and challenge your thinking. And you need to practise new skills and keep refining them.
When did you last seriously challenge yourself learning something new for the benefit of children and young people? How did it feel? Did you practise it?
OK – time to confess. This is my first blog. Here I am pushing myself out of my comfort zone again, totally unsure of how you’ll react to this. I’d welcome feedback. Of course, I’ll also need to practise, and you know what they say about practise . . .
This post first appeared at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/international_perspectives/

Talkin’ ‘bout three generations: what does it mean for schools when Xs, Ys and Boomers mix?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 12 November 2012

Karen Edge
People from the same generation tend to have some characteristics in common and, as a result, generational differences influence the daily lives of the organisations they work in. However, within education, rarely has a generational lens been used to explore and support the three generations (3-Gen) of teachers and leaders working in our schools at the moment: Boomers (born 1945–65), Generation X (1965–1980) and Generation Y (1980–2000).
Our current ESRC-funded study is nested within our wider interest in the influence of generational behaviour and attitudinal patterns on school-level improvements in teaching and learning. It focuses our energies on learning more about the emerging cohort of Gen X school leaders in London, New York and Toronto.
To kick-start our 3-Gen musings, based on our own and the wider emerging evidence we introduce three generationally stereotypical and fictitious teachers and leaders. Without further ado, your 3-Gen trio: Ayesha, Mark and Barbara:
Generation Y: Ayesha, 24
Ayesha recently accepted her first permanent teaching post. She is optimistic, confident, social and street-smart. Motivated by a sense of civic duty, Ayesha and her peers are part of a diverse cohort with a commitment to, and expectation of, a diverse workforce. Professionally, Ayesha is self-directed, tech savvy, well-networked and connected. She is willing to commit to her school and is eager to get ahead, demonstrated by her constant desire for learning and expanded responsibility. At times, Ayesha is easily intimidated by colleagues. She likes structure and supervision in the form of personalised learning and mentoring opportunities. Ayesha and her Gen Y colleagues often thrive with robust orientation programme and large-group collaboration under strong supportive leaders.
Generation X: Mark, 37
Mark is a technoliterate deputy headteacher although he is now frequently out-techsavvied by his Gen Y colleagues. During his first six years of teaching, he taught in four different schools. Thankfully, he is comfortable with change! He is at ease with people from all backgrounds, is globally-minded and has travelled and studied abroad. While he is comfortable with, and even craves, collaboration, he is content working on his own and is self-reliant. His sense of fun and informal approach to relationships and work is palpable. For Mark, work is defined by task, not time and place. However, he holds his commitment to his partner and family close to heart and defends his work-life balance. Mark is a great colleague because he is adaptable, creative and unintimidated by authority. However, his independence has fostered what is perceived as a “less than ideal” set of people skills and his cynicism can often get in the way.
Boomer: Barbara, 55
Barbara is optimistic, personable and very much a relationship-oriented headteacher. At work she is a great team player who is eager to please her colleagues, keen to be involved in any cross-school initiatives and always willing to go the extra mile. Yet she is also keen to avoid conflict, sensitive to feedback and reluctant to challenge her peers. Her natural tendency to focus on process and to be weary of budget and accountability structures can be to the detriment of the end result within an accountability, outcomes-driven culture. Barbara can also be fairly judgmental of those with a different perspective to her own, and can sometimes stray into believing her way is the only way.
What we are calling “generational awareness” may provide leaders with another strategy for understanding how individuals approach their work, collaboration and work-life balance. As a starter for ten, we suggest the following questions for consideration:

  • Are there generational patterns at play within your school?
  • Do you make the most of generational patterns to bring about school-level change and improvement?
  • Do you need (or have) a different skill and strategy set to recruit, retain, motivate and support colleagues from each generation?

Our work to build on collective understanding of the implications of our 3-Gen schools continues and we encourage you to join the debate/discussion. Contact k.edge@ioe.ac.uk.