ResearchED national conference 2014: We're going to need a bigger boat
Did that just happen?
Last week, the second researchED national conference rolled into town. Last year it was an unexpectedly large newborn; this year, an enormous toddler. Raine's Foundation School in London's East End bulged at the walls, but held beautifully. With over 60 speakers and groups, ranging from Olympian academics like Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and Dorothy Bishop, policy brainiacs like Sam Freedman, heroes of edu-ink like Ann Mroz and a pantheon of teacher bloggers and educational voices like John Tomsett and Alex Quigley, it was an educational pick-and-mix, without the risk of finding a dolly mixture that someone had chewed and put back.
In many ways, I'm the least authoritative commentator about researchED 2014. I saw nothing. I heard no speaker. My day was spent stuffing bags, coordinating toilet rolls and hiding T-shirts from David James. If you want to find out why Dylan Wiliam thought that teaching would never be a research-based profession, go ask Joe Kirby or HeyMissSmith or David Didau. If you want to distill the wisdom of Amanda Spielman on assessments, or find out why Natalia Kucirkova thinks we should be wary of adopting iPads en masse, there are sources far finer to explore. My day was counting apple crumbles with a door clicker, and delivering pizzas for Rob Coe and Hibernian show-pony Carl Hendrick, navigating the air conditioning and conducting gangs of sixth formers into chorus lines.
It will come as a surprise to few of you that I used to work in hospitality – I scarcely mention it – and years in that theatre paid off on Saturday. Now I know why I spent all that time shaking Cosmopolitans and unblocking toilets: the universe was pointing me to this.
It's taken a few days of distance to get some perspective. ResearchED 2014 was an astonishing day, despite, rather than because of, me. Since researchEd began, I always felt that I was spearheading a natural phenomenon, rather than instigating it; I'm more midwife than architect. It was, as these things always are, greater than the sum of its parts. And its parts were rare and wonderful enough – a round table of talent and wisdom volunteered their experience and knowledge in a surge of almost perfectly pro-bono sentiment. Dozens of people volunteered to help; grown-ups with real jobs, academics, teachers and a small army of my ex-pupils ( they were easier to boss around, I'll confess). Raines Foundation School, the host venue, was my home school for the last decade before I left in July, so it was a moving and fitting swansong to hold the biggest event in the researchEd calendar there.
And it was big. Nearly 750 souls swam in the belly of the whale, and 300 more hovered in the Phantom Zone of an online waiting list, gnashing ghostly teeth in disappointment. We could have comfortably filled The Ideal Homes Exhibition. That's amazing to see, but I feel the responsibility very keenly – for their safety, for their comfort, for their betterment. Reader, if you want an appetite suppressant, I advise you to eschew cocaine: instead why not try riding the back of a conference for as long as you can before the bull flips you? That and a six pack of Diet Coke (other carbonated beverages are available...) will be sufficient to fuel you for a fortnight.
It was one of the most satisfying days of my life and career. Time spent practising the art of fifty-second conversations, two at once. Helene O'Shea, the most organised, meticulous lieutenant anyone could wish for, was the rock upon which I built my wobbly church. If we could clone her and send an army of her doubles into the civil service, we'd solve war and poverty before lunchtime.
What a day. By design, I made sure that there was too much to see. I wanted attendees to feel spoiled, swamped even, for choice. There were no bum notes, no advert breaks. Take a breath and you missed another miracle. Fortunately we've managed to film the majority of speakers and their talks will be posted online before long. In fact, that's primarily how I'll know what was actually said.
- Being reminded by Helene O'Shea that the Lunchtime of Champions, a networking event to launch the Research Lead Network, had no lunch arranged. Thank you, Dame Pizza Hut, for being so indiscriminately open, and thank you, too, to those in the kitchens at Raines, who slaved like the canteen in Valhalla to feed 600 when we'd prepped for 400.
- Watching the Research Lead Network meeting break out into a pizza and juice standing lunch and,as a result, seeing the First Eleven of educational research sooking away on wee cartons of orange through a straw.
- Meeting my educational heroes.
- Watching the helpers work together in an autonomous, self-directed symphony. My heart attack has been delayed by another five years, thank you.
- Seeing how many people stayed right to the end. Right. To. The. End.
- The pub after the event. For years it's been the end-of-day haunt of weary teachers at my old school, and to see it jam packed with TES editors, Martin Robinson, Old Andrew, David Didau, etc, was surreal and wonderful. It's like going back to your mum and dad's house and finding out that Tom Cruise has popped in for sandwiches.
- My sofa at home, with a bottle of champagne and a sympathetic family, reading the feedback online.
- Finding out we were a national trend all day on Twitter, reaching number 3.
- Gasping as I realised that people had already blogged about it, before remembering that that was what I normally did.
- Everything else.
ResearchED is a bit of a phenomenon right now. It's like someone lit a rocket, and all I've done is make sure that the fuse stays dry. The fuel, the energy, comes from everyone who takes part in it, and everything they do. What a spectacular reminder, if we ever needed it, that almost everyone in education really cares about the life chances of children, their profession, and the common good. It was like Inset without the weltschmertz; CPD without sugar paper and ennui. For me, it was the best of times.
So, where now? Check out www.workingoutwhatworks.com to find out about more researchED events and projects, including the Research Lead Network (RLN), online training, collaborations with the EEF on a huge RCT, one-off events focused on policy, researchED New York, researchED Sydney, Belfast, Glasgow and many more...