Summit up: a reflection on the Education Reform Summit

We are now one year PMG (Post- Michael Gove). And exactly 364 days ago I attended a rather excellent two day event run by the Education Foundation’s, Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham. The first day involved canapés and drinks (and Boris); but on the second day, at the Emmanuel Centre (a kicked can’s distance down the road from the Department for Education), we gathered to listen to MG. He was in a reflective mood, and his speech contained some defiance, as well as hope about the future. Of course, by then he knew his fate, and the tone of his speech reflected this.

If a week is a long time in politics a year is, er, even longer. In the world of education a lot has change, but much remains the same. Most obviously we have a new SoS, a majority Conservative government, and an agenda that is still reformist. But what has most obviously altered is the relationship between the Department and schools. Things are calmer, less confrontational. Which raises the question: do we need Summits, or should it be something, well, quieter, such as a Symposium, or just a Meeting with biscuits? I realise that as one of the people behind an Education Festival, loud banners that proclaim their own significance are not exactly something I’m averse to.

But this Summit did feel necessary. Typically, for such seasoned practitioners as Goddard and Fordham the programme is both broad but focused; the names are familiar but have important and interesting things to say. In place of MG we have NG (Nick Gibb). He talked about grit, character, resilience and textbooks which will help you find the right answer…you know, all the things Tristram Hunt will need over the next five years. He then dropped the C word (‘Coasting’) into the room and, being a teacher with an antennae that can detect 37 gradations of indifference, I felt the air quiver a little. Sean Harford, from Ofsted, must have picked up on it too because he spent much of his time discussing ‘coastingness’, as if it had morphed into an actual thing. I think the audience felt this was going just a little too far.

Richard Culatta jumped on stage with the boundless enthusiasm that comes from someone who is both American and works in technology. We were dazzled with stuff that most of us knew, and agreed with, but couldn’t ‘scale’ (a word I obviously have to use much more if I’m to get ahead in the Brave New World of edutech). I have sat through a lot of presentations on tech and much of what is said is outwardly persuasive but impossible to ‘scale’ (tick) in schools with limited resources. For instance, the idea that ‘individualised learning’, using new technology, to construct bespoke courses for all students…how is that possible, ore even desirable? Haven’t advocates of such a ‘revolution’ not heard of public exams (and lesson plans), not to mention Ofsted?

And then there was the now-obligatory dig at textbooks, claiming that resources written collaboratively online are somehow, intrinsically, superior. Why? Where’s the evidence? By then Nick Gibb had left the building, which was a shame as I’m sure there’d have been some interesting exchanges, so I asked a question instead. His answer was evasive and unsubstantial, but he’d probably see it differently. Out of such presentations no doubt things that work will leak into mainstream education, much as in the same way that the preposterous costumes on the catwalks of Paris eventually find their way into the Romford Marks and Spencer. But it will take time.

Thankfully, Ty Goddard then spoke. This man knows his stuff, reminding us of essential reports that need to be revisited. He also said it with something which is missing too often from educational debate: passion. This was a reasoned, perceptive speech that perfectly captured the current climate of reform in schools. His claims were intelligently aligned with key evidence that has to underpin achievable reform. It was a speech that brought together idealism and pragmatism and it changed the atmosphere in the room from one of patient listening to engagement. And the next speaker, Tristram Hunt, continued this.

Hunt spoke with more freedom, and greater clarity, than I have heard him before. Why is this? Why does Opposition, or being out of office, almost invariably liberate politicians? Is the golden cage of power, or the promise of office, so constraining and dazzling that it renders even very intelligent people such as Hunt timid? His talk was steeped in knowledge, wide in scope, ambitious in intent. He clearly cares very much about teaching and learning, and his anecdotes about the schools he had visited rang true (being both uplifting and depressing at the same time). Hunt still strikes one as a rather donnish figure, perhaps more comfortable in an Oxford quad than a corridor in a state school in Lewisham, and this hint of distance was reiterated when he decided not to take questions, but left soon after his speech. Labour need to engage with its audience again, at events like this, and the best way of doing that is through conversation.

And then there were the panels. Putting panels together is a craft, and much depends on getting the right person to chair. These were very focused but, at 30 minutes each (which works out at about ten acronyms per minute) felt overly compressed. Credit to those who contributed that they kept us interested both pre- and post- lunch.

And then Andreas Schleicher talked about the work he oversees as Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. Schleicher is worth the price of admission alone (admittedly, it was free). This man knows his stuff, and for some teachers that’s unsettling. This was a convincing, informative presentation which conveyed a lot of information in very little time. Such is Andreas’s delivery style it is easy to let some rather damning information to pass by (for example, that a lot of teachers in the UK are, academically, average; obviously he didn’t mean you, dear reader, just that schmuck down the corridor). But if we do have a lot of average teachers who have a less-than-secure knowledge of their subject the consequences for our students, and the country, are clear.

A year on, then, we clearly do need educational reform summits (and Festivals). Yes, the atmosphere has changed over twelve months: there more agreement (although some might say this is resignation). Schleicher was right to say that ‘without data you are just another person with an opinion’, but that doesn’t mean that opinions without data don’t matter. What the Education Reform Summit clearly proved is that such events can shape future debate because they bring a diverse range of people together to listen, and to establish common ground. It felt like another beginning, rather than the end of the Govean revolution. I look forward to continuing the debate next year.


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