The 2014 Wellington Festival of Education, Day 2

21st June 2014 at 21:20



'When the left take over,' Terry Eagleton is alleged to have said yesterday, 'Wellington College will make a nice old folks' home'. Until that bloody and unlikely day, it was business as usual in Wellington college, and Seldon Lannister had engineered Empire weather for us all. Somewhere, a year 7 Wellington pupil was building a solar panel array and piping electricity to Namibia.


If you thought yesterday's report was thin, brace yourself for new degrees of insubstantiality; I spoke for three sessions and consequently saw less than I wanted. But it's impossible to come on and off a stage and dive straight into another session without slowly decompressing in the fragrant, hyperbaric chamber of the Master's Lodge. I think I'd have a breakdown without my dolphin shortbread in a jus of minister's fingertips.


Session One: Me


10:00 in the morning and I was pimping my behaviour wares in the Old Gym. I've been writing, blogging and training people in behaviour management for so long that it almost feels automatic. I wonder if I will ever run out of different ways to say 'set boundaries, compassionately, and patrol those boundaries with consequences'. There's nothing complicated about basic, mainstream behaviour management; it's just hard work to constantly run. It's a perpetual game of keepy-up, and as long as the ball is in play, it can fall. It's more about routines than charisma, dogged repetition and persistence than glory and inspiration. It's a hard dossier to sex up, so I don't try. I have learned that, just as in running a classroom, so in teaching others about behaviour management: repeating your message is essential. I've been tooting my trumpet about the sometimes appalling school systems for behaviour management, and yet oddly, schools still appear to have problems. How strange.


You'd think that something so basic would be a schools's first priority. You'd think that by now every school would have this sorted. Sadly not. I spoke about my Two Schools Theory, that within every school there are always pockets of trouble and friction, and these two schools are frequently non-overlapping magisteria. And, because nothing is hotter than Dweck's mindset ('Osiris!'), I jumped on the galloping horse and talked about the Behave! mindset (copyright: me) where a teacher adopts the mental attitude towards his class that's appropriate for a well-run room: my room, my rules. Cunningly I left exactly no minutes for questions, so I could bail like a spitfire pilot.


Session Two: Bonus Research Level


The next time my face felt greasepaint was a near-secret session in the Spiritual Room (which is smaller than a broom cupboard. I look forward to seeing the 'Money Room' and comparing acreage. Also, strangely, it had books about Learning Styles and Richard Dawkins along with other great spiritual classics like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. Honestly, they'll let anyone in). As it was on during lunch, and we only announced it by word of mouth, it had a 100 Club feel about it. Years from now people will claim they were there, so let me be clear. There were 26 people.


But they were top quality. It was me, Alex Quigley (Hunting English), Irish Bard Carl Hendrick (Hunting the English) myself (Hunting for the bar), Harvard liaison Christina Hinton (Helping the English), and Ian Fordham, chair ( English) all talking about the new wave of teacher/ research initiatives. Ian heads the Education Foundation, Carl and Alex have both become the in-house research coordinators for their schools, Christina is working with Wellington to develop links between their research work and Harvard's, and I have researchED blossoming like a Butterfly Bush before my eyes.


These are interesting times. The current relationship between research and practitioners is utterly dysfunctional. It is a free for all; a market of evidence; a tiresome game of Pokemon where cherry picked evidence is tricked and hustled and made to dance for its owner, and everyone suffers. Research champions, and general teacher research-literacy are the two best inoculations against the gravy trains and the deluge of crap that passes for evidence based practice in many schools. I railed against the top-down, linear model where teachers swallow the enormous, indigestible pill of research at the start of their careers and swallow it for the next twenty years. By the time they pass it, it's too late to see if it was a nugget of real or fool's gold. Solution: for a start, teachers start to become more discerning; teachers like Carl and Alex can perform a hugely valuable job in their schools, reading, filtering, campaigning and educating. Alex Sabinsky reminded us that a basic course of statistics wouldn't hurt most teachers either, and he's got something there. It wasn't exactly a combative session, but it was an extremely positive one. ResearchED has a series of conferences, a national conference, a website, and an RCT with the EEF coming up in the next six months, and I am unsurprisingly very excited. Teacher Voice, and the maturity of the profession, begins the moment we start to take responsibility for our own development and futures, despite any other factors against us.


Session 3: Johnny Ball and the Temple of Numbers


Well, I can tick one thing of my damn bucket list: I appeared on a panel with the wonderful, wonderful Johnny Ball, a man who delivers on the expectations you have of him. He is, I can confirm, exactly the same as the avuncular, favourite teacher he personified in children's maths programs of my youth. At one point when he was rattling away about high aspirations for children, I caught myself in the moment, and I turned to chair Ed Dorrell and mouthed 'It's Johnny Ball'. And it was. It was Johnny goddamn Ball, manic, kind and wise.


Ed managed to steer a path through the choppy water of the brief, which at times veered from Student Voice to the problems of education in general. I have no problem with listening to students- I regularly ask my kids what they thought of my lesson, because I have the skin to handle an unwelcome comment. I bristle when I see schools simply leaping onto any Student Voice initiative because it ticks a box and scratches an Ofsted itch, and teachers are marginalised from professional decisions that should be theirs alone. After all, children and adults exist in a continuum of responsibility and a sliding scale of relative autonomy. We don't let toddlers decide what to do with electrical sockets, and I don't let my kids tell me how to teach... Although I listen to what they have to say in case I've missed something.


Other things I saw:


I made the mistake of wandering into a session with David Starkey and Katie Hopkins. Starkey is intelligent, erudite and forthright, whatever else he might be; Hopkins is...Christ, Hopkins is worse than I had imagined. Her notoriety rests entirely on her capacity to say unpleasant things about vulnerable people. From what I could see, her argument was that poor people should be turned into jam for troops in Afghanistan. Random quote: 'If you fail at school, go be a plumber or a caterer.' I sincerely hope every waiter, bartender, chef and busboy collectively gargles a rubbery oyster into every martini and meal she orders for the rest of her life. Because they failed. They didn't succeed like the rapacious, carnivorous Hopkins and her anti-life philosophy where cruelty is called justice and lucky breaks are called manifest destiny.


She finished her incomprehensible stream of consciousness with a rant about how nobody is allowed to win things at Sports Days any more, as if she was worried she hadn't been quite vile enough to earn her travel expenses.


David Starkey said he 'Could not give a f*** about Sport,' which surprised those of us who thrilled at his recent appearances in the Olympic Heptathlon. As the Greeks said, 'A healthy mind in a WHOAH is that trifle?' He then had a pop at Keith Vaz for being a bit tubby, and Keith Vaz looked sad and rubbed his tummy a bit to soothe himself.


I also saw Starkey on his solo spot. I had the right company, as I was sitting next to the flame haired Enfant terrible, John David Blake. It took a while for him to find his pace, but when he did, he galloped. He's a living embodiment of competence breeding confidence; of facts facilitating fluency. He's also the avatar of *** and vinegar, but I'd rather listen to his incendiary, informed bluster than a thousand Katie Hopkins. 'Journalists know f*** all,' he said later on. Discuss.


He dropped ball a bit when he said that Britain was the envy of the world for its behaviour, and I wondered if by 'world' he meant 'nowhere'. Easy mistake to make. He made up for it with his encapsulation of Western Civilisation- 'Plato to NATO' he called it. 'Modernity,' he said, 'Was the greatest period of Renaissance ever.' Education as he sees it, is the transmission of scientific, cultural and academic legacy, and I have no problem with that. We are, I frequently think, one careless generation away from the cave. That makes teachers important.


The Festival is vast; it's focus is...well, everything really. Which has the possibility to dissolve it in the acid bath of pointlessness, the Universal solvent. Instead, the vigour of its organisation and the military execution of its logistical cat's cradle makes it, I have to say, the unmissable event of the educalendar. Visiting it is like coming to edunerd Olympus. To be fair, the location might also be an asset. Maybe. David James (despite his obvious villainy), Seldon, and all the rest of the team deserve kudos for creating something so vital, so enjoyable, and so damn interesting. I hope it survives when Seldon's successor take the helm of the TARDIS.


As I left Starkey's pantomime, I heard him say 'Of course, Anthony Seldon's knighthood isn't a real one, given it isn't located within an order of Knights,' or something. The shadows were growing long, and it was time to go. And, of course, to blog.