Day One at The Sunday Times Festival of Education: Glastonbury for Swots*

*copyright A A Gill

When Hercules died, Zeus granted him immortality by transforming him into a constellation. I felt similarly blessed this weekend as I attended the Mount Olympus that is the Wellington College Festival of Education, the old-money Zion of matters secondary-academic. In its second year, I was frankly delighted to find myself invited to pontificate. Teacher shall speak unto teacher, in agreeable, well-appointed rooms.
A depressing example of inner city decay.

I met Old Andrew; I met Birbalsingh, and A A Gill, and Phil Beadle, and a dozen other worthies. I saw David Starkey’s stately undercarriage glower at me with carless abandon; I sat with Peter York as he ignored me and had a scone. I sat on the commode of Anthony Seldon, and held a door open for Andy Burnham.

Reader, I was bricking it.

I can happily walk in front of a thousand kids and talk about Karl Marx or Transubstantiation for an hour without notes. I adore public speaking, even more than your average European tyrant. But as every teacher knows, the transition from that to lecturing your everyday colleagues, is an abyss. More: the transition from home to away, away, away is substantial. The thought of rubbing shoulders with the Educational Premier League was enough to freeze my blood- and it’s pretty cool at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried. The Festival was a peach; it was the peach without the pit. I’m sure that to many of the seasoned performers it was a familiar, possibly even an odious duty, a necessary evil on the book promotion circuit. To me, it was a weekend pass to bloggers educational Elysium. The Sun didn’t just shine, it beamed; it beat; by Sunday it battered. The Masters of the Universe had organised even the climate with art.

They called it a festival: funny sort of festival. My session was called a workshop, and as I told my audience, I don’t trust anything called a workshop that doesn’t involve overalls and spanners. Similarly, I heave whenever someone offers me a forty-five minute lecture, or a book, or a folder, a piece of sugar paper, and call it a tool kit. Stretch a concept far enough and it snaps, or becomes so thin it becomes transparent. When a term contains too much meaning it conversely becomes meaningless. Although I did see someone juggling fire on Sunday outside the theatre, though. Maybe it was one of Grayling’s fans, disappointed by his no-show.

Most of us will grow up in a different continuum to the one that Wellington College occupies. This is earth-2.  And what a world this is: parents drop ten grand every term for their children to become citizens of the city-state that is the College. For that investment, they become members of what is, essentially, Wayne Manor, without the poverty and deprivation. Its master is Anthony Seldon, a man possessed of terrifying composure, confidence and intelligence. He looks like the sort of cove that would take one look at you, say, ‘Oh Dear, how dreadful,’ and walk away. And he’d be right.

The staff were quite spectacularly civil; and I mean civil in a way that makes you want to pinch yourself. I checked in on Friday before it started and the night porter showed me to the visitors’ quarters with the kind of ease, friendliness and charm that only an employee of an uber rich academic establishment can maintain, without a trace of obsequiousness. From that point on I could find not a mote of selfishness, disinterest or indifference; staff leapt to assist in an almost disturbing way. I’ve run a fair few establishments that trade on good service and staff, and I can assure you that this kind of consistency is nearly impossible to achieve, given that it relies on so many variables of a human nature. Mind you, mine were all minimum-wage wallahs, in between the great Antipodean world tour and the next starring role in Casualty as a corpse. Different recruitment pools, I imagine.

Even the security guard who stopped me on Saturday night (returning from a late night curry in Crawthorne- cannot recommend against it enough) stopped his car and asked me in the most civil way, if I needed any help- in that way that really meant ‘What are you doing here?’ but sounded like ‘You seem lost, would you like a bar of Turkish Delight and some hot coffee?’. When I waved my room key at him, he offered to drive me down to the main hall. It was like that.

Not much sleep for me that night; I was too busy going over my tripartite role. In their wisdom I had been given three gigs to perform at, all on the same day. The first had me introducing, and Q&Aing for John d’Abbro, whom, if any of you have read these blogs before will know, is someone I’ve written about so much in the past it feels like he’s a character I made up in a book. Perhaps I did. I could actually answer questions about Dream School for Mastermind. I’m that good. To end up with him in a speaker’s gig was a Killing Joke. The second gig I had was mine all mine: a one hour workshop (you heard me) in Wellington’s famous library. I say famous because Seldon famously decided to reduce it down to the level of an Ipad or something, by getting rid of all those beastly books and focussing on downloadable content. Which just goes to show that the state sector can really lead the independents on these matters: we’ve been getting rid of our libraries for ages. OK, we haven’t actually replaced them with anything, but it’s a start. Finally I was chairing a panel debate between Tony Sewell, Phil Beadle and John Murphy. More of that later.
The Reformation of Citizen d’Abbro.
d'Abbro: before Dream school.
The first gig had me so outside of my comfort zone, if I looked behind me I could see Voyager 1 in the distance, puffing away after me as it left our solar system and entered interstellar space.

John d’Abbro, I am delighted to say, is a charming, friendly, articulate and entirely intelligent educator and human being: the polar opposite to the craven homunculus of education that the recent Jamie’s Dream School experience portrayed. Emailing him before the event to establish the structure, I could tell that the d’Abbro of this world- the real world- was not the same man on the box. Jamie’s Dream School stitched him up like a quilt (and by that I don’t mean the avuncular Mr Oliver himself, but the production company that edited savagely in the search for conflict, confrontation and chaos) by mining every day for nuggets of greatest drama; by insisting that there was practically no way to impose sanctions on anyone; by forbidding the exclusion of the most mental of the inmates- Harlem, of course- even when d’Abbs knew it had to happen.

Apparently there was such a demand for conflict and melodrama that they never showed some of the finer moments which proved that, despite appearances, there was probably more order than chaos, even despite the TV insistence on nearly no boundaries (which left almost nothing but escalating increments of reward). There was even an assembly with a minute’s silence for crying out loud. But unless you were to book-end it onto a funeral or something, you’d never get that on telly- no narrative, no drama, you see. Silence; the enemy of broadcasting, which relies on uninterrupted stimulus and forgets that the pauses around words are the things that lend them emphasis and meaning.

It is, of course, absurd to assume that it was anything other than telly- but to present such a Just-So story to the public was a disservice, given that the intention was to raise the debate about schools and schooling. But there is precious little to be gained if you so heavily fictionalise the circumstances you’re presenting for consideration. We always knew it was telly, which places it on a similar level of authenticity as an episode of Scooby Doo, but it was sad to see that even in those depths, a deeper abyss waits of half truth and duplicity. And the fact that the reputation of people like John could be impacted by it made it even more devilish.

I’ve heard him proudly describe his New Rush Hall group he Heads (a school for EBD kids), and the systems he describes shows him not as the woolly pansy that JDS portrayed, girning about how ‘we’ve let them all down’. This is a man who takes all their mobiles of them at the start of the day; who insists on detentions on the same day that rule breaking occurs in order to start the next day with the slate clean; who holds a daily act of collective worship with a prayer. Reality TV: the great oxymoron of the 21st century. Viewer, beware. As long as narrative considerations rule broadcasting, the tension between entertainment and investigation will always be taut. And in education, we don’t need any more fiction, thanks. We already have f*cking Waterloo Road.

He gave a lucid and concise explanation of ‘Who is failing our kids?’ even as he decried the term kids (I’m not bothered by it, and  apparently the kids are alright with it). Before the session I wondered with him how many people might want to talk about Dream School- I think he was hoping for ‘not a lot. And who can blame him? When you’ve been digging the chalk face for decades, working small miracles with kids for as long, and rolling up your sleeves to get troubled kids (‘troubled’ is my new favourite term) pointing the same way as the rest of society, it must rankle that people see you as ‘the Dream School guy’. Still, fame is a fickle mistress, and parks her haunches where she will- in this case, right on his lap, as the first few questions streamed in with a Channel Four flavour.( I bet Alex Reid feels the same way. ‘Ask me about cage fighting! Please!’) It was Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. John is now one of my latest heroes of education, and I might add, a very nice man indeed, who was mauled by the camera. A lesson for us all, next time we start frothing about someone on the glass teat.

My part was brief: it was eerie to see an enormous camera bearing down on John throughout, and by association, me, so I tried to look thoughtful and Dimbleby-ish. John also got the audience to be quiet by circling his arm in an enormous helicopter blade; you don’t see Robert Winston doing that. Not without a few sherbets in him.

And here’s a thing; have you ever noticed, on INSETs for example, that people love- and I mean they f*cking LOVE- to put their hands up and bore the arses off everyone with their personal sagas? Well the same peculiar rule of narcissism appears to operate in the lecture hall and seminar theatre. Any questions for John? ‘Why yes, I have a question.  But I’ll phrase it in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from a five minute explanation of who I am, my school, and what I think about the state of education. Then I’ll leave you to sieve through it like Tony from Time Team and discern something resembling an interrogative. Thank you.’ The session with John and me was just the beginning. When I went to see Katherine Birbalsingh the next day, one woman in the audience appeared to be pitching a white paper to cabinet. I could see Birbalsingh look at her, trying to find the question with a microscope and a pair of tweezers.

Hello Wellington- are you ready to ROCK? I can’t HEAR YOU.
The next session was my very own, and I had ten minutes to dash there. There was a lovely man who wanted to talk about education, right up to the point I closed the door on my toilet cubicle; it was really odd- as if he wasn’t sure where we were, and I wasn’t in the position to nod and engage. So I engaged.

Whereas the Headline acts were all in the Marquis (the Wembley fillers of Wellington: the dream law firm of Starkey, Winston, Geldof, and Gove) more modest draws like myself were afforded accommodation more suitable to our needs. I was just glad not to have been given a portacabin and a set of juggling pins. The library was bright, and alarmingly larger than I was used to for public gigs. I bet Gove never thinks, ‘Shit, a library- I hope I fill it.’ I needn’t have worried- I counted forty chairs- not, I’d like to point out, assembled in anything like a lecture mode, but simply left at their tables. I nearly got everyone to stack them up and sit on the carpet, in an enormous and middle-class version of circle time. I resisted.  Unlike d’Abbro, my venue didn’t afford me a tie-clip microphone or a laser pointer. In many ways it was just like a very large sixth form lesson.

Birbalsingh: 'Not Satan.'
I am happy, and entirely comfortable with saying that I think it went well; it wasn’t an unqualified success- I spent so long on the causes of the Behaviour Crisis that I barely made it to solutions and then questions- but it was a joy for me at least, start to finish. I felt like I was on my game, and the audience were polite and wise enough to express mannerly appreciation. Some of my non-gags even worked, so, like any landing you can walk away from, it was a success. I’d like to say thank you to everyone that attended, for giving up your time to listen to me- even the elderly man who sat at the back and shook his head furiously when I said that the point of education was to teach the next generation the best of what the previous generations have learned, in the hope that they do better than we did. Listen: he’d paid for his ticket, and he can shake or nod as much as he wants, he’s earned that. But I’m thinking, what the? Tempting as it was to say, ‘Tell me your concerns, wise man,’ I ignored it. Anthony Seldon came in for a minute- he must have been lost- and whispered in Gandalf’s ear, then they both legged it. I’d like to think that he said, ‘Leave it, Albert, he’s not worth it.’

Oh, and as I was talking, I played a game of spot the Old Andrew, who I was led to believe would be there. I scanned faces- and more came in as I spoke- and wondered. I even pondered.

And then it was over, fast as a bullet. I have to say, I enjoy public speaking tremendously. I even thought about politics at one point, but I can’t bear the thought of bathing in the blood of virgins, brutalising strangers and worshipping Satan. Maybe one day.

Also spoke to some lovely people who had the patience to wait behind- more names than my poor frontal lobe can bear (I write everything down)- and chat, like Ron, and Miranda, and Elizabeth, and Matt and Nick, and even some lovely staff who took the time to come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. Really, there is no greater joy in the act than that; to connect with other people, hopefully to entertain, and perhaps even generate a silent dialogue with strangers, or offer them a stranger’s perspective. That’s enough for me. Paolo Coelho can have the whole inspiration and role model thing. I’ll settle for making some people a little bit happier or thoughtful for a moment.

The sense of relief was enormous; this is the highest profile gig I’ve played, and I only realised how clenched I was afterwards,  when I stated to relax so much I practically unravelled like a rump roast after the strings have been cut.

If you meet Old Andrew on the road to enlightenment, kill him.

For the benighted and uninitiated, Old Andrew is an excellent, anonymous blogger for whom I have enormous respect; in fact, it was the enjoyment his education blog provided me that convinced me that blogging wasn’t all about narcissism and endless introspective analyses of one’s entrails, but could be entertaining and informative, sincere, direct and ethical. He really is one of the best bloggers I’ve read, and if you want to you can find a link to him at the right hand side of this page. You will not be disappointed, unless you believe that children are naturally angelic, there is no behaviour problem in English schools, or ADHD is an empirically proven condition.

I shan’t tell you a scrap about him/ her/ it; whether Old Andrew is a man, Old, called Andrew, a woman, a hermaphrodite, a troglodyte, a child, a worker’s collective, an intelligent thought-cloud or a silicon-based life form. That is Old Andrew’s prerogative. I’m like Tony Stark- everyone knows I’m Iron Man. But Old Andrew is more like Batman, fighting stupidity behind a mask. Granted he blogs more slowly than Continental plates racing towards the Poles, but when he launches, you know all about it. Kudos to you, OA. Gotham City needs you.

There were others I wanted to see, but a body can only hold tension for so long, and besides, I had my last gig of the day- a panel discussion in the Old Gym with Tony Sewell, leader of generating Genius, the aspirational children’s organisation that works with black youngsters. (Can I say Black Youngsters? I just checked....yes...yes I can), Phil Beadle, the writer, Guardian columnist and teacher award-hoover, and John Murphy, the immaculately dressed Education Director of Oasis, the Christian Academy group (and interestingly enough, a Head Master SIX times over by the time he was 42. Holy shit. That gives me....well, I’d better get my skates on, that’s all I have to say). I was chairing the panel, a job I know less than zero about, so I watched Question Time a few times to follow how D-Dimb did it- apparently it was all about taking the glasses off and on a lot, and looking quizzical and bemused at everyone else’s stupidity. I decided to freestyle.

VIP section in the master's Lodge.
This was a bit more awkward, as we were all perched on a table so small I can only describe it as indecently cosy. It felt like a remake of the Human Centipede. And we were treated to a single microphone between us, which turned what might have been an easy conversation into the driest Karaoke session ever. Oh, and we got more of ‘those’ questions from some people, although thankfully by this point it was more moderately distributed, something no doubt helped by the fact that I had forgotten the session finished ten minutes earlier than it did, and I left the audience about five minutes to get it all off their chest. There was a point when Sewell was describing his education: ‘I was in a failing school...that failed. Then I became a teacher in a school...that failed too.’ And I thought, ‘F*ck me- you’re a jinx.’ Didn’t say it, though.
And I met Katherine Birbalsingh. Nicely enough, John d’Abbro introduced us after the panel, and I have to say that, despite her portrayal in the left-leaning press (normally so considered, unpartisan and reflective), she is apparently devoid of hoof and horn. She was, in fact, a confident, charming and gracious woman who genuinely believes that education is vital. And as I talked with both of them, a truism floated into view: that, despite the blog-fog, and the smoke and heat generated by the media, most people in education share an enormous amount of common ground. If you put any of us into a classroom, I bet most of us would move in ways similar enough to each other to identify us of the same taxonomic group: teacherus professionalis. There are differences in method and means, but the impulse is the same- the education, the welfare of children. That is the axiom that unites us all. As long as you possess that, then you are part of a community that should spend more time standing up for itself, and less time throwing stones at each other in pointlessness and pettiness. I have a few reservations about the Free School movement, but those reservations aren’t enough to make me wish her anything but the greatest of success in her project. She struck me as possessed of laser-like focus and self belief. Small empires have been formed with less.

I might also say that Phil Beadle is unmistakable; there was something profoundly out of place about him at Wellington College, and I mean that as a compliment. He has an intensity and passion that is palpable. He absolutely is the real deal. Example: the title of the session was ‘How can schools be turned around?’ Rather than simply hack away at anything bowled at him, his first statement to the audience was, ‘Why on earth should I claim to be an expert on that? I’m a teacher. I can only proceed on the basis that a school is a series of classrooms.’ That, I imagine is a rarity- a man prepared to undersell himself in a situation where adding an imaginary mark-up would not only be unnoticeable, but also expected by some. 

He asked me at the end, ‘So just who is this Old Andrew bloke?’ and just as I was about to decide how to reply, he was swamped by a fan, or a rep, or agent or something. Little did he know that Old Andrew stood not three feet away......casting no shadow, no, nor reflection neither...

Outside I chatted to J-Dabb, saluted the Gods of teaching in joy at a job at least efficaciously  performed, and made the rest of my weekend. My knotted stomach was now free to enjoy the bounty of the hospitality arm of the festival, which was, I have to say, bounteous- there were secret kitchens, gardens and seating areas for the blessed of invite, favoured by the Festival’s Righteous Lanyard of Privilege. We were cosseted in the Master’s Lodge, Seldon’s modest cottage garret where he devises new ways of manufacturing Golden, Utopian children from the rough clay of the super rich. I can confirm that there were confectionaries and refreshments in abundance, and a stepped, tailored garden so heart-breakingly, Platonically ideal that it could have served as a murder scene in Inspector Morse. It was THAT pleasant. It was an elegant eyrie of agreeable beverages and reading material. As I came out of the bathroom, an enormous security man asked me, ‘Is that a toilet?’ to which the only answer I could honestly give by that point was, ‘I hope so.’

Of course, the headline act, the Beyonce Knowles of the Day was the Big Beast himself, Michael Gove. The Marquis (or Pyramid Stage) was predictably packed, but I wangled my way to near the front. Anthony Seldon himself introduced him in that strange, almost apologetic way that expresses a lifetime of weariness at the intellectual poverty of the dreadful people he has to meet. I missed his opening speech in the morning (I was busy willing my arrhythmic heart back into a pattern more conducive to metronomic employment in the car park, self medicating with cigarettes and happy thoughts) but despite his gnomic portrayal of a cynical Shylock, he had presence, a dry charm and a Leviathan confidence- and why shouldn’t he? The wizard was in his tower- that could launch a rocket. There was much to disagree with what he said, but you would be a braver man than I, Gungha Din, if you stood up and said so. I found his views on education relentlessly progressive- he spoke about the need for student voice (don’t get me started- I’ll pop something), the need for schools to teach creativity, the need for the teacher to be the facilitator, that kind of stuff- his children take classes in confidence (can you imagine? What do they do to children who aren’t sufficiently confident, I wonder? Shout at them?), and lessons on happiness (which I was busily puncturing with my mighty lance in the library earlier on. Maybe he heard me).

You see, that might work in Wellington- the children are supported, functional, lifted up by family networks that value education, that teach the child that he or she can be anything they want. These aren’t children who have been told they’re automatic failures- that they shouldn’t kid themselves on by having aspirations. These are children who can be comfortably invited to contribute student voice, because it will invariably be characterised by self restraint, consideration for altruism, and their duties to the community. East End kids aren’t shaped by this sense of noblesse oblige. They have other things to worry about.

My worry- and it is an enormous worry, and a legitimate one- is that the people who characterise themselves as the guardians of education- the ones who actually have the power to transform and transfigure education in the UK- have got it into their heads that the private sector model is the one that should form the blueprint of the state. And this is disastrous. It’s the same problem when we have a front bench, and a stream of education ministers who have, almost without exception, emerged from the womb of the independent sector. The only time they see the inside of a state school is when they’re visiting it with cameras. And of course it would be far too much to expect anything like an education minister who has actually educated anyone in a state school. We are the single most unrepresented majority in the education establishment today- and yet we are the biggest ball to play with, the biggest prize to paw at. This is the danger of equating state and independent.

So when I hear someone from the private sector tell me that state children need happiness lessons; that student voice will transform and soothe the wounds of our weeping classrooms, and that all teachers need to do is to treat the child as a holistic unit, and let all that lovely learning flow out, rather than restricting it with nasty boundaries and regulation, then I consider such commentators to be well meaning, but ignorant. These are children who already lack boundaries; who are already given too much of a voice in their education, to the exclusion of teachers; who need to be supported by boundaries, particularly in situations where they receive none at home. And as for creativity, may I remind the world, that approximately a third of our national curriculum is devoted to art, English, design, expressive arts, drama, and so on? Creativity cannot be taught by itself; it is always taught through the medium of other subjects. And happiness is a cretinous aim by itself. Heroine makes you happy, in a way. Shall we ask the dealers into the classroom?

And how far are we asking schools to intervene in the role of the parent and carer? And how well do we understand the nature of being happy anyway? Let's see those hands...

To be continued...

Next instalment:

Gove’s speech, and day Two: Starkey’s Junk, the tears of a yummy mummy, and Birbal sings.


  1. Ah, cheers for that. First time I've been characterised as the Batman (normally it's more like the Joker). And thanks for not telling anybody that in real-life I am 3 foot tall and Chinese.

    Look forward to hearing about what I missed on the Sunday.

  2. SOunds like teacher geek heaven, can normal mortal teachers go? I'll be signing up for next year!

    By the by, what is the German text you have as the background?

  3. @ Anonymous

    Well I did, so I assume other mortals can: check out the website (should still be up) for the Sun Times Festival. I heard that they're planning next year's already- when the program goes up you can work out if you want to go for one or two days. Hang on, what am I, a sales rep? Good value though.

    I wish I could say something splendid and meaningful, like it was a 13th century translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'Historia Regum Brittaniae'. Unfortunately it's a Google Blogsite background template, probably called something unlovely like TXKlaatu Baruda Noktyo5. When I get a bit more proficient, I'll customise it.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Your insightful ponderings of that spectacular Wellington weekend are also a "peach". You earnt that Turkish Delight!
    I can concur that Dr S ( The Master) would indeed mutter something along the lines of " that's dreadful" unless you were a potential new fee payer or A lister "big banana" preferably with no association to Education.
    I look forward to your next installment. Your thoughts on dear old Sir Bob? And the tears of the yummy mummy and that AA Gill specimen.


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