The 2014 Wellington Festival of Education, Day 1

21st June 2014 at 02:50

If you want a report on what happened on the first day of Wellington's annual edu-orgy, then I'd start anywhere but here. I wasn't there. I'll just stick with what happened to me after I got there late in the day.  

If you haven't been to The Festival of Education, try to imagine the Rio Carnival if it was organised by the Oxford English Dictionary It's not a festival of course; no one wears a large felt hat in the shape of a Guinness, or shîts in the bushes (although I did see David James, the organiser....but no). No one has a whistle. No one is drinking Red Stripe, and crying.  What it is, is an Agora for educationalists. It's Speakers' Corner. It is Oxford Circus. It is New York, in the queue for the Statue of Liberty, where you enjoy a succession of rabid preachers all catchin' bees at the slow line of captive uncomfortables. Some conferences settle on a theme and stick to it. The Festival makes no such distinction: the inhabitants of Babel had more in common. Which is why it works. You want Jodie Marsh talking about bullying? Step into my tent. Want to see David Laws make balloon animals? Queue starts behind the Bertrand Russell Learning Pagoda. It really is quite mad. 

I was was aiming for arrival at 6, quite beyond the latest of speakers, so I was shaking like a constipated dog when I discovered the Scourge of the LEAs, M-Gove, had been delayed until then. No one was going home, of course, not until they had seen the mighty Oz, and the organisers thoughtfully rolled out barrels of Chateauneuf du Pape from the servants' rations to keep the many merry. Alcohol is a great sedative. They also played a video message from Tristram Hunt, and I had to feel sorry for him: he'd gone to the bother of making what I'm sure was a great 'I can't be with you tonight' speech, but everyone was hot, full of booze, and frustrated. In many ways, it was like a singles bar at closing time. 

Wellington beef 

Gove arrived. How do you break the ice with a crowd of sweaty, belligerent teachers? Do what Beyoncé does: blame  the Transport secretary. I might try that at school next week. 'Sorry, guv, missed my year 9s. Strategic Initiative for an Integrated Transport Policy was murder, mate.' Seldon interviewed him with that lovely air of a disappointed piano teacher he possesses. 'Oh dear,' it seems to say. 

I frequently mention what what a good speaker Gove is, so I won't dwell on it, but he was. There were no new policies to announce, and it was pleasant enough. The highlight was noticing that his face and his watch were exactly the same shade of vermillion. I know, who still wears watches, right? 

The Q&A were inevitably more interesting. Given that he possesses the indomitable zeal of a Moonie quarter master, it looks like he relishes such encounters. I've seen drunk Samurai with more regard for the size of their opponents. Someone asked him why he constantly runs down teachers, and to be fair, I think there could be many charges made against him, but this one is a red herring. Every speech he gives includes some kind of salute, testimony and neck rub for this school or that. He even pointed out, rightly that no education secretary gets a cuddle from teachers. The longer you stay, the more people you disappoint. 

Debra Kidd asked a very decent question: how could schools enjoy the autonomy he claimed he wanted for them, if Ofsted were so prescriptive? His answer was interesting: that schools need to catch up with New Ofsted, which doesn't prescribe, eg a teaching style. There's something in that- the fear of inspections has led to as much damage as the inspection process itself. That said, commentators like Old Andrew have tirelessly reminded us all that prescription is still very much in fashion with inspectors, although it might be a little more discrete. If Ofsted can't square this circle, then it deserves the bin. Simultaneously, schools often make their own rack and lash: nobody asks them to conduct mini-Ofsteds, grade individual lessons, or insist on lesson plans. Until we trust each other, though, that's what we'll get. 


Then, a non-question, as there always is, and 1000 people looked at their imaginary watches; I'm all for people having a moment in the sun, but I'd prefer it if they did it in their back gardens. There was a moment of awkward British Hell when a chap from 'an educational CPD provider' (OK it was Osiris) stood up and said, 'OSIRIS, hi we just want to say well done to Michael Gove for talking about growth mindset and OSIRIS OSIRIS OSIRIS learning OSIRIS standards OSIRIS OSIRIS...'  It was awful. It was like being mugged by one of  those  leaflets you get in your pigeonhole and chuck in the bin. Rarely has the God of the Egyptian Afterlife been so enthusiastically invoked. It probably woke him up in the Fields of Aaru. He had a golden phallus, incidentally. Osiris, that is, not the enthusiastic man in the audience, although I'm only presuming. 

After that, a brief tour around British Values (tolerance, courtesy, Mr Bean), phonics (loves it), and the sweaty curtain fell. That was my day, and there were many like it, but that was mine. These events are like stepping into a comic; all the cartoon characters pop out of the page and into 3-dimensions, all the bloggers, tweeters, Merryweathers and Proudfeet.

But there was a meal afterwards where Anthony Seldon invited a few dozen Grand Fromages into the Star Chamber, and strangely me. I can only assume there's another Tom Bennett and I got his ticket. 

Meal highlights:

  • A superb conversation with Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain that reminded me when two people are arguing about a point, they're sometimes approaching the same answer from different directions.
  • Later on I felt a hand clapping my shoulder, to find it was the astonishing Sir Johnny of Ball, still thinking of numbers with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a firework. Having a conversation with him was like sending a birthday present back in time to my ten-year-old self, glued to the three-channel telly, watching this tireless man, gasping and whooping about mathematics. Childhood level: unlocked.
  • Peter Hyman got an uncomfortable grilling about Tony Blair
  • Daisy Christodoulou tom-tommed about short term memory capacity
  • Amazing deputy überfrau Jane Lunnon reminded me I should mention Anthony Seldon's references to endless orifices or something. It was all a bit Blossom Hill by then.
Fright Club
One of Seldon's party pieces is to stir up a conversation throughout the meal. It's like Fight Club: if it's your first time at fight club, you HAVE TO FIGHT. Luckily I spoke last year, so I figured I had diplomatic immunity. 'Don't get me to speak,' I said to David James, the architect of the day, 'Or I will punch you in throat.' I pointed at my throat to emphasise the sanction. 'Your throat.' Throughout the meal, Seldon swooped like a rhetorical vampire on victim after victim, like lobsters in an aquarium. Right at the end, as plates of julienned Wyvern liver and silver-dipped centaur hooves were cleared away, the goddamn parcel landed in my lap as the music stopped. 'Let's finish with Tom Bennett,' he said, and I sent the traitorous James a look that would have boiled copper. There wasn't even a question to answer. NOT EVEN A QUESTION. I just had to 'sum up the day,' which was great because for a moment I thought he was going to be vague. I jazz-handed for my life, for ten minutes, a bottle of wine marinating my composure. 

But this is my blog, and so I can confirm I was hilarious, composed and fascinating. I finished, as I always do at such times by pointing out the window, shouting 'Christ, have you seen THAT?' before setting off a flash bomb and shooting out the lights. 

Tomorrow: Day 2, where the police ask me when I last saw David James. 

The Face of Evil