A few weeks ago, I dropped in on a conference session about teacher wellbeing. Among the presenter’s sage tips for a better work-life balance was to be more protective over one’s free time.
How ironic – and a bit sad – that teachers had paid to hear this on a Saturday.
Checking Twitter (junkie that I am), I noticed that the conference’s hashtag was trending alongside the hashtags of two other edu-events happening elsewhere. It was evidence that a few hundred dedicated teachers across the country had, on that glorious summer Saturday, chosen seminar rooms and lecture theatres over barbecues and beer gardens.
A force for good
There’s much to admire about this level of commitment, but is it a sign that CPD for teachers is drifting from professional entitlement to niche pastime?
I’m a semi-regular presenter at education conferences. The grassroots movement of "teachers doing it for themselves" has, I think, been an overall force for good. It was set up to make CPD and sharing practice more accessible, affordable and profession-led, and I’ve been impressed with the number of teachers and school leaders willing to add events management to their job descriptions and hectic schedules. I suspect it makes a pleasant diversion from unpicking the latest government edict or finding new ways to sweat the school finances.
With the pace and pressures of school life squeezing opportunities for training and networking, these informal weekend get-togethers offer teachers access to the professional learning they desire, at a price they can afford. Speakers donate time for free and sponsors cover the cost of lunch, keeping ticket prices low. The bonus for schools is that the additional cost of supply, needed to release teachers from the classroom, is avoided.
The buzz at the events I’ve attended is invigorating. It's an effective tonic for any jaded teacher lost in the edu-noise and in need of reconnecting with their craft and professional purpose.
But that wellbeing session left me concerned that the popularity and proliferation of Saturday conferences risks normalising CPD as a weekend activity; an important and valued part of teachers’ professional lives, but not enough to be fully-funded and built into their working week.
My issue is not with Saturday conferences, but with what their existence and growing demand implies about how systemically we’ve come to value and provide CPD. We should be mindful of unintended consequences.
Firstly, there’s accessibility and awareness. Saturday conferences suit some teacher demographics better than others. For example, those without family or care commitments, or (like me) who have a supportive, tolerant partner who doesn’t mind you disappearing a few times each term to spend your weekend away from home, talking shop with strangers.
Twitter has been the birthplace of many of Saturday conferences, and because marketing budgets are modest, it’s also the main medium for promoting them and driving ticket sales. So, if you’re not on Twitter – and the majority of teachers aren’t – you may not even be aware these things are happening.
Secondly, and related to accessibility, is the training gap. From my own observations, Saturday conferences seem semi-dependent on a returning fan base. If conscientiousness is even a partial proxy for teaching competence, then the "knowledge and practice quality" gap between those attending these events and those who don’t, won’t or can’t, is likely to widen – especially as CPD budgets are under threat.
If Saturday conferences become a de facto alternative to "expensive" Inset, there’s a risk that the most motivated, most effective teachers will get better, leaving behind colleagues who are not only equally deserving of these opportunities, but in some cases, have a greater need to build their teaching knowledge and skills. A good CPD offer can be an effective retention strategy, but it won’t work if it is shunted into teachers’ leisure time.
Saturday conferences represent the best of the profession: the DIY ethic; the dedication to self-betterment and to improving outcomes. It’s the reason why I happily throw my lot in with teachers and spend the odd Saturday pitching into these vibrant events.
But it’s important that CPD, and the valuable networking and sharing opportunities it provides, is not allowed to become a self-funded, weekend-only, minority pursuit.
Rob Webster is a researcher at the Centre for Inclusive Education, UCL Institute of Education. He tweets @maximisingTAs