When people ask us why we decided to organise #EducatingNorthants, a conference of teaching and learning in Northamptonshire, we quote Aristotle at them. "Horror vacui", we say with a faraway look in our eyes, "nature abhors a vacuum". What we really mean is that there was a void, so we filled it; and we did so without asking anyone first.
The void created by a failed local authority, a fragmented school landscape and successive years of underfunding, is a dangerous one. It starts to morph into a vortex of negativity, swirling and sucking you downwards into apathy and impotence. In real life, this manifests as teachers leaving the profession, perpetual bad press and a tangible sense of despair and drudgery. Bleak though this picture may be, it is the reality we accept if we do not take matters into our own hands.
Fed up with only hearing bad-news stories about our county’s education, a group of us decided to take control. We wanted to tell a different kind of story. We wanted to inject a shot of adrenaline into the CPD experiences of our teachers and counteract all that despair with something so optimistic that when anyone thought about Northamptonshire they would tingle with excitement.
We decided to put on a conference. Fired-up by our grandiose plans for a large-scale, game-changing event with all the leading names in education, we took to Twitter to see if there would be any interest. There certainly was; before we had confirmed a venue, asked anyone to speak or decided on mid-morning snacks, our event had been brought into being and was taking on a life of its own.
That was when we had a moment of mild panic and thought, from whom do we need to seek permission to do this? Then we had a rethink and realised, with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, that we don’t need to seek permission. In education, we seem to have a curious instinct for someone to tell us it’s OK and pat us on the head. By default, through habit or hubris, we want our ideas validated and our actions given the green light. It helps us to feel secure and relieves us of accountability.
'Support is permission'
Stepping outside of that security and realising that you are accountable fills you with trepidation, but it’s also wildly liberating. We got to work. In a matter of weeks, we had laid the foundations for an event for 600 educators, where local teachers and leaders could showcase their practice. We had confirmed a venue, got some of the greatest names in education booked as speakers and decided on pastries. That sense of tingly excitement we were after? We were feeling it.
And we weren’t the only ones. Northamptonshire heads got in touch to say they supported us and wanted to get involved. We received over 60 submissions from Northamptonshire teachers to present a session.
The support we received from local educators was the real permission we needed. It was a mandate. A mission. You see, we’re not a MAT, or the local authority, or a business, or any kind of official entity, so we don’t have an ulterior motive. There is no hidden agenda. No empire-building. No competition for students or funding.
What we realise now, with just under two months to go, is that void we are filling isn’t 600 people big. It’s black hole kind of big. The conference is not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s the catalyst for a new kind of conversation about our county – one that celebrates teaching and learning, that champions collaboration above and beyond school structures, and that places teacher professional learning at the heart of school improvement.
Regardless of where the country will be politically on 30 March, physically, 600 of us will be packed into the University of Northampton’s Waterside Campus engaging in the largest, most ambitious education event the county has ever seen.
Tes is media partner for Educating Northants