Every good conference begins with an inspiring key note speaker and Prof. Chris Husbands for the IoE certainly fit the bill, with a comprehensive survey of learning in the classroom and the importance of research. It was impressive to see so many colleagues actively engaged in research in schools, as it is easy to feel isolated in your own school, unaware that others are doing very similar things to you. The opportunity to share is therefore vital.
The keynote was followed by a series of workshop sessions and, though these were delivered with skill and professionalism, what struck me was the focus on process rather than outcomes, and this made me think about our own research and whether we have got two tied up in what we are doing instead of thinking about what we hope to find out.
The presentation by The Bradford Academy was an interesting case in point. It was a excellent presentation, professionally delivered and offering some valuable insights, but it was intensely focused on processes: how to form networks, how to get people talking, how to ensure that schools are involved etc. It didn’t really explore what happened when people started talking, or what were the positive outcomes of newly formed networks. It did supply a useful set of tools for creating networks, and those new to teaching schools will have found that useful, but there was nothing about outcomes.
Perhaps it was naive of me but I hoped to see some research in action, not planning for research. This is what we did; this is what we discovered. These were the pitfalls; these were the positives.
Over the years I have been to too many conferences where schools ride a wave of enthusiasm for a particular collaborative venture and describe with delight all the meetings that have taken place, the excitement of networking, the thrilling discussions of pedagogy, but when you actually look closely at what is really happening the answer is often, I’m afraid, not much at all. There is a terrible kings new clothes vision guiding many schools and we have to work hard to ensure that that does’t happen to the Teaching Schools movement, and in particular its research strand.
How many of us have read about dynamic networks of teaching schools involving 30 or 40 schools, only to discover that although 40 schools may be signed up, only five or six are actually participating. This is something which bothers me in my own alliance where I spend a lot of time trying to ensure that everyone is participating. There have been opportunities to expand but it is easy to get into a situation where the alliance looks powerful because it involves so many schools but is actually fairly ineffectual because no one is really collaborating or participating.
So, there are a couple of learning points here:
1. TS expansion must be undertaken only when the capacity is there to ensure that everyone continues to participate fully in the alliance
2. The focus of R&D work must be on outcomes and not processes.
During the day I was able to chat with our ISOS partner about the progress of our cluster, plus meet a new colleague from Truro, but this was a result of not being able to get the cluster together beforehand. This underlines an issue that many schools in rural areas experience – the problem of distance. What works easily in urban areas where meetings in other schools can take place relatively easily often does’t work in rural areas, where meetings involve a huge amount of travel.
So, networking in rural areas, a focus on outcomes, and a dread of the king’s new clothes. The conference gave me things to think about, even if they were’t the things I expected.