The 2013 Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education

I’m just home from this year’s Festival of Education, at which I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak.

The experience was a very positive one, and I met many new people with terrific new ideas about the future of education. It felt strange to be giving a presentation about young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the grand setting of the College’s Old Hall, but the audience response was among the most favourable I’ve ever had.

Some of the other talks were outstanding, as blogged here, here and here. Of the politicians, it was interesting to hear Lord Adonis note that private schools “do well by the taxpayer”, but I wasn’t too convinced by his idea that stay-at-home students should get half-price degrees. Tristram Hunt did his best to outline a Labour alternative to the coalition agenda, and criticised government dismissiveness towards teachers and educational professionals. David Laws pushed for schools to be graded according to their success in closing the disadvantage gap, putting up a strong defence of the pupil premium. And I was pleased to hear Michael Gove acknowledge the role that social capital plays in university admissions processes.

The only session I didn’t enjoy fully was a panel entitled “What do we want our children to know?”. Anastasia de Waal and Mark Thompson were excellent, making a series of observations that were measured, constructive and engaging. But Toby Young was provocative for no good reason (as is his wont), referring to child-centred learning as “balls” despite appearing not to understand what it actually involves.

The fourth panelist, Lindsay Johns, was amusing in his views about “dead white men” in the curriculum (have more of them!) and refreshingly honest about how teachers should relate to pupils (stop listening to them!). I was reminded of his controversial take on Oxford University’s decision to admit only one student of Caribbean origin in 2009.

But then Johns started condemning what he calls “ghetto grammar” (the symptoms of which include “vacuous words such as ‘innit’ and wilful distortions like ‘arks’ for ‘ask’,” according to an earlier piece in the Evening Standard). As a time-served linguist, I felt obliged to raise my hand at the end. The dangers of stigmatizing ‘street slang’ have been compellingly outlined elsewhere, and Lester Holloway has flagged up broader problems with Johns’ position. So all I did was point out that the way a young person speaks is often inextricably tied up with their personal identity. Rather than correct non-standard usage, I suggested, a more productive alternative might be to have pupils reflect on all that’s grammatically and phonetically distinctive about their own dialect. That way they learn about the conventions of Standard English without being made to feel inadequate for speaking a non-standard, though often equally systematic, variety.

This was my only grumble about an otherwise fascinating event. At Wellington College, I learnt much about the key debates within Education, and often found my preconceptions challenged and values tested. The Festival brings together people with all kinds of perspectives and covers a range of important issues. A few more state school teachers need adding to the mix, and a third day of events would make the journey more worthwhile, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the originality of the thinking and the commitment to the cause.

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Why are American educators angrier than their British counterparts?

Last month, I was lucky enough to speak at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference (AERA13), where the theme was Education and Poverty. Some of the research presented was utterly compelling: carefully-collected, long-term, large-scale empirical evidence, all pointing towards growing inequality of opportunity.  Young people are hungry for education, the argument went, but the US schooling system lets them down.

In the area I’m most interested in – access to higher education – several speakers talked compellingly about the problems faced by first generation applicants in accessing financial aid, getting appropriate advice, and negotiating the admissions process. The conference also screened a number of films, including this brilliant one about four ‘undocumented’ students and their attempts to reach college.

The visit of US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was most controversial. Protests took place outside the venue and, inside, Not In My Name flyers were waved throughout. Duncan’s love of school testing does not sit well with AERA members. His defence was “Chicago-style nonsense,” according to one entertaining report.

The conference wasn’t all downbeat. Delegates clearly wanted to make education a fun and productive time for all young people. Social media was repeatedly cited as possible social leveler, gaming as a fresh way to engage young people on their own terms, and wrap-around policies as essential for less advantaged children.

At times, I wondered what the conference would make of educational policy in the UK, which seems not only to ignore empirical evidence but to purposely move in the opposite direction? Without wishing to generalise, AERA seems more politically aware (or maybe just political) than BERA.

I left thinking that if Obama’s Duncan gets this much stick, maybe us UK educationalists go a little too easy on Cameron’s Gove?