Parallel Universes at the London Festival of Education

November 25, 2012


I went to the London Festival of Education last weekend. Or at least I think I did.

You can never be quite sure because I seem to have spent most of the weekend confronting a different version of reality, one way or another, to a lot of other people.

So for instance, I thought the question and answer session with Michael Gove was, apart from a few responses to questions from the audience, largely uncontentious. I know I’m likely to react favourably to hearing the secretary of state for education arguing for high academic standards for all and referencing the work of Dan Willingham, but I seem to have missed the triggers for some of the hostile audience reaction. I could have sworn the audience booed after he said that not everybody had high ambitions for children and that not all schools were good enough. I could have sworn the audience erupted when he said that you couldn’t have education without assessment, before he made a more controversial claim about the type of assessment he meant. But perhaps I have imagined this as it seems unthinkable that anybody could disagree with these claims.

I suppose some of this could be explained by political extremists in the audience. There were a few bearded types handing out leaflets and chanting slogans on the way in (and some kind of effigy was being waved about at one point), however, it doesn’t explain what happened in the behaviour discussion. Tom Bennett was there, and was reasonable and charming in circumstances where less even-tempered men might have turned to violence, but his two fellow panellists were apparently not of this earth. One, Paul Dix, had apparently arrived from a world where schools were constantly inflicting punishment. In his world that seemed to be almost all they did, and to hear him tell it, the criminal justice system on Planet Dix was also great at punishing young offenders. What’s more, in his world, the punishment apparently never works. A far cry from this dimension’s version of England, where kids regularly go unpunished after even the most appalling behaviour in school and, if there’s anything which conspicuously doesn’t work, it’s letting them get away with it. Of course it’s not unusual for behaviour consultants to decry punishment – after all they make their money by telling incompetent SMT that behaviour problems are down to teachers rather than children or managers – but normally it seems to hinge on the definition of punishment. Normally having said they are against “punishment” they then say they are in favour of “sanctions” or “consequences” and advocate something that sounds pretty much like punishment anyway. Not this time. I listened carefully for the usual equivocation and incoherence. I waited for the inevitable nonsense phrase like “I don’t believe in punitive punishment” that indicates that it was all down to a confusion about the meaning of words. It never came. He really was suggesting that behaviour be dealt with exclusively by praise, rewards, thinking nice thoughts and having “a quiet word”. He made his universe sound like a lovely place; one where there simply was no need for anyone to stand up to injustice or protect the innocent from the guilty. A world so different from our own that it is scarcely imaginable. But even that was normal compared with the home planet of the other speaker.

I had heard of Sue Hallam, an education lecturer, for the first time a day or so earlier. Another academic had suggested to me that she would be a good source of evidence that mixed ability teaching benefited the least able. The other sources of evidence suggested by that academic had all failed to indicate any such thing, so I was not predisposed to assume that Sue Hallam was the source of inaccurate information about our world. This was something that became apparent only as she spoke. Again we were told that punishment did not work, and again no indication was given that this wasn’t meant literally. But a more striking contrast between the Hallamverse and reality were apparent in her other claims. In her realm, school uniform causes truancy. As somebody who has repeatedly seen the effect of non-uniform day on attendance at schools in our universe, this seemed remarkably implausible. Also, research showed that a horseshoe shaped seating arrangement was most effective in her universe: something that has escaped all the researchers I have read in our world. Finally, and most strange of all – in fact this is so strange that, if Tom Bennett hadn’t confirmed it in his own blog, I would have put it down to some kind of hallucination – she revealed the drastically different mores of her world by suggesting female teachers could control badly behaved boys by flirting with them. She did explain that the same tactics would be unacceptable from male teachers, but seemed utterly oblivious to the extent to which this particular advice would not be welcomed by teachers on our planet.

My last event of the festival, one which was so crowded that I only just got a seat, was a discussion with Michael Wilshaw and Brian Lightman. I was a bit surprised to hear Brian Lightman saying nothing I disagreed with; he was after all one of the key figures in the GCSE English regrading lobby. He was sensible and constructive about the effects of overly prescriptive inspection on teaching, but this alone was not grounds for thinking I was still in a different universe. Michael Wilshaw was even less of a surprise. His message, which seemed to surprise some of the audience, was consistent with what he’d said here, i.e. OFSTED will not require a particular teaching style. Didactic teaching is fine as long as kids learn. He even said that boring lessons on quadratic equations were fine (maths teachers everywhere breathed a collective sigh of relief). Some of the audience were not expecting this. They were apparently expecting him to complain about how teachers were terrible. However, this did not mean they were from a parallel universe. They had simply read the press coverage he usually gets, where papers from both left and right select individual out-of-context quotations and use them to suggest he is at war with teachers and does nothing but complain about them in speeches. He even explained some of those remarks, pointing out he didn’t seriously expect heads to model themselves on Clint Eastwood and hadn’t claimed that teaching was stress-free only that headteachers had such a rewarding job that, when they fail, they should not be allowed to blame their poor performance on stress. The consensus was clear on Twitter and in the hall. He was talking sense. He did seem like a reasonable human being. We’d all be happy to be inspected by him. We’d rather have heard more of him and less of Brian Lightman (a bit harsh actually, but never mind). The worst criticism I saw of his performance on Twitter was that he’d “played the audience”, which, as criticism, seems to amount to a complaint that he hadn’t managed to live up to his own demonisation.

Happily I was now in the same universe as everybody else. There was only one version of the Wilshaw event and it was the one where the head inquisitor of OFSTED was charming and generally demonstrated to be a good egg. No parallel version of events existed. We were all on the same plane of reality. This episode of the Twilight Zone was over.

Or at least that’s what I thought as I left the hall. On the way home, I was sent a link to the Telegraph account of the talk:

Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw tells head teachers to “stop moaning”

Head teachers should stop “moaning” and get on with the job, the chief inspector of schools has said.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said that being a head teacher was a brilliant, well paid job and that school leaders had no grounds to complain. His comments, at the London Festival of Education, come ten days before Ofsted’s annual report, published on Nov 27, which will focus heavily on the quality of leadership in England’s primary and secondary schools. The comments risk further infuriating the teaching profession which has recently been told by Sir Michael that there is no stress in teaching and that staff who are out the school gates at 3.30pm should be paid less….


  1. Reblogged this on Lucy's Open Academic Practice and commented:
    Definitely worth posting this video, I don’t know this blogger, however.

  2. Clearly the threat of Leveson has forced hacks to stick to facts, change their tack and avoid muck raking and setting up false conflicts. Errr….

  3. For the 1st time in my career I have faith in both the Head of OFSTED and the Education Secretary.

    The anti- sanction stupidity of the earlier speakers is tragic- I do hope they hold little sway.

    Our children can be seriously harmed by such apologists for thuggery and abuse by naughty kids.

  4. […] explained to us that if we were just nicer to the kids then they would behave better. Back in 2012, I wrote about observing a behaviour panel at an education conference where a well established behaviour […]

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