iPads and Cleversticks: The Education Reform Summit, Part 2

12th July 2014 at 10:40

You know that feeling when you've started an education organisation that's one year old, and in the space of two weeks you go to the second birthday parties of several other edu-orgs and they're in the House of Commons and Lancaster House and you wonder if you'll be able to manage the private room at the Leytonstone McDonalds?




In the meantime, before I go off to search car-boot sales for a magic lamp with a genie, I'll tell you about the second day of the Education Foundation Reform Summit, this time just off Westminster. The aim of the day, according to the programme, was to celebrate the successes of UK education, while looking abroad to discuss what works home and away. 




Gove bowled first, delivering a competent, workmanlike set of old standards. Laura McInerney later made a good point about his speech: he rarely seems to add anything new to them, just repeats many of the old beats and flows. "Do enemies of promise!" The faithful shout. "Not even a Mr Man," grumbled McInerney. "Frankly, I feel cheated."


But I think that's probably to be applauded; rather than introduce a policy-of-the-week, a la The Thick of It, he does what teachers, and I suppose leaders, have been doing with anything they want to be remembered and followed: repeating himself. When I'm asking kids to clear off from a corridor, I don't rephrase it in Yoruba or work up a mime: I just repeat it until it happens. Gove has found his jam, and his jam is very much his jam.


Watch them rock the mike, right 


The day was introduced by Ty and Ian, the PJ and Duncan of the education reform movement, and Ty got us ready to rhumble by reminding us – and delighting me – that the Education Foundation "wasn't just a a think tank...but a do tank". Brilliant, purest Partridge. Then he got a brace of sixth-formers from Brighton College  to stand up and – to their horror, I imagine – turn and face the audience of ministers, school  leaders and worthies. For a second I thought they were going to sing Earth Song. They interviewed me later on in a project run by Apple (in Communist Russia, children ask *you*); I was also interviewed by the DfE for, I don't know, DfETV or something , and I couldn't say which was tougher, although the student interviewer read his questions from an iPhone so it felt like he was checking his texts as he spoke to me, ie, like any normal conversation with a teenager. 


Autonomy International


Next up was an international supergroup composed of Sir Dan Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation; Sander Dekker, The Netherlands' minister for education; Lucia Figar, Spanish regional minister for education; Maciej Jakubowski, former minister of education, Poland; Shengchang Tang, founder of the Shanghai High School and Nuno Crato, the Portuguese minister for education and science. Dekker looked younger than Joe Kirby, and played it straight at the podium; Figar stole the groovy low-ground by sharing from the chair; Jakubowski wore the neatest beard in Poland, where Solidarosc handlebars are more common; Tang was cut short before he could get any speed up and Crato stole the show at the end.


They had all worked through periods of reform in their respective countries, and they had all enjoyed levels of success. And they all agreed on what it was that had generated the success: it was whatever they had done. And to be honest, they were all busking around the same scale. I must have heard the phrases "autonomy", "accountability", "innovation", "focussing on key skills" and "teachers are at the heart of the project" several times. I nearly started handing out Bingo cards. I suspect that it was no accident that these ministers from these countries, from that school, were brought together; they practically harmonised like a barbershop quintet.


Michael Barber


Next up, former Blair education adviser and current advisor to Pearson, Sir Michael Barber. He grabbed our hands and ran us through a potted history of the secret garden of education, which, being brief and to the point, was entertaining. His most interesting comment was possibly an off-the-cuff one, where he referenced how, back in the day, a school once went on strike, but the protesting teachers formed their own school, which was then inspected by HMI...and scored more highly than the original school. "That," he said, "was a real protest," referencing the day of action that was simultaneous to the conference. Even in such a room, you could hear an uncomfortable hush descend. Still, as someone who worked in the education department of the NUT, he's earned his opinion.


He spoke about the four stages of teacher progression in this century:

1. Uninformed professonalism – teachers could work out how they worked, but there was a lot of guess work (the secret garden era)

2. Uninformed prescription – teachers were given a lot of directives to follow but many of them were complete **** (what I like to call the Brain Gym and Group Work era)

3. Informed prescription – more evidence is used in schools (much of it still rubbish), but control and accountability measures are tight (I call this the Ofsted Era)

4. Informed professionalism – teachers and schools making decisions for themselves, using evidence wherever appropriate (I call this the researchED era. OK, I can dream).


I liked his analysis. I'm not sure how easy getting from 3 to 4 is going to be, but as long as teachers can start to make decisions for themselves, there's hope.


Doug Lemov and Charlie Taylor


I make no disguise of my admiration of Charlie's record, both as a headteacher of a Special School, and as a behaviour advisor, Now he's in charge of teacher training, and it's refreshing to see such a qualified teacher, with such a strong track record in the field, in charge of such an important part of the teacher spawning process. And if you haven't read Lemov's writing, such as Teach Like a Champion, then do so. He speaks perfect common sense; shy at first but thundering and confident once he finds his pace. His opinions and prescriptions are all harvested from entirely within the classroom. Both are rare finds in education – experts with no axe to grind. It was a pleasure to listen to them, and it could have lasted twice as long.


New Teacher Movements


Which brings me to my contribution of the day. Tom Sherrington, of the Heads' Roundtable, Aaron Bremner of the Knowledge is Power (KIP) network in the USA, and myself were invited to talk for 3 or 4 minutes each on ways that schools and teachers could sidestep traditional top-down models of CPD, growth and innovation. The three speakers that preceded us (Lightman, I'm looking at you) camped on the stage for about three-and-a-half hours, so when Fordham turned to us and asked us to "keep it brief", Sherrington and I made "f**k that" faces and pitched tent like wrong 'uns. But it was worth it. researchED is close to my heart, and the idea that we don't have to wait for some systematic messiah or education department to fix things for us is empowering. I believe that teachers can, through becoming research literate, be far more discerning about policies and practices that reach the classroom. In a different way, Tom does too. Activism in education takes many forms, but, as the British learned to their cost in India, the most persuasive inoculation against tyranny is simply refusing to comply with its prescriptions, and damn the consequences. 


After lunch, the keynotes continued, but I had to leave. Ed-tech advocacy disagrees with my digestion, and while I'm happy to entertain the hope that technology can change the classroom, the current fashion for its large-scale adoption and integration into classrooms is far from proven. My research into the iPad revolution in schools, for example, hasn't unearthed one single significant piece of research that validates the enthusiastic claims of the tech-zealots. Small sample sizes, surveys of a few teachers, reliance on qualitative comments, research sponsored exclusively by tech firms, research that references itself, and its own authors...while I would love to say that the case for tech has been made, it just hasn't. It would worry me less if it wasn't such a damn expensive project, with such terrible opportunity costs for schools that choose to dive boots deep. You can add to my Bingo Card, "It's obvious how technology can raise standards". No, it isn't.


It was a terrific day. While I don't agree with every angle of their advocacy (a fatuous thing to say; when do we ever agree entirely with anyone else?) what I do agree with is the principle of celebrating some of the things we do well, bringing other people to the table who have their own ideas, and discussing it. Ty and Ian pulled off a small miracle here – nought to 160 in two years. I've got a good deal of catching up to do. Maybe I should call Amstrad.