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london borough of barnet headteachers conference school improvement

What links the following four keywords - shuttlecocks, knitting, boats and brain dump?

Stumped? The answer, both on a literal and metaphorical level, is the October Barnet Headteachers’ Residential Conference in Bournemouth.

‘Eh?’ I hear you cry.

Look, I’ll explain.

Let’s start with shuttlecocks. For a metaphor describing how headteachers have felt in the last eighteen months, human shuttlecocks fits perfectly. Never before have we been served so much conflicting guidance, been hit back and forth by the DfE or had to deal with confusing government spin, not to mention their few dodgy racquets. So why shuttlecocks at the conference? On a literal level this was at the centre of Gail Emms’ motivational session about her remarkable personal journey to become a professional badminton player. Gail spoke passionately about the challenges of keeping motivated, the setbacks she often encountered and the difficulties of working in a team as she climbed up the rankings to achieve a gold medal at the World Championships and a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. It was an inspiring story, with moments which also chimed with school leaders’ herculean efforts during the pandemic. At the end of Gail’s session, these efforts were symbolically rewarded when each headteacher was presented with a well-deserved achievement medal. Headteacher colleagues accepted these, in part for their teams back at school, many of whom had been rewarded only with an ill-timed pay freeze.

So, let’s move on to knitting. On the literal level, this was a key part of the conference entertainment, in the form of a set of ridiculous Olympic-themed team challenges – think very highly competitive, but very low-budget Taskmaster with balls of wool, pairs of needles and paper planes. You sort of had to be there. However, on a metaphorical level this activity was about ‘casting on’ new colleagues, stitching old hands back together after a long time apart and weaving the school improvement team and headteachers into a secure comfort blanket that will keep Barnet secure and safe for the long winter of schooling ahead.

And so, to the third of our quartet of keywords - boats, in abundance if you look out of the sea fronted windows of The Marriott Hotel in Bournemouth. Another metaphor for how it’s been since March 2020. We’ve all felt cast adrift, captaining our own ships in a sea of uncertainty, through conflicting currents of advice and lack lustre waves of political leadership. Trying to keep afloat on choppy educational waters, feeling rudderless and trying to avoid Covid-infested waters felt at times like trying to hold back a tsunami. And as we tried to navigate our way through it, no one appeared to be listening. Which is where Teacher’s Tapp app comes in, along with its founder Laura McInerney, who was the speaker on the second day of the conference. If you are unfamiliar with the app, Teachers Tapp asks teachers three questions each day in order to take the temperature of the profession (37 degrees as we all now know only too well) and use the data collected to help steer policy makers, contribute to research and to devise up to the minute teacher training. If you haven’t tried it yet, it takes just a few seconds to answer the questions and then comes with a quick read about a key educational issue. It’s free. Give it a go.

The final keywords at the conference were brain dump, something we got from Ross McGill, founder of @TeacherToolkit. Ross took colleagues through a series of videos to highlight how we can help reduce bias during lesson observations and also spoke of ‘doing fewer things but doing them better,’ in an effort to reduce our workload. And we all need that. Ross ended the conference with thoughts about his new passion for the science of memory – sensory, working and long term, the key to Ofsted’s new sticky learning, ‘knowing and remembering’ mantra. Have a look at the TeacherToolkit website to find out more - don’t forget!

As the conference closed and I headed to my car - and to continue with the sea metaphor - I felt buoyed to have met face to face in the same room with headteacher colleagues for a few days after such a long time sailing on my own. Taking in the fresh sea air, getting the wind back in my sails and having a laugh with the other crew members on the Big Ship Barnet provided some real cathartic release. It was ‘getting our heads together’ on two levels.

Thank you, BPSI team, for organising such a great conference...although next year, can we lose the knitting?

Follow @colindowland on Twitter.

Editorial Note: Barnet Partnership for School Improvement (BPSI) runs two leadership residential conferences each year; one for Headteachers in Sept/Oct and the other for Deputy and Assistant Headteachers in Feb/March. The cost of the conferences are included in the membership of BPSI. Due to the pandemic we were unable to run the conferences in March and October 2020 and March 2021 so it was great to be able to run this one in October 2021 and bring leaders back together again in person.


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