But Where Are The Kids?

This is a modified version of an article written and published in 2009. I am reproducing it because it is still relevant, and I shall be referring to it in articles in the near future.

One of the big absences at most educational conferences, as far as I'm concerned, is children and young people. Let's be honest: you would have no idea, walking into most conferences, whether you were attending an event about education or one about how to improve the market share of widgets.

Youngsters remind us why we're thereIt is hard to get this right, without a doubt -- not least because of child safety considerations -- but the more I think about it the more important I think it is to involve young people in conferences in meaningful ways. After all, it is they who, in management-speak are our clients and, in marketing-speak, our final consumer.

I've been to a few conferences recently where young people were involved to a greater or lesser extent. First, take the Naace 2009 Conference. There were children in evidence, but in my opinion in an utterly tokenistic way. I don't mean this to sound as critical as it does. When I organised the Naace conference a few years ago, it was generally regarded as being very good indeed, but there were no youngsters there. In hindsight I regard that as a mistake, and think I should have worked harder to include them (we did try, but it was logistically difficult, because of the distances involved, to liaise effectively with local schools; also, I think it requires a more imaginative mindset which is easier to nurture once you're away from all the deadlines and other headaches involved in planning a large conference).

The youngsters were there to help represent their schools, which had been invited in order to receive the ICT Mark. Traditionally, this little ceremony takes place straight after the talk by the Secretary of State for Education, so that it is he or she who is, in effect, handing over the certificate.

Alright, the fact that there are children there reminds us that this is all about them, but it seems to me that here is a golden opportunity wasted. Why not go straight into a panel discussion in which the audience can ask the youngsters what difference, if any, the process of applying for the ICT Mark has made. If it has made a difference, the session might just be the thing that's needed to convince a wavering school that it ought to take the plunge. Also, and of more immediate importance and interest, it would help us see the process from the customer's point of view (I cringe from using such terminology, by the way, but it does seem rather apt).

On the subject of a panel discussion, last year's ASPECT conference featured a panel session in which a group of students of around 17 years of age really gave the assembled educational glitterati a run for their money. For example, one of them said, in response to a rather patronising answer, to a genuine question, to the effect that it was a nonsense to say that young people were left out of decision-making, "I notice that all the people in this room have been given briefing packs. But we haven't." Stunned, embarrassed silence: after all, you can't argue with something which is so visibly true.

The Dimensions conference run by the then Qualifications and Curriculum Authority went a stage further. As you arrived at the entrance to the building, students (from a school local to me (Mayfield School), as it happened) were there to greet you and point you in the right direction. They were also involved in a workshop about the BBC School Report event (which I hope to write about separately), took part in a panel discussion, generally helped out and, crucially, went around conducting video interviews of delegates.

In the workshop, two of the students were on hand to advise us oldies of what would be best to include in a news bulletin that would fire up the interest of people of their age (15-16). They were brilliant, somehow managing to combine brutal honesty with humour and courtesy. (Perhaps we adults could learn a thing or two from them.)

Here is the video they made of the day:



There are other ways in which youngsters can be involved. A lovely way of starting a conference, for instance, can be seen in the programme of last year's Game-Based Learning conference, the second day of which was opened by a performance by children from the John Stainer school. (That was nice for me on a personal level because I worked with the school a few years ago helping it to implement its Framework for ICT Support programme).

I think what I would ultimately like to see is youngsters involved at all stages of a conference:

  1. Planning.
  2. Attending.
  3. Taking part.
  4. Evaluating.

Difficult, perhaps, but surely a goal worth striving for?

A slightly different version of this article was first published on 7th April 2009.