ICSEI Conference January 2018
Last Spring I responded to an invitation from the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) and the University of Glasgow to apply for a bursary to travel to Singapore and attend the ICSEI conference in January 2018. The conference theme was ‘Deepening School Change for Scaling: Principles, Pathways and Partnership’ which struck a chord with me as I had recently researched the effectiveness of creating partnerships between small schools as part of the Fellowship programme with the Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL). So I submitted my abstract and waited. On the first day of the summer holiday I received a phone call saying that my application had been successful and I was heading to Singapore to present my paper. This would be an excellent opportunity for me to share my experience of educational leadership in Scotland as well as to learn from others around the world.
The conference took place at the vast Nanyang Technological University and started with a welcoming address from Professor Tan Oon Seng, the Director of the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore. He posed the fundamental question of how we can make schools more effective in an increasingly complex world; a question I was hoping to begin to answer over the course of the week. The next speaker Mr Ng Chee Meng, the Minister for Education, told delegates how Singapore treasured its education system and that since 1965 and the birth of the modern-day country, the education system has been vital to the country’s success. He spoke passionately about schools nurturing the joy of learning, enabling children to discover their passions and develop these into strengths. He also spoke about schools fostering entrepreneurship, about a strong ‘Singapore spirit’ and about the social cohesion and pride felt by Singaporeans. As well as providing a clear path for young people Mr Ng Chee Meng explained how Singapore’s education system considers the growth of its teachers to be equally important to that of students with all teachers embarking on continuous professional learning within a clear career pathway.
The third speaker was Professor Andy Hargreaves, the current president of ICSEI. He began his presentation by asking if we are discussing the right questions in education. He argued that we should move away from the ‘how are we doing, how do we know, how can we improve?’ questions towards those around engagement and wellbeing. We need to ask ‘who are we, what will become of us and who will decide?’ In such a fast-changing world children don’t just need to learn how to ‘do’ but they need to understand how to ‘be’; therefore, wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of any school improvement.
The next part of the opening address was devoted to the story of Singapore. We heard from Associate Professor Liu Woon Chia, Associate Professor Tay Eng Guan, Dr Dennis Kwek and Associate Professor Quek Choon Lang Gwendoline about how Mr Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) laid the foundations for Singapore’s education system when the country gained independence in 1965. Lee Kuan Yew realised then that the one thing Singapore had in abundance was teachers and they were the decisive factor in creating a better life for all Singaporeans. Singapore’s teachers are university trained after a rigorous selection process and the profession is held in high esteem with the core set of values from Lee Kuan Yew still guiding the profession.
The keynote speaker Dr Alicia Grunow introduced us to how ‘improvement science’ could apply to educational organisations. She argued that by applying the ‘improvement science approach’ to education we would ‘get better at getting better’. The process of disciplined inquiry combined with the use of networks to identify and adapt interventions could lead to sustained school improvement. Only by combining collaboration, innovation and measurement could we arrive at real school improvement with a focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ of school improvement - viewing teaching as a science rather than an art.
I attended the session about the Professional Standards for Teaching in Scotland. Charlaine Simpson from GTCS spoke about our Standards and explained the current review process and how this was involving the teaching profession. Professor Margery McMahon’s presentation explained Portugal’s journey towards the implementation of professional standards and compared them to those in Scotland. Both presentations generated interest and questions from the audience and made me reflect on how fortunate we are to have a clear set of standards in Scotland.
The presentation by Jon Barr, a colleague from the south of England was what he called ‘a cautionary tale’ from England. Jon spoke about the huge rise in academies in England over recent years with 71% of secondary schools and 27% of primaries achieving academy status by 2017, and the number still rising. These schools form part of learning organisations called multi-academy trusts (MATs). Jon spoke about what he called the consistency dilemma for these trusts (MATs) with the tensions between schools retaining their autonomy whilst still keeping the alignment and standardisation required.
When the time came for my presentation it was great to see a room full of delegates including my colleagues from Scotland who were there to offer support. I spoke about my SCEL area of enquiry which was to set up a small schools network to build capacity for improvement. I shared my learning from this enquiry and then opened up the floor for discussion. I was pleased at the number of questions from international colleagues who were interested in this way of working. I was especially delighted when a headteacher from North America approached me at the end of the session to say I had inspired her to return to her school and set up her own small schools network. With feedback like this I really felt that my trip was worthwhile and it was still only day two!
Professor Alma Harris asked the key question, do students learn more when their teachers learn and collaborate together? The short answer was ‘yes’ and she went on to explain how professional collaboration with a collective focus on improving teaching and learning does impact positively on young peoples' learning. In fact students perform better in schools with the highest levels of instructional leadership. Networks, professional learning communities, data teams and communities of practice all impact positively on student learning with the conditions for success being trust, reciprocal accountability, collective responsibility, a focus on improving student outcomes and a distributed model of leadership. The research by Alma Harris chimed so well with the findings from my own experience of leading a small schools network. The next presenter, Yi Hwa Liou, continued in the same vein, talking about the importance of ‘intentional collaboration’ and of collaboration being more of a mindset rather than an event. She added how effective collaboration needs guidance. If it is mandated this doesn’t work but neither does a laissez-faire attitude where collaboration is just left to happen. Again this sentiment chimed with my own experience as a school leader.
My second presentation was with colleagues from SCEL. Our session focused on system leadership with particular reference to the SCEL Fellowship. Lesley Whelan, SCEL’s Director of Programmes, spoke about the background of SCEL and the evolution of the Fellowship programme. Dr Valerie Drew from Stirling University gave her perspective on the academic part of the programme. Then SCEL Fellow Sheila Laing and I shared our experiences of the programme and our experience of leadership at systems level. The presentation generated a lot of interest from delegates who questioned us about the programme and its impact on the system in Scotland.
Having read Professor Clive Dimmock’s research for my SCEL Fellowship I was delighted to attend his presentation - the leadership story behind the success of Singapore’s education system. Although comparable to Scotland in population, this is really where the similarity stops. Singapore’s politics revolve around one ruling party. The schools are all very large so with the economy of scale the schools are very well-resourced. Also unlike Scotland there is no rural-urban divide as all the schools are situated within the small, highly populated island. All teachers are trained in the one institution with a standardised model of teacher training. Professor Dimmock described Singapore’s system as ‘small, tight and aligned with no policy-practice gaps. There are a few key senior people in the Ministry of Education (MOE) and in the National Institute of Education (NIE) who control the education system meaning there is real consistency of message. There is also clear, good links between practice and research with headteachers regularly seconded to carry out research as well as having opportunities to work at the Ministry. Party politics is not a factor in education with academics and researchers being the key players in educational policy making resulting in clear, coherent and consistent policies aimed at school and student improvement.
One example of this was in 2010 when Singapore adopted the collaborative model of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in almost all its schools. The incredible synergy between organisational leadership and pedagogical leadership enables all teachers to share and co-create knowledge at regular meetings every two weeks. All teachers are a part of this collaborative work which is focused around learners and learning with discussion and reflection after every meeting. Professor Dimmock’s session was absolutely fascinating and shed more light on the unique combination of factors that has mean that in 50 years it has changed from a third world country to the third richest per capita society in the world.
SCEL Fellow and seconded headteacher Sheila Laing’s presentation was about a multi-sector partnership she initiated in order to address some of the challenges faced by children and families in poverty in her school community. Sheila’s work formed the basis of her enquiry for the SCEL Fellowship and she spoke with great passion about how, through collaboration with partner agencies from systems level through to working with individuals, she was really making a difference to the lives of the young people in her community. Day four ended with the closing ceremony where we enjoyed a video of highlights from the week. Professor Andy Hargreaves commented on the success of the conference at enabling such a wealth of informal and formal knowledge exchange, and great collaboration and partnership. Then the ICSEI flag was handed over to the 2019 hosts, Norway.
One of the highlights of my week was the school visits on the final day. We visited two primary schools, Qifa Primary School and Raffles Girls’ Primary School. We were made so welcome by staff and children at both schools and for me the visits really helped me to visualise everything I had learned during the week. Both primary schools were huge with roles of 1300 and 1700 children and as Clive Dimmock had said, they were extremely well-resourced with well-stocked libraries, modern sports facilities and even a film studio and museum at Qifa. What struck me about both schools was the tangibility of the school culture. The headteachers and teachers we spoke to were so clear about their purpose and values and the children were obviously so proud of their achievements and keen to show them off to our group of international visitors.
My trip to Singapore was unforgettable. The conference was a fantastic opportunity to learn from colleagues from around the world as well as to share my experience of Scottish education. On reflection I think that sometimes we need to step away from something to gain a clearer understanding of what we have. I had stepped away from Scottish education for a week and I returned with more questions than answers. However, the one thing I am clear about is, the system we have in Scotland is worth celebrating but we need to remember the ICSEI 2018 theme and keep sight of our Principles, follow clear Pathways and work in Partnership to achieve the very best for our children.