Education matters. This monthly column looks at God’s work in schools: through schools’ work and in children’s education as they think Christianly about what they study
Imagine a schools’ work opportunity that could draw together all your key schools, your most important staff contacts, and colleagues and friends from like-minded schools’-working churches and projects. What if that opportunity could also get the attention of your local SACRE and press, and also serve to enhance your evangelistic mission with young people?
If that sounds like exciting news, then why not consider running inter-school philosophy and ethics / RE conferences?
Meaningful strategic relationships
As I write this column, I’m acutely aware of the current shortage of youth and schools’ workers in the country. When I speak to organisations about recruitment and filling available roles in localities, I hear a similar story from everyone: “The workers are few.”
As a result, some may read an article like this and feel as if I’m presenting a pipe dream. After all, how can we hope to achieve larger school projects when we’re struggling? Do stick with me though, because this shortage of workers makes conferences very strategic and maybe even more doable than ever.
Some of you reading this will be working in large teams running multiple programmes and events paired with local evangelistic engagement. For others, your experience may be as a lone worker, taking opportunities as the invitations come. Whatever your working experience, I would encourage you to invest more of your resources in meaningful strategic relationships. Partners and friends in your area can and will enhance your impact.
Finding those people and building your relationships really is the first step to running a successful school conference of the kind I described at the start. For me, this all begins with all your key contacts trusting you, your motivation and your future agenda.
If you read nothing more from this column, take that in and keep it as a foundational principle in everything you do.
“The most important thing is that you teach universally relevant themes that schools need to focus on”
What’s the value of conferences?
In May 2021, Ofsted released a research paper on the current state of RE provision, which you can read here. There are, of course, many takeaways from the report, but two of the most striking elements for me were the emphasis on the following:
- RE being relevant and applicable to the life of students inside and outside school.
- High-quality RE provision needing to address the lived experience of people who have faith.
When I read the report, it was clear the RE curriculum should focus on meaningful, detailed faith-life experiences that impact and enhance the student experience.
From a slightly different perspective, I’m noticing a greater emphasis on schools trying to create a more cohesive community experience, with key staff members tasked with enhancing links with the local community. Don’t be surprised if your secondary schools link transitions, community relationships and local charitable events into a single strategy. Make no mistake, you will be able to make a difference.
Given the importance of meaningful learnt and lived experiences in the classroom and community, this might be a perfect time to invest in conferences.
Recently I ran an interschool conference, and one of our local RE heads commented about it in the local press: “Religious education adds an extra dimension to a student’s learning, and events like this offer a safe space for them to explore challenging issues.”
What kind of themes should we focus on?
If you have any links with primary school ministry, you’ll already be aware of things like Experience Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. Sadly, there hasn’t been a resource that’s captured secondary workers in the same way that primary resources seem to unite the church. Not to say that there aren’t great ones out there because there are. You just have to work harder to find them.
The best conference experience I think I ever had was using Youthscape’s Rage, Despair and Hope material, with Lat Blaylock teaching. If you don’t know Lat, he’s an excellent resource and one of the most knowledgeable conference speakers I’ve ever worked with.
I’ve personally organised and hosted many interschool conferences, and on that occasion, we used a local church and put up a whole series of large triptychs on the theme of the book of Job. Lat taught on the experience of multiple faith stories and drew some significant work out of the young people.
I will always recommend Lat, but even he would say that you don’t need him. The most important thing is that you teach universally relevant themes that schools need to focus on. For example, on one occasion, I ran a conference called ‘Me vs You: An exploration of personal needs vs the needs of others’. Another conference was about ’Wellness and the Christian Faith’. Most recently, I ran a conference called ’An Evil Day’, which focused on evil and goodness in the world. Incidentally, that conference was also taught with Lat.
The key for you will be figuring out what you can offer with your partner churches and ministries, considering what your schools will respond to.
Top tips for running a great conference.
I love running conference experiences and you might have picked up that I’m passionate about you giving them a go too, but if this all sounds like a lot, don’t panic. Conferences aren’t difficult to put together. There are some things I’ve found helpful, but there will undoubtedly be other factors unique to you and your expertise that you can share with me in the future.
Have a clear, ‘easy to say yes to’ theme
Schools are hectic, high-stress environments, so ensure your conference is as easy to say yes to as possible. Think of the simplicity of a great logo, and keep your conference title as punchy as possible. You can always add detail to the explanation. Remember the conference titles above? Rage, Despair and Hope, Me vs You, Wellness and the Christian Faith, An Evil Day. They’re short and snappy and pretty much tell you what to expect.
Keep booking procedures simple
You may not realise that when a staff member goes on a trip, they have to request permission, write a proposal, fill in risk assessments and send letters home. They will also likely have to fill in a cost analysis to explain how much the trip will cost per student. With this in mind, do all you can to make it easy for your key schools to come. Try and make booking as easy as an email confirmation if you can, and only gather essential information for yourself.
Treat students like delegates
Part of the conference experience is helping students to think like university or college students. This is also a unique selling point for your conference and shouldn’t be underestimated. Try to treat your students like delegates. Why not also give them a free pen, a bottle of water and maybe even a keepsake with a key quote from the day?
Pair youth workers and pastors with their key schools
When you’re putting conference experiences together, put a team together from various churches and projects. Come back to your relationships and create an environment that speaks loudly about the type of community we’re trying to build.
Have a key coordinator who isn’t the conference speaker
When I run conferences, I try hard to ensure I’ve got several things in my bag as a crisis kit. 1 AA Batteries; 2 Pens; 3 Sticky tape; 4 Bin bags.
It doesn’t matter who fulfils this role, as long as they understand good relationship building, but do try and make sure there’s one person available with a little crisis kit who’s also making sure all the right people have tea or coffee in their hands. That person will also likely be the person the school staff will talk to throughout the day.
Share the story
Once you’ve been through the experience of running a conference, you must share it. Make sure you take great photos and record how many people came. Also, try and make a point of gathering reviews, comments and commendations. It’s so hard to share the story without good information.
Here’s another quote from a teacher who attended a conference of mine:
“Today was an opportunity to challenge students to think outside the box. Throughout the day, I saw students developing self-confidence by contributing their thoughts and insights. Religious studies is a creative and thought-provoking subject. This conference was designed to support and ignite that creativity in students, which in a busy curriculum can often be lost when teachers are teaching to the exam!”