It all began last autumn. Two teachers were “talking” by direct message on Twitter, glasses of wine in hand, lamenting that they could never get to education conferences and events because they seemed always to be in London or the South of England.
Later that evening, one of them, Debra Kidd, an advanced skills English and drama teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, put a question to Twitter. If someone organised an education conference in the North of England, would people attend?
The response was overwhelming. Within hours she and Emma Hardy, a part-time year 2 teacher at Willerby Carr Lane Primary School in East Riding, had secured all their speakers and guests, and hundreds of school leaders and teachers promised they would be there.
And so the Northern Rocks education conference was born, with an inaugural theme of Reclaiming Pedagogy.
Earlier this month, almost 500 delegates descended on Leeds Metropolitan University for the event, which saw the pair score a bit of a coup. Among the panellists for a Question Time-style discussion and Q&A session was Dominic Cummings, ex-policy advisor to Michael Gove.
As an education journalist of almost 25 years, I have seen secretaries of state come and go, with varying degrees of success and failure in office. But it was the first time I had been invited to share a platform with a government special advisor, much less one whose reputation preceded him as Dominic Cummings’ does. Actually, I was somewhat surprised he had accepted the invitation.
Those who frequent the Twittersphere may know he is rumoured to be one of those behind the controversial @toryeducation account that attacks government critics and promotes the Department for Education’s party line. He is known for being abrasive, once saying that respected Independent journalist Richard Garner needed a “good therapist” because of a comment piece he had penned.
This would be the first occasion that teachers had to hear Mr Cummings speak publicly, and like me, they may have been astonished by some of the things he had to say. He told delegates that Ofsted needed reforming – probably the one issue all of the panellists agreed on – stating it had “profound problems” and that it faced too much political interference. On the issue of qualified teacher status he said that it was not for Whitehall or Westminster to solve such “problems”.
Candidly, or with wonderful indiscretion, depending on your viewpoint, Mr Cummings also admitted that millions of pounds were being wasted on bureaucracy and pointless meetings in Whitehall, which didn’t need to oversee so many functions. Equally, he said civil servants should not be involved in the setting of examinations, nor was it for ministers to decide the content of exam syllabuses.
Which brings us back rather neatly to the whole point of this conference. Here was a hall full of teachers reclaiming their professionalism and demanding to be trusted to do their jobs, and a former policy advisor suggesting, albeit in a roundabout way, that perhaps they should be. Could it be that there is less separating the profession and the policy-makers at Westminster than meets the eye?
Already, there is considerable interest in a Northern Rock 2015. “We wanted to unite teachers, and I think we helped to do that,” said Ms Kidd. “There has been too much bad-tempered debate going on, such as references to The Blob by Michael Gove. It isn’t helpful to discussions.”
While delegates left the conference uplifted by what they had seen and heard, Ms Kidd herself plans to take a two-year break to pursue other interests and projects, and says only that she may return to teaching.
When professionals are prepared to travel hundreds of miles and give up their weekends to attend events such as these, and when teachers like Debra Kidd are leaving because they need to put some distance between themselves and their work, then it is time for politicians and policy-makers to ask why.
The profession wants to engage and be heard by you, Mr Gove. Now it’s up to you.
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist who has written for SecEd for several years.