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The Scottish Learning Festival, Mel Ainscow and moving knowledge around

I have just returned from a visit to the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow. The Festival runs for two days, Wednesday and Thursday, and is one of the high profile events in the Scottish education calendar. I have attended a number of these events and, as with any such conferences and exhibitions, the experience can be mixed. Last year I was part of a team from The Scottish College for Educational Leadership (SCEL) that presented a seminar about SCEL and its inaugrial Fellowship programme. At that event we got the chance to meet with Alma Harris and Michelle Jones on the afternoon before  Alma presented the keynote address on the first day. At this year's event the main visiting keynote speaker was to be Professor Mel Ainscow from Manchester and again, with the help of SCEL, I was privileged to be able meet Mel, along with other Fellows and the latest cohort. Before I consider the main messages and insights shared by Mel during his presentation I would like to consider the event itself.

As far as Education Scotland is concerned this is the main professional event of the year. It's all hands on board for all their teams and they put a lot of effort in to getting a good mix of speakers and seminars covering a whole range of educational and curricular themes. There is also a large exhibitor area with stalls manned by suppliers, education organisations, local authorities, unions, parents and others. So for visitors to the Festival there is plenty to see, hear and experience over the two days. Of course, the chance to meet with colleagues from around Scotland and have those professional conversations and sharing experiences is a major high-light of events like this. Some of the most powerful conversation and insights occur over coffee or lunch as you get the chance to talk to colleagues from across different areas of Scotland, and even from outside of the country. To myself, and many others, the important 'voice' that is most absent from this event is that of the classroom teacher. It would seem a small number are able to attend, and present in some of the seminars, but the vast majority of school teachers in Scotland are doing what they are paid to do on a Wednesday and a Thursday, that is teach! I know you can never please everyone, but if the event was held on a Friday and a Saturday at least it would be possible for more teachers to attend on at least one of the days. It is all well and good senior leaders from schools, local authorities and organisation's seeing and sharing practice, but it is even more important that the practitioners in classrooms have the opportunity to see and hear what is going on elsewhere. Moving knowledge around the people that really matter? Another benefit might also be that more people would be able to stay on for the two days, rather than just one, as many of us also have to get back to our schools or substantive roles and struggle to justify two days away from these.

Now to Mel. The title of his presentation was 'Moving Knowledge Around: a strategy for improving the achievement of all pupils.' What he was sharing were some of the learning and insights gained from his leadership of the 'Manchester Challenge' which he was asked to head up following the successes of the 'London Challenge' which had been led by Tim Brighouse. The main message I took from Mel's keynote, and the conversations we had at SCEL the previous afternoon, was about the importance and the impact of collaboration to schools, education systems and their learners. This is a common theme for most of the world's leading educational thinkers and researchers, especially those engaged at national and international system level. Michael Fullan, Alma Harris, Andy Hargreaves, Helen Timperley, John Hattie, our own Chris Chapman and others all speak of the importance of reducing isolation and developing collaborative practices to improve schools and systems. Ainscow, like the others, is also passionate about delivering equity in our school systems. Across the UK we have systems that do little to address the fact that most children's life chances are still determined more by their parents education and wealth than any other factor. Indeed he feels that the systems have made this even more so instead of helping to reduce or eliminate the link. He talked about factors within schools, across schools and outside of schools that we needed to focus on to help reduce the gap in  achievement between the most advantaged and those least advantaged. Ainscow talks of developing an 'ecology of equity.' Some of his key messages included our need to recognise 'that school improvement is a social process that involves practitioners in learning from one another.' He still saw a role for local authorities to work with schools, acting as a buffer between the schools and national government. He suggested that most still needed to reframe their roles in order to provide more support and promote inter-school collaboration, 'they need to see their role as less one of command and control and more one that is more supportive.' He felt that 'improving schools, improve themselves' a view I have always held, and believe it is equally true of teacher improvement.  Improvement cannot be imposed from outwith but should from within. An outcome of the 'London Challenge' and the 'Manchester Challenge' was the recognition that when schools collaborated and worked together, there were benefits for all, even if one school was seen to be 'failing' and another was at the other end of this spectrum. A key outcome and strategy of the 'London Challenge' was that it was the expertise that already existed within the schools and systems which was used to identify and support the changes necessary. School to school partnerships, as well as in-school partnerships, became the vehicles to bring about the cultural and practice changes that were necessary to provide improvements for all learners, including the most disadvantaged. It was important to identify the strong aspects of practice within each school, and system, then build on these to improve, instead of focusing on the things they weren't doing so well and using these as the starting point. Start from the positives. He recognised that there were a whole host of other factors at play in both 'Challenges', but he felt the above were the main lessons learned that could help other schools and systems facing similar problems. Whilst he acknowledged his relative ignorance of the Scottish education system, what he did know and see led him to believe we were in a relatively good place. He also said that it was significant that other countries and systems, like the Welsh and some at the top of the PISArankings were  looking to emulate the direction of travel underway in Scotland. One hopes the Education Minister and our First Minister were listening to all he had to say, and not just the bits that fit their own agendas.

I left the festival with a mixture of feelings. Some of what the Festival, and SCEL, provided was of the highest quality and was thought provoking and challenging. There is much to learn from such events and any chance to collaborate, discuss and help 'move that knowledge around.' There are some aspects that need thinking about and changing. It was interesting to note that a number of practitioners had gone ahead and organised their own Teachmeet as a way of perhaps tapping into theZeitgeist of the event and create their own opportunities to share and collaborate. This was held in the centre of Glasgow and is something that has happened for a few years now. The proof of the pudding in any event is about its impact. Will it lead to any sustainable impact for learners in schools across the country? That is very much down to the individuals who attended and their actions and commitment when they return to their schools and organisations. If there is no impact, either in your practice or your thinking, either the conference has failed or you have. I would suggest it is too costly an event, in terms of money and time, for us to let it have no impact, and we would also be failing the thousands of practitioner who couldn't attend if we let that happen. 


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