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Educational leadership: Post-conference reflections on an ever-changing field

Azumah Dennis, Senior Lecturer in Education Leadership and Management, The Open University

As it is for many of my colleagues BERA’s Annual Conference is one of the highlights of my academic year. It’s the one conference that I try not to miss – not only to see my annual conference buddies, but also the presentations which provide an overview of the field and where it is located. In September 2019, my first conference as a convenor of the Educational Leadership special interest group (SIG), I committed to attending all 11 of the presentations that were on our topic. I wanted to check the epistemic pulse of scholarship in this ever-changing field. This blog post offers an overview of what educational leadership looks and feels like in 2019.

Of the 11 papers presented, eight were from early-career researchers, seven of whom were attending BERA for the first time. As the UK lurches from constitutional crisis to ongoing-‘Brexit’ meltdown, it makes sense to me that leadership should remain an area of profound interest. However, I note that none of the presentations came from outside of the academy: there were no contributions from school or college-based researchers. Leadership is of course a global phenomenon, and a contested one. Its global nature was reflected in the fact that five of the 11 papers were by scholars living and working in the global south – two from Jamaica, one from Bangladesh and two from Chile.

The papers did not coalesce around a single theme. UK scholars are preoccupied with schools, where chaos seems to be the policy principle. Three of the six UK-focussed papers looked at the academies programme. I look forward to seeing Courtney and McGinity’s (2019) paper about depoliticised leadership, and Constantinides’s (2019) on system leadership, published. And, while many schools ride the academisation wave, Raynor’s (2019) cautionary tale about re-academisation needs to be read widely.

The role that educational leaders play in enhancing quality was another important theme. Roache (2019), from Jamaica, looked at this in terms of teachers’ performance, while Jopling and Harness (2019) explored the contradictions of a self-improving school in the north east of England; Burke (2019) – a woman who has surely never experienced Ofsted – advocated for a state-sponsored quality assurance and accreditation model. And while Gorard’s (2019) paper about judging the impact of the pupil premium was not about quality or improvement, he did expose what seems to be a deliberate misreading of data which allowed policymakers to distort a key performance indicator in order to claim a substantial improvement in the attainment gap between pupils receivingfree school meals and others.

SIG leaders were invited to offer a SIG best paper award, using a formal grading system. Once I put my score sheet aside, I must confess to having my favourites. There were three that I particularly liked. One was Galdames’ (2019) lively engagement and his new adjectival leadership construct, ‘millennial leadership’. Sum’s (2019) presentation about UK leadership perceptions of religion and spirituality in glocalised times opened up an area of scholarship that I have never particularly thought about, but which now exposes a thread that it’ll be hard to let go of. Colman’s (2019) examination of school leadership, school inspection and policy enactment also still echoes. Who would have thought that Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1968) would prove a useful lens for critiquing the quality and its insatiable demand for consistency in provision? An essay written in the 1930s somehow manages to provide unexpected insight in education in the age of neoliberal reproduction.


References

Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Visual Culture: Experiences in Visual Culture, 144–137.

Benjamin, W. (1968). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Zohn (trans). H. Arendt (Ed.), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (1st ed.) (pp. 217–252). New York: Schocken Books.

Burke, O. (2019, September). Advocacy for A Caribbean Quality Assurance and Accreditation Model. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Colman, A. (2019, September). Education in the age of neoliberal reproduction: an examination of school leadership, the school inspection regime and policy enactment in a coastal area of deprivation. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Constantinides, M. (2019, September). System Leadership and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) in England. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Courtney, S. & McGinity, R. (2019, September). Depoliticised leadership in an emergent multi-academy trust (MAT). Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Galdames, S. (2019, September). The Headteacher’s career through the eyes of time: The path of Boomers, GenXs and Millennials headteachers in Chile. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Gorard, S. (2019, September). Judging the Impact of pupil premium. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Jopling, M. (2019, September). Is school self-improvement a contradiction in terms? Perspectives from secondary school leaders in the North East of England. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Rayner, S. (2019, September). Teachers, school leadership and ‘re-academisation’. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Roache, D. (2019, September). How transformational leadership in educational organizations in Jamaica affects twenty-first century teachers’ performance. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.

Sum, N. (2019, September). Leadership perceptions of religion and spirituality in glocalised times: the case of English Medium Schools in Bangladesh. Paper presented at the BERA Annual Conference 2019, Manchester.