Primary rocks – a personal reflection @primaryrocks

On  Saturday 19th March, I attended the Primary Rocks Live event that provided keynote speakers, a panel debate and workshops drawn from the best primary bloggers on social media. For me, the event was an important sign that someone had seen the need for primary education to have a distinctive identity in a social media world dominated by secondary school issues.  That someone was actually a group of people who created first a weekly forum and now a conference. Twitter has many faults but it has allowed teachers from across the country to connect at a time when schools are increasingly insular in response to a succession of policies that fail to recognise the success of early years and primary education in meeting a very wide range of need for children, families and communities.

Several moments across my two days in Manchester reminded me how old I am. For example,on arrival I spent Friday evening in the Lass O’Gowrie a pub I had last been in 27 years ago. It was fine pub then and it was great to see that it had survived all this time (it should be treasured not least because it’s named after a fine poem).  

The opportunity, offered by social media, to interact in the virtual environment before meeting up in the real world makes for interesting experiences. The process of recognition would be easier if people dressed as they do in their Twitter profile. Despite having asked Tim Taylor @imagineinquiry to meet me, I wasn’t sure I would recognise him in colour but thankfully we met and a great evening began that would eventually involve among others @MissKingTeach, @HeyMissSmith @mrmichaelswift @primarymark. In a discussion with Tim about Mantle of the Expert , I demonstrated how age is destroying my memory by telling him about a video I used to use in training teachers which involved a teacher engaging children in a history topic. Tim politely waited for me to finish before pointing out that the video was of him. The frequency of my “duh” memory failing moments is definitely increasing.

The next morning I shared breakfast and an interesting conversation with Tim and Jane Manzone. Their articulation of ideas is as impressive in real life as it is in their blogging and tweeting. We talked about the importance of understanding and valuing children’s imagination. The starting point was Jane’s use of soft toys to manage behaviour in year 1 and the issue was whether the pretence that toys were real was lying to children. As Tim pointed out, the alternative may be to constantly shout at children.  Personally, I don’t think that you can teach effectively without an appreciation of the importance of imagination in learning, in discerning meaning and in enriching life. If truth and teaching is restricted to the empirical, we all become less human.

The venue for the conference was Medlock Primary School. It’s a remarkable building that speaks of a not-so-distant time in the past when investment in schools was a priority (although not so much of a priority that it would be paid for by current tax payers but I’ll leave my dislike of PFI arrangements for another time). I’m a fan of big classrooms and wide corridors as they are not as constraining on children’s movements.  My last school,  which had been built in the 70s on the site of a frequently vandalised Victorian, dark-looking, dilapidated secondary school, was spacious. I met by chance the architect one day who recalled the battle he’d had to have a wide corridor and open plan classrooms and that meeting helped developed my view of the importance of the environment to learning. We were greeted at the school by children who had given up their Saturday morning for us so I hope they enjoyed welcoming strangers. 

Just before the conference began, I had a further moment of being rubbish when I failed to recognise Sinesd Gaffney. This was unforgivable because she is a brilliant writer who goes out of her way to encourage others. For me, Sinead personifies everything that is positive about Twitter. When I’d stopped stammering and going red, I sat down.

One of Primary Rocks founders Gaz Needle began events by introducing and thanking the team of teachers who’d worked so hard to put on the conference- @misssmerrill, @mrheadcomputing, @jennalucas81, @farrowmr, @redgierob and @grahamandre. I’ll have missed someone from that list but it’s ok because Gaz Needle forgot Sophie Merrill until she prompted him.  

Lucy Powell MP, Shadow Secretary for Education, began the event. It was good to see a politician speak to a primary education audience and she made important points about collaboration, listening and valuing the sector. She could be accused of playing to the crowd but at least she did not lecture those present on the need for reform. Among the comments made after her speech,  @ChrisChivers2 highlighted the importance of consistency in strategy and resourcing. 

The morning’s keynote speech came from @hywel_roberts who managed to be genuinely funny and inspiring. He began by challenging the view that subject knowledge alone is enough to engage learners.  He argued that it helps if children are bothered about learning and went on to illustrate how he uses Mantle of the Expert to engage children. The fact that he works with some very vulnerable children in Special Schools set an interesting context but his argument stands for all education and he finished with a pedagogical discussion around the links between subjects and underlying skills and values.

The main part of the day was given over to workshops. Everyone who attended would agree that making a choice between 8 interesting sounding workshops every half an hour was difficult and that 30 minutes was not long enough but that was always going to be the case when there are so many high quality primary practitioners gathered on one day. I began with @jon_brunskills’ workshop highlighting the need for an agreed articulation of the value of primary education. The problem that his workshop highlighted is that any statement that incorporated his view (primary education should teach children to read and nothing else), mine (primary education should value the distinctive contribution each subject makes to the child’s development) and all the other varying ideas is going to be too broad to be meaningful. One thought that I hope would unite all professionals is that primary education should not be discussed in utilitarian terms.  We are about learning not ‘readiness’ for the next stage, the next exams, the world of work etc.

It was a sign of the chaos of national policy on statutory assessment and the level of concern about workload that @MichaelT1979’s session was packed. Michael’s work is rare in having impacted, from a blog and Twitter account, far  and wide on teachers’ understanding. He is excellent at both the detail (which is why he is a thorn in the DfE’s side – it must be horrendous when you are bodging up something to have someone like Michael challenging your mistakes at each step) and the theory behind it. His argument about the need to reduce marking was well-stated with good examples drawn, at times self-deprecatingly, from children’s books. He made a case for responsive teaching that supports learning as it happens rather than a large marking workload each evening that has little impact. Personally, I think we need to develop feedback policies along the lines he suggests but I have one area I wish to think further on which is that when I mark work I am indicating the value I give to the child through the learning relationship. For me, therefore, the feedback debate is not just about progress and workload but has to recognise the importance of relationship. If we are to remove the comments at the end of work, we need to ensure that we find other ways of communicating value and also planning from where the child is in their learning at that moment.

Despite my embarrassment at not recognising her, I attended Sinead Gaffney’s workshop on SPaG. She provided a fascinating account of how, through her doctoral research, she is bringing together her deep understanding of her subject with published work on teacher agency to create a new understanding of how teachers’ beliefs (or lack of them) about literacy influence classroom teaching and engagement with wider school policy/culture. Sinead also argued passionately for SPaG to be seen as part of the bigger picture of writing development.

As well as eating the lunch provided, I also took the opportunity to buy a cake sold to raise money for @nataliehscott’s work in Calais. Natalie’s commitment to children in such horrific conditions teaching is recounted in her blog and is an excellent reminder of the universality of primary education. 

After lunch @nancygedge led a very useful session on the important contribution Teaching Assistants make to learning. She encouraged the audience to share their ideas on effective practice whilst articulating her expertise gained through intervention work, parenthood, reflection and writing. She passionately argued against the exploitation of staff which, I think, is going to be an increasing issue as budgets get squeezed further. The session also highlighted the need for high quality CPD for TAs. I came away reflecting on the need to find a balance in effective, non-exploitative practice between TAs aspirations and children’s needs. 

The afternoon included a lively panel debate between the audience and Tim Taylor, Jane Manzone, Richard Farrow,  Jon Brunskill, Sinead Gaffney  and Rob Smith. Topics included creativity (with the usual confusion between curriculum and pedagogy) and workload. The panellists thought on their feet well (far better than I could)  and  genuinely argued the points with the audience playing a full part. 

The final (graveyard) keynote was delivered by @mrlockyer who entertained while sharing his experiences in the classroom. 

Overall the day made me think want to think further and that for me is brilliant professional development.

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