Schools leaders get ‘Back to the Future’ at first virtual Summit

16th October 2020

Now, more than ever, it is important for school leaders to have the opportunity to reflect on their practice, come together with colleagues from across the region, collaborate and share ideas. Under normal circumstances the Schools North East Summit is a flagship event for this very reason, but this year, because of covid,  we brought the Summit to you, streaming into your living room, makeshift home study, or at school, whether live or on catch-up recordings.

Don’t worry if you missed any of the live events – you can still register to watch the recordings.

This year’s summit was all about getting ‘back to the future’. After months of firefighting and emergency response, now is the time to start looking at the future once again whether that is short term recovery or long term reform of the education system.

Day One

Opening the Summit, Director of Schools North East Chris Zarraga thanked our schools for the work they did through lockdown – ensuring that the most vulnerable students were kept safe and fed, and that key workers could continue working – stepping in to fill the gaps left by other services that couldn’t maintain operations during lockdown. He highlighted how this work has gone largely unrecognised, and how as part of our work, we are committed to challenging the negative narrative around the profession and North East schools. Speaking about the lack of trust in teacher’s professional judgement and consultation with the profession, Chris identified that policymakers are not using the knowledge, expertise and efforts of our region’s schools in planning and policy. Our ongoing work is to lobby the government on key issues including exams and Ofsted, and most of all to ensure that the voice of North East schools is heard and considered in policymaking.

Our first speaker was Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the EEF, looking at the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on the disadvantage gap. Highlighting the lack of evidence around the key issues – ie long period of absence from school settings, and effectiveness of virtual learning, Becky acknowledged that the disadvantage gap could grow anywhere between 11-75%. Speaking specifically about the evidence and support offered around the National Tutoring Programme, Becky identified that this can be tailored to be a bespoke approach to different levels of learning loss, and that the EEF are looking to ensure this is accessible to disadvantaged students, that it meets quality standards, and allows teachers to be in the driving seat.

How long will catch-up take? This was a key question with significant focus on disadvantaged areas – with Becky arguing that ‘catch up’ is not a straightforward concept, as not only did the gap exist before coronavirus, but it is linked to more in society than education, so schools are not solely responsible for working to narrow this.

Following on from dissecting some of the issues around education due to Covid-19, Stephen Tierney, Chair of Headteacher’s Roundtable, focused on the question of ‘what should come next?’ identifying that while it might not have felt like a pause for school leaders, but it has been an opportunity to reflect on the purpose of teaching. For Stephen, the system should be based on the journey, not the destination, causing him to question the point of high stakes exams at 16 which are graded so that some students miss the bar, particularly when they need to continue in education or training for at least two more years.

A key aspect which emerged here was the need for accountability alongside the need to test pupils, and whether for the latter we should be placing more trust in the judgment of teachers.

Following his keynote Stephen joined Chair of Schools North East, John Hardy, CEO of Bishop Hogarth Education Trust Maura Regan, and Christina Jones CEO of River Tees Multi Academy Trust, for a panel discussion. Chaired by Laura McInerney, education journalist and co-founder of Teacher Tapp, the panel explored what had happened in schools, what the current state of play is and what we can do and hope for going forwards. Christina highlighted the focus on wellbeing in AP settings, with positive aspects such as the development of new and stronger relations with the community. That there were positives to be found was echoed by other panellists – Maura and John both highlighted that students are keen and happy to be back and how some measures have improved behaviour and reduced teacher workload. However, Maura spoke about concerns that these students would become a lost generation, and that we need a longer term solution to the learning loss that has occurred. Looking at the small practical things school leaders can do, John’s idea of a tea trolley to serve tea to teachers when they can’t use the staff room and are cold in ventilated classrooms was a hit with delegates! As was Maura’s paring back of performance measures, all applauded by delegates as well as Stephen Tierney and Laura McInerney.


Following the first day of sessions, delegates joined us for an afternoon  informal networking session looking at the key and imminent issue of exams and testing. Speaking with both primary and secondary delegates, common themes emerged with thoughts around separating testing from school accountability. Some delegates highlighted that without SATs this year we hadn’t ‘fallen into a black hole’ and that between some schools, transition  information sharing had actually greatly improved as a result. A key concern was what could be implemented this year ahead of further longer term reform and there was an overwhelming consensus that without an imminent decision on how students can be assessed this year, it is already nearly too late to properly support them and that a lack of contingency arrangements was a serious issue. There is a real tension for school leaders between having exams and teacher assessment, mostly because of the negative view of teacher’s professional judgements and accusations of over-inflation. A hybrid of exams and teacher assessment seemed to be the most reasonable solution, provided that clear expectations and a robust system for moderation or peer review could be implemented.

Day Two

After a brilliant start to Summit 20, Day Two saw Laura McInerney join us once again for a keynote session looking at insights from Teacher Tapp – an app that collects data from teachers on a wide range of topics. Laura specifically looked at what these insights have shown about Covid-19 and what we can take away from this to help schools going forward. For Laura, reminding us that this was a completely unique and incomparable situation is important – when schools closed in March nothing like it had happened before so there was no reference point.

Key insights from Teacher Tapp throughout the last six months have shown that teacher attendance has largely been ok, with no dramatic change or fluctuation, while pupil attendance has been far more bumpy. Moreover, school life has become fragmented, which is having serious impacts on staff and their interactions. Looking at measures schools have taken, many were recognisable such as staggered breaks and lunch, but some are more surprising such as almost a fifth of secondary schools no longer accepting physical school work from students. While this makes sense in the context of a pandemic, it does have implications for access to technology. Some significant findings around stress and anxiety levels showed that staff are not feeling particularly comfortable in the classroom, and that while leaders enjoy a challenge, this is not sustainable.

On the subject of what we are doing to recover, Laura took examples from disaster recovery from around the world. Echoing Becky Francis’ claim that ‘catch up’ is a difficult phrase, she suggested that we shouldn’t be talking about it in terms of bounceback but actually ‘continuous recovery’.

With all eyes on how to improve online offers to minimise disruption, Matt Hood’s reflection on lessons learnt from Oak National Academy was timely. Matt acknowledged that the service was not completely new but built on the fantastic work that teachers were already doing in schools. Data from the service showed that usage has climbed since its launch until the full return in September where it has reached a consistent plateau. Most significantly was information on how students engage with the learning – while most are accessing on laptops or desktops, many are doing lessons via a phone or tablet. Matt highlighted that ‘all devices are not equal’ with time spent learning on a phone half that of a desktop.

Engagement did spike in areas seeing high case rates, as evidenced by Liverpool, though there was not significant regional variation. Matt also highlighted how, as well as remote learning, the service was being used to support pupils and teachers in different ways, as part of ‘catch up’, homework, and even ITT.

Rounding off the Summit we were delighted to be joined by NAHT General Secretary Paul Whiteman to explore how we recover our confidence as a profession. A common thread throughout the conference was the negative press and perception around school leaders and teachers and their professional judgement, despite the challenges they have faced over the last 6 months. Paul challenged this head on, reminding delegates that they were successfully navigating poor policy and guidance, often a lack of any guidance, and that despite the criticisms, parents have a newfound appreciation for how teachers engage children who don’t want to engage. Education has proven itself as a frontline service, giving Paul hope for the future, but in order to be successful, we need proper funding, investment in recruitment and retention and a professional dialogue around accountability and workload.

Perception, professional judgement and accountability were once again common themes that cropped up throughout the two day conference, illustrating the key issues school leaders are currently facing. With lots of discussion, questions and engagement from delegates, the two days have provided plenty of food for thought and will help us shape Schools North East’s work going forward.

We hope you enjoyed the opportunity to get ‘back to the future’ and want to thank all our delegates and speakers for attending, as well as our sponsors, including Main Sponsor EPM and Avec, as well as Media Partner Tes, we couldn’t do the work we do without your support.

You can visit the virtual exhibition until 5pm tonight – you don’t need to be a Summit delegate to have a look round.

Don’t worry, if you missed the Summit you can still register to watch the recordings