I’m finding it hard to be my usual optimistic self at the moment – the world is in bad shape and our country is in worse, its hard to know what will become critically unsustainable first the eco-system or the school system – however, I went to the NEU’s ‘Celebrating Education’ conference at the Institute of Education in London yesterday and, on balance, I think I’m feeling a bit more positive.
I should declare a degree of interest – the organisers asked me to run a series of workshops under the #BrewEd banner which I was glad to do. I was also asked to chair a discussion on knowledge and skills between NEU co-secretary Mary Bousted and teacher and school leader Ben Newmark. Beyond that I had no involvement in the day’s programming and organisation – ninety nine percent of that was down to Jess Edwards, an exec member of the union and a full time class teacher.
I have been to more than my fair share of Saturday teaching conferences over the last few years but there was something distinctive about this one and it gives me some pause for thought and some reasons to be cheerful so I’m going to unpack that a little.
First reason to be cheerful was the size – I believe nearly 500 people walked into the building on Saturday. That’s bigger than #LearningFirst, bigger than #PrimaryRocks, bigger than any #BrewEd, bigger than most iterations of #ResearchEd I think – it’s just a lot of people giving up their Saturday to come along and join the conversation.
Second reason to be cheerful is that by my estimate more than half of these weren’t twitter users. We’ve struggled and struggled in the Saturday CPD world to break beyond twitter knowing the vast majority of our colleagues have nothing to do with it and would rather mark another class set of books than read a retweeted blog. Well, this conference did break beyond that limited set of tweeting teachers. Perhaps it was the central London location, perhaps the reach of union email contacts (I don’t know how Jess reached out) but I think the majority of people there were at their first Saturday CPD event and that made me very happy indeed.
The same went for the presenters: a few of them were friends who I have run into at a good many events in the past – its always a pleasure to run into Simon Smith, Tim Taylor, Kate Owbridge, Pran Patel, Bukky Yusuf and others – but a lot of the names were new to me and had been recruited through other channels. This made for a really exciting mix of sessions from a diverse set of people who certainly did not represent a single understanding of what education is or how it should be enacted.
Third reason to be cheerful was the range of voices represented and the respectful engagement between people. Ben and Mary modelled this in their onstage debate on knowledge and skills – it’s a subject which can and does cause tempers to fray but in this conversation Ben and Mary, who had not met in person before, showed real interest in each other’s positions and debated with clarity and warmth. This spirit was evident throughout the day, in my #BrewEd stream as well as elsewhere.
Jess Edwards deserves real applause for pulling this off – she hasn’t organised such an event before and at times I imagine it must have felt pretty scary. In the first instance she had hoped to host maybe two hundred people but the tickets kept selling and selling and with it the logistical complexity of rooms, refreshments, workshop allocations and so on. I’ve run a few events – I’m jolly glad that my first wasn’t one of this size. I was pleased and I admit a little moved to see so many of the union’s executive members supporting Jess on the day – they were helping out with the registration table, guiding participants to their sessions, helping out with technical matters where they could and so on. I sensed a feeling that the executive really wanted the day to be a proper success and that they didn’t mind getting their hands dirty to make sure it happened.
I hope very much that the union builds on this successful day and takes ‘Celebrating Education’ to different parts of the country. If they can use their local networks to reach beyond the twitter bubble and get more people involved in the big education conversations we can real scale up the proportion of our colleagues who are engaged in professional discourse. And the more are involved in the discourse the stronger we will collectively become. And god knows that we need to become stronger as a profession.
There’s something important to think about here. While the day did truly represent a wide and diverse range of voices and perspectives and the conversations were of a high quality it is nonetheless important to ensure and to assert that the NEU is an inclusive union that represents members who teach in the full range of school systems in the systems. We have to be quite sure that a colleague teaching in a ‘knowledge rich’ school is equally as welcome and equally as representative of our union as a member from a school which bases it’s curriculum in ‘skills’ (personally I’m ever more convinced that this is an unhelpful distinction but perhaps that’s a blog for another day). I hope that every teacher who attended the day felt welcomed and included.
We are in a time when schools are suffering more than ever in my memory from savage underfunding. This is simply not news to any of us working in education. We have seen school budgets straining as they absorb on costs and pension contributions while what is asked of the schools grows. Local authorities have dropped provision which used to be commonplace – speech and language therapists, behaviour support, subject specialist advisors and more – meanwhile the closure of surestart centres and the increase in poverty has meant that families who were hanging on by their fingertips can no longer do so. We see the results of this in our schools and it is not pretty. Morale is at an all time low so far as I can see. We are losing colleagues both at the chalkface and in management.
In the discussion on knowledge and skills I asked Mary Bousted and Ben Newmark who they thought stood to benefit from the perceived division between schools and colleagues who focus on one and schools and colleagues who focus on the other. My own answer to this is that it is the current government who stands to benefit from divisions in our profession – whether those divisions are authentic or manufactured does not change this. Every tweet, blog, news story or conference speech which maintains that division diverts time, attention and energy from the vital work of fighting for the sustainability of our schools.
Let me be clear. I am not saying we don’t have a duty to speak up when we see wrong being done. Mistreatment of staff is mistreatment of staff regardless of the perceived pedagogical slant of the school. Bullying and coercion of pupils are bullying and coercion whether the school favours silent corridors or noisy hubbub. Government policies which put stress onto teachers or pupils must be called out.
In the plenary session our colleague Elaine from ‘Keep Early Years Unique’ spoke out against the incoming Foundation baseline test. I have not yet heard one Early Years Specialist of any stripe – prog, trad, knowledge rich, skills based, labour or conservative – speak in favour of this ill judged and poorly implemented initiative. We should oppose it as a union because it will waste time at a time in a child’s schooling where time is the most precious resource, because it will divert the teachers attention from forming good relationships with pupils at the most sensitive time for that in the whole of the child’s schooling and because it will produce the most useless data in the long and impressive history of useless school data. Standing against the baseline test is a campaign which brings together everyone who ‘gets’ early years it is not sensitive to pedagogical standpoint – not even to political affiliation unless we suggest our colleagues follow their political party’s ministers so blindly as to stand by while real harm is done. I credit my colleagues with greater intelligence and principle than that.
There is a dangerous and entirely mistaken view widely held by many on the so called ‘progressive’ side of the debate that teachers who work with knowledge based curriculae are likely to be on the right politically and that they are more likely to defend the governments ongoing financial attack on the state education system. This view does not stand up to investigation, is offensive to many principled colleagues and gives those who wish to do us ill great assistance. If prominent bloggers, tweeters or leaders in schools can cite evidence that our union favours one model of education over another we lose credibility, authority, influence and membership.
At this time we do not have the luxury of division. We can and should debate curriculum and teaching but we should do so in a way which aims to bring us together as a profession not to divide us. We have more in common than that which divides us. We are stronger together.
So, much credit to the union for backing Jess to run this successful event and huge kudos to her for managing to curate an event which reached beyond the twitter bubble which has up to now limited the Saturday CPD phenomenon. Let’s see more events like this going on nationwide and lets see them representing and welcoming the full range of the unions membership. We simply cannot afford not to.