Aspiring leaders understanding their ‘selves’ and/in social contexts

This blog post follows up my initial thoughts concerning opportunities for change in August 2015 ( At that time, the opportunities in question related to the forthcoming review of National Professional Qualification programmes for Middle Leadership (NPQML), Senior Leadership (NPQSL) and Headship (NPQH) in England.  I was looking forward to the chance to weaken existing social structures relating to teachers’ professional learning.

Empirical literature on the theme of National Professional Qualifications for school leadership serves mainly to evaluate the programmes themselves in relation to the concept of leadership. I have not uncovered any existing accounts of how to prepare NPQ participants for final assessment in the English context.  A search of national leadership development programmes in Scotland suggested findings from Jenny Reeves and Christine Forde concerning complexities involving concepts of space, identity and agency.  Empirical work by these authors identifies a ‘third space’ which combines leadership development programme assessment when addressed within the school context.  This can become foggy when expectations of school conflict with experiences from face-to-face days on the leadership development programme.

Teachers’ negative identities of themselves as learners can impede their agency in relation to engaging with professional learning programmes

This empirical evidence would certainly validate accounts from NPQ programme administrators regarding the content and nature of questions from participant e-mails about aspects of the final assessment process. Indeed, my own observations as a facilitator on face-to-face days would suggest that ordinarily highly competent individuals in their own school contexts are reduced to uncertain novices where writing up and submitting accounts of their in-school leadership initiatives are concerned.  Teachers’ negative identities of themselves as learners can impede their agency in relation to engaging with professional learning programmes and writing up final assessment submissions.

We are living in an environment now where some teachers quite like being done to: tell me what to do, tell me what I have to do next. This may be the consequence of a need for self-preservation in a workplace of ever increasing demand. I have become increasingly frustrated with this when it translates into how aspiring leaders approach their professional development.  As a lead facilitator on leadership development programmes, I sometimes find myself thinking, “You are preparing yourself for senior school leadership, yet you are still asking me what you need to do!”  Individual contexts and expectations play a key role in enabling or blocking their teachers’ perceptions of their capable selves, which in turn help or hinder their willingness to engage in the final assessment stages of their programmes.

If we take Biesta and Tedder’s concept of ecological agency seriously, some people find the school very conducive to preparing their final assessment, and it fits, but for other people, if the school context is not conducive, the space is much more conflicted and difficult for them. This not only reflects the competence of the aspiring leader, it concerns the degree of ecological agency that is available within the school, which spiritually encourages or discourages, and materially encourages and discourages. A lot of teachers’ competency is shown by their ability to reflect on the context, the assessment and the task rather than just the first order, do the task.

It isn’t just about teachers’ own agency, however. It is also about spiritual, emotional and physical conditions because agency also resides in the context.  This concerns an aspect of Hermans’ dialogical self theory (DST), which involves having a helicopter view of a particular context and asking, ‘What sense do I make of this?’  In this way, teachers are able to comment on not just themselves but themselves in that social context.  It requires teachers to read the context, which can be very difficult if they have only ever taught in one place.  It also requires for them to discuss amongst themselves so that they get more of a sense of what it’s like in other places.

So what does it all mean? For me, it’s about trying to support a shift in perspective, presenting a pedagogical approach which allows participants to understand their ecological context earlier on in their NPQ programme.  For participants, it’s about realising the role and power of their contexts as well as their personal capacity to act within and beyond them.

Taken from the BERA blogs.

Dr Anna Reid is a Lecturer in Educational Leadership, Deputy Director of the North Leadership Centre and Programme Director for the North East Teaching Schools Partnership (NETSP) within the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle University.

Twitter: @AjrReid

You can find more information at

Learning outdoors in school grounds

Perhaps it’s the onset of summer weather, or the fact that the school term feels different after the exams and tests are over, but whatever the reason there has been a renewed interest in learning outdoors recently, as illustrated by a recent Guardian feature.  On a serious and really critical note what this article demonstrates is the potential for learning outdoors to boost children’s wellbeing.  In addition England’s largest outdoor learning project conducted by Plymouth University recently revealed that children are more motivated to learn when outside.  It is unusual to start an ECLS blog citing research from another university, but the interest generated by this research (as evidenced on twitter) prompted us to publish an evaluation of a particular outdoor learning project conducted by CfLaT on outdoor learning in school grounds.  You can access this report here.


The CfLaT report “Creative Partnerships: Creating purpose, permission and passion for outdoor learning in school grounds” is based on evidence from four primary and first schools in North-East England, Farne Primary School and St Teresa’s Catholic Primary School (both in Newcastle) and Stobhillgate First School and Tweedmouth West First School (both in Northumberland). Each school used the opportunities offered by Creative Partnerships to develop learning experiences in their school grounds during 2010 and 2011. The motivations for initiating the work; the nature of learning; the use of the school environment and the relationships were unique to each school, as were the physical, cognitive and affective outcomes. This blog outlines core themes that emerged across the schools and their outdoor learning activities.  You can read all about it in the report.

Re-thinking teaching and learning

The outdoor learning projects provided an impetus for a reconsideration of the processes of teaching and learning. The Creative Partnerships projects focusing on the outdoor environment certainly offered opportunities for fun and memorable learning experiences, but the impact went deeper than this. Teachers and co-ordinators recognised that they had the chance to develop alternative approaches and to explore alternative perspectives on both pedagogy and the curriculum. One way of understanding this is through the distinction between convergent and divergent teaching. Much of the teaching and learning developed through these case study projects could be described as divergent. Divergent teaching is contingent and cannot be planned fully in advance. It does not rely on a ‘script’, but instead requires a degree of risk taking and thinking on one’s feet. In these examples it was clear that teaching staff and creative practitioners had responded to the pupils’ interests and actions. The collaborative relationship between teachers and creative practitioners supported this; allowing more child initiated learning and an approach which encouraged experiential learning.

In September 2001, Estyn (the Welsh equivalent to Ofsted) produced an evaluation report on the national foundation stage initiative for greater outdoor learning. Like the more recent Plymouth University report Estyn’s findings had resonance for us. For example Estyn stated that, ‘In most cases, children benefit from their time outdoors. They display high levels of engagement and enjoyment and their knowledge and understanding of the world and physical development improve. A majority of practitioners also say that children’s behaviour, physical fitness and stamina improve’ (Estyn, 2011, p5). The Estyn report recognises that opportunities to enhance learning outcomes linked to creativity had not been fully realised in their sample of outdoor learning, and the four Creative Partnership schools provided illustrative examples of how this might be achieved.


Lawrence Stenhouse (1975) was unequivocal in rejecting a view of teaching and learning which stated that the only way to organize the curriculum was to divide teaching programmes into pre-specified outcomes in terms of measurable changes in student behaviour. He argued for the transformation of the teacher–pupil relationship.  In such a transformation there has to be a redrawing of roles, responsibilities and power implying a less authoritarian structure.  Such a transition can be recognised in the four case study schools,  with the introduction of creative practitioners as ‘experts’ and evidence of teachers learning skills alongside pupils, of pupils learning from pupils and opportunities for family involvement in learning activities.   There was also evidence that teachers welcomed the opportunities for their pupils to surprise them, and celebrated both the intended and unintended learning outcomes and consequences.

Teacher development and learning

The same could be said of the development of teaching staff.  In each case the co-ordinators were able to identify tangible, but not always planned for, staff development outcomes.  The teachers themselves had overcome some of their anxieties about ‘letting go’ and enjoyed the chance to work across year groups, to take alternative roles in supporting and engaging in learning, and to draw on the expertise of practitioners who reciprocated by drawing out their expertise as teachers. Traditionally schools and teachers find change difficult (Tyack & Cuban, 1995, Leat, 1999) especially in the direction of more innovative pedagogies.  Substantial pedagogic innovation usually requires some behavioural change in teaching and therefore also changes in thinking and in beliefs about pupils, learning or teaching – and perhaps all three.  There is good evidence that the Creative Partnerships projects created the space and permission for some of these changes to start to occur.  In this environment teachers and pupils responded positively to what they recognised as more fluid teaching approaches, often driven by the ‘natural’ processes adopted by practitioners based on craft skills, experimentation, or exploration of ideas, environments and techniques.  Leadership, effective co-ordination and permissions were all critical.  This was also a conclusion reached by Estyn (2001) who found that the ‘vision of leaders and their commitment to making the best use of outdoor learning are key factors’ (p5).  Where scepticism of the value of outdoor learning was found in the Welsh sample the outdoor environment was not used well enough.  One of the significant characteristics of the Creative Partnerships sample in this report was that such scepticism (if it had existed) had been largely overcome and thus real progress was made in developing appropriate teaching and learning in the enhanced outdoor areas of each school.

In Timperley et al.’s (2007) ‘best evidence synthesis’ study of effective professional development (as measured by student outcomes), one of the most important factors implicated in teacher learning was the challenge to the existing beliefs that are embedded in the everyday discourse of some schools, usually that certain groups of students could not learn as well as other groups.  There was evidence from the schools that transferring learning to the outdoor environment, and taking alternative approaches to planning, enacting and valuing learning had allowed some teachers’ assumptions to be challenged.  In this environment each school had evolved as a community; with new elements of school improvement planning being developed and plans being made for further innovative approaches. The experience of Creative Partnership projects had helped each school to recognise that the value in innovation is not simply in adopting one new approach after another.  They have learned that they can enrich the curriculum through exploiting multiple opportunities for learning, extending relationships for learning and recognising a very wide range of outcomes of learning.

Written by Lucy Tiplady, CfLaT Research Associate, Newcastle University and
Dr Rachel LofthouseHead of Education, Newcastle University.


Estyn (2011) Outdoor learning: an evaluation of learning in the outdoors for children under five in the Foundation Phase – September 2011

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to curriculum research and development, London: Heinneman.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H. and  Fung, I. (2007) Teacher Professional Development and Learning, Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES), Auckland: Ministry of Education.

Tiplady, L. & Lofthouse, R. (2011) Creative Partnerships: Creating purpose, permission and passion for outdoor learning in school grounds. Research Centre for Learning and Teaching, Newcastle University, UK.

Tyack, D. & Cuban, L. (1995) Tinkering towards Utopia, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

InForm Conference 2016: Working with words – Supporting understanding of discipline-specific vocabulary in IFPs

Durham pic

On 16 July 2016 I attended the annual InForm conference, which took place at Durham University. InForm is a publication edited by staff from the University of Reading that provides a research forum for HE professionals working on international foundation programmes.

The conference presentations were very relevant to my EdD research project and dissertation as they all focused on the application of learning and teaching strategies in the foundation course sector. Of particular interest was the first key note speech by Prof. Michael McCarthy as he talked about the use of corpora to inform learning and teaching. In this context he reported how teachers react when confronted with their own language use in the classroom. This was particularly insightful as some of the teachers’ sentiments he described mirror the teachers’ comments in my data. Furthermore, the presentation by Aaron Woodcock from Reading University was very interesting for my dissertation topic as he outlined how he, too, takes a content and language integrated learning approach to his teaching practice, although he does not formally use the “CLIL” framework.

My own presentation on “Raising linguistic awareness through CLIL: A reflective practice approach for subject teachers” was well received. It was the last presentation of the day, but still attracted an audience of about twenty people. The presentation sparked some good discussions regarding the “authenticity” of the higher education experience of international students as well as the need for teacher development for academic subject staff. Overall, the feedback was very positive and some of the attending teachers commented that they felt my research topic was of great relevance to the sector.
On a personal level, it was good to catch up with former colleagues from INTO Newcastle University and from Northumbria University’s foundation programme. Also, I used the event for networking and had some interesting discussions with colleagues from Glasgow, Southampton and Durham Universities. Furthermore, I shared experiences with another EdD student from Durham University discussing our research projects, respective methodologies and general progress.

Overall, it was a really worthwhile conference and I enjoyed both attending as well as presenting a session and am grateful for the funding received from ECLS.

Written by Sandra Strigel, currently studying her Doctorate of Education (EdD)

Simple measures can poverty proof the school day for pupils

Looking at classmate

A scheme to help disadvantaged pupils has been shown to increase attendance and attainment in schools.

Remove barriers to learning

The Poverty Proofing the School Day toolkit, created by charity Children North East and evaluated by Newcastle University experts, aims to remove barriers to learning for the poorest students, who may not have access to the correct uniform, PE kit or computers to carry out their homework. This means they can be stigmatised at school through no fault of their own.

The scheme advocates schools use simple measures to help youngsters living in poverty get more out of the school day. It includes steps such offering students a free drink and snack before exams, improving IT access, more breakfast clubs, changing the ways school meals and uniforms are administered and cutting the number of non-uniform days. These small steps can prevent poorer students being discriminated against during the school day.

‘Poverty Proofing the School Day’ does a great service in reminding us all why it is still so difficult for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well in the English education system in the 21st century.
Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith

Positive impact

An independent evaluation of the project by Dr Laura Mazzoli Smith and Professor Liz Todd from Newcastle University’s School of Education, Communications Language Sciences, found evidence of the scheme’s positive impact in schools across the North East, North Lincolnshire and Glasgow.

Their research showed increased engagement at school with the most disadvantaged pupils, including improved attendance, attainment, uptake of free school meals and uptake of school trips and music tuition.

Six schools in North Lincolnshire noted a rise in attendance for pupils eligible for free school meals, with one school noting a 7% increase. Seven North Lincolnshire schools reported increased attainment of pupils on free school meals at Key Stages 1, 2 and 4.

A total of 28 schools have taken part in the scheme so far, with a further 23 additional schools waiting to take part.

Dr Mazzoli Smith said: “This is one of the most important projects I have been involved in my time at Newcastle University.

“By uncovering the myriad ways in which children living in poverty can be stigmatised at school, ‘Poverty Proofing the School Day’ does a great service in reminding us all why it is still so difficult for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to do well in the English education system in the 21st century.

“It is the hidden, unwitting nature of this stigmatisation that is of particular concern. However, as the evaluation highlights, there are a raft of positive steps schools can take to prevent this from happening and to work towards a positive school culture where such practices are unlikely to occur.”

High cost to families

Liz Todd, Professor of Educational Inclusion said: “‘State schooling is supposed to be free. In fact, the cost to families is high. Uniform, food, equipment, study support and other activities central to becoming a successful adult, not optional add-ons. Our research suggests that attainment gains follow when schools take action.

“Schools already pay a lot of attention to the social needs of students. However, this research has demonstrated that there are many way that school systems unwittingly stigmatise poorer students. It takes Children North East’s Poverty Proofing Audit process, a critical friend talking to everyone in the school, for the school staff to see what is happening and to evolve solutions that are respectful to students.”

‘Child poverty has increased in the last 6 years and we are seeing schools as a frontline organisation to support families by paying for many things families cannot pay for – even down to feeding children. At the same time school budgets are being reduced. There is a limit to the extent to which schools can compensate for the impact of low wages and welfare cuts. A response is therefore needed from the government to reduce child poverty.”

Sarah Bryson, Policy and Research Manager at Children North East, said: “The pressure of the rising cost of the school day, from school trips, tuition, and uniforms has a significant effect, not only on pupils, but their families too. We want to limit this stress and encourage pupils to have a positive experience at school, which all contributes to helping children to grow up healthy and happy.
“We know Poverty Proofing the School Day supports pupils living in poverty to improve their future prospects by helping them to be engaged throughout the day by reducing discrimination which can often alienate pupils and lead to a lack of interest and motivation in education.”

Taken from Newcastle University Press Office.

Written by Laura Mazzoli Smith, Research Associate.