The Festival Of Education Part 1: Wellington's Biggest Ball

22nd June 2013 at 21:37


Now, I really have to start with Pricey. My first thought, upon hearing of her inclusion in an educational festival was to presume that The Teletubbies must have had a prior engagement. The avatar of ambition and making the most of what you've got, seemed an odd bed-fellow to AC Grayling and Nevile Gwynn (and doesn't that image just chill the sap?). And true to legend, She-Who-Must-Be-Obliged didn't disappoint with her entrance, arriving in- of course- a livid pink mobile home (sadly not the horse-drawn carriage from Sleeping Beauty I had hoped for) with what appeared to be the Pricey crest: Rosea, two Suitors, rampant. Of course. The Pricey could never emerge from anything mean or commonplace; she appears like a Botticelli Aphrodite from the panel of a cartoon. I heard that her talk about raising a child was touching and sweet. A wag observed that the sixth form boys of Wellington were all suddenly very interested in the issue, but I wondered, do teenage boys even know who she is? The shelf life of a calendar pin-up is even more mercilessly brief than the half-life of yoot argot. But then I remembered teenage boys

This is the fourth year of education's annual Great Exhibition, hosted in the stately pleasure dome of Wellington College. The reason that Wellington's milkshake brings all the boys to the yard is down to the diversity of the speakers, the enormity of choice, and let's be honest, the very agreeable premises. This is no middle management conference held in a reasonably priced Travel Lodge. This is the chocolate on the pillow.

Seldon is a man with nuclear levels of ambition, and it's paid off. He's also managed to attract the biggest names in education. Toby Young, Tristam Hunt, Guy Claxton, Adonis, and of course, the man Michael Rosen writes all his letters to, M-Gove. And somewhere, a country mouse mile from that eyrie of worthies, me. Moving the first day to a Friday surprised me, as some might take the view that many people with proper jobs would probably be working in schools at that time. But the gamble seems to have paid off- I met many teachers who had hustled their line managers to see it as CPD (and cheap at that, when you consider the wallet haemorrhaging experience that most external INSETS prove to be)


The first gig I managed to get to was David Laws, the minister for schools. There was nothing new here, but a calm reiteration of existing policies: accountability; an emphasis on bridging the attainment gap; and a worthy focus on driving social mobility. What was good to hear was the acceptance that accountability measures have the effect of distorting school processes, and the admission that governments have been responsible for this in the past. It's good to see this passing into the canon of accepted wisdom. The question is, what will they do to avoid it? His careful, if metered presentation came alive for a minute when a heckler stood up and shouted the song of his people. He really put his back into it, both hands cupped around his mouth in the belief that it would somehow turn his mouth into a megaphone. I could see the Wellington elves twitching. They were built for peace, not war. Outside the marquis, security sentinels stood, oblivious. My God, we could all have been killed.


Another lovely moment when Cyril Taylor, ex of the Specialist Schools trust (Knock knock. Who's there? Specialist schools trust. Specialist schools trust who? That's show business) stood up, apparently with the only intention of waving his book about a bit. Now that takes balls, so if you want to hear what Cyril Taylor was shouting about, you know there's a book to buy. I've heard a lot of after-speech questions that were simply crushingly dull life stories with a 'would you agree?' after it.




Next, to something that promised to be a title fight: in one corner, Daisy Christodoulou, author of the Seven Myths of Education (and I'm thinking, there are only seven?), and one of the most articulate, on-the-money voices in the knowledge debate. In the other, Guy Claxton, the Most Worshipful Architect of the Learning Power that is built. The cult of Claxton is legion; I have many reservations about his approach to the aims of education (because I don't believe education has aims; people have aims) and his can-rattling for 21st century learning (because we're already in the bloody 21st century and we appear to be doing ok with the skills we have). The 21st century skills movement is a jamboree of speculation and wilful ignorance of the facts: there are no such things as training kids for jobs that don't exist yet, because every job develops out of skills that do exist already. We shouldn't be training kids for the future. We should be training kids for today. Everyone is already a 21st century learner. The future will invent itself, through our actions in the present, and whether we do something or we don't we will embody the century within which we live.


Daisy rightly argued that those in education need to listen to what cognitive psychology is telling us about how the brain acquires and retains information, and if you want to know more, just read Daniel Willingham's excellent literature review of this area. When Claxton argues that we need to have a debate about the values that inform education, I am reminded that such comments are beyond the remit of his expertise as psychologist, and enter the territory of advocacy, an arena in which he is as qualified to comment as I am at car mechanics. We must be cautious that high ability in one field doesn't commit us to lending authority in others.


The was a joyful moment when the compere Ian Fordham suggested to a momentarily stumped Claxton that he needed to think on his feet. Suddenly the PA squealed like a pig with its clappers in a clamp, and Claxton's face entered itself for a lemon-sucking competition. 'I consider my answers,' he said, as serious as a child. You could have scraped frost from the carpet with a butter knife.


It was less of a Battle Royale than I'd hoped, but that was because the format worked against anything more gladiatorial. Actually I'd have liked to see both of them with tridents and nets and ***. Oh yes, and Cyril Taylor popped up again at the end, and treated us to whatever he happened to be thinking at that moment. He's like a professional session crasher; a question- bomber.


Next up: Le moi. David James, the omnipresent chargé d'affaires of the festival recognised my stature in education, and rewarded it with a room- the Spiritual Room, naturally- that could have comfortably accommodated the 300 of Thermopylae, had they but been Borrowers. At least I could claim my gig was standing room only. I could see disappointed urchins, noses pressed against the steamy windows, weeping openly. 'I know,' I whispered. 'I know.'


The audience was lovely. I did my usual 'Great KRYPTON there's no time for questions,' and bailed. And I plugged my book.


The festival is like Heaven. Everyone you've ever met on Twitter is there; in fact, it's easy to remember you can't just watch invisibly, or block anyone. I nearly had to say to someone 'I just @d you,' when they didn't respond to me verbally. I met Dylan Wiliam, architect of the most famous black box since Ride on Time, or Concorde. He's also got the shoulders of Hulk Hogan; I nearly said, 'Brother, do you lift?' Plato, I was once told, was a wrestler before he entered pro-philosophy, so there must be a precedent for academics who can crush you in a choke-slam. Big Daddy Dylan, assessment for wrestling. Chris Husbands told me off for being too smart because it was a festival, but I didn't see him wearing a headband and waving a glow stick, barefoot. Christ, too smart for Wellington, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.


But then, Pricey was headlining, so I guess we were in the Twilight Zone.


Part 2: Coming soon. Gove, Hunt, and the Chamber of Secrets