Q&A with Dan Belcher, Senior Education Lead, SSAT
How long have you been a senior education lead for?
I’ve been with SSAT for ten years. I started in September 2009, and I’ve had quite a few different roles since then. However, throughout this time I’ve been responsible for our leadership programmes. The senior education lead role has been for three years now.
What got you into working with schools in this way? What drives you?
I was involved in the very first leadership programme SSAT did which started in 2002-2003. It was the Developing Leaders for Tomorrow Programme aimed at people in their first few years of teaching who had the potential to go on and be school leaders. It was a great opportunity to be on a national programme and come to some of the events like the SSAT National Conference, but also just to get out and about in different schools across the country and meet other people like me who were starting out on a leadership journey. It was from that programme I completed a part-time MA in Educational Leadership and Innovation at University of Warwick. I used to come back and do workshops at SSAT leadership events, so I kept in touch with the people that had run the course. Then the time came when I was thinking about what I might do next and an opportunity came up at SSAT as Head of Leadership programmes.
What motivates me probably hasn’t changed. I’ve always loved learning, developing and taking on new challenges. The role has enabled me to do that and to help others do the same. For me, it’s also about a values-based approach to leadership and the importance of school culture. I hope that comes through in our programmes.
As a senior education lead with a background in teaching languages, what is your take on the ongoing languages crisis that schools are facing?
Part of the problem is an inconsistent political approach to the importance of languages. Over the years many languages teachers have left the profession and it can be really difficult to get languages teachers back. Some schools have cut or significantly reduced languages from the curriculum. I’m not surprised by the current issues. I guess it’s a vicious circle because we need to have more students taking languages in order to have a pool of people who can then train as teachers.
As a linguist, I just think that languages are brilliant; partly because of all the opportunities to travel, meet new people and understand new cultures. I’ve always enjoyed learning other languages and teaching languages – it opens so many different doors. You also improve your communication skills in English because it makes you think about language and you understand how language fits together.
You’ve been doing some work with the British Council globally. Did your background in languages inspire you to take your work global in any way?
Last year a fantastic opportunity came up in Peru to work with teachers who had won a Best Practice competition. A colleague and I had the great privilege of going out there and working with teachers around pedagogy and leadership. The people were wonderful and responded really well. All the things that you think might be a barrier like languages didn’t need to be. We had some great simultaneous translation taking place because although I am a linguist, my languages are French and German, not Spanish!
Through working globally, have you noticed any major differences in UK education versus school systems outside of the UK?
There are certainly differences. Systems are often very different – the level of resourcing and structures are different. The thing that’s not so different is pedagogy and leadership. It’s still the same things that make good teaching and learning and good leadership whichever country and culture. The context is the bit that changes, and the challenges that people face. When we were in Peru, some of those challenges are pretty obvious in terms of poverty and resourcing, but even that depends from school to school. There’s often a greater variation within a country than there is across countries.
What projects/tasks are you working on in relation to your role right now?
The Building the Capacity of Your Senior Leadership programme is something new that I’m enjoying being part of. It involves working with a school or MAT to explore themes such as values, culture and high performing teams but also includes individual coaching. What I like about it is the opportunity to work with leadership teams, build relationships and see the transformational impact over time. I have also seen how powerful coaching can be and am increasingly providing coaching and coaching training which I find really rewarding. I’m planning to develop further our work around culture and ethical leadership.
The NPQML (National Professional Qualification for Middle Leadership) is a big programme for us. We currently have over 700 middle leaders. Our first successful participants completed in the summer and there’s always lots of work to make sure everybody is fully prepared.
What was the most fulfilling experience you’ve had so far during your career?
It’s difficult to pick out a specific experience. One of the things you miss when you come out of teaching is working with children and that sense of helping them to accomplish their goals and seeing them develop. You get that feeling in a different way at SSAT, I have through delivering the leadership programmes, because rather than teaching young people you’re developing teachers and leaders and helping them. For me, it’s about seeing people develop and being able to reconnect with those people at different points in their journey and feel that in some small way you’ve had an impact on them. It always means a lot when they come back and say how being part of one of our programmes really made a difference to them.
If you could be the instrument of one major social justice change for schools, what would that be?
There are so many issues in terms of social justice that it’s about interconnectivity. It’s not just about schools trying to resolve all the issues, it’s linking up social policy, it’s politics, it’s a lot of things. I think we do have a very fragmented education system with private schools, grammar schools and other forms of subtle selection whether it’s by postcode or other ways that people shape their student population. In many ways that does create barriers. We all need to learn to value each other and not just associate with people who were born into families like ours.
Dan is hosting a workshop on the second day of this year’s SSAT National Conference where he will explore how principled leaders promote social justice.
View the full programme with main stage speakers including Professor Sir Tim Brighouse and David Lammy; panel discussions featuring Professor Dame Alison Peacock, Priya Lakhani OBE and Tom Ravenscroft; plus over 30 school-led workshops exploring themes including wellbeing, curriculum design and eradicating illiteracy.