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A reflection on the SSAT National Conference 2019: Fighting for deep social justice

Deep social justice is about allowing all people to flourish, and to have agency over their own lives. This is how David Lammy, our patron, opened our 2019 National Conference in Birmingham. But what does this mean in practice? Over the next two days, we found out.

Lee Elliot Major stressed that we need to use evidence in order to teach more effectively, especially for our most vulnerable students. He cited effective feedback and formative assessment as the most impactful strategy to do this; a view supported by the EEF’s report of the Embedding Formative Assessment programme, which added an average 2 months’ progress onto students’ GCSE results.

Efrat Furst explained how an understanding of the essential principles of cognitive learning, particularly how, as we learn, knowledge passes from our short-term memory into long-term memory, but only when biological connections are made. This, she argues, has profound implications for how we structure learning and the acquisition of knowledge and skills.

The question of knowledge was debated during the panel discussion on what the essential experiences of the curriculum should be. Andy Roberts, Headteacher at Riverside Academy, said that the key to social justice was ensuring that all young people had access to an academic curriculum with a focus on the EBacc subjects, the arts and PE underpinned by strong discipline. However, Tom Ravenscroft suggested that embedding employability explicitly in the curriculum was more important. Stuart Kay explained his feeling that wellbeing should be at the heart of the curriculum and Priya Lakhani, founder of CENTURY, the Lead Conference sponsor, made a powerful point that curriculum should be decided by headteachers and their staff, not by politicians.

This, in turn, was a recurring theme on the leadership panel where the two headteachers – Dave Whitaker and Caroline Barlow – stressed the importance of allowing school leaders to make challenging but rewarding decisions in the interest of the young people in their schools rather than having to jump through ever-changing government hoops. Earlier in the day, Kuljit Rahelu, another headteacher, explored the complexities and difficulties of school leadership in 2019.

If we are going to make these difficult decisions, we have to look after ourselves as leaders and teachers first argued Martyn Reah, founder of Teacher5ADay. If you can’t love yourself, how can you love anyone else? Nina Jackson highlighted that we have to love ourselves despite our scars and that our scars only make us stronger.

In supporting young people, we must engage with their parents are carers; John Rowlands and Patsy Hodson from Manchester Communication Academy described parents as experts on the child. They explained their model, which genuinely involves family in understanding the needs of the individual child; brought about by a chance conversation Patsy had with a mother.

But how do we make these tough decisions? Carmel McConnell, founder of Magic Breakfast, suggested an answer. She says in those moments when you tell yourself, ‘it’s not possible’ or ‘I don’t have the resource’, banish those thoughts. Instead, work out what needs to be done and worry about how to do it later; it always comes off. Stephen Munday and Chris Pope both said the solution lies in working collaboratively; a view supported by Carmel.

In this collaborate approach, Ian Gilbert challenged us to think differently about what we think about disadvantage; for example, is your school genuinely classless or do your teachers come from a certain background and your support staff from another? If so, what does this teach your students about the world?

In the opening session of the conference, Rick Kitson reflected on the think piece that he wrote as part of being involved in SSAT’s Leadership Legacy Project. He concluded by using this experience to define his non-negotiables and reminded all of us that by being true to what we believe in, you can genuinely change the lives of young people. This was a theme echoed by Tim Brighouse at the close of the conference who described his long and distinguished career as not as brief as a candle, but a flaming torch; and that teachers can pass that torch onto the next generation. In this next generation of both educators and young people, Tim Brighouse sees hope.

Now more than ever, we need hope in our world. The conference demonstrated that every single day around the country, school leaders and teachers are going above and beyond to ensure that all young people are allowed to flourish. SSAT is committed to continue fighting for deep social justice whatever happens in the next genera election. As a network, we can enhance what happens in individual schools, speak loudly alongside other organisations, and be beacons of that Brighousian hope.

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