Beyond the school gates
By Val Poultney, Senior Lecturer in Postgraduate Studies
Beyond the school gates: reciprocal academic leadership
One of the features of the school improvement landscape over the past two decades has been a focus on developing school leadership and how this leadership is used to empower teachers in the quest for better student outcomes (Stoll, 2015). Much of this improvement work is centred on teachers researching into their own practice and providing an empirical evidence base to support and sustain changes to teacher pedagogy as a result. Research conducted in 2014-15 across an East Midlands Teaching School Alliance into perceptions and experiences of secondary school teachers already using inquiry in their practice Poultney et al. (2015) and Fox, et al. (2015) found that leadership of this work was crucial to its success.
Opportunities and threats to the inquiry process
At a departmental and classroom level inquiry is valued for the impact it can have on raising awareness of different approaches to pedagogy. The outcomes of inquiry can influence learning, raise the morale of teaching staff and extend their professionalism. Our data reveals that researching teachers come from (mainly) newly qualified teachers, those undertaking Masters’ level programmes, or those in middle leadership posts (Heads of subject departments). For teachers who are not recently qualified and not part of these groups inquiry provides a means of self-reflection on approaches to teaching and learning and can help teachers to work more collaboratively.
While most teachers and their leaders are positive about inquiry as adding value to their work, a key tension was evident between the work of middle and senior leaders. Different priorities and different agendas meant that the focus on learning that could be maintained by a middle leader was not always an important priority for senior leadership. Many of the challenges arose around resource issues such as lack of cover to observe a colleague or time to undertake inquiry during the normal school day. One middle leader, while seeing his senior leader colleague ‘as an advocate for inquiry’ also understood that lesson study could not be prioritized over other school commitments. Other leaders felt isolated, particularly those in small or single departments, and little sense of how strategically this work might be used.
The perspectives from the senior leadership focused particularly on inquiry as a means for leadership development and gaining knowledge about how to evaluate the performance of teaching staff. This group wanted to see impact of inquiry leading to a growing evidence-base. They saw its importance in performance management structures and better so if achieved as a whole-school initiative rather than individual teacher inquiries. Interestingly they had scant notions of how they might be involved with any ethical procedures related to inquiry, modes of dissemination of the outcomes or how they might strategically plan for inquiry to happen on this scale.
What role for academics?
Our research has outlined some of the views from a small sample of secondary schools undertaking inquiry. The leaders of these schools would probably say that they are advocates of inquiry, but our data shows that their leadership of evidenced-based teaching (inquiry) is at best patchy. The role for an academic as another leader of learning is a compelling one (Ebbut, Worrall and Thompson 2000; Moss, 2008; Nelson and O’Beirne, 2014). As advocates of teachers as researchers academics have to convince senior school leaders of the worth of teacher inquiry in order to gain access into schools. They need to build a trusting relationship with senior leaders initially and sustain this over time (Stoll, 2010). Our data shows that much of an academic’s impact on learning is more keenly felt at department level yet in order to embed inquiry as a normal part of teacher practice senior leaders need to be convinced of the worth of inquiry and how it links to other leadership roles such as performance management and target setting. This cannot be ignored. While acting as ‘supporters’, ‘critical friends’, ‘dialogic critical friends’, ‘knowledgeable others’ academics need to understand and appreciate the competing priorities leadership teams face and be flexible to work with them in planning and resourcing teacher inquiry. This reciprocal leadership approach will help to build collective responsibility for learning throughout the school. We need to better understand how Heads and senior school leaders understand our role as academics and work to re-shape our approach so that leadership is extended beyond the school gates.
Ebbut, D., Worrall, N. and Robson, R. (2000) ‘Educational research partnership: differences and tensions at the interface between; the professional culture of practitioners in schools and researchers in higher education’, Teacher Development: An international journal of teachers’ professional development, 4 (3), pp.319-336.
Fox, A., Poultney, V., Brown, A., Rawes, N. and Silverthorne, J. (2015) ‘I see inquiry as a normal part of my professional practice’: A critical examination of practitioners’ experiences from one Midlands Teaching School Alliance. Paper 104 presented at BERA annual conference, September 2015.
Moss, J. (2008) ‘Leading professional learning in an Australian secondary school through school-university partnerships’, Asia–Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 36 (4), pp.345-357.
Nelson, J. and O’Beirne, C. (2014) ‘Using Evidence in the Classroom: What Works and Why?’ Slough NFER.
Poultney, V., Fox, A., Brown, A., Rawes, N. and Silverthorne, J. (2015) ‘The self-improving school’: how professional learning leadership supports teacher inquiry’. Paper 288 presented at BERA annual conference, September 2015.
Stoll, L. (2010) ‘Connecting Learning Communities: Capacity Building for Systemic Change’ in Hargreaves A., Lieberman, A., Fullan, M. and Hopkins, D. (eds) Second International Handbook of Educational Change (Part 1), Dordrecht, Heidelberg, London, New York: Springer, pp. 469-484.
Stoll, L. (2015) ‘10 tips for successful school-led research projects’ A blog for the National College of Teaching and Leadership. Available at: https://nctl.blog.gov.uk/2015/02/16/10-tips-for-successful-school-led-research-projects/ (Accessed: 26 March 2015).
Val Poultney is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Derby. Val’s research interests are in teacher and academic leadership, leadership development and school governance. Val works in postgraduate studies and her teaching expertise is located in practice doctorates and research methods. She also contributes to School Direct and BEd Initial Teacher Education programmes.