After moving online during the pandemic, the Festival of Education at Wellington College was back on site and in person for 2022. It also moved date, coming in early July rather than late June, and that had no adverse impact on attendance or interest. With around 400 speakers and over 5,000 attendees over the two days, it’s back to being an essential part of the professional learning calendar. Here are some notes from the sessions I attended, and I’ve hyperlinked as much as I can to let you follow up the aspects that interest you most. If you want a sense of what it’s like, there’s a short highlights video here.
David Olusoga (@DavidOlusoga): Black and British – A Short Essential History
I began with a headliner, and he definitely did not disappoint. David spoke candidly about his personal experience (including being driven out of his family home by the National Front), his publishing career, and his belief that “histories are on the march”. He has multiple identities: Nigerian; half white working-class (with Scottish roots); black; and British. The book that helped him to make sense of these identities was Staying Power (1984) by Peter Friar, and he apologised for not writing children’s fiction sooner because he “looked down on children’s publishing, despite my own experiences.” He, and the publishing industry, are now making up for those mistakes.
He was very clear about the failures of the current education system. For GCSE History in 2020, for example, there were 59 options offered by the various exam boards. Only 12 of these cover black history, and even then only 5 are about black British history (the remainder are about slavery and civil rights in the USA). He said something that particularly resonated with me, as a history teacher:
“It shouldn’t have needed the murder of an African American outside a convenience store for change to happen… There is an enormous shift in attitudes that is being driven by an underlying generational change. The younger generation don’t believe that history is a place you go to be taught comforting myths.”
Once we moved into the Q&A it really opened up on some huge issues. When asked about his views on Black History Month, he gave the most powerful defence of BHM I’ve ever heard. Going back to 1987, it has been a significant vehicle for change.
“It’s one of the greatest achievements of the black British community – a moment when we supercharge black history and turn up the volume. Teachers have used BHM as a battering ram against resistance to introducing this history to their school.”
To argue that we need black history 12 months a year “sounds cool but is incredibly destructive…to call it tokenistic is ludicrous” especially as we don’t ever hear people challenging Holocaust Memorial Day on the same basis. He used the word “deepisms” to describe the kind of sloganeering that sounds good but is actually reductive and false – a point we’ll return to later with Hashi Mohamed.
On EDI, he argues that “the legal and financial sectors are doing better than the liberal arts and education because we gave ourselves a free pass.” He also disagrees with the narrative of victimhood around slavery history:
“If you are descended from slaves you are descended from survivors. The last thing we should do is think about them as victims, there was resistance at every stage of their life. We should remember them as heroic.”
A final question that was very tough for David (or anyone) to answer came from a young woman at the front of the audience: what colour is your heart today? His answer?
“I believe in empathy. If we can be empathetic we can tell the history of any people. History makes you empathise with people and that’s the most valuable thing for children to learn.”
Sir Anthony Seldon (@AnthonySeldon): 5 Things That Will Change in Education in the Next 10 Years and 5 That Won’t
If David Olusoga set the intellectual and moral tone for the festival, Sir Anthony Seldon brought the big picture and the bounce. Bear in mind that this was Boris Johnson’s denouement, when we had three education secretaries in a day, so Anthony was moving seamlessly between presentations and media interviews. His audience got the benefit of multiple riffs on current politics throughout, much to their delight.
He began with an overview of the Times Education Commission in discussion with political journalist Rachel Sylvester. The Commission focused on what people outside the education system want to see, not what the education system wants for itself. This was driven by concern at the increasing narrowing of the system, and a desire for change across different sectors of society. The consensus that emerged was that “education should not be done to children and teachers, but with them and for them.” The UK is being left behind internationally, compared to forward thinking systems like Holland (which leads on wellbeing) and Estonia (which leads on robotics). Here:
“one third of young people are told that they have failed by age 16 and those are disproportionately from the most disadvantaged areas of society. One third leave school with mental health issues.”
So Anthony posed us a question: in the next decade, what five things will change and what will stay the same? He gave us some time to consider our answers to that, and as he went through his list he challenged us to see if our predictions were aligned.
So what will change? He definitely sees a change to exams, development of the curriculum, family engagement in education (the idea of ‘porous walls’ was floated), the use of technology (especially AI and green-tech) and the impact of EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion). And what will stay the same? Pathways into higher education, early years education, support for parenting, and the political control of the system.
Some of the stats he presented were terrifying. In the last 10 years government spending on health has gone up 42% compared to just 4% in education. He didn’t feel that funding, or the position of teachers and staff will change a great deal. Ofsted was deemed too confrontational, with only 1% of teachers believing it led to positive changes in their school.
On political change, his prediction was that we wouldn’t see a general election until 2024 and that Wes Streeting will replace Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader before that. You heard it here first. He then finished in a very upbeat note, which was well received:
“Learning is an extraordinary joy when we set it up in the right way. We have a natural desire to learn.”
Panel: The Importance of Teacher-led CPD
This had a formidable line-up consisting of Rae Snape (@RaeSnape), Nikki Cunningham-Smith (@NikkiCuSmith) and Adrian Bethune (@AdrianBethune), and they did exceptionally well to battle the heat in the marquee. There was early emphasis on the importance of dialogic communities, meaning “teachers reading the same research and debating it.” I saw this just before I did my own session and was pleased to hear the importance of school visits, using social media, and reading groups as methods of effective and informal professional learning. There was also reference to the DofE’s Standards for Teachers’ Professional Development document which emphasises that “Professional development must be prioritised by school leadership.”
Adrian cautioned about anything that might be the ‘next big thing’, with a reference to the recent EEF report about cognitive psychology. Is this a case of academic research being transferred into the classroom as a lethal mutation? This led to a point being made by Nikki that you have to be careful about what you embed and how you evaluate that, as with multiple new initiatives being launched it can lead to a very varied experience for pupils as they move from one classroom to the next. She put it very well when she said “if you are interested in it and believe in it, it will be sustained over time.”
There was an interesting discussion at the end about the best CPD that the panellists had ever done. For Nikki this was a 3-day course by Bill Rogers on behaviour with the takeaway being that “learning to be a better practitioner doesn’t look like everyone thinks it does.” Rae added the importance of having a headteacher community around you, and shared her idea of having an academic in residence (one that I think has real value). She is setting up an ‘empathy lab’ which will include three teachmeets per term, and will share more information in due course.
My Session: The Teaching Life – How to Build Your Career Through Effective Professional Learning
I won’t spend much time on my own session, as Sarah Donarski (@s_donarski) has very kindly written a detailed piece about it here. It was based on my book with Kate Jones (@KateJones_teach) on professional learning and career development. I will share one slide below which consists of challenge questions for teachers about their career, so perhaps have a go at them and see if you can provide answers to them all.
After I spoke, I had a really fascinating conversation with Sanum Khan (@Sanumjkhan) and Kamraan Khan (@Kamraan1984) who approached me from the audience. Their challenge was why were they the only non-white educators at my session, and why was the BAMEed strand the converse? I honestly couldn’t answer that but it started a theme that was continued the next day (and beyond). For more on that how that unfolded, see part II of this mini-series of summer festival blogs.
That wrapped up a pretty epic first day, with a lot to reflect on.