The Festival of Education at Wellington College
So I’ve seen Wellington College referred to before many times in the news and in things I’ve read. In one case, Judith Suissa who was my lecturer during my MA, visited to investigate their explicit promotion and teaching of happiness and reported back to the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain’s newsletter (she wasn’t convinced). In another, referred to elsewhere in this blog, I saw Anthony Seldon, Headmaster, speak on happiness. I’ve since heard Alex Atherton (@alexatherton100) ask why anyone asks Anthony Seldon anything – which I think is slightly unfair but I get where he is coming from.
This Friday and Saturday it was the site for the Times Festival of Education. I was fortunate enough to wangle the Friday up there, and am very pleased I went. I have no doubt that I will use a lot of the conversations I had and lot of the things I heard in many lessons and meetings over the next few weeks and months.
Here is my report on my experiences. I wrote these as notes while I was in the sessions – they weren’t designed to be comprehensive. I’m sorry they’re not more reflective, but if I don’t post them they’ll just stay on my iPad forever!
Anything in quotations is paraphrased as usually people spoke too quickly for me to transcribe.
Session 1 – Michael Wilshaw on Raising Standards in Schools
I’ve seen Wilshaw speak before, and hence was not expecting anything revolutionary, so I considered choosing to go to “The online revolution – learning without limits” to see something I actually would have got angry about. This would have been a mistake as I found when I went to a similar session in the second session and wanted to gouge my eyes out.
Anyway, my school is very close to OFSTED, is certainly in the OFSTED window and will be inspected soon, it dominates our thoughts and discussions. It’s also under pressure. I therefore thought it doubly important (since this is company time, so to speak) to attend Wilshaw. In addition, Wilshaw often says a number of things that it is reported inspectors do not abide by, so it is important for school leaders to be up to date in order that they are able to challenge methodology or conclusions.
It wasn’t terribly busy – perhaps 200 people were present at 9.06am. I was quite surprised by that, considering the number of controversial things he’s said in the last few weeks and months. When he started (after a delay) there were about 450.
I have friends who went to Ascot, so perhaps that’s led to very heavy traffic that led to the delay.
Ten minutes late, the session started with Anthony Seldon who introduced Wilshaw as follows “If you don’t know who Sir Michael is, I would suggest you’re at the wrong session”. I laughed but it wasn’t funny. There were a number of desperate ‘jokes’ over the two days.
Wilshaw himself started by focusing on the ceiling (the black ceiling of the marquee had sparkling lights imitating stars on it) with a joke that got no laughter (a new meaning to Blue Sky Thinking). This was the first indication that it was going to be a worse delivery than usual. It really was.
Wilshaw said amongst other things “We’re not going to go back – this is a no turning back point in education history… Things can only move forward to a brighter place…. This is very much a defining moment in history… When you look back at defining moments, everyone knows what they are….. I think this (moment) is one because what has gone on in state education has been mediocre.”
It’s like he was desperate to confirm that he has a legacy.
Wilshaw then explicitly referred to not going back to the 1970s and 1980s and to schools not being accountable at all – when there were occasional inspections with reports that were not published.
Wilshaw also spoke about 1992 in comparison with 2012 and said “it’s important to acknowledge that things have got better. It’s also right to say that our education system is not world class.”
He then started on statistics as he often does – “70% of schools are good or better. We cannot accept that nearly a third are not good enough in an increasingly competitive economy.”
“The flow of capital and jobs is more open than ever. Unless we give our students the knowledge and skills to hold their own, we are as a nation ‘done for’”.
Wilshaw continued the theme saying that we have a chance to move decisively forward. He seemed to be laying the ground for more changes (though he also appeared convinced his work is done in the most needy areas) saying: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something” – a quote attributed to Woodrow Wilson
He then said that he doesn’t regret challenging the system to do better. “Good is the minimum acceptable standard of provision”. He continued to express that as well as being good, it’s more important that more of our Headteachers concentrate on the leadership of teaching. “Leadership is not managerial; it is the leading of teaching. The key question in any interview for a Head is “do you know what good teaching is? Monitoring? CPD”
He continued: “Satisfactory is a nonsense word; we put pressure on the system to do better. It’s injected urgency into the system. HMI are very pleased to be going back into those schools and seeing the improvements taking place.” More reference to what has already happened.
He continued to say that “Our accountability systems are going to be even more important now.”
He seemed to want to take credit for the post of education secretary no longer being seen as a demotion. Apparently Ken Baker said when he was moved from Environment to Education he saw it as a move from Arsenal to Charlton Athletic (though Wilshaw got this the wrong way round, which by this stage his delivery was so weary that it wasn’t a surprise – he had hesitated and stuttered most of the way through the speech). The post of Education secretary is now a top post in government and will always be so. It was that prior to Wilshaw though, as is obvious.
He said “Standards now command the attention of the Prime Minister. We cannot and must not turn back. We need to stop making excuses”.
“Wherever we find good stuff (he didn’t say this word, I just can’t remember what word he said), we find good leadership. Wherever we find problems, we find weak leadership”. He explained that leaders are crucial in education and in business.
“It is my belief that there are two types of leader – the cautious and the dynamic.” He was saying the dynamic are better. I’m not sure that this is true as a rule.
“Last week we looked at the most able students” – and he went on to refer to 6th forms as well as schools. Several schools hadn’t even identified who their most able children are apparently. I found myself wondering if teachers and leaders just went “well now you’ve asked, we better test them” – I mean every teacher can identify the most able kids, regardless of whether they teach them. I realise I’m being somewhat glib now.
Wilshaw then dropped something I wasn’t expecting – though I have read hints of this coming soon – 20 or 30 years ago the problems were in the big cities – inner London schools for example were the best funded but the worst achieving. Initiatives like the London challenge were at the vanguard of the change to make London better. Today, though, the most disadvantaged children are being let down in the most rural parts of the country. Disadvantaged children in these areas – mainly white British families – remain unchallenged in these schools. Many of the worst offenders are in coastal towns.
Wilshaw referred to being encouraged by the positive changes in London and it sounded like he was willing those changes to be repeated in the shires and on the coast. But he didn’t say this with conviction. I do not believe he is leading this change.
Wilshaw said that 80% of students who don’t gain the necessary qualifications in Maths and English at 16, don’t gain them by 19. That doesn’t sound like a scandal to me alone. It sounds obvious. If they don’t gain C grades in Maths and English at 16, they’ll likely go and do something else, won’t they? I didn’t really understand why this mattered apart from he sounded like he wanted to put the boot into state schools for the sake of it. I mean, there must be a better statistic for that than the one he used?
Wilshaw then talked about Headteachers and said that the best heads reach out – they don’t limit their aspiration to one school – they challenge the system to do better and they don’t accept excuses. I’m not sure how he knows that (and I know at least one amazing Headteacher who doesn’t, is about to retire, and is in the same school he was when he was knighted), but I accept that some fantastic leaders are working across several school. He didn’t refer to Jo Shuter though.
Wilshaw then started a theme of the weekend (at least from some speakers) – I heard it repeatedly – and it was unexpected to me. He started criticising independent schools and the independent sector.
He was saying that students in the Independent sector are more than twice as likely as state schools to get a place at Russell Group universities. He talked about high percentages of judges, medics, etc educated in fee-paying schools. Having gone to a Russell Group university I think they’re overrated, but I totally accept the point (see my last blog).
“Social mobility has stagnated in the last thirty years”.
In referencing an article in that morning’s Times: “It is my belief, as it is his (Seldon) that the independent sector must do more”
He then spoke of independent schools doing more, like Highgate working with 21 schools in London, Eton becoming sponsor of a state boarding school, Liverpool college joining the state system through academy conversion – and of course he referred to Wellington.
He did try to get some people on side – “Headteachers of leading independent schools do not face the same challenges as Headteachers in the state sector – eg poverty and disaffection, the poverty of expectation and low levels of aspiration. They don’t have to deal with teachers who have to move from A-level to Year 7 special needs class in consecutive lessons (and OFSTED may appear over the hill)”.
Wilshaw said he worries about these challenges that Heads in state schools have. I don’t think anyone believed him. I didn’t. And I don’t think he should worry too much about that unless he can help. By now, his delivery was so stuttering and, well, just not right that I was starting to think he was sick of the whole thing.
He then said more than 2000 state schools are within 10 miles of one of these independent schools.
Wilshaw said: “today I’m issuing a direct challenge to independent school heads – you must do more to help your state school colleagues”
“The reality is that most governing bodies don’t want to engage – they put up spurious reasons not to”
“What does it take for independent schools to allow state schools students to access sporting facilities, training programmes, science class, or extra classes”
He also talked about to governing bodies, coaching and support for universities from Independent Schools. I actually thought “I’ll have some of that for my students at my school”.
Wilshaw continued, “To those who say “parents pay £30k a year for the privilege” I say “do they really want their children marooned on an island of privilege?””
A part of me thought “I think they do”
He had a lot of focus on independent schools, and I considered the offer Nick Dennis makes elsewhere on this very blog. I will be taking him up on it.
There was a smattering of polite applause – Seldon says he’s never heard anyone in authority in education give such a clear lead to ending the terrifyingly stagnant separation between independent and state school. Maybe he hasn’t, but my overwhelming impression was of a really tired Chief Inspector who really lacked passion for what he was saying.
I thought he might have been weary, or tired, or whatever. But on reflection, I wonder if he was saying stuff he didn’t agree with totally, or care about completely. And I wonder if the pace of change of his organisation is frustrating him. I have no way of knowing, but that hasn’t stopped me speculating.
Cyril Taylor then asked a question that just annoyed me, as he managed to do many times that day.
Wilshaw did say that a youngster that can’t read at 7 has the odds stacked against them. Structured assessment should take place at 5 and progress measures introduced between 5 and the end of KS1. Curiously this was echoed by Gove later in the day.
I just thought “how can he try to rein in independent schools when he hasn’t yet got a firm hold of his own HMI”.
I was also very annoyed that no-one else got a question – just someone the chair knew. This became a theme for me – all the sessions were much too short allowing little or no time for discussion. In this case it was exacerbated by the late start and Wilshaw simply delivering his speech slowly and with a few stutters.
I speculate that Wilshaw will be gone from his post within a year. I think he has tried to make OFSTED more open and transparent, and less about prescribing methods of teaching. Progress has been slow though, and I wonder if his successor will be so firm on the things that I think matter. I therefore fear the person who will replace him.
The next festival of Education post is here