As the fresh school budget comes through, and your thoughts turn to the replenished CPD pot, you begin to wonder, “what conference shall I go to this year?” A quick Google search and a couple of signed forms later, you’re jotting the date into your diary, and fantasising about your day of freedom: no bottom set year nines last period, and no break duty. Just you and a hotel lobby full of fellow escapees.
And then that day comes. You get up at 4am to catch the bus to the nearest station, in order to get the train to the bright lights of [insert major British city here]. And in the event that your train is not delayed, you find yourself in your reserved seat by 6, warm pain au chocolat in hand and bags under your eyes as dark as your black, Pumpkin Café americano. This is, you realize, a bloody long way to go to be talked at, only to come all the way back six hours later with little more than a free pen and a splitting headache.
Conferences can be fun. I’ve listened to many inspirational people, and made a few acquaintances that have opened doors for me. But not all conference presentations are made equal. Some are woefully boring. And this is a risk you run when you go to a conference. Your initial interest was based entirely on the titles of the presentations, which later seem to provide little indication of how interesting or useful the talk was actually going to be. You may find yourself simply watching the clock, counting down to that free lunch.
Lunchtime arrives, and so begins the awkward procession around the buffet tables. You try not to touch elbows, and you avoid staring at the people in front of you loading their plates with flabby slices of ham, undressed iceberg, and coagulated coleslaw. Clutching your plate, you then face the next hurdle: where to sit. You came on your own, and so far have met no one. Other people seem to have come in groups, and are arranging themselves around circular tables for ten. You must either sit with a group, or near a group with a mutual agreement to avoid eye contact. If you opt for the former you risk becoming a sounding post to a conference junkie who spends the entire lunch break gleefully advertising his/her professional teaching prowess and bewailing the Tories. Once again, you watch the clock, this time counting down to the afternoon sessions.
The rest of the day slides by in a bromidic blur until you end up at the same railway station from whence this day began, waiting for your bus home. You aren’t sure whether you enjoyed yourself. You enjoyed the change, that’s for sure, but do you feel invigorated? No. Inspired? Not £300+ worth of inspired, no.
And for me, that’s the problem with these expensive, top-down conferences run by private or semi-private education companies: they’re too darn expensive for what you get. I recently ran a Teaching and Learning session on ‘Why everyone should start using Twitter as their CPD’ (see attached PPT), drawing heavily on the excellent article by Erin Miller recently published in The Guardian. In it, I promoted the fact that Twitter had laid down the gauntlet to these expensive conferences because:
- It provides a fantastic exchange of ideas in a never-ending stream;
- It levels the professional hierarchy experienced in schools, allowing you to have professional conversation with educationalists of all ranks and creeds;
- It keeps you up to date with all the latest education news;
- It keeps you motivated to be the best educator you can be;
- It’s entirely free and can be accessed whenever and wherever suits you.
At a time when everyone is worried about the financial squeeze on schools, it seems fair for finance departments to call time on these expensive rackets. With travel and transport costing well into the hundreds, we must acknowledge that these conferences have been draining school funds with little demonstrable impact. Alternative gatherings are increasingly taking centre-stage that are using Twitter as their promotional medium; grass root conferences and ‘Teach Meets’ are being organised all across the country by the likes of ResearchEd, WomensEd, and entrepreneurial individuals. And because the presentation programmes are often brilliant and the prices are low, they are attracting great numbers. This is hitting the costly conferences, which are increasingly being cancelled due to poor registration figures.
When it comes to students, we all agree that education should be for everyone. So too should this be the case for the educators. For CPD to be truly accessible for all, it needs to be free or reasonably-priced so that we can develop our professional capabilities whenever the need arises. We are fortunate that Twitter and/or through these grass root meetings are making this possible, and that expensive conferences are finally being kept in check. So long, and thanks for all the ‘free’ stationery!