The Tide is Turning – Festival of Education 2014

I was excited about coming to the Festival of Education this year – last year the sun shone, the venue was beautiful and I got to ask a question directly to Michael Gove. This year the sun shone, the venue was beautiful and I got to ask another question to Michael Gove. But it was even better this year because it started with a McDonald’s breakfast in a car park in Camberley. And it doesn’t get much better than that. That Hywel Roberts, well, he knows how to treat a girl.



We were feeling ok – me, Hywel and Pepe, in spite of beer and curry and an England defeat the night before. And so the most tricky part was choosing what to see and who to hear. Last year I made a point of going to see people I knew I might disagree with – which is good for you, I know. But this year, I had reason to fear indigestion and so I made for people with whom I felt I had an affinity. I swerved Wilshaw and headed for Chris Waugh. And it lifted my heart.

Chris spoke so passionately about the need to make education about NOW – a subject very close to my own heart. From the moment they enter school, we fill children with a fear of future as if nothing they do now matters except in relation to the future they might have. Chris showed how in his school, the joy is in the learning now because it’s just really interesting. Who’d have thought it could be that simple? Make it matter now. And he showed us how. They have choice. They have attention – their work goes through a process of being shared so that they achieve the glow of publication. They have rigour and autonomy balanced in harmony. And it’s clear they have great, passionate and committed teachers. I left feeling completely uplifted and hopeful for our profession.

I have been dying to hear Tom Sherrington speak for ages. I even dragged him up to Leeds to talk at Northern Rocks and ended up missing it to chase lunch vouchers. So this was my chance. Tom spoke well of the absurdity of the either/or nature of the progressive/traditional debate and showed many examples of how both methods work in his school – a horses for courses approach which of course is true in most schools and even in many lessons. He showed how teaching is a symbiotic dance between these models depending on what it is you want to teach. One angry young teacher was widely tweeted expressing horror at the idea that some children might enjoy making a “maths hat” which Tom had shown his own son clearly had not. This, she said was a sign of low expectations in schools. But there was no explanation of what the hat was used for. Here were children aiming for Level 6 work with linear algebraic equations and in Tom’s opinion, setting a homework to make a Maths hat was an error. It may well have been, but what if the hats were to be worn for an intensive, ass kicking maths day of calculus? What if some kids made really good ones with complex sequences or equations on them? Who knows? I wish MIss Prissy Ass the best of luck with her teaching.

I was almost dragged kicking and screaming into a tent full of people who think that teaching has become ‘Progressively Worse’ over the past few years, but I resisted. Next door was something different. Hope, joy and children. So I went there instead. Peter Hyman used to be an adviser to Tony Blair and then he set up a free school in Stratford. What a breath of fresh air. His premise is that if we teach children to talk properly, they will write properly and thrive. I’ve been banging on about this for years – it forms one of the three strands of my Triple A pedagogy model and so I was all ears. What School21 have done though, is to map out and scaffold speaking and listening so thoroughly and rigorously that it blows all those poo-pooing “group work-child talk-and-peer review-are-rubbish” commentators completely out of the water. They’re only rubbish if you teach them rubbishly. I wish we could have torn the walls down between those two tents and shown those doom mongering nay sayers what those children could do. We saw a lesson – yes, with REAL children. Yes, at an EDUCATION event – fancy that. And those children were joyful, confident and articulate beyond their years. I hope they grow up to be politicians and change the face of this country. I have no doubt they could.

And so it was with a spring in my step that I went into the afternoon sessions. I really wanted to see Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn because I like what they say and what they stand for. I sort of wished there had been a real debate with some of the market reformers on one side and these two on the other but they laid out convincing arguments why market led education has failed. In a nut shell:-

1. Children are not products.

2. They don’t tend to be predictable enough to generate profit.

3. Market driven education systems tend not to actually perform well on international comparison models.

4. Markets don’t tend to value the unmeasurable things like happiness, or the hours a teacher might put in with a bereaved child, or the school play for example, and so they tend to be lost.

5. It’s just really wrong.

Melissa outlined convincing evidence of the above, far less flippantly than I have summarised them, but one shocking piece of information really leapt out at me – that in the much acclaimed KIPP schools, with their zero-tolerance policies on behaviour, there has been a sharp increase in the expulsions of children with specials educational needs and from ethnic backgrounds. For an organisation that claimed to exist in order to improve the life chances of the most challenged in society, this is a damning indictment of how image overrides integrity in the pursuit of PR and profit.

Now then, if you’re a teacher, you don’t miss a chance to hear Dylan Wiliam speak. And as one who likes spectator sports, you’d be mad to miss the chance to see him talk to the man who dissed Assessment for Learning – David Didau. I bought popcorn. It was slightly disappointingly without controversy, but not at all without interest. David very eloquently and reasonably outlined his concerns about AfL in that he has seen it poorly implemented in schools and also explored whether or not we could really be sure that we can ever see learning in a single lesson. We simply don’t yet know enough about how the brain learns to be certain that any method or process is effective. These were fair points and Dylan conceded that there was sense in them. But he also outlined the importance of articulating learning and encouraging children to identify and tackle their misconceptions. There was a nod from him to Guy Claxton in recognising the work that Claxton did in bringing the importance of ‘Resilience’ into our teacher consciousness – a fact that many seem happy to ignore in their disparaging critiques of his work. David Didau, who has himself been highly critical of Claxton winced at this point. All in all, an interesting discussion, the three key points of which seemed to be:-

1. Kids forget most of what they learn (though if that’s the case then they haven’t learned it, surely?)

2. Any initiative is poor if it is poorly implemented (and AfL was very poorly implemented by the government of the time)

3. We don’t really know how children learn. But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to figure it out.

I  was in need of cake so I missed a session in order to fortify myself for Michael Gove. And I’m glad I did because he was really, really late. Anthony Seldon did an absolutely sterling job of dragging moderately famous people out of the audience to keep us occupied. the first of these was a man in goggles who is in charge of ‘Have I Got News For You.’ I should really know both his name and his job title, but as my tolerance for West London media types is generally low, I know neither. He warmed quickly to the idea that he had a captive audience of well over 1000 people and got carried away. There is a fine line between comedy and cruelty and he sprinted well over it with comments about Alistair Campbell too crass to repeat. How Fiona Millar did not leap up, pull back his goggles and let them snap with a slap to his smug little face, I will never know.

Next up was the toilet-weeping-song-writing Teach First teacher from the BBC 3 documentary Tough Young Teachers. He was self effacing, sweet and slightly bemused to suddenly find himself in the spot light so Teach First founder, Bret Wigdrotz came up. I’ve had a burning question about TeachFirst for years and I got to ask it :- “If you had the chance to rename TeachFirst, would you try to avoid the connotation that you teach until something better comes along?” The answer was yes, it was a mistake. I would have liked to ask more, but I wanted to ask Michael Gove one too and I’d hate to be a questioning hog so I sat down.

The main man was still absent and so RM books and Crown House gave us all a glass of wine while we waited which was good of them and then in he came….

Last year, Gove was interviewed by David Aaronovitch, whose questions were so cheeky that they acted like calamine lotion on the audience. This year, emboldened by a glass of wine, piqued by the Secretary of State’s inability to tell the time (we do that in Year 2), the mood was more hostile. @heymisssmith led a spirited dressing down on the use of belittling language that Michael Gove has used in the past. “It is not true!” he protested, “I love teachers.” There was a Phonics Phight with primary teachers heckling him as he tried to explain why he didn’t trust them enough to release the pass marks for the nonsensical phonics test. They booed and hissed him. Pleadingly, he turned to the audience – don’t you want your children to get C grades in their Maths and English GCSEs he asked thousands of middle class parents. I would have liked to know how phonics helped you get Maths GCSE. I had a more pressing question to ask though – I didn’t want to attack the man – I want to know what he intends to do about Ofsted. I explained that one of the reasons that schools were not embracing the ‘freedoms’ he claims to have given us is that we are still jumping to Ofsted’s tune – what was he going to do to ensure that schools were truly free to innovate? His answer centred around recent moves to ensure that there is no dominant preferred teaching style that inspectors will be looking for. But he avoided the real issue – data. It is the deathly dance of data that is really killing creativity in our schools. And I still have no answer for that….

I wish I could have stayed another day, but I had Mummy stuff to do. Thank you to the organisers and to Wellington College for a great day.





2 thoughts on “The Tide is Turning – Festival of Education 2014

  1. Thanks, Debra, for the summary of your day at Wellington. It was entertaining while at the same time making deadly serious points.

    Michael Gove’s assertion that there’s no preferred teaching style rings hollow when he’s on record as saying teachers should stop using “gimmicks” and return to traditional methods.

    Only this week, ex-schools minister Nick Gibb said a recent tiddly survey about synthetic phonics, too small to be of any significance and written by someone who sells phonics material, proved that “progressive teaching is doomed to failure”.

    I’m with Tom Sherrington about the need for both methods in the classroom. I wrote about his “Pedagogy Tree” here:

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