Something borrowed, something blue, something educational?

School events are notoriously tricky to arrange. But their value far outshines the trouble they take to organise, as Alex Diggins discovers

Hosting a conference or school event is like hosting a wedding – potentially a very happy occasion, but one fraught with submerged difficulties. 

Firstly, there’s the question of theme: spring-time florals or country-house chic? Or, the educational equivalent, how will AI affect education and innovation in 21st-century boarding? Then there’s the ticklish issue of the guest list: will it be a whole school event with plenty of guests, or more like an intimate ceremony with close family and friends? Lastly, there’s the quicksand of practicalities: where will be people sit? What will they eat? When can you politely ask them to leave? 

Despite these non-trivial concerns, school events and conferences are generally – like weddings – enormously enriching affairs. But as any fresh-faced bride and groom would consult family and friends for advice, and might even turn to glossy manuals for guidance, those planning on hosting a school event may find they can learn from their peers’ experiences. And so to provide equal parts guidance and inspiration (and to finally drop this exhausted wedding metaphor), we asked teachers how they navigated that most precarious of career rites of passage: the school event. 

Expanding horizons 

“The thing to avoid is your speaker being confronted by a sea of blank faces,” Nancy Kenward, Head of Careers at Truro School, laughed. “The kids glassy-eyed and clammed up; your speaker red-faced and flustered.” 

It’s a fear that confronts many an event organiser: your carefully selected keynote speaker, perhaps a notable alumnus or a personal hero, finds themselves addressing a wall of glazed gazes. One way to avoid this mishap is to ensure your audience is familiar with the speaker. At Wellington College they do not have to look far for invigorating and familiar speakers. “Our ‘Inspire’ lecture series has featured tales from a colleague who mushed through the Yukon,” said Julian Thomas, Master. “And talks from mountaineers, Channel swimmers, and marathon runners, all of whom happen to teach at the College. The spirit of adventure is strong here; it’s a very energising place to work – for staff and students.” 

An alternative if, say, your school is inexplicably short of Channel swimmers or Yukon mushers, is to choose a speaker with big-name cachet. Benenden School, for instance, recently hosted the historian David Starkey – recognised for his forthright opinions as much as his accessible broadcasts and books. As Samantha Price, Headmistress, told it, organising the event was a matter of balancing demand to see this popular speaker and the knowledge that “Dr Starkey can use quite direct language on occasion”. The event was therefore “only open to older pupils”. 

But Samantha is confident that speakers like Starkey are invaluable as they challenge pupils’ assumptions and broaden their ambitions: “Hearing first-hand from those who have ‘been there and done it’ prepares girls for the realities of what they may face in the workplace, offers real-life examples of how the speaker reached their particular position and gives pupils an insight into a career that they may be considering. It deepens the pupils’ cultural and creative awareness and understanding.” 

Outreach 

As well as exposing pupils to speakers and ideas they perhaps wouldn’t normally encounter during the everyday routine of teaching, events also offer another tangible good: the chance to reach beyond the school and engage with the local community. “For us the major thing is outreach,” noted Daniele Harford, Deputy Head of Learning and debate coach at Solihull School. Their annual ‘Big Debate’ and debating competition is “about challenging the notion that the local public school is an institution on a hill – a bit removed, a little irrelevant. Having a bigger presence in the local community, being more open, it’s so valuable.” Solihull’s Big Debate this year focused on the live-wire issue of ‘Generation Snowflake’ – “This house believes we have created a snowflake generation” – and was moderated by the veteran BBC journalist Michael Buerk, host of Moral Maze and an old boy, and also featured the author Claire Fox. 

Daniele believes the combination of a provocative topic and finding “engaging and interesting speakers” meant that the impacts of the event reached beyond Solihull’s walls, enthusing pupils from other local schools who attended. “I’m debate crazy,” Daniele smiled. “I want as many kids as possible to be excited by this stuff, as many staff as possible to share my enthusiasm. Ninety-eight per cent of pupils who engage with debating competitions are from public schools: that limits the conversation and experience.” To help erode that demographic divide, Daniele is arranging a packed programme of “Twenty-two debating events a year. We currently have 23 schools involved and we want to grow that circuit. Ultimately, it’s about building more opportunities.”   

A problem shared

Events, though, do not always have to be aimed at a school’s pupils; it is equally vital for staff to meet and share insights and experiences with colleagues from other institutions. There is a growing (and encouraging) awareness that staff need a professional support network beyond their school. And the networking opportunities offered by events are an excellent opportunity to share the triumphs – and frustrations – of the pressured world of teaching. As Viv Grant, founder of Integrity Coaching, asked: “Why is the duty of care that we show towards our children not extended as comprehensively as it should be towards our school leaders?”

Outside events then, despite the not-to-be underestimated hassle of their organisation, can be a valuable way of extending that duty of care to staff. It was this combination of CPD and the chance to forge new networks that appealed to Dr David James, Deputy Head Academic at Bryanston, when he arranged its annual Education Summit, which attracted around 400 visitors in June. “I’ve always believed that sharing strengthens a school rather than diluting it. [We wanted] to bring teachers from different sectors together to spark debate and establish informal networks to share good practice.” David is evangelical about the benefits of these kind of staff-focused events: “We see real value in sharing with other schools. We want Bryanston to be a hub for invention, for innovation, for debate and discussion.” 

Having been running events for over 10 years, David is clear-eyed about the challenges involved in orchestrating them. “[Speakers] drop out, or they change their terms and conditions, or they don’t reply to emails.” Depending on the speakers’ reputation, it can also be difficult to control how audiences will react, he admits. He recalled wryly the time Michael Gove, the controversial ex-Secretary of State of Education, was “caught in traffic on the M4, and I could hear some people saying things like, ‘typical of Michael Gove, he’ll do anything to avoid talking to teachers’.’’ Gove eventually made it but David noted that “he couldn’t win, [the audience] would have attacked him if he failed to turn up, and then they attacked him when he did. Politics is a tough game.”  

Events: take the plunge 

Politics may be a tough game. But so, many teachers would argue, is education. And alongside your first solo lesson, or surviving an inspection, hosting an event or conference can be an intimidating hurdle.

But whether it’s tip-toeing around your speaker’s tendency towards colourful language in front of an impressionable audience, or juggling the vagaries of weather, catering and parking, the challenges of events are outweighed by their manifest benefits in terms of building networks, inspiring staff and students, and growing a school’s reputation.

It may not be walking down the aisle – but, with luck, school events can be days to remember and cherish.