As the weekend approaches and with it, the National ResearchEd conference: as the Summer recedes and with it the holiday controversy surrounding genes/race/IQ/ResearchEd/etc, there is understandably a lot of debate about what the organisation stands for, its standards of selection/quality/representation/bias and so on. For some reason, ResearchEd seems to have been positioned as the ‘trad’ conference just as much as Northern Rocks has been positioned as the ‘prog’ conference. That’s, of course, largely down to the figureheads of both and there’s a danger in this. As the belief takes hold, it becomes harder and harder to counteract it. Speakers who may stand in opposition to your position turn you down. This has happened many times for Northern Rocks and I’m sure the same is true of ResearchEd. Those who identify with your position, beg to speak. So while there’s an inevitability that an event will take on, to some extent the characteristics of its organisers, much of this comes from the self selection of its speakers and delegates. And while it’s the responsibility of those organisers to try to counter balance that in some way, people attending those events, or being invited to speak at them, also bear a responsibility to take part with an open mind. At the end of the day, whichever ‘side’ you perceive yourself to be on, organising a large scale teaching and learning event is no small task. You pour your heart and soul into it. And criticism hurts.
It hurt when Northern Rocks was accused of having more male speakers than women. But it was fair criticism. So we put it right. It hurt when someone pointed out that there was little BAME representation. So we put it right. There’s hardly a year where someone doesn’t point out something we missed/forgot/overlooked. You take note and try to put it right.
I think it’s probably no secret that Tom Bennett and I stand divided on several important issues. We disagree on much. But you can’t deny he’s done a sterling job in promoting the brand of ResearchEd, getting it out there and getting people talking about it. I understand what it’s like when you start something off. You turn to the people you know for help. The people you trust. And that turn can bring with it an appearance of partisan selection; of creating something for your tribe. To an extent this has happened with ResearchEd. But I also know that there have been attempts at balance – I’ve spoken at two of them and although I have to say I didn’t really feel comfortable at either, my presence, token or not, was at least a presence. I look at this year’s programme and I see the names that cause people concern in terms of ideological preference. But I also see James Mannion, David Weston, Becky Allen, Vivienne Porritt, Jude Enright – people whose professional integrity and balance I have always found encouraging. And I expect there are more among the many names I don’t know.
I also see that Dylan Wiliam, Alex Quigley and Becky Allen are on the director’s board and I greatly respect their work in the fields of both educational research and in Alex’s case, in making sense of that as a teacher on the ground. I believe that they will bring a strong and balanced steer to the brand. I’ve openly questioned the right of ResearchEd to claim to be a grassroots movement when the idea came from Sam Freedman, former adviser to Michael Gove at the DfE and Ben Goldacre (who was commissioned by the DfE to look into the role of research in education and who promoted the very medicalised model that ResearchEd has become associated with). That undermines greatly its claim to have started as a grassroots movement, but it might not matter. They needed someone to take it on and Tom took it on. From some points of view, he was the useful idiot used to promote a government idea. For others, he was a clever opportunist, seizing upon what could be a way of making money/gaining influence. For many more, he’s a champion of teachers to take ownership of their own CPD – a hero. There’s a chance he’s all of them at once. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it’s here. It’s an opportunity. And it’s there for teachers to make of it what they will. And in that sense, it has the potential to become a grassroots movement. It’s now bigger than one man.
And that’s why the debate is important. Why questions can’t be seen (painful as they may be) to be threats. If this, whatever it started as, becomes a vehicle through which teachers take ownership of their understanding of research; in which they become more critical and literate consumers of research; in which they learn that research encompasses a broad range of beliefs and methods; in which they understand that science and scientism are different…then it can only be a good thing. And it’s why I think the discussion matters, but also so does a little patience. ResearchEd purports to be about ‘what works’. To some extent, it has in its early days, been more about giving people with a cross to bear, somewhere to plant it and bleed. But it can move on from this. It’s not pretending to be BERA – it’s not a forum for academics to present their papers to each other. But it should be a forum for academics and teachers to come together to make sense of each other’s work and experience. There’s no harm in a teacher standing up, sharing some research that has impacted on their practice and discussing this with colleagues. How much better would that be if the writer of the original research were there to discuss that too?
ResearchEd will move beyond ideological ties only if and when it is embraced by the whole teaching community in a way that is both critical and hopeful. Not critical and nihilistic or hopeful and idealistic. It needs to reach out and we need to open up. I can’t go this year – I’m on a girl’s weekend with my Mum and I don’t think it would be her cup of tea. But I’m making a pledge to go again soon. To open my mind as much as my mouth if for no other reason than I know what goes into organising these events. And it’s not easy.