The conference; should I stay, or should I go?

As the remit of the school business professional role continues to develop and expand, the need for continued professional development (CPD) has never been stronger. Andrew Blench, school business management consultant at School Business Partner takes a strategic look at choosing and attending CPD conferences

There are lots of options out there for school business professionals (SBP) in terms of conferences to attend. They all present great opportunities for CPD, networking and the purchasing of goods and services. I am thinking of events such as – EdExec LIVE, Academies Show, ISBL Annual Conference, ASCL School Business Leaders Conference and BETT Show, to name but a few.
But for the busy SBP the decision to attend one of these events is not a simple one. Can we justify the time out of the office, plus travel time? What will happen whilst we are out of school and what problems might we have to sort out when we get back? These are questions that we all will grapple with, and they are all legitimate concerns but, in my experience, too often we see ourselves sacrificing our own CPD for the greater good whilst we see other colleagues attending every event possible!
What’s the answer then?
Be intentional about conferences. What do I mean by that? Look at the year ahead and pencil all of the dates into your diary so you have an overview of the conferences that might be useful to you. You don’t have to make a decision right now to book a place but at least if you have the dates in your diary, and you’re asked to do something specific on that date, you can make an informed decision.
Maximise the benefit of attendance. Once you have made the decision to attend a conference plan what you’re going to whilst you are there. I know that might sound like stating the obvious but, far too often, I have attended conferences without a plan of which seminars I will attend and who I need to see. If there are optional session choices over the day, chose carefully. I know this can be difficult as often the description of the session doesn’t always match what is delivered. Look for sessions which address your own areas for development or issues that you or school are facing at the moment.
Here is a tip, but don’t tell the conference organiser this! You don’t have to fill your day with seminars! Why not leave some time in the day free for networking or just gathering your thoughts and/or writing notes?
The essential exhibition
Most conferences have an exhibition area where suppliers spread the message about their goods and services. The list of suppliers is usually available in advance so scan the list and ask yourself if there is anyone you would particularly want to talk to. Some offer the ability to book an appointment to see them whilst you are there.
Sadly, some delegates avoid this area of the conference altogether; I think that can be a mistake from all sorts of angles. This is what makes the conference financially viable. The exhibitors have paid for the option to be there and often this subsidises the ticket price that you have paid. If we don’t visit them then this could eventually undermine the conference.
Also, whilst speaking to exhibitors, on occasion, I have picked up tips and ideas to help me back at school, without necessarily having to buy anything!
It’s all about who you meet
Networking is really valuable. I am amazed at how ‘cliquey’ we can be when attending events. If we have gone there with colleagues we tend to sit together and not engage with other delegates. Now I understand why we might do that, as this could be the first opportunity we have had in a long time in the busyness of school to talk to each other properly. I set myself a goal at conferences of speaking to at least three people I have never met before and, if appropriate, sharing contact details. Our profession can be quite isolating and it’s good to be able to share good practice and encourage each other in that way.
If the organiser gives you a delegate list, have a look to see if there is anyone on it who is located near to your school who, perhaps, you haven’t had contact with before. Also, let people know beforehand that you are attending the event. I usually do this through LinkedIn which flags up that other colleagues are also attending, and we can arrange to meet up during the day.
Beating the transport nightmare
Travel by public transport – the travel time is all part of the experience and, hopefully, it’s not a bad one! If you have the option to not drive there and back this can be really useful time. There’s a good chance that we attend an event and gather lots of useful information and contacts which then gets dumped on the pile called ‘read later’ in the corner of the office.
The danger is that, as soon as we get back, we get caught up in the busyness of school life and never pick this up again. Use the travel time to make notes, establish links via email/social media and start to action some of the ideas generated. I know the natural inclination might be to catch some much needed ‘zzzs’ on the train journey home but, if we don’t use this time, when will you follow-up on what you have gained from the day?
Finally, you don’t need to feel guilty for putting your CPD needs first! It’s not self-indulgent, it’s an investment in you – and the future of your school – when done thoughtfully and intentionally.

EdExec LIVE takes place in Manchester on February 7, 2019, and in London on June 12, 2019.
You can learn more about the event and book your ticket HERE.
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