The Blog

An Inspector Calls (and then leaves)

In the last week of May, my school Bedales held an education conference as part of its series of 'Leading Independent Thinking' events. Two years ago the subject was innovative education, whilst this one focused on leadership. Arguably, these are the two most important issues that the sector needs to address in the early 21st century, a time when traditional educational models seem to be breaking down and the authorities appear unwilling, too slow, or perhaps lacking in capability to make the changes required - a theme that very much came out of the day.

Kickstarted by a keynote address from Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, 'Liberating Leaders' was designed for both education professionals and students - and it did what it said on the tin. Bedales, a school with a long history of innovation, did not stick to education conference norms. For example, later in the day the students took part in dedicated student leadership workshops before rejoining their adult peers for a debate. Indeed, one speaker pointed out that this was the first one she had attended that involved students as well as teachers.

That knighted rebel, Sir Michael Wilshaw, started the programme of events and in his keynote address called for more mavericks as leaders in education. Mavericks he defined as extraordinary, flamboyant, colourful and slightly strange characters, and he observed that whilst these have long been a facet of the independent sector they are lacking in state schools. Moving on we heard from some mavericks who are doing some great things. First were two scholars from the United States. MOOC pioneer Barbara Oakley talked about her inspirational story in education and 'learning to learn', before Danielle Harlan shared some entertaining anecdotes on the licence she was given as a young teacher and how this helped her to become the leader she has since become.

In the afternoon session we heard from maverick pioneer and founder of the Expansive Education Network, Bill Lucas. An education big-hitter during Labour's tenure but now banished by the Conservatives to the 'naughty corner', Bill offered priorities for improving future education that left me dreaming of a rational world in which our political leaders understood the needs of the populace. We then heard from three maverick headteachers - Geoff Barton and Mike Fairclough from the state sector, as well as Bedales' own Keith Budge. Geoff, who took to the stage first and had previously described Ofsted as 'a monster', made an extremely compelling argument about the problems with Sir Michael's framing of leadership, and with Ofsted's model of inspection and what he sees as the constraints it places on school leaders. Moving on, Mike Fairclough's story was my favourite - truly off the maverick scale. He explained how his school makes educational use of a farm and an adjacent Bronze Age settlement, where the students make arrow heads, paddle boats and learn country management skills. However, what really brought a tear to my eye was the fact that this was done for the benefit of kids from a local council estate, a demographic for which education is known to fail. Keith Budge concluded the session by discussing the recent innovation that is Bedales Assessed Courses (BACs), introduced by my school a decade ago to replace what were seen as dull and uninspiring GCSEs.

To close, there was a panel debate involving Keith, Geoff and four students - two each from Bedales and King Edward VI School. I was particularly impressed by the ability of all four students to talk intelligently and respond so quickly and thoughtfully to questions for which they were not prepared. It was a fitting way to close the day, and it reminded me just how lucky I am to be able to work in an institution that creates free, open-minded and independent young people - something we do here, and I believe do right.

Overall, I got the sense that Sir Michael Wilshaw's idea of a good education is very different to mine, and that of others. For him, it seems, a good education is about tradition, deference to authority, and GCSEs and A-levels. I would class him as a pseudo-maverick - a traditionalist who uses unorthodox measures to achieve orthodox aims - whereas I am one who believes current education is inadequate and we need major changes in line with the demands of the modern world. I would say that their questions throughout the day confirmed that that delegates tended towards my interpretation, and it was a shame that Sir Michael left the conference at lunchtime and so didn't get to hear what they and the various speakers had to say.