The Festival of Education list of speakers is out
The initial list of speakers proposed for the Festival of Education 2016 is out. There are some great names there and I’m really excited to be going again this year, as I have every year since it started. As I scrolled down the faces, it really stood out how many of them were white and male (not to mention that five of them are called Andrew/Andy!) I pointed out this white and male bias on Twitter and was met with the inevitable flurry of likes and retweets and a couple of push backs.
The main thrust of the small amount of resistance I received to my pointing out that there is an imbalance seemed to be that this was a self-selecting group. To become a speaker there relied in part on people putting themselves forward. 300 people did, and none of them were turned away. I think I understood my Twitter colleagues as saying that if people don’t put themselves forward that aren’t predominantly white and male, then they are just making the balance the way it is. It was hard to explain myself in little 140 character snippets so I want to set out what I feel needs to be said here.
Who should speak?
As a teacher in the classroom and later in my professional life as a leader running meetings, I was always aware that everyone in a group should have a voice. It’s easy to get this wrong and through good intentions to crush those that are naturally outspoken and enthusiastic and swoop down and ask someone what they think while they quietly die inside from having all eyes on them. But we do have a responsibility to make sure every voice is heard and to find a way that works for everyone to have those voices included in the debate.
These days I often take part in meetings and discussions in my day to day life. I know that I have no problem speaking up most of the time. In fact, I know that I have a duty to be very attentive to how much of the group’s time is taken up by my own voice. It was a breath of fresh air to be in a management meeting recently where we discussed exactly this and decided how we would ensure that everyone has space, time and the awareness of their colleagues to help get this balance right so we can make good decisions together. It can make people who are outspoken feel just as anxious as those who are not, if the balance isn’t right. No-one wants to feel they are contributing too much or too little. The best environments are where everyone takes equal responsibility to get the balance right and it is recognised that there are certain inbuilt imbalances that need to be watched for carefully and which can change depending on the issue at hand. If we want to get this right, we have to hunt out these imbalances and actively address them. If you are serious, you will whether that’s in a small meeting or you are scanning the proposed list of speakers for a major event.
The problem with self-selection
Self-selection on the face of it seems like a wonderfully fair and open way to organise an event. It clearly invites people who think they have something of worth to say, to have a platform to say it. You might ask what the problem is. You are guaranteed to get some really enthusiastic, responsible people coming forward who will consider carefully what they are going to say, how and why – lest they make fools of themselves in front of everyone who is anyone in education – because everyone who is anyone tends to rock up to the Festival of Education. (If you haven’t been, imagine an extremely civilised education equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival – without the mud, the terrifying toilets, the noise, the drugs etc).
To my mind, while this self-selection is a good way to get some initial ideas for willing presenters, if it was the only way of selecting speakers, it would be lazy and the same as standing in front of a class and saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. I must point out that because this shout out for speakers by the Festival of Education was done on Twitter, it is like standing in the furthest corner of the classroom whispering or texting a couple of people saying, “if you know the answer, shout now”. Most educationalists are not on Twitter. Hard as it is to comprehend this fact, I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. And many educationalists that are on Twitter and who blog have ample platform to say what they think.
I know this isn’t the only way that the Festival of Education organisers are looking for speakers, so this is not an attack or an accusation. So again, if you are serious, you need to go hunting using a wider method than shouting out on social media.
Event organisation and programme management is a serious business
I have quite a bit of experience of event organisation. This is from all angles as a delegate, an exhibitor/sponsor and as an organiser thinking through balanced programmes for events. It’s not easy. You need to do a lot of research and talking to people to find the right speakers and to get the right balance that reflects the sector you are operating in and the issues you know for a fact need to be covered. You need to include known names and people that will pull in an audience in the first place or no one will come, but you also have a unique opportunity to bring in some people that are perhaps lesser-known and have much to say that could be of benefit to the community you know will be present at your event. And you will need to work hard to find these people, to describe what they are going to say and why others need to hear it.
It can be even more difficult to get speakers that are actually good at speaking publicly. Some people have great experience and probably much to say, but they aren’t great at speaking. And others can be very entertaining or very well known, but don’t really have anything new, interesting or relevant to say any more. There were some grumbles last year at the Festival of Education that one extremely well-known education speaker was flown in at vast expense and was frankly a bit ‘meh’.
I went to two events on social mobility recently – one had a panel of young white, entrepreneurial, middle class, mainly men who spoke of their experience of trying to create a more socially mobile environment for students through the various charities and social enterprises they had set up. They were really enthusiastic, obviously wanted to make a change for the better and were consciously able to use their place of privilege in society to do so. But I felt a bit like they had a very them-and-us view of the world and that they ticked off a great list of boxes, almost saying, “it’s okay guys, we’ve got this”. I wanted more enquiry, more challenge. The other event I attended had a panel that was well-balanced with regards age, social class, race, experience, and included people from education, business, social care and other sectors. It also included people young and older people who felt they had been able to be socially mobile and those that felt they had not. I felt truly stimulated and that I had learned a lot from the second panel. My eyes were opened and I was left feeling uplifted but also thinking about some really uncomfortable truths about my own society and my place in it in relation to others. That, for me, is a good balanced panel and a good experience.
After finding this balance, a good event organiser must almost choreograph the dance of themes, issues, ideas, take-aways and calls for action that will take place on the stage in front of participants. Furthermore, a good event often needs to be both accessible to anyone with a passing interest and simultaneously stimulating to people who have been living and breathing the issues for years. If you are serious, you need then to both go hunting and to choreograph what you bring into the mix.
Social responsibility and amazing opportunity
There are so many situations where we have a social responsibility to be self-aware and aware of the context within which we are operating. I mentioned it earlier, in some situations I speak loudly and often. Therefore, I need to be aware of those that don’t and listen out for them. I need to know when I can speak up for others and I need to know when to shut up. As a parent governor for example, I had to perform the excruciatingly difficult balancing act of being a representative from the parent body but not a representative of the parent body. I had to look out for the interests of all children and that included my children but my frame of reference should never be through my children but rather all children belonging to the school community.
I often tie myself in knots with these kinds of levels of awareness. I feel the same awareness about my class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, my age and more. I don’t always get it right. In fact, a lot of the time, I feel that we are all trampling about stepping on each other just by virtue of our attempts to not do precisely that. And so I feel that the organisers of the Festival of Education are going to face the same difficult task of making way for the many voices, issues, interests and debates that need to be heard. And they have a social responsibility and an amazing opportunity to make this as balanced, fair, interesting, challenging and inclusive as possible. To the organisers I say, you made a good start with the initial self-selection but I know you are serious, so happy hunting!