Anyone who is interested in education and has never been to the “Sunday Times Festival of Education”, held at Wellington College, should seriously think about attending next year. There’s an extraordinary amount of speakers – practitioners, politicians and a few famous people or two, all offering their thoughts on education now and in the future. So-called progressives, traditionalists, policy makers, those who have to endure policies – they’re all represented, with a fascinating mixture of attendees both from the public and private sector.
At £75 for two full days, it is truly “value for money”.
The most difficult problem to face at a festival such as this is deciding who to go and see. Having last year listened to and engaged with excellent speakers such as Hywel Roberts (an absolute must if anyone wants to see passion in education enacted), Guy Claxton (a man with a real understanding of the holistic aims of education) and Dylan William (a voice of sense in the world of educational assessment), there were new experiences to be had, though omitting these three from the day was a hard choice to take.
Over the next few posts we will report in depth about some of the sessions attended, hopefully giving people an opportunity to reflect on their own views on education as we approach the end of the school year.
For now, we will summarise – as briefly as possible – specific comments from the speakers that were particularly pertinent, persuasive or provocative to us. A short comment from us will follow the quotes or paraphrased statements.
Let’s start with the latter – and introduce Sir Michael Wilshaw, who opened the festival with a speech about sports, elitism, comprehensive schools and some more contentious issues. His speech can be found in full here, and we will summarise our views in greater detail tomorrow as it warrants a post on its own.
“I come here not to bury the comprehensive ideal but to reclaim and celebrate it”.
3Di: There is, of course, an element of interpretation of what constitutes “comprehensive”. From further comments in his speech, SMW’s idea of comprehensive education bears little resemblance to our own.
[On comprehensive schools of the 70s] “Intellectual excellence was sacrificed on the altar of social equality. To strive, to compete, to achieve was considered reactionary. To show respect was craven. To expect obedience was oppressive. Head teachers were encouraged to pander to their staff and to their students.”
3Di: Having criticised journalists, politicians and others for holding a stereotypical view of the comprehensive system, he then went on to do exactly the same. The word “pander” is particularly divisive.
[On practice in some schools today] “They still indulge in attitudes and practices that are far from exceptional and are a throwback to the 60s and 70s. ‘Informal’ or ‘individualised learning’ is a case in point……..academic rigour is undervalued; basic literacy and numeracy are neglected; subject specialism is relegated in favour of cross-curricula muddle.”
3Di: Oh dear – where to start, which is why a further post is required. “Cross curricula muddle” – for goodness sake? We are led to believe, by Wilshaw, that he and his inspectors don’t favour a certain style of teaching and don’t advocate a specific way of interpreting the National Curriculum. With language like this, how can we believe anything of the sort?
“In many schools the child was a ‘partner’ and the teacher a ‘friend’. The idea that a teacher could insist that a student follow his or her instructions was therefore moot. This environment allowed weak teaching to flourish. Weakness was dressed up as ‘respect’ for a child’s innate difference. It was in truth a refusal to be professional, a refusal to take responsibility.”
3Di: This is so inflammatory it’s almost worth ignoring but this particular fish has taken the bait. This is wrong on so many levels, and hugely dismissive of the most incredible aspects of partnership working that still takes place in many good and outstanding schools.
And so onto Tom Sherrington, head teacher of King Edward VI Grammar school in Chelmsford and soon to be head of Highbury Grove – who may well differ in opinion from Sir Michael with regard to pedagogy. Tom writes extensively on his own website http://headguruteacher.com/ with some excellent postcards on pedagogy.
“Great teaching is a balance between progressive and traditional. We need to create an environment to thrive. Sometimes we forget to focus on soul rather structure.”
“There’s a need to nourish. You can have pupil input plus chalk and talk when required.”
“Open ended can still be rigorous!”
“Motivation is not just for tests. We need to focus on intrinsic motivators. Not everyone is motivated by the same thing.”
3Di: The pedagogical false dichotomy is a significant issue. It isn’t about either/or. There’s a place where direct instruction is needed but so too is a time when young people are encouraged to learn by themselves, for themselves – ably supported, facilitated and encouraged by a capable teacher. We spend so long spoon-feeding our young people these days so that when they have to organise their learning for themselves, they are all too frequently at a loss.
The next speakers were John Cridland, head of the CBI and former Secretary of State, Baron Kenneth Baker of Dorking.
First to John Cridland…..
“We need a shift in education to educate the whole person. Businesses want young rigorous, rounded and grounded young people. Resilience and humility are part of a wider skill set that sits alongside academic rigor.”
“We have some inspirational head teachers but if national policy isn’t in alignment with need, there is a problem.”
“We need to talk about primary education much more. We need to excite children in their learning.”
3Di: Well said, Mr Cridland. As he said, the last thing we want is for there to be a GCSE on employability but we do need to look at how we ensure these other fundamental areas of learning are provided. Our young people have an entitlement to this. He’s also right about the need to look carefully at primary education. If we don’t get children self-motivated and interested in learning at this age, then the potential struggle to engage the learner later is hugely exacerbated. We want all children to be literate by the age of 11 but we also want them to be active and enthusiastic learners. The factory system approach to SATs seen in some Year Six classes is doing nothing to promote life-long learning.
Finally, who would have thought we would be vociferously nodding in agreement with Kenneth Baker – he of Baker Day and National Curriculum fame.
“The Tomlinson report was the best thing that happened under New Labour education…… why do we have an exam at 16. 14-18 education is the way forward.”
“We need to learn about the hand as well as the mind…….. there should be less instructional and more conversational.”
“In every child there is something that “fires the flint””.
3Di: A Tory Secretary of State says that 16+ exams are an anachronism in a day when the school/education leaving age is 18. True, and one that we have steadily and resolutely campaigned for in our posts. Education is more than 3Rs. Education is about more than developing the intellect. Although he didn’t say in the same terms that we would use, Kenneth Baker was inferring that intelligence goes beyond intellect and there are other key skills and attributes that are as beneficial to society as those that thrive in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s pet phrase of “academic rigor”.
This summary of the morning session of Day One shows just how much you get for your money at the Festival of Education. We haven’t enough space in this post for the afternoon quotes or those for Day Two. That will follow but in the meantime, we will leave you with comments from David Blunkett and Estelle Morris – both former Secretaries of State, who conceded to errors and proclaimed successes about their time in office.
Blunkett said that they should have focused much more on life-long learning with more resources going into families and supporting parents. He also said that New Labour “didn’t embed” sufficiently with teachers – i.e. teachers felt that policy was “done to, not done with” – exactly as it is now.
More on these two in a later post.
More worryingly, both politicians responded to the question “ why don’t you speak so openly and honestly when in government?” by saying “because we’d get torn to pieces, by the press”.
Should journalists really be dictating education policy in this country? ……. Oh wait a minute!
(Mr Gove, former profession…….. journalist.)