In defence of ResearchEd

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.


9 thoughts on “In defence of ResearchEd

  1. Thanks Debra, enjoyed that. If I get time (big weekend đŸ™‚ ) I will try to respond in full. You make some excellent points and some very kind things too, which I genuinely appreciate.

    I just wanted to very quickly mention two things that I’d take issue with:

    The DfE didn’t start this. I had written Teacher Proof long before the DfE got into this. I’d been blogging about bad research for years prior to that. It was a chance conversation with Ben and Sam Freedman online that led me to doing this. I was a teacher until last September. Alex and Helene still are, full time. Loads of the helpers are, and each conference every school donates time and staff to make it happen. We crowd sourced the logo, the name from teachers. We have no staff and almost only ever use teachers. We platform hundreds of front line teachers, which for a research conference is pretty unusual. We have no secret backers or government assistance. They have contributed speakers occasionally, and we’re lucky to get a minister/ ex-minister or so from time to time (Estelle Morris and Nikki Morgan included) but that is where the government backing ends- and every year we ask for Labour representation. Years ago when I started this I asked them for help and they wished me well but post blank said no to funding (which was fair enough, we had no track record or anything).

    So it’s as grass roots as it gets. Around 80% of the attendees work in schools, and it very much feels like a teacher movement to me. In fact I’m not sure how it could be even more of a teacher led movement! ‘They needed someone to take it on, so Tom took it on’ is utterly fictional. No one approached me or suggested this. And it happened because teachers (myself included) wanted it to happen. I know it’s tempting to see two dots and attempt to join them, but that way lies conspiracy and madness. I think some people find it hard to believe but it just is genuinely very popular with a certain segment of teachers and educators.

    Saying ‘to some he was the useful idiot’ sounds like it’s being reasonable and balanced but it’s kind of insulting to just repeat an insult. Similarly ‘For others, he was a clever opportunist, seizing upon what could be a way of making money/gaining influence’ is true, if you mean ‘incredibly crazy people who wear tinfoil hats.’ That’s just repeating the smear. I’ve worked like a dog on this because I love it. If I was in it for the money I would have packed it in after the first year, and since it began I subsidised it with my own income to help keep it going. It really hurts when people seem to see this as some kind of cunning five year plan to dominate the world and get rich when for the past four years I’ve been unable to ascertain if I could pay my mortgage after the next six months. The people who say that are just being vicious because they have little else to say and need to invent stuff. I’ve never gotten used to it, but people tell me I have to. I try not to respond to most of it, but when I see it casually repeated here by someone who is respected in education as you are, I feel I need to respond.

    Anyway, I have to go plan my neocon brainwashing conference in order to earn enough bitcoins to build my underground volcanic lair.

    Like I say it get a chance I’ll get back to this and address some of your other points. I believe there is room for every type of conference in education. I love what you’ve built with Northern Rocks and what WomenED and Pedagoo and so on do, because I believe in the teacher-led professional movement. We don’t all have to have the same specific aims as long as we all aspire to the improvement of teaching and children’s lives. researchED really gets battered by its critics and while some of it is really useful and I try to use it to improve every year, a lot of it is really vicious. I’m not sure why- I certainly never attack other conferences. We’re not even the biggest! But we are where we are.

    But sincerely, thanks for writing this. I hope to see you at a future one.

    Best wishes to you and have a lovely weekend with your Mum


    1. Thanks Tom – I really appreciate the lengthy reply when you must be overwhelmed with organisational stuff. I meant Sam in terms of the role he played at the DfE as Michael Gove’s adviser and I can see how you were an obvious choice for him and Ben given that you had such a high profile and, as you say, had written Teacher Proof. Please don’t think that I share the view that you are a useful idiot, clever opportunist or indeed a hero đŸ™‚ I’m merely pointing out that people see you differently, most don’t know you (or I who am equally, depending on the point of view, a troll or a champion at the same time) and that at the end of the day, it’s largely unhelpful. I also really don’t see anything wrong, by the way, in making a living. But most of all, what I wanted to say is ResearchEd is here and carries huge potential and you’re right – it’s great that 80% of delegates are teachers. I’ve been a bit uncomfortable with the polarised nature of attack. I’m sure I’m not blameless on that score either. I’m also very conscious of the hard work that Alex, Helene and the team put into it and it must be hurtful to them too. Anyway, best of luck with the weekend. I hope all goes well and I promise I’ll be there at a future one.

      1. Just for the record I’d left DfE when the conversation with Tom and Ben happened and I had no conversations with anyone there about it before or after. Ben and I were chatting about the need for a conference and I genuinely just thought of Tom in the moment because of his high profile amongst teachers and interest in the topic. I was kind of joking too. I didn’t think he’d actually be mad enough to do it…

      2. Of course, though it would be naive to believe
        that you no longer had contact with the department- I distinctly remember Dominic Cummings telling me at Northern Rocks in 2014 that ResearchEd was “exactly what Michael wanted ” and I can be not speculate that he saw it as a way of further undermining universities. Pure speculation though. Fact is, ResearchEd is still here and Michael Gove isn’t and I think we need to move on to what it can be.

      3. Of course. Though of course it would be naive of anyone to assume you no longer had any connection contact there. I do distinctly remember Dominic Cummings telling me at Northern Rocks that ResearchEd was “exactly what Michael wanted to happen” – presumably (and this is my own reading) because he saw it as a way of further undermining universities. Whatever the truth of it all, what matters now is that it does have potential to be a really important movement for teachers.

  2. Just wondering about the comment about academics presenting their papers to other academics implying that no one else would be interested. I can imagine this happening in a field such as theoretical astrophysics where there is almost no one outside academia spending time on it except perhaps super computer manufacturers. But in fields such as medicine, engineering or education are there really conferences where the audience is almost entirely academia?

  3. Great to see this important conversation happening so constructively and openly here, beyond the limitations of 160 characters and blocked Twitter accounts but a shame to see the odd hyopcracy and opportunities still taken to swipe at other people’s best efforts, deeply held beliefs and misunderstandings.

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