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Landmark North of England Education Conference cancelled

It has traditionally been one of the most important events in the education calendar, with an illustrious history going back more than a century.

But today it emerged that the North of England Education Conference has been cancelled because of a lack of bookings.

Organisers of the 2015 event, which had been due to take place in Manchester between 14-16 January say it will instead be “developed into a virtual conference in the spring”.

However the event, which generations of education policymakers viewed as a key moment of the year, now appears to a thing of the past.

Its demise is partly a signifier of the huge changes in education that have taken place since 2010.

The conference had become a key event for the local authority education officials. But they have seen their resources and responsibilities cut back drastically as academisation has taken hold.

Former organisers said the conference had also been affected by a number of more specific decisions and had been struggling to attract the numbers that it used to for several years.

Fred Jarvis, a former general secretary for the NUT teaching union, has attended the conference since the 1950s and regrets its passing.

“It used to be the foremost education conference in the country,” he said. “On the whole, it brought all the partners from the various aspects of education together which doesn’t happen much these days anywhere else.

“I think it is a great pity because we probably need this sort of gathering now more than at any previous time given the fragmentation that is happening in the education service.”

The event was first held in 1903 in Manchester and has since moved all over the North of England, organised by local authorities on rotation, and more recently taking place in Wales, Northern Ireland and Nottingham. 

By 1924, it had become the event that education secretaries would use to set their agenda for the year ahead and it remained that way until the start of this century.

Ministers still nursing festive hangovers would venture north every year to address the local education authority chiefs who then held huge power over their schools in their areas. 

When Kenneth Clarke became education secretary in 1990 he reportedly remarked that he had been told it was the one event that he must not miss.

The Conservative duly used it to announce a change in role for local education authorities from “providers” to “enablers”. The conference was also used in 1987 by Kenneth Baker to announce his plan for a national curriculum and in 1999 by David Blunkett to unveil his policy of private companies being able to take over the running of local education authorities.

But by the time Michael Gove took over as education secretary in 2010, it was an event he was quite happy to miss, choosing to make major announcements elsewhere. No minister was due to appear in 2015.

John Fowler, policy manager for the Local Government Information Unit, said: “The trouble is that once you get out of the habit of organising these things, it is very hard to get them going again.

“It is sad but I can’t see it happening again.”

Insiders say that the event has been “tottering” for several years, with organisers sometimes having to resort to drafting in local teachers and officials to make up the numbers.

High booking fees, changes in the organisation structure and a decision to move the conference away from very early January, into the middle of the month, by which time staff are back at school, have been cited as other factors.

The conference has also had to cope with its traditional local authority delegates becoming “children’s services” rather than education staff. It was rebranded in 2010 as “NEEC2010 (formerly known as the North of England Education Conference)” to reflect that fact.

But the change apparently failed to reverse the decline.

Chris Waterman, a former member of the event’s national executive, said it had been hit by a “perfect storm” and agreed with Mr Jarvis that it is now needed more than ever.

“There has never been a more important time to hold government’s feet to the fire,” he said. “We need some benefactor to set up a trust to make sure the event continues and that the government is held properly accountable.”

John Edwards, director of education at Manchester City Council – organisers of the 2015 event – said: “It's regrettable that the conference event in January has had to be cancelled, but despite a high level of interest in the online marketing for the conference, this didn't result in enough bookings to make it viable.

“We're hoping that this isn't the end of the NEEC. The lack of interest may just be a reflection of different needs and spending powers of those it has traditionally attracted.

“We're now in discussion with partners to see if it might be possible to reinvent the NEEC – which is steeped in a tradition that goes back more than a hundred years – as an education conference fit for 21st-century educators.”

Related stories:

York – New moniker bids to capture the Zeitgeist – September 11, 2009

Best wishes to our friend in the North – January 3, 2003


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