Crafting strategy : school boards, systems or command and control approach?

Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’

Department of Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, The Open University Business School, England, UK)

Rapid and intense changes to the English education system, particularly since 2010 have created a quasi-market operating environment for schools. Research into other areas of the public services reveals that the ability of boards to create externally facing effective strategy, is vital for their survival and ongoing improvement, yet in education we know little about how school boards and the 300,000 volunteer board members within them understand, create and develop strategic direction for their schools or how important it is to school survival and improvement in the current climate. This blog post focuses on a paper to be presented at the American Educational Research Association Conference 2016- Washington DC and which examines exactly these questions.

Research tells us that across the public sector board approaches to strategy are linked to notions of public value and are extremely influential in determining the shape and form of organisations and how they respond to service users, yet in terms of English education the role of strategy is underexplored.

Command and Control or deliverology?

It is certainly true that in the English quasi-marketised system of education, increasing emphasis is being placed on board members’ ability to set, monitor and evaluate strategic direction, not only in terms of school capabilities, but perhaps equally as importantly, in terms of the shape and form of schools within the context of the wider system. Research has shown that in areas of high deprivation, school boards are particularly cognizant of the need to serve their communities, but what is not known is how they articulate this need in terms of strategy: how they draw on particular sources of information to craft strategic direction as an evolving and learning process (Baxter 2016a, Baxter and Hult 2016).

Command and control approaches to strategy, made popular by the Audit Commission and Blair’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit, placed a great deal of emphasis on targets, performance management and delivery outputs in order to effect public service improvement (Campbell-Smith 2008). Since then researchers and organisations that do not believe that this set of ideas creates real improvement in public services have been exploring other routes – particularly in relation to strategy (Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe 2004). One such set of ideas is articulated under the broad banner ‘systems thinking’ and draws on theories that vision strategy in terms of a whole system approach.

How do school board members understand strategy?

Examining how school board members articulate their understandings of strategy in this study draws on a sample from multi-academy trusts in areas of high socio economic deprivation. Exploring how governors approaches to strategy fit within existing models the study looks at whether these approaches are discursively underpinned by command and control or systems thinking (Seddon 2008, Graham 1999). As the findings reveal, many board members although they aspire to a systems approach, feel ill equipped to operationalise this in their handling of strategy. This appears to be founded in the belief that either they lack the knowledge necessary for this work, or they are more comfortable with monitoring and evaluating strategy that is developed by the head and senior leadership team. Governors, for the most part did have a deep and committed relationship with communities in which their schools were located. Yet in spite of this, still appeared to lack confidence in terms of translating this knowledge into setting the strategic direction of the school (Baxter 2016b).

Looking for ways to integrate community needs into strategy

The considerable evidence that board members were working towards translating this knowledge into strategically relevant data was illustrated by the ways in which they were looking to new ways to engage with parents; using focus groups and community groups to inform their knowledge and provide tangible evidence to inform strategy. It also revealed that although in many cases they appear keen to learn about their work in relation to the wider system, they were conditioned to thinking in command and control ways about their particular remit. This is an important insight for future board development and implies that there is a need for development that places boards and their members in the wider political and socio-cultural contexts of their work. Investigation of sub themes arising as part of the coding process, revealed training events to be largely focused on particular areas of monitoring work, for example: budgets, safeguarding, counter extremism, behavior rather than focusing on ‘the bigger picture’ in relation to the situation of their schools within the wider system

This is supported by governor interpretations of what strategy is: even governors that appeared comfortable with strategy within their own professional lives often appeared at sea when interpreting this in terms of a public service/schools context.

Analysis of documentation relating to inspection processes was instrumental in identifying expectations of board understandings of strategy. These documents were peppered with command and control terminology which concomitantly appeared in board member narratives. Again this points to the need for inspection processes to reflect a systems approach, if indeed this is the way that both government and inspectorate wish to see the system develop and improve, as evidence from policy documents, press releases and media reports suggest they do.

In spite of a plethora of research investigating board approaches to strategy in the private and not-for profit sector, there is little in terms of education. This may well be due to the speed at which the current wave of marketization has occurred: According to the DfE since 2010 4, 000 academies opened in England – almost 20 times as many as there were in May 2010, when all 203 academies were sponsored secondary schools of these 87% of academies support other schools in some way (DfE 2014). It is clear from this case study that this area is becoming increasingly important as one for research if the notion of a self-improving education system is ever to maximise its potential and come fully to fruition.

 

References

Alimo-Metcalfe, Beverly, and John Alban-Metcalfe. 2004. “Leadership in public sector organisations.”  Leadership in Organizations 174.

Baxter, J. 2016a. School governing : politics, policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.

Baxter, J. . 2016b. “Strategic leadership: board members in areas of high deprivation ‘deliverololgy or systems approach?’.” AERA _ The American Educational Research Association Conference 2016, Washington DC, 080416.

Baxter, J. , and A. Hult. 2016. “School inspectors in Sweden and England: the impact of changing policy on practices. .” In School inspectors: operational challendges in National Policy Contexts edited by Baxter.J. London: Springer. .

Campbell-Smith, Duncan. 2008. Follow the Money: A History of the Audit Commission: Penguin UK.

Graham, P. 1999. “Critical Systems Theory: A Political Economy of Language, Thought and Technology.”  Communication Research 26 (4):482-507.

Seddon, J. 2008. Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Axminster: Triarchy Press.

 

 

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School Inspection

Find below, the link to the presentation
Wednesday, 21 May 2014, 10:30 – 17:00

https://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/events/governing-by-inspection-insights-from-international-studies

An event that examined school inspections across Europe

School inspection is employed in a number of countries as a means by which to govern increasingly complex education systems. Despite a tenuous link between inspection and school improvement, it remains a key driver in the shaping and implementation of education policy, as well as taking a central role in the politics of educational change.

This seminar drew on three national and international research projects in order to examine perspectives on school inspection in Europe. The first project: Governing by Inspection investigates inspection as a governing practice in England, Scotland and Sweden; the second, explores the relationship between school improvement and inspection in  six countries, and the third investigates accountabilities in inspection. You will find the slides and recording of the talks on the link above

10:00-10:30  Registration and coffee

10:30-10:40  Welcome and introductions-Dr Jacqueline Baxter- Convenor

10:30-11:15  Dr Melanie Ehren – The Institute of Education: The Impact of School Inspections on Improvement of Schools

11:15-12:30  Professor John Clarke – The Open University UK: The Uncertainty Principle: governing schooling through inspection.

12:30-13:15  Lunch

13:15-14:00  Dr Andrew Wilkins – The University of Roehampton: The Shadow of Inspection: School Governance, Accountability and Governing Practices

14:00-14:15  Coffee

14:15-15:00  Dr Jacqueline Baxter – The Open University UK: Working knowledge: shifting criteria in inspection

15:00-15:15  Summary and Close

 

Roles and identities in online large course forums : implications for practice

I vividly remember my first foray into a large online forum. I was a class teacher at the time: teaching French and Spanish in a sixth form college. I had only just purchased my own laptop and was excited about the potentialities of teaching languages using IT.   My first experience of a large online forum came about thanks to the Association of Language Learning. Their online forum was designed to be used by all members as a way of networking and flagging up and sharing good practice and teaching resources. I still remember breaking out in a sweat as I tentatively made my first posting; very much aware of the fact that I may be talking to hundreds if not thousands of people!  I found seeing my own posts online to be both satisfying and cringe making – did I really say that in response to that……

Working full time in a distance learning environment as I have for some considerable time now, you tend to forget how much those who aren’t used to this environment may agonise over a single post. Of course, times have changed since my first online foray; many students of varying ages already have experience of talking online via Facebook, Twitter and other social apps. They already have experience of creating an online persona: of articulating their own personalities online. Yet this is not always of benefit when transferring the type of interactions used on e.g. Facebook, to a more formal academic forum.

In a recent paper written in collaboration with Jo Haycock a very experienced Associate Lecturer working at The Open University UK, we explored what elements of online participation enhance learner identity and sense of agency, and how student to student contact online helps or hinders this. Identity has been strongly linked to learning by many researchers (Baxter, 2012; Davies & Thomas, 2004; Erikson, 1968; Henderson & Bradey, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and a strong and articulate online identity is often associated with an individual’s perceptions and capacity to feel good online (Turkle, 1993). Sherry Turkle was one of the first to investigate how it felt to engage in online interactions in her well known book Life on The Screen: Identity in the age of the internet and Gilly Salmon took her work much further in her early studies of online forums (Salmon, 2002).

With the advent of MOOCS (Massive Online Courses) and recent articles which have shown that increasing numbers of students are choosing online offerings (Newton, 2013), such as a the one describing a recent survey by The Guardian (Ward & Shaw, 2014), which,

‘Suggests that parents are now open to cheaper alternatives to the conventional full-time university route: a majority (57%) said internet-based courses in which students watch lectures online are a good idea.’

we felt it was a good time to consider how being online makes you feel and how this may impact on your studying staying power. Our review of the current research into online large forums revealed some of the fascinating insights that have already come out of a number of recent studies . As you can see from list below, they all link strongly to student resilience and perceptions’

  1. Learners adopt the cultures and practices of the community (Soden and Halliday (2000)
  2. Effective interactions involve full engagement with the posts of others (2000)
  3. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  4. Although vital for online integration, student to student communication has lower percieved value than student to tutor communication (Loizidou-Hatzitheodolulou et al, 2001)
  5. Moderator contribution and rate has an impact on motivation and integration (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003).
  6. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  7. Communicative learners feel responsibility for group processes but are not necessarily the best learners (Hammond,1999)
  8. Familiarity with online forum participation aids swifter integration with other online forums (Zembylas,2008)
  9. Peer Facilitation can encourage deeper levels of participation and concomitant feelings of integration (Hew and Chueng,2008)
  10. Successful creation of online presence aids retention and participation in online forums (Ardichvili et al ,2003.Angelaki et al,2013).
  11. Effective conflict resolution, either by students or tutors aids integration (and the converse)

(Baxter & Haycock, 2013)

The list above shows that for students, online forums are not just about the cognitive but are very much influenced by the affective dimensions of learning too. For example; although one study revealed that student to student interaction has lower perceived value than student to tutor interaction, Hew and Cheung’s study indicated that peer facilitation (students helping other students), actually encouraged deeper levels of participation and feelings of belonging to the academic community (Hew & Cheung, 2008). A number of studies including our own, revealed that feelings were very important: if a student felt alienated or foolish or if they didn’t feel that the person they were online was a true representation of their personality, they tended either not to engage with forums or in a worst case scenario;they withdrew from study.

In many ways this reminded me of when I was teaching languages, particularly with my adult learners who tended to learn a language for communicative purposes rather than to gain a qualification. The parallel was apparent with those learners who felt they couldn’t be themselves in the foreign language: that they couldn’t articulate who they fundamentally were in the foreign language, and, as a result they dropped out of class. Later research in this area supported this, and found that those that felt comfortable in their self-representation in the foreign language, often went on to use the language as a means to employment (Baxter, 2004)

Our research indicated that the tutor or moderator can have a substantial impact on student feelings about online participation in large forums: they can mediate conflict and engage in a type of ‘engueulade’[1] which can actually strengthen the tutor student relationship. In addition, our research supported a number of other studies which outlined the need for tutors and forum moderators to address student expectations of forum engagement right from the very outset. On the module under scrutiny, students were offered a number of forums: some with a social purpose (largely unmoderated), some with a clear academic function. Students often seemed to become confused by this; expecting levels of tutor moderation in the social forum which were only offered within the academic focused version. This type of misunderstanding proved highly detrimental to the students’ future engagement and in some cases impacted negatively on their experience of the course itself.

If identity is core to learning and learning to identity, it is vital that research into this facet of online learning is considered when designing online learning environments. To negate it is to risk losing many who would otherwise profit from this way of learning.

References.

Baxter, J. (2004). Investigation into motivational factors behind using a second language as a means to gaining employment. Retrieved from http:/www.cilt.org.uk/research/statistics/labourmarket/accessed 060906

Baxter, J. (2012). The impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers:the role of resistance discourse European Journal of Open,Distance and E-Learning 1(2).

Baxter, J., & Haycock, J. (2013). Roles and student identities in online large course forums: implications for practice. International REview of Open and Distance Learning 15(1).

Davies, A., & Thomas, R. (2004). 6 Gendered identities and micro-political resistance in public service organizations. Identity politics at work: resisting gender, gendering resistance, 10, 105.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Henderson, M., & Bradey, S. (2008). Shaping online teaching practices: the influence of professional and academic identities. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 25(2), 85-92.

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2008). Attracting student participation in asynchronous online discussions: A case study of peer facilitation. Computers & Education, 51(3), 1111-1124.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge Cambridge University Press

Newton, D. (2013). Online students and teachers are no different from the rest of academia The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog+education/online-learning

Salmon, G. (2002). Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London Routledge.

Turkle, S. (1993). Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Ward, L., & Shaw, C. (2014). University education : at £9000 per year, parents begin to question its value, The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/feb/26/university-education-parents-question-value


[1] Engagement in argument offers a level of mutual respect that was not present before the argument took place. (Adamson Taylor1999 Culture Shock)

Teaching assistants: out with the bathwater ?

There are an awful lot of TAs out there and according to the latest reports the government is looking to take the advice of a think tank and radically cut their numbers.

Having worked in and observed hundreds of classrooms over the years I’ve seen some brilliant practice amongst teaching assistants and some that fell short of adequate.  Sometimes the best practice was seemingly divorced from whatever was happening in the classroom. But TAs most often in my experience have the most impact in classrooms where the teacher knows how to manage the teaching assistant’s work so it complements their own practice and doesn’t occur as just an add on. It may seem strange but in many schools TAs are not managed by teachers, they have a line management all of their own. This means that many teachers simply don’t know what to do to maximise these extra bodies in the classroom. And yet in so many cases they are vital in supporting both children with statements and equally as importantly those who don’t actually have a statement but so desperately need that one on one that a busy classroom teacher with 35 or more students to occupy them simply does not have time to give.

At a time when class sizes look set to rise again and cuts are hanging like the sword of Damocles over every element of state education we are increasingly seeing perfectly good babies being thrown out with the bathwater: teaching assistants were brought in for a reason: to give hard pressed teachers a chance to focus on good teaching whilst needy students were offered the one to one help that they need.   Why not re-evaluate the use of TAs instead of doing away with them ? Why does our Ed policy have to swing from one extreme to another rather than taking a more considered approach ?

 

Lets be reasonable : re think the role and function of TAS and clamp down on cases where they are used as cheap and unqualified replacements for teachers. Otherwise we end up doing the educational quick step again…one step forward three steps back, another innovation, another proclamation, and the outcome ? Mounting frustration.

The new speedy post

Trying out the new speedy posting technique. Beginning now.

 

Bringing history alive .

Where fiction ends and fact begins.

I was procrastinating about starting a new book today. Having only finished the last on last week (which took me an age to write and re write) , I was reluctant to begin another so soon. Why ? Well although I do love writing it does seem like a bit of a busman’s holiday when you write for a living all day too.

But I am going to start it – why , well because I missed it. Not only the characters but living with the book and living in the era when it was written.  I think having dwelt in the Victorian age for some ten years now , popping in and out like Dr Who, I have a love hate relationship with the era: I hate the hypocrisy and the ghastly abuses perpetuated on the poor and yet , I love the rituals and the obsessiveness of the Victorians ..on life , but particularly on death.    Summing it up one of the miners I interviewed for the book told me a saying that the Victorian miners had for when they spotted an ambulance at the pit head: ‘ head means dead’ – if the poor soul’s head was visible out of the back of the horse-drawn ambulance then that was a sure indicator that they were dead; however if their feet were sticking out then chances were they were still alive…..maybe only just , but yes alive.

 

The last book was located in the mines of the North- strapline – Life down the mine in 1839 , the next one is set in London. I’m looking forward to starting it now: the workhouse research I did took me 6 years and is still in many ways going on. I spent many a happy lunch hour (whilst in the noble employ of The Chartered Institute of Linguists) , in the Southwark records office, working my way though an amazing collection of audits of ragged schools and workhouses.  Rather depressingly many of the terms used to describe the poor are alive and well today , in fact some seem almost mild compared the punitive tones used by the popular press and some politicians to describe those who for one reason or another can’t work.

So there it is , back into Victorian England go I .  And with me my characters….but oh…the main reason I started again was to take my new character back there: always taken from life my last book sustained me  lowering my stress levels by enabling me to personify the most irritating traits of various real life characters in a single character…….of course they do have redeeming features: the point is, not many.

 

Anyway..onward we go…and thanks to Rob….. 450 words in ….er just under 15 mins. Not bad eh ????