The UKFEchat story: how a ‘blind date’ blossomed into a national conference

The founder of the social media movement explains how it evolved into a real-life community – which is now holding its second annual meeting

Sarah Simons

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A few years ago, UKFEchat’s first real-life gathering took place. Before that point, this group of people from colleges, work-based provisions and adult community education had established a strong network, but only on Twitter.

Consequently, the first face-to-face meeting was like a massive blind date. We sat round a table to decide what our growing community wanted to be while secretly comparing Twitter pictures to the real version. It seemed that only my picture had been taken in 1936 and from space.

On that day, we decided we wanted to grow our online network, write books together, meet sector leaders to discuss our further education perspective and hold an annual national conference. I was well up for all of those except one.

A big ask

Organising a conference is hard work. With no money, it relies entirely on the enormous generosity of a lot of people. That is before you even get to the point of explaining to a potential audience why on earth they should give up their Saturday to chat about work stuff. But my UKFEchat pals were insistent.

They said the sector needed a big event where people from all over the country could share their knowledge, and motivate each other to celebrate what we do. They said it should welcome every FE professional at every level and cost next to nothing to attend. I replied: "Let me look into it", while actually thinking: "Nah, mate. Too much bother."

On the train home, I reflected on the concept of community. Our real-life meet-up had lifted me. It felt like something important, something unique, was beginning – there was a palpable sense of possibility. The group was growing fast and, despite being its founder, if I didn’t build what the community wanted, then I had no business being part of it.

Reluctantly, I agreed to organise a national conference. But what I thought would be an uphill struggle was actually a life-affirming experience. I was moved by people’s kindness and enthusiasm. Education A-listers, who make a living by speaking at events, gave their time for free – even paying their own expenses – and brilliant practitioners did the same.

The night before the big day, a team of UKFEchat colleagues piled into my hotel room to stuff goody bags, go over schedules and allocate jobs. We all quietly repressed our huge excitement that we’d got this far.

Motivational ‘power-up’

So many friends old and new, and so many people who’d never been to a conference before, came to this one. The people there told me that, although it was a Saturday, they saw it as a time investment, a motivational "power-up" to see them through the year. In the months that followed, I had emails from people who’d attended saying that they were "still buzzing six weeks later", and that it was "one of the best days of my career".

A year on and it’s time for the sequel – the second UKFEchat conference will take place in London on Saturday 22 October, with TES as media partner. It’s been a joy to put together a fabulous line-up of sector leaders, well-known and well-loved education voices, as well as FE’s "local heroes" – amazing practitioners nominated by their colleagues. With five themes and more than 40 sessions, people can build their day to match their specific interests.

There are workshops, presentations, debates, live UKFEchat sessions, plus lots of opportunities to meet with friends and colleagues. Above all else, the conference will be useful, with good-practice ideas to use straightaway, big FE concepts to think about and a new network of colleagues from around the country.

Getting together as a community, sharing common goals and boosting optimism in these uncertain times for FE is vital. Everyone is welcome to join the conversation.

This is an edited article from the 23 September edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat

Find me on Twitter @MrsSarahSimons

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