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The Festival of Education 2012: The Teacher’s Olympics

‘You want what Anne Boleyn got? DO YOU?’

Last year, AA Gill christened it ‘Glastonbury for swots’. This year, before anyone else cuts in, I’m dubbing it The Isle of Wight Festival for Edunerds . Or perhaps The Avalon for Teacher Tweeters, as I couldn’t take a step without tripping over people I had only ever known as Funkalicious Pastry or Digital Classroom Integrator (Twitter bio: ‘interested in innovation, new ways of learning,and 21st century classrooms!’ Always the exclamation mark, always. My guide to exclamation marks: look back at whatever you’ve written, and if you see an exclamation  mark, take the damn thing out and stamp on it until it cracks.)

Or maybe it was the Ragnarok of David Starkey. He certainly seems to save up his best shit for the Festival every year It’s his gift to the world, apparently. But I’ll give you details as I get them, because, like some clueless anti-Cassandra, I neglected to witness the session where he and an Independent journalist had a jackets-and-jewellery-off ruck. The word on the fine shingled pavilions of Wellington was that he said….well, you know the kind of things he says, and she got all OH NO YOU JUST DIDN’T and he was all like YOU HEARD ME BITCH and she was all OH YOU DID NOT JUST CALL ME A BITCH and he was like BITCH ARE YOU DEAF?

Or something. I wasn’t there. I easily missed the best bit of the day, unless Anthony Seldon’s opening speech was more spectacular than even I imagined.  I can only hope that David Cannadine turns up tomorrow and tells Stephen Twigg to start turning the jobless into dogfoodor something, just to keep the momentum going.


If you’re unfamiliar with the Festival of Education, it’s quite something. In its third year, it attracts all the usual  people interested in education- digital robber-barons circling the booty of the education sector like privateers, ideologues, zealots of all poles, the well meaning, the opportunists, and so many axes to grind one can imagine that Middle Earth is quite empty of dwarfs. And me, of course. My axe is tiny. Fortunately I have a large classroom.

The Festival is like ‘Nam. If you weren’t there YOU DON’T KNOW.

It’s interesting to see so many interests all congregating in one spot like this; I’m reminded of an arms trade fair. But I think the intention is genuine. I was having lunch with Gerard Kelly, the convivial, towering editor of the TES (I’m not joking; he could stunt double Optimus Prime) when the divine Mr Seldon, omnipresent host of the Teacher’s Olympiad floated up; he quite rightly gazed at me with the slightly weary faraway stare of a man who has been running on self-belief and fumes for six months,and launched into an explanation of the water feature upon which we sat (I didn’t say it was a particularly classy lunch- probably pulled unicorn or something) ,and how it detailed the eight aptitudes of the college. It saved me, at least, having to explain what I didn’t do. And then he was off like Tinkerbell to point out the sandalwood basilisks in the chapel narthex to someone from Google.

I was waving my jazz hands twice today: once, interviewing Charlie Taylor, Behaviour B’wana to the DfE (trumping my mere Guru status considerably, which can be attained simply by delving into any box of Cheerios), and later with a solo gig in the Spirituality Room, which was…actually I don’t know why it was called that. I think it was an aptitude. One I lack, clearly.

The Library, before they turned it into the Death Star’s knickers

Because I was ‘on’ today, I neglected to see as many of the other bands as I should have- like being at a festival and missing Shakespeare’s Sister because you were tuning up (see: Starkey). Charlie Taylor was, I thought, a sane, intelligent, experienced man in charge of a substantial brief in education, and no, I didn’t expect to say that either. I’ve read most things he’s written (I over-prepared like a fool; next time I’ll just pick up that day’s Metro or something) and I’d be hard pressed to find a substantive issue we disagree over in behaviour management. You’d almost think that anyone with experience of tough schools and challenging kids would intuitively come to the same practical conclusions. No, that would be CRAZY TALK.

The session seemed to go well. And ONLY ONE person asked one of those questions that isn’t really a question, but a five minute monologue. Warning; if you do this, I will judge you. When someone launches into one, I just think ‘Sometimes you cry when you check your inbox,’ or ‘Your parents’ divorce is showing.’

I’m doing a another gig with CT next week at the DfE (home of initialisms), some sort of Q&A that’s going to be live streamed. I’ll tell you more when I know more, but we appear to be a bit of a double act, although I imagine he sees it more as a ship/ barnacle relationship.

Went to one session called,ominously ‘What is education for?’. I say ominous because such discussions usually revolve around narcissists hopping up and down at each other like crows and waving their angry little fists as they reel off their pet topics at one another, to little avail. But Douglas Murray caught my interest; he started as badly as you could wish for, like a Polish farmer kick-starting his father’s tractor, but when he found his stride, my God he was good. There’s few things more impressive than watching an intelligent man find his voice and speak with confidence about something in which he is fluent. My favourite quote, in reference to (apparently) a video shown earlier in the day where Paul McCartney extolled the virtues of selective arbitrary taxonomies of diet (or vegetarianism), and he said, ‘Why should we listen to him on the ethics of eating meat?’ He followed with a pop at stand-up comedians acting as proxy experts on the virtues of taxation. Dougie, you had me at ‘Oh for God’s sake’.

He spent five minutes bemoaning people who didn’t want children to learn the best of what we had to offer, to utilise the tiny window of opportunity we have to ‘get civilisation to them’, then someone said that teaching a canon of poems to children was elitist, and he nearly blew a vein. Dougie, I did not know you, but as of Monday, Amazon is lighter of stock to the tune of one of your badly hawked books.

I had an unexpected moment of nostalgia when I attended Ian Livingstone (the President of Eidos (think Tomb Raider)’s session; . When I was a lad he was the British face of Role Playing games and the Fighting Fantasy non-linear fiction books which stood in for a social life when I was a very young man. A small bubble of sentiment, long suspended under the sediment of years, broke free and bubbled to the surface. I mean, I wasn’t weeping or anything, but it was touching. He was talking about the need for schools ot teach programming and code, not just more fucking powerpoints, to which I say AMEN, brother. When I was a kid I was programming my Commodore 64 in Machine Code. But I gave up because….well, it just wasn’t something we did in school. Maybe I would have been sitting on  my enormous nerd private island driving a big nerdy billionaire’s super yacht by now, if I’d stuck at it. DEAR READER I WOULDN’T CHANGE A THING I WOULD STILL LOVE YOU.

My crowd was so excited, they closed their eyes.

Wrapped up the day with my session; I think the room was entirely composed of people who read my blog, so all I have to say, naturally, is that I have rarely seen an audience composed of such natural wit, wisdom, balance of form and limb, symmetry of features, and grace. Comically, ironically, the IT was locked out by password problems, so I went a capella, and I thought ‘Ah, it’s just like school.’ See, that’s the problem that most IT zealots don’t recognise: this stuff isn’t snag free; we still need teachers for when the link goes down. I’m digitally literate all right; I speak fluent cock-up.And Bocce, of course.

I loved the session, and it was fantastic meeting everyone afterwards. In fact, at the risk of sounding like a craven Wormtongue, the whole Wellington experience was quite wonderful. The children were breathtakingly polite, warm and composed (thank you to Jaya for showing me around), the premises were Narnian and the whole Hydra-headed beast seemed to run like the engine of an Aston Martin. There aren’t many festivals that could cope with losign the healdine acts (cheers, Mssrs Gove and Wilshaw) but this one made a fine fist of it.

Ah, there’s too much good stuff to get down. Day two tomorrow. I may write something about it.


What would you like me to ask Charlie Taylor? #asktaylor

Remember #askgove? Of course you don’t, it was a fraudulent merkin of a listening exercise, designed to give the appearance of consultation but with all the structure and definition of a collapsed duodenum. Teacher Voice, as regular readers might already know, is somewhat of a hobby-horse of mine, inasmuch as it occupies my every waking thought and damns me in my dreams in a feverish chase. Quite simply, there are next to no (*checks*….sorry, that should be just ‘no’) effective avenues for the opinions of the teaching profession to be communicated in a meaningful way. Any consultation is ad hoc, cherry picked and designed to confirm the desired answer. C’est la guerre.

Any opportunity to match the profession with those directing the course of the profession is something to be seized. So I was unusually happy to be asked to host an on-stage interview with Charlie Taylor in this year’s Festival of Education. Who him? Shame on you; he’s been christened the Behaviour Tsar by the PR wallahs/ compliant news vendors, and is the DfE’s advisor on behaviour management. Man; ‘behaviour czar’- I was stuck with ‘guru’. That makes him, like…an archduke or something.

This blog is a request, a simple one: what would you like me to ask him? Unlike some special advisers, he’s a man of the profession; I like a lot of what he’s said, to be honest, and take issue with parts, so I’ll do my best to unpick and unpack the thinking behind the man who has the prestigious and prodigious ear of M-Gove.

Leave your questions in the comments below (with a name if possible), or send it to me on Twitter, and I’ll line up the best ones.

Your servant


PS I will be blogging and live tweeting the CRAP out of this year’s festival. Possibly even during my sessions.

PPS While ‘Have you ever gone full pelt with a tranny?’ is indeed an excellent question, it regrettably will not make the cut, for reasons of time.

Some links to Charlie Taylor:

DfE advice on behaviour management
‘Bad behaviour should be identified early’
Guardian feature

Festival of Education. Book NOW, earthlings. I’m also doing a ‘workshop’ on behaviour management and education in general there. What more could you ask for? Come along and say hello.

The Sun on Sunday Festival of education: Birbalsingh goes old school, AA Gill, and Starkey’s undercarriage.

Manners we can believe in.
Are we still allowed to say Sunday Times? I’m worried in case Hugh Grant bursts in through my stained-glass parlour wall and reads me the well-mannered riot act. Even though the festival was almost two weeks gone, I thought I’d write down some final thoughts, and I promise I’ll be brief. And in a world where the star of 2009’s barrel-scraper ‘Did you hear about the Morgans?’ is apparently anointed as the Messiah of integrity and probity, I suspect no one will notice anyway. God is dead: we killed him. Now, anything is possible. Next year, it’ll probably be called the ‘The Sun On Sunday Festival of Education and Tits.’ Anthony Seldon better change his voice-mail pin. Or break out his mankini.
Day two was hot: I know this because I took my jacket off, and normally I refuse to acknowledge the Sun even exists, because I’m British, and when (billions of years from now) Old Father Sol starts to  turn into an enormous Red Giant that slowly engulfs the entire Solar System, just before Earth is vaporised into quantum pieces, I might- might– take my second pair of socks off.
Cricket was being played on an immaculate lawn in a way that doesn’t happen in my school, i.e. at all. And there was a fire juggler warming up (yeah, I said it) in a way that really, really doesn’t happen in my school, unless you count the time years ago that someone thought that a can of Lynx would make a dandy flamethrower, which it did incidentally. 
Birbal Sings
Birbalsingh, apparently.
If you follow the popular press (guilty) or the educational blogosphere (send him down) then K-Singh can hardly have escaped your notice. And you could be excused for thinking that, beneath her mighty curly thatch the number 666 could be found tattooed. Great Krypton, but she gets a mauling, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that I agree with the entirety of her analyses (I don’t) or that I think she’s the spearhead of anything transformational, but the majority of things she claims about the descriptive reality of teaching in many inner-city environments is as controversial as custard. But every time I see her in the forum of public opinion, she’s being crucified. Is it because she represented at the Tory conference? Possibly; endorsing the nasty party has never been a PR gold mine, as Kenny Everett, Floella Benjamin and Peter Stringfellow can testify. Is it because she criticised mainstream state education? Possibly; there’s a worrying trend in contemporary debate to see any criticism of state schooling as an enormous land war on the entire abstract concept of state schooling. Which is like pointing out that someone’s got spinach on their teeth, and being arrested for genocide. It’s also probably because she writes for the Telegraph, which is normally enough evidence to damn someone. But these days? I don’t know, the Telegraph is smelling pretty flowery compared to its Wapping/ Hades cousins. Wait ‘til Hugh Grant gets medieval on their asses.
Her speech was called ‘Tradition is the Best innovation,’ and she had a pretty good turn out; cameras, photographers and all. What she said- which was essentially an extended prospectus for her new school- was pretty uncontroversial. If I had been expecting her to announce that all children would be hung upside down and bled to feed the basement gardens of despair, or that Moloch of the thousand talons was Head of PAL, I was disappointed. Absolutely NO promises whatsoever to sacrifice the Jannie every year at Summer Solstice to appease the Old Ones and raise CVA scores to exceed FFT targets, like Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man. Nothing like that. It was all boundaries, discipline, community outreach, uniform and that. Her idea is that state schools benefit from traditional curricula and behaviour standards, which is absolute tosh, because as we all know they learn best when they act as full stakeholders in their own education, partners in learning with the teachers, who are themselves lifelong learners, devising their own syllabi and learning rules for themselves.
I might have made the last bit up. Because it’s moronic. 
Actually, it was all very reasonable, and she seems very reasonable, and I’m still a little baffled as to where the shit storm blew in for her. I think she’s the fulcrum of a number of factors (mentioned above) that draws attention to her like the gravity well of a wormhole. I mean, I’ve read her column, and I don’t always agree, but who cares? Where does this anger come from? I even read a horrible hatchet job on her in the Grauniad by a ‘former friend’ which even Rupert Murdoch would have pulled, saying, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit near the knuckle.’ Still, I guess that’s what one contends with when heads are pushed over the parapet. 
I’ve mentioned ‘those’ sort of questions that people sometimes bring to the Q&A at the end; where people stand up and apparently recite their life stories in the form of an epic poem, and the panellist has to use an Enigma machine to decipher the question. This one was half way through Beowulf and into Paradise Lost. Birbalsingh’s eyebrows practically knitted a scarf as she waited patiently for the punchline; it was like, ‘Blah blah, at my school we grow turnips, blah blah the state of education in Denmark blah blah 22% increase of deprivation index blah blah….’ and so on until the end of time and all that was left was this woman talking and nothing else existed except for this bloody monologue. Birbalsingh response was surprising: putting her feet up on the table, leaning back and saying, ‘What’s got two thumbs and doesn’t give a shit?’ *points thumbs at herself* ‘Me!’
She didn’t really.
‘Ha ha ha ha- your tears mean nothing!’
Restaurant critic famous for being rude ‘is rude’ to someone shocker
Scrambled to the next gig: AA Gill, which was a big draw for me, as I like the man’s writing- restaurant reviews, TV reviews; good God, the man must have Rupert Murdoch’s penile corona on a chain. Gill is by now the stuff of cannibalistic, media navel-gazing legend: the bromance with Clarkson, the cuffing from Ramsey, the fact that he can apparently bear Michael Winner, and so on. He wrote one of the best food review lines I can remember, and frankly that’s rare.*
But he wasn’t there to talk about all that- this was an education festival. He was there to talk about Dyslexia, of which club he is apparently a member. No, I didn’t know that either, and of course the irony of one of Britain’s most celebrated wordsmiths emerging from what most schools would probably call the Literacy Nurture group, escapes no one, least of all Gill, who dictates all his work. (As Bernard Manning once said, ‘Can I use your Dictaphone?’)
We were in the Driver Lecture Theatre, which looked like a set from a Bronte period drama, and it filled up fast. There was a pause as the previous session over ran, and when the tardy first speaker left he brayed at us, ‘Was I running late?! Why weren’t you all at my session?!!!’ Satisfyingly, no one laughed. Gill arrived, escorted to the premises by the sort of strapping sixth form girl that the Daily Mail puts on the front page on exam results day; a minute before I had seen him accosted by a geyser of a woman, and all I could hear was the phrase, ‘You’ve no idea how much you’ve made my day by meeting you…’ before I passed on by. 
Reminded me of a story I heard about Dean Martin: a lifelong fan sees him in a bar, and goes over, gushing about how fantastic he is, and how thrilled he is to meet him. After a few minutes of fawning, the fan adds, ‘I have so much respect for you,’ to which Martin relied, ‘Buddy, save a little for yourself.’
It was odd to see him: he looks exactly like his by-line, sort of tanned and imperishable, as if he and Cliff Richard made a deal one day with Old Splitfoot (only Cliff stopped feeding the meter). He also exuded the calm, commanding ease of a man who knows he writes a fabulously well paid and well-read series of columns, the bastard. And he was wearing exactly the same linen suit as me, although I suspected that there was a margin of several zeros separating my tailor (the famous Jewish designer ‘Emandess’) from his (something unspeakably unique and unpronounceable, I imagine). I was right at the front, and whenever he stopped to think, or for effect, he invariably stared at the spot on the floor where my frayed hem dragged. I’d like to think he was using it as a mandala.
But he was very, very good- polished, and funny of course. He was the first person at the festival I heard drop the F-bomb, although I gather that Geldof would be along later to rectify that deficit. And of course, the first person to swear always gets a laugh. But he was good: honest, most of all- about his traumatic experience of well-meaning but useless education; honest about the limits of his own expertise in the field ‘I’m not here,’ he said right at the start, ‘As an expert in dyslexia. I don’t have the answers for you,’ he said candidly, and for once I thought, thank God, a non-educationalist who doesn’t think he’s got the magic bullet for us all. Thank God.
He talked about how school was great fun- ‘I got laid and smoked drugs,’ he reassured us- but that it was mostly useless for him academically. About how his working life subsequent to school was a patchwork of jobs and incongruity, until he stumbled into the Sunday Times. If people were looking for stories of hope and inspiration, they were barking up the wrong tree; if they had come to find out what education should do to cater for dyslexic children, the cupboard was similarly bare. Like I say, it was refreshing; he didn’t claim to be a guru, or a swami of kids that don’t read real good, like Derek Zoolander. No, he was just here to tell us all how his education was a bit rubbish, make a few wry comments about it, and flash his immaculate, slightly terrifying gnashers at everyone.
And he certainly wasn’t there to provide moral succour for anyone. One Yummy Mummy put her hand up during the Q&A and introduced herself as ‘His biggest fan,’ or something similar, and I could feel Cathy Bates floating around the room. She had a large book stuffed with writing and loose leaves of paper which even at my angle and distance I could tell was some kind of journal. She then proceeded with another one of those questions. Now I should point out that Gill had spent a good five minutes deboning and gutting what he described as ‘those bloody parents he meets all the time’ who in his opinion, did more harm than good for the dyslexic child by making them feel like they were causing all the problems in the family by being different (or special needs, as I believe Satan describes it). And she seemed, it must be said, like an avatar of that species.
She went on nervously for a minute; but Gill wasn’t Birbalsingh, and frankly wasn’t in the mood for it. He probably had a yacht to christen or something later on. ‘Do you understand the difference between a statement and a question?’ he asked sweetly, and the woman looked as if she’d been punched in the ovary. ‘Er, yes,’ she went on, before resuming her monologue about how her son was just like that, and he really understood, and so on. It was sad, because I could feel her yearning to do the right thing, to help her son, whoever he was, and to be the best mother. She didn’t want to be the smother mother, and she adored- and let me make this clear, she adored Gill. Perhaps she saw in him the future success that she hoped her son would be, winning, despite insurmountable odds. Well, whatever she thought, Gill wasn’t playing to her script.
‘You don’t understand the difference, do you?’ he said, or words similar. It got a laugh, because it was funny, and with a straight woman slightly more sturdy it would have passed with ease. But she wasn’t sturdy; she was a bundle of expectation, star-struck, excitement and need, and she fumbled with her notes, as if the question was there, and then she said, ‘I used to really like you,’ in a small voice. ‘Oh, I’ve lost what I…what I was going to say.’ 
And then she started to cry.
Nobody knew where to look. Well, Gill bloody well did: somewhere else. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘That was rude, I didn’t mean it like that,’ he smoothed, before taking the next question as the poor woman put herself back together. It would have taken the heart of a restaurant critic not to feel a little sorry for her, but my sympathy is tempered by pragmatism: here is a man renowned for acerbic, caustic, sardonic, laconic, often misanthropic honesty and sarcasm. He is not, as far as I can see, a poster child for the WWF, or a member of the Care Bears. He is a funny, and honest, and clever and sarcastic and sometimes a bit mean, and that it the creature he is. To expect him to be the celebrity role model that inhabits your expectations is to have an unrealistic relationship with people simply because you read their writing and think that you know them, or worse, they know you, in that way that teenagers often dream that were they meet their celebrity crushes, they would be really great friends in real life.
I saw him in the Master’s Lodge just afterwards; so I thanked him for a great session and then buggered swiftly off before he commented on my cheap suit or something. I like to think that if we knew each other in real life, we’d be great friends.
The Horror, the horror
‘Does this library make my junk look big?’
Finally, it was lunch and then off to another of the Big Beasts of the day: David Starkey, who was late, as befits his position of Grand Matriarch of Ye Olden Times,  and who has a vocal delivery as if everything he says is the coda to some devastating comeback. We sweated and waited in the Marquis, despite its extensive vents and gussets. On he hobbled, apologetic and infirm, having just had an operation to amend one of his club feet; as a result, he had to remain seated throughout his speech, and his injured foot was supported high by a small foot stool, a position which regrettably opened the span of his legs rather indecently into what resembled a collection of boiled shallots gathered in a small linen pouch. In spotlight. Oh, the humanity. 
It was an ignoble way to display one of our national treasure’s national treasures, and if the Sun does sponsor the Festival next year, I hope they’ve got a tent for budgie-smuggling academics along with the thinking man’s crumpet sessions. Phew, wotta scorcher!
His content was familiar, if you’ve heard him speak on the subject before, but always, always eminently listenable. As someone who makes a living speaking in public, to rather less slavish audiences, I have enormous respect for people who can talk lucidly and methodically on a topic for forty five minutes without making it insufferably narcissistic or simply dull. Starkey’s tour of the history of education, intermingled with his own personal history was fascinating. Before the session, I was deeply suspicious of anyone who pontificates about education without having had any experience other than their own in schools; mainly because it means that people end up talking rot about matters they have no expertise in (see: every minister since Pitt the elder, most educational consultants, Tony Blair), but for once with D-Stark I conceded that, from the point of view of class, history and the development of state education, he knew his onions (which were in  plain view, as I mentioned, winking evilly at everyone. In the hot clammy tent, I felt a cold chill).
But his analysis rang a resonant chord with me- coming from a relatively poor working class background as he did (we were regularly reminded) he defined the difference between the aspirant working class, and the lumpen proletariat- the deserving poor, one might say, versus the Chav. I liked how he tackled topics (and terminology) like that head on, with fearless academic rigour, unashamed to explore differences in need and desire among the working class communities. He is often depicted as a slavish lap dog to middle class values, entranced by the legends and myths of nobility; I would say that his vision for social mobility was more realistic than most: pupils from areas of unemployment and poverty need rigour, boundaries, and structure in their lives, to enable them to achieve the opportunities that otherwise appear invisible to them in society, and that if we want all children to have a fair chance at success, then we need to realise that some children need more boundaries than others, because sometimes they’re not getting them at home. 
After the speech he was whisked away in a car, presumably to some fabulous Tudor feast where swans were served in apple-butter, garnished with the eyelashes of virgin Harts and skewered on the horn of a unicorn, I’d like to think, but not before he was interviewed for the Sunday Times Film crew (who, I’d like to point out, appeared to have got lost on the way to my session. Just thought I’d mention that). They put to him the following question; ‘How would you improve education?’
And he, without missing a heartbeat, answered, ‘Get rid of all the faculties of education in every University.’ Say what you mean David, don’t hold back. His reasoning was that the proliferation of progressive thinking so popular in the early 20th century, had resulted in the creation of a kind of dogma, where traditional ideas of behaviour and curriculum had been displaced in favour of spurious, fanciful ideologies that actually destroyed the ability of education to educate.
David, you had me at ‘Get’. 
He’s probably off his dwarven trolley to want to abolish them , but then, he never shied away from going to DefCon 5 with his opinions. 
And after that, that was that. I’d like to say that I stayed for Geldof and Ferguson, but unlike the vast majority of speakers at the festival, I am actually a full time teacher in a full time state school (rather than a famous dilettante or a representative of a multinational conglomerate of educational suppliers), and I have a very real job to do, so I naffed off. It was, I must say a terrific, if exhausting experience. Besides I wasn’t sure what the lead singer of the Boomtown rats was going to be able to tell me about teaching children, so I took a gamble that I could miss it and live. I heard he was a great speaker, but then, the train home to a world of Film4 and lasagne was pretty great too. BBC News phoned to ask me if I could do a slot on the teacher strike when I got home, but I was too shattered to think of heading over to Shepherd’s Bush at nine o’clock so I declined. The great educational media machine ground on without me, and the world was probably a better place for it.
*’The food was terrible. It was the opposite of food. It was doof.’

The Sunday Times Festival of Education Day 2: Babylon! Nuh ramp wid mi!

‘Fyah fi yuh, fassy Burnham clat.’
This is part two of a feature about the 2011 Sunday Times Festival Of Education. If you’re a fan of Tintin, this is the Prisoners of the Sun to part one’s Seven Crystal Balls.
Day one was closed by the Big Banana of Education himself, Michael Gove, who took to the stage of the humid, sultry Marquis in his bluest ‘Call-me-Tony’ shirt, opened with Russell-Brandian abandon to the second button like some kind of crazy man. Clearly he was in the mood to party down, bump and grind, and engage in a meaningful and fruitful with with stakeholders. Anthony Seldon leapt up to introduce him and they bantered like old chums in a slow motion impression of Jeeves and Wooster: Michael plugged Anthony’s book on Brown; Seldon batted it right back at him with the punchline, ‘It was meant to be a comedy’. It was very convivial. And I was still wondering, where’s your tie, mate? This isn’t a Masonic initiation. Gove responded by fist-bumping Seldon, pulling one side of his shirt open, slapping his chest and shouting, ‘Cha! Yuh wan man fi dig yuh battyhall!’
No he didn’t. Unfortunately.
Seldon, possibly realising that I was in the audience (unlikely, given that I only have one brain) decided the best way to wind me up was to invoke Student Voice; ‘Here at Wellington we like students to have a voice,’ he gravely warned us, as he summoned a trio of our future masters from the wings, immaculate and presentable. And wearing ties, I’d like to add- Mr Gove, take note. 
The first one, a charming year nine, presented himself with only a hint of nervousness (pull yourself together, sonny). His question escaped me, as I was too busy boggling at his terrifying articulacy and the general thrust of his statement, which revolved around the idea that he had started up a charity to help fund a school in some third world hell-hole- probably just after he designed a way to irrigate the Sahara and harvest free  energy from starlight. He really was that good.
Gove replied in a way that simultaneously suggested that he was taking the child’s point of view very, very seriously indeed, while also adopting the  slightly sinister sing-song register of a children’s presenter, which suggested as he spoke to us that he really was addressing a room full of special needs children. It was a slightly strained dichotomy, as this nod to the Satanism that is student voice took up half of the session, and was really designed as a way for Gove to present his views in a slightly odd way, using the device of children as interrogators. 
The idea of it being in any way a student voice was of course dispelled by the way in which any stuttering or deviance from what I presume was the intended question on the part of the student, brought Seldon back into the spotlight as he prompted them back onto straight street. 
‘So what you mean to ask the Secretary, Amanda,’ he would begin, pretending it was a question on his part, ‘Was why do we focus so much on exams, isn’t it?’ And Amanda would nod, with a slightly scared look on her face as she wondered if she had missed a syllable, like the Silver Medal winner in a spelling bee. In fact, Seldon was doing no worse than many other advocates of student voice- I typed ‘vice’ there, because the silent mind understands when the conscious one does not- do already. Presumably the questions were farmed from a reservoir of questions generated by the students, which of course gives control to the person who sets the task and selects the speakers. In this way, the illusion of student voice is maintained, but in reality, it acts in exactly as coercive and prescribed manner as any teacher-led activity; only now it has the gloss of the student stakeholder. Frankly, I prefer my behaviour management to be out there in the open, not hiding behind the actions of children. It feels more honest.
Head Boy and Girl.
The second student was a young lady, and her question led Gove into an exploration of the relative value of exam systems, and why couldn’t we have one national, semi regulated board that issued and controlled them all? Gove batted cleanly, and replied that he valued diversity, and it was perfectly right that there should be a range of certifications and examinations that students could take, in line with his support of a market model of education. But he also said that he was taking very seriously the problem of grade inflation, and the ways in which he could tackle it. In common with most of his speech, there was a noticeable lack of meat on the bone; nothing new was announced, no great initiatives that would swarm their way onto the late night news or the early papers. In that respect at least, it was disappointing.
But that’s a churlish complaint in some respects. I was struck, perhaps stupidly, by his confidence and articulacy, even a hint of wit at times.  His best comment (a mistake, I sincerely, SINCERELY hope) was when at one point, he was discussing the need for teachers to have a work/ life balance, and he made the following rather beautiful admission:
‘Of course teachers need to be able to eat sleep and procreate- three things I’d like to see them doing.’
And a thousand buttocks clenched as the crowd gave a collective, ‘Aw, gross…’ It is an image I will never be able to erase from my traumatised inner eye. Thank you, Michael. You kiss David Cameron with that mouth? 
The third student voice was the greatest and most terrible of them all, like the level boss in a tripartite computer game, or the last guardian faced by an Arthurian hero in a three chambered castle from a fairy tale. His name was- actually, his name doesn’t matter, and I have no truck with picking on students, only their masters, so I’ll call him Orpheus. Orpheus was…well, if I tell you that he turned down a place at Oxford University (yes, that one) to take up a place at Harvard, I think you’ll get a pretty good impression of Orpheus. He was tall, handsome, and looked every inch the Captain of his Destiny. The next time you see him, he’ll be planting a flag on the tallest mountain of Mars and inventing a cure for Diabetes. The only correct response to encountering an Orpheus is to run away, slapping yourself on the head and wailing like a moron.
Orpheus wanted to know- and by God, he would find out- what Gove was doing to prevent people like him from being seduced by the lure of better funded and more agreeable universities like the Ivy League. And I thought, My God, that’s the first time I’ve heard  Oxford University described as underfunded and second class. Ten points to Slytherin.
Snape, sorry, Gove, fielded it with acumen, and turned the implicit criticism into a challenge for Universities to look at ways they could better fund themselves in order to provide first class (or was it world class? I forget the comparison) facilities for their clients/ students, to whom they were ultimately responsible. There was a lot of that kind of thing. A great deal of ideology, but without many specific policy attachments, merely hints and nods towards great things in the pipeline.
‘There’s a storm coming, so you’d all better watch your f*cking ‘p’s and ‘q’s,’ he said. 
OK, he didn’t.
‘Crumbs! This White Paper seems a bit queer!’
It’s also telling that he reiterated that British teachers were alternatively tireless, top-quality, sensitive, caring and professional throughout his speech, by which pioint I was getting slightly teary and grateful. Interestingly enough he was talking to Andrew Marr a few hours later and telling parents to get stuck into strike-frozen schools and see if they couldn’t do any better than those pesky teachers. Funny; he didn’t mention that at the time. 
Nice question from some gallant: ‘Can the speaker tell us if successful state schools will be allowed to take over failing independent schools?’ Simple and straight to the bullseye, the man was a hero. Fifty years from now they’ll find his skeleton buried under the new block at Wellington with a hole in his skull.
Gove also dug up the old saw about education coming from a Latin root, meaning to ‘lead out,’ implying that the education is within the child, as is apparently boundless curiosity and a desire to better oneself. This kind of child-centred witlessness stems from Rousseau, that old French trouble maker who, I am assured, used to ask his nanny/ housekeeper to tie him up and treat him like a Big Baby. You heard me. 
While that doesn’t exclude his pedagogy from the big table, it puts his value system under a slightly harsher spotlight. Besides, it rests on something absolutely unproveable either way, and therefore meaningless- the idea that this is what human nature s really like, and if we were only to remove the beastly influence of teachers and society, we would all be raised as noble savages and ideal men and women. This paints teachers as a corrupting influence, and paves the way to utopian moronism that ultimately leads to Montessori schooling and the Steiner method. Yeah, try that on a few million teenagers, and see how many of them decide that art, poetry and brotherhood are the way forward for them. 
Besides, who the Hell cares what the root of the word education is? Gove’s conversational gambit was the pedagogic equivalent of starting a wedding toast with the words, ‘Webster’s dictionary defines ‘marriage’ as…’ Man, who farted?
Education could come from the Armenian stem ‘Educaca’, meaning ‘the feeling you get when you work out how to turn string into chocolate biscuits in a dream, but forget it when you awake’, and it would have no bearing on what teaching is, or should be. It neither supports the argument, nor defines the terms of the debate. My ancestral roots may well be in Hibernia, but I’m not forced to live in a cosy olde worlde theme park, lashed to unsustainable debt. 
‘Come on Snowy! Education needs us!’
Other things he mentioned, in response to the audience questions (I might add that the Wellington students were beetling around the room, efficiently dispatching microphones throughout the crowd. I was reminded of the agents in The Matrix, and feared to catch their eye): the need for successful private schools to adopt, in the manner of a benevolent Victorian philanthropist, struggling state schools, turning them into academies. The danger of this enterprise is that, as they say, when you win, they call you a winner. A successful private school might not be the best answer to a state school’s needs, at least not in any simple sense. I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming that what cures one patient will cure them all; that some of the no doubt excellent practise I’ve seen in public schools would simply turn to offal in some comprehensives- exhibit A: happiness lessons. God. Save. Us.
There was a compliment for Seldon, the Host and Master of Wellington College, when Gove slapped his back for doing exactly this with some working-class school of sooty-nosed urchins, and a back handed dig at Eton (‘the other private school, also in Berkshire’) for not doing so. Ooh, you bitch. I remember a lovely story about a Goose that laid a Golden Egg. The success of an institution might very well not be something that can be replicated by extension; in fact, over reaching might cause the whole thing to fall apart. If you stick your arm too far up the Golden Goose’s ass, eventually all you’re left with is avian hand cream, a feathered bracelet and no eggs. As one private primary school teacher mentioned on the news this week, if he took over another school, the excellent staff he now has would be spread so thin he couldn’t guarantee the kind of success he had previously been achieving.
Like I say, when you win they call you a winner.
And with a ‘Shucks, that’s all we’ve got time for, Gove fluttered off the stage, moist of armpit and wondering which news outlet to turn to first so he could moon at the striking teachers. The Labour wallah staggered into the spotlight like an awkward, embarrassed giant child, fully realising he wasn’t who we’d come to see, and that he had a thirty-second slot before everyone piled into the Pimm’s river being laid out behind us. It was awful. No one could even remember what he said. It was like some angry drunk, pervert uncle had insisted on taking the mike at a wedding to toast the happy couple, and no one had the heart to say no. At least he was quick.
Finally, Gove ran back in with no shirt on, threw up a gang sign and shouted, ‘Nuh ramp wid mi! We be gettin’ crunked onna lawn wit’ my man Pimms and Hennessey. Cha!’
He didn’t do that either.
And that was day one.
Next: Explorers on the Moon.

Day One at The Sunday Times Festival of Education: Glastonbury for Swots*

*copyright A A Gill

When Hercules died, Zeus granted him immortality by transforming him into a constellation. I felt similarly blessed this weekend as I attended the Mount Olympus that is the Wellington College Festival of Education, the old-money Zion of matters secondary-academic. In its second year, I was frankly delighted to find myself invited to pontificate. Teacher shall speak unto teacher, in agreeable, well-appointed rooms.

A depressing example of inner city decay.

I met Old Andrew; I met Birbalsingh, and A A Gill, and Phil Beadle, and a dozen other worthies. I saw David Starkey’s stately undercarriage glower at me with carless abandon; I sat with Peter York as he ignored me and had a scone. I sat on the commode of Anthony Seldon, and held a door open for Andy Burnham.

Reader, I was bricking it.

I can happily walk in front of a thousand kids and talk about Karl Marx or Transubstantiation for an hour without notes. I adore public speaking, even more than your average European tyrant. But as every teacher knows, the transition from that to lecturing your everyday colleagues, is an abyss. More: the transition from home to away, away, away is substantial. The thought of rubbing shoulders with the Educational Premier League was enough to freeze my blood- and it’s pretty cool at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried. The Festival was a peach; it was the peach without the pit. I’m sure that to many of the seasoned performers it was a familiar, possibly even an odious duty, a necessary evil on the book promotion circuit. To me, it was a weekend pass to bloggers educational Elysium. The Sun didn’t just shine, it beamed; it beat; by Sunday it battered. The Masters of the Universe had organised even the climate with art.

They called it a festival: funny sort of festival. My session was called a workshop, and as I told my audience, I don’t trust anything called a workshop that doesn’t involve overalls and spanners. Similarly, I heave whenever someone offers me a forty-five minute lecture, or a book, or a folder, a piece of sugar paper, and call it a tool kit. Stretch a concept far enough and it snaps, or becomes so thin it becomes transparent. When a term contains too much meaning it conversely becomes meaningless. Although I did see someone juggling fire on Sunday outside the theatre, though. Maybe it was one of Grayling’s fans, disappointed by his no-show.

Most of us will grow up in a different continuum to the one that Wellington College occupies. This is earth-2.  And what a world this is: parents drop ten grand every term for their children to become citizens of the city-state that is the College. For that investment, they become members of what is, essentially, Wayne Manor, without the poverty and deprivation. Its master is Anthony Seldon, a man possessed of terrifying composure, confidence and intelligence. He looks like the sort of cove that would take one look at you, say, ‘Oh Dear, how dreadful,’ and walk away. And he’d be right.

The staff were quite spectacularly civil; and I mean civil in a way that makes you want to pinch yourself. I checked in on Friday before it started and the night porter showed me to the visitors’ quarters with the kind of ease, friendliness and charm that only an employee of an uber rich academic establishment can maintain, without a trace of obsequiousness. From that point on I could find not a mote of selfishness, disinterest or indifference; staff leapt to assist in an almost disturbing way. I’ve run a fair few establishments that trade on good service and staff, and I can assure you that this kind of consistency is nearly impossible to achieve, given that it relies on so many variables of a human nature. Mind you, mine were all minimum-wage wallahs, in between the great Antipodean world tour and the next starring role in Casualty as a corpse. Different recruitment pools, I imagine.

Even the security guard who stopped me on Saturday night (returning from a late night curry in Crawthorne- cannot recommend against it enough) stopped his car and asked me in the most civil way, if I needed any help- in that way that really meant ‘What are you doing here?’ but sounded like ‘You seem lost, would you like a bar of Turkish Delight and some hot coffee?’. When I waved my room key at him, he offered to drive me down to the main hall. It was like that.

Not much sleep for me that night; I was too busy going over my tripartite role. In their wisdom I had been given three gigs to perform at, all on the same day. The first had me introducing, and Q&Aing for John d’Abbro, whom, if any of you have read these blogs before will know, is someone I’ve written about so much in the past it feels like he’s a character I made up in a book. Perhaps I did. I could actually answer questions about Dream School for Mastermind. I’m that good. To end up with him in a speaker’s gig was a Killing Joke. The second gig I had was mine all mine: a one hour workshop (you heard me) in Wellington’s famous library. I say famous because Seldon famously decided to reduce it down to the level of an Ipad or something, by getting rid of all those beastly books and focussing on downloadable content. Which just goes to show that the state sector can really lead the independents on these matters: we’ve been getting rid of our libraries for ages. OK, we haven’t actually replaced them with anything, but it’s a start. Finally I was chairing a panel debate between Tony Sewell, Phil Beadle and John Murphy. More of that later.
The Reformation of Citizen d’Abbro.
d’Abbro: before Dream school.

The first gig had me so outside of my comfort zone, if I looked behind me I could see Voyager 1 in the distance, puffing away after me as it left our solar system and entered interstellar space.

John d’Abbro, I am delighted to say, is a charming, friendly, articulate and entirely intelligent educator and human being: the polar opposite to the craven homunculus of education that the recent Jamie’s Dream School experience portrayed. Emailing him before the event to establish the structure, I could tell that the d’Abbro of this world- the real world- was not the same man on the box. Jamie’s Dream School stitched him up like a quilt (and by that I don’t mean the avuncular Mr Oliver himself, but the production company that edited savagely in the search for conflict, confrontation and chaos) by mining every day for nuggets of greatest drama; by insisting that there was practically no way to impose sanctions on anyone; by forbidding the exclusion of the most mental of the inmates- Harlem, of course- even when d’Abbs knew it had to happen.

Apparently there was such a demand for conflict and melodrama that they never showed some of the finer moments which proved that, despite appearances, there was probably more order than chaos, even despite the TV insistence on nearly no boundaries (which left almost nothing but escalating increments of reward). There was even an assembly with a minute’s silence for crying out loud. But unless you were to book-end it onto a funeral or something, you’d never get that on telly- no narrative, no drama, you see. Silence; the enemy of broadcasting, which relies on uninterrupted stimulus and forgets that the pauses around words are the things that lend them emphasis and meaning.

It is, of course, absurd to assume that it was anything other than telly- but to present such a Just-So story to the public was a disservice, given that the intention was to raise the debate about schools and schooling. But there is precious little to be gained if you so heavily fictionalise the circumstances you’re presenting for consideration. We always knew it was telly, which places it on a similar level of authenticity as an episode of Scooby Doo, but it was sad to see that even in those depths, a deeper abyss waits of half truth and duplicity. And the fact that the reputation of people like John could be impacted by it made it even more devilish.

I’ve heard him proudly describe his New Rush Hall group he Heads (a school for EBD kids), and the systems he describes shows him not as the woolly pansy that JDS portrayed, girning about how ‘we’ve let them all down’. This is a man who takes all their mobiles of them at the start of the day; who insists on detentions on the same day that rule breaking occurs in order to start the next day with the slate clean; who holds a daily act of collective worship with a prayer. Reality TV: the great oxymoron of the 21st century. Viewer, beware. As long as narrative considerations rule broadcasting, the tension between entertainment and investigation will always be taut. And in education, we don’t need any more fiction, thanks. We already have f*cking Waterloo Road.

He gave a lucid and concise explanation of ‘Who is failing our kids?’ even as he decried the term kids (I’m not bothered by it, and  apparently the kids are alright with it). Before the session I wondered with him how many people might want to talk about Dream School- I think he was hoping for ‘not a lot. And who can blame him? When you’ve been digging the chalk face for decades, working small miracles with kids for as long, and rolling up your sleeves to get troubled kids (‘troubled’ is my new favourite term) pointing the same way as the rest of society, it must rankle that people see you as ‘the Dream School guy’. Still, fame is a fickle mistress, and parks her haunches where she will- in this case, right on his lap, as the first few questions streamed in with a Channel Four flavour.( I bet Alex Reid feels the same way. ‘Ask me about cage fighting! Please!’) It was Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. John is now one of my latest heroes of education, and I might add, a very nice man indeed, who was mauled by the camera. A lesson for us all, next time we start frothing about someone on the glass teat.

My part was brief: it was eerie to see an enormous camera bearing down on John throughout, and by association, me, so I tried to look thoughtful and Dimbleby-ish. John also got the audience to be quiet by circling his arm in an enormous helicopter blade; you don’t see Robert Winston doing that. Not without a few sherbets in him.

And here’s a thing; have you ever noticed, on INSETs for example, that people love- and I mean they f*cking LOVE- to put their hands up and bore the arses off everyone with their personal sagas? Well the same peculiar rule of narcissism appears to operate in the lecture hall and seminar theatre. Any questions for John? ‘Why yes, I have a question.  But I’ll phrase it in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from a five minute explanation of who I am, my school, and what I think about the state of education. Then I’ll leave you to sieve through it like Tony from Time Team and discern something resembling an interrogative. Thank you.’ The session with John and me was just the beginning. When I went to see Katherine Birbalsingh the next day, one woman in the audience appeared to be pitching a white paper to cabinet. I could see Birbalsingh look at her, trying to find the question with a microscope and a pair of tweezers.

Hello Wellington- are you ready to ROCK? I can’t HEAR YOU.

The next session was my very own, and I had ten minutes to dash there. There was a lovely man who wanted to talk about education, right up to the point I closed the door on my toilet cubicle; it was really odd- as if he wasn’t sure where we were, and I wasn’t in the position to nod and engage. So I engaged.

Whereas the Headline acts were all in the Marquis (the Wembley fillers of Wellington: the dream law firm of Starkey, Winston, Geldof, and Gove) more modest draws like myself were afforded accommodation more suitable to our needs. I was just glad not to have been given a portacabin and a set of juggling pins. The library was bright, and alarmingly larger than I was used to for public gigs. I bet Gove never thinks, ‘Shit, a library- I hope I fill it.’ I needn’t have worried- I counted forty chairs- not, I’d like to point out, assembled in anything like a lecture mode, but simply left at their tables. I nearly got everyone to stack them up and sit on the carpet, in an enormous and middle-class version of circle time. I resisted.  Unlike d’Abbro, my venue didn’t afford me a tie-clip microphone or a laser pointer. In many ways it was just like a very large sixth form lesson.

Birbalsingh: ‘Not Satan.’
I am happy, and entirely comfortable with saying that I think it went well; it wasn’t an unqualified success- I spent so long on the causes of the Behaviour Crisis that I barely made it to solutions and then questions- but it was a joy for me at least, start to finish. I felt like I was on my game, and the audience were polite and wise enough to express mannerly appreciation. Some of my non-gags even worked, so, like any landing you can walk away from, it was a success. I’d like to say thank you to everyone that attended, for giving up your time to listen to me- even the elderly man who sat at the back and shook his head furiously when I said that the point of education was to teach the next generation the best of what the previous generations have learned, in the hope that they do better than we did. Listen: he’d paid for his ticket, and he can shake or nod as much as he wants, he’s earned that. But I’m thinking, what the? Tempting as it was to say, ‘Tell me your concerns, wise man,’ I ignored it. Anthony Seldon came in for a minute- he must have been lost- and whispered in Gandalf’s ear, then they both legged it. I’d like to think that he said, ‘Leave it, Albert, he’s not worth it.’

Oh, and as I was talking, I played a game of spot the Old Andrew, who I was led to believe would be there. I scanned faces- and more came in as I spoke- and wondered. I even pondered.

And then it was over, fast as a bullet. I have to say, I enjoy public speaking tremendously. I even thought about politics at one point, but I can’t bear the thought of bathing in the blood of virgins, brutalising strangers and worshipping Satan. Maybe one day.

Also spoke to some lovely people who had the patience to wait behind- more names than my poor frontal lobe can bear (I write everything down)- and chat, like Ron, and Miranda, and Elizabeth, and Matt and Nick, and even some lovely staff who took the time to come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. Really, there is no greater joy in the act than that; to connect with other people, hopefully to entertain, and perhaps even generate a silent dialogue with strangers, or offer them a stranger’s perspective. That’s enough for me. Paolo Coelho can have the whole inspiration and role model thing. I’ll settle for making some people a little bit happier or thoughtful for a moment.

The sense of relief was enormous; this is the highest profile gig I’ve played, and I only realised how clenched I was afterwards,  when I stated to relax so much I practically unravelled like a rump roast after the strings have been cut.

If you meet Old Andrew on the road to enlightenment, kill him.

For the benighted and uninitiated, Old Andrew is an excellent, anonymous blogger for whom I have enormous respect; in fact, it was the enjoyment his education blog provided me that convinced me that blogging wasn’t all about narcissism and endless introspective analyses of one’s entrails, but could be entertaining and informative, sincere, direct and ethical. He really is one of the best bloggers I’ve read, and if you want to you can find a link to him at the right hand side of this page. You will not be disappointed, unless you believe that children are naturally angelic, there is no behaviour problem in English schools, or ADHD is an empirically proven condition.

I shan’t tell you a scrap about him/ her/ it; whether Old Andrew is a man, Old, called Andrew, a woman, a hermaphrodite, a troglodyte, a child, a worker’s collective, an intelligent thought-cloud or a silicon-based life form. That is Old Andrew’s prerogative. I’m like Tony Stark- everyone knows I’m Iron Man. But Old Andrew is more like Batman, fighting stupidity behind a mask. Granted he blogs more slowly than Continental plates racing towards the Poles, but when he launches, you know all about it. Kudos to you, OA. Gotham City needs you.

There were others I wanted to see, but a body can only hold tension for so long, and besides, I had my last gig of the day- a panel discussion in the Old Gym with Tony Sewell, leader of generating Genius, the aspirational children’s organisation that works with black youngsters. (Can I say Black Youngsters? I just checked….yes…yes I can), Phil Beadle, the writer, Guardian columnist and teacher award-hoover, and John Murphy, the immaculately dressed Education Director of Oasis, the Christian Academy group (and interestingly enough, a Head Master SIX times over by the time he was 42. Holy shit. That gives me….well, I’d better get my skates on, that’s all I have to say). I was chairing the panel, a job I know less than zero about, so I watched Question Time a few times to follow how D-Dimb did it- apparently it was all about taking the glasses off and on a lot, and looking quizzical and bemused at everyone else’s stupidity. I decided to freestyle.

VIP section in the master’s Lodge.
This was a bit more awkward, as we were all perched on a table so small I can only describe it as indecently cosy. It felt like a remake of the Human Centipede. And we were treated to a single microphone between us, which turned what might have been an easy conversation into the driest Karaoke session ever. Oh, and we got more of ‘those’ questions from some people, although thankfully by this point it was more moderately distributed, something no doubt helped by the fact that I had forgotten the session finished ten minutes earlier than it did, and I left the audience about five minutes to get it all off their chest. There was a point when Sewell was describing his education: ‘I was in a failing school…that failed. Then I became a teacher in a school…that failed too.’ And I thought, ‘F*ck me- you’re a jinx.’ Didn’t say it, though.

And I met Katherine Birbalsingh. Nicely enough, John d’Abbro introduced us after the panel, and I have to say that, despite her portrayal in the left-leaning press (normally so considered, unpartisan and reflective), she is apparently devoid of hoof and horn. She was, in fact, a confident, charming and gracious woman who genuinely believes that education is vital. And as I talked with both of them, a truism floated into view: that, despite the blog-fog, and the smoke and heat generated by the media, most people in education share an enormous amount of common ground. If you put any of us into a classroom, I bet most of us would move in ways similar enough to each other to identify us of the same taxonomic group: teacherus professionalis. There are differences in method and means, but the impulse is the same- the education, the welfare of children. That is the axiom that unites us all. As long as you possess that, then you are part of a community that should spend more time standing up for itself, and less time throwing stones at each other in pointlessness and pettiness. I have a few reservations about the Free School movement, but those reservations aren’t enough to make me wish her anything but the greatest of success in her project. She struck me as possessed of laser-like focus and self belief. Small empires have been formed with less.

I might also say that Phil Beadle is unmistakable; there was something profoundly out of place about him at Wellington College, and I mean that as a compliment. He has an intensity and passion that is palpable. He absolutely is the real deal. Example: the title of the session was ‘How can schools be turned around?’ Rather than simply hack away at anything bowled at him, his first statement to the audience was, ‘Why on earth should I claim to be an expert on that? I’m a teacher. I can only proceed on the basis that a school is a series of classrooms.’ That, I imagine is a rarity- a man prepared to undersell himself in a situation where adding an imaginary mark-up would not only be unnoticeable, but also expected by some. 

He asked me at the end, ‘So just who is this Old Andrew bloke?’ and just as I was about to decide how to reply, he was swamped by a fan, or a rep, or agent or something. Little did he know that Old Andrew stood not three feet away……casting no shadow, no, nor reflection neither…

Outside I chatted to J-Dabb, saluted the Gods of teaching in joy at a job at least efficaciously  performed, and made the rest of my weekend. My knotted stomach was now free to enjoy the bounty of the hospitality arm of the festival, which was, I have to say, bounteous- there were secret kitchens, gardens and seating areas for the blessed of invite, favoured by the Festival’s Righteous Lanyard of Privilege. We were cosseted in the Master’s Lodge, Seldon’s modest cottage garret where he devises new ways of manufacturing Golden, Utopian children from the rough clay of the super rich. I can confirm that there were confectionaries and refreshments in abundance, and a stepped, tailored garden so heart-breakingly, Platonically ideal that it could have served as a murder scene in Inspector Morse. It was THAT pleasant. It was an elegant eyrie of agreeable beverages and reading material. As I came out of the bathroom, an enormous security man asked me, ‘Is that a toilet?’ to which the only answer I could honestly give by that point was, ‘I hope so.’

Of course, the headline act, the Beyonce Knowles of the Day was the Big Beast himself, Michael Gove. The Marquis (or Pyramid Stage) was predictably packed, but I wangled my way to near the front. Anthony Seldon himself introduced him in that strange, almost apologetic way that expresses a lifetime of weariness at the intellectual poverty of the dreadful people he has to meet. I missed his opening speech in the morning (I was busy willing my arrhythmic heart back into a pattern more conducive to metronomic employment in the car park, self medicating with cigarettes and happy thoughts) but despite his gnomic portrayal of a cynical Shylock, he had presence, a dry charm and a Leviathan confidence- and why shouldn’t he? The wizard was in his tower- that could launch a rocket. There was much to disagree with what he said, but you would be a braver man than I, Gungha Din, if you stood up and said so. I found his views on education relentlessly progressive- he spoke about the need for student voice (don’t get me started- I’ll pop something), the need for schools to teach creativity, the need for the teacher to be the facilitator, that kind of stuff- his children take classes in confidence (can you imagine? What do they do to children who aren’t sufficiently confident, I wonder? Shout at them?), and lessons on happiness (which I was busily puncturing with my mighty lance in the library earlier on. Maybe he heard me).

You see, that might work in Wellington- the children are supported, functional, lifted up by family networks that value education, that teach the child that he or she can be anything they want. These aren’t children who have been told they’re automatic failures- that they shouldn’t kid themselves on by having aspirations. These are children who can be comfortably invited to contribute student voice, because it will invariably be characterised by self restraint, consideration for altruism, and their duties to the community. East End kids aren’t shaped by this sense of noblesse oblige. They have other things to worry about.

My worry- and it is an enormous worry, and a legitimate one- is that the people who characterise themselves as the guardians of education- the ones who actually have the power to transform and transfigure education in the UK- have got it into their heads that the private sector model is the one that should form the blueprint of the state. And this is disastrous. It’s the same problem when we have a front bench, and a stream of education ministers who have, almost without exception, emerged from the womb of the independent sector. The only time they see the inside of a state school is when they’re visiting it with cameras. And of course it would be far too much to expect anything like an education minister who has actually educated anyone in a state school. We are the single most unrepresented majority in the education establishment today- and yet we are the biggest ball to play with, the biggest prize to paw at. This is the danger of equating state and independent.

So when I hear someone from the private sector tell me that state children need happiness lessons; that student voice will transform and soothe the wounds of our weeping classrooms, and that all teachers need to do is to treat the child as a holistic unit, and let all that lovely learning flow out, rather than restricting it with nasty boundaries and regulation, then I consider such commentators to be well meaning, but ignorant. These are children who already lack boundaries; who are already given too much of a voice in their education, to the exclusion of teachers; who need to be supported by boundaries, particularly in situations where they receive none at home. And as for creativity, may I remind the world, that approximately a third of our national curriculum is devoted to art, English, design, expressive arts, drama, and so on? Creativity cannot be taught by itself; it is always taught through the medium of other subjects. And happiness is a cretinous aim by itself. Heroine makes you happy, in a way. Shall we ask the dealers into the classroom?

And how far are we asking schools to intervene in the role of the parent and carer? And how well do we understand the nature of being happy anyway? Let’s see those hands…

To be continued…

Next instalment:

Gove’s speech, and day Two: Starkey’s Junk, the tears of a yummy mummy, and Birbal sings.

Sunday Times Festival of Education: let teacher speak unto teacher

I’ll be speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Sunday the 26th of June at 2:45- the topic will be the behaviour crisis in schools, how we got here and where we go from here. It’s being held in Wellington College, which appears, from their website, to be based in Berkshire’s answer to the Palace of Versailles. Other speakers include Niall Ferguson, Robert Winston, Bad Boy D’Abbs, David Starkey, Dominic Lawson, Katherine Birbalsingh, A C Grayling, A A Gill, Toby Young, and many other worthies. I can only presume that I’m the warm-up act or something, or that there’s another Tom Bennett they’ve confused me with.

It also hasn’t escaped my notice that there are a few alumni from Jamie’s Dream School on the guest list, so the opportunity to see some of my favourite fictional characters in the flesh is almost more than I can bear.

Still, very excited about the opportunity to do this. The only problem is; where do I park my helicopter?

Click on this link to take you to the homepage for the festival. And a picture of me that makes Brian Haw look like Gok Wan.