Day one at the Global Education and Skills Forum today in the gloriously camp Atlantis Hotel in Dubai, which is even more opulent than the adverts. It’s like Elton John and Liberace designed a pyramid for Rameses the Second. Unexpectedly, I got a tip off that one of the late afternoon sessions (which was listed as having "a panel of distinguished guests") would be graced by Tony Blair. It was like the Stones doing a secret gig.
Or not so secret, as it turned out; the room was packed when I got there with lots of people who were clearly in on the nod. Full already, it breathed in and wore a corset when Blair and his entourage piled in, plus President Kagame of Rwanda and his. What Kagame has done with Rwandan education is remarkable. I’ll be frank, he’ll never win any open mike spots at the Comedy Club, but it’s good to see a politician who makes hay before he brays.
Call-me-Tony is a fascinating study in politics; invulnerable, charmed in office, hated and feted in equal measures. His career after academising education and taking part in wars with spurious reasons involves his Faith Foundation, being a Middle East peace envoy (proving that post-modern irony is now the dominant ideology, not capitalism), and things like this. Some have called him Taxi Tony; Tony-for-hire. I couldn’t possibly comment.
The interview, chaired smoothly by Vikas Pota, was as fascinating as its subject, in a marquis stuffed with international edu-aristocracy. Blair spoke, as he always does, with impeccable fluidity; mellifluously even. But it was a masterclass in dissembling, equivocation and speaking for five minutes without saying anything. Asked directly if he thought teachers should be qualified, he launched confidently into a ribbon-dance about what a trained teacher would look like now compared to 25 years ago – but no answer. The audience were like Pac-Man, chasing the power-ups, never quite catching them all.
There were some interesting scraps. He thought that money was only one part of what an education ecosystem needs; governance was at least half the battle. As the man who presided over the Fast Track and the Specialist Schools programme, I can’t think what he means, and I say that as someone who was given a laptop, camera and printer (not to mention being sent on training weekends to learn about NLP and Brain Gym) on the public dollar during his reign. He threw money at education (education, education), it’s true, but often it was as effective as throwing money at a slot machine.
An education minister from Buenos Aires asked why he and his successor Brown became advocates of global education only after they left office. Blair made mincemeat of it: "Next time you run for election, tell people your main concern is the children of Shanghai."
He also affirmed that he believed schools should be more free to innovate; bureaucracies, he thought, were good at maintaining the status quo, but bad when you wanted to change things. If he were running education now (watch your back Morgan, I wouldn’t put it past him to cross the sword lines just to bury one in your ribs), he said he would be experimenting more. Technology, he said, was essential to improving education, and I crossed that off my Edu-Bingo card as he did. "Policy should be taken out of the left/ right debate," he said, and it gave me an idea for a question.
The Controlled Trial of Tony Blair
I waved like a crazy foo’, and the gods of edu-bloggers smiled. So far every question had come from an education minister or senior politician. I reckoned it might be good to have one from a teacher.
"Tom Bennett, researchED," I croaked into the mike, conscious that the room – and Blair – were watching. "What role does research play in forming education policy? And what role should it play?"
"[That’s] a very good question, what is the role of research? I think we do need good quality research from outside of government. But I found there wasn’t a good deal of it around." Then he smiled and chuckled. "If you’re providing it, that’s fantastic. If you look at…the twenties and thirties, and the great post war economic frame work, there was a lot of research that translated into government policy. Look at the work of Keynes, he was an academic. But I would say that politicians would use more of that work if the quality of the work was practical. But I used to find too much of the think-tankery stuff I used to get was interesting and stimulating…but it didn’t help me to write my next education bill. My view is that policy-making is an intellectual business. It needs to be evidence-based. And I would love it if we had more really good quality research coming out of institutions that allows policy makers to develop their policies better and more accurately."
The relationship between policy and research is fascinating, and whatever you think of Blair’s educational research credentials, it’s vital for everyone in the edu-research ecosystem to understand how research actually plays in the real world. It’s vital that research generators – and users – understand what research makes it past the bodyguards of Downing Street, what it sounds like to those who have to accept or deflect it, and what gets done with it when it does. These are not minor points; these are the realpolitik of education policy. It’s why I always invite politicians and policy makers to researchED events, although some people have questioned their right to do so. They are incredibly important players in the research world; ultimately they get to decide which research turns from theory into practice. They often decide which research gets paid for. Not only are they an important part of the conversation, they are a vital part. If you want to know more, I suggest you read Instinct or Reason: How education policy is made, and how we might make it better (2010).
Part 3 coming later: The Global Teacher Awards – night of a thousand stars and a million dollars.