Have you heard of the Virtual SEND Conference?

B Squared’s First Virtual Conference

On the 22nd March 2019, B Squared ran its first SEND-focused conference to provide support for schools and professionals. The conference was designed to benefit the whole education sector, including mainstream teachers, SEND school staff and anyone else seeking high-quality CPD courses in SEND-related topics. Those who are familiar with B Squared understand that we don’t just follow everyone else; we look at a problem and work out the best solution.

Why Did We Choose to Go Virtual?

We decided to run a virtual SEND conference. A virtual conference has lots of benefits but only a few negatives. The biggest benefits are the significantly reduced cost of running the event and enhanced accessibility for delegates; talks can be viewed from anywhere with an internet connection. Most big education conferences run in London or other major cities, such as Birmingham and Manchester. This is great if you live in these cities, but if you’re located elsewhere, travelling to CPD courses and SEN training events can involve prohibitive amounts of time and money.

By hosting a virtual conference that can be accessed from anywhere, we can provide high-quality SEN training and online CPD to school staff who don’t normally have the opportunity to attend conferences. As we didn’t have to spend our budget on hiring a large hotel and staff to tend to delegates, we could focus on securing exceptional speakers and pass our cost savings directly to schools.

Why Did We Need a SEND Conference?

Where did the idea come from, you ask? It’s been an idea that has developed over time. We have been attending conferences and exhibitions as a company for several years, and some work well, while some don’t. We heard feedback from attendees on the quality of the conferences and developed an understanding of what makes a successful conference. Over the last two years, the B Squared team has reduced the number of events we attend, as there are fewer teachers attending.

Early in 2018, we started holding online meetings with schools, which allowed us to share information quickly and easily without having to pay the associated costs of travelling around the country. In May 2018, we started running webinars on a range of topics, which many schools use as part of their in-house training and CPD courses. Some webinars are product-specific, some are in response to changes from the Department for Education (DfE) and some are designed to provide support for schools, such as our popular session What Does Good Progress Look Like?. This webinar provides guidance on tracking the progress of SEND pupils after the Rochford Review and the removal of P Levels. Over 2,000 people have viewed this content to date.

Our B Squared webinars are extremely popular, with over 100 people watching live and thousands watching the recordings via our blog. Throughout 2018, we discussed how we could take this idea further, but it wasn’t until the end of 2018, after attending a few poorly attended conferences, that we came up with the idea of a virtual SEND conference.

Over the last five years, there have been big changes in education, particularly in relation to SEND pupils, with significantly reduced guidance from the DfE and no funding to implement the recommended changes. The new SEND code of practice has been in place for four years, yet authorities are still struggling to adapt to the required changes. Schools have had to cope with the removal of Levels and the removal of P Levels with minimal guidance and support from the government to help them move forward. In October 2016, the Rochford Review released its final report, which included recommendations around Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and sharing and seeking out best practice.

I spend a lot of time working with schools and I hear their frustrations first-hand. There are so many areas schools need support in, yet many have been left to cope alone. There is a clear need for conferences and SEND support, but schools are not attending SEN training events due to the costs involved. Education conferences often cost £300 or more per person, in addition to travelling costs, overnight accommodation and supply cover. This can push the cost of a typical conference to well over £500 for each staff member who attends.

Planning the First B Squared SEND Conference

For the virtual conference to be successful, we had to solve the problem of the high costs typically associated with hosting a conference. We also needed to make it easy for teachers and school leaders to access the content by choosing a time that fits with the school day.

The basic plan was to turn a physical conference into a virtual conference. We already use software that allows us to run webinars with hundreds of attendees, so all we needed to do was run a series of these over a day. All sessions would be recorded automatically, so we would be able to provide attendees with access to the videos after. This would allow people who couldn’t attend the conference due to teaching requirements or other reasons to access the content at any time, while it would also allow teachers to share the sessions with their school in staff meetings or during CPD or training sessions. 

The conference was taking shape. We had the technology and we knew there was a need for the content, but we had to make sure there was nothing missing from a physical conference that delegates could benefit from. One of these is networking. At a physical conference, delegates have time before talks begin and during breaks to network with delegates and speakers. We decided that we would use a simple chat room system to allow delegates to network. This would need to be easy to use and not require attendees to open an account — they would simply be able to type in their name and their school’s Local Authority (LA) and join the chat, making it easy for attendees to find other professionals in their area. We decided that we would create “rooms” for each of the different sessions, which delegates could drop in and out of. 

This made the other benefits of running a virtual conference clear: no lunch queues, better choice of food and drink, no trying to work out which room you are in and no worrying about your phone going off.

The next stage was deciding on the SEND content to provide. We wanted the conference to appeal to professionals in the classroom, support teachers and help them turn policy into practice while providing a forum through which people could share best practice between schools. We talked to our customers and surveyed a Facebook SENCO group, asking for topic suggestions before building the content around these themes.

On the Day: Success! 

Now that we had the content and the systems in place to ensure that attendees could get value and plenty of networking opportunities from the event, it was time to put it together! The conference went amazingly well. We sold over 130 tickets and the majority of these attended on the day. The other ticket holders were planning to watch the videos later due to work commitments. All sessions elicited a good level of engagement — speakers had plenty of questions to respond to! The chat room wasn’t used as much as we thought it would be, and we found that people spent the time between sessions dealing with urgent issues. Others watched the sessions in groups at their school and used the time between sessions to engage in conversation. This also meant that the number of people accessing the conference was much higher than the number of tickets we sold.
“Lots of CPD at an affordable price and I never have time to travel to venues, so this fitted in really well with the demands of my job.”

“Content was excellent and relevant, speakers were natural and fluent. REALLY cost-effective way of spreading good information.”

“I loved the course for the very reasons you recognised the need for it. It was affordable, quality material and having the videos to share with colleagues is a massive benefit. Initially I was a bit wary that it would be very biased towards your product, but the fact that it was very objective and focused on relevant issues was a real plus for me. I would definitely attend future events.”

“Worthwhile day. So useful to be able to access all the materials after the event to revisit input and to share with colleagues in school and all for a very good price!”

“Excellent content delivered in a very convenient way and at a very reasonable price. More information than I could handle in one dose – but thankfully I will be able to re-visit in my own time.“

Will There Be Another VSEND Conference?

Our first VSEND conference went so well that we are pleased to be bringing it back! We are running the next Virtual SEND Conference on the 8th of November. This conference will once again focus on supporting professionals in the classroom who are supporting pupils with SEND. We have just released the full programme, which covers a wide range of topics in a total of 12 sessions — it’s unlike any other conference, and you won’t miss sessions that clash, as you can watch the videos later.

Is It Too Late?

If you missed our March conference and are interested in accessing the content, it’s not too late to get access. These videos will always be available for you to view, whether you want to use them to support your own CPD and practices or share them as part of your next meeting agenda.