Hello and welcome back to Northern College for our third annual TeachDifferent conference. Every year has a different feel, but it’s always a celebration. This year, in the midst of celebration, it’s a call to arms.
Last year was euphoric; this year has been harder for us and for everyone we know. But we end the year still fighting, still present as ourselves, and still doing amazing, genuinely transformational work, with the support of a growing research base for social purpose education. And that’s important. Because the people who make the decisions which so affect our lives really don’t see education in the same way as we do. The onus is on us to prove what works.
That adult education cannot continue as it is, is clear to us all. The General Election has only underlined what we’ve known for a long time now, that education policy is decided by people – on left or right – who see FE as being for “other people’s children.” The days of Labour MPs emerging from union education programmes are long gone. I listen to them all, and I don’t hear anyone speaking the language of transformation. I don’t hear voices from community education, from rehab, from family learning, from radical ESOL, from learning support. Let me make this clear. Politically and financially, they have come for everyone who was on our side. No-one is going to speak up for us, except ourselves.
In some senses, this makes it easier. I had a feeling in September, whilst wrestling with an awarding body who seemed stuck in the past, that after last year’s highs, there was a fightback from the traditionalists. The language seemed to regress – in November we went down to a NIACE conference in Birmingham and were outraged to hear adult education referred to as ‘the skills SYSTEM’ (not even ‘sector’). Only ourselves – by which I mean the Community of Praxis, of which you’re all a part – and our friends the WEA seemed to keep hold of the plot…
…and then I fell in with the Dancing Princesses. Here, initially in the form of a book for ‘educators who haven’t got cynical’, were people collecting around a common cause – fighting back, finding spaces to dance in further, community, adult and trade union education. Practitioners, academics and policy big hitters together, organised and cajoled by a charismatic Pied Piper. Even before the book was published we started blogging and others heard the call. Now there’s a movement. We call it Tutor Voices, officially launched at The University of Huddersfield on International Workers’ Day, May 1st (and then, of course, everything stopped because half of us collapsed with exhaustion during marking season). That’s why we find it hard to write, research, protest and organise in FE – because the day job has grown out of all reason or control.
So this year has been about leadership, that sort of leadership from the grassroots that we’ve learned to call an anti-hero approach, the dance of the princesses who would not have their spaces to rave curtailed. When policy makers are not looking (when the day job is done), we spin our magic…Thinking Environments, creative projects, digital networking…all the things that make us excellent, we do when the day job is done. That’s our professional literacy. That’s what makes us outstanding, not the neatly filed paperwork, the sausage factory outputs.
Everything you experience here today, someone has sweated blood over, after they have finished their day job. By someone, I mean not just the teacher education team, but our students, graduates…our critical friends. As ever, this conference has been made possible by volunteers and I thank them.
We cannot turn back the clock. No government is going to significantly reinvest in adult education, within what remains of my working life, for sure. Yes, we can subvert what we’re funded to do, position it towards progressive alternatives, seek out the opportunities we can, to influence and campaign. I’ve not given up on that. But we also need to diversify. I don’t need to say, do I, that by this I don’t mean branching out into Saudi Arabia? I mean finding pathways as ethical providers, consultants and co-operatives, developing ‘fair trade education’ which is people focused and which shares funding responsibility with those who can afford it, in order to offer free opportunities for those who can’t. We need to reconfigure our relationships with employers, without automatically deferring to capitalism when it insists on the lowest common denominator, quality-wise. There are people in the room who will have heard me say this many times, but it’s when we chased the Train to Gain dragon here at Northern College that we began to lose our way. We were rubbish at that sort of work, because we didn’t believe in it. Like Marks and Spencer failing to emulate Primark, we need to look to our values, and do what we’re good at, even if that means a fight.
This has been the year of the Thinking Environment and if you want to hold on to one bright hope for world peace and transformation, surely this is it. I’ve been working less or more in a Thinking Environment for nearly twenty years and, finally, it’s starting to catch on. Our work this year on the Identities, Time to Talk and FAB projects – and of course on all of our teacher education courses – provides more evidence than you can shake a stick at that this is the way forward for the world. And it’s spreading; our Thinking Environment retreats later this summer are being attended by colleagues from across public, private and Third Sector organisations, many people who have never been to Northern College but who want to join in our Community of Praxis and think together, with purpose and grace. The Thinking Environment is proving to be the most effective vehicle we’ve found, to carry forward values based education and fulfil Northern College’s mission of transforming individuals and communities. It is transforming us, our work, our families…push on if we want to transform the world. You’ll hear echoes of the Thinking Environment throughout today, from opening rounds to Thinking Walks, to dialogue. The Thinking Differently workshop this morning provides a simple Thinking Environment strategy to strengthen personal resilience; sadly our colleague Lesley Whiting can’t be with us but I’ll do my best to do her session justice. There are also two Thinking Walks, led by Alison Longden.
Our focus on Identities this year followed last year’s thinking around Diversity and enabled us to at least partly fulfil our bold ambition to change the language we use around what the sector has mindlessly been calling ‘E+D’. In this, we’ve caught the zeitgeist; language is changing because there are pioneers out there who are forcing through that change. We’re honoured and delighted today to be joined by our great friend and comrade Laura ‘Mole’ Chapman, whose ‘Respectful Language’ books and blog gave us the confidence to believe we could actually do this. We also put ourselves out there to mix with people who know much more about identities, oppression and intersectionality than us. The #whitecurriculum campaign set our thinking alight this year. You will see all around you the creative products fired by this and other stimuli and this afternoon Kay Sidebottom’s workshop will help you explore how our learning can impact on the way you design inclusive and diverse curricula. And to whet your appetite after lunch for this work, I’ll be doing a dialogue with our Identities researcher, Jill Wilkens, who, with Alison, welcomed you to the Conference today.
If we ever lose humility to the point where we can’t learn from our mistakes, it’s time to resign. We messed up badly this year and a delegate at one of our CPD events was left feeling excluded. That might be the norm in other places, but it’s not something we expect to happen at Northern College. We’ve got a lot to learn. Steve Goodfellow, NIACE Hard of Hearing Ambassador, is running a workshop for us today called ‘deaf with a small ‘d”, in response to this gap in our learning. Steve is also running a series of webinars on the subject – watch out for notice of those on Twitter!
…which brings us to the ‘techy stuff’ and our freshest thinking this year about life after FELTAG. Over the last few years, we’ve got a reputation for being digital pioneers, bypassing the VLE and surfing freely available social media to build our Community of Praxis. Last year, I was telling you how much Ofsted loved our ‘do-it-yourself’ approach. One of the joys of this year is seeing it catch on across adult education; once ridiculed, then admired but not understood, now we are seen as pioneering something not only real but also transformational in its potential for students to be powerful and self-efficacious in their learning which, after all, is what we want, isn’t it? Students, tutors and everyone else, thinking for themselves. My workshop this afternoon presents the findings of our FAB Action Research Project, which used Thinking Environment interviews to understand a little more about why people resist. The results – and recommendations – are devastatingly simple. The challenge is broadcasting the message across the sector, that we are not getting it right for either teachers or students.
The digital future is upon us and those sharks that were circling the wreck of adult education a year ago are starting to attack. Every week I hear of another adult learning provider paying thousands (and more) to the big tech companies for ‘bespoke’ solutions, tying them into expensive maintenance contracts. Consider this. On Radio 4 last week, the Lord Chief Justice John Thomas confirmed that the ICT infrastructure in the Crown Prosecution Service is so outdated that the Government pays untold riches to Microsoft each year to keep it alive. Is that where you want your organisation to be in twenty years time? Or do you want to take control of your digital resilience pedagogy for yourself, making it a ‘people first’ initiative that you develop and adapt, riding the wave of Silicon Valley’s most brilliant minds: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft…all are courting you to keep their ethical reputations afloat. The skill you need in 2015 is the resilience to navigate all of that. Stop investing in buildings and hardware. Start investing in people.
Resilience is the theme of next year, not just for the Teacher Education team but for Northern College as a whole. Not just the digital and personal resiliences we’re considering today but also academic resilience, volunteer and leadership resilience
and the sort of policy resilience that keeps me afloat and optimistic with the passing of each year. But we won’t be leaving the themes of identity, oppression and diversity far behind. One of our first honours of the next academic year will be to welcome Darren Chetty to Northern College for the next in our interrupted series of #TDTalks. Darren, a former primary school teacher and researcher at the Institute of Education, uses hip-hop and picture books to explore issues of identity and racism with children. His ground-breaking work reminds us of how far we’ve got to go.
What will next year feel like? I’d love to think that it could be the year when adult education finds its voice. In September, we meet here at Northern College to thrash out the remit of Tutor Voices. We are determined to change education, get the best out of people, be present, professionally, as ourselves. Have a brilliant, celebratory day and enjoy the sunshine. But don’t forget that the battle is just suspended. This is a call to arms and we’d love you to join us.