Conferences and networking for school leaders

Carmella Hunt reflects on the opportunities for learning and networking at the recent COBIS conference in London

Making the decision to visit an international education conference is not taken lightly by educators at any level, but independent British overseas school leaders recently gathered in London for the Council of British Independent Schools’ (COBIS) key annual event, which brought together representatives from every continent for a global gathering of over 300 member school leaders, educators and suppliers.    

I was attending with clients but was also keen to see what it is that school leaders get from attending an event, which takes them away form school for several days, especially in a modern age when there’s digital communication.

The conference took place from 7-9 May in London and I met up with Accredited Members from several independent schools in the Gulf regions that were representing their schools. It was clear that, primarily as Members, it’s important to participate and have the opportunity to share best practice and to be part of the influencing of future developments; networking with leaders from across the planet, as well as meeting supporting members, some of whom were exhibiting adds value to a independent school. 

COBIS conference

The conference opened and closed with positive and warm messages from the CEO of COBIS, Colin Bell. He told me: “Our conference theme this year was Storytelling, because we believe that every one of the 650 representatives that joined us here in London from our COBIS Schools and Supporting Members in over 75 countries worldwide, has a story to tell. Storytelling is a two-way process, it’s not just about telling the story but also listening to the stories of others. The COBIS Annual Conference has been a fantastic opportunity to learn from the stories told by each and every one of us over the past three days and I hope that they have helped us all to think about how we can use the experience of others to inspire in the classroom, or the office, or wherever your creativity blossoms on a day-to-day basis.”

The event prompted me to consider what attending an education conference offers school leaders like my colleagues, and what we actually gain from this type of event.

From a principal’s perspective, the advantages of exploiting the opportunity to network in one place with those at the cutting edge of educational development, including practitioners and bolt-on services, was described to me as the “key determinant” in making the trip from Dubai to the Intercontinental Hotel, in Greenwich. One principal informed me: “This year’s conference theme was about using the power of telling stories to inspire and lead. It’s a simple idea but one that must be executed in the right way to have credibility.” 

In fact, keynote speaker, Professor Deborah Eyre, international education leader, academic and author of High Performance Learning gave an inspiring presentation about helping every child to achieve their potential through ‘systematic nurturing’ and she described the ‘room at the top’ scenario. 

Professor Eyre summed it up perfectly when she said that schools must decide the road ahead for their own establishment and she pointed to three goals that most schools deliver on vision:

1.     performs highly, regardless of starting point

2.     students are equipped for the future

3.     delivers outcome each year regardless of context 

It was clear to me that, whilst it’s possible to catch up via reviews, the full value of the message was only gained through attendance and meeting with leading British education influencers.  

Andrew Gibbs, Principal of Dubai English Speaking School and College (DESSC), an Accredited Member of COBIS, was clear that the concepts outlined by Professor Eyre and the many other presentations he attended helps him align the strategic vision of his international schools with cutting-edge thinking elsewhere. 

It was evident that the opportunity to discuss ideas with others helps leaders to clarify and shape their ideas about how their schools will move forward. I think that good leadership requires time for reflection as well as action and this COBIS Conference allowed delegates to reflect, discuss, analyse and synthesise those ideas that were already taking shape. 

The conference also offered the chance to speak to the many specialist education suppliers exhibiting, which included IT, recruitment, uniforms, website designers, education book and software distributors. I spoke to service provider, British School of Coaching (BSC), market leaders in providing ILM accredited qualifications. Their work includes schools in the UK and overseas, that either have or want to develop a coaching and mentoring culture and this could be looking to accredit practice or simply a parent wondering how to best mentor their child. 

Judith Barton, Director of BSC said: “Our work provides individuals and organisations the opportunity and skills to develop. Attending the conference allows me to discuss how we add value to coaching and mentoring initiatives that may already be happening in schools. Through our Executive Coaching service, for example, we are working with Principals and Headteachers in delivering their vision.

“Our aim is about recognition and professionalisation of coaching practice, so through meeting and discussing individual needs in this arena we can explain how our range of courses offer professional and rigourous support at all levels; leaders, teachers, parents and students.”  

Judith Barton

There was a clear message from the school leaders I talked to, that often when they are in school, the day-to-day realities of school management do not allow for strategic thinking.

Independent school leaders’ strategic planning no doubt includes themes that were discussed at this event:

  • Creating a Successful School: Leadership stories of resilience and success from students, staff, leaders and parents
  • Future Proofing your Schools’ Success: Succession planning, building capacity and exploring the supply and continuity of teachers in British overseas schools
  • Every School a Unique School for a Unique Context: focusing on local adaptation to reflect community expectations
  • Leadership in the Schools of the Future: How effective leadership and skill sets are changing
  • The Nimble, Change-Ready School: Creating and changing for more open, accountable, and adaptable school cultures and systems

The inspirational presenters included:

  • Joe Simpson: World-renowned mountaineer, author, speaker and the subject of the BAFTA Award winning film Touching the Void
  • Curtis Jobling: British illustrator, animator and author, best known for his production design of children’s TV hit, Bob The Builder and author/illustrator of other children’s books 
  • Richard Addis: British journalist and entrepreneur who’s worked with Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph, and currently edits The Day, an education resource for schools. Richard also chaired a panel discussion with Wendy Berliner, The Guardian, Lord Knight, TES Global and Nicky Cox MBE, First News. 
  • Neil Strowger CEO, Bohunt Education Trust and Headteacher, Bohunt School Liphook – featured in BBC documentary, “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?”  

COBIS also offered optional courses before and after the conference on vital areas of school practice; Advanced Child Protection and Safer Recruitment. There was also a special presentation for UK independent schools considering operating overseas, called Developing your Independent School Brand, which was an opportunity for prospective international schools to meet principals and experts in developing British overseas schools and to learn first hand about the many opportunities for independent schools in England to develop their education brand abroad. 

The weekend-long education conference gave the vital space that all school leaders need to be effective in their strategic planning. Just how each school executes the strategy will differ from establishment to establishment and continent to continent but I’ve no doubt that all will be aiming to improve on what they did last year and continue offering pupils the best opportunities, opening the door to better life chances. 

Carmella Hunt was Head of Communications for a British independent school in the Middle East for over five years and is now a UK-based communications advisor in the independent overseas education and training sectors. /

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