It was a cold and dark Friday morning when I travelled 150 miles to Greater Manchester for #FEResearchMeet – but it was worth it.
Upon arriving, I could hear people enthusiastically welcoming others, trying to identify where they’d previously met and whether they followed each other on Twitter or seen each other since last year’s #FEResearchmeet. The buzz was tangible and the feeling collegiate.
For those not familiar with #FEResearchmeets, they are a free and democratic model for building and supporting engagement with research in further education, led by practitioners, for practitioners. This meet was led by Jo Fletcher-Saxon, a founding research-meeter who welcomed 75 practitioners from around the country (the furthest attendee coming from the Highlands of Scotland). Each of the participants attended for free, thanks to sponsorship of the event by the Society for Education and Training, although many of the previous events have been sponsored by the NEU teaching union in collaboration with hosting colleges.
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The event does have keynote speakers, as well as workshops and mini-meets, which allow FE practitioners to hear about the research done by others. Unlike other conferences, at a #FEResearchmeet workshop presenters only provide small outlines of the research that are shared prior to the event. Participants are asked to choose which workshop to attend by watching a two-minute presentation by each presenter shortly before the workshop itself starts.
I chose a great workshop on teaching maths through vocational skills, and our workshop leader spent about 25 minutes talking us through the project. Then, as a group, we spent the next 25 asking questions of him and each other about its application to our practice and how the work could be developed, and discussing how else approaches like this could be used in practice. The talk was organic: we all wanted to see more of the resources developed and know more about the approach. The encounters we’re dialogic: we sparked off our workshop leader and each other, united in the development of the ideas.
Research in FE
The mini meets, by contrast, were smaller drop-in sessions where you could share a conversation with a practitioner who has undertaken a smaller project, or who perhaps is new and doesn’t feel ready to run a workshop. These happened across the lunch hour and they were a great accompaniment to the general discussion in the room.
“Who did you see?” or “Which workshop have you been to?” seemed to be the order of the day from the conversations I heard. The general tone of the conversations was excited: people were keen to talk and explain. Over lunch, I had a great conversation with a participant who has been doing a lot of work on GCSE English and was finally invited to an exam board to talk to it about the particular challenges of the sector and the resits policy. The enthusiasm that this person showed about being given the opportunity to help make a change was boundless and inspiring.
Which makes me think, is this the allure of the #FEResearchmeet? Is this what gets people out of bed at 5am on a cold November morning and makes them drive for miles, or stand on windy platforms as trains get cancelled and lines get blocked? Is the allure that at the end of it all there is a space that allows us to feel we are contributing to and developing our practices, subjects, organisation or sector ourselves? Is it the exercise of agency? The feeling of talking to others who recognise your challenge and likewise want to address it? Perhaps it was being in a democratic space where all voices are equal and valued?
Developing our own practices
During the welcome, Jo spoke of creating joy and doing so through the conversations at the meet, which were joyful and forward-looking. No one pretended to work in a problem-free environment that didn’t present challenges, but the dialogues between people and workshops explored ways to address or overcome issues. The joy of changing ourselves, our organisations and our students’ lives was palpable. For a few hours in Manchester, Jo facilitated us to share our voices and participate in a joyful, worthwhile and useful endeavour.
I’ll let Jo herself have the final word on this: “In amidst the current popularity for conferences tagged with education research, it was so thrilling to see so many people come together who value and have a real appetite for spaces like this in further education. Spaces that are about what they have to say, what they think, the questions that they have. We can all offer more of that.”
Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE teacher of the year at the Tes FE Awards 2019