For school associations and their teachers, the annual conference has become the great ideas market place, the showpiece of their schools and an important shop window for its suppliers and sponsors.

Let’s Have a Conference

Peter Tait
June 2nd 2018

‘I urge educators to focus on “conversations” about education that build rather than simply pull down. Let's not saw sawdust.’   Dr Lesley Murrihy

As a society, we so often decry the failure of schools to meet the needs of our children by highlighting all the impediments and problems that beset modern education. Our bespoke response to such concerns has often been to gather like-minded persons around us and call a meeting or better still, a conference. That way, we reason, we can settle in the comfort of the long grass and get to grips with the issues that confront us at our leisure, by providing platforms for more discussion, more analysis, more research culminating in some practical suggestions about how we can improve the status quo. Over recent years, we have seen a proliferation of conferences, each with its own mantra and purpose or engaged with the sliding spectrum of binary debate:  skills vs. knowledge, growth mind-sets vs. fixed mind-sets, comprehensive vs. selective, STEM vs. the Arts etc. The danger, of course, is that by honing down our definitions and subjects and by introducing new variables and new fields of data we unravel yet more layers and that as a consequence, more committees, think tanks, and policy groups will be set up, commissioning more research papers, more data, more analysis and interpretation until we end up so far away from our original tenet or the heart of education, there is no way back. 

If we want to see evidence of such drilling down, we need go no further than the merry-go-round of conferences that currently exist to discuss almost any educational issue, theme or subject you can think of. Democratising education is a good thing, especially when it brings teachers together, as long as it serves a purpose, but it is possible that with so many conferences happening now (one website had a list of 490 upcoming Education conferences in the United Kingdom for 2018 – 2019), we are in danger in losing sight of the whole and more importantly, of the child who sits firmly in the middle of any such conversation, often hungry and dispirited.

For school associations and their teachers, the annual conference has become the great ideas market place, the showpiece of their schools and an important shop window for its suppliers and sponsors. The format is fairly predictable: a mix of keynote speakers (many of whom go from one venue to another delivering their same message dressed up appropriately), other invited speakers, an array of discussion groups and panels all of whom set out to share ideas and stimulate thinking, followed occasionally by a Conference dinner with a guest speaker who can make witty observations about their own school days – or not!. 

The larger and better known conferences representing the teaching unions and associations: NUT, NSWUA, ISC, BSA, HMC, IAPS, GSA etc. tend to generate the most publicity and have the important function of representing and promoting their sector and its interests in the public eye as well as the lesser, yet vitally important aim of encouraging networking and branding. Beneath their umbrellas, other conferences, dealing with specific issues of education, with themes of race or gender, issues of mental health or learning difficulties all tending to focus on sharing latest research and good practice and call attention to their cause.  As well, there are those conferences hosted by the various subject associations or for levels of education (such as the Early Years Conference); conferences with important names like the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association Conference (HESPA) or as specific as MIC, the Mock Interview Conference.  Finally, in what is by no means a definitive list, there are those conferences run by a number of leading public schools, including Wellington, Brighton and Bryanston that focus on a range of topics united under a central theme, but which also serve to showcase their hosts and their place in the world of education.

Conferences contribute considerably to the spread of ideas amongst teachers and stakeholders in the on-going education debate.  Of course, there are questions, the most pertinent being how much conferences cost the sectors, directly or indirectly, especially in a time of funding shortfalls; there are questions, also, about their value in advancing the education debate, albeit that may never be an intention. Most conferences end with a session looking forward, at how schools might change or what education will look like in twenty years time, but too seldom have there been any helium balloons released that say, here’s some original ideas, ideas fuelled by discussion and imagination, not ground out of research and data, ideas that could just change the paradigm. That’s what we’d really want, I suspect, some speech bubble to rise above our confusion and obfuscation and throw up something creative that would really benefit our children.


Peter Tait is a former Head of a leading UK public school and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board

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