Whether it’s one-day CPD events – those six hours each year when “project-based” or interdisciplinary learning suddenly becomes vital, or the flurry of excitement around the teacher, school or stapler of the year award, educators are well-used to the apparently life-and-career-changing brilliance of big, set-piece educational events.
Scotland is no different and offers an especially instructive and suitably high-profile example. Every year, in the cavernous chambers of the largest conference venue in the country, the Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) comes to town.
The SLF, and its associated exhibition, have declared themselves “the pivotal events in the education calendar”. According to the organisations, they are “inspiring better teaching and learning and helping to create a confident teaching profession for the 21st century”.
Over two full days, thousands come along to the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow to hear from keynote speakers, attend seminars and peruse dozens of exhibitors' stands. The education secretary is in attendance to talk about the success of whatever the latest initiative has been, paint the brightest possible picture of the Scottish educational landscape, and even answer a question or two; academics and experts from a range of backgrounds share their insights into this or that aspect of professional practice and pedagogical development; and a wide array of official, charitable and – of course – commercial organisations compete for attention, kudos and cash.
This year's delegates – as those in attendance are officially known – were able to learn about approaches to tackling inequality within Gaelic-medium education, consider the ways in which the cost of the school day could impact upon young people’s experiences and discuss ways of empowering children, parents and communities. They could even join a session with renowned experts from the Scottish government's International Council of Education Advisers. And, as always, there was an endless supply of free stuff, from pens to study guides to lapel badges encouraging passers-by to “ask me what I’m reading”.
It all sounds great and, as far as the organisers are concerned, is a resounding success each and every year. But scratch below the glossy surface and there's a fairly fundamental problem. The SLF is supposed to be about supporting the continued development of a top-quality education system, but at the heart of that mission is – or should be – something conspicuously absent from the festival: teachers. Tweet about your attendance at the SLF and you can be pretty sure that replies from actual teachers will largely be pointing out that.
The reason for this is a simple matter of timing: the festival being held in the middle of the school week (although weekend conferences also pose problems). Even in a perfectly functional education system such a decision would limit teachers’ ability to participate – in Scotland, where teacher shortages have caused acute problems in recent years and where, in some areas, supply staff are virtually non-existent, it is a huge barrier. The result is that the SLF seems to be dominated by education’s academic and, above all, managerial classes – but a far superior alternative is entirely possible.
Instead of holding the event over two school days, why not focus the considerable resources that are clearly at our disposal on organising an event not just about teachers, but also for them. Rather than gathering up a horde of consultants and salespeople, why not tap into the incredible pool of expertise, talent and creativity that exists within the nation's community of educators?
Organisations such as Pedagoo have already shown what can be done with next to no budget and minimal – if any – official support; imagine what it would look like if those holding the government purse strings were able to match their ambition?
James McEnaney is a journalist, FE lecturer and former schoolteacher in Scotland