2008 Conference - Opening Presidential Address

ICSEI Presidents Address
President: Professor John MacBeath

Encounters with anomaly

 

Yesterday was our coming of age birthday and couldn’t have been a better way of marking our maturity. It was a powerful reminder that equality, or equality It is a salutary moment to consider at the heart of our commitment. The origins of this movement lay in two key reports one entitled Equality of Opportunity (the Coleman Report in 1966) and Inequality Jencks Report in 1971. And after 21 years the gap between the most and least privileged has not closed and in many countries has actually widened. It sharpens that question where we are and where we are going? Remember the definition of insanity – to go on doing the same and expecting different results.  21 years on is a symbolic moment to review and reframe.

 

Last year in Slovenia we enjoyed one of the best ICSEIs. In my speech on assuming the presidency I referred to ICSEI as a broad church. I am grateful to Sam Stringfield for his challenge to that statement, arguing that ICSEI is, in fact, a ‘broad science’, a claim he will elaborate in the forthcoming panel. So treat what I have to say now as some preliminary thoughts.

 

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. 

 

In 2008 in Auckland where is ICSEI as ‘movement’. It is a term we use to describe ourselves but one with strong theological connotations.  Who are we? Do we share the same faith or subscribe to a broadly similar scientific approach to the study of schools?

 

In fact, it seems to me, we represent a broad spectrum of ‘believers’ who we might classify as

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

In first group are the founders and architects of this ‘movement’ to whom we owe a considerable debt. Without them we would be somewhere else, perhaps sitting in the Scottish rain or Vancouver snow or on Bondai beach. This group represents a core continuing strand that has run through ICSEI for over two decades. They have and leant heavily on the tools of social science, which has, at its best, been rigorous, exploratory and uncompromising in its respect for evidence, cautious in its inferences and reluctant to overinterpret or overclaim its findings. They built the ICSEI house or at least laid its foundations.

 

Then there are the true believers have who kept the faith. Some of whom have maybe come late to ICSEI. Within this group are school improvers for whom ‘improvement’ is rooted in effectiveness, and ’improvement’  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 4th ICSEI conference revisiting its birthplace in Cardiff by Louise Still’s and Lorna Earle’s review of ICSEI’s development (School 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.

 

The fourth group, the agnostics bring a sceptical view to the effectiveness tradition. They want to work within the movement but also want to open to question what they see as the limitations of the ‘scientific’ paradigm. They are not antagonistic but rather  a bit like doubting Thomas, needing to evidence that there is life after effectiveness. Their perspective is captured, to quote Judith Little by ‘aggressive curiosity and healthy scepticism’.

 

Then there are those genuinely antagonistic. They are the heretics, perhaps not within ICSEI but represented by ‘outsiders’, invited (often unwelcome) speakers, their challenges deeply rooted in a view of society,  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.

 

Thomas Kuhn, who invented the term ‘paradigm’ defined it as a collection of beliefs shared by scientists, a set of agreements about how problems are to be understood, essential tenets of scientific inquiry. Improvement occurs, he argued, when ‘mature science’ develops through the transition from one paradigm to another. When a paradigm shift takes place, "a scientist's world is qualitatively transformed [and] quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory."

 

Rather than relying on what is already known and applying knowledge to solving the problems that their theories dictate, scientists are open to ideas that may threaten the existing paradigm but may in fact trigger the development of a new and competing paradigm. This is the ‘broad’ science. It is not afraid of but rises to the challenge. The way in which we respond to heretics is a salient litmus of the ICSEI ‘movement’.

 

At its best the movement has been characterised by a social science that has been circumspect in treating ‘effective schools’ as a relative concept, in other words not as absolute description of the ‘good’ but as distinguishing features of ‘more effective’  as against ‘less effective’ schools. Nonetheless, it has at times been difficult to avoid a conceptual slide into conflation of the ‘effective’ and the ‘good’, slipping imperceptibly from science to theology. What a good school ‘is’ not only remains a contested notion but is becoming even harder to perceive in the current policy climate in virtually every country represented within the ICSEI body politic.

 

As Karen reminded us yesterday, children and young people live in a different world from the one their parents inhabited and said ‘how profoundly different the future will be’ and because they are ‘at the heart of the matter’ the system has to learn to respond to them. And that lovely quote:

 

‘Children give back to us the strength of doubt, the courage of error’

 

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 Bajunid Ahmad writes - in their rush to modernize and bureaucratize political leaders failed to build on the cultural legacy in which teachers learned ‘in the Socratic tradition of asking questions, in the Prophetic tradition of emphasizing self knowledge, in the community tradition of learning by doing, and in the story telling tradition by listening’. Life long learning, he writes had indigenous roots in Malaysian culture but has been displaced by modern schooling.

 

In Japan, how do we begin to measure the school effect,  in a society where students may spend three or four hours after school every day in the ‘jukus’, adding (or perhaps subtracting) value, defying our best measures of added value.

 

At our Copenhagen conference a high achieving Korean school student who spoke about his singular preoccupation with hard work, after hours cramming and swotting for exams, which had left neither time nor incentive to think for himself or to question received wisdom from his teachers. School was for him a gap in his education. The Korean researcher Sung-Sik Kim (2002) provides confirmatory evidence for the constraining effects of Korea’s school system and casts his own country’s national performance (second only to Finland in the 2002 PISA study) in a more critical light.

 

And then Finland, top of the PISA tables again for student performance, but literally in very bottom place with respect to the use of attainment data for comparative or accountability purposes. Fascinating in the paradoxes it throws up, in Kuhn’s word in encounters with anamoly.

 

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  whether adults or peers. Their priorities for education – broader, deeper and transformational.

 

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.  The government haven’t yet learned how to prioritise or measure these within a performativity climate and Ofsted (the English inspectorate) are currently struggling to find ways of measuring these big and ambitious goals. They confront Campbells’ Law which posits that the greater the social consequences associated with a quantitative indicator (such as test scores), the more likely it is that the indicator itself will become corrupted—and the more likely it is that the use of the indicator will corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor - actually as Oduro claims working AGAINST the equity, or equality, agenda,

 

Ten years ago, opening the 1997 Thinking Skills Conference in Singapore Goh Chock Tong, the Prime Minister laid out a vision for education in his country, already well positioned in the international performance tables but an achievement, as he saw it, devoid of ‘fire’.

 

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.

 

It is how bring our combined expertise to bear on those issues - the capacity to learn, as student, as a teacher, as a school principal, as a school or network of schools that is the challenge we face as a congress, as a movement. Our credibility and maturity as a learning community rests on our ability to respect and challenge both our theology and our science but to have something vital to say to our various constituencies – to researchers and research journals, to classroom teachers, to school leaders, to local authority, commune, state, province and school district policy makers and to national governments.

 

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. 

Kuhn offers an important codicil to the paradigm shift. In the process of change those with "older views . . . are simply read out of the profession and their work is subsequently ignored. If they do not accommodate their work to the new paradigm, they are doomed to isolation or must attach themselves to some other group”. For a decade ICSEI has been aware of the danger of fracturing the movement, marginalising some groups, setting the little-enders against the big-enders. But.

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.

 

Much has changed in 21 years since that hardy band of ICSEI pioneers ate their pork pies and sandwiches out of brown paper bags at the first Congress. 21 one years – the age of maturity – being given the key to the future - what brings us together in ‘congress’ is a moral imperative – a meeting of minds, a set of shared beliefs  - articles of faith - which puts children’s welfare at the centre of our priorities. We view educational leadership as an essentially moral endeavour and the process of learning and school improvement as a moral and social as well as an intellectual enterprise.

 

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.  That’s why we’re here and a very profound thankyou to the tireless, (but pretty tired) organising committee who have laid the groundwork for a great conference. To those wonderful people who gave us liftoff in a spiritual sense in the house of their ancestors, in the house of peace.

 

We are a broad congress embracing both science and faith.

 

John MacBeath

 

 
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