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Putting the stiletto into Professor Grayling

John Bald reports on the Festival of Education at Wellington College

Wellington College, the national monument to the Duke of Wellington, is unusual as monuments go, as people do not normally have the opportunity to see it. Indeed, few realise that it is a monument at all. All credit, therefore, to Dr Anthony Seldon for opening the College for this annual festival, and for bringing people from all areas of education together in a spirit of open debate.

WellingtonsculptureHere is the College's recent sculpture of Copenhagen, who carried Wellington for seventeen hours at Waterloo and whose sire won the Derby. Views of his character are mixed. The inscription notes that he carried young children on his bare back in his old age, and he is said to have enjoyed cream buns. He is also noted for his temper, and aimed a kick at Wellington's head immediately after the battle.

There was something of this mix in the Festival. Sir Michael Wilshaw kicked off with a defence of his approach to inspection and criticism for heads who focused on managing rather than leading teaching.  He criticised public schools for isolating themselves from the community by not sharing teaching skills and facilities, and had a sharp rap for Repton for opening a profitable offshoot in Dubai while ignoring need in Derby.

Listening to Sir Michael made me miss David Aaranovitch's simultaneous interview with the head of Eton - praised by Sir Michael for its recent Academy sponsorship. I made up for it  by catching his interview with Michael Gove, in which he attempted to play the genial assassin, though he had the decency to admit that he'd stolen one when he took a cheap shot over the reform of computer studies, which really had been improved to include more science and less button-pushing. 

Wellingtonseldon David Laws, Minister of State for schools, made a sharp attack on Labour's obsession with Grade C at GCSE, to the neglect of those who were well below this benchmark, and an exposure of their dumbing-down of standards in primary schools by lowering the boundary of the expected level, so that those who only just scraped their Level 4 (Level 4c) were destined for failure in secondary school rather than success.

A case in point was picked up by a newly-minted First Class Honours graduate, who had just joined Teach First, and who had met a pupil in Newcastle who had been in school for six years and had not yet learned to write his name. Mr Laws promised to consider ways of indentifying and helping children in this scandalous situation. For once, it seemed that members of the coalition were on the same side.

WellingtonbioboxThe Festival provided a showcase for some brilliant work, including the Biobox, a Royal Society sponsored project with Writhlington School, Somerset. This takes climatic readings from Rwanda, transmits them via the internet and reproduces them exactly inside the biobox, so that plants can be grown in Somerset in identical conditions. There may be commercial applications in growing orchids.  A well-deserved MBE for teacher Simon Pugh-Jones (in red above).  After Friday's headliners, Saturday was more nuts and bolts, including sessions on improving behaviour, technology, science and maths.

My talk on spelling was meant for parents, but most of those who came were experienced teachers who had spent their careers helping children to tackle problems with learning, and were very interested in the detail. The presentation can be downloaded at Sweetness and light were dispelled in the afternoon, first by Professor Dylan Wiliam, who told a session attended by our Teach First participant that he didn't want "bright young things" coming in and trying to sort things out, remarking that he had got a Third.  It's good to think that examiners sometimes get it right.

Then Dr Seldon put the stiletto into the philosopher A.C. Grayling by asking him a tricky question about the religious roots of creativity in T S Eliot and then, dissatisfied with the answer, saying he did not know why Professor Grayling was "so critical about things you do not understand". Not quite the verbal punch-up we had last year with David Starkey, but more deadly in its way, as the unfortunate Grayling could only stand there and take it.


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