Wellington College was an inspirational setting for the Sunday Times' Education Festival 2014. It could also be heavily featured in a documentary titled, 'Where Pink Chinos Live Forever', yet was a magical setting for the wizards of the education world. As I strolled around the sprawling 400-acre campus, I imagined myself walking down the yellow brick road to the Bullingdon Club. The students, the staff and the man who could replace Attenborough in my bedtime audiobook collection, Sir Anthony Seldon, were incredibly gracious and hospitable and I thoroughly enjoyed my two days on the site (especially understudying on stage for Gove as he was stuck in "traffic"). The festival also reminded me how important it is to believe in the potential of young people and no matter where they are from we can make a difference to their lives.
So, here comes my round-up of the Glastonbury of Education. (New name, perhaps?)
Whilst I was watching Katie Hopkins (a truly confusing specimen), Keith Vaz (self-deprecates on his waist size), David Starkey (agreed to have a StarkeySelfie) and Claire Fox (what did the fox say?) I thought about how we define an outstanding school? Is it Wellington College, Fettes, Charterhouse or Harrow? Or is it King Solomon Academy, Reach Academy or Uxbridge High School? All get great results and all bring in teachers from near and far to observe, marvel and learn from. Three cost you about £25,000 a year and the other three are FREE. King Solomon Academy, headed by the incredible Max Haimendorf, a champion educator, takes Level 2 students and helps them achieve A grades in their Year 11 GCSE examinations. What do Ofsted say? They say Outstanding because students are making exceptional progress in comparison to where they begin. That's achievement. Wellington College students pay £8,000 a term, have access to incredible facilities - a theatre, grounds to hold a marathon, a stunning library and a Mandarin Centre - and plenty of students go on to Oxbridge, most members of the Russell Group and Ivy League Universities. Great, fantastic, superb, can't fault the model. However, I'm frustrated that private schools are seen as the beacons of great education as opposed to superb state schools that create bright futures for their students.
Before I wrap up this promised polemic, here are 3 key lessons learned from the Education Festival:
1) Katie Hopkins, though she doesn't deserve words being written about her, is a repugnant, abhorrent, foul-mouthed, stand-up hate-machine. In her panel interview with David Starkey she iterated that she doesn't believe in social mobility and that low-income students have IQs below 85 and will eventually fail and should become plumbers. How anyone can incite so much verbal putridity in the space of 40 minutes is beyond me. I wonder if, instead of blood, hydrochloric acid course through her veins.
2) Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) is Glaswegian. He also sounds much more Glaswegian than me. I feel faux Glaswegian. Even Lorraine Kelly could prove that she is Scottish at the border if Alex Salmond (future store manager at Carphone Warehouse) wins his referendum. More so than that, after almost two years of teaching, he reminded me that there is still so much to learn and demonstrated that no matter what you do before you teach, or where you come from or how many mistakes you make at the beginning, you can make an cataclysmic impact on the sector, its educators and leaders.
3) Michael Gove is going to, in a couple of decades ahead, have incredibly stretchy joules. Seriously stretchy. But in addition to that, he does have incredibly high expectations of teachers in England. Do I agree that he should? Yes I do. I don't differentiate in expectation with my classes, why should he with teachers and schools? As more schools become outstanding, more research will evolve around how schools could improve, thus making it harder to be the best. But that's how it works. He was criticised heavily around not setting pass marks for phonics. Another point I agree on. Teachers should teach until their students are ready for the next hurdle in their life. They shouldn't stop teaching once that child has achieved their KS2-data-inspired target grade; they should keep teaching, inspiring and stretching beyond the spec. Will everyone agree with me? No. Will everyone agree with Gove? Of course not. He does, however, want the best for our students. No teacher likes policy change though. But you have to bite the bullet, and rewrite a scheme of work, realise that Ofsted is just a game, and get back to loving teaching. If you're going to heckle and yell at Gove from the front row, clearly you should be excluded from the classroom.
The conclusion? Wellington is great. KSA is great. Reach is great; they're all great. Wellington is, though, home to an alumni of champions in every field. There's no arguing that. However, as I look forward to my career in education I wonder about the role public schools can play in raising the aspirations and fierce love of academia in our state schools students. It would be defensive and naive to suggest that all our comprehensive students love learning as much as their private school peers. They are however, the same age, look similar, both probably think One Direction are cool and want to run as fast as Sturridge. They can support and mentor each other through the many corners of their lives. I say we should spend less time arguing against private schools and more time creating an inclusive culture between models to shape our country's youngest and brightest. More importantly let's think about how they can help each other to realise that no matter their background or family circumstance, they can make a difference in the world.
Sir Anthony Seldon gave me one thought that has stayed with me since the first hour of Day 1 of the festival. He said, "what if the cure to cancer is inside the mind of a student who can't access great education."