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.