Forget the Big Society: Why the “Connected Society” will drive education policy

18th February 2011

Every Thursday hundreds of teachers voluntarily turn on their computers at 8pm and take part in a Twitter-led #ukedchat.  Each week the topic differs – discussions have included homework, the place of PE and the social divide – and conversations are archived so those unable to join in can read at a later point.  Forget a voluntary society of do-gooders, these teachers show that the Connected Society may become far more powerful.

For example, after a flurry of discussions on Twitter about the constrained nature of the English Baccalaureate versus the International Baccalaureate, teachers began to take control.  Led by Sentamu Academy, and now joined by the Association of School & College Leaders, teachers and school managers are rising up to take charge of this policy and create their own outcomes.  This isn’t about the voluntarism or ‘small state’ that Cameron talked about in the Big Society – instead it shows that collective action in a technologically Connected Society could bring better change to our classrooms than politicians alone.

Hence, last night on #ukedchat teachers chatted eagerly about “The Purpose of Education” with a particular thread highlighting the upcoming National Curriculum Review where only Headteachers and academics sit on the panel.  Given that teachers involved in #ukedchat use their own time to discuss and improve their practice, their resentment at being sidelined during such policy processed was unequivocal.  Feelings were neatly summed up by user, @Reteach10 who asked: “What if there was a policy shift in education caused by and led by teachers? What if the good classroom practice of tweeting teachers drove government policy?”

After all, having written a paper called “The Importance of Teaching” it makes sense to include those teachers in discussions, right?

Without doubt, policy advisors will respond and say that (a) teachers views are taken into account via focus groups and written invites for responses, and (b) it is difficult to include teachers in reviews due to their classroom commitments.  Policy advisors who perpetrate this idea are lazy; always a bad sign.  How do I know? Let me say this again: Every Thursday hundreds, possibly thousands, of teachers volunteer their time to provide informed opinion on education.  Go read the #ukedchat transcripts; even in 140-characters positive, constructive information is provided over and over again.

If truly interested in gaining teacher opinion policy advisors should use online means of gathering information.  Focus groups are selective, invited responses are analysed behind closed doors.  Even if I respond to the EBacc and National Curriculum consultation how can I know if my response is being read, thought about and reviewed?  By utilising public online forums, such as Twitter, for consultation teachers can see if they are being listened to.  Advanced data collection systems can quickly process a huge number of views and show what the dominant themes are, from which it would be incumbent on the government to respond to those views and show that concerns are being thoroughly addressed.

In doing so, this also resolves the problem of time.  Thursday nights, it seems, already gathers a storm of teachers ready to provide insight into their classrooms.  But why not take this further – Monday night online discussions?  Tuesday night policy voting?  Methods such as online policy delphis or virtual conferences are also used in medicine and business – why not education policy?

Perhaps this will not happen.  Perhaps I am overly optimistic and the government will be too scared of hearing the opinions of real teachers.  But remember, if discussions on #ukedchat are at all representative, teachers feel their voice is NOT being taken seriously.  These teachers are not the disgruntled, the burned out or the easily dismissed.  These teachers are engaged, proactive and many are top of their field.  They spend their Thursday nights sharing practice and many spend evenings and weekends at voluntarily-organised TeachMeets. These teachers will be the ones who champion new policies – giving INSET and encouraging change. Hence, ignoring them will be at the policy-makers peril. For while they are positive, these teachers are also the ones who will use the Connected Society to discredit bad ideas and call for others to subvert or abandon them.  Policy-makers, you have been warned!