Something special has happened in our county over the past few years. This ‘something special’ was unlooked for and definitely not predictable. In fact, if you were a betting person, you would have put money on the opposite to the ‘something special’ happening.
On April 1st this year, Northamptonshire County Council divided into two. Two unitary local authorities: North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire. Approximately three years ago when this decision was announced, it’s fair to say that there was a sense of fear, a sense of despair almost. No-one was arguing with the fact that change and improvement were desperately needed in the Local Authority; it’s failings were public knowledge, but no-one was keen on what appeared to be a change for change’s sake, a threat to collaboration and a huge bureaucratic burden where jobs, trust and public money were on the line.
And now, in 2021, as educators get their tongues around saying either the surprisingly tricky North Northamptonshire or the not-much-easier West Northamptonshire, we find we’re in a position where there is hope and optimism. Why is this?
In 2019, in response to the news of the unitary split, existing leadership networks urged headteachers to become signatories of letters of complaint to the LEA. That collaborative action, born of a sense of fear and unease, mutated into a grass-roots collective called ‘Educating Northants’ – a group of which I am a part. We moved quickly on from being a pressure-group when it became clear that was not a lever for change, and settled instead on being celebratory, on being ‘the glue’, and on championing collaboration no matter what challenges we would face in the future.
Of course we had no clue that one of those challenges would be a global pandemic; we simply thought that being a platform for allowing Northants’ educators to come together, to share and collaborate, would be a positive and celebratory way to navigate the storm of the unitary split, and to tell a good news story about our county (to counter all the negative ones!).
The 2019 ‘Educating Northants’ was born. We welcomed 600 educators to hear the country’s foremost thinkers present alongside local teachers and leaders. We celebrated teaching, learning and leadership in all phases at the wonderful new Waterside Campus at the University of Northamptonshire. Since then we have had NED Talks (a Northants version of TED Talks), have published a journal of classroom stories from local teacher and have seen countless examples of formal and informal projects, connections and networks springing up all over the county.
We’ve all got to know each other a little better. We know each other’s schools, contexts and challenges a little better. We’ve created a loose, but sticky, web of networks across the county; one that has off-shoots and partnerships that we don’t even know about. But that was always the point. It was always about lighting a spark, starting something positive, knocking down the first domino. It was never about being formal, or accountable, or pressurised – or even about having to evaluate. Which is refreshing in a climate where evidence of impact is apparently the be-all-and-end-all.
The 2021 #EducatingNorthants conference is a great example of what can be achieved collectively when a very special ball has started rolling. The event has now been and gone, and although it was virtual, it packed the same emotional punch as the one in 2019. There was a sense of collective action, of shared values and of openly celebrating one another. We made sure young people were once again at the heart of the event, with students as part of our panel discussions and the incredible Silhouette Youth Theatre opening the day for us. We also elevated the voices of parents, governors and charities, alongside educators from nursery and EYFS, through Primary and Secondary, right the way to Higher Education. We were delighted that our three key partners from 2019 rejoined us: Teach Northants, Oxford University Press and Ambition Institute, and we were also pleased (and secretly very relieved) to have the virtual event powered by the wonderful folk at We Are In Beta.
As I reflect on the virtual event, and everything that has happened under the banner of #EducatingNorthants over the past two years, I am so happy that everything, everything, we have done has been underpinned by our values of #EveryonesWelcome, #BePartOfTheConversation and #OurChildrenOurSchools. #EducatingNorthants may not be a school, a business or a charity, but it’s definitely more than a hashtag. It’s a collective endeavour to give our best for our young people; an inclusive, celebratory movement of people who care deeply and give their time and expertise for nothing. I hope it always remains that way: a loose, sticky web of love for the great gig that is educating the children of Northamptonshire.