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An SLF Rant


On my first proper visit to the Scottish Learning Festival in 2009 I happened to share a taxi with Henry Hepburn from the TESS. We’ve kept in touch over the years and he has kindly attended and reported on some of our Pedagoo events. He occasionally emails me if he’s looking for a comment on something, which he did for his recent piece on the Scottish Learning Festival. Sometimes I am canny enough to decline the opportunity to comment, realising that anything I say can end up in print, but I try when possible to do what I can for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I believe that classroom teachers should have more of a voice in these sorts of publications and so if I’m asked I feel that I should try and put my money where my mouth is and say what I think. Also, from a purely selfish perspective, I feel that it’s good for Pedagoo if I have a good working relationship with the TESS. And also, because Henry is a nice guy.

So, when Henry emailed me and asked me for my thoughts on SLF, I replied. I hadn’t got round to looking at the most recent issue of the TESS yet and so when I got the following tweet, I was keen to have a look to find out what I’d said!

Having read the piece (sorry I can’t link to it, the TESS seem to have stopped uploading their content in May unfortunately) I’m surprised to discover that a) I feature so prominently in it, and b) it reads as if I’m having an argument with Alan Armstrong! Which of course, I wasn’t.

And so, I thought I would upload the bulk of the actual email I sent to Henry here (below). I stand by most of what I said, although I probably would’ve toned it down a wee bit if I’d taken a bit more time before hitting send. I also think that perhaps I went a bit overboard on the keynotes, perhaps they are still more relevant and challenging than I’d given them credit for.

“I’m afraid if anyone asks me about SLF I have a tendency to rant on at them. I haven’t been back for a couple of years, but last time I went there were three things which struck me;

– It’s a shadow of it’s former self with far fewer attendees and much less of the SECC being used for it.
– Hardly any of the seminars are from practicing classroom teachers. They’re mainly either Education Scotland/Scottish Government, Local Authority personnel or non-practicing teachers from other bodies such Universities, British Council, Outward Bound, etc.
– The keynotes seem to have become heavily constrained by the centrally determined agenda. It no longer seems to be about who’s good, but who will be most ‘on message’.

I’ve had a quick scan through this year’s programme and it would appear that the lack of teacher-led seminars is still an issue (I have to admit though that this is partly my fault as I had to withdraw my one due to my ankle!).

I think perhaps one has to call into question the purpose of this event. For me, it seems to be much more about prestige/marketing and message delivery from the centre and not of any particularly direct relevance to learning in classrooms. If you stop and think about it, if the purpose was to enhance learning & teaching in classrooms you would design it in such a way that a) lots of teachers could attend and would want to attend, and b) lots of practicing classroom teachers would be made to feel confident enough to sign up to lead seminars. Holding it on a Wednesday/Thursday at a single, large and threatening, venue doesn’t make sense to me if these were the objectives.

What was surprising to me was the reaction we got when some teachers who are planning a local Pedagoo event in Perth suggested that we try to encourage others to run one on the same day: http://pedagoo.org/local/takeover Now these might not all come off, but that’s because these folk are not really getting any support and so a lot of them will probably struggle. The best I can offer is some help with their webpages etc. But imagine if these teachers had the support of an organisation of the scale of Education Scotland! The problem is, because of the very nature of Education Scotland, they’d struggle to cope with the lack of control of such an approach, but at the very least you’d think they could work with a network of local authorities to put together a series of local events across the country.”

I think the reason I get so passionate about SLF is that I think it could be really great. I really enjoyed my first couple of visits, but this was primarily due to the chance to catch up with folk and to attend TeachMeet SLF. I’ve always felt that the seminars were lacking in classroom practitioners, and I’ve long wished more efforts were made to encourage and support classroom teachers to attend and present. In my experience, most teachers in staff rooms don’t even consider trying to attend, let alone submit a seminar, which is a real shame for what should be a must-go-to event for teachers in Scotland.

I agree with Alan when he says that it doesn’t have to be either or. SLF could be fulfilling a role that TeachMeet/Twitter/Pedagoo never could. However, I still think that SLF has the potential to better support the development of learning and teaching in Scotland’s classrooms through better engaging with the teachers of Scotland. I hope the moves to improve teacher engagement described in the TESS article happen and have impact, but many of them I’ve heard rumours of for years, so I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime, if you agree with me, rather than waiting for SLF to change why don’t you join me in creating our own opportunities to learn from each other through Pedagoo.org.


  • Reply fearghal |

    Catriona commented on Twitter that surely folk from Uni’s are practicing educationalists also and have a place at SLF: https://twitter.com/catriona_o/status/645607084181049344

    I just wanted to clarify that I totally agree, of course. I don’t think that folk who aren’t currently in classrooms shouldn’t be leading seminars at SLF, of course they should. We need a broad and open community. I just think the ratio is not yet right. Given the number of teachers in Scotland compared to the number of Development Officers, Researchers, etc., teachers currently in classrooms should be represented in greater numbers than they currently are – but that’s not to say the others shouldn’t be there also!

    There’s two major barriers which I think are unique to teachers currently in classrooms. The first is logistical, getting out of class midweek is hard and getting harder. The second is cultural, putting yourself out there to share your practice at a national event isn’t yet common practice in schools, and so more could be done to encourage and support more to do so.

  • Reply Catriona |

    Thanks for this Fearghal – I really don’t want to sound pedantic about this but it’s important that we understand and acknowledge the wider community of educators engaged across our system, and the connections between them. it’s important to clarify this because there are so many people who pay attention to what you say!
    I agree wholeheartedly with you about the changing nature of SLF and its diminishing significance. For a number of years now it seems to be performing a sort of PR function – ensuring that the “right” messages are communicated and the importance of the role central agency is reinforced. I have lots of questions about this I won’t go into now but the obvious one is why hire an expensive venue to do this when there are so many other channels for communication, and why do it at all especially as the audience is so limited for the reasons you point out. So I guess we won’t be seeing each other there this year!! Hope to catch up with you elsewhere, and soon.

  • Reply Matt Robinson |

    I have only been twice to SLF, having had the luxury of not being in a classroom, and therefore able to go. It shrank noticeably from 2013 to 14, and I decided not to go this year. It does open a world of sharing and opportunity, and is not just for in classroom teachers as Catriona points out.

    The negatives for me are that it is an agenda of being on message / this years theme. The call for workshops and presentations excludes much.

    Also in 2014 I attended a presentation that was front and centre and introduced as ‘new and unique in Scotland, and the SLF’. We had to speak to the ES seconded presenters afterwards and point out that we know hundreds of schools in Scotland implementing this already, and it had been at SLF a good few times in previous years – and much as it was wonderful to see this practice being highlighted, it was somewhat disingenuous and ill-researched to suggest it was new or unique. It would have been so much better to hear from them how it was implemented, how practitioners are using it and the results they found. Again, this is part of the culture of short secondments and constantly moving education officer roles in authorities and ES – corporate amnesia sneaks in quickly!

    I also know (and I suspect a perennial problem) of who comes and shares their practice is an issue. I think many teachers are doing amazing work – yet are not credited for this or supported to realise that it is good, and could be shared. It is not in our culture to collaborate as teachers – I think teaching is often a lonely sport, behind a closed classroom door – and lip service is paid to true sharing and collaboration. What you do then get is the confident, the self-promoters and the paid officers with time to plan a perfect PowerPoint stepping forward. Somehow we need to create a culture that is less competitive, suited and booted, and becomes more conversational and collaborative.

    It was disappointing to be at an education show for two years, and only attend one workshop that was a truly interactive learning experience – rather than a presentation and speak (of which half were poorly presented in my view). I think the workshops should reflect good learning and training practice (As we do in the classroom daily) – a venue with no windows, no desks and all set up round a projector and screen is a barrier….

    I like the idea of the SLF, but the tone and approach need visiting again. How do we encourage our colleagues to share what they do, without feeling judged or out-done?
    I also think the dates need looking at – do we need a Scottish wide in-service day each year? Would regional events be more appropriate?
    The venue and culture of each workshop needs challenging – it is an education show, can we not put into practice what we and our colleagues do daily?

So, what do you think ?