Meeting in the historical surrounds of the UNESCO cathedral city for the final iQerel conference, in itself of sufficient magnitude, was marked by other wonderful events that drew the project towards a close. The group – composed of practitioners, graduate students and researchers, and professors from England, Ireland, Norway, Spain, and Poland – experienced a three-day affair showcasing project outputs to date; keynote presentations; lessons learned from theoretical and practical perspectives as a result of the project; reviews of the website built as a result of the project; and international exchanges between practitioners and researchers from five countries, particularly in relation to the similarities and differences between various policy initiatives between our countries.
On Thursday, the conference was opened by Fiona Stephens and we were welcomed by William Stow of Canterbury Christchurch University, who organised the conference wonderfully with the team locally. Professor Michael Fielding provided the opening keynote presentation. His talk, titled ‘Against the poverty of accountability: on the realities and possibilities of democratic educational alternatives’, drew on his research activity and heralded the project’s inquiry into ‘What really matters in schools?’, particularly in relation to school self-evaluation. Matters of reclaiming a language of education, and prioritising personal rather than functional relations struck a chord with the international audience, particularly prevalent in the question and answer session. A wonderful banquet in the grounds of Christchurch Cathedral provided a platform to discuss the ideas raised by Prof Fielding amongst old friends and new into late in the evening.
If the theme on Thursday evening could be summarised as ensuring democracy in ‘relationships’ in schools, Friday’s theme might be synopsised as ‘systems’, particularly systems of evaluation. Comparative, analytic, and critically constructive insights about external evaluation were provided by Professors Eli Ottesen and Gerry Mac Ruairc in the morning. This extended into the afternoon with Dr Roman Dorczak & María Jesús Rodríguez Entrena regarding self-evaluation. This sessions had activities where participants were encouraged to exchange perspectives and generate collective meaning based on the research conducted as a result of iQerel. You will get a flavour of the collaborative activities from the photos taken during the sessions, leading to the many ideas the group cultivated as a result of these opportunities. Sandwiched in between these sessions was the meaty and meaningful review of iQerel’s website: www.evaluationplus.eu. A particular feature of the discussion and peer-review was ensuring that the website could be made as user-friendly as possible for leaders in schools. There was overwhelming optimism about the potential that this website will have for professional capital to be leveraged inside school communities.
Saturday morning, Dr Robin Precey opened the morning’s session with his talk titled ‘Striding Boldly into the Mist’. It concluded by concretising how leaders have dealt with the multiple uncertainties contemporary school leadership faces through outlining communal, democratic approaches that have been adopted for school evaluation and improvement. Therefore the theme on Saturday might be summed up as ‘community’. To the fore were notions of trust, integrity, and communication. Dr Precey’s thoughts and examples tallied with the contributions of both Thursday and Friday. However, by way of bringing the conference to a close, we were reminded that the road of change can be bumpy. Fiona Stephens and Professor Eli Ottesen underlined that there are ‘Leadership Challenges’ in relation to school self-evaluation, more still when contemplating actions we can take in considering answers to the question ‘What really matters in schools?’ given particular constraints faced by leaders at all levels. They invited us to consider philosophical contributions, particularly those by the philosopher Gert Biesta, instilling in attendees a deeper appreciation of the complexities involved in iQerel’s priorites: Ethical Practice, Learning, and Wellbeing.
As an international attendee, I was struck most by how participants stated so much was gained from the sharing of international perspectives. This, at the level of testimony which is as powerful as any other form of impact, demonstrates the worth and power of this and other ERASMUS+ supported research, and for that we are thankful. I was also struck by the desire amongst partners and participants for continuation – however it might manifest – all of whom acknowledged, both in project partner meetings and in informal chats over coffee, the transformative power of cross-cultural collaboration in relation to the common activity, contrasted by cultural nuance, that we are all engaged in and fascinated by: The study of complex dimensions of education.
Research Scholar, School of Education
University College Dublin