2008 Conference - Opening Presidential Address

ICSEI Presidents Address
President: Professor John MacBeath

Encounters with anomaly


21 years on is a symbolic moment to review and reframe.



Sam set in train current of ideas that has for me been a source of intermittent puzzlement over the intervening year and led me back to Thomas Kuhn whose work on paradigms has been highly influential in social science. It furnished the theme for these few opening thoughts in Auckland. 


Who are we? Do we share the same faith or subscribe to a broadly similar scientific approach to the study of schools?


  • Founding fathers (and mothers)
  • True believers
  • Pragmatists
  • Agnostics
  • Heretics 


is defined within that paradigm and evaluated improvement by reference to a number by conventional measures, primarily (but not exclusively) student attainment or value added.


The third group are also improvers but they take a broader, perhaps less scientific or systematic approach. They want to make schools better places for kids, and classrooms better places for learning. They are pragmatists and comprise a large proportion of those who attend conferences. They were formally recognised in the 4thSchool improvement projects, whether based on school effectiveness research or not) We will celebrate plenty of those here.


They approach keynotes and sessions with an open and selective orientation because they include policy makers and practitioners who live with the day-today tensions between policy and practice and understand the art of compromise.


adopting a critical theorists view of the essential functions and purposes of schools and highly critical of the effectiveness and improvement paradigms. Some of them are the structuralists to whom Russell Bishop refers.


I would argue that, whether a broad church or a broad science, we are nourished by, that wide spectrum of participants. We engage with the pragmatists and agnostics and we thrive on the challenge of the heretics. Because we are, above all, a learning organisation.






We stand on the edge between the solidity of the ice and the fluidity of the water - between the solid ground of what we know about effectiveness and improvement and what we have still to learn.


I wonder if we have been guilty in the past of looking so closely within the black box of school we miss the true significance of what lies outside it. That could not be more true of the countries of our three forthcoming conferences - New Zealand, Canada or Malaysia.


In a Malaysian context, for example, Ibraham


In Japan, how do we begin to measure the school effect,  At our Copenhagen conference a high achieving Korean school student who spoke



In the Ghanaian context George Oduro problematises school improvement in that country. He depicts life in congested urban slums in which due to lack of proper drainage and sanitation children are prone to multiplicity of health- problems. Malnutrition is the norm. He cites a study of slum children, 86% of whom are stunted in their growth. A study of children orphaned by AIDS found that they typically do not get quality care from their extended family. They are vulnerable to exploitation, compelled to engage in sex either for money or for emotional comfort. Parents working in subsistence agriculture in rural setting, require their children to stay home both in order to work but also to protect them from predators  Yet, In England where Government had adopted the Every Child Matters policy, the improvement agenda has five headline outcomes - being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a contribution, achieving economic well being. 


What is critical is that we fire in our students a passion for learning, instead of studying for the sake of getting good grades in their examinations. Their knowledge will be fragile, no matter how many As they get...It is the capacity to learn that will define excellence in the future not simply what young people achieve in school.



As a Board we have agreed that there should be a thematic continuity from one congress so the next, rather than discrete events. These congresses would be linked by disturbing provocative questions, issues and position papers in between to sustain the dialogic flow so that in the theme here of Partnerships in succeeded in Vancouver by effectiveness and improvement in a Learning World and in Malaysia building on that theme with a challenge to the policy world. 

We will need to avoid the dangers of working from both ends towards the middle but work from the middle ground out. We can speak with one voice. 

The meeting ground is the reaffirmation of effectiveness and improvement as what we are about. We are united in our belief that these terms care at the heart of our movement but constantly acquire new meaning, new science, new paradigms. A deep and honest discourse around effectiveness and improvement is an exciting challenge.


On this 21st birthday we have come of age. We are a broad congress and we have something vital to say. We need to have a voice, in the forefront of sharing policy and practice not just responding to it.  We are a broad congress embracing both science and faith.


John MacBeath


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