Wilshaw, Gove and Creative Pods – Day 1 of EdFest

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.

Michael Wilshaw

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?

Charles Leadbeater

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.

4D Creative

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.

Martin Robinson

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.

Tom Bennett

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.

Michael Gove

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.

18 thoughts on “Wilshaw, Gove and Creative Pods – Day 1 of EdFest

  1. Hi Debra,

    Thank you for the review of the day. It was good to hear about some of the parts I missed. Also glad to hear you’re enjoying Trivium; I’m looking forward to adding I it to my book pile soon.

    I wanted to add though that I think you’ve perhaps taken a little too much poetic license in your description of the exchange between Daisy and Guy. In the spirit of offering readers an alternative interpretation, it’s worth noting that Guy’s question was not directed towards Daisy, and there was certainly no period for her to respond even if it were, given that his was the last of the three introductions. Notably, Guy also refrained from answering his own question. Importantly, by contrast when I tried to latch on to one concrete description of his goal for an ‘educated person’ and asked whether either speaker could provide a suggestion as to ‘how’ we reach that destination, while Daisy offered her suggestion that building the foundational knowledge of children would in time lead to their being able to think in a variety of complex ways, similar to how Guy was suggesting, Guy himself was surprisingly quiet.

    On an unrelated note, thank you for affirming that I’m not part of a right-wing conspiracy; I have to be honest, I neve realised that it was a possibility! To be sure all our facts are straight I think it’s worth noting that none of us are recent graduates, however. For my part, graduation was seven years ago, alas.

    1. Hi Kris – Ha, you see I’m so old that seven years is recent to me 😉 Yes, the Daisy/Guy section has caused quite a stir when in fact my only intention was that neither really seemed to say too much that was controversial and that it was all a bit bland and yes, quiet. You hit the nail on the head there. However, I’m sure you understand that this is how it came across to me and, as ever, I appreciate the fact that you have taken the time to present your own perspective. Thank you.

  2. Debra, I found reading your account very interesting, not least your remarks about Michael Gove. I agree with you, he is no fool, despite the views of others to the contrary. He has engendered such hatred among many professionals that they have seized upon every opportunity to criticise him and attack him on most counts, including as you say, his appearance. I believe he has been happy that this has happened. It has been, I maintain, his most potent strategy in ensuring that his opponents’ power has been weakened and their energy to effectively and actively oppose his policies dissipated. If I am right, he has been incredibly successful in achieving this goal.

    It is not clear to me where serious, sustained opposition to his policies is coming from. But there is something more fundamentally pressing that needs to be tackled if we want to change, for the better, the way education is governed in future.

    You mentioned that “He claimed that it was his job as Secretary of State to provide a ‘clear and coherent’ vision for education”. I wondered on reading your remark whether he actually stated as much. If he did, then it proves to people like me, who believe that the real enemy of progress in reforming education is the system itself rather than the personality of the Secretary of State, that we are on to something. Regardless of whether his vision for education is ‘clear and coherent’, and I agree with your conclusions to the contrary, I believe it is NOT actually his job to determine the vision for education.

    Surely, in a vibrant democracy, it is the job of the SoS for education to collaborate with a very wide cross section of ‘interested parties’ (and certainly not only political parties) in agreeing a vision for education that will automatically exceed the life expectancy of a single government and reflect more than the views of a single political entity. As the Fins demonstrated a few decades ago, to those interested in knowing, coherent policies for education grow out of consensus and take time to implement, far more time than the life of any government. Ministers must come to accept they may be coordinators of change but hey must never be the sole originators of future education policy. It really can’t all be about Gove.

    1. Eloquent as ever John, and yes, it was a direct quote which I think as you say was quite telling. It seemed to me too that here was more reason for an independent body to be setting the agenda for education.

  3. Howard Gardner, in an interview by Cassandra Davis of educationtoday, said “when the answers to factual questions are available at the movement of a mouse or the click of a button, there is no point in spending time committing the information to memory.” We should instead focus on, “understanding the METHODS whereby assertions are made, the way that a question is posed, how relevant data and arguments are marshaled, what kinds of challenges have been considered, how have they been responded to, etc.”

    Daisy is not tilting at windmills as this quite clearly illustrates the ‘myth’ that knowledge is not important. There are plenty other such assertions made in education.

    I am interested that you highlight Guy Claxton’s credentials. If I were to write about him, I would probably highlight “Building Learning Power.”

    1. That’s a good point, Harry, thank you. I’m no great fan of Building Learning Power either, but I do admire some of Claxton’s academic work on embodied cognition and memory. My point in that intentionally flippant section, however, was that the session wasn’t really a battle. That they both said things that seemed to me to be broadly in agreement and that it was, as I think Kris puts quite well, a bit ‘quiet’.

      1. Harry does make an extremely important point in fact.

        “I haven’t read Daisy’s book yet. It is written around seven myths in education – like the ‘myth’ that knowledge is not important. But I don’t know anyone who thinks it isn’t, so maybe I don’t need to read it.”

        As you haven’t read her book, you might not be aware that the first criticism she said she receives is always ‘that’s not a myth,’ or ‘well no-one actually thinks that anyway,’ just as you did. For this reason each chapter begins with a detailed account as to why and how it is correct to say that those outlined are indeed prevalent myths. Ironically, Guy Claxton himself, whom you appear to admire, said that knowledge wasn’t important only two days ago! He said that we have spent too much time worrying about ‘content,’ but this is not where we should focus. BLP, which you say you don’t like, is a manifestation of that thinking, by the man you do.

        When you say you don’t know anyone who thinks knowledge is unimportant, you’re at best referring to the tip of the hat, the nod of the head, that everyone is careful to make. Surely, no-one says ‘we shouldn’t teach any knowledge,’ what madness! They do, however, undermine its importance, and direct us away from creating curricula that expertly sequence and construct a body of knowledge over time, as Engelmann’s research would advise. Even Claxton is careful to say as much at times, and then in the same breath will say but we shouldn’t worry about content, and promote that we ‘build learning power’ instead.

        I haven’t read first hand Guy Claxton’s work on embodied cognition or memory; I would like to, and shall add it to my ever burgeoning book pile. By the same token, I would suggest that you not judge Daisy’s book because its author is ‘very young’ or because she doesn’t yet have a string of letters after her name; it sounds like you’re exactly the target market for whom it was intended!

        1. I will read it at some point Kris, I promise. Need to get my doctorate out of the way and there are piles of other books waiting, as you say. I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t think knowledge is important. But then I don’t ‘know’ Howard Gardner. I also think that it is dangerous to be polarising this debate about education into which ‘side’ people are on. I felt that none of the speakers in that session said anything particularly controversial or thought provoking. That was my opinion and I stand by it. In fact, I’ve been astonished by the reaction, when the ‘meat’ if you like was at the end. In some ways, I’m grateful for the controversy – it’s brought thousands of readers to the blog, but it’s a bit weird. I have, however, added a sentence acknowledging your point that Daisy didn’t get the chance to answer the question about being world class. Her age is irrelevant to an extent, though experience does matter. I am a very different kind of teacher now to the one I was 20 years ago and you will be very different in 20 years’ time too. Don’t dismiss the views of us elderly teachers either! If you want to read more of Claxton’s stuff I would avoid books – though ‘The Wayward Mind’ is interesting. Look for the journal articles – this is where academics are peer reviewed and the deeper stuff emerges. Right – back to Deleuze. Thanks again for taking the time to contribute to this debate.

  4. I read your blog shortly after it was published on Sunday morning. I read it as a grand account of a day out down south where not much happened other than Hywel being as great as he always is. I certainly read the ‘Daisy and Guy’ section as you suggesting it was nothing like the battle royale certain people on twitter were hoping it would be and were building it up to be. There is some shocking stirring on twitter from many who should know better. If I am at all critical I would say there was no need for an edit. Keep on keeping on.

    1. Thank you Richard. Idid feel I needed to clarify the fact that I was only hearing fragments through a window and that it hadn’t really been worth the crick in my neck, but the controversy was very surprising until I did a little research. And then it was just a bit tawdry. Still a grand day out though!!

  5. I notice that you have changed your wording around Daisy Christodoulou’s book. I can’t remember exactly what you said previously but it implied that you were unaware of anyone who makes the case that knowledge is unimportant. I just wanted to add this note so that my previous post makes sense.

    I also think that you should read Daisy’s book and argue with the contents of it, should you wish, rather than introduce an ad hominem argument around who may or may not support Daisy’s work. It misses the point.

    Could you tell me who the “supporters of Conservative education policy” are on Twitter? I didn’t notice any ‘outrage’ myself, only people disagreeing with you. Is it OK to disagree with you?

    1. Absolutely. I think that is evidenced in our conversations and in the lengthy email exchanges I’ve had with Kris. And I hope that I have made it absolutely clear in the text where amendments have been made. Being a supporter of Conservative education policy does not make you a conservative. Offering support for the changes being made makes you a supporter of Cinservative education policy and many of the criticisms on twitter came from this camp. As someone in Australia, I would not consider you in that group and once again, I appreciate your comments.

      1. That’s great then. I am glad that you are happy to debate. I see this as a difference of opinion amongst professionals who all have genuine motivations. I think it is important to acknowledge that it is legitimate to be of the left and also in favour of a ‘pub quiz curriculum’ and more traditional teaching methods. E D Hirsch is, I believe, left-leaning. I am not involved in UK politics, as you point out. However, I have made my views clear about right-wing education policies across the world in a post which I hope you will forgive me linking to: http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/why-conservatives-are-wrong-about-education/. This would place me at odds with most of Gove’s agenda.

        1. Yes, I think you’re right – no-one is in this to see children fail and thank you for the link to your blog page. I like the analogy to homeopathic medicine. I think you raise an interesting issue in the post which is rooted in an assumption that the big private schools deliver knowledge and the rest of us paddle around in skills, but the picture is much more complex than that. I’m getting this example from a very unscientific poll conducted by my son at Oxford, so forgive the crassness of it, but his view is that the boys from Eton and from other colleges at that top, most elite end, are characterised by an ease with which they navigate the world. They speak to him of academic work, but also of teachers who found out who they were, where their interest lay, which paths they wanted to follow and then facilitated that. The explosion in high profile actors for example from Eton comes not from a classical canon of study, but from the provision of a professional Artistic Director, fully functioning theatre, actor training, multiple drama studios and belief. The same is true of sport. It is wrong to say that success comes to these boys because of the knowledge they were taught (at least not merely their knowledge) but the attention that was paid to their individual attributes and interests. We’re missing a huge trick if we think that we’ll catch them up through curriculum alone. Other private schools do not use the same philosophy, but instead pursue a demanding programme of hothousing. He named two who are deemed to be notorious for producing intellectual but coldly competitive students, but I feel it would be rude to name them. My son has noticed that pupils from those schools do not behave with the ease or confidence (or the friendliness) of the Eton boys, but are competitively driven, often arrogant and find it difficult to mix out of their existing social circles. Their education has driven them into the gates of Oxford, but then not really allowed them to see beyond that goal. As for my son? In his words ‘I’m a northerner from a state school – everyone’s pet project!’ Goodness knows what they make of him. Obviously they are all huge generalisations made by a few students in one college, but…

          …The point of this rather rambling anecdote, is that we cannot generalise about state or private, knowledge or skills or any other binary in the system. We cannot replicate the ‘private’ system, because that system itself is so diverse. Nor can we, as Michael Wilshaw did on Friday, generalise about the state sector. Collective nouns are problematic in this debate – they lead us to lump whole sections of society together and it’s something I do my best to resist. I often fail.

      2. I found interesting the last comment about the experience of Eton boys and others who are privately educated. Orla Douglas talks echoes some of this in her experience working in a private school:


        I don’t see that the two goals outlined here though – exceptional personal care and a core knowledge curriculum – would be in any way mutually exclusive. I’d rather love to see both!

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