Wellington Festival of Education 2015 – review

Posted on 20-06-2015

On Thursday and Friday I went to Wellington Education Festival for the fifth year in a row. It’s an amazing event and I’ve come back from every one feeling inspired and excited.  Back in 2011 the festival was on a weekend and I remember sitting in a talk with Katharine Birbalsingh trying to guess which person Andrew Old was. We managed to narrow it down to two people (I sometimes wonder who the other person was) and then went and sat with him in a cafeteria and talked about how surreal it was to meet people you know from Twitter.

This year the festival was on weekdays, there were many more speakers, exhibitors and visitors, but there was no Andrew Old, sadly. I did still get to meet Cazzypot and Andrew Sabisky, two tweeters I’d never met before. I also got to hear Angela Duckworth speak in person, and listened to a fascinating conversation on intelligence with her, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Plomin, and Anthony Seldon. I heard Sir Andrew Carter speak sense about a school-led education system. I had some great conversations with so many people throughout the two days, and still left feeling as though there were so many more people I wanted to speak to and hear from. I also spoke on three panels – here’s a brief summary.

How can we make great teaching sustainable?

I spoke on this panel with Brian Sims, Director of Education at Ark, Sam Freedman of Teach First, and Rob Peal of West London Free School.  We talked about some of the issues brought up in the workload challenge, and of the difficulties in defining good teaching. I spoke about one thing the government could  do to help with workload: continued reform of Ofsted inspections. Currently, I think Ofsted inspections, perhaps unintentionally, lead to the assumption that if something is recorded on paper, it has happened, and if it hasn’t been recorded on paper, it hasn’t happened. Neither assumption is true. I also spoke about one thing schools and teachers could do to help with workload, which is to set priorities. Schools and teachers can’t do everything. They have to choose what is most important and focus on that. James Theo’s recent blog really sums up my feelings about this.

Changing Schools

I spoke on this panel, chaired by Rob Peal, with Jonathan Simons of Policy Exchange, James O’Shaughnessy of Floreat Education, and Brett Wigdortz of Teach First. Rob has recently edited a collection of essays on school reform which Jonathan, James and I have all contributed to. I gave a very brief précis of my essay in the book, on assessment, and explained why I thought assessment changes were the most significant reforms of the past five years, more so than some of the structural reforms which generate a lot of controversy. In particular I spoke about 1) the removal of coursework in many national exams 2) the removal of national curriculum levels and 3)  the reform of accountability measures. There’s more on my blog here about why getting rid of coursework is a good thing. Most of the debate in this session was about Jonathan’s very interesting and provocative defence of an interfering, activist Secretary of State for Education.

Is teaching an art or a science?

Claire Fox chaired this Battle of Ideas session, where I spoke with Rob Coe, Tom Bennett, Alka Seghal-Cuthbert and Alistair McConville. This was the debate I was looking forward to most, as I think it underpins many other debates in education. Why is it so hard to have a fair system of school inspections, lesson observations or performance related pay?  Why does greater expenditure not necessarily lead to better outcomes? Should we outsource decisions on curriculum and assessment to panels of experts? Should we have a College of Teaching? In all of these debates, and many more, we need a definition of what teaching is. Is it an art or science?

In my opening statement, I read out an extract from a Diane Ravitch article where she compares education to medicine, and demonstrates the difference in their evidence bases.  I recommend reading the whole thing – it is brilliant. In the article, she recalls a time when she had to be treated in hospital for a serious medical condition, and imagines what would have happened if education experts had treated her, not medical experts. Here is a very short extract.

Instead, my new specialists began to argue over whether anything was actually wrong with me. A few thought that I had a problem, but others scoffed and said that such an analysis was tantamount to “blaming the victim.” Some challenged the concept of “illness,” claiming that it was a social construction, utterly lacking in objective reality. Others rejected the evidence of the tests used to diagnose my ailment; a few said that the tests were meaningless for females, and others insisted that the tests were meaningless for anyone under any circumstances. One of the noisier researchers maintained that any effort to focus attention on my individual situation merely diverted attention from gross social injustices; a just social order could not come into existence, he claimed, until anecdotal cases like mine were not eligible for attention and resources.

Rob Coe also compared education to medicine, and discussed the start of the evidence-based medicine movement in the early 90s. I feel that the appropriate medical comparison is much further back, however: in many ways, education is like medicine in the late 19th century, when medicine depended less on theory and evidence, and more on the subjective and intuitive understanding of the individual doctor. Ben Riley, of Deans for Impact, has an article here called ‘Can teacher educators learn from medical school reform?’ where he looks at the way the medical profession changed in the US in the early 20th century. I also quoted a great Keith Stanovich article which argues that the ‘adherence to a subjective, personalised view of knowledge is what continually leads to educational fads’. On the topic of education fads, Tom Bennett was, as ever, brilliant. However, there were others on the panel who felt that the comparison to medicine was not helpful: Claire, the chair, felt that the two fields were just too different to make a meaningful comparison, and also pointed out that evidence and science can’t help us decide whether to teach King Lear or computer coding. That decision is one that can only be made through reference to values. I think Alka also felt that the reliance on evidence and science was inimical to the aims of a liberal arts education.

There’s a lot more I could write about, and I’m sure the discussions will continue on Twitter and elsewhere. I’m grateful to all at Wellington for making the festival happen.