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The Festival of Education top 10 - Education Supergeeks, Celebrities and Saviours

katie_aWith the "Glastonbury of Education" taking place last weekend, we asked Katie Ashford to give us her top 10 moments from the illustrious Festival.  Katie Ashford is a secondary school English teacher, these are her individual views. 

Held in the beautiful grounds of Wellington College in leafy Berkshire, the 2014 Festival of Education was the biggest it has ever been. As someone who spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about and discussing education, I was more than a tad excited to get in on the action. I boarded the horrifyingly early 06:33am train from Birmingham with my friend Jonny, a self-proclaimed ‘nightmare dinner party guest’ (because he too does not know when to stop chatting edu-politics) and we made our way south for a weekend of festival frolics.  All in all, it was a ball and here’s why:

1. Progressively More Awesome 


On the first day I attended a panel chaired by Ty Goddard entitled: “Progressively Worse? Have standards in teaching and learning declined since the 1960s?” It followed many of the themes of Robert Peal’s excellent book (which all teachers should read), and the discussion was a hearty one. The panel was made up of a group of education’s biggest superheroes: Daisy Christodoulou, Robert Peal, Sam Freedman, John Blake, Jonathan Simons, Andrew Old and Geoff Mulgan had a lively chat on the subject, and broadly concluded that standards in UK education have stagnated since the 1960s. And yet, it was not in the least bit depressing; on the contrary, it was great to hear so many intelligent and proactive people discussing the problems and beginning to consider what might need to happen to solve them. 

2. Didau vs. Dylan

Packed into the old gym were hundreds of teachers desperate to hear a discussion about Assessment for Learning.  It was a very interesting and amicable discussion between international assessment heavyweight Dylan Wiliam and one the blogosphere kings, David Didau. Both agreed that teacher talk and practice are vital for learning, and concluded that we need to think carefully about what we use questions to test for in lessons.

3. Gove Loves Teachers

The Secretary of State did show up over an hour late, but he made up for it with excellent answers to a series of challenging questions.  A passionate yet concerned teacher asked why he appears to dislike and blame teachers so much. He replied that he has never done so, but has only ever praised teachers. I’m sure many readers might not feel that this is an accurate account of his comments, but he concluded by saying of teachers “I love them. They transformed my life.”  It was a glorious note to end the first day on.

4. An English Adonis

The next morning I was up and ready for more festival action, and the first speaker of the day was the great Lord Andrew Adonis. He spoke a lot about how systemic, structural changes could help to improve education in the UK. In particular, he explored how reforms to teaching training routes and school governance may impact on pupil outcomes. Adonis believes that getting good teachers in to the profession is an effective way to improve results, and that strong leadership and governance must direct change in schools, particularly those facing the biggest challenges.

5. The Fox and the Gwynne

Next up, a panel chaired by Claire Fox, head of the Institute of Ideas. We heard the likes of Geoff Barton, Shaun Bailey, David Weston and old grammarian, Nevile Gwynne discuss what’s gone wrong with our schools, and how we might fix it. By far the best comment was made by the chair herself, who proclaimed that those who agree with Gove on anything are perceived to be ‘further right than Genghis Khan’. 

6. A Magnificent, Mathematical Monologue

Kris Boulton’s speech was by far the best I attended and Kris had put some serious consideration into both content and delivery. He was passionate, articulate, energetic and full of very sensible ideas. It was a shame that he had been scheduled into the world’s tiniest classroom; the place was bursting with people desperate to listen to him opine. Kris argued that teachers are not made to pass an exam or to learn much about their subjects before becoming a teacher. Though the majority of us have a degree in our subject, Kris points out that there is a difference between knowing about Maths and knowing what Maths needs to be taught in a classroom.  It’s a good point, and Kris believes that a codified body of such knowledge would go towards helping to make teaching a more prestigious profession.

7. The Bread Roll Fight 

…between David Starkey and Katie Hopkins.  Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Wellington grounds…

8. Our Education System is Unjust

Joe Kirby and I gave a speech about how our education system perpetuates inequality. We told two stories that demonstrated how pupils from underprivileged backgrounds are doubly disadvantaged because of the start they get in life, and the schooling they receive. We argued that, although poverty can have crippling effects on young people, educators still have the power to broaden horizons and transform lives. The spirit of our talk was one of optimism: it may sound grim and hopeless, but teachers have more freedom now than ever to do what is right for their pupils and to improve their life chances. The status quo is that only 16% of pupils receiving Free School Meals attend university. Joe and I, and many other teachers across the country, are deeply dissatisfied with this, and feel empowered to do something about it. Our speech was a highlight of the festival for me because, despite my paralysing nerves, it showed me that lots of people agree that things must change. 

9. Celebville

Being an obsessive education nerd, I love meeting the odd educeleb or two. I was delighted to meet Oliver Beach, the Tough Young Teacher who wrote a poem in a toilet and read it out on national television. He was very lovely. I also plucked up the courage to speak to David Starkey, who was sipping Champagne like a good’n in the garden. Other celeb spots included Katie Hopkins (I didn’t make the effort to speak to her, funnily enough), David Baddiel, who was so chilled out he may as well have been lying down, Estelle Morris, ex-education secretary, and Ruby Wax, who was short and loud and American. 

10. A filling full of hope

And so, after a tiring yet delightful couple of days at Wellington College, Jonny and I made our way back up north to Birmingham. Sitting on the train and recounting our highlights of the weekend, Jonny and I came to the conclusion that we are so very lucky to be doing something that we love. In what other profession would you find people spending their weekends at a conference for the fun of it? I can’t imagine many people in HR go to recruitment conferences for the banter, but maybe I’m wrong.

All in all, events like Wellington give me so much hope. They help me see that education is something that people care deeply about, and that there are plenty of dedicated and committed individuals out there who want to challenge the status quo and make schools better for all our pupils. It was truly inspiring! Roll on next year!

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