A visit to the Sunday Times Festival of Education 2012
Wellington College is a magnificent hotchpotch of a building, in which the architectural styles of Christopher Wren, Louis XIII and Victorian Gothic collide, to spectacular effect. All in all, it looks surprisingly French for a school founded in honour of Napoleon’s nemesis, the Iron Duke. The cloistered atmosphere, however, is uniquely that of an English public school, even though the library’s dusty tomes have been mostly replaced by cutting-edge IT under the school’s Master, the political historian Anthony Seldon.
In this aptly eclectic setting, the Sunday Times’ annual conference offered its visitors a kind of educational bazaar, in which a clamour of speakers presented different views of the state of our schools and, to a lesser extent, universities. My day there embraced Bishop Nazir-Ali affirming the relevance of Christianity (let’s call that the content of education), Martin Jacques on the rise of China (context) and Gav Thompson on the online teaching resource O2 Learn (medium rather than message). The experience also included a panel on extra-curricular learning through such institutions as the Children’s University, which organizes activities that offer a ‘free-range’ alternative to the ‘factory’ model of education.
Meanwhile, in the Great School building, the Sunday Times journalist AA Gill, under the title ‘A Broadside’, delivered a delicate blend of expletives, audience abuse and autobiography. Good stand-up, I suppose, but I walked out since, with an embarrassment of riches around me, I wanted to find a speaker who told me something that I didn’t know. Or even something that I knew already.
I had to wait until the afternoon, when, without really willing it, I ended up following the topic of educational systems and structures. Is there any justification for the astonishingly inconsistent provision of state sixth form colleges around the country? Can the vast amount of money spent in Britain on private schools be justified or even adequately explained? The answers here all seemed to be in the negative.
And then it was the turn of the ubiquitous Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, who, to his credit, turned up after the Education Secretary, the hapless Michael Gove, failed to open the conference, as promised, on the previous day. Willetts gave a lucid enough account of government policy on student loans and university funding, making explicit the theme of consumerism and market forces that took up so much of the weekend. Even the philosopher AC Grayling’s talk ‘Education and the Art of Thinking’ concealed behind its rarefied title the promotion of a shiny, top-of-the-range product, the reassuringly expensive New College of the Humanities.
If the government has its way, our children will, I suppose, be learning more in the way of hard facts than would anyone attending this Festival, which was a delectable purée of contrasting ingredients rather than a didactic experience. It is easy to be cynical, but I must admit that over all I found the conference oddly motivating, at the very least a call to arms and a stimulus to formulating stronger opinions. Don’t let’s leave it all to AA Gill, for God’s sake!
But the question remains, why do people attend occasions of this kind? The answer must be, in part, to network, and on this level the event is both hampered and helped by its magnificent setting thirty-five miles from London. Hampered because too much time is spent wandering over vast expanses from one marquee, schoolroom or hall to another. (How much more conversation over coffee is there when all the visitors are huddled together in a room at a bland London hotel!) Helped, however, by the fact that there’s always the chance for a chat on the train to and from Crowthorne, in which lonely schoolmasters or PGCE students are only too happy to point out that the conference ought to have been residential or that it should have finished with a disco rather than a poetry reading. Obviously some teachers need to get out more… A subject for next year’s Festival perhaps?