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We need to talk about education - Tomás Ó Ruairc guest blog

In September 2018, at a conference on creativity in education, a person put a split, emerging conker in my hand and said — this is a gift to remind you that when things appear to be breaking, something new and more beautiful is emerging. This gift came on foot of lots of conversations among those attending, including teachers, parents and students, about how we needed more space and time for creativity; more space and time to have more and better conversations about education.

Moments later, I stood up in front of a crowd of people, and asked if people would be interested in helping to develop a model for more and better conversations between teachers, parents and students at the local community level.

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Big changes can build on small moments, and just over a year and a half later, we launched BEACONS — Bringing Education Alive for our Communities On a National Scale. In 2019, we received €25,000 from the inaugural Public Service Innovation Fund to test the concept. We hosted four events in three communities — Ennistymon, Co. Clare; Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow and north-east inner-city Dublin. In each case, teachers, parents and students from local schools at both primary and post-primary level came together to have open and honest conversations about issues of importance to them.

Remarkably, no-one else has done this. The idea is quite simple. To be a BEACONS event, at a minimum, it must include teachers, parents and students. Other members of the school community can and should be invited — but these three groups must be included. There is no external pre-set agenda for the conversations.

Local conversations, national connections

Education is particularly strong in the breadth and depth of the consultation processes it engages in at a national level. Yet as new policies and processes are rolled out on foot of these consultations, acute local issues tend to pop or emerge at the local community level that seem to surprise the system. Very often people in these spaces do not feel heard, and they may not engage in the issue until it comes to affect them directly.

In a small number of diverse contexts, BEACONS has demonstrated that with the right environment, an invitation and excellent facilitation, conversations can begin that change how we all see and understand each other. There is also a hunger to connect local views and conversations with national consultation processes so as to create a virtuous feedback loop. BEACONS has begun to forge these connections.

Learning from experience

How do we know that BEACONS has demonstrated this? From the outset, the Council was keen to learn from its own experience of change management, as well as drawing from other learning. Many studies show that we are not as good at sharing learning as a public sector as we could be. This can mean that successes are rarely replicated, while failures are likely to be repeated. We ringfenced one third of our funding for evaluation and a Sharing Learning Day. We commissioned CES to evaluate both the inaugural learning event in Ennistymon and the process so far. This has produced two reports which, along with the suite of videos on our website, can help others to apply what we have learned.

Hearing each other for the first time

The Sharing Learning Day involved inviting voices from the three communities who had tried the process to share their learning with an equal number of policy makers and influencers across the public, private and third / community sector.

What emerged clearly on the day was a sense from the communities that they were delighted to be connecting with the national level.

Those who took part spoke especially of the impact of hearing each other as people. This is the real magic of BEACONS!

The issues and solutions which communities have raised are rarely new. What is different is that the communities feel a genuine sense of ownership of the actions which they choose to pursue, and their commitment is therefore much higher than usual, as is their collective capacity to follow through. In Ennistymon, young people were all very eager to discuss the environment. Two school communities agreed to collaborate on the installation of water fountains to cut down on the use of plastic bottles. All attendees committed to reconvening before the end of the year to see if they had done what they set out to achieve.

The impact has been transformative for everyone involved. BEACONS is noteworthy for the speed at which trust is established and how school culture has begun to change within a matter of months. Young people have spoken at how they feel they are being listened to, and are seeing small but real changes that are making a big difference in their lives. Teachers speak of better relationships with students in school which makes their job easier and more enjoyable. Parents speak of a better understanding where teachers are coming from, and of feeling more included in conversations on their children’s learning.

Factors for success

It is most unusual for a State body to be sponsoring a process without a clear target or goal in terms of policy outcomes. Largely this is because BEACONS is a process — a process that can act as a catalyst for many others. For me, the importance of involving a large and diverse group of people with bright minds and big hearts has probably been the single most critical factor in our success so far.

People from diverse backgrounds will always see, think and say things that you won’t. And they will have connections that you don’t. If you have an idea that you think is mad, or doesn’t have a clear home, put together a group of this nature and try something soon — particularly before you feel that you are ready. Always plan for debriefs and shared learning at various points along your journey. BEACONS looks and sounds very different to the idea I had in September 2018 — but it has landed exactly where it needs to be — and very much where the system needs it to be.

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Where to from here? The conker has burst from its shell. Along with the communities of Ennistymon, Baltinglass and north-east inner city Dublin, we have successfully transplanted it and nurtured it to the process that unfolded in 2019. We have a healthy and vibrant sapling! The next phase will be about a growth that is both determined and tentative. As Richard Powers wrote in “The Overstory” — Trees … [run] a billion field tests. They make their conjectures, and the living world tells them what works.

We will need to build capacity to grow the concept that we have proved, remain open to further innovations of the model and sustain ongoing evaluation and sharing of learning.

If, as David Whyte has said, our future [is] influenced by the very way we hold the conversation of life itself, BEACONS shows that the future looks very bright indeed!

For more information about the Teaching Council, visit www.teachingcouncil.ie

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