I went to EdFest yesterday and should have been there today, but my son is home from University for one precious weekend before heading off for his Summer job, so forgive me – this is a single day review.
I travelled down with my good friend Hywel Roberts who fed me liquorice and managed not to show too much alarm as I ploughed down squirrels and veered across lanes in my haste to make it down south in time for a little beer before bed. Needless to say, little turned into lots and our 7am start felt painful. We pulled up into the grounds of Wellington College. “Don’t know about level playing field” I said “Any of these playing fields would do for us.” The place is exquisite.
Hywel, seen above, slightly out of his comfort zone, was presenting in the morning at the same time as Michael Wilshaw. He’s a brilliant speaker and for those of you who haven’t read his book, Oops, a very funny man. But he realised that he was unlikely to have many people in his session, given the competition. Even I dumped him for Wilshaw. He was wrong though – his room was packed and all day we were stopped by people telling him how much they enjoyed his brilliant and funny session. He is a man who loves children and sees teaching as ‘imagineering’ – no-one misbehaves for Hywel – they’re too engrossed.
But I went to see Michael Wilshaw. He started in combative mood, speaking of an unprecedented moment in history, from which there would be ‘no turning back’. He declared it a ‘revolution’ which he would lead ‘from the front’ and that there would be ‘blood on the floor’. He casually dismissed English state education as ‘mediocre’ but admitted there had been significant improvement since the 70s and 80s. He went on to talk about the idea that the traditional black spots of education – the inner cities – had managed the greatest levels of improvement and ominously announced that his focus was now turning to the FE sector, rural schools, and most of all, seaside towns:-
“Oh it’s too bad to be beside the seaside,
Oh it’s too bad to be beside the sea.
Where standards start to fall,
There are some heads gonna roll,
Beside the seaside, beside the sea”
I wish he’d sung this, but he didn’t. Make of it what you will. Seasides are rubbish, or inspectors are tired of Travel Lodges in Gorton and want a little time on the beach.
He made a strong case for building quality vocational provision in our schools alongside academic routes and the majority of his speech really focused on a fairly colonial view that independent schools should be doing more to share facilities and resources with state schools, either by sponsoring academies, or by collaborating more fully. This was never going to be a controversial element of his speech and it made up the bulk. He asked of wealthy parents ‘Do you want your child to be marooned on an island of privilege, cut off from the mainland?’ and I assume he thought the answer would be ‘no’. But in reality, I think that island is what they’re paying for. Just a thought.
His speech was combative in language, but in reality felt damp. He struck me as a man who, despite what he says, has lost his motivation. Perhaps he was a little ill, perhaps he too had had one too many the night before, but he didn’t seem to be a man with the energy for a revolution. But then maybe, if you have your army doing the work for you, you don’t need it. Who knows?
I have wanted to hear Charles Leadbeater speak for years – TED has been the nearest I have got in the past. He is an innovative and radical thinker and has a canny knack of spotting the marginal movements that become massive phenomena. He voiced concern that the education debate in England was turning ‘into a civil war’ and tried to explore what might be happening. He, as he often does, turned to business for analogies. He pointed to the example of aeronautical engineering and showed a picture of the DC3 – the aircraft of choice in the 1950s. The problem with the DC3 was that it flew at an altitude which meant it had to fly through weather (cloud cover), leading to many cancelled flights and constant damage to the aircraft. While technology was beginning to be available to create aircraft which could fly at greater altitude, above the clouds, most airlines preferred to continue tinkering with and improving the DC3. Eventually, an airline invested in Boeing craft and the rest is history. Leadbeater described Michael Gove as a passionate engineer of the DC3, desperately battling to keep his favourite craft in the air, while all around him, passengers were demanding the Boeing.
Leadbeater presented three scenarios for the use of technology in education. The first was ‘Disruptive Liberation’ in which technology is used to bring communities together in shared goals, visions and enterprises. Where human interaction was key and technology seen as an extension of collaborative activity. The second was ‘Impotent Incorporation’ – a consumer driven model in which teachers would use technology simply to make what they were already doing a little more exciting – from video to dvd to live streaming for example – kids are still passively doing the same thing – or from banda to OHT to PPT to Prezi. The third way, and he said ‘most worrying’ was the ‘reductive commodification’ model – where teachers could be replaced by on-line learning – a narrowing of education to a set of facts that could be learned and tested on line. He urged us to reject that model and pointed out that our system needs ‘regime change’. He urged parents and teachers to overcome the ‘cartel of fear’ that keeps the ‘DC3’ in operation – fear of the unknown and the worry that change will be bad. It was a powerful and thought provoking contribution to the day.
I spent a blessed few moments in a 4D creative pod – a pop up tent space with projectors, i-pads, sound systems and so on where you can switch the setting to a WW1 trench, or the Arctic, or a rainforest or any number of environments. It was very cool. There are quite a lot of these types of immersive spaces on the market at the moment, but what I love about 4D is that it is underpinned by innovative pedagogy – the package comes with training and suggestions of what you might do in the space and the ideas are really exciting. I want to run a workshop in a 4D pod and I know my kids would love it. We’d better start saving up.
He wasn’t running a session yesterday, but I bumped into him in the bookshop and got him to sign his book for me. Trivium. I’m on page 65 and it is excellent and very intelligent. He takes you through the ancient trivium of grammar, dialect and rhetoric and explores how the education system has become artificially polarised as ‘traditional or progressive’ when in fact, an excellent education consists of a combination of three elements. Read it. It’s good. And he seems like a nice man, which is always a bonus.
Guy Claxton and Daisy Christodoulou
I had to listen through the window to this one as the room was packed and I’m adding here, in view of the controversy about this section, that I couldn’t see either – so there are better accounts of this session to be read! Guy Claxton was so popular that he’d had to repeat an earlier session twice and was now on for a third time. It seemed to be billed on twitter as a ‘battle’ – some Daisy fans were getting quite excited about the prospect. In reality it went a bit like this (with a little poetic license):-
Daisy – I think we should listen to cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists
Guy – I am a cognitive psychologist (he didn’t actually say this – he was too polite to point out that he is a cognitive psychologist with a double first from Cambridge, an MPhil from Oxford and a string of letters behind his name!)
Daisy – Knowledge is important
Guy – Yes it is
Daisy – We need excellence. We need to build a world class education system.
Guy – Excellent at what? World class in what?
Daisy – …. (now in the interest of fairness and adding this after Kris Boulton, who COULD see, commented below – Daisy didn’t get a chance to answer this question which explains why I didn’t hear her response.)
I haven’t read Daisy’s book yet. It has been published by her employer, The Curriculum Centre, as an e-book available on kindle. The Curriculum Centre serves the Future Academy group, set up by John Nash, who ‘is a wealthy Tory donor, venture capitalist and enthusiastic sponsor of academies’ and ‘has been appointed an education minister by Michael Gove’. He was ‘rushed into a peerage to make him the voice of education reform in the Lords’ according to The Guardian and is ‘a key figure in Gove’s team at the education ministry’. Perhaps that explains why when I initially wrote this section, it provoked outrage from supporters of Conservative education policy on twitter.
The room was packed with NQTs and Teach First twitteratti like Tessa Matthews, Kris Boulton, Joe Kirby, Redandgreenpen, Daisy Christodoulou and a couple of others, who it turns out are good friends. Like me and Hywel.
Anyway, back to the session. Well, it was hot and the room was crowded and Tom was wearing a suit and waistcoat so perhaps that explains why it lacked umph. He said that good behaviour was about rewards and sanctions. And had the grace to admit that it was not an original idea. He accused head-teachers of giving naughty children a cup of tea and a biscuit when they were removed from your classroom. I can’t say that’s ever happened where I work, but maybe it does somewhere. He advised young teachers to lead from the front, put desks in rows, avoid group work and be the ‘sage on the stage’. Hywel Roberts gently wept beside me. That was about it. Then he plugged his book.
Walking up to the incredible marquee that had been set up for the main events, we passed children dressed in army gear, carrying guns. ‘Only here’ I thought – ‘children with guns outside Manchester Academy might not be allowed.’
The room was absolutely packed and the event was set up as a ‘conversation’ with journalist ‘David Aaronovitch’. His opening question was ‘As someone who knows that you are perfectly likeable…could you explain why so many people hate you?…People like reverends and nursery teachers and the like?’ And the questioning continued in a similar vein. It was a move of genius – allowing any audience tension or anger to dissolve into laughter and allowing Michael Gove to present himself as a good sport. I have never been in the same room as the man before. I have seen media images that help to promote the image of a hapless fool simply by showing an unkind picture of his face. He is no hapless fool. This next paragraph might not make me popular, but it is my impression.
Michael Gove is a skilled orator. He is funny, engaging and personable. He is deeply and personally passionate about education and genuinely wants to fly young people, especially poor, young people, to the ends of the earth in a voyage of discovery of knowledge. He has considered, no doubt, many times, what might have happened to him, as a child who was adopted, if he had not been ‘saved’ by his adoptive family and sent to what he feels was an ‘excellent’ school. As I listened to him, I felt a strong tug of empathy. I wanted to give him a hug and say, ‘Look your heart’s in the right place, you’re just mistaken – let go of the DC3’ but then I remembered that I was listening to a skilled politician.
He claimed that it was his job as Secretary of State to provide a ‘clear and coherent’ vision for education and then admitted that the History Curriculum was being redrafted in view of the criticisms that had been levelled at it. It’s good to listen, so let’s not knock that, but let’s not pretend either, that his vision has been clear or coherent:-
1. The uncertainty over what is happening to exams is not clear or coherent.
2. His own testimony to the Select Committee claimed that ‘coherence comes at the end.’
3. The appointment of experts and the subsequent refusal to accept their advice was neither clear not coherent.
4. The atomisation of the schools system and its separation into academy, free school and maintained school is incoherent and fragmented and the ensuing Osfted inspections do not offer a clear view of improvement – in fact many are failing.
5. The rhetoric of improving the life chances for the poorest in our society falters in the face of the facts. 300,000 more children are now in poverty than there were at the start of this government’s term of office. To blame teachers for their problems academically is to ignore the attendant issues with health, well being, access to appropriate learning environments at home and parental engagement. Education can be the answer, but there needs to be clear and coherent social policy. This was my question to him at the end. He accepted that it was a good question and then failed to answer it. His response lacked coherence.
Other questioners pointed out inconsistencies in his policies. A year 13 student pointed out that his changes to resits for A Level, would have meant that she, from a deprived background, would not be attending university next year had his changes taken effect this year. An Art PGCE student pointed out that removal of funding for Arts graduates to train undermined the value of her subject. Some questioners, disappointingly, used their moment in the spot light to plug their organisations.
There were glimmers of good news – the History Curriculum has been altered. Perhaps the new measure of average point score across 8 GCSEs rather than the measure of 5 A*-Cs will raise the status given to other subjects – but it will impact heavily on those schools with children struggling to get five as it is. He seemed open to the possibility that GCSEs might be anachronistic though avoided taking a clear position on that. He spoke of the value of high quality vocational pathways – but still fell back into rhetoric about Russell Group universities. He said he valued ‘good habits of mind’ like grit and determination, which might have felt like a softening on his position on skills, but equally, as Phil Wood pointed out, is part of the Social Darwinism discourse. Whichever position you take, there is no doubt that here is a very clever man, who can use language, when he chooses, to be all things to all people. Listen very carefully.
And then I came home.