Day Two of the Education Festival dawned rather too early; I was camped out in my van and could have done with another hour or so before the hordes descended. By the time I was decent, and had scoffed a quick breakfast in the almost oppressively convivial surroundings of the Master’s Lodge, I was ready to rejoin the fray.
My first stop was a debate rather pointedly entitled, What’s Wrong With English Schools? or something equally foolish. The panel was ably chaired by veteran debater Clair Fox and consisted of everyone’s favourite campaigning headteacher, Geoff Barton; grammar grandfather Nevile Gwynne; the Teacher Development Trust’s poster boy, David Weston, and Special Adviser to the PM, Shaun Bailey. The lack of any kind of agreed terms made the debate somewhat superficial and everyone quickly reverted to type. Geoff repeated his complaint that Gove doesn’t like schools like his because they’re not academies, and that we need to stop wasting time piddling around with the curriculum and start improving the quality of teachers; Nevile wanted to burn all teacher training institutions to the ground; David agreed that improving teaching through effective CPD would be a jolly good idea, but thought that we should only set fire to the worst ITT providers as some are doing pretty well. Shaun felt that we should stir some love into mix. Inevitably, I’ve caricatured these positions, but we really didn’t learn an awful lot. After proceedings had been opened up to questions from the floor, I tweeted that the problem was that we probably won’t ever agree on how to improve education because we don’t agree what it is for. As if she could see straight into my soul, Claire repeated this nugget 30 seconds later and we all shuffled off.
What with all the hobnobbing and what have you, the only other morning session I saw was David Starkey’s. I had only gone along because another speaker had mysteriously failed to materialise and had fairly low expectations. But the pint-size pitbull was on top form. He echoed many of my own thoughts stating authoritatively that we need to teach students “stuff” and even nodded approvingly towards “the cognitive psychologists”. He argued that creativity depends on having a head full of valuable knowledge and that this is the very essence of how we stand on the shoulders of giants. All this was a precursor to a discussion of ‘British values’, and just as it was looking to be a disappointingly uncontroversial outing, he did managed to make some dubious comments about Islam towards the end. Hey ho.
The afternoon mainly consisted of me. I had two gigs back to back. First of all I squeezed back into the same under-sized Mandarin Centre room I was in last year to launch an assault on what I’ve taken to calling the Cult of Outstanding. Briefly, my thesis is that so-called ‘outstanding’ lessons aren’t all that. If you’re interested, my slides are here:
I then hurried down to the sweatbox of RM Books tent to have a chat about my book, The Secret of Literacy. This was a small, but enthusiastic audience and it was a lovely opportunity to just chat about some of my ideas and answer questions. I laid out the same arguments as I did in this post:
- If we teach in the medium of English then, whether we like it or not, we’re teaching students to use English. But that doesn’t mean we teaching them to use it well.
- Explicitly teaching academic language is the only we to guarantee less privileged students can be academically successful.
- Improving students’ ability to write, also makes them better able to think.
And that, as they say is that. I’m sure something else must have happened, but the rest of the day has disappeared in something of a fog.
My most abiding impression of the weekend is that despite the mighty efforts of some to sweep away the deep divisions in education there’s no getting away from the fact that our profession is a hotly contested ideological battleground. It’s a sad truth that as long as we continue to agree on what education is actually for, there will never be peace between the warring tribes of teachers.
But consider this: none us believes ourselves to be wrong. Everyone I met or came into contact with at Wellington (with the possible exception of Katie Hopkins) has what they consider to be the best interests of young people at heart.
My own belief is that the purpose of education is to make children cleverer. It depresses me that I write this in the knowledge that such a simple statement will probably be scorned, warped and dismissed with others who take a different view characterising me as anything from ignorant to stupid to evil.
Part 1, in which I recap my debate with Dylan Wiliam, is here.