(click above for more images)
This week I attended my fourth Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) in a row. Within that time I’ve had three different jobs in various areas of education: schools, further/higher education, and now… well lifelong learning, I suppose. Those different lenses have been coupled with a change in the landscape on many levels. Not least, during that time the constituent parts of Scottish education have come under the roof of Education Scotland.
As is the case in England, it’s increasingly difficult for Scottish teachers to get out of school for external CPD such as conferences. By the numbers I saw at SLF 2012 it would appear that the majority of those fortunate enough to find someone to cover their lessons for the first day of the festival weren’t able to for the second. That’s a shame; getting out of the stream is important to reflect on your professional practice.
I have great respect for the Scottish education system. Whilst I can’t comment on the subtleties and nuance of how it plays out on an everyday basis, as someone who lives around 50 miles south of the border the post-SLF temptation to move from England to Scotland is always immense. Politics and disconnects are evident – of course there are – but at least Education Scotland employees come across as wanting feedback and (on the whole) seem to see teachers as a force for good. I wish the same could be said of their English cousins.
That being said, as I write this on the train back home from Glasgow, I perhaps came away from SLF slightly less inspired than in previous years. That may be because I have less of a defined role within formal education. It may also be because I attend many more conferences and events than I used to. But I’ve also a nagging feeling that this year demonstrated less of an emphasis on what made Scottish education distinctive and different: evidence of grassroots innovation.
The funny thing about innovation is that you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to come from. And whilst it might appear on paper that getting enough good people at the centre means innovation can be delivered, that certainly hasn’t been my experience. Innovation comes from the edges, from the margins, from unexpected places. To allow grassroots innovation to flourish those people with power and authority have to let go of the reins a little bit. And that’s a difficult thing to do in times of economic uncertainty and reorganisation.
The edges are still there at SLF if you look hard enough. TeachMeet SLF, for example, has been recognised over the past few years as a place where grassroots innovation flourishes. This year it enjoyed a huge (almost officially-sanctioned) increase in status by being by being hosted at the headquarters of the SQA. It’s a delicate balance: in the current economic climate such events need sponsors and support to even exist – but by doing so they risk morphing into something else. Thankfully, I think David Noble and the rest of the organisers did a good job at making sure this TeachMeet stayed on the right side of that equation.
I’ve scheduled a post on my main blog for tomorrow riffing off Seth Godin’s insight that when we talk to other people they want to put our ideas into categories. I think there’s a warning here for staff at Education Scotland and, indeed, for all of us. Sometimes we need to sit back and listen - really listen – to what’s happening. We need to hold off putting people and ideas into our pre-defined categories. At the same time, we need to make sure that we’re listening to everyone who’s involved and has an interest (all of the ‘stakeholders’) in national education systems.
I’m really looking forward to SLF 2013. I hope that attendance by those in the classroom will be back up to the levels of previous years, and that there’ll be a return to focusing upon grassroots innovation by those at the edges.
Long live SLF.